Government lobbying rules ‘won’t affect Murdoch’

By Cassie Chambers and Alex Stevenson

Government proposals to create a statutory register of third-party lobbyists would not include those working for firms like News International, MPs have warned.

The Commons' political and constitutional reform committee called on the coalition to "scrap" the plans, which would have little impact on large corporations.

Government officials indicated they were not prepared to shift their position in response to the report, but said MPs' views would be taken into account.

"Under the government's proposals, a lobbyist who worked in house for a large company such as News International, or Tesco, would not be required to register, however a 'one-man band' lobbyist would be required to register, name their clients, and pay for the privilege," the committee explained.

It stance has attracted support from campaigning group Unlock Democracy, which warned that recent lobbying scandals – including the one which cost former defence secretary Liam Fox his job – were just the tip of the iceberg.

"Without full disclosure – including financial information in our view – debates over public policy will continue with the press and public entirely in the dark regarding quite who is lobbying for what," director Peter Facey commented.

The coalition's current proposal would require all lobbyists acting for third parties to register with the government. But it would not require in-house lobbyists to do the same – a move critics say is both unfair and ineffective.

"The government proposals target third party lobbyists, yet would produce little more than the current regime of voluntary regulation, without even a statutory code of conduct to regulate behaviour," committee chairman Graham Allen said.

He went on to warn that the government's current proposal could "even reduce regulation of the lobbying industry".

Citing statistics showing third-party lobbyists make up less than one per cent of all meetings with ministers, the committee also emphasised that it had "seen no evidence to suggest that such lobbyists are a particular problem within the lobbying community".

Instead, MPs recommended a more comprehensive registry that would require all lobbyists, including those who work for charities, to participate.

The increased transparency from such a comprehensive registry should, according to the committee, be complemented by other measures.

One regulation proposed by the committee would be to increase the level of detail in meeting disclosures so that the actual topic ministers discuss with lobbyists is available. Currently, such disclosures often list the meeting as a "general discussion".

Yet the "strongly expressed" views of different committee members during the inquiry perhaps foreshadow the problems government will have reaching consensus on this controversial issue.

Allen emphasised that while some MPs believe the proposed reforms do not go far enough, others are "of the opinion that it is not clear that there is widespread public concern about lobbying".

He suggested these members support maintaining the status quo and believe "no statutory register would be better than current government proposals".

The lobbying industry's lobbying group, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, is doing all it can to resist further regulation.

Jane Wilson, chief executive, said: "If we acknowledge that lobbying is an essential part of the democratic process, with an important relationship to freedom of speech, I am wary of any moves to introduce obstacles or burdens to those who engage in lobbying or who employ lobbyists.

"The government can do more to immediately improve transparency and public confidence in lobbying through enhanced disclosure of ministerial meetings. This is a move which I and the industry would support."

Ministers are set to publish a white paper and draft bill in the current parliamentary session, setting up the prospect of legislation by the autumn of 2014.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "Lobbying has an important role in the policy making process, ensuring that ministers and senior officials hear a full range of views from those who will be affected by government decisions. But it must be conducted in a transparent and open way.

"Our proposals for a statutory register are intended to address the problem that if someone has been hired as a lobbyist by a third party, it is not obvious to the public on whose behalf they are meeting ministers."