It is high time that the House examined the issue of lobbying. Our motives should be guided by two main aims that we should use to judge the provisions in the Bill, in addition to the stated aim of transparency.
First, we must tackle the corrupting influence of big money and take it out of politics. I recently visited the United States on an exchange visit to Congress arranged by the British-American all-party group. I was amazed to learn that Congressmen spend a large amount of their time raising funds to fight the next election rather than legislating. As the old saying goes, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” We should be avoiding, at all costs, pursuing the US route, but sadly the costs of politics in the UK are increasing. Therefore, the key to ensuring that our politics is not dominated by vested interests is to reduce the costs of politics.
Secondly, legislation on lobbying, political campaigning and party funding should enhance the plurality of our politics, not undermine it. It is therefore a great shame that this Bill on lobbying fails to tackle the matter and would be virtually useless in dealing with any of the lobbying scandals of recent times—donations for dinners, cash for honours, cash for questions, and the ministerial “cab for hire” scandal of the previous Labour Administration. The key question is which one of these deplorable scandals would be stopped by the Bill.
I have a background in public affairs, having worked for Citizens Advice Cymru before entering this place. The main effort of lobbying is focused on the Executive—Ministers, civil servants and special advisers in the Government—and not on the legislature, whether Parliament or the National Assembly. After all, it is within the Executive that key decisions are made. There is a strong need to regulate lobbying of the Executive and to deal with aspects such as the revolving door whereby figures in Government—civil servants, SpAds and Ministers—go on to take up positions in companies that have benefited as a direct result of the decisions they made while in Government.
During the aforementioned visit to the States we had a meeting at the Pentagon, which was a very strange place for a Plaid Cymru politician to find himself. We learned that officials responsible for procurement or issuing contracts had to make an official annual declaration of their financial holdings for independent assessment, to ensure that their decisions were not being influenced by personal financial considerations. The civil service code in the UK does not make it a mandatory requirement for those in commissioning positions to publish such statements. If we are to have a cleaner politics Bill, surely that is the sort of measure we should be considering.
There is no need to rush through legislation as this Bill seeks to do. The amendment in the name of Mr Allen is highly sensible. We must get agreement among all the political parties that operate within the British state, not have something partisan being pushed forward by the Government of the day. This Bill should be dropped and a special Committee of the House be convened to recommend rules on lobbying that should then be implemented. Anything partisan is bound to fail.
As others have noted, part 2 will impede the ability of third parties such as charities, think-tanks and other groups to campaign in the year prior to a Westminster election. I would like to highlight the potential for chaos among civil society groups operating in Wales and the negative impact on Welsh democracy. We live in a state of near-permanent elections—local, European and Westminster elections, and, of course, those for the devolved legislatures. Yet, again, we have a Westminster Government proposing legislation that does nothing to consider its impact on Wales.
My previous employer is an England and Wales body, and in that post I would have been responsible for simultaneous UK-wide and Welsh campaigns, which often crossed over each other. How can organisations possibly dissect what aspects of campaigning work come under the provisions of the Bill, and how can the Electoral Commission regulate campaigning activity?
The rules would be far more wide-ranging than reducing the annual expenditure. Regulations would cover a wide range of activities carried out for election purposes, such as controls on spending on events, media work, polling, transport, policy documents, discussing party policies, election material distributed to the public, and staff costs. The only things missing are staples and Blu Tack. Welsh democracy could suffer as a result, as charity and campaign groups may have their campaigning activities restricted all because of a Westminster election, while the same rules will not apply during an Assembly election year.