The head of Britain’s lobbying watchdog has called for tougher disclosure rules to show which ministers have been solicited, as well as a review of the exemptions used by David Cameron and Philip Hammond.
Harry Rich, who is in charge of the register of consultant lobbyists and their clients, said it would “help transparency tremendously” if lobbyists were asked to reveal which ministers and permanent secretaries they had spoken to – as well as when, how and what it was about. .
He also told the Guardian it would “definitely improve transparency” if contact between consultant lobbyists and special advisers were built into the scheme. “The more transparency there is, the more the objectives of the legislation are met,” he said.
Rich makes suggestions for more transparent lobbying statements in a submission to Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) in his first public intervention on the subject since taking office in 2018.
In the submission, he suggests that statements include the minister or permanent secretary who was lobbied, dates of communications, medium of communication – whether by meeting, letter or email, telephone, SMS – and communication topics. “The fact that the targets of lobbying activities are not identified in the register appears to be a significant shortcoming,” he says.
Currently, Rich staff enforce compliance in part by spending time cross-checking information provided to them by lobbyists and the incomplete and patchy information that appears in minutes of government departmental meetings.
“It’s quite tricky to do given the scarcity of information but also the difference between the two sets of information,” he said. “My interest has to be primarily the registry and that’s based on my four years of experience in the job and knowing that it would make compliance a lot easier. Insofar as the data published by the ministry is confirmed, this is not part of my remit. But I can say that if this data were more timely, more complete and more comprehensive, it would make the compliance job much easier on my end.
The Guardian recently revealed huge and inexplicable differences in ministerial meetings disclosed by different departments, with Liz Truss reporting just two meetings as Foreign Secretary over a three-month period, compared to 51 for the Welsh Secretary.
Rich also suggested ministers could review exemptions that allow lobbyists not to register under the current system, although changes could require primary legislation.
The role of Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists was created by law in 2014 to shed light on lobbying activities. The watchdog recently tentatively discovered that former Tory MP Owen Paterson breached transparency rules by failing to register as a lobbyist for healthcare company Randox. Paterson could face a £7,500 fine, but he has the option of appealing.
However, a series of loopholes have allowed senior politicians lobbying on behalf of companies to successfully argue that they are not covered by the legislation. Persons not covered by the law include any person or company not subject to VAT. Therefore, foreign companies, in-house lobbyists and anyone for whom lobbying is “incidental” to their main activity are not covered.
“You can do a lot of lobbying work for £85.00 and more importantly it exempts overseas companies from registering under the law,” Rich said.
Both the internal exemption and the ‘collateral’ exemption were used successfully by former Prime Minister David Cameron to argue that his lobbying for Greensill was not covered by the legislation. Philip Hammond, a former Chancellor, was also able to use the ancillary exemption to argue that he had not carried out consultancy lobbying activity for OakNorth Bank.
Had the ancillary exemption not been applied, Hammond’s email to Charles Roxburgh, Second Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, promoting software developed by OakNorth would have been consultant lobbying and therefore recordable communication.
Regarding the ancillary exemption, Rich’s submission stated that “the policy intent and meaning of this provision is unclear and it is the most controversial, vague and problematic wording of the legislation”.
He added: “I have no particular opinion on the political intention. But no one really knows what he was supposed to do and should do. I think whichever direction it goes, it would help to be clear about what was planned.
He said he believed the Registrar’s office was doing its job “well and within the bounds of the law before us”, having achieved an increase in the number of businesses registered as consultant lobbyists from around 150 to 194. Last year. .
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: ‘We are committed to undertaking a post-legislative review of the Transparency in Lobbying, Non-partisan Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, which governs the consultant lobbying.
“We will provide a response to the Pacac call for evidence in due course.”