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Civil Society and Lobbying - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:11 pm on 8th September 2016.

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Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour 1:11 pm, 8th September 2016

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Hayter on securing this important and timely debate. I thank her, too, for giving prior notice to the House that we will have a debate tomorrow on a Private Member’s Bill that I have introduced. The Bill seeks to repeal the Government’s pale imitation of a register of lobbyists that came in in 2015, and to replace it with a credible register that will allow genuine scrutiny of the activities of professional lobbyists in a wider range of organisations than hitherto, including charities and trade unions. I reserve for tomorrow’s debate the reasons why the current system has failed and what a sensible register would look like, such as the new one in Brussels, the good one in the United States, the one in Canada, or the one our neighbours and friends in Ireland have. Shortly we will also have a new register in Scotland. I will endeavour to set out how we can achieve this in a straightforward and cost-effective manner.

The problem with lobbying in this country has long been recognised, including by the previous Prime Minister. In 2010 he described it as,

“the next big scandal waiting to happen”.

He also rightly identified it as an issue that crosses party lines. My party has experienced its fair share of scandals. Indeed, it was a sting by Channel 4 in March 2010 featuring predominantly ex-Labour Ministers offering to help companies lobby in return for payments that prompted the 2010 incoming coalition Government to promise to shine a light on lobbying.

In recent weeks we have heard rumblings of a new potential source of scandal: the oncoming bonanza arising from the UK’s exit from the EU. When commercial lobbying firms are promising to connect clients with critical Brexit decision-makers so that they can shape the post-Brexit regulatory and business environment, it will not be long, I suspect, before we read more tales of back-room dealings in our press, unless we take action to avoid it. With every lobbying scandal, public trust in politics is eroded. We must do everything we can to raise our trustworthiness, and, where we can, to persuade those with whom we do business to act accordingly.

Many in this House, myself included, will argue that lobbying is an essential part of good governance. It ensures that outside interests are listened to and it leads to better decisions being made. However, it can also pervert our democratic system by allowing those with the loudest voices—and often those with the deepest pockets—to dominate the discussions, and also, in turn, to influence the key decisions. As David Cameron said,

“we all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way”.

Those are the former Prime Minister’s words, not mine, even though you might have expected them to be coming from me. Given the Times article of 24 August, and its related leader article, he might have been talking about his former Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Hague of Richmond, who, if those articles are correct, has taken up a paid role at a US lobbying firm that advises its mainly US corporate clients on how to influence the British Government’s Brexit plans. That is very interesting, especially in the light of the number of questions posed in this Chamber, and in the Commons, about the extent to which parliamentarians are going to be able to know what is happening and how they will be able to influence the course of events in the Brexit plans.

The ease with which people revolve out of Westminster and Whitehall and into the lobbying industry only adds to the widespread perception that access and influence can be bought, and that companies have a structural advantage over the wider public. I particularly welcome, therefore, the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which is in dire need of an overhaul, to ensure that trustworthiness is high on our agenda.

When it comes to lobbying, the solution is not greater restrictions but more sunlight. David Cameron, again, rightly identified the problem as one of transparency. He said:

“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”.

Six years after this speech, we still do not know the answers to those questions. A robust register, of the type that I will propose tomorrow, would tell us precisely this and no more: who is lobbying who, about what, and—if my Bill succeeds—how hard; in other words, how much money is being invested in those lobbying efforts.

Unfortunately, the introduction of the Government’s fundamentally flawed lobbying register was at the time overshadowed by their efforts to clamp down on charity campaigning, as we have heard so much about today during previous contributions. It was pushed through at unnecessary speed, and attempts by this and the other House to improve it were brushed aside. That is why I will return to it tomorrow: to give ourselves time for proper, serious debate over an issue that has not been solved, has not miraculously gone away and will continue to do damage to British politics and our way of life until we act.