My Lords, I am pleased to see so many noble Lords listed to speak, particularly as they are so experienced and respected—and it is particularly pleasing that they are from all Benches in the House. I look forward to their contributions and keep my fingers crossed that, after all have spoken, although it may not be the totality and there may be some opposition, overall we might have a Lords consensus in support of this Bill, just as we have just heard consensus across the House in support of the Bill proposed by my noble friend Lord Grocott.
Lobbying is an essential feature of good governance. In theory, it leads to better decision-making and ensures that different interests have a voice. In a liberal democracy, everyone has an ability to lobby; it is an important right. The concerns stem from what happens in practice in the context of the UK’s estimated £2 billion commercial lobbying industry, most of which is spent by big business. The UK has the third biggest lobbying industry after Washington and Brussels. As profit-making entities, it is entirely rational for companies to lobby, whether against a threat to business from government—the sugar tax is a very good recent example of that—or because government is providing an opportunity for profits, such as the opening up of the £116 billion NHS budget, which is a big opportunity for businesses if they can get in there. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, and companies should be allowed to seek to be heard by government, but those of us who participate in Parliament and the public at large should be allowed to know who is approached, what is said and what influence is brought to bear. The present legislation of this country does not permit that and, as a consequence, much is happening that we should know about that we do not know about. This is not democratic; there is a public interest in seeing all of it and opening it up to public scrutiny.
I shall come later to why there is now an even more urgent and pressing need for such transparency as the UK negotiates its departure from the European Union. I thank the following for their support in helping to bring this Bill to the House. First, I thank my noble friend Lady Hayter, who has encouraged me greatly. Secondly, I thank Tamasin Cave of the NGO Spinwatch and Alexandra Runswick of Unlock Democracy, who have campaigned on this issue for many years and helped to draft the Bill before us. I thank, too, Jake Vaughan in the Public Bill Office for his great assistance, and the Lords Library for its briefing and research for me. I also thank Alison White, the current Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists, for the time she has given me. As one would expect, as an impeccable civil servant, she expressed no view on the Bill, but she has offered insights as the registrar that have been helpful, and she has endeavoured, wherever she could, to answer my questions. In particular, the House will be grateful to know that she has procured an IT system that can be customised easily to accommodate the kind of changes that this Bill proposes.
I have also met representatives of the Association of Professional Political Consultants—APPC—who have their concerns about the degree of openness required, particularly the financial aspects, and the record-keeping required. Overall, however, they have indicated they could support 80% of the Bill and would particularly welcome the extension of registration to in-house lobbyists. I invited them to consider submitting draft amendments through other Peers. I made the same offer to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations—NCVO—which has circulated a briefing expressing concerns over definitions, and that this Bill would burden it administratively. Let us be straight about this: there will be some extra work, but it will not be nearly as much as some people are making out.
I come from a background of lobbying and campaigning—first, as a trade unionist, then as an adviser to several commercial businesses, and even for a period as a consultant to a large multinational, Accenture. Also, for many years and to date, I have been a supporter of several charities that campaign for better public health policies, particularly relating to alcohol. I draw my attention to my interests in the register. In all those capacities, I have kept a record of who I was meeting, with what purpose and the expenditure involved—I can go back 40 years and produce a diary showing that—and I knew when I was lobbying and when I was not. Lobbyists in all the organisations covered by the Bill are in no different position from that I have experienced throughout my working life. They keep such records already. This Bill simply requires a digest of that information to be transposed on to an IT system and lodged, on a fairly simple model on which we are doing some work.
If people accept the case and need for more transparency—and a majority do, including many lobbyists—it can be done. Many businesses already do it to this extent. Why can multinationals comply with greater transparency in overseas jurisdictions, such as Brussels, Canada and the USA, but are against it when it comes to the UK? Why do the Government cave in to such opposition when other Governments in other countries can produce acceptable systems?
The last time that this topic, transparency in lobbying, was discussed in this House, it took a back seat to what popularly became known as the “gagging Bill”, which was a surprise and unwelcome attack by the Government on the charity sector. As a consequence, Part 1 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 was given neither the time nor the attention that it deserved. This Bill seeks to remedy that.
I spoke in yesterday’s debate on why public scrutiny of professional lobbying matters, in cols. 1156 to 1158 of Hansard. I shall not repeat those arguments again today. Far from being the,
“next big scandal waiting to happen”,
as David Cameron described lobbying in 2010, it is the scandal that never goes away. No party is immune, and with every lobbying scandal public trust in politics is eroded. We must seek to bring that to an end. The Government were warned that the incredibly narrow lobbying register that they introduced last year would make no difference to this feeling of exclusion from politics. When it comes to seeing who is influencing decision-makers and for what, we—and I include parliamentarians in this—are still in the dark. The current register has been in operation for 18 months, and it has failed abysmally. Three-quarters of the industry working in-house are exempt; of the consultant lobbyists covered, just 136 firms are signed up, a long way from the 700-plus registrants that the Government anticipated when pushing the Bill through. In the last quarter, one-third of the UK’s registrants are effectively blank submissions, with no clients having met the very high bar that triggers registration. There is no requirement in current law to provide details of whom they have met in government, nor whom they are seeking to influence. It is little wonder that in the past six months the register has been viewed by the public a total of 363 times, which is an average of just two people visiting the website a day. For this, the system has so far cost over half a million pounds, with annual costs just shy of £300,000, only half of which is being recouped from the industry in registration fees, which currently stand at £1,000 per firm per year. There can be no doubt that the current register is a very expensive exercise that serves no one at all.
We need to sweep away this failed model and replace it with a genuine register of lobbyists. This Bill aims to do just that. The register of lobbyists which I am proposing conforms to international principles, as set out by the OECD. It follows the recommendations of two Select Committees of this Parliament. It improves on the Scottish Government’s Lobbying (Scotland) Act, which received Royal Assent just four months ago. It cannot be right that, in the near future, lobbyists in Scotland, which has an active but tiny industry by comparison with here, must disclose more about their dealings at Holyrood than their colleagues here in Westminster.
I turn now to the Bill. Clause 1 does not differ greatly from the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. The register will be administered and enforced by an independent registrar who will establish and maintain a register of lobbyists. However, I am proposing that the registrar prepares and issues a code of conduct, replacing the confusing array of voluntary codes which lobbyists currently sign up to and which do not guarantee standards of behaviour. The new lobbyists register would also be publicly funded, as is the case around the world. Lobbying is a democratic right and there must be no financial barrier to participation, especially if the register covers all lobbyists, as the Bill proposes.
Clause 2 deals with the definition of lobbyist and ensures that all paid lobbyists—both in-house and consultant lobbyists—sign up, closing the biggest loophole in the existing register. It also takes account of the real targets of most lobbying activity by requiring lobbyists to register after lobbying Members of either House, or individuals working in government departments, agencies and regulators. Clause 3 deals explicitly with exemptions, which include a constituent communicating with their MP. Small businesses and small charities would also be exempt under Clause 4, on the lines of the Irish register.
There are two key differences with the 2014 Act in Clause 5, which is concerned with the information to be provided on registration. First is that the names of the individuals actually lobbying are declared, as well as any recent public post they have held, to guard against perceptions of privileged access and cronyism. Second is that lobbyists make public whom they are lobbying—the name of any government department or other government institution—and the subject matter of the lobbying activity. Such information on lobbyists’ interaction with Government is vital for the register to be meaningful. It is totally absent from the current one.
Under Clause 6, which concerns quarterly reporting, lobbyists would also be required to disclose a good-faith estimate of how much money had been spent on the lobbying activity, rounded to the nearest £10,000. This would provide an indication of the scale of an organisation’s lobbying activity. I draw noble Lords’ attention to the fact that many lobbyists already routinely disclose their expenditure on both the EU register and the US register. Why should that information not be made public here? Clause 7 covers a code of conduct and Clauses 8 and 9 deal with breaches and sanctions. Finally, Clause 11 calls for the repeal of Part 1 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, the Government’s doomed attempt to shine a light on what happens in lobbying.
The Government had sufficient warning that their register would fail. Noble Lords from both sides of this House repeatedly sounded the alarm in previous debates. “Fundamentally flawed”;
“introduce a new layer of regulation for no obvious public benefit … based on a lack of understanding of how lobbying actually works”;—[Official Report, 22/10/13; col. 929.]
“Just about everyone considers this to be a non-register”.—[Official Report, 22/10/13; col. 897.]
These are just some of the phrases that I picked from the debates at Second Reading and later stages of consideration of the Bill. The best thing we can say about the existing legislation is that it was a false start. It leaves us where we are, but we find ourselves today in a wholly different landscape. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU, however, only adds urgency to the case for genuine transparency in lobbying. We are about to witness a lobbying bonanza, as the Times put it last month, thanks to Brexit. According to what the lobbyists are saying, it presents business with opportunities to be seized. Big-name agencies and law firms, both here and in Washington, have set up dedicated Brexit units to make their corporate clients’ demands known to Government, with promises to put them in touch with the top influencers in the Brexit process. The message from lobbyists is to get in quick and shape discussions as early as possible. I fear they have been quicker off the mark than we parliamentarians. I fear that we will know very little of their interactions with Government before the concrete is set. This week, both Houses have been expressing their frustrations, fear and anger over their seeming exclusion from what is happening on Brexit, but there are no such cries coming from the lobbying industry: quite the reverse, as I have just stated.
In her very first speech, the new Prime Minister pledged that her Government,
“will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few”,
but by those of the public. I do not doubt her sincerity when she told the country that she will,
“think not of the powerful, but you”,
and that she will,
“listen not to the mighty, but to you”.
If the Government are prepared to embrace this modest Private Member’s Bill, that would be a fair indication that those words are going to be put into reality. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill and thank the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, for bringing forward these issues. I declare a couple of interests. First, in common with many Members of this House, I do not engage in consultant lobbying, but if the Bill were to pass, advisory activities in which I do engage would become lobbying activities under the terms of the Bill. To that extent, interests are engaged.
Secondly, I declare an interest in that, as the then Leader of the House of Commons, I was responsible for the passage of the legislation to which the noble Lord referred—the transparency of lobbying legislation of 2014. I did so as a coalition Minister. I was the most senior Cabinet Minister in the Cabinet Office other than the Deputy Prime Minister, so that task fell to me when it might otherwise have fallen to the Deputy Prime Minister to take that legislation through. That was his gain and probably my loss.
The noble Lord illustrated in his introduction and explanation of the Bill many of the issues that we had to think about quite hard in the process of bringing forward Part 1 of the 2014 Act. There was a balance to be struck. I freely confess that the balance was struck on a minimalist basis of the balance between transparency on the one hand and burdens to be imposed on the other. In considering the legislation before us, your Lordships must also consider that balance very carefully. I am afraid that in my mind the noble Lord’s Bill still demonstrates the difference between a government Bill on the one hand and a Private Member’s Bill on the other, where the government Bill basically says, “We believe in the principle and we will take practical steps but we do not want to create a large bureaucracy”. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, in referring to the legislation in a debate last year, referred to the vast bureaucracy that would otherwise result from the extension of the regime in the way this Bill proposes. The noble Lord has put it all in the Bill—everything that anybody suggested to us—it is all there. The vast bureaucracy that would result is not only all there but would have to be paid for by the taxpayer, whereas, at the moment, the register of consultant lobbyists is paid for by those who place entries through a charging regime.
There was one omission in the noble Lord’s explanation of the context of the Bill to which I wish to draw attention. The 2014 Act was not the first element of a transparency regime implemented under the last coalition Government. The first, and in my view still the more important measure, was the disclosure of who Ministers and Permanent Secretaries meet. It is always a moot point, and should be part of the debate on this Bill with the Government, how effective that process is and how far it should reach beyond its present confines. In that context, the definition of “consultant lobbying” in the 2014 Act was constructed around the transparency regime whereby Ministers and Permanent Secretaries publish their external meetings. The 2014 Act allows for that to be extended to special advisers. That has not happened. It would be interesting if my noble friend the Minister were able to tell us anything about whether the Government have considered that matter and, indeed, the extension of the transparency regime to special advisers. The noble Lord and many of your Lordships will be aware that, while that is treated with alarm in Whitehall by special advisers themselves, it is none the less, we all know, actually of considerable importance in terms of the relatively small number, I submit, of those in Government whom we want to ensure are captured by the transparency regime.
I do not want to detain the House long because I have explained in the past, and it is all on the record, why I felt the burden of a Bill of this kind went too far. I simply illustrate this by saying that we are dealing with an intention to take the definition of “consultant lobbying” and add to it in-house lobbyists. During the passage of the previous Act, I never understood why people imagined that there was some lack of transparency about the fact, for example, that Heathrow is lobbying to have a new runway. The fact that they have in-house lobbyists engaged in that is neither here nor there. If they hire other people to act as lobbyists on their behalf, that much should be in the register, and would not be lawful were it not in the register. So to that extent, I am not sure what people do not know about. That people lobby on their own behalf seems to me perfectly transparent. It is a natural course of events. What is more important is to know under what circumstances decision-makers are reached by that lobbying. That gets me back to the point about the transparency regime on the part of Ministers, very senior officials and special advisers rather than the question of having to declare in a register that one is engaged as an organisation in lobbying on one’s own behalf.
Thirdly, I seriously object to the proposition that the definition of “lobbying activity” should extend beyond lobbying in its practical sense and include other forms of communication, advice to those who are engaged in lobbying and works to support those activities. This is reaching way out to the point where one is encompassing almost people who are not engaged in any kind of lobbying at all, not trying to deliver a particular decision from a Minister, official or parliamentarian, but are simply giving advice to people about what that process consists of. It would include, frankly, every academic who tells people what the process of Parliament is like and advises on parliamentary processes. It is all included in this catch-all,
“advises others in a professional capacity”,
in relation to meetings with public officials, because public officials includes all of us and all Members of Parliament.
The definitions are extended not only to in-house lobbyists but to advisers; they include not just the decisions of government in a narrow form but regulations, policies and positions of Her Majesty’s Government, which therefore covers pretty much everything that government is engaged in. “Public officials” is very widely drawn, including not only Permanent Secretaries and their equivalents but all civil servants, pretty much everybody who works in executive agencies—for example, everybody who works in agencies such as Ofcom or Ofgem, and so on—and everybody who works in Public Health England, which is an executive agency, and so it goes on. Millions of people would be defined as public officials. The organisations that are included in in-house lobbying and otherwise include large numbers of not only businesses but trade associations, trade unions and the like. Therefore, I am afraid that we would end up with legislation which seems to say: “On this register we should have almost everyone, whenever they talk to almost anyone else in the public sector at all, about any issue and in any fashion”.
This is not a small register. The noble Lord in his legislation proposes to go from a minimalist to a maximalist position. I contend to the House that in the course of debate on this legislation, whether it succeeds on this occasion, we can do a service by debating how far we move from the minimalist position, but we should certainly reject a maximalist position. It seems that the legislation goes far too far. It would behove Members of your Lordships’ House to think about what it would mean for us. We would be regarded as public officials, so this would include anybody talking to us in any circumstances; Members of Parliament are okay, because their constituents can talk to them. Just imagine: every all-party group would become a complete nightmare of lobbying disclosure where everybody is talking to everybody else. Any Peer who seeks to talk to any public official—which includes all of us—and any time any of us talk to anybody else about anything, it would have to be on the register.
I am afraid that definitions in legislation have to be a sight better than this for it to be a rational way to undertake legislation. As regards the register, where we end up it has to be much clearer about issues of who is being reached; we might logically go beyond where we are now, but it should still include genuine decision-makers, not everybody in the public service. We should look carefully at whether the transparency regime rather than the register should be expanded as the operative mechanism for delivering the improvement in the transparency regime that we want. We should be much clearer about what kind of communications are to be included; in-house lobbying should not form part of this. I am very uncertain about the process of having a code of conduct in the public sector rather than it being done on a voluntary basis.
I am concerned about the structure of the register as it is in the legislation, and we need to come back and look at those issues. Failure to comply is a criminal offence, as it is in the current legislation, but there is not scope for a civil action to be taken by the registrar; that forms part of the current legislation and should form part of any change to the powers. There should be a due diligence defence, which the noble Lord seems to have omitted from his legislation which would replace the existing Part 1, and there should be both a power to charge those who are on the register so as not to make this a large potential call on the taxpayer, but also to enable the registrar to do her job properly. The power to issue guidance should clearly be continued and seems to have been discontinued for reasons I do not understand.
Therefore some of all that is an interesting debate, and the legislation allows that debate to happen. I cannot give the Bill my support, but if we have the opportunity to take it further in Committee, it might enable us to explore in some detail what further reform of the transparency regime might look like in future.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe and congratulate him on bringing in this necessary legislation, which the Government, in the person of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, should have introduced at that time but did not. The Bill is well drafted but like the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, I look forward to the shrewd scrutiny of its details by noble Lords in Committee.
Why is this measure needed? There is extensive anxiety among citizens of this country about the way lobbyists work and the way access and influence are gained in Whitehall. There is an apprehension that secret and privileged access to power leads to distortions in policy development in favour of particular interests rather than the national interest. My noble friend’s timing is apt, because that concern has reached quite a pitch. The Times, on 1 September, ran a feature headlined “Brexit to spawn US-style lobbying boom”.
There has been considerable adverse media publicity about the employment of a former Conservative Foreign Secretary and a former Labour Trade Minister by the US lobbying business, Teneo, and of course a significant number of ex-Ministers, including noble Lords, are employed or otherwise remunerated by lobbying organisations. There was also considerable adverse publicity about the outgoing Prime Minister’s resignation honours list, when he once again appointed more party donors to the legislature. It was welcome when the new Prime Minister, Mrs May, said,
“we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”.
But then we learned that the corporate brochure for the Conservative Party conference explains how business executives and lobbyists will be able to buy access to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and other Ministers for the sum of £3,150 per head. However, it is not just the Conservative Party that sells access to its policymakers.
The operations of lobbyists and public relations firms, which are intimately involved with each other, and the activities of party fundraising, have given the impression to a great many of our fellow citizens that, in this country, money buys political influence. That is deeply damaging to our democracy: cynicism continues to plunge new depths. Whereas it was once taken for granted that politics and government in this country were clean, there is now seen to be an aura of corruption about them. Whether or not the vote on Brexit was a rational assessment of the country’s interests, there is no doubt that it was a roar of anger against Westminster and Whitehall.
Shortly before he became Prime Minister, Mr Cameron described in lurid terms Britain’s broken politics. He said that lobbying was the next big scandal waiting to happen. I quote from his speech:
“We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.
We don’t know who is meeting whom. We don’t know whether any favours are being exchanged. We don’t know which outside interests are wielding unhealthy influence. This isn’t a minor issue with minor consequences.
I believe that secret corporate lobbying … goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.
It is increasingly clear that lobbying in this country is getting out of control. We can’t go on like this”.
He went on to promise that a new Conservative Government would shine the “light of transparency” on lobbying to bring about a politics that
“comes clean about who is buying power and influence”.
I recommend that noble Lords study that speech, although it is not easy to do so because, interestingly, it has been deleted from the Conservative Party website.
We all agree that lobbying is legitimate. In an accountable democracy politicians listen to representations on policy, and officials and Ministers are accessible. However, money should not buy privileged access and influence. The system should provide a fair hearing for all. Policy decisions should be made and be seen to be made based on an honest assessment of what is in the national interest and not in favour of sectional interests.
The scale of corporate lobbying has become huge in the era of free-market ideology, privatisation and outsourcing. It was Mr Cameron himself who estimated that the lobbying industry is worth £2 billion a year. In their indispensable book on this subject, A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain, Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell describe in some detail how industries—tobacco, alcohol, sugar, pharmaceutical, energy, defence, financial services, accountancy, IT and media—maintain their massive lobbying operations. The authors also describe a range of their techniques: manipulation of the media and think tanks, including Policy Exchange, which is interestingly discussed in that section; suborning scientists; colonising expert EU and Whitehall groups; rigging public consultations; faking grass-roots campaigns, known in the trade as “astroturfing”; espionage; and bullying.
The Leveson inquiry shone its light on how Murdoch’s lobbyists worked to bend Ministers to their will, particularly through developing relationships with their special advisers.
The deleterious effects of lobbying on the public interest are plain to see. We have no registers of beneficial ownership in tax havens. We have seen the indulgence of policy towards bankers’ bonuses. We have seen energy from gas designated as low-carbon. We have seen the degutting of the anti-obesity strategy. We still have no minimum alcohol pricing in England. We have a diesel emissions testing regime that endangers public health.
After his fine words in 2010, it took the Prime Minister three years to introduce legislation, and the vacuity of the legislation that was eventually brought in is, I suggest, testimony to the power of lobbying during that interval. The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 is useless—the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, described it as minimalist, but I would say useless—as a measure to regulate lobbying. It casts no light of transparency and it does not pretend to regulate most lobbying, such as lobbying by in-house employees or trade bodies. Loopholes in the legislation allow lobbying companies to keep the identity of their clients secret. CTF Partners, run by Lynton Crosby, names no clients on the register of consultant lobbyists. That is also the case for RLM Finsbury, run by Roland Rudd, the brother of the Home Secretary.
Lobbyists need only declare their own direct meetings between themselves and Ministers and Permanent Secretaries and, as the noble Lord said, the provision that allows that requirement to be extended to special advisers has not been brought in. If a meeting is set up for clients to meet those very senior people, it does not have to be declared, and they do not have to declare if they meet more junior officials—the crucial people who may be formulating policy options to present to Ministers or who may be refining the details of policy that Ministers have agreed to in broad terms. If they meet MPs or Peers, no declaration is required.
My noble friend’s Bill fills some of the gaping holes in the existing legislation. But will her Majesty’s Government agree that this improvement of the legislation on lobbying should be supported? It would be greatly in the interests of our economy and our political culture if they did so.
On 24 February 2015, the Telegraph ran a depressing feature, headlined:
“Westminster’s history of cash for access and influence”.
The current edition of Private Eye has an extended feature detailing how:
“A well-trodden path from the public to private sector ensures ministers and mandarins looking to profit from their time in government are all but guaranteed a job in business, usually in an area over which they have exerted great influence”.
On 1 August, the front page headline of the Times was:
“Prime Minister’s top aide broke rules on lobbying”.
Fiona Hill, who was special adviser to Theresa May as Home Secretary, took a job with a lobbying organisation called Lexington without declaring it, as the rules required. She was now returning to government at No. 10. The Times went on to say that Ministers had watered-down their own rules, months before the general election, making it easier for aides to profit from their government contacts and experience.
Revolving-door stories have become a staple of political journalism. They feed public cynicism, contempt and alienation from politics. It makes no difference to public perception that the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, who chairs the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, seeks to toughen the rules and vet applications rigorously. The public simply will not accept that people should profit or be highly remunerated as a consequence of their contacts, access or inside knowledge gained in public service.
What should the Government do? What should the policy be in regard to the revolving door? Ideally we would have a culture in which senior public servants, particularly former Cabinet members, do not seek to profit from their privileged status and trust but simply understand that it is the wrong thing to do. Whatever it may do for their bank balances, it is very bad for their personal reputations and for the reputation of public life. However, we cannot legislate for a better culture so we must hope that the Prime Minister will provide leadership in this matter and make clear the standards she expects, and that she will support strengthening the remit and powers of the advisory committee.
As to lobbying, we need maximum transparency and we should pass my noble friend’s Bill to provide a comprehensive register. We should go further. In 2013, I tabled amendments to the Intellectual Property Bill. My amendments would have provided that the contents of all lobbying representations made to the Intellectual Property Office, whether by correspondence or at meetings, and the minutes of those meetings should be made publicly available online. The noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, who is in his place today, was the Minister at that time and he rejected my amendments as being too bureaucratic. However, with digital technology, it would be feasible to meet this requirement. The minutes exist. The Home Office has refused to release the minutes of meetings between Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary, and representatives of the drinks industry, following which it is suggested that she backtracked on the Government’s previous intentions in relation to policy on alcohol-related crime. We do not know—but we should know—what the truth of that matter is.
The requirement I propose would not of course capture quiet words whispered at Wimbledon or the Royal Opera House, but it would go some way to letting more daylight into the secretive processes of lobbying and to mitigating any undue influence by lobbyists with deep pockets.
It is not anti-business to say that we should go further. We need to design democratic processes that better hold the political power of business to account. Corporate power now shapes our economy, culture and society profoundly, in ways that perhaps once it did not. Corporate power and businesses have become part of government. Political parties, of course, to varying degrees, rely on business to fund them. Government relies on business to help formulate policy. It is not excessive to say that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, stripped down in its internal resources by the coalition Government, is now dominated by business, which designs tax law, determines how tax law should be enforced and contributes to the failure of HMRC to collect the revenue it ought to collect.
Businesses deliver public services, and Parliament should no longer agree to be fobbed off by the rubric of “commercial in confidence”. Again and again, when parliamentarians of both Houses ask questions in the public interest about how public services are being provided and what the contractual terms are between departments and businesses that are delivering public services, they are told that these matters are commercial and should be kept in confidence.
Corporate demands on government have become overbearing. Governments have been keen to nurture business and the market, and they have had little will to limit the power of business. They have failed to avert the economic instability, the human exploitation, the inequality, and the environmental degradation consequent upon the favouring of corporate interests. Global corporations in negotiations about trade agreements—TTIP, CETA, the trade and services agreement—are flagrantly circumventing national Parliaments and democracy. Multinationals elude government, as we have seen in the case of Amazon, and dictate sweetheart deals on tax, as we have seen in the cases of Google and Vodafone.
Citizens in this country have reached a point where they believe that business is over privileged and over mighty. They want to be able to believe that a Government accountable to them determine what businesses may do and not the other way round, and that their elected Government serve them above all. This is a challenge to government of the first order of importance.
My Lords, I am glad we have the opportunity to debate this Bill because there is no doubt that the scale and opacity of lobbying is a problem. What is more in doubt is whether as presently constructed it will materially assist us in dealing with and regulating the problem. I have some reservations about it and some suggestions on what to include in it which might do more to assist us than merely extending the register on a very large scale, as the Bill proposes. Indeed, I fear that the Bill could be crushed under its own weight because of the sheer number of people who would be drawn in to the definition of a lobbyist. There are people about whom there is no doubt that if they raise a matter with public officials, they are doing so on behalf of the organisation they work for, but the net would be very wide. It would include the garage manager who calls the Environment Agency because he wants a bit more time to comply with the requirements that have been set or the teacher who writes not to her own Member of Parliament but to the Secretary of State for Education to say that the new curriculum proposals are extremely unhelpful. A huge range of people would be caught in that they would be required to be registered, but it would not really get us very far.
Although I can see the underlying logic of asking why people who are commercial lobbyists working for several different interests should be registered while in-house lobbyists are not, at least with the latter you know who they are lobbying for. We know that they are people working for an organisation and are likely to advance its interests using whatever opportunities they have. So the question is: how can we make sure that the process people are engaged in when they are lobbying is more transparent than it has been in the past? It is on that area that the Bill could more usefully concentrate.
So far as commercial lobbyists are concerned, we would be in a better position if we knew more about their sources of finance; that is, if we knew how just much money companies are paying commercial lobbyists to lobby on their behalf. The fact that under the register system at the moment a firm can declare no clients at all seems suspicious. If there were further requirements for financial declaration, the question of who is paying the piper could be asked more effectively. That is an area in which commercial lobbying could be addressed by improvements in the legislation.
On the wider range of the Bill, again, rather than looking to alter the register, why do we not improve the information that is available about the lobbying that is taking place? Meetings can be covered by very brief and insufficient descriptions such as, “Defence matters are being discussed”. That could be anything from the potential threat on the eastern borders of NATO’s territory to the precise details of the next warship order—if there ever is a next warship order—that the department is going to place. Even in areas where there are not the same confidentiality requirements as might be imposed in defence, if the matter being discussed is “aviation” or “the railway industry”, that is not enough to provide an explanation of what lobbying is taking place. It would be helpful if all these statements could be gathered together on the government website and that was searchable. That would be a distinct improvement on the current arrangements, and I ask the Minister to look at this.
Whose meetings should be involved? I refer back to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley. Meetings with special advisers are clearly sought after by lobbying organisations to press their case because they play a crucial role. It is unimaginable that they should continue to be left out of the process. Meetings with special advisers therefore ought to be included. Noble Lords will recall that before my time here the House agreed to that, and an amendment to that effect was removed in the Commons in the course of the exchanges between the Houses on that Bill. It is something that we ought to return to. There is a series of quite specific things which could gather up the lobbying that is taking place more effectively than trying to impose a regime right across the activities of the entire commercial and public sectors. That would be a huge task.
Several comments have been made about the 2014 legislation. I am in favour of post-legislative scrutiny. It is important that there should be some scrutiny of that legislation. After all, an awful lot of things were said at the time not only about the lobbying aspects of it, but even more about the impact of other parts. It would be a bit of a challenge for a committee to retain its non-partisan approach when carrying out such scrutiny, but the Bill before us today is a reminder that that Bill was only part of a process that needs to be continued. However, in continuing it we should concentrate on what will improve our knowledge of what is going on rather than simply create a mechanism so wide and involving so many people that a lot of money would be spent to very little outcome.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, for his initiative in bringing the Lobbying (Transparency) Bill. I say immediately that I speak as chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was established 21 years ago by John Major, with the objective of strengthening integrity and honourable behaviour in our public life. In 2013 we published a document on precisely this topic, Strengthening Transparency Around Lobbying. Indeed, next week we will publish a cognate document on ethics for regulators. As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said, there will be an explosion of activity in this area as a consequence of Brexit. I am grateful to him for creating a context for discussion about this important issue.
This is an extraordinarily complex issue. There are few, if any, easy answers. The committee has spent hours and hours of discussion trying to find viable ways forward. In the 2013 document I mentioned, at paragraph 2.7, the committee acknowledged the importance of lobbying to our public life. It says:
“Lobbying plays a vital role in the political process as it enhances informed debate”,
and provides “exact information” that,
“can be fed into the policy development process”.
Having said that, I remind the House that this week we have had excellent debates on the disabled and on charities. Everyone accepts that lobbyists are central to providing information in this field and to those debates. There is no challenge to that lobbying, even though one could say that these cases, like all cases, are in a sense self-interested. The truth is that the issues that are more sensitively felt are around what one might call crony capitalism, but it is worth saying that no serious democracy in this complex age can operate without a lively lobbying culture. We accept this in many areas of our life.
Our 2013 document suggested a series of practical steps that would strengthen transparency around the lobbied, so that officials, Ministers or Peers would be able to demonstrate probity to the outside world. The Bill before us in some way enhances that, in that it attempts to bring about greater clarity on who is or is not a lobbyist.
We recommended timely, detailed disclosure of all significant meetings and hospitality involving external attempts to influence policy discussions. The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, referred to this and to the work the Government have done in this area. We should acknowledge some positive improvements. He may concede that on timeliness of disclosure the Government’s record was not wonderful. There has been a lively correspondence between my office and the Cabinet Office on this point over the last two years. If we are to have this disclosure, which is helpful and has been a positive development, it needs to have as its counterpart no dumping of information on dead days, which has happened. That is counterproductive because we have a journalistic class that will not be deceived by such manoeuvres and will none the less go through documents, even if they are dumped on the eve of a public holiday at 4.30 pm, as has happened. We also argued, and the point has been made today, that:
“Disclosure arrangements should be widened to cover special advisers and senior civil servants as well as Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and Departmental Boards”.
We made other suggestions. I will pick out only one, because people will remember the public furore which, unfortunately, developed in this context. This is the suggestion—the obvious point—that Select Committees have become more and more important in recent years and the role of the chairmen of Select Committees more and more sensitive. We asked for consideration to be given to the idea that chairs of Select Committees should have,
“additional restrictions in relation to conflicts of interests and providing explicitly that Members should not accept all but the most insignificant or incidental gift, benefit or hospitality or payments from professional lobbyists”.
In the case of Select Committee chair positions, since we issued our advice there have been unfortunate public furores on exactly this point. My own view is that if there had been a more serious engagement or a debate on that issue, we might have avoided some incidents that have probably contributed to the problem that many noble Lords are aware of—the apparent decline in trust in politics.
I will also say something about this House. The House of Lords responded more firmly in certain respects than the Commons to some of our recommendations. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Hill, the then Leader of the House, for that. For example, this House lowered the threshold for registering gifts and hospitality from £500 to £140, and introduced a new code of conduct for members of staff, with requirements to register interests in parliamentary lobbying and to abstain from lobbying or using access to Parliament to further outside interests in return for either payment or reward. The way in which the Lords responded—and that is only part of the Lords response—was helpful because at least in those areas we have not had big problems in the past two or three years. So it is possible to take certain types of surgical action to deal with some of these issues.
It has to be accepted that transparency is not the cure-all that I suspect 20 years ago my committee believed it would be. We have vastly increased transparency in our public life. My own view is that it is absurd to claim that we have lower standards in our public life than in the past, if only because that vastly increased transparency would make it almost impossible for those lower standards to exist—leaving aside the fact that I do not believe that human nature has deteriorated. None the less, we have a problem that there is massive evidence of public malaise with politics and the way in which it works, and a feeling among the public that it is all an insiders’ game.
Therefore, what I have to say in defence of transparency is limited. I will argue for greater transparency in this area. It will not take all the tricks. It is necessary simply as a deterrent to bad behaviour. That is its principal role and a more limited assurance to the public. The public, to be honest, will not be as impressed as we would like them to be. The obvious example of this is how the great clarity that now exists around MPs’ expenses has not had the benign effect on public opinion that many people quite reasonably hoped for.
I will conclude with a point that many Members have referred to: the tone of the new Government on this issue. The Government have raised hopes that there will be a more critical tone with respect to the operations of crony capitalism. There are really very complex questions here. We have heard enough already today to show how some of the detail in this Bill, and in the original Bill, works and how some of it does not and may not work. Already we can see how difficult it is to get the balance right. But this question cannot be left exactly where it is. There is no doubt in my mind that expectations have now been raised by the new Prime Minister—the tone of her speech in particular—which will require some public response and some movement by the Government in this area during this Parliament.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, on bringing this Bill before the House. It addresses the glaring and predictable deficiencies in Part 1 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act. Indeed, the Bill would be worth enacting even if it were confined to Clause 11.
As I said in a debate in Grand Committee yesterday, if the short title of an Act was subject to the Trade Descriptions Act, the Government would not have a defence in respect of the title of the 2014 Act. The Act, as I pointed out when we debated the Bill, does not provide for transparency of lobbying. It deals with the person: the lobbyist, not the activity of lobbying. It is not geared to enhancing transparency. If anything, it provides less transparency than the self-regulating system that preceded it. A more accurate title for the first part of the Act would be “The registration of some lobbyists”. That would be it. Even the Long Title qualifies the scope. It is so narrowly drawn that most of those who engage professionally in lobbying do not fall within its scope.
The 2014 Act does not deliver on what my noble friend Lord Lansley said was the purpose of the Bill when he introduced it on Second Reading in the other place. It does not give effect to the principle that he enunciated,
“that the public should be able to see how third parties seek to influence the political system”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/9/13; col. 169.]
It covers only some third parties and does not deal with the how, only the who. What has the Act done to make lobbying more transparent? We know the number of lobbyists who have registered under the Act; it is far less than the Government predicted. But even if the number had been in line with Government predictions, there is still the question: so what? I return to the question: what has it done to make lobbying—the activity—more transparent?
If we really want to make lobbying more transparent, then the answer lies with the amendment to the Bill which I proposed on Report. It stipulated that:
“A Minister of the Crown, at the time of making a statement relating to any of the matters referred to in section 2(3)(a) to (d), shall publish details of any oral or written communication received in respect of that matter by the Minister of the Crown, or civil servants within the Minister’s Department, or a special adviser”.
That amendment was designed to link lobbying to the policies produced by government. One could link the lobbying with the outcomes. That was clearly a step too far for the Government, who resisted the amendment in the Division Lobby. The Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, did so essentially on the grounds that it was too much trouble—never mind the principle, feel the workload.
The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, does not go quite as far as my amendment but it certainly goes in the right direction. It not only widens the scope for registration but addresses activity. In this regard, Clause 5(2)(f), and Clause 6 are especially welcome. The former requires the subject of lobbying to be reported, so we would start to learn not only who is lobbying but on what Bill or policy. Clause 6 provides for the information to be supplied at quarterly intervals, so we would start to get some dynamic of the activity. That is completely lacking in the existing legislation.
The Bill before us addresses those who engage in professional lobbying. I seem to be reading a different Bill to that read by my noble friend Lord Lansley and the noble Lord, Lord Beith. We have a definition of lobbying in Clause 2 but they, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Beith, seemed to omit to say that it is then qualified by Clause 4(3). As I read it, virtually all the people mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Beith, would not be caught by the need to register. It is more limited than has been suggested. It would require registration by those who are professional lobbyists and paid at a certain level. The point has been made that the demands might be quite onerous but I do not think they are too onerous. Clause 6(3) tempers Clause 6(2), so that one would get some idea of the sums spent on lobbying but not in the sort of detail that is unduly burdensome.
If I were to quibble about the provisions, my concern would be about the commencement in Clause 12. I am not sure I would leave it to Ministers to determine when to bring the provisions into effect. There are too many provisions of Acts passed in recent years that have still not been commenced. I would have been inclined to provide that Sections 1 to 11 come into force on a specified day, say six months after the day on which the Act is passed.
The existing Act has not really achieved anything. Perhaps my noble friend Lady Chisholm, in replying, can tell us the cost to the public purse to date of the Act and what assessment the Government have made of its effect. Do the Government judge that the 2014 Act has delivered value for money and, if so, how? If not, what do they plan to do? If the Act is having no appreciable effect on public awareness of lobbying of government, if it is not providing the sort of limited but very important effects that the noble Lord, Lord Bew, identified as being delivered by transparency, what possible justification is there for maintaining the register? I know it has not been in existence for that long, but it has been in existence long enough to determine that it is not achieving, and is not likely to achieve, any discernible public benefit. Maintaining the register as it stands serves no clear purpose. One can either scrap it—just take Clause 11 of the Bill—or one can, in effect, replace it with a Bill that is designed to deliver some transparency in lobbying. If the Bill before us is not that Bill, the onus is on the Government to produce a better Bill.
Finding fault with the Bill before us and doing nothing else will not be acceptable. If the Government do not move in the direction of accepting this Bill, I may be minded to bring one forward to give effect to the amendment I moved at Report stage of the Government’s Bill. I trust that that may help concentrate the mind of my noble friend the Minister, for whom I have the highest regard. If the Government believe in transparency in lobbying, now is the time to show it.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Brooke for introducing this Bill. I agree entirely with him that lobbying is part and parcel of politics and a legitimate and necessary part of any democratic process. I frequently try to persuade Governments of the importance of law, civil liberties and human rights and then Governments often do not listen, but try to persuade me that, for example, bringing back grammar schools might be a good thing. Sometimes we are successful in our persuasions, and sometimes we are not.
However, what we are talking about today moves beyond advocacy. In 2006—10 years ago now—I chaired the Power inquiry, which looked at British democracy and why there was so much disillusionment with politics. It was something I did for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. I had a cross-party body of people working with me. The thing that really concerned the general public was access to the powerful and to those in government that somehow seemed to give special privilege to the few in ways that the general public often felt were detrimental to their own interests. Their concern was not about charities or NGOs lobbying. It was about the power of corporates and big business to affect policy or to reduce the effectiveness of policies in order to improve their financial interests and profitability. There was a strong sense among the general public that this had increased enormously with globalisation. This business of the corporates floating above Governments and wielding this invisible power was repeated to us time and again. One has only to look at the ugliness of the corporate opposition to Obamacare in the United States—if we are embarrassed to look at things closer to home—which showed how big business, from pharmaceuticals to insurance companies, undermined a socially vital attempt to alleviate misery among a huge part of the American population. We know this is a direction of travel that we have to be very careful about. We are seeing an increase in lobbying by the minute. The warning about what is going to follow the Brexit referendum is something that we should have at the forefront of our minds.
The purchase that neoliberal economics now has on politics everywhere in the world speaks to the power of business and banking to influence the very ideas that underpin globalisation. It is now a mantra: small state, privatisation, outsourcing, low taxes, flexible work and disempowered trade unions. Those ideas have fed not just into Governments and political parties but into the World Bank and the IMF. Even my own party swallowed that pill—or, if you like, drank the Kool-Aid—back in the 1990s. This has involved an unpicking of the liberal social consensus that was so much a part of the aftermath of World War II, making sure that citizens had protections and rights. We have seen the permeation of those ideas into government, often through think tanks of the left, right and centre, which were penetrated by lobbyists and by the power of money.
The corporates know the power of language. They do not talk about “lobbying”; they do it through their public relations departments or public affairs units. They use political consultancy firms or professional public affairs agencies. They have learned the negative force of the word “lobbying”. When you hear the word “consultancy”, run for cover, because it usually means there is lobbying lurking there in the background. The professional lobbying industry, as my noble friend Lord Brooke has said, is worth billions of pounds. Businesses spend these sums because it is worth it to maximise their profits.
I often wondered back in those days why we even contemplated the business of mega-casinos, which are basically a great cover for crime, as anyone like myself who is a criminal lawyer knows; they are a magnet for criminal activity. Why do Governments get involved in mad computerisation programmes that cost a fortune and then go belly up, if it is not that they have had their ear bent with notions that do not deliver? Why privatise prisons or security in prisons? Why is there a stealthy movement by the Government to privatise so many aspects of health delivery? Why the pushing of the concept of choice as though that is what we as citizens should want, when in fact we know that it is actually also very valuable to corporate interests?
What the public wanted, and they said it very clearly, was transparency. We recommended something that comes closer to what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is describing. We said that there should be a register of contacts, but not a register of the lobbying organisations done on a voluntary basis; what we were asking for was a proper record by Ministers, their special advisers and their officials, registering the contacts that had been made that were affecting policy, exactly in the way that the noble Lord has described. What one wants to know and see is where the influence has outcomes. That should be made public, as was suggested, by having it online so that people can see what the contacts have been.
The burden should fall on Ministers. I have heard the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, say what a burden it would be on the world of business for people to have to register all their contacts, but the suggestion has been made that it comes very easily to government officials and civil servants to make a note of the contacts that they have. It might have been very helpful during that business of the Murdoch contacts with the special adviser to the Secretary of State for culture and media at the time, Jeremy Hunt, when the Murdoch empire was trying to expand its remit with regard to Sky. We might have known a little more about that, rather than having to learn about it through investigative journalism. When the Power report was published, we were calling for that public statutory register to exist, setting out what contacts had been made and how they might have impacted on policy.
The other concern was about the business of the revolving door, which the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, described very powerfully in his speech. We have seen it recently. I fear that no political party has been untainted by it. In the past 25 to 30 years, we saw it originally with Mr Hamilton and his brown envelopes and Fayed, then with the business of Jonathan Aitken and Saudis. Then it moved on and, unfortunately, we saw it in relation to Labour in government. It is always those who are in government who become most vulnerable to the business of lobbying. They are enticed by the idea of moving out of government and Cabinet into highly paid jobs which allow them to use their little phone book and contacts. One minute you are on one side of a desk dealing with the privatisation of prisons; a few months later you are on the other side of the desk working for a security company. You have only to be in the Ministry of Defence five minutes to be confident that you can be on the board of an arms company as soon as you are out of government. You have only to be Secretary of State for Health for five minutes and you can look forward to a job in pharmaceuticals or private health if that is what you want.
We know how this works. I suggest that having lobbying on an informal basis is not good enough. I fear that we have seen an erosion of ethics and in the consideration of what is right and proper after being in government. There should be a statutory basis for how long should pass before someone takes a job in the private sector after they have been in government.
Only two days ago, there was a very interesting piece in the Guardian about corporate lobbying in relation to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which was a trade treaty but would have meant the grant of new legal rights to corporations. It would have had huge impact on our sovereignty. If Brexiteers are concerned about anything, they should put their minds to some of these big trading agreements, which override national laws and prevent legislation limiting corporate activities. These treaties often involve negating planning laws or laws to reduce the size of overmighty banks, for example. Although TTIP seems to have fallen by the wayside as a result of public outcry, it is now being replaced by a comprehensive economic and trade agreement, in which no doubt we will be invited to take part. Again, it involves overriding national legislation that may protect workers’ rights, for example.
We should be very mindful of how lobbying can be detrimental to the public interest. The public are entitled to know. They are asking for transparency. I am with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, on this: we should know much more from Ministers. The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, asks whether we will all have to declare things. Perhaps we would think twice about approaching a Minister on a matter if we knew that the Minister would be publishing a list of everyone who had mentioned matters that could change government policy. That might make for some different conduct. As the noble Lords, Lord Norton and Lord Bew, said, it is about trying to put a bar on any misbehaviour.
I welcome the Bill, although I think it could be strengthened, and I hope that the Government are listening. We have not gone far enough, and this is partly about public confidence in government.
My Lords, I, too, am delighted to welcome the Bill and do so on behalf of the Opposition. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Brooke for his careful work in the preparation as well as the presentation of the Bill. He and I have worked together to seek to reduce alcohol-related harm, and time and again, we have seen that big business with special interests has enormous influence, all of it out of sight of the public. Indeed, as my noble friend Lady Kennedy recounted, there is public scepticism about the power of corporates to influence government.
When the Government introduced the transparency of lobbying Bill, their stated aim—as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, confessed—was to produce transparency; it was in the title of the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, as the Minister in the Commons said—he was then Andrew Lansley; he is now the noble Lord, Lord Lansley,
“the public should be able to see how third parties seek to influence the political system”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/9/2013; col. 169.]
That objective, via the Act’s register of lobbyists, has failed lamentably. Not only did the register omit 80% of lobbying, as we warned it would at the time, because only consultants were included and because of its limited scope, but even on its own terms it is a sad and expensive failure that has achieved nothing. In total, it has had just 1,251 hits on its website—I think that my blogs from here get more than that—at a cost of some £600,000. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, says, only half of that is paid for by those on the register; the rest is paid out of public funds. With those sorts of numbers, given how often rather sad anoraks such as me together with campaigners such as Unlock Democracy and Spinwatch as well as lobbyists themselves check up on it, of the 373 hits in the past six months cited by my noble friend Lord Brooke, which amounts to some 15 people a week, five of those people are probably in the Chamber today or watching us on their screens. It is absolutely not the public.
A list of consultant lobbyists is doing nothing for transparency, although its scope was always so tiny that it was never going to achieve very much. As others have said, the vast majority of lobbying is done not by a handful of consultant public affairs companies but direct from company to government via their professional in-house public affairs or parliamentary affairs teams. The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said that we know who is lobbying—Heathrow is lobbying. We know that because it has put up big adverts between where you leave the Tube and come into this House. However, that is not how most of it is done. The public do not know what the trade associations are doing. One amendment we moved which was not accepted was to include trade associations, which do so much of this lobbying but completely unknown to the public.
Since the noble Lord, Lord Beith, raised the point, let us look at the defence industry, which directly hires former MoD civil servants or ex-Ministers. They do not need to go to some consultancy to have the ear of government; they pick up their phone and speak direct. We know that well from the quote that my noble friend Lord Howarth gave of David Cameron’s description of it—and I could not put it better myself.
What is more, contrary to what the Minister said in our debate yesterday, it is not the case that the Government’s own register shows on whose behalf a consultant firm is lobbying a Minister. It requires it only to list its clients; it does not show when a meeting takes place on behalf of which of those clients nor, importantly, on what subject that meeting is taking place. That is the statutory register. However, there is no possible reason why ministerial diaries could not show those details, and that would not even require the kind of legislation that the poor then Andrew Lansley had to spend a lot of time dealing with. If only the diaries were timely, searchable and comprehensive, that would reveal more than the current register does. At present, it is simply no good relying on ministerial diaries.
Despite what the Minister’s predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges of Headley, wrote to me on 27 May, that delays in publishing had now been overcome and that they are,
“in open, searchable CSV”—
whatever that means—
the meetings logs are all published in different places. To assess meetings data, the public have to search department by department. It is time consuming and does seem to be a determined barrier to transparency. If they really believed in openness, why on earth have the Government not brought all the meetings data together into a single, searchable database on GOV.UK?
Furthermore, if a minister meets a company in a so-called private capacity, without civil servants, that does not even get listed. Even if a meeting is listed, it gives little away, as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said. Of 79 meetings with lobbyists attended by MoD Ministers, 44 were described as, “discuss defence issues”, or “defence issues”, and 11 as “company site visits”. As the noble Lord alluded to, the Department for Transport similarly had dozens of meetings labelled “rail discussion” or “aviation discussion”. I would have been surprised if they had been discussing the latest Paralympic results. Over at the Department of Health, of 27 meetings with Jeremy Hunt, one-quarter were “catch-up discussions”. There was no disclosure of the policy area, along the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Norton.
There are major shortfalls in the 2014 Act, all of which we pointed out during its passage through this House. It ignores in-house professional lobbyists. That is not someone from a garage, who is not paid to be a lobbyist, ringing up a department: let us put things like that to one side. It ignores lobbying of senior civil servants. An amendment we put down on that was rejected. It ignores lobbying of all politicians other than Ministers, including the chairs of select committees, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bew. It ignores the lobbying of SPADs. Despite the amendment proposed in this House to include that power, it has not been introduced. I am, therefore, very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, and welcome his question on that. It ignores soft lobbying of Ministers, out of sight of their civil servants. This has to change, for the sake of our democracy. As has been stressed, this has never been more urgent than now, with the seismic Brexit decisions about to be taken, as mentioned by my noble friends Lord Brooke and Lord Howarth.
Today, the Government should heed the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that this question cannot be left where it is. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, finding fault with this Bill and doing nothing else is not acceptable. The Bill will achieve real openness, for the public, for taxpayers and for all of us to see. We wish it well and hope that the Government will really listen to the comments that have been made: the present situation is just not good enough.
My Lords, I start by declaring an interest. My daughter is a director of Hanover Communications. However, as I mentioned yesterday, as a mother and a grandmother—she has two small children—we do not, as one can imagine, really talk about lobbying. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for introducing this Bill, which has led to an interesting and engaging debate. I also thank the noble Lord for his opening speech. I think the whole House recognises his commitment to this important issue.
At its core, the noble Lord’s Bill has the intention of making lobbying a more transparent activity. Indeed, it is worth noting that his Bill encompasses many of the provisions contained in the Government’s own Act, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. Nevertheless, the Government feel that they must express reservations about this Bill. I hope it will be useful if I focus for a moment on the Government’s view on transparency before turning to the noble Lord’s Bill and outlining why we have reservations about it.
Like the noble Lords, Lord Brooke and Lord Bew, we believe that lobbying plays an important role in ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard in Westminster, Whitehall and beyond. However, lobbying must be transparent. The Register of Consultant Lobbyists that we set up in March 2015 is designed to shine the light of transparency on those who seek to influence the Government on behalf of a third party. It complements the existing transparency regime whereby Ministers and Permanent Secretaries publish details of their meetings with external organisations. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, mentioned that the register was not working. However, it was set up only in March 2015. We need to give it time to do its work. The register helps transparency in two main ways. First, it clarifies whose interests consultants are representing, which is not always clear from ministerial diaries alone. The register also has enhanced scrutiny, as consultant lobbyists must declare whether they subscribe to a code of conduct.
As my noble friend Lord Lansley and the noble Lord, Lord Beith, mentioned, we wanted the 2014 Transparency of Lobbying Act to avoid unnecessary regulatory burdens, rather than to establish top-to-bottom regulation of all who lobby. That is why we set up an appropriate way to ensure high levels of transparency, but only in the specific areas of the lobbying industry where that was needed. Arguably, to make a register of in-house lobbyists would be enormously burdensome, very hard to make work and very costly. As the noble Lord, Lord Beith, mentioned, at least we know who they are lobbying for.
The noble Lord, Lord Beith, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, both made an interesting point—namely, that there should be a government website. I should add that information on meetings is published in an easily searchable format. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said, that is not easy to use. I will certainly take that back to the department. I hear what she says; the information should at least be user-friendly.
It is clear that the 2014 Act and the noble Lord’s Bill broadly seek the same thing, to regulate lobbying in order to make it more transparent and increase public confidence in public institutions. However, it is the Government’s position that further regulation of lobbying is not necessary, particularly so soon after the passage of the Government’s Act on transparency of lobbying, passed by this House in 2014.
I hope it will be helpful if I outline to the House some of the reservations that the Government have about the Lobbying (Transparency) Bill 2016. First, the Bill uses a wider definition of “lobbying” and “lobbyist” than is provided for in the current Act. The Bill’s definition of “lobbyist” includes in-house lobbyists, as well as the consultant lobbyists covered by existing legislation. However, the conduct of in-house lobbyists can be scrutinised through the publication of ministerial diaries, which offer details of any gifts given and received, hospitality received, overseas travel and meetings with external organisations. Through the diaries, members of the public already have access to a wealth of information that sheds significant light on lobbying activity.
Secondly, the Bill requires that meetings with all public officials should be registered, instead of just Ministers and Permanent Secretaries. As I said earlier, that risks creating a register that requires significant extra resources without leading to improved transparency.
Thirdly, the Government have reservations about the establishment of a statutory code of conduct. We believe that self-regulatory codes administered by the lobbying industry work well. Indeed, the 2014 Act aimed to complement rather than replace existing non-statutory codes. In addition, I note that your Lordships’ House agreed only in 2014 not to implement a statutory code. That decision was made after the Government had made their case against statutory codes and after the House had had the opportunity to debate the question. It therefore makes sense to wait and see how existing legislation works in practice before making further changes.
Fourthly, the Bill does not afford an exemption for small lobbying firms, whereas the 2014 Act exempts anyone not registered under the VAT Act 1994. One risk of not exempting those under the VAT threshold would be to place disproportionate financial and regulatory burdens on small companies, thereby impeding their growth and potential to contribute to the economy.
On the financial provisions of the Bill, the 2014 Act seeks to offset some costs of the register through a fee charged to lobbyists for registering. The Bill makes no reference to any fees chargeable to lobbyists, which means that it would be entirely publicly funded. The lack of industry-led funding means the taxpayer would be footing the bill for a system, which would not make lobbying any more transparent than at present. We believe that a less problematic and more cost-effective alternative has already been in force since March 2015, when the Register of Consultant Lobbyists was set up. I also note that the provisions of the Bill would repeal legislation on lobbying regulation, which Parliament only recently agreed to. It is the Government’s view that the current legislation continues to be a vital part of the lobbying and transparency regime and a proportionate response to the issues we face.
I also have a pair of more minor concerns about the detail of the Bill. These are not reasons in themselves to either support or oppose the Bill but I hope that noble Lords will find it constructive if I highlight them to allow for the possibility of their being addressed. First, the Bill does not empower the registrar to provide guidance. I understand that the registrar’s ability to issue guidance as currently provided for is an important component of engagement with those who enrol on the register. Secondly, the Bill does not require the registrar to justify their decision to impose penalties or set out an appeals process against the registrar’s decisions, both of which are currently provided for under the 2014 Act. Both would presumably need to be inserted into the Bill to ensure that monitoring and enforcement processes were fair, predictable and run according to due process.
My noble friend Lord Lansley and other noble Lords mentioned expanding requirements to include spads. While the Government are not considering expanding the Act to include special advisers, steps have been taken to expand the disclosure requirements with regard to the publication of ministerial diaries. We have expanded this to include meetings between senior media figures and government, including those held by special advisers, which reflects particular concerns following the Leveson inquiry.
My noble friend Lord Norton asked whether the current Act provides value for money. The Act is working well—obviously, I would say that—and has solved the issue that it is not always clear in whose interests lobbying takes place. As I mentioned, by charging a fee to those firms who must register, the Government have minimised the cost to the public purse of establishing and running the register, thereby delivering value for money. The annual budget for the register was published this year and stands at £265,000.
Many noble Lords mentioned Brexit and how a huge number of lobbying firms will come into play because of it. However, they have to register in the same way as any other lobbying firm.
In summing up, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for pursuing this important matter and to those here today for their insightful contributions to this debate. Although sympathetic to the aims of the noble Lord’s Bill, the Government must express their reservations about it. Some of our reservations relate to more technical aspects, which could be rectified. However, at a broader level, we believe that measures that go further than the current provisions in force would be unlikely to enhance transparency.
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, talked about transparency relating to consultant lobbyists. Taken together, the register of consultant lobbyists and the publication of ministerial diaries already provide an unprecedented level of information about interactions with government. I know that many different views on that are held in this House. I hope I have made it clear why we believe that a number of parts of the regulatory system proposed in the noble Lord’s Bill are unnecessary, but I hope that I have made it equally clear that many of his proposals are very sensible and are largely provided for under current legislation.
This has been a thoroughly worthwhile debate. Transparency is critical to the democratic health of the country and deserves to be periodically considered and debated. On our side, the Government will continue to make sure that the right information is available for thorough and transparent scrutiny of lobbyists to take place. We are proud of the level of transparency that those who seek to influence public policy must demonstrate, and we will continue to uphold those highest standards of transparency in the future.
My Lords, I am grateful to all Peers who have contributed to this very interesting debate, and I will endeavour to answer as many of the questions they have raised as I can. I start with the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, who is opposed to the Bill. However, having heard him and then the Minister’s response, I rather wish that he was back in government. There is a balance to be struck. Often my Front Bench say to me that I am too nice to people. However, when I hear the Government respond in the way they have, I look for that little bit of anger inside me that rarely comes to the fore. As I said, there is obviously a balance to be struck, but almost every speaker today has said that the existing law is not working and is not fit for purpose—it is not producing anything.
The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, talked about the burden that the Bill would impose. I conceded that there would be an added burden, but I responded to that in terms of my practical experience of life and talked about how, by using technology—I underline technology very much, and my noble friend Lord Howarth picked up on that too—we can do things much faster than we ever did before without placing a great burden on people.
Several noble Lords spoke about the diaries and I will come back to that. When I read through the previous debate on this matter, I was rather attracted to the concept of diaries being developed and of them being at the heart of this issue. However, the more work that I have done—my noble friend Lady Hayter put her finger on this—the more I have seen that in many respects the diaries are not fit for purpose. That is especially the case when one learns that many Ministers keep two diaries—one for public presentation and the second for other activities that fall in the political field, where indeed lobbyists turn up as well.
I freely concede that definitions are not easy, yet the Bill would broaden the definition of lobbying, making it significantly wider than it is at present. The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said that spads should be included. I believe that many more people beyond spads should also be included. For many years I have campaigned on alcohol issues and I speak to people at the middle levels of the Civil Service. The noble Lord said that they are the decision-makers. They do not take the decisions but, by God, do they have an influence on when the decisions are made. We need a register that covers the contingency, and it needs to be extended to take in the people at those middle levels right across the public service. They are very influential people indeed. Ministers come and go but many civil servants stay, and that must be borne in mind.
The noble Lord mentioned APPGs. We should have put those on the list to be covered and I regret that we overlooked that. If he would like to include that in an amendment, we would be prepared to look at it. If the noble Lord has any other specific issues that he would like to discuss with me, I am happy to accommodate him and to make changes. I am very much in the mode of trying to keep this moving forward seriously. When I look at what we have before us and what it is costing, I think it truly is a scandal. There has to be a change and very quickly. The Bill presents the alternative.
I am grateful for what was, as usual, an outstanding speech from my noble friend Lord Howarth and for his support. Like my noble friend Lady Kennedy, he highlighted the influence of lobbying across such a wide front. That is not just in the UK but worldwide. Capitalism is now running around the whole world. It is quite unaccountable in many areas and this legislation is an attempt to bring it to book.
My noble friend mentioned digital technology, which is very helpful. He also raised the issue of “commercial in confidence”, which is used in many instances to avoid answering the direct questions that come from parliamentarians. That should be brought to an end.
The noble Lord, Lord Beith, talked about the difficulty of definitions around the edge, and I do not deny that. However, I think he took it to the other extreme, and I am happy that he was corrected by other speakers.
Without a doubt, there are problems around websites. The noble Lord also raised the point about diaries, which I will come back to. The diaries are a step in the right direction but they do not provide all the information that we need to answer the kind of criticisms that we are getting.
The noble Lord, Lord Beith, talked about who should be involved. Again, I emphasise that we need to go way beyond those presently defined in the Act. There is a sensible point between when someone is lobbying and not lobbying and who is involved. I believe that that balance is provided in the legislation I am proposing. The noble Lord proposed post-legislative scrutiny as an alternative—
Not as an alternative, then, but as a way of addressing the failings of the Bill. Post-legislative scrutiny need not be undertaken until we finish with the present legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Bew, was very helpful, and I am grateful for such an authoritative contribution. He spoke in support of the general direction we are travelling in. Again, he made the point that definitions are not easy, but this one, as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said indirectly, is too narrow to create the right balance. The definitions must be much wider than they are at the moment.
The noble Lord, Lord Bew, made an interesting point about Select Committee chairs. There is a public malaise towards Parliament and we have to find all the ways we can to address and change that. Transparency will not solve all but it will help to a good degree. However, when we pretend to be transparent but are not, we lead to a further lessening in the trustworthiness of our public bodies. I have only good wishes for the noble Lord and his committee as they continue to tackle the difficulties before them.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, made a powerful contribution for which I am very grateful. He gave a reply to the noble Lord, Lord Beith, for which I am grateful, and asked some fundamental questions about the register. What is its purpose? Is it transparent? Is it producing what it was intended to produce? Should we keep it, scrap it or amend it? I hope he will support my Bill and that it will replace it. If he has further changes to my Bill, I invite him to table amendments to it.
If we end up with only this debate and no change, I would share the noble Lord’s view that the 2014 Act should be scrapped. I cannot believe how pointless it is, how little it tells and how much it costs to do so little. I have come to the view that it is a complete waste of time and that Part 1 should be scrapped. That will not be the case, but we will go on and try to get a sensible outcome.
I am grateful, too, for the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy. I recall the Power committee in 2006 and the many recommendations it made to improve our democratic procedures. It is a great pity that many of those recommendations never came into being. Like her, I believe that big business has become overweening and is a much greater influence in the fabric of our lives than was the case 10 or 15 years ago. I am grateful to her for raising our sights beyond the UK and to what is happening all around the world.
Companies are adept and clever at finding new ways of lobbying all the time. An issue that has not been addressed anywhere as yet is the way in which they are persuading the public, through the way they ask questions, to come to a particular view. That is then presented as evidence to the Government of what people believe without the other side of the argument having been presented fully to the public. That is happening in the States and will come here. It is a worrying development.
Many companies are now establishing their own charities. In the area of alcohol, where I work, Drinkaware is funded 87% by the drinks industry. That is not an independent charity. It will claim that it is, but when I examine the policies it is pursuing, invariably the balance falls in favour of those who are paying the money—the drinks industry. So, yes, companies are moving into other areas and we should be aware of it.
The noble Baroness also referred to the diaries and her support for them. I shall get to the diaries, how they are failing so badly and how this Bill will address the issue.
I thank my noble friend Lady Hayter, who did a scathing demolition of the present register. Without any doubt she underlined my view that it is a complete waste of time and should be scrapped. It is a bad and expensive failure. She worked her way through a range of areas where noble Lords had raised questions during the debate and gave them answers, and I shall not repeat all those. I am particularly pleased that she has given the Front-Bench support of the Labour Party for the Bill. I do not often bring a Private Member’s Bill in line with Labour Party policy, but I am grateful for all that she has done and for what she has said today.
In referring to the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, I come back to the diaries, on which so much weight is put. The disclosure in the diaries is extraordinarily limited. Indeed, some of it is quite jocular, as my noble friend pointed out, where people have put down what they have been doing. “Policy discussions”, “round-table discussions”, “company sites”—these are all parts of the activities of Ministers when they engage with people but they do not mean a thing. There is limited disclosure on the diaries at the moment and many of us who have cross-referenced the quality of the data find that it does not add up.
Others have mentioned the inaccessibility of the data, which is different for each department. There is no common theme running through it and it needs to be put together, which can be done. We have tried to do that. We have tried to set up software to bring it together so that we can read what is happening. When you do that, you find that Ministers have had meetings which do not match up with what is coming from the private sector and vice versa—the private sector have meetings and Ministers have not been linking them as discussions that have actually been taking place.
The formatting needs to be looked at. Of course there has been a problem of the timeliness of the data, which has only latterly started to improve. But there are still very significant differences between the performance of different departments. The Cabinet Office is very good, but look at the Ministry of Defence and see what is coming out of there.
I regret that the diary issue is not going to answer the problem. The answer rests in the Bill now before your Lordships. I freely concede that it is not perfect and I am happy to talk to anyone who has ideas about how we can make helpful amendments to it. I am not going to change the substance or the heart of the Bill. It proposes an entirely different register from the one in place now. It would be a truly transparent register, and many other countries have similar ones. There is now one in Europe and there is no reason why we should not have one in this country, other than the obstinacy of the Government for reasons known only to themselves. Regretfully, the Minister has not convinced me to take a different line from that which I have set out.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.