[John Robertson in the Chair] — Parliamentary Lobbying

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 2nd November 2011.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned. (Jeremy Wright.)

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West 9:30 am, 2nd November 2011

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Robertson.

“It’s an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long...an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money. I’m talking about lobbying—and 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. In this party, we believe in competition, not cronyism. We believe in market economics, not crony capitalism. So we must be the party that sorts all this out. Today it is a £2 billion industry that has a huge presence in Parliament… I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, 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.”

All those words were from our Prime Minister when he was in opposition.

The purpose of today’s debate is to ask how far we have got. How far has the Prime Minister delivered on those promises? The political class is probably less trusted than at any time in history. After the expenses scandal, the public have the right not to trust us. They will look at what we do and will almost always reach the worst conclusion on our motives. It will probably take at least a decade for MPs and for politics to win back the trust and confidence that we enjoyed in the past.

What have the Government done in their 18 months in power? They certainly promised, in the coalition agreement, a compulsory register of lobbyists, but progress has not been promising. All parties promise to end the excesses of lobbyists when they are in opposition. In government, both the Tories and Labour have bottled it.

The reason why the previous Government did not progress on instituting reforms was revealed in a frank interview by a former Cabinet Office Minister, who said it was because he and the Government were lobbied. We members of the Public Administration Committee were also lobbied, and we made the point that the people we had before us, giving their excuses as to why there should be no interference and why they should carry on in their own way, were professional persuaders and, in many cases, professional deceivers. They had to present the best case, and of course they were brilliant at doing that, because they train people on how to give evidence to Select Committees.

Thank goodness that the Public Administration Committee took a stronger line; its recommendation was that we need more safeguards to cleanse the parliamentary stable. We were short of a smoking gun when we made our report in January 2009, but smoking guns appeared within weeks; there was the sting involving the four Members of the other place and the “cash for legislating” campaign, and the extraordinary, shaming episode of politicians for hire. A group of distinguished politicians with great reputations were shown on television putting their integrity and reputation up for sale for a certain amount of money. Potentially, that episode was a greater scandal than the expenses one, but as far as I can see, we are making virtually no progress on improving that situation.

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing such an important debate. The definition of lobbying is difficult to grapple with when drafting legislation. Where would he place trade unions? Does he consider them lobbyists?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

The answer is yes. Trade unions are lobbyists, as are charities and all kinds of bodies.

The main argument that was made to Labour Cabinet Office Ministers is presumably the same one that lobbyists are making to the present Minister. Lobbyists find it impossible to defend the existing secrecy and the fact that large organisations and rich and powerful bodies can buy access to the Government—that is indefensible, and no one would pretend that it can be right. As that argument does not work, they have invented a new one about how reform will upset all the good people—the nice, friendly, cuddly charities and the trade unions—who will also be damaged. That was the main thrust of the argument used against the previous Government to undermine reform.

I am sure that the Minister will be happy to tell us how many meetings he has had with lobbyists. How much has he been lobbied?

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. I have much sympathy with what he is saying, but it is very difficult for constituency Members who are approached or lobbied by investors or unions not to be seen as being lobbied. Surely that is part and parcel of an MP’s job.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

One MP who gave evidence to the Committee was taking £70,000 a year from a commercial company. [ Interruption. ] Wait a minute. His offence related to the fact that the commercial company had interests in his Department. He said that jobs were going in his constituency and he was doing his job as a constituency MP. The answer the Committee members gave was that we all do our jobs as constituency MPs by fighting for jobs in our constituency, but we do not have to take a £70,000 bung for doing so, which is what the public look at.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and, as ever, I am following his remarks with close interest. Is not transparency the greatest safeguard? Do we not therefore need not only a register of lobbyists and an open record of contact between the Government and lobbyists, but full disclosure on the funding of lobbyists?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

That is exactly what we need, and it was the main recommendation of the Select Committee.

I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he has had the same treatment as his Labour predecessor. Has he been approached by the lobbying organisations explaining how difficult reform would be, how difficult it is to reach a definition of “lobbyists”, and how reform will be so unfair to charities and trade unions? Will he tell us what he has declined to tell that splendid organisation, SpinWatch, which is investigating these matters—how many times and on what dates he has been lobbied, and what messages were conveyed to him? It looks as though the lobbyists have succeeded again by lobbying the Government to delay any activity or any sign of reform.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

We MPs are regularly contacted by interested bodies. We do not necessarily have all the information in front of us, but we have hard-held opinions—opinions that make us, and blend with us, so that we form a view on what we should do in the House. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that a balance is needed? Members have a job to do and have hard-held opinions that we wish to hold on to, but it is not wrong for lobbyists to come along and give us their opinions and their information.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Indeed, it is not. That, of course, goes on as part of the system. Lobbying lubricates the parliamentary system, and always has. We lobby and our constituents lobby; of course that goes on. We are against what the Prime Minister has called “corporate lobbying”. Those who engage in it are the people who are potentially the most damaging: those who are seeking contracts, but do not want to do it on the basis of open tendering, and instead want to go behind the scenes to have secret meetings with Government. Some extraordinary decisions have been taken by all Governments on the award of contracts.

We want to make sure that no Minister’s judgment will be distorted by the possibility of the revolving door. It is extraordinary how, shortly after retiring, former Ministers find lucrative jobs with companies that they once dealt with as Ministers. When a contract has been awarded—sometimes for billions of pounds—who is to say that no one tipped anyone the wink by saying, “If you go for company A rather than B or C, we’ll make sure you are looked after, and get your hacienda in Spain. You will have a lucrative job in retirement”? There are many examples—hon. Members may be aware of them—from all Governments of the revolving door after Government, and the possibility that Government influence has been used.

The problem is not that those concerned are doing well out of their contacts, or are sullying their integrity. The problem is that the decisions they take in Government may be corrupted by the prospect of future employment and riches. There are strong cases for believing that that has happened, and might happen again. Unless we can jam the revolving door and bring reform, that will continue. We cannot reform the system without transparency.

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan

In 2006 there was a proposal to amend the Bill that became the Companies Act 2006, which would have got a handle on how much companies spend on lobbying. The hon. Gentleman voted against the amendment. Is that an inconsistency, or has he changed his mind since then?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Is this “Mastermind”? I really cannot account for the tens of thousands of votes I have taken part in on clauses of Bills. I shall disregard the hon. Gentleman’s intervention as worthless.

In November last year, the Deputy Prime Minister promised legislation in the current parliamentary Session, which ends next spring, but that has now been delayed and we are likely to have no change until 2013. Let us look at what has been happening since then. Has there been reform? Has there been a new atmosphere in the House? Do we treat lobbyists differently? I wrote to an hon. Member to say that I would mention him this morning. I shall not mention his name or constituency, but I spoke to him at length this morning. What he is doing might be entirely honourable—he takes an income of £30,000 from lobbyists—but it is not acceptable or wise in the present post-scandal Parliament. I believe that suspicions will be aroused and people will say, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” There may well be no fire. I am sure the man is behaving in the right way.

Photo of Kwasi Kwarteng Kwasi Kwarteng Conservative, Spelthorne

Surely in that case it is the job of constituents to vote the offending Member out. The issue is transparency. That is clear and on the books, and everyone can make his or her own judgment.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Yes, but the problem is that the public will, with some justification, believe the worst of us after the expenses scandal. They had all those assurances before. The excuses will not work, and we need clarity and simplicity in the way we behave. It is entirely wrong for a Member of Parliament to be employed by a company—£30,000 is a substantial amount, many times the minimum wage—and, having taken that money, to raise subjects on which the company concerned is campaigning, and then say, “Of course, this is about the interests of my constituency; it approached me on the issue.” That is what the hon. Gentleman in question says. I believe that the public are right to be suspicious of us, and I refer to the words of the Prime Minister in that regard.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

Would the hon. Gentleman consider it permissible to do that for nothing?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

No. The position is this. Someone may want to lobby on a subject, but what a Member is allowed to do should be a question of their interest, conscience, constituency and so on. If someone who is taking a considerable sum of money from an outside body appears then to be pursuing its business—what it is asking for—that is extremely foolish and dangerous. I have explained that at length and had a long conversation with the Member in question. I believe that there is only one Member in that position.

When I came into Parliament 25 years ago, probably a majority of the Members in one of the parties took money from outside sources. Some were openly referred to as the Member for this or that company. In the previous Parliament, one was referred to as the Member for Boots, with some justification—there is some truth in that view of things. We are Members for our constituencies, and are paid handsomely for our work. We are paid a full-time wage. We should not have income from outside. There is a splendid book on the subject, which I commend to hon. Members, that suggests that all MPs should put any income they receive above their salary into a charity fund. That would do something to restore the public’s trust in us.

What else has been going on? New interest in the debate has been precipitated by the Werritty scandal. That will continue and other hon. Members might want to speak about it. We have allowed honeyed words to be used, and have talked about a blurring of the ministerial code, when we know that what happened was a flagrant abuse of the code. The investigation will continue, and many matters arise from the Werritty scandal, which should be of interest to us.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Is not one of the ironies of the Werritty case the fact that Sir Gus O’Donnell’s report declared that Mr Werritty was not a lobbyist?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Indeed. I read it with some interest. Yesterday, three very senior figures, including past Cabinet Secretaries, came before the Public Administration Committee to discuss the matter. I was very concerned about what has happened. We know that in this case it seemed that a secret foreign policy was being created. Money was coming in from organisations that many of us would regard as having extreme aims, to subvert Government policy. Where commercial firms were involved, were they there to buy influence, or to influence contracts? Anything on those lines is entirely wrong, and if those contacts were made, they should have been made publicly and declared. They were not. We will have to learn the lesson there.

Even on smaller matters, can we trust the Government, who last year altered the ministerial code so that all meetings with lobbyists should be declared by Ministers, when this week we learn that one Secretary of State enjoyed a five-star dinner at the Savoy, held by a major lobbying firm, and that among the other guests was a company that was lobbying his Department? Instead of transparency and openness, we have the Secretary of State defending himself and saying that on that day he was eating privately, not ministerially. [ Interruption. ] Indeed, he is eating very well, and his eating habits are a matter of some interest to the House, and parliamentary sketch writers. However, that is a small example, although not of enormous significance: it is a sign of the lack of any conviction in government about instituting genuine reform.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

On the case that my hon. Friend cites, is he aware that that Minister was performing a quasi-judicial role, and that if a judge had had such a dinner, people would have gone to prison for contempt of court?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

My hon. Friend is entirely right. We cannot deal in excuses and half truths any more, because of the position we are in. If there is a rule—and the Government created that rule, for goodness’ sake—let Ministers abide by it and not make silly excuses.

Advocates and paid representatives of some of the worst and most oppressive regimes in the world use this building and this House, to invite MPs—sometimes naive MPs—to visit their countries, to try to win their support. Among such countries, Azerbaijan and Equatorial

Guinea are very active at the moment. Should we allow that to continue? Should we allow this building and its facilities, and the good will of Members to be used, in the way that other Parliaments have cosied up to oppressive regimes?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

My hon. Friend is going to mention Libya.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

No, I am not.

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks and I congratulate him on securing the debate. I am a vice-chairman of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. I have been there twice, and the visits are declared in the register. They have been incredibly educational, because I wanted to visit a progressive, Muslim and democratic nation that follows the rule of law. Surely my visits were a good thing?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

My comrade Robert—as I call him—and I serve together on the Public Administration Committee, and we have many common causes. I would not suggest that there was anything untoward in what he does, and I am sure that he does not receive an income from the Government of that country. However, other MPs do, directly or indirectly, from some regimes. Money is being paid—it is all there. It is a question about the way in which we are going.

I want to pay tribute to Tamasin Cave of SpinWatch and the other organisations that have persisted in their support for the Select Committee’s recommendations about what all Governments are doing. We must ask ourselves: are the Government serious about the matter? Are we making any progress in rebuilding our reputations? Are we quelling what the Prime Minister called the public’s “worst fears and suspicions”? We have to be concerned about those fears and suspicions. The perception of how this place behaves is crucial.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (International Development)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He has outlined the need for people to know about Members being approached and lobbied. Would it not be helpful if all Members did what some Members already do—I have done this in my constituency—which is to make it clear to the public and our constituents when we are lobbied and when we have refused to be a victim of a lobbying group, so that other lobbyists get the message that there is no point in lobbying MP X because he or she has made it abundantly clear in the local press that he or she will not be lobbied, receive favours or be fêted? That would help address the issue of perception that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. That is precisely what we should do. We must take a puritanical line with ourselves to ensure that the public believe us. When the public read about what is going on and see the drip, drip of stories about links between MPs and others, they will assume that we are all in the business of being influenced by outside sources.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

I have spent the past 18 months encouraging constituents to lobby me, either as individuals or in groups. We have to be careful that we do not say,

“A plague on all your houses”. Some constituency lobbying is extremely valuable, informative and educational, and we should encourage it.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I am grateful to hear from a former lobbyist. I believe that the hon. Gentleman’s previous career was lobbying for the abuse of small, loveable animals for fun—that was his message. I am sure that he would have found a welcome in the current Government if he was still lobbying for animal abuse, which is what he believes in and is his passion.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

If I may correct the hon. Gentleman, I recall that he was rather supportive of a donation of £1 million to the Labour party by the Political Animal Lobby, which he supported hugely, in the 1990s.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

I certainly supported all animal welfare groups for many years in my political capacity, which is what my constituents want.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

No, they certainly did not give me money. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

My hon. Friend said a moment ago that we should be much more puritanical. I think that I am a Labour Cavalier rather than a Puritan, but we should have all sorts in our party.

My hon. Friend and I served on the Council of Europe for some years. I was astonished at the delegates bringing girlfriends, wives, staff and children, all at the same time, filling up the Members’ room and using expenses to put them up in nice hotels. Does he think that we should stop all that, and that Members should go on any such delegation visits by themselves?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

The situation is quite clear. If that happens, anyone who goes out, including staff, should not add any cost to the public purse. If my right hon. Friend would like to investigate the case, he would find that even dinners at an embassy are now paid for at a rate of €30 for any guests.

Transparency about those who are getting through to the Government at the moment arose when the issue about good, selfish and commercial causes was raised again. According to a report in The Guardian, there have been 10 times as many meetings between the Government and corporate lobbyists as there have been with trade unionists. There have been four times as many meetings of corporate lobbyists with the Government as there have been with charities. Already, a process is going on secretly behind closed doors. The loud and insistent voices come from those who can afford to buy expensive lobbyists and access to Government.

Photo of Margot James Margot James Conservative, Stourbridge

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern for transparency, and I am sure that a number of the cases to which he has alluded are regrettable or wrong. However, we must not besmirch the names of many people who work in the public affairs sector. I used to work in the related public relations sector. I hosted a reception for B&Q the other day in Parliament and many Members turned up, and I dealt with a public affairs company hired by B&Q for that purpose. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that—it wanted to get the message to parliamentarians about its excellent community work. What is wrong with that?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

What is wrong with it is the incestuous relationship between Parliament and the lobbying world. Many Members, particularly new ones, used to be lobbyists—there is a bigger number than ever before—and many MPs hope to become lobbyists when they retire.

I have been speaking for a long time, so I will make my final point. Our great problem is that the tentacles of lobbying are sunk deep into the body politic, and it is very difficult to remove them. Two Governments have so far failed to do so, in spite of the Select Committee’s urgings. Of course there can be excuses and explanations, saying that there is nothing sinister about the issue, but I return to one of my previous points, which is that we must restore our reputation with the public.

Our reputation is in a terrible state after the expenses scandal. The public have a right to be suspicious of us and to disbelieve our excuses. If we give them a chance to say, “This action by an MP could be misinterpreted,” as in the case of the Member who was receiving income from a lobbyist, we should have a code of conduct that will remove any doubt. A person cannot eat privately one day and ministerially the other. He or she cannot blur the differences by ignoring the fact that someone who is giving advice and is present in a meeting is taking income from undeclared outside sources. That cannot be allowed—we cannot go on like that. We cannot have groups in this building taking money from oppressive regimes without its being clear what their programme is. The Prime Minister, when he was in opposition, stated clearly in splendid words that lobbying would be the major scandal of the future unless we have clear and simple root-and-branch reforms now that make no compromises and leave no loopholes. That is what is called for and it is also our purpose.

I shall end now, Mr Robertson—it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship—as I understand that many Members wish to speak so that we can use the opportunity to ask the Government what they have done to honour the Prime Minister’s fine promise and when reforms will be introduced to ensure that we have a transparent system with a compulsory register.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West

Order. Before we go any further, let me say that a number of people wish to speak in this debate. Those on the Front Bench will have 10 minutes each, so there is 40 minutes between the rest of you. I would be most grateful if you all looked at timing your speeches.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire 9:59 am, 2nd November 2011

I will start by declaring an interest: I am a former lobbyist and an unpaid board member of a group which spends part of its time lobbying this place and other places.

I congratulate Paul Flynn on securing this debate. I hope that I encourage him when I say that I sympathise with much—but not all—of what he has said.

The Government’s progress in their first 18 months of office is rather more promising than that which their predecessors achieved in 13 years. The coalition agreement strikes the right balance between encouraging lobbying and ensuring transparency. People should know what we are up to over and above what they can obtain from the register and under the Freedom of Information Act. None the less, we must be cautious about some of the unintended consequences. I do not want to over-simplify things because, as I have said, I am on the same page as the hon. Gentleman in so many ways. The solution is not only the register but the codes of practice and the professional standards that underpin the register. As a former lobbyist, I attach the greatest importance to those matters.

As a Government and a party, we promote and champion self-regulation over statutory regulation. Having dealt with a number of regulators in my previous life, I have some experience of such matters. My experience of the Advertising Standards Authority as a regulator was pretty good. The organisation had teeth, it did things and it applied standards with which the lobby industry was entirely comfortable. My experience with other organisations, such as the Market Research Society, was less than satisfactory. When trying to table a complaint against an individual member of the MRS, we found that the president of the MRS was the very same person against whom we were lodging the complaint. I am talking about not just blurred lines, but real confusion, and I had a similar view of the Press Complaints Commission. I am probably one of the few Members in this Chamber who took Piers Morgan to the PCC when he was editor of The Daily Mirror. I was astonished by the complete contempt that he showed for that body—it was as if it was not there. He did not give a damn. At that particular moment, it was, as far as he was concerned, a toothless organisation.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

The hon. Gentleman has more recent experience of the organisation than me.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

The Leveson inquiry is investigating this matter. There is the huge question whether there needs to be a fully independent, backed-under-law body to which the public can go with press complaints. We have already debated that at length in the House, but will the hon. Gentleman, as a Conservative, support something much stronger—if not statutory—than the PCC to which the public can go with complaints about appalling press behaviour?

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

I suspect Mr Robertson may get at us if we drift off lobby groups too obviously. All I will say is that there is a huge difference between a trade organisation and a regulator, and confusion arises when people try to be both. Any measure that separates the role of a trade representative and a regulator has to be something that we view positively.

The hon. Member for Newport West has mentioned definitions. With the greatest respect to him, he over-simplified the situation. There are many worthy charities representing large numbers of people—in some cases, they represent smaller numbers of people—that fall into the lobby category. We must all ensure that we do nothing to interrupt the ability of the charitable sector to lobby us hard. If we do not permit or encourage that, we will create a worse situation as far as public confidence is concerned.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

I note what my hon. Friend has said about lobbying by charities. Although many charities do a remarkable job, does he not agree that charities would be better off focusing on their charitable works? In 2009, Oxfam reportedly got 25% of its funding from the state, but then spent £25 million on what was described as “helping people to lobby Government”. Surely, most of Oxfam’s excellent work should be primarily focused on the front line.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

I agree with my hon. Friend up to a point. One purpose of the charities, however, is to persuade Government and political parties to recognise the needs of their charitable members and to legislate—or not legislate—accordingly, so it is a perfectly legitimate activity. Age Concern, for example, does very good work in informing and persuading us.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

On charities, what aspect of registration, transparency and financial disclosure does the hon. Gentleman fear might impede their legitimate activity?

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

There is absolutely no problem with transparency. I was also involved in setting up a rural charity, so I do not have a problem with that in any respect. Bureaucratic red tape or cost impacts that cannot be justified would be a problem. There are people who make legitimate donations to charities because of the good work that those charities do. They like to do so in private, and they would be less inclined to donate if they thought that their donations were going to be seen by all and sundry. To want to contribute to a charity in private is a perfectly reasonable thing. We need to be a wee bit careful in exposing all donors to all charities, because that might have a detrimental effect on charities that rely on people who like to do such things under the radar. I am not saying that there is not a solution, but a balance needs to be struck.

Photo of John Cryer John Cryer Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

I agree with a lot of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but much of the speech by my hon. Friend Paul Flynn dealt with direct payments to people who are elected. For example, if a company pays a councillor, it is regarded as a bribe and it is illegal, but similar payments to an MP are perfectly legal. Is that not the kind of contradiction to which my hon. Friend was pointing?

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. However, I am not as convinced as others that simply because somebody undertakes, in a way that is perfectly above board, a piece of work on behalf of a charity that it necessarily constitutes deceit in the eyes of the general public. There are plenty of Members of

Parliament and elected members of other devolved institutions who have done their job with great distinction and worked on behalf of a charity that backs a cause that they were particularly aligned to, and they have not suffered at the ballot box as a result. What they have done has been open and accountable. We must take care not to assume that all those things are always seen as negative, because they are not and in some cases they can be seen as positive. As my hon. Friend Robert Halfon has said, as long as the information is out there, it is up to the electorate, who I guess we all trust, to make a judgment. In many cases, that judgment has been made positively in respect of Members who have done it. I simply put the argument as it is without necessarily having a solution to it.

There are very good reasons for encouraging constituents, singly, in small groups or as official delegations, to lobby Members of Parliament on behalf of causes or concerns in the constituency. I would hate to see us introduce any measure that made it more difficult for our constituents to do that. The hon. Member for Newport West has goaded me on the animal welfare arguments. Of course, there are some fantastic charities, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, that represent many millions of members and that can organise themselves on a constituency basis and lobby for a particular cause in that area. Good luck to them, because that is what they are there for, that is what we pay our membership for and that is what they should be encouraged to do. As I have said, we need to be careful about an unintended consequence that would actually put off all those people, make their access to us more difficult and make all the more awkward their ability to persuade, inform and educate us. We should not be involved in anything that suggests that.

On donations, we must be—as ever—extremely sensitive, for all the reasons that the hon. Member for Newport West has mentioned; I agree with him about that. However, that is not to say that all donations should always be made public, come what may, for the reasons of charitable good will that I mentioned earlier.

To be frank, if we end this process of trying to make lobbying more open, accountable and transparent, which is a process I support, by coming up with a system that is more toothless, more pointless and more expensive than the current one, rather than contributing to the restoration of public confidence in and enthusiasm for MPs and our political institutions, we will have the opposite effect. For that reason, I hope that we treat this matter with considerable caution.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw 10:10 am, 2nd November 2011

I listened with some amazement to Simon Hart saying that we should be careful, because people will be put off lobbying. I assure him that the people of Bassetlaw do not require paid advisers to lobby their MP eloquently and effectively. We have a word for it—democracy. My problem and my constituents’ problem is that access to MPs, and therefore access for my constituents, is squeezed and blocked by the number of paid lobbyists representing interests, gaining access preferentially and using their contacts, which stops the rest of us getting the access to the Government that we should be getting.

My hon. Friend Paul Flynn has used the term “incestuous”. I think that a better term to use is “interchangeable”, because we are becoming a Parliament of paid, professional lobbyists. The reason is that the political class, the advisers and the researchers are entirely interchangeable with the lobby industry—they are literally interchangeable. People spend a couple of years as an adviser, then a couple of years as a lobbyist, then they go back to being an adviser, then they go back to being a lobbyist and then they go into Parliament as an MP. That is the way into this place, although I will not embarrass the dozens and dozens and dozens of colleagues who have entered the House in that way.

Photo of Kwasi Kwarteng Kwasi Kwarteng Conservative, Spelthorne

What does the hon. Gentleman propose as a measure to stop that career development, because it is clear that many of our colleagues have followed the path that he has just described? Is he going to introduce legislation to stop that?

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

The hon. Gentleman will want to listen to my speech. He may have a “career” in this House, but I have a vocation here, attempting to represent the interests of my constituents. That seems to me what being a Member of Parliament should be about.

Let me give an illustration of this interchangeability, or “incestuous relationship”, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West has described it. We will go to the top and start with the Prime Minister, because of course the founder of Shandwick lobbyists was Lord Chadlington. Lord Chadlington was the Prime Minister’s patron to get his parliamentary seat in Witney and, as was reported in The Sunday Times in 2007, he offered the Prime Minister his little farm and pool, in which the Prime Minister’s family were invited to swim. Actually, he did a lot more than that, because the little farm is the same building that he gave the Prime Minister and that the Prime Minister used for the first six months that he was a Member of Parliament. And Lord Chadlington is a man who formed a lobbying company, which was eventually sold on to Huntsman—sorry, Huntsworth lobbyists. People can see that Huntsworth does not lobby me that often. [ Laughter. ]

Huntsworth has its tentacles across the world. One of its subsidiaries is called Quiller. The Minister will be smiling, because Quiller employs lots of people from lots of different political parties, including advisers. I have never heard of it myself, but apparently two of them were advisers to the Labour party; they were a Mr Smith and a Mr Slinger. I never came across them myself. There were also a Mr Alistair Murray, who advised the Liberal Democrat party, and a Mr Parkinson, a Ms Roycroft and a Mr Malcolm Morton, who were all aides to Conservative MPs. Indeed, the Minister will know Mr Malcolm Morton, because he was an adviser to the Minister. Saying that is not to criticise either the Minister or Mr Morton, but it demonstrates the interchangeability between the political world and the lobbying world. That preferential access is gained by personal contacts, which is what is fundamentally wrong with the current situation.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

Would my hon. Friend also include those people who have worked for trade unions in this sphere, for example people who have been the head of education and research for their union or people who were trade union liaison officers?

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

No, I would not—[ Laughter. ]

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

I would not include them, in the same way that I would not include small business owners in the same category. The issue is this—what access is gained to Parliament?

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

The Minister says “double standards”. That is what the Government are attempting to do; they are attempting to distract us from this issue, because of the Werrity scandal, and make us look at another issue. This issue has nothing to do with “standards”; it is to do with access. If a Minister’s researchers and advisers become paid lobbyists, of course they have better contact and communication with that Minister, whether that is a Conservative Minister, Labour Minister or any other Minister. Of course that is the case and that is the problem.

The question, “What should be done about it?”, is fundamental. Before I answer it, however, there is another aspect that we must consider. Let us take the case of Bell Pottinger and the Werrity scandal. In that case, the question that arises is about the international role of lobbyists, because what has not come out is information about the role that Bell Pottinger was playing in Sri Lanka. People have been distracted from that issue, not least because Lord Bell is doing quite a lot of the public relations to try to cover his tracks and what was going on, which was Bell Pottinger representing the Government of Sri Lanka. According to the Catholic bishop of Mannar, under that Government 146,000 people have disappeared without trace, including many members of his congregation, and Bell Pottinger is there in Sri Lanka representing the interests of that Government. That is why transparency is important, and that is why we need to know if Ministers are having meetings with the Sri Lankan Government that were set up by Mr Werrity or indeed by anyone else. What is going on? Bell Pottinger is being paid to facilitate such things on behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka.

I will conclude now because other Members wish to speak, but what we need are the following principles, which I will put to the Minister. The first principle is transparency. There must be absolute transparency in all the meetings that we have as politicians, and there is not. The lack of transparency is the fundamental weakness that exists, with people claiming that “private engagements” have happened. There should be no such thing as a “private engagement” for a Minister, and there should be very little of it for an MP. There should be transparency.

Secondly, where money and profit are involved, transparency is all the more urgently required and should be all the more available, because of the paying for access scandals that have bedevilled politics in this country.

The third principle relates to preferential access. There needs to be action on preferential access. How do we do that, because someone cannot stop their researcher from working for a lobbying company? It is a free world. However, there needs to be a recording of all ministerial meetings, and all MPs should be recording what lobbyists are attempting to do if they are successful in influencing them. Also, there should be a full ban on paid professional lobbyists having passes in order to access this place.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow 10:18 am, 2nd November 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Paul Flynn

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

I congratulate my honourable comrade on the Public Administration Committee on his remarks today. Underneath all the rhetoric from all parties, there is quite a lot of overlap. Although we need to be transparent and open, we should not necessarily see all lobbying as a sort of great conspiracy. I declare my interests, as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

In my view, there are three kinds of lobbying. The first, which has already been described, is constituents writing to us or contacting us on a range of issues. The second involves charities and pressure groups. Many of those charities have huge budgets for public relations and public affairs. Many also have former special advisers working for them who know the Government inside-out, and therefore have what might be described as privileged access. The third kind is the traditional lobbying being highlighted today, which involves private firms, trade unions and big public sector agencies, and the public affairs firms that they hire.

I am proud that in my constituency we have a large bingo club with 40,000 members, and I was only too pleased when, a couple of weeks ago, the Bingo Association came to lobby me about various taxation issues. I cannot see anything wrong with that; it is a good thing, because I want to support my incredibly popular bingo club. We should not condemn all lobbying as sinister and retrograde, because some of it can be used to inform us. Tonight, I have an Adjournment debate on university technical colleges, and e-mails and letters that I have received from all kinds of interest groups have helped me to prepare for it.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

It should be clear to my hon. Friend that that is not part of our concern. I have tweeted him about his 40,000 bingo club members, and commiserated with him on the fact that such is his constituents’ despair over the future of the economy that they have all resorted to gambling.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

My hon. Friend’s wit has no bounds, which is why I enjoy sitting on the Select Committee with him so often.

I support groups and websites such as SpinWatch, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, the Sunlight Centre and Guido Fawkes, because the more openness and transparency the better, but this will be incredibly difficult. Let us say that there is a lobby company called Westminster Communications—I do not know if there is—[ Interruption. ] There is. Okay, let us call it

Westminster X. If we say that that company has to lobby, there is nothing to prevent it rebranding itself as Widget Strategies Ltd and describing itself as a management consultancy, as opposed to a political one. How do we then register all the businesses that come to see us? Do we have a blanket diary entry and register everything? It is not as easy as it looks.

The case of Adam Werritty has been briefly mentioned. I do not think that that was a lobbying scandal; it was to do with the relationship between special advisers and Ministers. Sometimes the boundaries of special advisers are unclear. Under the previous Government there was Lord Levy and Alastair Campbell, who became a semi-civil servant. There is a lot of confusion, and that is why the Adam Werritty thing needed to happen. The Government need to make the role of special advisers much clearer, including how many there should be and what their duties are.

I agree 100% with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West—he is almost my hon. Friend—about the issue of revolving doors, or Ministers leaving Whitehall and getting jobs. We had an interesting Select Committee sitting with Ian Lang, whose committee—the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments—seems not to keep records of individuals whom it has advised not to take up Government jobs, or of individuals who have taken up jobs after leaving Government.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

Will the hon. Gentleman accept from me that it is not so much ex-Ministers who get these jobs, but senior civil servants, who award massive contracts in their Departments and very shortly afterwards go to sit on the boards of some of the companies involved?

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. There are scandalous cases of senior civil servants walking out of one door and in through another. I find it particularly outrageous that the Government spend millions of pounds hiring head-hunters and recruitment consultants, yet some of those recruitment consultants have former senior civil servants on board who worked in the human resources department and—surprise, surprise—the job is given to that head-hunting agency. There is no difference between head-hunting agencies raking it in from the taxpayer, and being hired by the Government to carry out some of the activities that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West described.

I regret that the previous Government did not do more. I was not around at the time, but a report by the Public Administration Committee urged the Government to compile a register on lobbying. However, the Government never failed to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It is rich of many Opposition Members to start to have a go at the Government now, when they had so many years to get this right and did nothing.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s confirmation that he will go further and bring in a proper register of lobbyists, including of organisations such as think-tanks and trade unions, which are politically active and part of the lobbying landscape. John Mann condemned people who work as special advisers and then become MPs. I was one of those dreaded people. My work as a political consultant and as a special adviser helped to prepare me for Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman would not criticise a lawyer who had spent all his life learning law before becoming a judge.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The concept, and the word, is not “condemned”; it is about pointing to the danger of interchangeability. It is not about condemning individuals for what they do.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the answer is that there must be openness and transparency, but it is not so terrible if a businessman hires someone who has worked in Government or for the Opposition because they understand what has been going on.

We must be more careful and much tougher with quangos—paid for by the taxpayer—that hire paid lobbyists to lobby the taxpayer for more money. Figures show that the Ordnance Survey and the Audit Commission spent more than £600,000 on lobbyists in 2009. Transparency and openness are key; all the problems will go away if everyone is clear about what is happening, and about which lobby groups are lobbying which Ministers and MPs, but there will be a difficulty with the definition.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 10:27 am, 2nd November 2011

I warmly congratulate the comrades, my hon. Friend Paul Flynn, and Robert Halfon. It is an unusual alliance; perhaps they met around the sides of politics, from the ends of the Back Benches. I completely agree about transparency; it is key. Several Members have referred to the fact that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has said that he was eating in a private capacity, not a ministerial one. I suspect that he might, on occasion, have eaten in both capacities on the same evening and that, like a cow, he has more than one stomach, and is therefore able to ruminate on behalf of several people.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

On a point of order, Mr Robertson. That seems to be a case of fatism. Is that not inappropriate?

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West

That is not a point of order.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

We need to remember that, in essence, we politicians are all lobbyists. We go through lobbies and try to advocate causes, and nearly every one of us—if not all of us—was in one shape or form a lobbyist before we came into Parliament. For example, my hon. Friend John Mann campaigned for workers’ rights when he was working for a trade union; I, as a vicar, argued that my local authority was not doing the right thing by local youth services; others have campaigned for better policing, and so on. We are by nature lobbyists—advocates—trying to persuade people of a better cause. For a couple of years I was a paid lobbyist for the BBC, doing its lobbying in Brussels. I am proud of that work, because at the time Rupert Murdoch was saying that the BBC licence fee was illegal state aid, and that the BBC should be closed down. I am delighted that we won that battle in Brussels, and I believe that it is perfectly possible to be an entirely honourable lobbyist.

I remember when the Mental Health Bill was going through the House in 2007. As a Back-Bench member of the Bill Committee, I knew remarkably little about mental health and the specifics of legislation. If it had not been for a wide range of people who lobbied me and argued about elements of the Bill, I would not have been able to make as effective a contribution. In the end, I tabled the amendment that became the following provision in the Act:

“In this Act, references to appropriate medical treatment, in relation to a person suffering from mental disorder, are references to medical treatment which is appropriate in his case, taking into account the nature and degree of the mental disorder and all other circumstances of his case.”

To the ordinary eye—and, I suggest, to most MPs, unless they have a background in mental health—that seems a perfectly innocuous statement of what should be the case, but every single word of that provision was fiercely battled over, and rightly so, because of its effect on people who might be sectioned. It was not just mental health charities such as Mind and others that lobbied and provided advice; it was also pharmaceutical companies. If there is a list of evil people in the country, it starts with journalists, then politicians, and then lobbyists, and way at the far end are lobbyists for pharmaceutical companies, but my experience in that situation was that they provided invaluable advice. In the end, it was for me to decide the rights and wrongs and how I could best serve my constituents, but if people had not had such access to me, it would have been impossible for me to do a proper job.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

The main opposition to any reform comes from those who wish to muddy the issue and suggest that we wish to hamstring some worthy body. The Prime Minister has given the definition of “secret corporate lobbying”; we should realise that that is the subject of this debate and the area in which reforms are long overdue.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend misunderstands me, I suspect. I do not seek to muddy reform; I want reform. I want a register, and I will suggest a couple of other things as well, but I think that we must be absolutely honest, and part of that involves honesty about the important role that good lobbying can play in the political process, particularly for Opposition Members. Ministers have a host of civil servants who can produce briefings and so on; Opposition Members simply do not have access to that much support. Often it is provided by organisations. If at any point a Member succumbs so completely to the blandishments of some organisation that they effectively become its subsidiary, they stop being a good parliamentary Member and constituency representative. That is the line that I want to draw.

We should also bear in mind that lobbying is a British tradition. It is because there was a lobby outside St Stephen’s chapel that the whole system arose. I remember clearly that when Paris lost its bid for the 2012 Olympics, Delanoë complained that the British had engaged in lobbying. I saw all too often in Brussels that although Britain was good at advocating its case, other countries were not, because they simply did not understand how to go about it properly.

Some industries are particularly lobbyacious—and, Hansard reporters, that is a word, because I have created it. Broadcasting is particularly lobbyacious, because so many elements of its work are determined by legislation. We must take special care to ensure a level playing field for everybody.

There are enormous problems, many of which have been referred to, including corrupt lobbying: offers of financial inducements, nice holidays, easy trips and so on. Some methods are directly corrupt and illegal, and the House should deal ferociously with Members who abuse in that direction. Sometimes Members would be best advised not to go to the meal or engage. The rules applying to this House are much stronger than those that apply to the other House. If one wanted to engage in dodgy lobbying, one would be far better advised to do so through the House of Lords—the House of patronage—rather than through the House of Commons. That is another reason why I support reforming the House of Lords to make it an elected second Chamber.

Another way in which it is probably much easier to do a dodgy deal is with civil servants rather than elected Members. There is far less openness; often even the names of people who make important decisions on tenders are not known to the public. Some countries have purposely selected individual Members of both Houses as being more pliable and biddable than others, and have enabled long-term relationships with them. Those relationships need close scrutiny.

What counts as a lobbyist is also a problem. I do not mean to say that we should not have a register; it is one reason why we should. The Prime Minister was a lobbyist before he came into Parliament, and most journalists advocate most of the time in one way or another, especially those with opinion columns. When my constituents set up an organisation to oppose the closure of the Treherbert baths or protect the minor injuries unit at Llwynypia, they are lobbyists. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw is absolutely right. If their space to lobby me were crowded out, I would be failing utterly in my job. Every single diplomat who works for the Foreign Office is also, in essence, a lobbyist. I often feel that they are sent abroad to eat for their country. It is important to recognise the advocacy role of what we do.

The first key thing is that there should be no paid advocacy. That is a rule of this House, but it is more honoured in the breach than in the observance. We need absolute transparency about funding and who is engaged in lobbying, and particularly about who meets any Minister or civil servant engaged in making key decisions.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

On the point about influence, does my hon. Friend think that that should apply to Select Committee Chairmen, who have a lot of influence over policy?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

That is a good point. Members of Select Committees that publish influential reports are often targeted by lobbying organisations. It would be no bad thing if each Select Committee had an open register of lobbying meetings held.

Passes to this place are a problem. When I worked in Brussels, getting a pass to enter the European Parliament on legitimate business was a simple, straightforward and open process. Here, it is clandestine. Lots of people end up finding an hon. Member who is prepared to give them one of their three passes. We should have a complete review of the system. Of course we must ensure security in this building, but everybody should have equal access. I would prefer to open the doors than keep them closed so that only some people have enhanced access. Nobody should have enhanced access due to big bucks or cronyism. That last element is difficult to control. I look forward to legislation introducing a register soon. I am not naive about the difficulties of determining what a lobbyist is, but it is essential that we clean up the industry.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West

I said that I would call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 20 minutes to 11, but I will give a few minutes to another speaker, as that is only fair.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice Conservative, Camborne and Redruth 10:39 am, 2nd November 2011

I will be as brief as possible.

I worked in the public affairs industry for a year in 2009, but for a company signed up to the Association of Professional Political Consultants, which adheres strongly to transparency. There is a danger of exaggerating such people’s influence. Hon. Members returning after this debate should look in their recycling bins to see how much power the people that we are fretting about actually have. The truth is that we are inundated with lobbying all the time, and we throw away most of it. At the end of the day, it is down to our judgment whether we believe these people. As MPs, we are approached by companies or pressure groups that often smack of commercial interest and we can spot it a mile off. We might also get people who do not articulate their case very well, but we are the ones who can judge that and give them a voice when they may not have one.

I agree that there is a need to improve transparency, and particularly a need for a register of lobbyists. They should be required to list their clients and disclose whether anyone who works for them has had a previous Government role. However, I am nervous about going down the route of disclosing every meeting with people who are trying to lobby us, because it suggests that we base our opinions on the number of people who have lobbied us about something, rather than exercise judgment, which is what we actually do.

My final concern about publishing the details of such meetings relates to an unintended consequence whereby people say, “You met that group, so why can’t you meet us? You’ve met the People’s Front of Judaea, but what about the Judaean People’s Front?” It is difficult enough for Ministers to balance their work load. Do we really want to create a situation whereby organisations start to feel that they almost have an entitlement to meet Ministers on the basis that they have met somebody else?

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his brevity.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 10:41 am, 2nd November 2011

I congratulate my hon. Friend Paul Flynn on securing the debate, which has been a good one. He is a doughty campaigner and several important issues have been raised. Among the many important issues raised by Simon Hart was that of unintended consequences. My hon. Friend John Mann stressed the importance of the principle of transparency. Robert Halfon made the point that there is a great deal of common ground between politicians in the House, and I shall revert to that. My hon. Friend Chris Bryant pointed out that lobbyists fulfil a useful role and that it is the question of regulation that concerns us. I also thank him for introducing us to a word with which I was not familiar—“lobbyacious.” Finally, we heard, briefly but pithily, from George Eustice, who underlined the complexity of the subject and warned us to be careful not to introduce unintended consequences.

I hope that Members agree that we should all do our best to establish a genuine consensus in the House on how best to register lobbying activity. It is well worth remembering that how best to regulate lobbyists featured in the manifestos of all three main British political parties during the general election campaign. The Labour party stated:

“We will create a Statutory Register of Lobbyists to ensure complete transparency in their activities.”

The Liberal Democrat manifesto stated that the improper influence of lobbyists should be curbed by

“introducing a statutory register of lobbyists”.

Indeed, the Conservative manifesto said:

“We will regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency.”

The coalition agreement also has a commitment to a statutory register.

I hope that the Minister will indicate when the long-waited consultation paper will see the light of day. I read with interest his interview in the current House magazine, and it was rather unfair of it to refer to him as “Nick Clegg’s babysitter”. [Hon. Members: “Aah”] I am glad that hon. Members agree that that is a rather unfair description. I dare say that some would prefer to describe the Minister as “David Cameron’s handmaiden.”

In that interview, the Minister alluded to several other constitutional issues, which mean that the register of lobbyists has slipped from the Deputy Prime Minister’s initial target of later this year. I sincerely hope that the Minister’s work load will not prevent him from keeping his promise of at least a consultation document in the next few weeks. If he could provide us with a publication date today, that would be most helpful.

When that consultation document is published, I hope that there will be a widespread debate and that the Government will listen carefully to the views expressed by all.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

Although the hon. Gentleman rightly urges the Government to take action on this and for us to fulfil our election manifesto commitment, does he not regret that his own party did not follow through the recommendations of the 2009 report of the Public Administration Committee?

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will address that point in a moment.

It is important for the Government to learn from the unfortunate episodes that we have witnessed in this House in recent times. I also urge them to study carefully the experiences of other legislatures, particularly in Australia and Canada. There is no easy formula or one-size-fits-all approach—nothing can be taken off the shelf—but we can learn from what has happened in other countries.

I would like to make a few suggestions about the principles that I believe should underpin any future statutory register of lobbyists. Building on the cornerstone of transparency, to which several Members referred, the Public Administration Committee stated in its 2009 report that information in a statutory register must include

“the names of the individuals carrying out lobbying activity and of any organisation employing or hiring them, whether a consultancy, law firm, corporation or campaigning organisation.”

Secondly, it stated that the information should include,

“in the case of multi-client consultancies, the names of their clients.”

Thirdly, it recommended the inclusion of

“information about any public office previously held by an individual lobbyist—essentially, excerpts from their career history.”

Fourthly, the report said that there should be

“a list of the interests of decision makers within the public service (Ministers, senior civil servants and senior public servants) and summaries of their career histories outside the public service”.

Fifthly, it stated that there should be

“information about contacts between lobbyists and decision makers—essentially, diary records and minutes of meetings. The aim would be to cover all meetings and conversations between decision makers and outside interests.”

Those five points are a good starting point. Some will suggest that they do not go far enough, while othersj will say that they go too far. They are, however, a useful point at which to begin our discourse. As the hon. Member for Harlow suggested, some may wonder why the report was not implemented when Labour was in government. I shall pre-empt that argument by saying that, while it is true that Labour did not take up the Committee’s call for a statutory register, it nevertheless indicated in January 2010 that, if a voluntary system proved ineffectual, it would be necessary to go further. I suggest that the time has indeed come for us to go further.

There is a danger that our approach to this admittedly complex and difficult area could end up being too broad and general. We must also be mindful of unintended consequences, as a number of Members have said. We are all advocates and ambassadors for our constituents, and many of us support a wide range of organisations that do not fit the widely accepted definition of a lobbying organisation. We must be careful that we take that into account when we define which bodies and individuals should be included in a statutory register of lobbying interests.

Finally, a register of lobbyists will not wholly solve the problem of the exercise of inappropriate influence. Let us not forget that the friend of Dr Fox, Mr Adam Werritty, was not a lobbyist as such. If anything, that episode clearly demonstrates that it is necessary for us to have in place a number of safeguards that are vigorously enforced. A statutory register of lobbyists, however, would be a vital element in ensuring that faith is restored once again in our parliamentary democracy.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 10:49 am, 2nd November 2011

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate Paul Flynn on securing the debate, which has largely been helpful and balanced.

The contribution of Chris Bryant was useful because it put into context the fact that lobbying can be very helpful and that it enables Members of Parliament to be better informed. He gave the example of the Mental Health Bill. I had the same experience in opposition, when I worked with many disability organisations and charities. In opposition, some of the assistance and resources of lobbyists are needed to help the argument and ensure that legislation is framed properly and that well-informed questions can be asked. The problem occurs when those types of contacts are not transparent. Mr Smith and my hon. Friend Robert Halfon made that point. The issue is transparency.

I will say this from the start as it may pre-empt some interventions: we are committed to introducing a statutory register. We will publish our proposals for consultation before the end of this month, and then I hope we can engage in that debate. Several hon. Members have alluded to that matter. The reason we are publishing our proposals for consultation is very simple: we want to get it right. We need to get the definition of who would be captured by the term lobbyist correct. We must not stifle legitimate lobbying or the ability of our constituents and other people to talk to us or Ministers, but we need to ensure that the relevant information is out in the open. We must deal with the issue correctly, so we will publish our proposals and have a thorough consultation on which everybody—Members and those outside—can have their say. We can then ensure that we strike the right balance.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Is there not an element of “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza” in all this? As the Minister says, when the proposals are published, there will be consultation and debate. No doubt that will involve a considerable degree of lobbying. What will be his attitude to the lobbying approaches he receives as Minister during that consultation period?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Let me come on to that at in a moment because I want to set out my thoughts logically.

I thank Mr David for his relatively consensual approach because it is important that we get dealing with the issue right. The subject affects all parties, and all parties have lessons to learn. We need to ensure that we approach the issue on that basis. He struck the right note, but to encourage other Labour Members also to take such an approach, I will remind them of what they did or did not do in Government. An amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats on having more transparency on lobbying was mentioned. Every single Labour MP here who was in the House at the time happily voted against that. The hon. Member for Newport West clearly paid very little attention to the new clause when he voted against it because if he had read it, it sounds as though he would have agreed with most of it.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

It was new clause 76 to the Companies Bill 2006, which was debated on 18 October 2006. Yes, the hon. Gentleman voted against it, as, indeed, did the hon. Member for Newport West.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

The Minister has eight minutes to build some kind of consensual approach to the subject, instead of which he is involving himself in petty political point scoring. Can he tell us how often he has been lobbied about the lobbying reforms since he has become a Minister and will he have talks with the Opposition to ensure that we have a consensual approach? Such an approach will possibly take us into the next Government, which is when many of us think these reforms will take place.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I would have slightly longer to respond if the hon. Gentleman had not interrupted me. I was coming on to his point and was trying to deal with the questions he raised in his speech.

On the hon. Gentleman’s comment, the Government have made a lot of progress on transparency. We publish all the meetings that Ministers have with external organisations. If he had troubled to look at the written answers I have given—and, indeed, my meetings—he would see that I have had one meeting with the independent chairman of the UK Public Affairs Council on the subject. I have had no meetings to discuss the issue with lobbying companies and no meetings with anti-lobbying companies either. We will publish a comprehensive consultation, so that everybody can have their say.

That information on meetings has been published. If the hon. Gentleman had looked for it before the debate, he would have seen it. The details are available on data.gov.uk for the benefit of hon. Members. We also publish hospitality and gifts received by Ministers and special advisers, details of Ministers’ overseas visits, details of permanent secretaries’ meetings and Government procurement information so that we can see what the Government are spending and lots of other information.

The meetings that Ministers in the Department for Education hold are a very good example of departmental meetings. The sorts of people to whom they talk are not surprising. The most frequent meetings are with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnado’s and the National Children’s Bureau. Those are the sorts of people one would expect Ministers in that Department to meet, so that they can talk about serious and important issues. Transparency is very welcome.

The previous Government did not make progress on the matter. Just before the election, they committed to a statutory register in response to the events that took place in March 2010. At that time, several former Ministers were accused of behaviour that, following the report of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, led to their being banned from the House for a significant period. I only say that to calm down some Labour Members who get rather paranoid about the speed with which the Government are working. As I have said, we will publish the consultation paper this month and we will make progress. The previous Government did not do that during the 13 years they were in office, so can we just have a bit of calm? I am very happy to work with the hon. Member for Caerphilly who speaks for the Opposition on a consensual basis.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I simply make the point that we have an ideal opportunity to make progress now because there is a genuine political consensus. I therefore urge the Government to be constructive.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Yes, and I am very pleased to do so.

The hon. Member for Newport West also referred to Ministers who take up roles on leaving office. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister strengthened the guidelines on that in the ministerial code he published last year. Ministers must seek the advice of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and they must abide by it. That was not previously the case. Ministers had to get the advice, but they did not have to abide by it. In addition, for the first time, my right hon. Friend introduced a ministerial code that bans former Ministers from lobbying for two years after leaving office. So, they are absolutely not allowed to go straight out of office, get a job and start lobbying the Government again. That is a very helpful step forward.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

I welcome my hon. Friend’s remarks about the advisory committee, but does he not think it would be better if it published its recommendations for everybody to see? We could then see which Ministers had followed the advice and who had not.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I listened very carefully to what my hon. Friend said about the inquiry that the Public Administration Committee is undertaking at the moment and the evidence it has heard. Clearly, when it publishes its report, the Government will look very carefully at its recommendations and respond in due course. I look forward to the Committee’s report.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

The Minister referred to the website data.gov.uk. I have just had a chance to go on that website and can see that the Cabinet Office information has not been updated since December 2010. Does he think that that is transparent?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My understanding is that all the meetings up to the end of April this year have been published. However, I will check up on the matter. It was my understanding because that information has been provided.

On the point John Mann made, even some of his colleagues—I will not embarrass them by pointing them out—thought that his line about trade unions not being encompassed by the transparency rules is unsustainable. Given the fact that the party he represents gets 85% of its donations from trade unions and a quarter of its donations from a single trade union, I am afraid that his argument is simply not defensible.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

I have not put that argument. Lobbyists are lobbyists and trade union lobbyists are lobbyists. However, every trade union member and trade union official is not a lobbyist. A lobbyist is a lobbyist. I, for one, have never been one.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

But every trade union official who seeks to influence Members and Ministers is engaged in lobbying, and they should be covered by the transparency rules just like everyone else. They have nothing to hide and it is important that the hon. Gentleman recognises that as, to be fair, I think several Labour Members do.

There will be some challenges about definitions and what we encompass in our consultation. That is why we want to listen and ensure that people can make a case and approach Members of Parliament, and that there is nothing untoward going on. We need to ensure that there is transparency, that people know what is going on, that Members of Parliament and Ministers are using their judgment about the arguments when they are making decisions and that people are not getting privileged access.

Transparency is a good thing. We will introduce our proposals this month and listen to what people have to say. I am very happy to have a dialogue with the hon. Member for Caerphilly to try to reach a consensual approach between the parties because the position will then be much clearer. The hon. Member for Newport West made a valid point that we need our constituents to have much more confidence in the system. I hope that we can reduce the chances of abuse and problems occurring in future.