Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill — Report (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 13th January 2014.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lords Spokesperson (Attorney General's Office), The Advocate-General for Scotland, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Lords Spokesperson (Scotland Office), Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 4:30 pm, 13th January 2014

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hardie, has moved an amendment that would extend the scope of the register to include meetings with Parliamentary Private Secretaries, civil servants and political advisers, while the amendment of my noble friend Lord Tyler would extend the scope to include meetings with special advisers.

At the outset, I want to pick up the point that was made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, who asked whether there was a difference between “political adviser” and “special adviser”. My understanding is that the term “special adviser” is defined in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. In Committee the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hardie, indicated that the term “political adviser” was really referring to special advisers. One is a term of art already recognised in statute, but for the purposes of this debate I think that everyone is talking about the same entity, if that is the right word.

The Government have previously outlined that the register is designed to complement the existing government transparency regime, to which I referred and on which I made announcements in the previous debate, whereby Ministers and Permanent Secretaries proactively publish details of their meetings with external organisations—I should add, for the avoidance of doubt, that these will be external organisations whether the Minister meets them in Whitehall, Edinburgh, Brussels, Washington or wherever. The register will address a specific and discrete problem within that context: that it is not always clear whose interests are being represented by consultant lobbyists.

To extend the scope of the register to other public officials would provide no appreciable benefits because they are not required to publish their diaries. Yes, we accept that lobbyists make communications to government other than directly to Ministers and Permanent Secretaries but, ultimately, it is the Minister who makes the decision. I noted the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bichard. Ministers are of course the ultimate decision-makers and Permanent Secretaries are the accounting officers for their departments; that is the thinking which underlies the scope of the Bill.

My noble friend Lord Tyler suggests that the register should apply to those who lobby special advisers. While special advisers may provide advice, they are not decision-makers. Indeed, my noble friend said that even talking to special advisers may be a first step towards trying to achieve a decision from a Minister. However, it is the Minister, not the special adviser, who ultimately has responsibility for the actions of the department.

The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and my noble friend Lady Williams accepted that the cases cited in making their points were extreme. My understanding is that, in both the case of the special adviser who said that 9/11 was a good day for burying bad news and the example of Adam Smith, the special advisers resigned. We recognise that there is a code for special advisers. In cases where that code was breached, they took the significant step of resignation. It is therefore right that Ministers are the focus of the meeting reporting system and the register.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hardie, suggests that, in addition to special advisers, the register should apply to those who lobby civil servants and Parliamentary Private Secretaries. The amendment says, “civil servants”; my noble friend Lady Williams talked about the top three grades, but the amendment goes far further—further even than the senior Civil Service.

While registers are designed to reflect different contexts and to address broader problems sometimes cast their scope wider, by doing so they can greatly increase the cost, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull. The necessary complement to an extension would be the introduction of meeting reporting obligations for all public officials. Such a system would result in an unnecessary, disproportionate and unhelpful administrative burden. The cost to the public purse that it would involve could not be justified in the light of the limited transparency benefits that would be achieved.

The noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, suggested a figure of 412,000 civil servants; my speaking note says that there are 450,000 civil servants in the United Kingdom. One must ask whether there is really a public interest in seeing the details of all of their meetings with external organisations. Even if the scope were limited only to senior civil servants, it would still require the diaries of 5,000 individuals to be published. That would be a huge cost and would include, as the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, said, much dead weight.