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Lobbying of Ministers

Volume 819: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2022

Question

Moved by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to ensure there is transparency about the lobbying of ministers.

My Lords, the statutory register of consultant lobbyists ensures the transparency of those seeking to lobby Ministers and Permanent Secretaries on behalf of a third party. The register complements departments’ long-standing policy of publishing details of Ministers’ meetings with external organisations on GOV.UK on a quarterly basis.

That is a very good Answer, my Lords. The only problem is that we have evidence over the past few months of ex-Prime Ministers, ex-Ministers and MPs trying to influence in a way that undermines democracy. If you really want to destroy democracy, destroy belief in the Government and their ability to hold their head up and not participate in the pork barrel. If you want to get on in this world, there is an old saw: “Get yourself a government contract”. The past few months have been abysmal.

My Lords, the noble Lord, whom I respect greatly and who has been in my office a number of times advocating for causes in which he believes, makes some exaggerated charges. It is extremely dangerous to peddle around the view that there is endemic corruption in politics in this country, whoever is in office.

My Lords, one of the problems is that, as the Minister said, the register is of consultant lobbyists only. It does not include in-house lobbyists; all the big firms have in-house lobbyists. Is it not time that we made that register a register of all lobbyists, not just consultants?

My Lords, when the register was introduced by a Conservative Government, other propositions were put forward. At the time we felt that widening the scope could place a significant burden on charities and so on. However, we are conducting post-legislative scrutiny of the lobbying legislation. That has obviously been affected by the progress of Covid, but the point the noble Baroness and others make will be taken into consideration.

My Lords, in June last year the Committee on Standards in Public Life, of which I am a member, submitted recommendations to the Prime Minister for action by the Cabinet Office on ministerial lobbying. After eight months of careful consideration, can the Minister for the Cabinet Office tell us how many of the seven recommendations in that report he intends to implement, and on what timescale?

My Lords, a number of important documents and proposals have been presented to the Government; the noble Lord mentions one of them. We have the Boardman recommendations and the post-legislative scrutiny, which I have just mentioned. All those mesh together and the Government will respond, as I said in the previous answer.

My Lords, I was responsible in the other place for the passage of the Bill on transparency of lobbying, et cetera, because Nick Clegg, then the Deputy Prime Minister, did not want to be responsible for it, although it was a coalition Bill. Does my noble friend recall that the record of ministerial meetings published quarterly is not confined to consultant lobbyists and includes meetings that Ministers have with external organisations? That is the central mechanism by which the transparency is achieved in reality. Does my noble friend agree that, as long as Ministers are honest and open about their meetings, we can see who they are being lobbied by?

My noble friend makes a very fair point and I pay tribute to him for taking up the work that he tells us Mr Clegg did not wish to take up. The transparency of publishing the details of Ministers’ meetings on a quarterly basis is important, and this is among the issues the Government are considering.

My Lords, since the most toothless body I have ever served on was the business appointments committee—too feeble to halt the revolving doors for both Ministers and Crown servants—will the Government bring forward proposals now to radically and totally reform the system?

My Lords, we are in regular contact with my noble friend Lord Pickles, who chairs ACOBA. Its work is important. As I have said to your Lordships, we think that putting it on a statutory basis would be out of line with the general principle that Ministers and officials are subject to the same legal system as others. We are open to change and constant reflection, and I have had meetings with my noble friend Lord Pickles on that subject.

My Lords, how would the Minister recommend that the provision of cutting-edge information that would enable Ministers to make appropriate decisions be conducted, so that the information is at their behest to enable that very same process of decision-making?

I apologise but I did not absolutely get the point that the noble Viscount makes. It is certainly the case that in a free society and a free country, it is perfectly reasonable for individuals or organisations to go to their MP, the Government or the local council to put the case for changes and provide information from outside, which may help government, councils or others make decisions. That is an inherent part of a free society.

My Lords, over the years the process of providing information to civil servants, Ministers and parliamentarians has traditionally been done by lobbying, which is part of the democratic process. There is a belief that, of late, lobbying has become an integral part of the process of winning government contracts. Will the Minister reflect on that and discuss the suggestion with some of his colleagues?

My Lords, obviously I agree with what the noble Lord said in the first part of his question: in a free society it is an inherent right to make representations. As I have told the House, the Government are open to considering any proposals that do not restrict that. Lobbying and approaches to government should be transparent and properly conducted and exclude personal advantage; that is the purpose of the system.

My Lords, I come back to the point made by the noble Lords, Lord Clark and Lord Stunell. The Minister will have seen the Upholding Standards in Public Life report, which says that, in a liberal democracy, lobbying is an integral and sensible part of making views known to government but that trust in the integrity of our democracy is undermined when it is

“associated with money, undue influence and secrecy.”

That is the real problem here. He did not respond to the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, but I ask him to comment on two specific recommendations of the report. One, very appropriately, is that the Government should give up-to-date guidance to make it clear that informal lobbying and lobbying via WhatsApp or Zoom should also be reported to officials. The other is that that should include not just Ministers and civil servants but special advisers. Will the Government take those recommendations on board?

My Lords, we are certainly aware of those points and, obviously, the investigation by Mr Boardman looked into issues relating to the first point that she made. I assure the House that all the various reports and recommendations put forward are being considered. I hope to come back to your Lordships before too long with further material proposals.

My Lords, it is good to know who has given what to whom, but how do we monitor what the person who has been given money is doing for the money? For example, it is reported that the Prime Minister has taken £2.3 million from Russian sources since he was elected Prime Minister. What has he done for that?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an allegation under privilege; perhaps she would like to repeat that outside the House.

My Lords, will my noble friend take this opportunity to pay tribute to the trade union movement and the fantastic job that it has done in lobbying Labour and Conservative Governments?

I would indeed; I am quite old fashioned and I greatly respect the trade union tradition. I also respect the freedom of politicians such as Mr Ed Davey, who became a lobbyist immediately after losing his ministerial job in 2015.

My Lords, the Sunday Times two weeks ago told us a lot about the donors board, which has unpublished, unremarked, unrecorded meetings with the Prime Minister and other senior Members, some of whom clearly have actively lobbied for their own interests, while some have received public contracts. If we are committed to transparency, can we not be assured that such meetings will be properly recorded and details of those who attend published afterwards?

My Lords, once again, I take note of what the noble Lord says. In the system that we have in this country, ministerial meetings are noted by officials; as we established earlier in this exchange and as my noble friend Lord Lansley said, data is regularly published thanks to his legislation.