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Lobbyist Register Should Be Scrapped, Say MPs

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PARLIAMENT
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The government to scrap its plans to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, MPs have said.

In a report published this morning, the political and constitutional reform committee said the coalition's plans were so narrowly focused that they would be next to useless.

Under the measures proposed by the government, all public affairs professionals who undertake lobbying activity on behalf of a third party client would be required to sign a register.

However the MPs warn that the register would totally ignore lobbysits who work in-house for large companies, rendering it impotent.

"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," they said.

"The committee has seen no evidence to suggest that third party lobbyists are a particular problem within the lobbying community, indeed the government’s own records of ministerial meetings suggest that third party lobbyists make up less than 1% of all meetings with ministers."

In February 2010 David Cameron warned that that lobbying was “the next big scandal waiting to happen”.

And in many ways he was right. Since then a series of scandals have thrust the political lobbying industry into the spotlight.

Not least of which was the cash-for-access revelations in which the prime minister was accused of hosting private dinners for wealthy Tory party donors.

The co-treasurer of the party, Peter Cruddas, was forced to resign in March after he was secretly filmed boasting that rich individuals or companies could influence the policies of the government in return for a substantial donation to the Conservatives.

The government denied that the donors had been able to influence policy, but the PR damage was done.

In the report published today, the MPs say the government's proposals single out third party lobbyists in an attempt to "create a narrow focus for a register that will meet a Coalition pledge, but do little to improve transparency about lobbying".

Graham Allen MP, chair of the committee, said: “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.

"The UK Public Affairs Council warned that such an approach could even reduce regulation of the lobbying industry.

Instead the committee recommends the government agree to publish information about ministerial meetings no more than a month after the month in which the meeting occurred.

The MPs also say ministers should include the details of the actual topic of a meeting is disclosed, rather than obscure terms like ‘general discussion’;

The committee's report was welcomed by the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) who said it demonstrated “common sense”.

APPC Chair, Michael Burrell, said he backed the idea that “a statutory register which includes only third party lobbyists would do little to improve transparency about who is lobbying whom, as these meetings constitute only a small part of the lobbying industry”.

While Peter Facey, the director of political reform campaigners Unlock Democracy, said the report demonstrated the need to expand both the scope and the detail of its proposed register of lobbyists.

"Under the government’s current plans, a group of small shops hiring a lobbyist to fight plans to expand supermarkets in their area would have to register while Tesco’s vast in-house lobbying team would be exempt. Clearly that is ridiculous," he said.

“In recent months there have been numerous lobbying scandals reported in the press. But what we should be particularly concerned about about is the fact that these are almost certainly the tip of the iceberg.

He added: "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.”

A Cabinet Office spokesman said the Government would provide a detailed response to the report "in due course", but added: "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."