Registration of Commercial Lobbying Interests

Chancellor of the Exchequer – in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 6th December 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23 )

Photo of John Cryer John Cryer Labour, Leyton and Wanstead 4:06 pm, 6th December 2011

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a public register of organisations that carry out lobbying of Parliament for commercial gain;
to make provision for disclosure of expenditure by such organisations;
and for connected purposes.

The Bill is in a very peculiar position among private Members’ Bills, in that it is as relevant today as it was 20-odd years ago. It was first presented to the House in 1982 by my father, who was then the MP for Keighley, and again in 1988 when he was the MP for Bradford South.

I am not seeking to bring in the Bill on the basis that I am looking for a place in the “Guinness Book of Records” for having presented the Bill with the longest gestation period in British history. The reason is that Britain now has a £2 billion lobbying industry, much of it centred here in Westminster. I believe that there is a strong mood among the public to make lobbying more transparent and accountable, and that will only be reinforced by the story on the front page of The Independent this morning that appears to show that Bell Pottinger and perhaps other lobbying firms have profound influence at the centre and seat of government. I will come to that later.

The Bill would require that all companies, partnerships or sole traders that sought to lobby Parliament in order to influence legislation or its application as their sole, major or subsidiary commercial purpose must be registered. It would not impede the ordinary lobbyist—the ordinary constituent or member of the public, who has a right to lobby his or her Member of Parliament. Nor would it affect the ability of a company, co-operative, trade unionist or residents association to lobby Parliament. My fear is that local groups such as residents and tenants groups do not have the financial muscle of big corporations that can bring professional lobbyists to bear on Parliament and be more successful and carry more weight as a result.

During the 1980s, when big consortia and companies were lobbying for contracts to build the channel tunnel, one Jonathan Aitken, who was then a Conservative MP, said—ironically, in light of later events:

“'What worries me most is that usually lobbying is genuine in the sense that it stems from little interest groups and concerned citizens. Here we are seeing the Panzer division of big business, their heavy artillery and tanks trampling over all the small people’s interests which I want to see better defended.”

I agree with that. It is odd that he should have said it, but I agree. Those Panzer divisions and that heavy artillery are now being brought to bear on possibly a greater scale than ever before.

Strangely enough, the Prime Minister agreed with me a few months ago about wanting to introduce a Bill that would establish a register of lobbyists, but he seems to have changed his mind. He promised a consultation paper on establishing such a Bill by the end of November, but that consultation paper has not yet appeared. There are now many large and powerful lobbying firms busy in Westminster, many of them specifically lobbying for health contracts, often for big, commercial health outfits based in north America. Here are a few examples: Citigate Dewe Rogerson lobbies on behalf of Benenden and Nuffield; Grayling lobbies on behalf of Cambian, GE Healthcare and Nuffield; Lexington Communications lobbies on behalf of Bupa, GlaxoSmithKline Beecham, Novartis and Pfizer; and MHP Communications lobbies on behalf of Ellipse, IMS Health, Lundbeck, Roche, Grünenthal, Hoffman-La Roche and Janssen-Cilag.

Incidentally, one special adviser at the Department of Health happens to have worked for MHP Communications before he went to the Department. That relationship might be above board, but we do not know because it is not transparent—we do not know what goes on in the heart of government.

Some will argue that the Bill is unnecessary because the Association of Professional Political Consultants has a code of conduct, but that argument simply holds no water. For instance, the code bars payment in cash or in kind to any parliamentarian, but Grayling public affairs is owned by Huntsworth, the chief executive of which is Lord Chadlington, who is obviously a parliamentarian, and Bell Pottinger public affairs is owned by Chime Communications, of which Lord Bell, who is also a parliamentarian, is the chairman. Perhaps they do it on a voluntary basis, but I doubt it; I suspect that they are paid by those lobbying outfits.

That brings us rather neatly to the story in The Independent today that Bell Pottinger staff have been secretly filmed making the most alarming claims to have influence at the very heart of government, even inside No. 10 Downing street. They claim to have got the Prime Minister to speak to the Chinese Premier on behalf of their business clients at something like 12 hours’ notice; they boast of having access to the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, and to the Prime Minister’s closest adviser, Steve Hilton; and they claim to be able to get MPs—presumably from the Government Benches, although that is not made clear—to attack investigative journalists for the smallest of errors in order to rubbish stories when journalists investigate, for example, the Uzbek Government or large health conglomerates.

Reporters from The Independent posed as agents of the Uzbek Government, who have one of the worst human rights records on the face of the planet. Bell Pottinger aimed for a contract worth £1 million. Bell Pottinger, which since its foundation 30 years ago has been close to the heart of the Conservative party, did not hesitate to discuss signing a contract that would include lobbying on behalf of the Uzbek Government, who, apart from anything else, we are told, boiled two opponents alive in water, but there we are.

Tim Collins, the managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, is a former MP. He is not regarded over-fondly on the Opposition Benches—if I can put it that way—but he says in the film:

“I’ve been working with…Steve Hilton, David Cameron, George Osborne, for 20 years-plus…There is not a problem in getting the messages through”.

He was talking about lobbying on behalf of the Uzbek Government when he said that there is

“not a problem in getting the messages through”.

Strangely, when a No. 10 spokesman was contacted last night by The Independent and asked about the story, he said:

“It is simply not true that Bell Pottinger or indeed any other lobbying firm has any influence on government policy”,

which is a fairly strange claim. If it is true, all former MPs who are now lobbyists, all former lobbyists who are now MPs and all full-time lobbyists have wasted their time all these years. They have had absolutely no effect on Government policy, so why did they not go and do something else? The idea that large corporations, multinational companies and big banks that hire big lobbying firms to exercise influence at the heart of government have absolutely no consequence and no influence whatever is pretty difficult to stomach.

The reality is that this Government are very close to vested interests in the City, big corporate interests and big businesses. They have not the faintest idea what is going on in 99% of the rest of the country, where people are suffering under the cuts that are being introduced with a heartlessness not seen since the 1930s. They have absolutely no idea of the effect of the cuts in public services, but they know big business and the City, partly because the City provides more than 50% of Conservative party finances. For the first time in British history, City individuals and businesses finance the—[ Interruption. ] The Chancellor is saying something from a sedentary position. Perhaps he is contradicting what I am saying, so I shall say it again very clearly: City institutions and individuals finance more than 50% of Conservative party funds. It is just those sorts of big financial interests that hire lobbying firms and that then go to No. 10, and perhaps No. 11, to exercise influence there to steer Government policy in particular directions.

If the Prime Minister were serious about introducing legislation that creates a register of lobbyists, he would take on my Bill; it has certainly been around for long enough. He would push it through its parliamentary stages and put it on the statute book. It is perfectly simple. If he is not prepared to do that, I will assume that he and perhaps the Chancellor, who was mumbling a while ago about something or other, have something to hide. Perhaps they and their advisers are a bit too close to powerful commercial interests.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 4:15 pm, 6th December 2011

I have a great deal of regard for John Cryer who proposed this Bill. He will know that the people in the Bradford district still have a great deal of regard for his father, who originally brought in this Bill, and for his mother, too. However, I am afraid that the Bill is typical of the Labour party’s nanny state bureaucracy and its belief that the Government should have a role in everything.

Although the hon. Gentleman started by saying that he just wanted to introduce a register of lobbyists, it became increasingly clear that he was against lobbying altogether and wanted to see an end to it, but only for businesses and commercial enterprises. None the less, lobbying plays an important part in any democratic process. It gives a voice to a whole range of groups and interests within our democracy by allowing them to make their case. One of the things that I despair of in politics is that increasingly politicians want to be on the popular side of the argument and that we are in danger of having a generation of politicians who will argue for what 75% of the public want rather than the other 25%. Actually, the 25% also deserve to have their case heard, and lobbyists can play a useful role in allowing organisations that might not be immediately popular and might not even have a particularly popular message to get across to have their voice heard as well. Surely, in a democracy all voices should be able to be heard whether or not they are popular.

This Bill could lead to many organisations and Members of Parliament becoming lobby shy. Discouraging lobbying altogether, as the hon. Gentlemen wishes, would lead to poorer law-making. I make no apology for the fact that I meet people who have a particular view that they want to express. It does not mean I will end up agreeing with them, and I am sure it does not mean that the hon. Gentleman agrees with everybody who advocates their case to him. None the less, it is perfectly reasonable that they should be able to have their say and that we should be able to listen to their arguments. We can either accept their arguments if they are good ones or we can dismiss them if they are not so good. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has so little faith in people in this House that he thinks that just because someone makes a case to them, they will automatically agree with it, pick it up and run with it. It does not mean anything of the sort; it just means that other voices can be heard.

What was sadly lacking in the hon. Gentleman’s speech was anything to do with trade unions. He had a lot to say about the lobbying of Members of Parliament by businesses, but he was reluctant to mention the importance of the lobbying of Members of Parliament by trade unions. His Bill talks about establishing

“a public register of organisations to carry out lobbying of Parliament for commercial gain”.

It seems that he has deliberately designed his words to exclude trade unions from his provisions. He wants a system in which trade unions can lobby anybody as much as they like and spend as much money as they like on doing so, but anyone else in the commercial world will not have any opportunity to do so. That is his real agenda—to push forward the trade union argument.

An opinion poll conducted by ComRes asked MPs about the number of approaches they typically received each week from various organisations, and the results were startling: 59% of MPs said that they received 20 or more approaches from interest groups, but in sheer lobbying volume the approaches from interest groups that included trade unions and non-governmental organisations outnumbered those from the corporate world. The hon. Gentleman wants to entrench that position. In effect, he wants the trade unions to have all the influence that they desire and nobody to be able to argue against any of the things for which they lobby. That would be a triumph not for democracy but for his own agenda. A perfectly effective self-regulatory system is already in place.

I do not want to detain the House any further and I certainly do not intend to call a Division, but I thought it important that the one-sidedness of the hon. Gentleman’s argument be made abundantly clear. The Bill is not necessary or desirable. We should be prepared to listen to people who want to lobby from all parts of society, whether they be businesses, trade unions, charities or other organisations, and we should not support a Bill that tries to prevent certain people from getting their message across just because he happens not to agree with it.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That John Cryer, Natascha Engel, Mr Dennis Skinner, Lisa Nandy, Kelvin Hopkins, Grahame M. Morris, Bob Russell, Caroline Lucas, Mr Tom Watson and Valerie Vaz present the Bill.

John Cryer accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January 2012, and to be printed (Bill 258).