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7 Jan 2010 : Column 158WH—continued

7 Jan 2010 : Column 159WH
3.48 pm

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Angela E. Smith): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Mr. Benton, and I welcome you to the Chair.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and the Committee on securing this debate and on the work that they have done preparing the report, which all hon. Members agree is timely and useful. I assure my hon. Friend that there is nowhere else I would rather be on my birthday, particularly because this is the warmest place in the House of Commons at the moment. I also thank my temporary honorary Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who has done great service today, both in his comments and his efforts on my behalf.

The Select Committee on Public Administration has conducted the first parliamentary inquiry on lobbying for almost 20 years. The word "timely" has been used several times, as the work was needed. The Committee produced two reports on this issue, the most recent coming before the Christmas recess.

Before I go any further, it is appropriate that I apologise unreservedly for the time that it took the Government to respond to the Committee's original report. As I said when I provided the Government's response and when I went to the Committee last July, no discourtesy to the Committee was intended. I had hoped to get the response to the Committee prior to recess. Another week before recess and that would have happened. I am sorry that that delayed it further. I will ensure that the Government's response to the further report will be with the Committee shortly.

I should perhaps confess an involvement in this issue, as before I became a Member of Parliament, I lobbied MPs, including members of the Committee-my hon. Friends the Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). I think that I was what my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) would call a good lobbyist. I worked for the League Against Cruel Sports, but I did not call myself a lobbyist at the time. I was a parliamentary officer, and I did various work around Parliament, and political work in general, lobbying for the abolition of hunting and wildlife protection.

The Committee's inquiry into lobbying took a broad look at the contact between those working in the public sector and those attempting to influence their decisions. The Government's response to the Committee's original report stated:

The Government agree with the Committee that there is still more to do in order to provide the public with greater reassurance that when lobbying takes place, it does so within a framework that upholds the highest standards of propriety and prevents improper influence or access. That includes the need to ensure that appropriate rules and measures are in place to govern the acceptance of outside business appointments by Ministers and Crown servants on their leaving office. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is an independent committee that deals with such matters, and I will return to its work later in my comments. I am aware
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that, in November, the Public Administration Committee held a pre-appointment meeting with Lord Lang of Monkton, who is now the chairman of the advisory committee.

Perhaps I can touch on the issue of transparency. When responding to the Committee's original report, the Government took further steps, which were welcomed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, to ensure that appropriate and proportionate measures were in place for those who are mostly in discussion with lobbyists-Ministers and civil servants. For Ministers, the Government accepted three key recommendations. First, information about hospitality received by Ministers in a ministerial capacity and valued at more than £140 will be published quarterly and online by Departments. Information for the period between 1 October and the end of December last year is being collated and will be published as soon as it is ready. When providing that information, the Government have decided that the threshold for Ministers should be the same as that currently set for the declaration of gifts-both given and received-which is £140. That is considerably lower than the threshold for both MPs and peers, for whom registration would normally be required for hospitality valued at around £650 for Members of the House of Commons, and about £1,000 for Members of the House of Lords.

Secondly, information about Ministers' meetings with outside interest groups will be routinely published by the Department-again, I am pleased that that is welcomed by the Committee. It will be published quarterly and online, and information for the period of the three months to the end of December is being collated and will be published as soon as it is ready. That information will include the name of the Minister holding the meeting, the date of the meeting, the organisations present and the principal subjects discussed.

Thirdly, in response to the Committee, the Government have committed to updating and publishing online the list of ministerial interests by the Cabinet Office every six months. The list is not an account of all the interests held by Ministers or their families, but it contains interests that are-or could reasonably be perceived to be-directly relevant to a Minister's public duties. The first ever list was published in March last year, and the process has already increased transparency and confidence in the application of rules designed to prevent conflicts of interest.

I turn to the recommendations concerning civil servants. Last February-again for the first time-the Government published a list of hospitality received by members of departmental boards. That was taken a stage further when, in response to a recommendation by the Committee in its original report on lobbying, the Government agreed to extend the coverage of the list to include hospitality received by senior civil servants at director general level and above. Extending the hospitality publication to cover the most senior officials, and also to include their official expenses, is an important part of the Government's commitment to account to the taxpayer for the use of public money.

I appreciate that the Committee wanted the Government to go further in relation to senior civil servants. In its further report, the Committee recommended publishing information about meetings between the most senior officials and outside interest groups, and publishing the
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relevant private interests of the most senior civil servants-director general and above-and the equivalent employees of public bodies. The Committee did not consider that that would place a disproportionate burden on Departments and agencies, but the Government took a different view and considered that, in respect of meetings with outside interest groups, publication of such information would be disproportionate. There are more than 4,000 members of the senior civil service, and around 210 at director general level and above. In respect of relevant private interests, the interests of board members are already publicly available as part of a Department's annual report and accounts. I assure my hon. Friends that the level of disclosure will be kept under review and we will continue to bear in mind the recommendations of the Committee.

In response to another recommendation by the Committee, the Government have produced and circulated to Departments guidance that sets out best practice for compliance with the principles-based approach for the receipt of hospitality, as set out in the civil service code and the civil service management code. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said that he was glad that the Government had accepted some of the Committee's proposals to increase transparency in areas directly involving Ministers and civil servants. Accepting the recommendations made by the Committee in respect of Ministers and civil servants clearly demonstrates that the Government are committed to greater transparency.

I would like to mention the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. In November, the Public Administration Committee held a pre-appointment hearing with Lord Lang of Monkton, who was the Prime Minister's preferred candidate for the post of chairman of the advisory committee. Although the Public Administration Committee had some criticisms about process and the issue of business interests, it subsequently reported that it was

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and for the Olympics, and Paymaster General, has been in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase in relation to the appointment process for that post. The Committee's recently published further report makes a number of observations about the make-up of the advisory committee's membership.

The Government continue to take the view that the advisory committee's unique remit, which is narrowly focused and confined to individual casework for a relatively small number of people, calls for a membership with first-hand experience and understanding of the business appointment rules and procedures, in order to have credibility in the areas on which they advise. The Government have committed to reviewing the outcomes of the recent refreshment of the advisory committee, and we will work on that with the commissioner for public appointments. The commissioner has welcomed that review, and as part of it we will include consideration of the points that the Committee has made on the appointments process.

In consultation with the advisory committee, the Government are reviewing and revising the detail of the business appointment rules for Crown servants, and
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the parallel rules for former Ministers, to ensure that they are effective and clear for applicants and Departments. I reassure the Committee that there is no question of the Government having prejudged the outcome of that exercise, and the Committee took that view in its recently published further report. The Government are clear that the business appointment rules should continue to reflect the high-level principles set out in the seven principles of public life, which were drawn up by the Committee on Standards in Public Life under the chairmanship of Lord Nolan.

Today's discussion has centred largely on the regulation of lobbyists, but I would like to touch on the further report that was published before Christmas. Members of the Select Committee and the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) sought further clarification from the Government about the process they are establishing for reviewing progress made by the lobbying industry on voluntary self-regulation, and particularly on how the Government intend to assess whether the progress is adequate and the likely time scale. I would like to summarise the position so far. The Committee is aware that three representative bodies are involved: the Association of Professional Political Consultants; the Chartered Institute of Public Relations; and the Public Relations Consultants Association. Under the umbrella of the public affairs council working party, they published an issues paper last May that set out options for the creation of a new system of voluntary self-regulation. The working party subsequently proposed a stronger system of independent-but still voluntary-regulation of the industry, based around a voluntary register and an enforceable code of conduct.

Following that, in November, the three representative bodies consulted their respective memberships on the proposals to form a public affairs council. The working party's letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, which is published as an appendix to the Committee's further report, makes clear that the three representative bodies not only have consulted widely on proposals for the establishment of a new voluntary self-regulatory regime, which would operate under the oversight of the proposed public affairs council, but have also set up a public affairs council implementation team to take forward those proposals.

The public affairs council implementation team is independently chaired by Sir Philip Mawer. I know that the House and the Committee regard Sir Philip as a person of the highest integrity who will do his utmost to ensure that the lobbying industry takes the opportunity to make a success of the proposed voluntary system of self-regulation. Although we talk about voluntary self-regulation, it is important that there is also an independent element in all this work.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: My friend may be coming on to this point, but I would like her to address the issue of law firms with a lobbying arm. Eben Black, whom I have mentioned already, says in his letter to me that his firm

because of the duty of confidentiality set out in the solicitors code. How does the voluntary register work when legal firms will be outside it?

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Angela E. Smith: I think that Sir Philip Mawer will look at this. I am not convinced that there is a legal obstruction to such firms signing up and joining. It seems to me that with the Law Society, for example, it is the code of conduct that says that. I think that we need to consider this further. We are in dialogue with the Law Society to consider the issue, and we must keep those channels of communication open. I shall come on to this point in more detail, but I would want to see a wide spread of people signing up to the council.

What I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle, which may be helpful, is that Sir Philip has accepted the position only because he believes that there is a genuine will in the lobbying industry to ensure that a new and more effective system of regulation is created. He has asked for all those involved in the implementation process to agree by Easter the arrangements to implement the new system.

Mr. Hurd: As I understand it, the duty of confidentiality is driven by a code of conduct, which presumably could be changed if there was the will to do so. It is not a legal requirement; it is just a code of conduct.

Angela E. Smith: Yes, absolutely. If the organisations wish to change their code of conduct, it is open to them to do so. As I said, it is not a legal obstruction at all.

The aim of the implementation team is to resolve the issues that need to be dealt with to set up the public affairs council. One of those issues is to oversee the appointment of an independent chairman for the council. In its further report, the Select Committee said that the council should be chaired by a

I agree. I understand that the chairman of the council will be appointed on merit through open competition and that the post will be advertised. I am sure that, in appointing the chairman of the council, the lobbying industry will wish to ensure that there is also an independent element in the selection process.

I understand that the memberships of all three representative bodies are being consulted and the indications are that they will be broadly content with the proposals to form the council. The three representative bodies anticipate announcing shortly a detailed and agreed framework for voluntary self-regulation, and putting in hand by Easter arrangements to establish the council.

In its latest report, the Committee picks out two aspects of the arrangements surrounding the proposed public affairs council: the desirability of membership of the council being open to as wide a range of people involved in lobbying as possible-that would include the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle about solicitors-and the desirability of a single set of ethical standards applying to all those who come under the umbrella of the council. Again, I agree. I consider that one of the main tests of the proposed new system will be universality-whether the vast majority of those involved in lobbying are taking part. That view is shared by Sir Philip Mawer, whom the Committee quoted in its original report as saying in April 2007 that

I think that that is the quote that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby sought.

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I understand that the organisations working on the establishment of the public affairs council agree that membership of the council should be as open as possible and that a set of ethical standards should be applied-in my view, those are essential. It is for the industry to make a success of a system of voluntary self-regulation and to ensure that a single set of ethical standards are applied and quickly implemented.

The Government remain of the view, as set out in response to the Committee's original report, that any system of regulation, whether voluntary self-regulation or statutory regulation, requires a register of lobbyists to ensure that lobbying activity is transparent. The Government believe-this might help the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood on the clarity point-that the industry should be given the opportunity in the first place to produce and maintain such a register. The industry ought to ensure that the register should, as a minimum, be publicly available and contain the names of individuals and organisations carrying out or advising on lobbying and the details of any third-party interests that they represent, as my hon. Friends the Members for Luton, North and Selby said.

I appreciate that there was not a universal welcome for all aspects of the response from the entire Committee, but I welcome the general comments made and the broad welcome for it from my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase. I appreciated the tone of his response. My general impression, as someone who has been on both sides of the fence, even though in a slightly different capacity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North acknowledged-

Mr. Grogan: Could I ask the Minister to be a little stronger? Is she urging all lobbying firms-all multi-client lobbyists-to publish their clients' names, and is she urging them all as firms, rather than just as individuals, to get involved with the new public affairs council, a condition of which will be to publish all their clients' names? Does she urge, in particular, Bell Pottinger to publish its clients' names, and indeed all of them?

Angela E. Smith: That is jumping a little ahead of the game, as that will be a matter for the public affairs council. I would have thought, though, that any firm would be happy to publish its clients' names. I do not see what the objection would be from any firm to publishing its clients' names when that is in the interests of transparency, but that will be a matter for the public affairs council to take forward. It is one of the issues that we have raised-the register containing the names of individuals and organisations carrying out or advising on lobbying.

Mr. Grogan: The Minister tempts me. There was a suspicion that the response was watered down with the change of Minister. With the greatest respect, I urge her to say-the words have not passed her lips as they have passed the Opposition's lips-that all multi-client lobbyist firms should declare their clients and do so forthwith. Surely such a pronouncement, from such a senior Minister, is possible.

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