Publications on the internet
Political and Constitutional Reform Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 153
Taken before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
on Thursday 2 February 2012
Mr Graham Allen (Chair)
Mr Christopher Chope
Mrs Eleanor Laing
Mr Andrew Turner
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Tamasin Cave, SpinWatch and the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, Justin Fisher, Professor of Political Science, Brunel University, and Lionel Zetter, Lobbyist and author of "Lobbying: the Art of Political Persuasion", gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Welcome, witnesses and colleagues to this evidence session on the introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists. It is very kind of you to spare the time to come along this morning and give us the benefit of your views. What I normally do is ask people whether they want to make a short opening statement just to set the framework. Lionel?
Lionel Zetter: Thank you, Chairman. I should like to make a short opening statement. As you may or may not know, I am the author of a book called "Lobbying: the art of political persuasion". I train on public affairs for the CIPR, the PRCA and various commercial trainers. I am a former president of the CIPR and a former chairman of the Government Affairs Group.
I shall briefly declare my interests. I am still a board member of the CIPR and a director of the Enterprise Forum. I am the proprietor of Zetter’s Political Services and vice-president of Public Affairs Asia. I am also retained in the capacity of senior counsel by APCO, a global communications agency with a strong public affairs offering, who are members of the APPC and the PRCA. However, I emphasise that I am giving evidence in my own capacity and not on behalf of any of these organisations.
Q2 Chair: Is there anything you want to say in terms of lobbying?
Lionel Zetter: On lobbying, the Cabinet Office proposals are widely welcomed by the industry. We think that they are proportionate. We recognise that all the political parties are committed to bringing into being a statutory register. We have no problem with that. The only areas of discussion are who and what should be included on that register. Obviously, I have views on that, and I have been fed views by various trade and professional bodies. I am happy to elaborate, but I think that it will come up during the course of discussions.
Justin Fisher: Just some background: I was specialist adviser on the Public Administration Select Committee inquiry into lobbying and subsequently was involved in the initial stages of the establishment of UKPAC. In my professional life, I am Professor of Political Science at Brunel university and run a master’s course in public affairs and lobbying for students who want to go into the industry. The university has had a long relationship with the industry.
I would like to ask the Committee to consider the purpose of the Government’s proposals. There are five pertinent points. On the proposed transparency, it is very difficult to argue against the idea of transparency, but this proposal provides only partial transparency because it covers only multi-client agencies. If the Government’s proposals were to go no further-and that would be a mistake-a practical solution might be to combine this register with the existing data on meetings with ministers because, as things stand, the proposals would mean that any interested party would have to search around in a number of different registers.
Secondly, if the purpose of all this is the avoidance of inappropriate behaviour, a register would not do that. It is a very minor step. If you are looking to clean up lobbying-that is not necessarily to imply that there is a problem-a register is not the way to do that.
Thirdly, if it is a process of trying to improve public confidence, regulation and/or a register will not guarantee this. It is very important to note-this is not an argument against transparency-that, when data are published by such as is proposed through a register, this does not guarantee that these data will be used in a misleading manner by people who either do not understand the data or people who have malicious intent.
For example, there is a website up at the moment called "Whoslobbying", which gathers together data of meetings with ministers. Vanity meant that I had a look for myself on the register, and I discovered that I was apparently a lobbyist after having appeared in front of this Committee, giving evidence about the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in July 2010. That is an example of data being used badly. We also had the example from the publication of political donations, whereby there was nothing wrong with transparency, but people can use the data inappropriately.
Fourthly, you need to consider whether or not statutory regulation of this industry is better than self-regulation. My view is that UKPAC has failed as a self-regulator, but I still think that self-regulation can work. There must be some oversight of the industry, but it needs to look afresh at how it does this.
Finally, I have a plea that mirrors other aspects of areas of political regulation: we must resist the temptation to regulate the life out of general political activity. It is important to remember that standards are what matter, not ticking boxes. That is a very important point. What is proposed here is the minimal action to improve public confidence and general standards.
Tamasin Cave: I am Tamasin Cave. I work for a not-for-profit company called SpinWatch, which investigates the PR and lobbying industry. In 2007, we established a group called the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, which is a coalition of charities and unions that are concerned about what we see as the growing influence of professional lobbying on public policy making. We think this reflects a growing public concern about the activities of lobbyists.
On the proposals-we have waited nearly two years for these-I am going to quote Mark Adams: I think they are "shameful". He described them as the worst consultation paper he had seen in 20 years. I agree with him. I would like to try to explain what I think-
Chair: Who said that?
Tamasin Cave: Mark Adams-he is a lobbyist. I was going to quote an unnamed lobbyist, but he is in the room, so I thought I would mention his name.
By way of trying to explain what I think has happened, I would like to quote Elizabeth France, who is the chairperson of UKPAC. She said, back in January 2011, that the industry’s approach to this was to persuade the Government that what they need to do is embrace UKPAC’s register "with a statutory hug". And that is broadly what they have done. That therefore explains this consultation paper. It is seeking to justify that position, which is why it is incredibly unbalanced. It is nonsensical in places, and I think it is deliberately misleading in others.
It is safe to say that the Cabinet Office does not get transparency in lobbying. This has been demonstrated amply by the fact that it has repeatedly sought to block the release of information under the FOI Act on its dealings with lobbyists, without any irony whatsoever. We now know that the Minister gave the nod for his officials to meet UKPAC on "a monthly basis", while at the same time saying it would be inappropriate to meet with transparency campaigners. This was before the official in charge of drafting the register made her views on transparency campaigners known in a fairly ill-judged tweet. In summary, this is bad policy making from a Department that has no interest in bringing greater transparency to lobbying.
Q3 Paul Flynn: Good morning, Tamasin and gentlemen. Here we go again. Do you think that what the Government are proposing is a fair and reasonable way forward?
Lionel Zetter: I think it is a very good starting point; I think it is only that. There has been a progression of regulation of lobbying going from the individual trade and professional bodies regulating their own members, to forming the umbrella body of UKPAC to, as I said, the three main political parties deciding that a statutory register was the way forward. I think they are right. On the other hand, I think a limitation on the proposals is that it encompasses probably less than 20% of the people who lobby. The problem with that is very straightforward.
I have to declare an interest-I have already done so-in that I work for a multi-client agency. Before that I was a freelance public affairs consultant. I have never worked in-house, but the majority of lobbyists work in-house.
If you restrict the proposals simply to multi-client agencies-people who lobby on behalf of third-party advocates-a number of things will flow from that. First, you will not have a sufficient base to fund a register properly. The problem with that was very straightforward, as far as I was concerned.
Q4 Paul Flynn: Why should it cost a lot to fund a register? The proposal from PASC was mainly to draw on what existed in diaries and so on. It is virtually nil cost in order to acquire transparency. Where is the great cost going to be in the Government’s proposal?
Lionel Zetter: You might think that that would be the case, and you might possibly be right. First, you obviously have to have officials overseeing this. We have the Chairman, Elizabeth France, who is paid very modestly-but nevertheless it is a fee-for her efforts. The main problem has been with IT. The three organisations tried to do this on the cheap, and it was a catastrophic failure.
Q5 Paul Flynn: May I ask the others? I have several questions I want to ask.
Justin Fisher: It is a move forward inasmuch as it is a change from the status quo. I reiterate that it is a tiny step. My own view is that the proposals in the PASC report were more sensible and more encompassing, even if, on occasion, the report was-I think-excessively hostile to the industry. I come back to the question: what is the point of all this? What is the point of a register? It seems to me that one could make a case for a register-
Paul Flynn: May I interrupt you? Sorry about this. We have been on this. The report from PASC last time went way beyond your advice. I think it is fair to say that it went beyond the evidence, in a way. No smoking gun was found. After the report became public, smoking guns appeared everywhere, especially the sting in the House of Lords, where certain Lords were accused of pimping for various bodies that they were on.
Chair: Let’s look at what we can do in the future. I do not want to go back over the report that is not the property of this Committee.
Justin Fisher: I agree. My framing of the question in terms of the PASC report was that I thought that in general, that represented a more sensible set of proposals. I go back to the question: what is the point of a register if it is simply an exercise in box-ticking, which is all that is included here? I echo Lionel’s point that it covers only a very small part of the industry. It is a small step forward, and there is a longer road to travel.
Paul Flynn: Tamasin?
Tamasin Cave: Paul, could you repeat your question?
Q6 Paul Flynn: Just your general response to the Government’s report. Is it adequate?
Tamasin Cave: Oh no, it is completely inadequate. There are two very central flaws to it. Quite deliberately, the Government have made up a problem to fit the solution that they have. The problem that they say-this seems to be key to the consultation-
Chair: Is that a quote from Whitehall?
Tamasin Cave: I am going to quote the Minister. He says that ministers already have to say whom they meet. If they have met outside organisations, they say that they have met those organisations, so that is transparent. The gap is that if ministers meet a lobbying company, they know they have met it, but if people do not know who its clients are, they do not know whom it is representing. That is the gap that the Minister says he has sought to address with his proposals. This is a problem that does not exist. Justin mentioned the website, Whoslobbying.com, which has done a good job of collating ministerial meeting logs. It has managed to crunch the data, and of the 5,114 meetings with outside interests that ministers have logged, 10 were with agencies.
Chair: Sorry, 10 are with agencies?
Tamasin Cave: Ten are with agencies, so if Mark Harper is saying that the problem that exists is that there is no transparency about whom agencies are representing, he is talking about setting up a register to address the lack of transparency in 10 meetings. Of those 10, five also declare the clients alongside the agency. So we are talking about five ministerial meetings. This is according to the problem that he has identified in the proposals. It is difficult to know how to tackle it. It is wholly inadequate for that central reason.
Q7 Paul Flynn: You said many times, Mr Zetter, that the key to lobbying is not who you know, but what you know. On your website, I find a photograph of you with Boris Johnson, a photograph of you with Siân Lloyd, a photograph of you with Michael Howard and a photograph of you with Nick de Bois and David Burrowes. Who you know is on your website, but precious little of what you know is. Is this a classic case of commandment 1 of the lobbying industry, which is to say one thing and do another?
Lionel Zetter: I take your point. I must have a look at my website. It really is about what you know: which minister is responsible for which particular area, who is his or her special adviser and who is the civil servant who has day-to-day charge of your particular issue. So few lobbying companies are listed on the current register because the best advocate is the client. They are the ones who know more about the subject. They are much more passionate about it. We can hopefully help them arrange the meetings. We can brief them in advance, but they are the people who have to put forward the case.
Q8 Paul Flynn: You stood for Parliament last time.
Lionel Zetter: The time before.
Q9 Paul Flynn: What sort of metamorphosis would you undertake if you went from lobbyist to MP, as many of your fellow lobbyists have done and are now in Parliament? How should they change?
Lionel Zetter: Their focus needs to change completely. When you are a lobbyist-
Q10 Paul Flynn: Do you think that they should still be taking money from lobbyists and be employed by them?
Lionel Zetter: No, of course not. That would be against all rules and regulations.
Paul Flynn: They shouldn’t be an MP.
Chair: Paul, wait a second. Ask a question and then let the witness answer the question.
Lionel Zetter: Members of Parliament are perfectly entitled to have outside interests and I think they should have outside interests, otherwise they get caught up in this Westminster bubble and have no idea what is happening in the world at large. So, no, they should not be taking money from lobbyists. The rules and regulations, as they currently stand, prohibit that.
Q11 Paul Flynn: What advice would you give lobbyists on influencing MPs for business questions, which will happen in the next hour?
Lionel Zetter: We would approach MPs with a constituency interest. You do not just randomly pick out MPs and seek to brief them. You raise what is occurring in their constituencies. For example, if there was an opportunity to bring in more work for BAE and India, you press that. I sought to represent Edmonton and I did not succeed. In Edmonton, there is a whole range of light industry, which suffers many of the problems of manufacturing industry in the United Kingdom.
Q12 Paul Flynn: That is what an MP does anyway. It is part of the core job of an MP to represent, for which he or she is paid a salary. Would you think it quite improper for any MP to take any interest or receive any favours that would be seen to be entirely commercial and not connected with his constituency?
Lionel Zetter: I do not believe that for one moment, no. As I have said, I think that MPs need outside interests to keep them in touch with the real world. This is a country with a struggling economy. The people who get us out of that trough will be British business. The more interaction there is between British business, MPs, ministers, civil servants and special advisers, the better.
Q13 Paul Flynn: If we get a case where Parliament and government are lobbied to settle contracts that are four times the going rate on the market, but it happens to be British or European rather than American, do you regard that as being successful, in spite of the fact that it is a huge burden on the public purse? We can give examples, such as the two aircraft carriers that we will now be landed with. Billions has been wasted on that contract. Was that the result of successful lobbying, because of the strong British interest?
Lionel Zetter: No, I suspect that it was a result of who was Prime Minister at the time and who were the Government at the time and where they needed to generate jobs and therefore votes.
Q14 Paul Flynn: I’m not getting involved or disagreeing on this particular point, but this is a characteristic of all governments for the past 50 years: contracts are settled for constituency nationalism, British nationalism or European nationalism. Do you not see the point that lobbying distorts those decisions and that it exists to give further advantages to the already advantaged? You serve the client-
Chair: Okay, we’ve had the question. Lionel, can we have an answer please?
Lionel Zetter: I strongly disagree. I think lobbying informs the decisions of ministers. It makes sure they take into account not just the headline price of a contract, but what the implications are for employment, for skills and for jobs locally. You have to look at these decisions in the round. If it was just about the money, it would be very straightforward and we would be out of business. But it is not. It is about all the other things that go with it.
Q15 Simon Hart: May we go back a couple of steps? Up until this meeting, I thought I might be a former lobbyist, but I am not really certain whether I am or not. Perhaps that remains to be discovered. I have to say, by way of an opening remark, as the newest MP around this table-I think-that I welcome the input and persuasive efforts of lobbyists in the broader sense, whether they are multi-client agencies or not. Where is the evidence-I don’t want an opinion-that there is massive public concern about the activity of multi-client agency lobbyists as opposed to lobbyists in what we might describe as the broader sense?
I represented a membership organisation that lobbied, and indeed a charity that lobbied. We thought we lobbied-perhaps we did not; perhaps we just persuaded. Where is the evidence that separates those two elements of the persuaders who come in here?
Tamasin Cave: There is no evidence. The Government make a distinction, but we certainly do not. In terms of defining lobbying, we look at the activity and we define the activity. Whoever is carrying out the activity defined as lobbying is a lobbyist, whether they work for a trade union, in-house, an agency or a charity. I am a lobbyist. I work for a non-profit company. I do not think there is a distinction. Public concern is largely with in-house lobbyists. On the work that we have been doing, I have not gone out and found it. People have found me. There is opposition, and the Government’s NHS reforms and planning reforms are two key concerns at the moment. There are accusations about the lobbyists or the industry- whether it is private health care or property developers-having their fingerprints all over the policies.
People are very concerned about the undue influence that commercial interests are having on policies. They are coming to me and saying, "Do you know anything about this? Can we find out about lobbying by the private health care industry or by the private insurance industry?" We know that we are facing an unseen army of private health care lobbyists, but there is no information whatever on these people, so what you have is a very skewed national debate framed in terms of patient choice and empowering doctors, when we know that there is millions of pounds-worth of lobbying by companies that at one stage were spending $1m lobbying against Obama’s health reforms.
Q16 Simon Hart: My point is that there is lobbying by all sorts of people about things such as health reform. Some lobbying is done by multi-client agency organisations and some happens to be done by small groups of patients or GPs based in constituencies. We are talking about introducing a statutory register of lobbyists. We are uncertain what that is going to achieve, but more importantly, I think we should introduce anything that is statutory only on the basis of an overwhelming public need based on evidence. But you say there is no evidence.
Tamasin Cave: No. There is no evidence that people are more concerned about agency lobbyists as opposed to in-house lobbyists.
Q17 Simon Hart: Where is the evidence about lobbying?
Tamasin Cave: There is a lot of interest. You only have to read the newspapers.
Simon Hart: There may be evidence-
Chair: Simon, let the witness answer the question.
Simon Hart: It’s catching.
Q18 Chair: We have an arrangement here. Members restrain themselves on their own opinions and try to establish certain facts from the witnesses, and the witnesses answer the questions put briefly and succinctly by the members of this Committee. It’s your turn, Tamasin. Where’s the evidence?
Tamasin Cave: I would say there is massive evidence. We have talked about various scandals that have happened since PASC did their report, whether it is Laws, Stephen Byers and his "cab for hire" remarks, Geoff Hoon or Patricia Hewitt. We have had the Bell Pottingers boasting that there is no problem getting messages through to No. 10. We had the Adam Werritty/Liam Fox affair, which I don’t think anyone has really got to the bottom of. You must be aware of public concern about things like NHS and planning reforms. There is a big public campaign against them, as there is with many other policies. That is as it should be, but people are focusing-a lot of editorials have led with "This has lobbyist fingerprints all over it," whether it is property developers, private health care or whatever.
Sufficient evidence is out there of public concern. You can go back to official reports, such as the Power inquiry, six years ago. A lot of evidence was taken from people, which showed that they had big concerns about vested interests and lobbying.
Q19 Simon Hart: We have not heard from anyone else on the panel about that point, but that is my fault, not yours. Would Adam Werritty have been caught by the Government proposals? I suspect not, but that is only my opinion.
Finally, if there were a register-I’m not against one as such-would it address the so-called evidence, if you don’t mind me describing it as that? You have come up with a lot of examples, but, as a virgin MP, I have yet to receive a single representation from a single member of the public on this topic.
Tamasin Cave: It is very difficult to prove cause and effect in lobbying. We know, for example, that Eric Pickles had a dinner at the Savoy with the chief executive of an airport operator. The application went through 10 days later. He said he never spoke with the man, but he did not declare the meeting because it was held in a private rather than a ministerial capacity. People will read that and think that perhaps something has gone on, but we don’t know. Unless you are at that meeting and are party to those conversations, you have no idea.
Justin Fisher: Let me reiterate, there is no evidence whatsoever that multi-client agencies are a particular problem. The differentiation between them and lobbying by in-house, charities and so on, such as NGOs, is irrelevant. Why the Government have seen fit to delineate is beyond me.
To pick up on a point that you made, Simon. Public opinion in itself is not a reason to act. A friend of mine who is a university professor once said to me, "People get upset about everything." And he is right. "What are you against?"; "What have you got?". That is not to say that we should dismiss public opinion, of course, but you have to be very careful about using it as a guide to policy making. If you look at comparable areas, such as regulation of party finance, for example, you could pass the most extensive piece of legislation in the world and people would still be fed up, upset and suspicious. It is very difficult, and you should be very careful about that path.
The fact that no one has complained to you is, frankly, irrelevant. If it needs to be done as a preventive measure, that is the most appropriate thing to do. It is not about whether someone has written you a letter.
Chair: Simon, do you want to come back on that?
Simon Hart: Not now; maybe later.
Q20 Mr Turner: What are the costs of running your organisations?
Lionel Zetter: Are you referring to the UK Public Affairs Council?
Mr Turner: Whatever you are representing.
Lionel Zetter: As I said, I am representing no one but myself, but to give you a brief overview, the CIPR is a chartered institute that has been around for 60 years. It has 9,500 members, it charges about £200 a year and it makes a very small profit, so it is self-financing. The PRCA is a trade association representing consultancies, both public affairs and PR. It has several hundred members, it is highly profitable and, again, it pays its own way and pays for its own overheads. The APPC represents purely public affairs consultancies. It has about 65 members, which covers the majority of the industries. It levies on its own members a fee according to their size. Again, it employs a part-time member of staff and it covers its own costs.
The three bodies formed the UK Public Affairs Council, which had three non-executive members, headed by Elizabeth France, and four industry representatives. It therefore had overheads in terms of paying those three individuals and trying to bring together the three existing registers. Some people might think that that is a simple exercise; the Government realise that it is never a simple exercise. It spent, I believe, about £60,000 a year-paid equally by the three representative bodies-and that was simply not enough. The scale of the IT problem defeated it in the first instance. It has now appointed a new IT company, with more experience in this field. That will probably cost more money, but it is confident that the fully functioning register will be up by the end of this month. But it has taken a lot of money to get to that point.
Q21 Mr Turner: Professor Fisher, same question-the cost of whatever it is you are representing here.
Justin Fisher: I represent the university.
Q22 Mr Turner: So there is nothing related to this which does not come from the university?
Justin Fisher: Sorry, I do not follow the question.
Q23 Mr Turner: I am trying to work out how much money is spent, from your representations.
Justin Fisher: None whatsoever. I am here, one assumes, because of some expertise.
Tamasin Cave: We are grant funded. We have various different projects, but the work on lobbying transparency is funded by a three-year fund from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust of £90,000 over three years.
Q24 Mr Turner: Thank you very much. Can I go, in a sense, from the other end? If I am a Member of Parliament and somebody comes to my surgery and complains about one issue, I take it that that is not lobbying. Does anyone disagree with that?
Tamasin Cave: I would say it was lobbying. In the broadest terms, lobbying is what I do when I write to my MP to complain about whatever or in support of something. In terms of defining lobbying for the register, we define it as professional lobbying activity, which means that you are explicitly paid to lobby.
Q25 Mr Turner: So you are paid?
Tamasin Cave: You are paid.
Q26 Mr Turner: What if you are Zac Goldsmith, and he puts a lot of money behind one of his campaigns, which he does from his own money. He is very wealthy.
Tamasin Cave: He would be funding a campaign group and that campaign group, if it was sufficiently big enough as a charitable organisation that it triggered registration, should be registered as a lobbying organisation.
Q27 Mr Turner: I am asking you: does this count, for your purposes, as lobbying or does it not?
Tamasin Cave: Yes. I would say that the charity or the campaign group that he is funding should, if it is engaged in lobbying, be registered and it should probably declare its funders.
Q28 Mr Turner: But he is not going to get any money out of it.
Tamasin Cave: He will not, personally, but if it is engaged in lobbying activities-
Q29 Mr Turner: I am trying to find out what lobbying means in this context.
Tamasin Cave: Lobbying we define as an activity. It is not a handing over of money; we define lobbying as contacts. As Lionel described it, it is facilitating and arranging contacts with public officials and communicating with officials. So you define the lobbying activity, and then anybody who undertakes that activity for money would be required to register.
Q30 Mr Turner: Sorry, but are you saying that he does not need to earn money for this purpose? He is wealthy.
Tamasin Cave: Oh, I see-he is not paid. No, I do not think it would capture that-
Q31 Mr Turner: Right. But someone who comes from outside the constituency, so long as it doesn’t involve earning money, is free to approach me as a Member of Parliament, but not as a Member of Parliament for that constituency.
Tamasin Cave: We don’t want to restrict people’s right to petition their MP or any other Member of Parliament, or a civil servant for that matter. So there would be no restrictions. What we think there should be is a sensible threshold. But if you are, what most people would think of as a paid professional lobbyist-whether that is working for a charity, a trade union, an agency or Tesco’s-you should be registered, and everybody else should be exempt.
Q32 Mr Turner: Do you, Mr Zetter and Professor Fisher, agree with that?
Justin Fisher: I think so. You are absolutely right to draw our attention to the difficulties in the definition. That is terrifically important. That is something certainly that has been wrestled with in the past to see who or what is captured by any self-regulation or statutory register. I return to my opening statement: if you try to regulate the life out of politics, there is a danger that you capture perfectly innocent activity and almost prevent people from doing it. I think that there is a real danger there. You are absolutely right to draw it to our attention. There is an element of common sense about this, and Tamasin’s ideas would fall under that category of common sense. There are issues of definition, and they need to be considered very, very carefully. The definition in the Government’s proposals is wholly inadequate. On balance, the UKPAC definition-for all UKPAC’s ills-that it came up with was probably broadly speaking a workable one.
Q33 Mr Turner: Somebody who lives in my constituency runs a lobbying firm, in the broad sense of the word. He also comes and visits me quite a number of times on perfectly normal parliamentary, local issues. Where does the line exist-that he is paid for some things, but not paid for others? How do you know what?
Lionel Zetter: I would say that it is for that individual to make it very plain in what capacity he is approaching you, whether as a local resident, whether as an unpaid representative of a local pressure group or whether on behalf of a client for whom he or she is paid. They need to be very, very clear about that.
Q34 Mr Turner: Sorry, this is the point. You are saying that he would have to make it clear that he was coming to see me as a Member of Parliament on a matter that might be serious and confidential, and which I would not wish to be released.
Lionel Zetter: You raise a very interesting point. There is obviously a strong imperative for confidentiality, whether somebody is approaching their doctor or their MP. As long as the individual makes it plain who he is representing and as long as his company is a member of one of the three organisations I have mentioned, you could have a look to see who he is representing, but I don’t think that there is any proposal-as far as I am aware-that the details of meetings are to be disclosed, whether it is with a minister or with an MP. There is such a thing as constituent confidentiality and there is also such a thing as commercial confidentiality, and they are both very important principles that need to be maintained.
Q35 Fabian Hamilton: May I put this to you? Having registers, having lists and having legislation is completely irrelevant. A framework of anti-corruption legislation, which we have in this country, complete and open transparency, freedom of information that actually works and a genuine free press are the things we need to ensure that lobbying does not corrupt and that it is free, fair and open. In other words, the Adam Werritty issue and some of the issues that you raised, Tamasin, have been exposed by media that are determined to ensure that we do not have this sort of corruption. Isn’t that all we need? Registers can be perverted and can be used for specific ends, as you have pointed out, but an open and free press combined with transparency and freedom of information-in other words, openly registering everything properly-is the important thing. Those are the criteria that will ensure that lobbying does not become a corrupt practice. Discuss.
Tamasin Cave: You mentioned the Adam Werritty thing as exposed, and various other things. The Daily Telegraph has done a really good job of highlighting some of the lobbying on the planning reforms. I’ll give you one example. We did some work, looking at the NHS reforms. Using the Freedom of Information Act, we found that discussions were being brokered by McKinsey, between the German private hospital company and the Department of Health, over the takeover of the management of public NHS hospitals in London.
It took a long time to get that story out through FOI. If we had had a public register of lobbyists, we might have seen that that German private hospital company was approaching the Department of Health over its reform agenda. We would have seen that it was part of the game. The fact that I managed to find that one particular case suddenly gave people an insight into things that were happening under the reforms.
We work on a budget of 30 grand a year. I can tell you that, despite the fact that the newspapers do a very good job, there is not much investigative money floating around to do work like that. Having a public register and being able to see some of the players that are involved in lobbying has the power to change the nature of the debate. You would be able to see who is influencing policy, and I don’t think you can rely on the newspapers to do that.
Q36 Fabian Hamilton: On that point, you are arguing for the freedom of information legislation to work better rather than for a register. The fact that it took you so much time and effort to get that information tells me that the FOI legislation is not working properly and people are not abiding by its spirit.
Tamasin Cave: It is partly that, but it is also partly the fact that I don’t work in the national press; I am a campaigner. There are a lot of good people who are doing investigative work, but not many. This is one story out of how many hundreds of thousands out there that we do not know about? There is not a sufficient check and, as you say, the freedom of information laws are not working at the moment, as our case with the Cabinet Office shows.
Justin Fisher: I don’t think transparency is enough. You highlight the Adam Werritty case. That episode illustrates the fact that by the time these things come to light, it is too late. The transparency provided a salacious story, but it was one unholy mess, and there is no evidence that the transparency that currently exists would necessarily deliver appropriate behaviour-people holding back from engaging in questionable activity.
What is really required is some sort of preventive measure. This is why I have a concern about relying solely on things like a statutory register, because that provides a maximum on the standards of behaviour rather than a minimum. The register is a bit of a red herring. An effective form of regulation-preferably self-regulation for the industry-would be better. That would set a minimum behaviour standard; a register would set a maximum standard. The general principle is that we have an interest in improving conduct in political life rather than simply ticking boxes, which, effectively, is what a register is.
Q37 Fabian Hamilton: Isn’t what you’ve just said a criticism of the fact that there was not sufficient transparency? Once that story came to light, it was clear that the Minister should have registered or at least told civil servants of the interest of Mr Werritty.
Justin Fisher: My argument is not against transparency. It would be very difficult to argue against transparency-in whose interest would it be? My point is that that alone is not enough. The level of transparency will not necessarily deter people from acting unethically. The key thing is whether they tick the box in terms of registration, not whether they perform their duties in an open way.
Take the case of Bell Pottinger. I am not sure that a register would prevent informal communications between an agency and No. 10. In some ways, it is a kind of very small sticking plaster over a potentially large wound. I am not arguing that there is necessarily a large wound, but you see my point.
Lionel Zetter: As I said at the beginning, the majority of people in the public affairs industry, such as it is, are in favour of a statutory register. The reason for that is I think because most of us already belong to a voluntary register, but there really will never be universality without some element of compulsion. I find that strange, coming from my mouth.
One thing that the three bodies and the one umbrella body that I mentioned do is that we all operate our own codes of practice. The UK Public Affairs Council put together a generic code of practice. It is pretty well mom and apple pie, and it lists the things that are probably covered, as you say, by anti-bribery legislation elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is worth stating the way in which people should behave, just like it is worth being transparent about who we are and whom we represent.
I have always maintained that, just as important as any rules and regulations, there should be a culture of compliance, so that people in the industry ought to be squirming slightly when our colleagues are caught out on camera being a little boastful and vainglorious. There is a temptation for all of us, in privacy, to take that route. When large fees are involved, obviously there is a temptation to slightly exaggerate your reach and influence. Those things are very hard to legislate against. It is more about the culture and about saying, "Yes, of course we have influence, but our influence extends very narrowly to, first, the strengths, validity and power of the policy arguments that we propose, and secondly, the case of the people we are representing." Those are the two things that matter: the policy and the client. We are merely facilitators. We have no influence in and of ourselves, and when we claim to do so, which from time to time we all do, yes, we all ought to be slapped down.
Q38 Fabian Hamilton: Yet you receive a fee for bringing the two together.
Lionel Zetter: We do indeed. I think we save everybody’s time. We save the company or the client, whoever they are, from knocking on the wrong door. We save the Ministers’ time because they are not being badgered with meetings with people over areas of which they have no control whatsoever. Very often, the advice to clients is, "Don’t even bother with the Minister. There is a civil servant whose job it is to oversee your area of activity. They have been doing it for years, and they know the subject inside out. If you think there is a problem, that is the person you need to meet." Yes, we are paid for doing that.
Justin Fisher: I want to come in on a point that Lionel made. I would generally concur with Lionel’s points, but just so that the Committee is clear regarding codes of conduct I should tell you that one of the significant problems with the existing set-up of UKPAC is that it does not cover a significant proportion of the industry. A large proportion of the in-house industry is not covered. None of the charities are covered. That is entirely because of the way in which UKPAC was established, and I am happy to return to that point later. The idea that it covers the industry and represents the industry as a whole is very wide of the mark.
Chair: Paul, is your question a quick one on this particular point?
Q39 Paul Flynn: Very quickly, do you not all agree with what the Prime Minister said: that lobbying is going to be the next major scandal, that we have a crisis of democracy in this country with the collapse of faith in politicians and the political system, and that we must have a puritanical form of regulation and transparency in lobbying to avoid that future scandal?
Lionel Zetter: Generally, I try not to gainsay the Prime Minister, but I think he is entirely wrong on this one. When I appeared in front of your previous committee, I think I referred to the fact that MPs’ expenses were going to be a problem. I think I would now predict that the problem going forward would be party funding. I think lobbying is always there, or thereabouts, but it is never a really big issue, and there hasn’t been a really big genuine scandal for decades.
Justin Fisher: "Crisis" is a big word. I suspect there is a vulnerability to this happening, and I think we should be on the lookout for it, in the way we should be on the lookout for potential problems in other areas. I wouldn’t single lobbying out, but I do think that as things currently stand there is a risk.
Tamasin Cave: The Prime Minister said it was the next big scandal waiting to happen, but he also underlined why this is crucial, because I think you said that there are billions of pounds-worth of government contracts at stake here, and that is true. We only have to look at something like the NHS IT contract, which is widely seen now as a disaster, which was heavily lobbied for in the first instance, was badly designed, and then cost us a lot of money. It is contracts like that that really need to have a balanced approach.
Q40 Fabian Hamilton: Can I just move this on to all-party parliamentary groups? There are so many in this place, I think it is almost impossible to count them. There is a very clever and sensible system of registration, and part of that registration process is that you not only meet certain criteria about officers and membership, but declare openly who the secretarial support services are provided by, and if there is any commercial involvement. I am sure all of us in this room chair, or are officers of, some of these all-party groups. There are significant commercial interests involved. For example, one group that I chair, to do with prison health, involves a pharmaceutical company, the British Liver Trust, various other bodies, prison reform groups and so on. We have deliberately spread it. My point is this, though: in spite of the careful system of registration, which is very tightly followed, do you think it is adequate, or is the all-party parliamentary group system another way of commercial interests infiltrating and lobbying MPs and peers?
Justin Fisher: Almost certainly, it is a way.
Q41Fabian Hamilton: Is that positive or negative?
Justin Fisher: I think it is a positive thing that there are such things: MPs coming together with a shared interest and engaging with the outside world. I echo Lionel’s earlier points that it is important for MPs to have regular interaction with various interests, in order not only to hear arguments but also to be better informed. There are dangers, but I think it would be hugely regrettable if that sort of interaction was either over-regulated or phased out, because of concerns about possible outcomes. One would hope-and I am on record as speaking up for MPs as being good people, and underpaid, I should add, but in general very good people-
Chair: Take a few more minutes.
Justin Fisher: I have to say I think the reaction in the wake of expenses, both inside and outside Parliament, was excessive; but one would hope that the standards that MPs display in every other aspect of life are on show in the all-party groups. Yes, there is a danger, but I am not sure it is a particular danger.
Tamasin Cave: I think it’s fact, actually: it is widely seen that they are a route to lobbying. Somebody told me the other day-I am going to get the details wrong, so I will not give details-that company X was sponsoring a particular sport APPG: no known interest in that particular sport, but because of a particular politician who was on that APPG. So it is definitely the case that they are seen as routes to lobbying, but I think you bring up quite an important point: we have rules for parliamentarians and ministers, and various people, and they have just introduced new register of interest rules, which Peter Mandelson seems to be getting round-but the rules are always tightened up for parliamentarians. In the meantime, we have scandal after scandal, and the entire lobbying industry is left unregulated. This has happened over years and years. You can keep tightening up-it is good to keep revising rules, if the situation changes, for parliamentarians-but I thought that we had recognised that maybe it was time to turn our attention to an unregulated industry and that that was where transparency was needed. I do not think it is going to be sufficient to keep tightening up the rules for parliamentarians and for Parliament.
Lionel Zetter: I think APPGs serve a very valuable function. You can have only so many Select Committees, and only so many MPs sitting on them. If you have a Health Committee, it has to look at the big picture. All-party groups can look at conditions which are quite small, quite discrete and restricted to a small number of sufferers. They can help small countries become more known and understood. They can do many things to broaden the knowledge between individual patient groups, industries, countries and parliamentarians. Parliamentarians do not have to join these groups; they have to officially sign up. The names of the first 20 members are published. Any money that is paid towards them or any funding in either goods or service is declared. The last time I went through the register, a handful of them received funding of tens of thousands. The vast majority get by on a shoestring and operate at almost zero cost to the taxpayer, and I think they perform a very valuable function.
Q42 Fabian Hamilton: I assume you would draw a distinction between organisations such as the National Council for Palliative Care, which services the all-party group on hospice and palliative care, and, say, one of the pharmaceutical companies.
Justin Fisher: Why?
Q43 Fabian Hamilton: Would you draw a distinction between them?
Justin Fisher: No. This is what has got in the way of good debate about lobbying-the idea that there are good lobbyists and bad lobbyists. Lobbying is lobbying, regardless of whether it is conducted by a charity or by a business.
Tamasin Cave: When it comes to charities and, for that matter, trade unions, there is a degree of transparency about what we are lobbying for. Trade unions will put it on banners, and we cannot tell enough people about what we are doing. In the case of companies, if a pharmaceutical company that wants to access a certain politician and has particular issues-whether on employment, tax, NICE, regulation or whatever it is-there is not a great deal of transparency about what it is lobbying for. There is a distinction there in that there is a serious lack of transparency.
Q44 Fabian Hamilton: Fuller transparency would help everybody?
Tamasin Cave: Yes.
Q45 Mrs Laing: What is the difference between lobbying and campaigning?
Lionel Zetter: It is one of definition. A lot of lobbying is simply about developing policy and making sure that that policy is brought to the attention of key opinion formers and key decision makers, so it is a fairly discreet, but not secretive, activity. Campaigning is much more what Tamasin referred to earlier-taking to the streets and waving banners. Generally, as a lobbyist, you try to conduct the client’s affairs in a manner that does not make a lot of waves, does not take up a lot of time and does not stir up any kind of furore. It is talking to civil servants, talking to special advisers and looking to influence and inform them. If you fail in that activity, that is when you have to go to the media to get a campaign going or even take to the streets to bring something to the attention of Government. Generally speaking, they are just different stages of the same process.
Q46 Mrs Laing: Do you agree with that definition, Professor Fisher?
Justin Fisher: By and large. There are levels of specificity, inasmuch as campaigning would almost certainly be much more broad, whereas lobbying might seek to change a particularly small clause in a proposed piece of legislation or something like that. I also think one can differentiate. It goes back to an earlier point that Mr Turner made about how we define such things and the extent to which a transaction is involved, either through a multi-client agency or if people are employed by a charity or an in-house organisation to work on a particular issue. One would look at campaigning and treat that much more in terms of voluntary groups or political parties that may be coming together. It is imprecise. It is a very good question, but levels of specificity would be where I would focus.
Tamasin Cave: I am not sure that I agree with that entirely. At the moment, the NHS campaigners seem to be fighting over a couple of amendments, which is pretty specific. I agree that the engagement with the public is a key part of it. I draw attention to the fact that, with certain lobbying campaigns, it is a deliberate strategy to keep things out of the press and the public domain.
A while ago, there was a case study on the CIPR website about a particular campaign against the pesticides tax. It was being run by the pesticides industry, by a company called Hill and Knowlton, I think. Their campaign strategy says that it was a deliberate intention to keep it out of the national press because they did not want to raise it among green groups. They did not want to catch the attention of environmental groups, and this is explicit in their campaign strategy. What they did want to do was engage with the trade press because they needed the farmers to lobby on their behalf. The use of the media is a very deliberate, covert tactic and technique in the lobbying industry.
Q47 Mrs Laing: Not in campaigning?
Tamasin Cave: No. In campaigning, we are much more public facing. We do not have an awful lot of interest in keeping things secret, because a lot is about public engagement.
Q48 Mrs Laing: Is there a value judgment of whether something is inherently good or not inherently good, as to whether it is a campaign or a lobby?
Tamasin Cave: No.
Q49 Mrs Laing: Because you think that a particular charity is acting for the public good, that is campaigning not lobbying?
Tamasin Cave: No, I’m not saying that. The nature of most campaign groups is that they are public facing, but it can be a deliberate tactic of the lobbyists to keep things out of the press.
Q50 Mrs Laing: Thank you. It doesn’t matter that you can’t answer my question, it puts the subject before the Committee.
Is there an inherent assumption that, if ministers or indeed MPs, civil servants or anyone else involved in the decision-making process on a particular issue meet a lobbyist, those ministers or other decision makers will be influenced by that lobbyist?
It looks like I will get, a "No, no, no" for that one. That would be good.
Lionel Zetter: Hopefully, they would. If the case being put forward was valid, and it was put forward in a coherent fashion, then, yes, the idea is that they would be influenced. Equally, they would be subject to a counter lobby by the other side. The whole point about lobbying is that there are at least two sides to every argument-often more-and it is only through lobbying that all these issues come to light and all these other arguments are tested by MPs and ministers who are there because their judgment is trusted. At the end of the day, it is your judgment that counts, not ours. It is yours.
Justin Fisher: It’s a very important point. There is absolutely no guarantee that having access leads to impact. The example I always give to my students is that I can meet my vice chancellor whenever I like, but there is absolutely no guarantee that he will take me seriously. One can meet whoever one likes, but there is no guarantee that it will lead to anything in particular.
Tamasin Cave: I don’t think it is the case that necessarily there will be influence, but you would then have to have the counter argument. I come back to a case study-I am using it not because I am involved, but because it is a very good case study-of the Cabinet Office’s approach to this particular issue. It granted privileged access to the industry, whereby ministers sanctioned monthly meetings with UKPAC, but explicitly wrote to me to say that it would be inappropriate to meet me before the consultation was published. Therefore, it isn’t getting any information from me and it isn’t getting a counter argument put to it. With many, many policies, you will have disproportionate access given to industry compared with, say, environmental groups. The figures on the planning reforms bear that out.
Q51 Mrs Laing: I’m reluctant to go down that road any further, because I think that Ms Cave is trying to plead her own case here. I do not think that that is a good idea in front of our Committee. That is not what we are here for. There must be plenty of other examples.
I should perhaps take the question a step further. Is it not to be assumed, therefore, that every minister or other decision-maker meets one set of people and someone who is acting responsibly in their decision-making process would automatically meet people who are putting the case from all sides of an issue? You all said that it is of course not to be assumed that a minister will be influenced by meeting a particular lobbyist. You all suggested that the matter would be examined from all sides of the issue.
Justin Fisher: I am not sure that that follows. My point was that you cannot guarantee that access leads to influence. I am not sure that it follows from that that you should assume that all decision makers would look at all sides of an argument equally. Having said that, there are many people who would probably feel that they should have an input into a decision being made. Some of them are credible and some of them are not. You cannot blame decision makers for being selective on from whom they receive evidence. That is not to cast aspersions at all on Tamasin’s organisation, but A. N. Other organisation could well write to the Cabinet Office and say that it wants to have some input but there is simply not enough room in the diary, because the Cabinet Office has no idea who these people are. I would dispute your logic that one flows from the other.
Q52 Mrs Laing: I am only asking the question. Ms Cave said in her remarks at the beginning of this meeting-if I can ask Ms Cave first and then ask Mr Zetter and Professor Fisher to comment on it-that the Government’s consultation paper does not answer the problem, but answers a different question. So, what is the problem?
Tamasin Cave: The problem is that we have no public scrutiny of who is lobbying who and for what in this country. We could increase government accountability by improving public scrutiny of lobbying. This proposal, as it stands, will not do that. They have identified a problem that does not exist and applied a solution to that, which is the point I made earlier.
Q53 Mrs Laing: Would you perhaps like to state it more clearly?
Tamasin Cave: Certainly. Mark Harper said on the "World at One" that the problem that they were seeking to address with these proposals was the lack of transparency of ministerial meetings. He said that when ministers meet a company, it is very clear who they are meeting and everyone knows what that is about, whereas if they meet an agency, it is not always clear which clients the agency is representing. That is what we seek to address with these proposals. That is what he told the "World at One". It is all backed up in the consultation paper that that is the problem that they are seeking to address with this. Having used data from whoslobbying.com, we have done the figures. Of the 5,144 meetings that have been logged by ministers since May 2010, about 10 are with multi-client agencies.
Q54 Mrs Laing: I recall that you said that earlier, but what is the problem?
Tamasin Cave: There is no problem. The problem that Mark Harper is seeking to address, which is a lack of transparency with regard to multi-client agencies-he cites ministerial meetings-is not a problem. Does that make sense?
Q55 Mrs Laing: But what is the problem?
Tamasin Cave: The problem is this lack of transparency within the whole of the lobbying industry. Three quarters of the lobbying industry is in-house lobbyists and a quarter is agencies. Those are industry figures, although if you look at the Government’s consultation paper, they have put the ratio at less than one in-house lobbyist to two agency lobbyists. I do not know where they have got their figures from, but they say that there are 1,000 agency lobbyists in this country and 320 in-house.
Q56 Mrs Laing: Sorry. We do not seem to be getting there. What is the problem? How is democracy being harmed by the current situation? That is not a rhetorical question; it is an absolutely straight question: what is the problem?
Tamasin Cave: The problem is, I would argue, that we have growing public concern-I would say that it is very high-about undue influence and access afforded to lobbyists. So there is public concern that government are listening to lobbyists more than they listen to the general public. That is the easiest way of putting it. In terms of a particular policy, whether it is the planning regulations, changes to planning law, NHS reforms, particular contracts or whatever, there is public concern that there are vested interests at work here.
Q57 Mrs Laing: I want to get this very clear. You are asserting that the problem is that ministers give undue attention to lobbyists rather than to people in general who bring issues to them.
Tamasin Cave: I am saying that the democratic process is being subverted by a £2 billion professional lobbying industry. May I quote David Cameron? He says, "Lobbying is perfectly reasonable…when it’s open and transparent, when people know who is meeting who, for what reason and with what outcome." We do not have that at the moment. We do not have public scrutiny of who is meeting whom and about what. So we have no way of knowing whether vested interests are having undue influence on policy.
Q58 Mrs Laing: Thank you. Can I ask Professor Fisher if he thinks that that is the problem?
Justin Fisher: In the broadest terms, the general principle is that transparency has been applied to most areas of political life and lobbying is one area that is a particular exception. If you are saying, "What is the problem for democracy as such?" that would be my general response. But there is also a problem for the industry. The concerns about some of the sharp practices that have been engaged in tarnishes all lobbyists. That, in a sense, is the problem. In the aftermath of the PASC inquiry, we had a round table in the Palace of Westminster and many of the charitable people there, who were lobbyists, were saying that they would welcome regulation because when somebody behaves badly in the commercial sector, their work subsequently gets tarnished. If there is a big problem, it is a big problem for the industry; the whole thing gets dragged down because of a few bad apples.
Lionel Zetter: I firmly believe that lobbying enhances the democratic process. In a mature democracy like the United Kingdom, we make sure that all sides of the argument are put. We also level the playing field. When a party is in opposition, it is, as we are all aware, stripped of its civil servants. It has no paid-for special advisers, the money does not flow and it is short of resources. If we lobbyists do not get what we want from the Government, we go to the Opposition and say, "Have you thought of asking this? Have you thought of tabling this Bill? What about this EDM?" So we level the playing field.
If there is a problem, it is not with democracy; it is with our image. That is what we tried to address with the UK Public Affairs Council. We did half the job. In order to do the other half, we need a bit of help from the Government. I am not talking about money; I am talking about the compulsion that will lead to universality and bring everybody under the same rules in the same tent. We can then go forward from there. But at the moment it is we at the core, who have always engaged, belonged to professional bodies and declared our interests, who are at a disadvantage. So we are saying to the Government, "Help us out here. Let’s bring everybody within that tent." That, I am afraid, means a statutory register.
Mrs Laing: Thank you.
Q59 Chair: Members of Parliament are meant to represent everybody, whether they are constituents or people with broader interests. Is it not a reflection on the position of Members of Parliament in politics that there is a paid lobbying industry? Should Parliament and Members of Parliament not be looking to themselves to beef up their own capability, so that they can more effectively represent all sorts of views in all sorts of ways to Parliament? Would paid lobbyists then be out of a job?
Justin Fisher: I do not see that that follows at all, not least because you would not have the time to do that, with all the various and complex things that MPs must consider. One of the benefits of lobbying is that it provides information to generalists and can lead, on occasions, to better-informed policy. To answer your question, that probably should be the case, but it would be impossible to achieve, simply because you don’t have the time.
Tamasin Cave: I agree, but despite the fact that you have a very important job, a lot of decisions are taken by civil servants. If I were a lobbyist-
Mr Chope: You are.
Tamasin Cave: Thank you. I have to remind myself-if I were a regulated lobbyist. You target civil servants, as is the case with this policy.
Q60 Chair: Lionel, I think I know what your answer will be.
Lionel Zetter: I probably should have declared that I am a local councillor in Enfield. I spend a lot of my time dealing with pretty micro issues, from dog mess to pavements and so on, but we are also confronted with planning issues. Even as councillors, we have to take a judgment about whether we look at the half dozen people who are living round a development, who will be inconvenienced and whose property value may be damaged by a proposal, or whether we look at the bigger picture and say, "We need jobs. We need a new school. We need a waste processing plant." We have to balance that. Even as councillors, we are lobbied, so we have some idea of what that is all about.
But would you have time to do that? I don’t need to tell you that different Members of Parliament have different priorities depending on what constituency they represent. For some, the social worker aspect is the priority. You are acting as super-councillors, stepping in where the councillors cannot resolve the issues. For others, it really is about green belt, property values or industry. If you have time to do them all-absolutely fantastic, but you are on Select Committees, all-party groups and you have your constituency work. If we can make your life easier going forward, I am happy to help.
Q61 Chair: I am sometimes irritated by organisations that approach me through lobbying companies. If people have passion and care for their subject, they can get hold of me straight away. I don’t need the facilitation or oil of a middleman or middlewoman.
Justin Fisher: But that is often not the reason why they use a lobbying company. It is a question of expertise and how best to put a case across. That is why you hire a solicitor to help you buy a house.
Chair: I may have similar views about lawyers, but I better not-
Lionel Zetter: Ones I’d share.
Tamasin Cave: I have nothing to add.
Q62 Mr Chope: Your last line of questioning, Chairman, has been very instructive. Basically, everyone in the professional lobbying industry has a vested interest in trying to minimise the influence of MPs in the public’s view. Many’s the time that a company in my constituency would be much better off coming and speaking to me than spending a lot of money going to a professional lobbying organisation. Now, in order to give professional lobbying more credibility, you set up your register. You will be really excited if we can waste more parliamentary time setting up a statutory register, because you think that it will turn your industry into a profession and that everyone will give you more credibility, and you will be able to demand higher fees as a result.
This is a complete charade, isn’t it? Isn’t that exemplified by the introductory memorandum that Tamasin gave us from Spinwatch. In the first paragraph, she says, "We established the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (ALT)", which is a coalition of NGOs and unions, many of which are lobby groups, "including"-I am being selective-"Friends of the Earth." She says that they are "concerned about the growing influence of lobbying on policy-making in the UK." Friends of the Earth is one of the most prolific lobbyists of Members of Parliament and of government-so much so that, in my experience, it purports to get signatures on postcards when quite often the people whose signatures are on those postcards deny any knowledge of ever having signed them, but let us leave that on one side.
Surely, it is arguable that the great success of the last Government in getting the Climate Change Act through Parliament with, I think, only five of us voting against the Third Reading-right across the whole of Parliament-was the very successful result of a big, single issue pressure group, which put pressure on MPs and ultimately on the Government to do something that in the long term is costing ordinary energy consumers in this country a fortune, because they are having to pay extra for the regulatory costs of that climate change legislation.
So when Tamasin says that SpinWatch is engaged in this, would it not be fairer to say that SpinWatch is concerned about the counter-commercial lobbyists-the ones that may be countering the effectiveness of the groups which she represents?
Chair: Can I start, Tamasin, with Lionel on the first point about Members of Parliament and lobbyists, and then come to Tamasin and to Justin at the end?
Lionel Zetter: Putting it in terms which, I hope, you would appreciate, Mr Chope, if we were not doing a reasonable job, companies and organisations would not hire us. If we were not reasonably effective, MPs and ministers would not see us. At the moment, there is no sign of that. It is not a huge industry in the UK, but it has grown steadily, which seems to indicate that there is a need.
You talk about the profession. Yes, you are absolutely right. You are a barrister. Lots of lobbyists would like to see themselves in that same legal category; we are not. We really are not of that calibre, but we are seeking to become more professional, to be better trained and to be more ethical. I hope those efforts are appreciated by politicians, by the media and by Spinwatch. A lot of us are passionate about politics. Quite a few of us have tried to get into politics. We are failed politicians, if you like-we are failed politicians and we want to be lawyers, so we are caught between the two. Hopefully, we do a good job: that is why people hire us and that is why people see us.
Tamasin Cave: We are the first to admit that we are all-most of us-lobbying groups. Friends of the Earth definitely is, and I am a lobbyist. I would like to be as transparent as I can be about the lobbying that we do, but you are right. A group such as Friends of the Earth is particularly interesting, because it has come up against the disparity in influence, access and resources-crucially-when it is facing, for example, the energy industry.
One of the things that we think should be on the register-we have not really discussed the details of the register-is financial disclosure, just to show the massive disparity in financial resources of industry and Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. Yes, they have a very high media profile and a very active membership who will write to MPs, but they are dwarfed by the scale of the energy industry lobby. It should be in the public domain that there are significantly more dollars being spent by the oil companies, for example, than by Friends of the Earth, to influence politics.
Q63 Mr Chope: If what you have just described is a problem, how is a statutory register going to sort it out?
Tamasin Cave: Well, if you had it in the public domain, for example, that Friends of the Earth had registered that it has six in-house lobbyists-I do not know how big its team is-and that it was lobbying on this particular piece of legislation, that it had approached whichever department it was and that it was spending this much money on it, that would be captured on a register. Then you have the one from BP, and it will say that BP has an in-house team of this, that it is lobbying on this and this, that it has approached this department and that it is spending this much on it. That is what the American register shows you, and you can see, for example, the massive disparity between people who were pro-Obama’s health care reforms and the industry that was opposed to them. That then changes the nature of the debate, because you can see both sides; you do not have this invisible army and a very public campaigning side. Then you can actually start to talk about the issues.
Justin Fisher: I am not sure I follow the purpose of the question. If it is to argue about whether or not lobbying has any impact at all and is a waste of money, I eagerly await the Committee’s inquiry into the homeopathy industry. People will spend money on all sorts of things that may or may not work, so in a sense that is irrelevant.
Should they professionalise? What is the argument against professionalisation? An industry exists, and there is a desire among some in the industry, but not all, to raise standards, so that the legitimate work that goes on for businesses, charities and so on to promote their case is not seen as automatically tawdry, which is the way it is presented.
I cannot speak for SpinWatch and who they support-I am nothing to do with them. I am here as an independent person. I cannot speak for SpinWatch, but in a sense, if it does not work, who cares? I do not see the problem.
Q64 Mr Chope: The problem is that what we are talking about is spending parliamentary time putting another piece of regulatory legislation on the statute book. Certainly, some of us sitting around this table would say, "Before you do that, you have to prove that it is going to be worth doing."
Justin Fisher: No. I go back to the answer that I gave to Eleanor. There has been a general move towards greater transparency in political life. This is an activity of political life that thus far has not been subject to the same level of transparency that we see elsewhere. Broadly speaking, I think the arguments in favour of transparency have been accepted. We have moved on a lot in the last 15 years on that issue.
Q65 Mr Chope: May I ask a question about definitions? From some of the discussion earlier, you would describe a lawyer who writes to an MP on behalf of a constituent who has an immigration issue as a lobbyist, because that is a person who is being paid to act on behalf of a client and is communicating directly with a Member of Parliament, or perhaps with a department. You could get all sorts of professionals, such as accountants, coming into that category. Are you thinking that all those people will be included in the register?
Justin Fisher: There is a distinction to be made. The example you give would be someone who is acting on a point of law rather than putting across a particular policy argument. There is a key distinction there.
Tamasin Cave: There would be important exemptions. A constituent writing to an MP, whether via a third party or not, should be exempt. That should be private between an MP and their constituent.
On the issue of definition, when you talk to campaigners in the States, who have been doing this for 20 years, they say that definition was a big sticking point for them there. Yet the guy who writes Public Affairs News, the lobbyist trade magazine, wrote an editorial the other day saying, "Look guys. They’ve passed definition and they’ve got registers in Australia, Canada, the US and the EU-Germany has one to an extent and Austria is getting one. Nick one of their definitions and we’ll start with that." They have workable definitions around the world. It can be made to work.
Q66 Sheila Gilmore: That leads quite neatly into what I was going to ask about. What is the experience elsewhere? It is significant that although the US has apparently the most extensive process of registration and transparency, many people would probably say that it has one of the most effective lobbied legislatures going. We know that more money went into lobbying against Obama’s health care than for it, but that did not necessarily affect in any sense the outcome of that process. Is there any evidence from these other countries that their systems have worked? What have they done? How have they improved the situation?
Justin Fisher: Barely, is the honest response to that. As a model for comparing regulation, the United States is always a poor comparator in my view, not least because it goes down the path of trying to regulate everything that moves-you have to declare having a cup of coffee with someone and so on. If you are asking whether there is a successful regulatory system in other parts of the world, the honest answer to that question is no. Some appear to work more effectively than others-Canada and possibly some of the reforms in Australia-but to be perfectly honest, few countries do it. As I recall from the PASC inquiry, there was recognition that you could not simply take regulation in another country in this area and just put it in the British context. There is no good evidence that it works elsewhere.
Tamasin Cave: Works in what sense? The register is not trying to stop lobbying; it is trying to increase Government accountability, transparency in the process, and public trust in decision making. It is not trying to stop it. In terms of raising the level of debate around lobbying and public understanding of the lobbying industry, in the States that has had a positive effect. They know the scale of their industry. They know that the financial services industry in the last decade has spent $5.1 billion lobbying Washington; they know that, and they can then factor that into debates about what we do next and bank lobbying now. We cannot have those debates in this country because it is often painted as some sort of cottage industry here, but it is not: it is a £2 billion industry. You have Washington, Brussels and then London. It is a significant industry that we know nothing about.
Lionel Zetter: I would dearly love to know where that £2 billion figure comes from.
Tamasin Cave: The Hansard Society.
Lionel Zetter: It is a bizarre notion. If you add up the turnover of all the members of the APPC and the PRCA, it would not come to anything like £2 billion. I wish it did.
We are not a cottage industry, but we are a small industry in the UK, and likely to remain so for one very good reason. In the United States, it is perfectly possible to buy influence because getting elected in the US, as I am sure you all know, is a very expensive business. If you want to get elected to the House, it will cost you $15 million to $20 million; if you want to get to the Senate, it will probably cost you $50 million. If you want to be the Prime Minister, it could cost you between half a billion and a billion. Money talks in America.
Lionel Zetter: Yes, if you want to be President. The reason why it talks is because they have advertising: you can buy advertising, and that is really expensive. Whereas in this country, political parties-as you know better than me- will spend £25 million on the entire election, if I want to stand for a no-hope seat in north London, it will cost me £10,000. That is the scale. Money does not talk in politics in the UK. It does in America.
I go back to my earlier point: we are not relying on rules and regulations to keep us honest. We do rely on the free press, but we also rely within ourselves on this culture of compliance. If people do not get caught out, we do not say, "Oh, bad luck," or, "Oh, well done. That was quite a neat trick you nearly pulled off." We say, "That is really not helpful." We are all trying to bring about a culture of compliance that means we help each other to promote the image of the industry and we can go forward. A statutory register is a good foundation on which to build.
Q67 Sheila Gilmore: Are there any examples of statutory registers?
Lionel Zetter: I quite like the European Parliament one, and for a very good reason. Like many people in this room, I am perhaps not the biggest fan of the European Union, but their register works. I shall tell you why I think it works: there is a stick and a carrot. If you are a lobbyist, and you come in and out of this place two or three times a day, it can get very cold out there and you are searched by the same person wearing the same gear that you were wearing the last time you came in. It is a pain for us, and it is also not cost-effective for the security of the House. In Europe, if you sign up to a register, you get issued with a pass and that means that you can go in and out at will, but it clearly labels you as a lobbyist. Like at party conference, everyone knows who you are and who you are representing. The carrot in Europe is that you get one of the passes and, if you misbehave, it gets taken away, which is a massive inconvenience, so it is a real incentive to behave properly. That is something that I would like to be considered. I very much doubt that it will be, but most systems work better when there is not just compulsion, but reward.
Tamasin Cave: The register is not there for the convenience of lobbyists. It is good that it makes your lives easier, but the last time I looked at the Brussels lobbying register, there was not one law firm on it. It has serious omissions, because it is voluntary.
Lionel Zetter: It is currently voluntary.
Q68 Andrew Griffiths: Just a brief question to start. Tamasin-this may have already been covered, so forgive me colleagues-you said that there was growing public concern about lobbying and the operation of lobbyists. I see stories in the newspaper about lobbying. We all want to see greater transparency about how this process operates, but have you got any quantitative evidence that it is a concern of the public? Has any survey been done? I must admit that, on the doorstep in Burton, no one has ever said to me that their No. 1 concern is the transparency of lobbying.
Tamasin Cave: No, they won’t, but they might tell you that they do not like what is happening in the NHS and will ask why that is happening.
Q69 Andrew Griffiths: That is not the same thing, is it? We all have concerns about government policy in one shape or form, but that is not related in any way, shape or form to the lobbying process.
Chair: Tamasin, evidence please.
Tamasin Cave: There is evidence that concern about NHS reforms is directed at undue influence, improper access and vested interests at work.
Q70 Andrew Griffiths: What is that evidence?
Tamasin Cave: I speak to a lot of people and they are very concerned about this. I am sorry, that is anecdotal.
May I return to your original question?
Q71 Andrew Griffiths: Just to answer my question, is there any quantitative evidence at all that the public are concerned about this?
Tamasin Cave: Well, moving from the NHS to the planning reforms, if you take The Daily Telegraph’s coverage-let’s suggest that it reflects a public concern-it has been uncovering and exposing that sort of lobbying, whether it is a donor’s club for the Conservatives that is run by a property developer or the industry.
Q72 Andrew Griffiths: That is a newspaper story. That is no evidence that this is a concern of the general public.
Tamasin Cave: There are surveys-I am afraid that I do not have them in front of me-such as the one done in 2004. Then we had the Power inquiry and I think that the Conservatives did a recent one in 2008, all of which point towards the fact that there is public concern about vested interests having undue influence on policy. I will just draw your attention to what David Cameron said-
Q73 Andrew Griffiths: Can you share those with the Committee?
Tamasin Cave: I can certainly send them to you. I am sorry I don’t have them here.
Q74 Chair: Justin, do you have information that is historical or current from polling organisations or any other source that suggests that this is a matter, not of concern, but, as two questioners have said, of public concern?
Justin Fisher: There are no data of which I am aware. There may be isolated surveys, although, to be honest, I would take anything that was in the Power inquiry with a huge tub of salt. Even if there is an individual survey, that could indicate growing concern. You weren’t in the room at the time, Mr Griffiths, but I return to the point I made earlier that the presence or absence of public concern is a red herring. It is whether or not it is an appropriate thing to do in terms of the prevention of future problems in political life.
Chair: I will ask you separately for your evidence about the tub of salt. I suggest that Tamasin drops us a note, if you want to research this, and address the concerns that have been raised by a couple of Members about the public view.
Q75 Andrew Griffiths: On the question earlier about people being contacted on behalf of constituents, I was contacted by a lawyer acting on behalf of a constituent who was concerned. The constituent owned a car park and they were concerned about the implications of the Government’s proposals on clamping and regulation on clamping. Is that lobbying? That is question one.
Secondly, the proposal is that in order to register there will be a signing-on fee, if you like, and then a yearly registration. Do you have any views about the level at which that should be set, and do you have any concerns about whether that might prevent smaller organisations from being able to take part in the lobbying process?
Lionel Zetter: Very much so, yes. That is the problem with the UK Public Affairs Council-that only a small proportion of the industry has joined in, which means that it cannot properly bear the overheads that are necessary. Running a register for 300 people is the same as running it for 3,000, more or less, so it did not have the resources. If we charge too much, that would scare people off. The way to avoid charging too much is to spread the load as wide as possible.
In terms of what you would pay, I pay £140 a year to belong to the NUJ and £200 a year to belong to the CIPR. Those kinds of figures should not be scary if you are serious about your profession. If it were firms paying, there would certainly be an argument to vary the fee according to the head count, so that smaller firms-one-man bands, two-man bands-were not squeezed out. The current proposals would be especially unfair on freelance public affairs consultants, of which I used to be one, because they simply do not have the means to bear the same kind of costs as a small, medium or large agency.
I keep coming back to the point that universality is the key. Unfortunately, we are never going to get near that unless the Government, in one form or another-whether that is primary legislation, a clause in an existing Bill or an SI-tell us we have to.
As for the point about lawyers, they are regulated by the Law Society and the Bar Council. There is no question, usually, about their behaviour. Obviously, from time to time, lawyers misbehave, like any other profession, but there are sanctions to deal with that. When they stray into lobbying, potentially that could be a problem, which goes back to the definition. If they are spending the majority of their time, half their time or a sizeable proportion of their time lobbying, then there is definitely an argument. If they happen to be a lawyer who happens to represent a client who happens to have a planning issue and they lobby on their behalf, I do not think that brings them into the tent. If it becomes an everyday occurrence, that is different.
Justin Fisher: I am slightly puzzled about the Government’s proposal to set up a statutory register and pass on the cost to someone else. The thinking on that seems to me to be slightly illogical. None the less, it equally seems to me that if you wish to practise in a particular area, and you wish to be considered as professional, there are costs associated with that. You may be a one-man band dentist, but you still have to register with the British Dental Association and so on and so forth, although the remuneration for dentists is, I suspect, rather higher than it is for public affairs professionals.
To go back to your example, I echo Lionel’s point, but I also think that it is important that, when thinking about the general principles, you do not get bogged down in the "What if?" questions. Those obviously need to be considered in detail, and no definition will be 100% watertight. But that does not mean that the exercise should not be attempted, if it were deemed appropriate.
Tamasin Cave: I think you mentioned charities. Charities should definitely be on this. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations is likely to be on board, as long as it does not affect the very small charities, which brings me on to the discussion about the funding of it. I do not think that it is like dentistry. I do not think that this is an activity like pulling teeth. If we talk about lobbying as a democratic right, and we do not want any barriers to people engaging in the activity of lobbying-which we certainly do not-there cannot be a financial barrier to people actually behaving transparently as a lobbyist.
They are always saying that it should be applied to professional lobbyists, but in the case of, say, a large charity that is campaigning on something, there should not be a barrier-whether it is a £250 CIPR registration fee-to show that they are lobbying. This must be government-funded. I refer back to my earlier point, which was David Cameron saying that there are billions of pounds-worth of government contracts at stake here. The potential savings in terms of better policy making, better procurement decisions and things like that mean that it would pay for itself very quickly.
Chair: I ask colleagues who want to come back to ask very quick, clear, specific questions, and perhaps witnesses could be brief, too, so that we can get everyone in before 12 o’clock.
Q76 Simon Hart: You mentioned, Tamasin, that charities should be included. You also referred to financial disclosure without explaining what exactly that meant. You also commented on there being a sensible threshold. Having been involved in a lobbying charity, how can you assure me that the interests would be protected, particularly when that charity actually used members to lobby constituency MPs in their constituency? How can we be protected from your proposals, whatever they are?
Tamasin Cave: Protected in what sense? Protected from declaring?
Q77 Simon Hart: No, not protected from declaring, but protected from actually having an inordinate cost and bureaucracy to deal with, and protected from donors being concerned about their perfectly reasonable private donations being made public. I need some further explanation of what you consider a sensible threshold for a small charity to become a big charity in your eyes.
Tamasin Cave: We put the threshold probably too low. We have been in discussion with the NCVO about where the threshold should be. It is often the case that a chief executive of a charity will undertake some lobbying activity, but if they have a full-time public affairs person or a full-time lobbyist, should <?oasys [pc10p0] ?>that be the trigger for registration? Grass-roots lobbying is another case. I don’t think that petitioning your members to petition MPs should necessarily be included.
Q78 Fabian Hamilton: Professor Fisher, earlier you said that there is no distinction between good lobbyists and bad lobbyists; there are just lobbyists. I put this to you. Surely there are those who lobby because they believe that there is a public interest in changing the law or influencing MPs, and those who lobby because they want to sell a product and make a profit for their company. Would you not draw that distinction?
Justin Fisher: No. Charities employ people to work on their behalf, often who have no interest whatever in the aims of the charity-marketing officers, public affairs officials. It is irrelevant whether it is a charity or a business.
Q79 Fabian Hamilton: But their aims are not to sell a product to make a profit, their aims are to improve the world we live in.
Justin Fisher: No. Improve the world from their point of view. The distinction is a meaningless one.
Tamasin Cave: Lobbying is a tactical investment by a company, and a stat from the States says that, for every dollar spent on lobbying, a company can expect $100 return, at least. So there is a reason why they do it, which is different from charities.
Q80 Mr Turner: It used to be, didn’t it, that charities were not allowed to campaign and non-charities were. Is that a possible division in the future?
Lionel Zetter: I fear that distinction has gone, Mr Turner. Now the Charity Commission allows charities to campaign. There is no distinction between a charity and a pressure group or an action group.
Chair: I shall call it quits there. It has been a fascinating session. Members have not only had full rein in their questions, they have come back again. We could go on for another hour at least, I am sure. Thank you all very much indeed. Lionel, Justin, Tamasin, you have been extremely helpful. Feel free to send in further opinions and information, should you wish. Thank you.