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Boardman Report

Volume 826: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what actions they have taken in response to the recommendation of the Boardman Report into the Development and Use of Supply Chain Finance (and Associated Schemes) in Government, published in September 2021, that they should consult on (1) whether think tanks, research institutes and lobbying academics should be required to disclose their sources of funding, and (2) whether there are circumstances when they ought to be required to register as consultant lobbyists.

My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who worked at a think tank for 12 years and at universities for rather longer, and as the Minister who took the transparency of lobbying Bill through this House. Does the Minister agree with the Boardman—

I think we all need to calm down.

The Government are currently considering the recommendations of the Boardman review and will update noble Lords on such work in due course. The register of consultant lobbyists, which complements the existing mechanism of ministerial transparency returns, has increased transparency around the work of consultant lobbyists by providing accessible online information about those undertaking consultant lobbying and their clients. Any changes to that framework will build on that foundation.

My Lords, I recognise that the Boardman review had a large number of recommendations that will take some time to work through, but does the Minister recognise the point that think tanks that act as lobbyists, which are extremely non-transparent in not publishing any of the donations that they receive, and which in many ways have been very close to the Government, are in effect lobbying and therefore should be made to be much more transparent? Policy Exchange announced that, in effect, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill had almost been written in Policy Exchange, and the Minister will recall that when Liz Truss became Prime Minister a large number of people from those think tanks entered government. This is a very close relationship that needs to be much more transparent.

I take a rather different view. I think that think tanks advance democratic engagement by advancing ideas and policies, and they go up and down in time in terms of influence, as I am sure the noble Lord will acknowledge. There is no legal requirement for think tanks to reveal their funders, and it would be a disproportionate intrusion on civil society to require that of them. We are talking about charities and research institutes. It is important that people are able to bring forward their views on all sides of the political spectrum. Some are influential, some less influential. I think that helps our civic strength.

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the Minister. I want to be clear from the start that I think lobbying is a legitimate democratic activity. When we are lobbied on policy issues on legislation, as all of us will be, whether by charities, trade unions, campaign groups or trade associations, we know who they are, why they are lobbying us, because that is their reason for being, and who is paying. When companies or so-called institutes are established and set up in order to lobby on a range of issues, none of that information is available in the same way. Transparency is essential to avoid any suggestion of corruption or inappropriate contact with Ministers or parliamentarians. The Minister will be aware that a succession of scandals have taken place around this issue that have caused concern to the public and impacted trust in Parliament as well as in the organisations. Will the Government accept that the lobbying of government must be transparent and that the funding of lobbyists must be transparent and properly regulated if we are going to restore public trust in a process that I believe is helpful to Parliament?

I am glad we are agreed that lobbying is part of legitimate policy development. Of course, we have the lobbying Act, which is in the process of being reviewed, notably by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the other House. We also have various transparency mechanisms, such as the publication of ministerial transparency returns—we have just put out a whole load more—the register of consultant lobbyists and the Freedom of Information Act 2000. There is always a fine line between regulating to death and ensuring that we inhibit inappropriate behaviour.

My Lords, we await the response to the Boardman report with interest, but of course the National Security Bill is before your Lordships’ House now. Clauses 66 to 70 were introduced after the Bill passed through the Commons and, as I am sure the Minister knows, this concerns the foreign interest registration scheme. What was the Cabinet Office’s position on including organisations such as those that my noble friend Lord Wallace outlined within the remit of those clauses? Will organisations such as think tanks and lobbyists be included in the reporting requirements of Clauses 66 to 70? If not, why not?

I always try my best to help the noble Lord, as he will know, but although the Boardman report, which we are discussing today, covered a lot of ground, I do not think it went as far as the areas that he is talking about, which are being debated in the security Bill that is going through this House at the moment.

My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, the Minister said that lobbyists and think tanks should be allowed to “bring forward their views”. Who could be against that? But that is not the question; the question is surely whether the public should be allowed to know whom they represent and the source of their funds. What can there be against that?

If people want to support charities or think tanks anonymously, that should be permitted. Think tanks are not part of government, and, as I have explained, some think tanks influence one Government, and then there is a new Government and different think tanks are influential. It is over the top to require details of all contributions; that would affect a lot of bodies, such as charities, non-governmental organisations and research institutes. When I was doing pensions earlier in the year, I dealt with the Pensions Policy Institute. We are talking about a lot of different bodies here, and it is disproportionate to require that details of everyone who supports them should be published. I find that extraordinary.

My Lords, would my noble friend the Minister agree with me that it is not the think tanks, charities, trade unions, business groups or any other group which lay down the amendments that come into legislation? We, the politicians here and in the other place, are responsible for putting down those amendments. Therefore, there is a huge amount of responsibility on us to use our proper discretion, and I think that I speak for the entire House when I say that I am sure that everyone in this House already does just that.

I agree with my noble friend, who talks very good sense. The issues are complex and are being reviewed at the current time: for example, the Government are reviewing the lobbying Act. Because the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has set up an inquiry, which we are in the process of feeding into, we shall have to see what it comes up with. The issues are difficult, but I believe that inhibiting thought and expression, which is what I fear the noble Lord’s proposal would do, is a very bad idea.

Could we not look at a very simple way of approaching lobbying? That is, to ask, “Does somebody make a few bob out of it?” We could just ask whether somebody is likely to receive vast amounts of money out of lobbying or whether it is for the common good. Often, it is not for the common good; it is for the good of people who are running businesses and want to make money.

I thank the noble Lord for his point. We need to distinguish between inappropriate lobbying, which we have sought to regulate since 2014, and other contributions to thought. In other countries, think tanks are very common; they exist to contribute to democratic debate. Indeed, in the US, they are very much better financed. I come back to my previous point: work is going on through the review by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and through the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists, who, for example, made some changes earlier this year to tighten up the definition of incidental exception. We need to be careful where noble Lords are taking us on the matter.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the former director of Liberty—the National Council for Civil Liberties—and its charitable sister, the Civil Liberties Trust. I would have thought it an intrusion into individual Members’ privacy, if each and every one had to declare that they were members of Liberty. However, in exchange for the privilege of being a charity or a not-for-profit company, is it not right that an element of transparency over donations above a certain and significant threshold should be required?

If you declare all donations and list all the people who donate to charities—such as Liberty, to which noble Lords may want to contribute—you will find that other people will go through and seek to influence those who are donating to such charities, to contribute to them. These things are very complex, and it is not right that we should introduce those sorts of detailed rules on small sums of money, which is largely what we are talking about. Those small sums of money are helping the whole process of having independent thought, which is needed, both for those of us who serve in government and for those who serve in other parties and sit on other Benches.