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Political and Constitutional Reform Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 153
Taken before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
on Thursday 17 May 2012
Mr Graham Allen (Chair)
Mr Christopher Chope
Examination of Witness
Witness: Mr Mark Harper MP, Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, Cabinet Office, gave evidence.
Q403 Chair: Good morning. We are going to discuss lobbying today. Is there anything you want to tell us, Mark, just to kick us off?
Mr Harper: We will obviously go into detail, but given that there has been press comment calling into question the Government’s commitment to getting this job done, I thought it might be worth saying at the beginning that we are committed to getting it done during this Parliament. I have said in other places-I cannot remember whether I have done so in Parliament-that we have done the consultation, which is now closed. You are obviously undertaking your inquiry. The consultation responses are being analysed, and we will look closely at them and your report. We will then publish a White Paper and a draft Bill during this Session of Parliament for pre-legislative scrutiny. We will also publish the summary of responses to the consultation, with details of our next steps, before the summer recess.
We may not be going as fast as some people would like, but I think you have probably discovered from your evidence sessions-we certainly did from the consultation responses and the six public events that I did-that the devil of the subject is in the detail. I would rather get it right, with a long-lasting solution that we do not have to return to, than rush off and do something in haste and have it unravel. We are taking a sensible approach, but we are determined to get it done during this Parliament. Some of the press coverage was a little misleading.
Other than that, I am happy to dive straight into dealing with questions from the Committee.
Q404 Chair: This is a nice lob to get you warmed up. Obviously, people keep referring back to the Prime Minister’s comment that this was "the next big scandal waiting to happen." Do you think the work in front of us will stop that next big scandal happening?
Mr Harper: I very much hope so. One of the interesting points that came out during some of the events that I did is that it is worth being clear about what problem we are trying to solve, because that will help to inform why our proposals in the consultation document are as they are.
The problem that we identified is not lobbying per se. We said in the consultation document that lobbying is a perfectly reputable activity. When governments do not listen to people who are affected by their legislation, they normally make very poor decisions. It is about making sure that the lobbying is transparent and that people know who is lobbying the Government, so that when they look at the decisions that are made they can draw their own conclusions. We said that when ministers meet external organisations, we would publish the details of those meetings, so that it is transparent. We said that there was a gap in the level of transparency. If we publish the fact that there were meetings in which ministers met companies that lobby for third parties, it is not clear who they were actually being lobbied by. The Minister may know-in fact, will know-but the outside world will not, and that is the gap we were trying to close in our proposals. Clearly, the evidence that we have had, that I have listened to publicly and that you have had is that people want us to have a much broader scope for that. The problem we were trying to solve was that gap in transparency, which explains why our proposals look as they do.
Transparency in this area is dealing with people, ensuring that they feel that government are listening to those who have a legitimate point of view, weighing that up, and then taking decisions in the public interest, rather than for some other reason.
Chair: I will bring in Paul, but first I am going to Chris, because he has a particular question around definition that picks up the Minister’s opening remarks. Do you want to drop that one in now, as it seems appropriate?
Q405 Mr Chope: We know that people are suggesting that there should be more discussion about the specifics of what we mean by lobbying. You cannot have clear legislation, unless the people who are affected by it know whether or not it is going to apply to them. Are you minded to have further consultation with organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, which thinks that it has now got a more workable definition of lobbying? Surely that is the fundamental basis of the whole process of setting up the legislation.
Mr Harper: Sure. We absolutely agree that getting the details right is important, which is why we have not rushed off to do something and then found that it has all unravelled. I have seen what the CIPR has said. I was a little worried that it said that it had asked a law firm to come up with a workable five-page definition of lobbying. It did not seem to me that that necessarily met the spirit of what we were intending. It comes back to what we intend the legislation to do, and we will reflect on that when we look at the consultation responses. If we are trying to create a register that captures everyone who does lobbying, whether or not you call them a lobbyist, and tries to influence government and Parliament, that clearly is one definition. The alternative definition that we set out in our consultation is where we are trying to capture those who lobby for third parties, because we felt that that was a gap in the transparency.
One of the issues is just deciding what problem it is that we are trying to solve. We have set out in the consultation document the problem as we see it and how we think that we should solve it. One of the things that has come through from the consultation and the meetings is that other people, including many people in the industry, think that it is a different problem that we are trying to solve. What we propose to do when we set out our White Paper and draft legislation is be clear about the problem and how we intend to solve it. Part of the reason why we want to publish a draft bill for pre-legislative scrutiny is to make sure that we get those definitions right, that they are workable, and that everyone who will be captured by them-whether that is industry in the narrower definition or whether we go for the register with a wider scope-is clear about whether they would have to register on such a statutory register. That is why we want to do this in a deliberative way, rather than rushing off and getting it wrong.
Q406 Mr Chope: Will the draft bill have two alternative definitions of lobbying, depending on whether or not you go for third-party lobbying?
Mr Harper: No. The Government’s intention is that we will look carefully at the consultation responses. The consultation has only recently closed. We have not finished that work yet. We will do that and we will look carefully at the report that this Committee publishes-both the evidence that you took and any conclusions and recommendations that you reach. We will reach a policy decision, which we will set out in the White Paper, and then we will publish a draft bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. That is a sensible way of doing things. People will still have the opportunity to comment on our White Paper, our policy intention, and the way we have defined it in draft legislation.
Q407 Chair: Thank you, Mark. When we have operated as a select committee should, as a partner for government-an often critical but friendly partner-on, for example, electoral registration and administration issues, what has been produced as a result of that process is far better than what we started with. That is not a criticism of the earlier part of the process. It is just that the full process can work to everyone’s benefit.
You have pointed out that the devil is in the detail. I hope that you will take the same view-the view that we have had so far-on this potential legislation. There are a lot of strong-minded people with their own views on this Committee, but I hope that we will produce something that is helpful in making it even more workable.
Mr Harper: Sure. One thing that would be very helpful, Chairman, is specifically to come back to the point about defining the problem. We have set out clearly what we think the problem is. Some people from the industry think that it is a different problem. One of the things that they have enjoyed pointing out, I think, is that a number of the so-called scandals involving lobbying have involved politicians in some part of the process. They have often pointed out that that has often been the case. It would be helpful, therefore, to hear from a committee of parliamentarians on what you think the problem is, and therefore what you think the appropriate solution is. The Government will listen very carefully to what you have to say and weigh that up against what the public and other interested parties have said in the consultation.
We have heard mixed views. Even when listening to audiences from the industry, I have heard different views about the problem and the solution. It is a case of trying to get something that generally people feel correctly identifies the problem and sets out a sensible, workable solution that does not burden everyone and make genuine discussion with government difficult. That would be helpful.
Chair: We will try to be as helpful as possible and respect the spirit of openness in which you have addressed the issue. Thank you.
Q408 Paul Flynn: Not the press but serious commentators have pointed out the gulf between the Prime Minister’s splendid rhetoric in February 2010 and the reality of what you have presented. Mark Adams, a lobbyist, has described the paper as "possibly one of the most shoddy documents I have ever seen government produce." Sir Stuart Etherington, Chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said of the register: "Basically it’s so weak now there’s no point in us joining it." Do you accept that the Government’s proposals are weak and in no way represent the spirit of what the Prime Minister said in February 2010?
Mr Harper: No, I do not. Part of this comes down to what problem you are trying to solve. The problem that we are trying to solve is a lack of transparency about those who meet ministers.
Q409 Paul Flynn: You have said that a number of times. There are a number of things that I would like to ask you, if I can go on to that. You think it is okay. Fine; we have got that point. Let’s take not what the Government say, but what they actually do. The ministerial code was set up five years ago. There are three instances that possibly should have been investigated by the independent adviser-Sir Philip Mawer, as it then was, or the new adviser. One of them is the current case involving the Culture Secretary. There is also the case involving the Communities Secretary and one involving Mr Adam Werritty and the former Defence Secretary. All those are potential breaches of the ministerial code. None of them has been investigated. Why is that?
Mr Harper: I will let the Chairman decide how far he wants me to go. On the point about the Culture Secretary, the Prime Minister has made the position very clear. He is responsible for enforcing the ministerial code. He does not-
Paul Flynn: Shall we-
Chair: Paul, the minister has to answer the question.
Mr Harper: I shall try to keep the answers fairly brief, but you have asked me the questions, so I will try to answer them. As far as the Culture Secretary is concerned, the Prime Minister has made it clear that he is responsible as the arbiter of the code. The Secretary of State is going to set out all his evidence at the Leveson inquiry. The Prime Minister’s view is that the Secretary of State has not breached the ministerial code. The Prime Minister has made it clear that if, after having looked at all the evidence that is laid out, he takes a different view, he will act. That seems to me a perfectly sensible process. You have a judge in a public inquiry at which witnesses will give evidence under oath; that seems to be a much more robust process, in this case, than asking Sir Alex Allan to carry out a parallel process.
Q410 Paul Flynn: Do you know the details about the Communities Secretary? The Communities Secretary had a dinner-a five-star dinner at the Savoy-with Bell Pottinger and one of its clients who had a case that they were bringing before his department. His reason for not registering it was that on that day he was eating privately and not ministerially, so we are not sure on what day he eats with his ministerial stomach and on what day he eats with his private stomach. Apparently, the Government accepted that defence, and that he did not have to register it. Is that an advance in transparency?
Mr Harper: This Government are far more transparent than any previous Government have been in terms of publishing the details of ministerial meetings, who ministers are meeting, when those meetings are with external organisations, and the purpose of those meetings. It is clearly for ministers to make a judgment about the extent of that publication, and then for the Prime Minister to judge whether that is in accordance with the code. I know you have raised this case before, and I think the Communities Secretary responded to those allegations publicly-I cannot remember, off the top of my head, what he said-but I think people were broadly content with his response. Clearly that is an issue for the code.
It is interesting to come back to this case, though, because it raises one important issue that the Committee might want to take a view on. We said in the consultation document that this was about not just lobbyists meeting ministers, but how they engage with Parliament. Clearly, if you take the view that there is only an issue about meetings with ministers, one potential solution that has been put forward by some in the industry is that you solve the problem completely by beefing up the extent of the disclosure that ministers make about their meetings. I would argue that it is about not just ministers, but meetings that lobbyists might have with parliamentarians because, after all, individual parliamentarians can change the law-they can change what is in legislation-so it is not just about ministers. If you limit it only to ministers, you are missing out a whole load of interactions that lobbying organisations have with Members of Parliament and Members of the House of Lords. That is why we have set up the register solution, as opposed to just dealing with it through transparency about ministerial meetings.
Q411 Paul Flynn: Other Members will take up that point.
The investigation into the case of Adam Werritty and a former Defence Minister was conducted by a person who had no authority to conduct it. The sole enforcer of the ministerial code is the independent adviser. It was then Sir Philip Mawer, who said that he should have conducted the investigation, and who then resigned. The result of that investigation was certainly illegitimate, and many suggested it was inadequate as well. There was a resignation, which halted a full inquiry. How does it advance transparency when we still do not know the role of Mr Adam Werritty, who was in the pay of a number of think-tanks, most of them outside this country, and who, it is alleged, had an agenda to encourage a war between ourselves and Iran. This is the allegation: that a private defence policy was being pursued by a Defence Minister and his adviser-the most serious allegation one could make. It has not been investigated by the sole enforcer of the ministerial code. Why?
Mr Harper: I do not think you describe the adviser on ministerial interests correctly. The enforcer of the ministerial code is the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister is able to call on the independent adviser to investigate if, after consulting with the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister thinks that investigation is necessary. In this case it was not, because after the Cabinet Secretary had carried out some investigations and information came to light, the former Secretary of State for Defence decided that it was appropriate for him to tender his resignation and he ceased to be a member of the Government. It seems to me that, in that case, he accepted that he had behaved unwisely and he is no longer a member of the Government. It seems to me that the code, in that case, worked perfectly as it is supposed to.
Q412 Paul Flynn: If the allegations are true, the worst possible outcome-just to repeat this-is that having been drawn into a war to get rid of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, and having stayed in Afghanistan to defend ourselves against a non-existent Taliban terrorist threat to Britain, we could have been drawn into a war on the basis of non-existent Iranian long-range weapons, carrying non-existent Iranian nuclear bombs. That is the agenda of some of the people who were paying Adam Werritty, and he was possibly influencing a Minister of the Crown. We do not know; it has not been tested or investigated. In fact, you have not used the ministerial code at all in the two years in which you have been in government, although there have been three cases. Doesn’t this mean that instead of building up trust in politicians, we are further undermining it?
Mr Harper: Mr Flynn, I am perfectly happy to sit here and expand on the Government’s foreign and defence policy on a range of issues for some time, but I do not think that is what the Committee asked me to come here for. Your characterisation of the British Government’s foreign and defence policy is not one that I or, I suspect, most people share. You are entitled to your view, but it is not one that we share. I do not think that the allegations you have put forward are supported by even a shred of evidence.
Q413 Paul Flynn: I would be happy to provide you with that. Each of the self-regulatory bodies that has appeared before us has made its comments and submissions on this. The previous PASC suggested that we needed a statutory code that people had to abide by. You have pulled back from that. You have retreated from what happened in the previous Government-from recommendations that, disgracefully, were not taken up by the then Labour Government, though they should have been. Why didn’t you propose a statutory code of conduct alongside the register this time? What is your response to the argument that a register without a code of conduct will lead to less regulation of the lobbying industry, and that self-regulation usually means no regulation?
Mr Harper: On the point about a code of conduct, we made it clear in the consultation document that we published that we do not intend to set up a regulator for the whole industry or everyone who carries out some kind of lobbying. We are trying to set up a register to increase the transparency about those who meet with ministers and parliamentarians, so that people are aware of who is meeting who and the purpose of those meetings. Transparency is how you deal with the concerns that people have. It is a different point of view. We do not want to set up an industry-wide regulator-another quango to regulate the industry. We think that if we have transparency, that is how we will deal with it.
On your specific point about regulation and a code of conduct, one of the things that came through in a number of the meetings that I attended was an idea that we will consider that was put forward by some in the industry. They pointed out that a number of the professional bodies have a code of conduct. They suggested that it should be made very clear in the register if anyone registered was a member of an organisation that had a code of conduct and a mechanism for ensuring high standards.
The other thing that the Government will consider is whether ministers would meet with people who did not belong to an organisation that had a code of conduct and therefore tried to drive up standards. That may be a way of driving up standards and enforcing them. Government will consider that when we bring forward our final proposals.
Q414 Paul Flynn: A final question: Unlock Democracy has fairly made the point that what you are suggesting might include details of meetings with ministers, but not necessarily the subject of those meetings. Clearly, there is no worthwhile transparency unless subjects are published. Have you any intention of doing that? Do you think that it is essential to publish the subject of the meeting and not just the meeting itself?
Mr Harper: The details that are already published on meetings that ministers have with external organisations include the meeting’s purpose. Certainly, when I have meetings with external organisations, we say what the purpose of the meeting is. I know that there have been some concerns that if meetings cover a wide range of subjects, there is not enough detail, but there is a balance between publishing a minute of the meeting and publishing something that is meaningful, and people will have different views. We already publish not just the fact of meetings and who ministers are meeting, but the purpose of the meeting, which therefore gives an indication of the topics that are being discussed.
Paul Flynn: I am grateful to you.
Q415 Chair: Just following that up briefly, Mark, I wrote to the Cabinet Secretary-I hope you received a copy-about the publication of information. It is fine to publish it, but it has got to be published on a timely basis. The Cabinet Secretary has said that he has asked departments to continue to work to speed up the process. I would just make a comment, and you may wish to respond or not. Clearly if we are serious about this, just fulfilling the technical nature of the commitment is not good enough, and it would be very helpful if, perhaps even through your good offices, you could support the Cabinet Secretary on getting this information made available in a timely way. That will avoid any suspicion that there is some other agenda, which I am sure there is not.
Mr Harper: That is a very fair point, Chairman. In an earlier debate-it may even have been the one in Westminster Hall that Mr Flynn inspired-I made exactly this point. A colleague who had their iPad available looked up the details and pointed out exactly that: that the timeliness of publishing the meetings was not all it could have been, shall we say. I have spoken to my colleague, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and work is under way to speed up the publication of that information while making sure it is still accurate. There is a real push to make sure that that is published on a more timely basis, so that the transparency agenda is dealt with better and the information is available more speedily. That is not just a commitment from the Cabinet Secretary; it is a commitment from ministers. Your Committee will no doubt hold us to account if we fail to do that.
Chair: That is really helpful, minister. We will follow that up with a few questions as the report progresses, so that we can hopefully help you keep them to the task on that.
Q416 Mr Chope: May I ask you about what is happening in Canada and the United States, where the lobbying register includes provisions for financial disclosure? We have heard evidence saying that it is not going to work unless there is a provision for financial disclosure. What do you think about that?
Mr Harper: We said in the consultation document that we thought there was a case for a certain amount of financial disclosure, and we floated the idea of something similar. We said we did not think that detailed financial disclosure was appropriate, and we could see that there would be issues around commercial confidentiality there, but we posited the idea of something akin to what Members of Parliament, for example, publish when they have outside remuneration. That information is published in bands to give an indication of the size of financial commitment that lobbying companies might have with their clients. Obviously we will look very carefully at what responses come back on that issue.
Q417 Mr Chope: So have you rejected having a look at the Canadian or US-style model of the lobbying register, which includes proper financial disclosure?
Mr Harper: We have not rejected that. That was not what we set out in our consultation document as our first port of call. We thought a better balance was some financial information. Part of the reason is that we want to have a proportionate register. What we want is something that is workable, sensible, and reasonably easy to comply with, and something that delivers transparency. We are not trying to create a wall of useless information, which would have an issue surrounding commercial confidence.
We set out our proposals in the consultation document. I have not seen the details of the responses that have come back. We will look at what people have said. It is an issue that becomes more complex if the scope of the register is wider. So, for example, in the register as set out in the consultation document, where you are talking about those who lobby on behalf of third parties, it is reasonably easy to see what we would mean by financial information; it would be the nature of the contractual obligation between the two. If you start bringing into the register, as some argue you should, in-house lobbying, charities and trade unions, it is not then clear what financial information you would be asking for and how easy it would be to disclose. Indeed, if you had very detailed regulations, it is not clear how easy it would be for people to get round then. We will look carefully at what people have said in the consultation and we will listen very carefully to what the Committee has said.
Q418 Mr Chope: On the issue of proportionality, the proposal at the moment is that, effectively, a register, if it were brought in, would be self-financing and the people who are on the register or who applied to go on the register would have to pay fees. That would include sole practitioners, small organisations and not-for-profit organisations. Do you think that there is a case for exempting those small organisations from the burden of effectively having to pay?
Mr Harper: We do think there is an argument there. It is one of the things we set out in the consultation document-people’s views about whether there should be some kind of exemption from cost for small organisations. It is worth saying that we did think about whether we should exempt small organisations-the micro-businesses-from having to be registered in the first place. We decided against that, because it seemed to us that many of the organisations that operate in this industry are small organisations, and if you were to exclude them completely, you would be missing a lot of transparency. If you are going to include them, we think there is a case for asking how much of the financial burden they should pick up. That was one of the questions we asked in the consultation document, and we will look carefully at the responses.
There seemed to be a reasonable amount of agreement that this should be self-funding, but it was not unanimous, so we will look carefully at the consultation responses. There is clearly an argument. It could be like some registers that are self-funded and delivered by the industry at no cost to the taxpayer. There is another argument-that what we are doing is delivering a public service by making information transparent, and the taxpayer should pay for it. The Government’s starting position was that it should come at no cost to the taxpayer and should be funded from fees. People will have different views about that.
Q419 Mr Chope: The Government also have a policy of not increasing burdens on business through regulation. My understanding is that you specifically exempted these lobbying proposals from the burdens-on-business analysis of "one regulation in, but only if another regulation is removed", so why are you making an exemption from your own policy in relation to lobbying?
Mr Harper: Because we think that there is a real problem to solve here, which we want to deal with, but it is exactly for that reason, Mr Chope, that we want a proportionate response. We do not want to create something that will be a disproportionate burden on industry, or a sledgehammer to crack a nut; we want something that deals with the issue of transparency in a way that is proportionate to the problem and easy to comply with, but does the job. We do not want to do any more than is necessary to deal with the problem at hand.
Q420 Mr Chope: This is my final question. This paper is very much about government being on the receiving end of lobbying. Do you think there is a case for increased transparency the other way, where government are doing the briefing, but doing it anonymously?
Mr Harper: There are two issues here. I will deal with the one that I think you are asking about secondly. The first point is about taxpayers’ money being used for lobbying. We have already set out very clearly, in codes of practice, that local government should not be using taxpayers’ money to lobby government. We have also made it clear that non-departmental public bodies should not be engaging in lobbying other parts of government to bid for more money for themselves. Those are two very important measures. On what you are saying, are you talking about the Government briefing the media about stories?
Q421 Mr Chope: Yes-not just the media, but government briefings.
Mr Harper: I do not think there is anything wrong with the Government seeking to communicate their message. The Government do that all the time-that is what the Government communication offices and government press departments are for. I think that the Government communicating their message and why they are doing what they are doing is a perfectly legitimate thing. I am not really sure that that would fall under the definition of lobbying. It is by its very nature transparent, because it appears in the media and you have either the Government spokesman or ministers being quoted. I am not quite sure of the point you are trying to get at.
Q422 Mr Chope: Is it not arguable that, when the Government brief the media through their spin doctors and all the rest of it, in a sense the Government are lobbying the general public, but doing so, quite often, under the cloak of anonymity? They can deny that any of the briefing actually came from any named individual, so there is a total lack of transparency in that respect.
Mr Harper: That may be a very interesting question in another debate that we could have, but I am not sure that it is particularly something that we could deal with under the purview of the lobbying register. I have to say that, if we are talking about the general public being lobbied by the Government, I think the general public are more than capable of weighing up what they are told by the Government and all sorts of other people, and coming to a sensible conclusion when they cast their votes.
Chair: Sheila, did you have a quick interjection?
Q423 Sheila Gilmore: This is about voluntary organisations and so on. Umbrella voluntary organisations, such as the National Federation of Housing Associations, will lobby on behalf of their members who will, on the whole, be a variety of housing associations. Are they required to register, or is it self-evident from what they are that they do not need to? At what point does that line get drawn? I suppose it is very clear what the NFHA is. The NCVO represents a rather wider and disparate group. That is where for some of the groups there are questions such as cost. How would they be affected by this?
Mr Harper: Your question raises two different aspects of this problem. The first is the scope of the register. Clearly, if you argue that we should capture everybody who lobbies government, organisations of that kind would be captured by a register of that sort. One thing is not clear, and this is part of the reason why we consulted. Take an organisation that represents housing associations. It may be a membership organisation, with housing associations paying fees to that trade association. Should they be covered?
There is one argument that says it is obvious on whose behalf those organisations lobby. I had that conversation when I spoke to the Trade Association Forum. Someone from the Airport Operators Association-I am not picking on them for a bad reason-made the point that in that case, it does what it says on the tin. It is fairly clear what his organisation does, but there are trade associations where it is not entirely obvious for whom they are lobbying. That is one of things on which we have asked for responses in the consultation.
There is an argument that if you are bringing in organisations, some of which are not well funded, what sort of burden should they bear, in terms of funding the register? What we are not trying to do is discourage organisations and individuals from lobbying their Members of Parliament and the Government. We want to hear their views; we are not trying to put people off. That is another reason why we want a proportionate register. We do not want to discourage the giving of legitimate information to government when they and parliamentarians are making decisions. That is not the purpose of the exercise. If we did that, we would all be worse off: the Government would make poorer decisions and the public would get worse-drafted laws. That would be a reduction in the quality of decision making.
Q424 Tristram Hunt: Minister, can I take you back to the celebrated speech of David Cameron in 2010, when he talked about the "next big political scandal"? He said: "I’m talking about lobbying-and we all know how it works", not least because David Cameron had actually been a lobbyist for Carlton Communications, so he probably did know. He added: "The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way. In this party"-I think he meant the Conservative party-"we believe in competition, not cronyism. We believe in market economics, not crony capitalism. So we must be the party that sorts all this out."
As a general question, would you regard the contact between the Culture Secretary’s special adviser, the curiously named-in this context-Adam Smith, and News Corporation’s Frédéric Michel as an example of market economics or crony capitalism?
Mr Harper: Let me go back to the speech that the Prime Minister gave when he was Leader of the Opposition. I will come to your specific question about BSkyB. Several of the things he addressed in that speech we have dealt with in government. Part of the reason why we published the details of meetings that ministers have is exactly to deal with transparency. We have dealt with the issue of former ministers who lobby the Government in the code, in which we have prohibited ministers when they leave office from being able to lobby government for two years. That provision, which was not there before, is now a mandatory part of the code. We have taken some specific steps, which we did immediately upon taking office, to deal with a number of the issues that the Prime Minister set out.
On your specific question, I know only what I have read in the papers about the contact between Adam Smith and Frédéric Michel. I would prefer to wait. We have seen one side of that argument with some of the information that has been published. I want to see the information that is published by the Culture Secretary and the explanation that he gives, before reaching a conclusion. I think that that is the right thing to do. I am not, I am afraid, going to be drawn on that question.
Q425 Tristram Hunt: On the extraordinary level of contact between one company and a department? If you believe in market economics, where everyone has-
Mr Harper: There are two issues there. First, we know some of the information, because some of it has been published. What we have not seen, and we will not see until it is published at Leveson, is the information that the Culture Secretary is going to publish, which he is adamant demonstrates that he has behaved at all times with complete integrity. I think that it is right to see that evidence, and the Prime Minister has made that clear, and then people can reach a judgment.
On what we already know, Adam Smith said himself that he felt that he had gone beyond what he had been instructed and authorised to do by the Secretary of State. He accepted that some of his contact had been inappropriate and that was why he tendered his resignation as a special adviser, and I think that that is appropriate.
Q426 Tristram Hunt: On the broader question of lobbying and the code of lobbyists, many of the criticisms we have had suggest that exactly that kind of contact would not be covered by what the Government are proposing. Whether it is News International, BP or BT, the army of in-house lobbyists who attempt, quite understandably, to influence government would not be covered, whereas a one-man-band lobbyist would be. Is that a rational way to approach your end point, which is about transparency and the electorate understanding where influence is?
Mr Harper: I think that the argument, and the reason why we reached the conclusion that we did in our consultation document with our initial proposals, is that if a minister meets an external organisation, and it is from an in-house lobbyist, we say, "The minister is meeting a man from Tesco"-just to pick someone at random-and it is clear that you are meeting someone from Tesco. If you say that you are meeting someone from a lobbying company, it is not entirely clear. That lobbying company could be acting for any organisation. Just saying that you are meeting them does not make it clear who the end client is. That was the gap in transparency that we were dealing with. It has been put to us in some of the consultation responses, and indeed when I did a number of the meetings, that that is not really the problem that we are trying to solve.
The problem that we are trying to solve is to deal with, not just meetings with ministers, but also those organisations’ meetings with people involved in the political process, so with parliamentarians and that slightly wider look at the issue. It comes down to the definition of the problem. If you accept that the problem is about transparency, ministerial meetings with organisations being disclosed deals with it being clear if you are meeting in-house lobbyists, because you know on whose behalf they are arguing.
It comes back to the point that Mrs Gilmore made: if you are meeting the national association of housing associations, it is very clear what that is about, but if you are meeting a lobbying company representing them and you do not know that it is representing them, you are not aware of what the discussion might be about. It kind of depends what problem you think that you are trying to solve.
Q427 Tristram Hunt: But it also goes back to Mr Chope’s point about financial transparency. Given the resources inherent in a Tesco, a BP or a BT, relative to the group against the development of whatever site, which wants to lobby you at the same time, even if you can have an equality of meetings, the kind of influence that might be brought to bear on a minister will be relatively different in terms of lobbying capacity, won’t it?
Mr Harper: First, if you had a number of meetings with organisations, you would be publishing the number of meetings that you had, so that would be clear. I am not sure that having more people doing lobbying, having thicker documents or producing more information necessarily changes the result that ministers have. Ministers are going to weigh up information from lobbying organisations legitimately saying what their view is and how their industry might be affected. They are going to weigh up views from community groups. They are going to listen to parliamentarians and take advice from civil servants. Ultimately, ministers have to weigh up all that information, and then they have to take a decision in the public interest and make a judgment about how they think that is best served. I am not sure whether how much money companies spend on their lobbyists necessarily changes the result of that.
Q428 Tristram Hunt: Is it the Government’s view also that, essentially, trade unions are no different from lobbying organisations?
Mr Harper: The reason why we put the question in the document is because trade unions clearly lobby government and political parties on behalf of their members. On the definition that we had set out-lobbying on behalf of third parties-you probably would not include trade unions in that. If you go for the more expansive definition of everyone who does lobbying, you probably would, because trade unions absolutely do try to change the law. They try to campaign for changes in decisions, and they do that with the Government and political parties. Again, it is about being transparent. We asked in the consultation whether it should apply to think-tanks, charities and campaigning organisations. We wanted to hear what people had to say. We want something that is transparent, but equally we do not want to stop the legitimate lobbying activity of people setting out their concerns and their views to government. That is not what we are trying to do. It is about the scope of the register.
Q429 Tristram Hunt: Does that then necessarily lead, as it were, to a system with a register of subsections in which you have a clear delineation-what Bell Pottinger does compared with what the Centre for Policy Studies or IPPR does? They are parts of the political process, but they are not, I would suggest, conceptually the same thing.
Mr Harper: If you were going to go for the argument that a number of people have used-for a more expansive, wider scope for the register-clearly there would be an argument about whether you said everybody should have to disclose the same information. Would you have a different level of disclosure depending on the size of the organisation? Again, as you said, would you have categories of types of organisations? Those are the kinds of things that you would need to deal with if you were going to go for that more expansive type of register, and you might want to have differential fees and all sorts of things. If you go for that, you may need to answer some of those questions.
In our initial proposals, we were not going for that more expansive register, but it is clear from an initial analysis of the consultation responses that quite a lot of people think it should be a much broader register. That was certainly the view that I had from a number of the meetings that I held. Interestingly, that view was not just from the lobbying industry, but from a number of the campaigning organisations. Mr Flynn mentioned Unlock Democracy. They take the view that they should be included. They lobby and try to change our minds. Their view is that they should be included on a register, and that it should be a much more expansive arrangement. We will have to look at all the responses and listen very carefully to what you say before we come to a decision.
Q430 Tristram Hunt: Finally, do you not regard it as slightly curious that the way people find out about ministerial meetings-on the question of government transparency-is that you go to the website data.gov.uk and then you link through to Who’s Lobbying, which is a privately run website, run by the gentleman who came to give evidence to us and who does it in his spare time after work?
Mr Harper: The information is actually published on individual departmental websites. That is the source of the information. That organisation takes the information and presents it in what they would argue is a more user-friendly way. It comes back to one of the things that I think the Minister for the Cabinet Office set out about how the Government wanted to deal with transparency. We would put the information out there-we would publish it-and we were confident that people would then take that information and present it in different ways and analyse it. It could be done by media organisations or third-sector organisations. Some people may even be able to create a business out of presenting that information, and that is a very good example.
The information is published on departmental websites. It is all there. What that organisation does, I understand, is take the information that the Government publish and cut the data in all sorts of different ways and publish them in a way that they think is very helpful and meaningful for the end user. The data are published on departmental websites, albeit, as the Chairman said earlier, not on as timely a basis as perhaps they could be, which is what the Government want to work on. The Government publish that information on departmental websites, so it is available to the public. If you go to a departmental website, you can access all of that information at first hand.
Q431 Tristram Hunt: You are happy with that model of the departmental website and it being up to the other individuals, and you do not think that it should be the role of the Cabinet Office to help citizens understand what is going on more actively?
Mr Harper: There are two views. We publish the raw information. If I think of how it is published on the Cabinet Office website, it is not in an unhelpful format; it is fairly straightforwardly published in a spreadsheet format and, I think, a PDF format. Last time I looked at it, Who’s Lobbying publishes it in a way whereby it cuts the data in different ways and presents them in terms of the most common meetings that have been held and, for each department, who are the people that they talk to most frequently. They cut the information in all sorts of different ways, which they think is helpful.
I think that one of the interesting things is that it shows that most of the lobbying that goes on is exactly what you would expect. If you look at the Department for Education, surprise, surprise, it spends a lot of time meeting the teachers’ unions and people representing parents. On the children side of things, it meets people who represent social workers and who deal with child protection. I looked at a number of departments, and the sorts of people that ministers talk to are the sorts of people that you expect them to talk to and, actually, if they were not talking to them, they would not be doing their jobs properly. That is quite interesting. That website has an innovative way of presenting the information, but it is also presented by departments. The raw materials are there. I think that other organisations present it more creatively, in a way that it is very user-friendly, and that is a good thing and to be encouraged.
Q432 Chair: I am very impressed with Rob McKinnon. He does a day’s work and then he goes home and puts a shift in every night. We floated, half-humorously, the idea that he should be nationalised and he did not seem to find that an unacceptable suggestion. Perhaps I should just leave that with you.
Mr Harper: If I may say so, I suspect that he does it much more efficiently, much more cost-effectively and much more quickly than if he were nationalised and it was done by a nationalised industry or a quango. I think that I am content to leave him working in the private sector.
Q433 Paul Flynn: There is a precedent. In the 1980s, I ran an operation publishing the questions from next-step agencies, which were not published in Hansard, and the Tory Government at that time nationalised my private enterprise, so it has happened before. The question I wanted to ask-a one-word answer would suffice-is: if a former minister, during the two-year period from retiring, does in fact lobby, what can the Government do about it?
Mr Harper: I have been asked this question before and it is very clear in the code that they are prohibited from doing so.
Q434 Paul Flynn: Yes, but what can you do about it?
Mr Harper: I am confident that ministers will comply with the terms of the code.
Q435 Paul Flynn: I think that the word that you are looking for is "nothing".
Mr Harper: We have not had a case yet where a former Minister has behaved in a way not in accordance with the code. Let us see what happens.
Q436 Paul Flynn: If it happens, what do you do?
Mr Harper: Rather than always looking on the black side-
Q437 Paul Flynn: You have claimed that this is a reform.
Mr Harper: I think that it is worth saying that this is a new provision in the code. It was not the case before that ministers were prohibited from doing this. Without mentioning any particular names, there have been cases in the past where, five minutes after ministers stopped being ministers, they went off and were paid for going back and lobbying their former colleagues for the private sector, so I think that there has been a step forward. It is very clear that, when ministers take office, they have to abide by the code. All those who are now former ministers, so far as I am aware, have abided by it. Let us wait and see how effective it is and not just assume that it will not work.
Q438 Paul Flynn: And what will you do? It is a simple question. What can you do?
Mr Harper: I tend to take the view that people who are made Ministers of the Crown will abide by the code and follow its strictures. Let us just see and let us not be so pessimistic and look on the black side of human nature.
Paul Flynn: I do not understand how you can take this utopian view.
Chair: It is open to the Committee to adopt a view on whether sanctions should exist and, if so, what they might be. We will cross that bridge if and when we come to it.
Q439 Simon Hart: I would start off by following that point, because I am quite interested in the argument. In my area, once you have finished your 25 years of being a planning officer for your local authority, you leave on a Friday and walk in again on Monday morning as a planning consultant, using all the knowledge and assets that you have acquired over 25 years at the public’s expense in order to run a lucrative consultancy. So if you are going to apply that rule to ministers, which, I happen to think, would be a bit peculiar, should you apply it to civil servants at all levels? If you can take your knowledge into all sorts of other industries apparently without a second question, why should a former Member of Parliament or minister, who is able to take it into industry and pretty much everything else, not be able to do it for lobbying? It seems very inconsistent just to pick out ministers and say, "You can’t use your knowledge and therefore compromise your ability to earn money for two years," when apparently everyone else on the public payroll can.
Mr Harper: If we take government, both senior civil servants and ministers, there is already a body, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which looks at ministers and senior civil servants who want to take up appointments after leaving office. It has to look at those and judge whether an appointment is appropriate given the role they had. It is trying to deal with the issue of the revolving door, where people may be influenced in office by what they thought they were going to do afterwards.
I think the Select Committee on Public Administration either has done or is doing a review into that Committee and how effective it is. Forgive me for not knowing whether it has completed that report. The Government will clearly look closely at its recommendations.
This is effectively a tightening up of the detail in the code, specifically to stop ministers, for two years, being able to come back and lobby government. I think that is appropriate. It deals with the point in a speech, from which Mr Hunt quoted, made by the Prime Minister before the election about that concern. I think it is appropriate. I think ministers who take office need to ensure that people are confident that they make decisions in the public interest.
Q440 Simon Hart: You expressed complete confidence in ministers’ integrity in your reply to Mr Flynn, about how they would behave afterwards. Yet you seem to be concerned about how they might behave in the final years of their office on the basis of what they might do afterwards. On the one hand, you are saying that these are people of integrity, with which I agree, and therefore let’s not be too pessimistic; on the other hand, you are saying that we do not trust them quite enough not to impose these rules, because it might influence their thinking in the run-up to an election or when they might be retiring from Parliament. I wasn’t going to raise this; it is just an aside.
Mr Harper: Briefly, it is about two things. It is partly about dealing with what is and is not acceptable, just making it clear what is acceptable. But it is also about public perception and making it clear that, "Here are the rules. Here is what is expected", and raising the bar on them. I think there was a general view that having ministers leave office and immediately come back and lobby both former departments and their former colleagues was not appropriate. But equally, your point about people having a legitimate ability to earn a living is why there is a time limited bar. I do not think it is reasonable to say that ministers can never engage in lobbying. It is about getting the balance right.
Q441 Simon Hart: They could go into Tesco and advise lobbyists on how to lobby, but they cannot actually be a lobbyist themselves. That seems odd to me.
You lead nicely on to the point that I intended to ask you about first. Turning the clock back to the beginning of the conversation, how have you or the Government assessed the extent of the transparency problem? Did you go out? Whom did you go to speak to? What sort of public opinion test did you apply, if any? What was the evidence on which you based your decision to proceed with the proposal as it is?
Mr Harper: The most obvious reason why we decided to proceed with our proposal is because there is a commitment in the coalition agreement. The two coalition parties said that we felt that having a statutory register was a necessary step to increase the transparency that you could not deal with purely through what ministers have decided to publish. We had a commitment to do it, and this is about delivering the commitment. The question that we had to deal with when we were thinking about the initial proposals that we put into the consultation document was: how are we going to deliver that in a way that is proportionate-picking up on Mr Chope’s point-and effective? The problem that we identified is this gap in transparency. If you publish the details of ministerial meetings with people who represent third parties, there is a transparency gap, and that is the problem that we are trying to solve, and our case, as argued in the consultation document, follows. That is why we have set out our proposals. Clearly, some of the evidence that you have had and some of the responses to the consultation document effectively say that there is a different problem, and people posit evidence for that and therefore propose a different solution.
Q442 Simon Hart: I take your point, but it also seems that the commitment was made before the problem was identified. I was wondering what led to the commitment being made in the manifestos and the coalition agreement in the first instance. What compelling public pressure and evidence were you put under that necessitated its inclusion in the manifestos and the coalition agreement?
Mr Harper: Mr Hunt, when he quoted from the Prime Minister’s speech from before the election, showed that we had identified that there was a problem, and there were a number of issues before the election that meant that people had been concerned about undue influence on the Government and some of the things that had happened. We and the Liberal Democrats had, and Labour did have, some proposals before the election for dealing with this. When we were negotiating the coalition agreement, the blending of the two Government parties then led to a commitment to deliver this statutory register. That is how we got to that point.
Q443 Simon Hart: A feature of the evidence sessions that we have had on this topic in the last few weeks has been that, every week, we have asked witnesses-either from the industry or those who monitor the industry-if they could put forward one tangible, real example of a lobbying scandal in the last three or four years that would have been averted had the Government’s proposals, as they are, been in place. Not to be flippant, but, to date, nobody has actually come up with any such example. Can you?
Mr Harper: We were very clear about the problem that we are trying to solve with the register. There are other issues, but it depends on how you define the problem. If I just pick up-without going through them in detail-the points that Mr Flynn raised, you could argue that some of those are not actually about lobbying per se; they are about the conduct of ministers and whether they have breached the ministerial code. The solution to those problems is either about what is in the code or how the code is enforced. It is not necessarily about making lobbying more transparent.
What we wanted to deal with was perception, and I was asked at one of the meetings whether I thought that lobbyists had undue or improper influence. I said that I did not, but I also said the public do not necessarily think that that is the case. Part of this, therefore, is about being transparent, so that people are confident that ministers meeting people who are lobbying is above board and transparent, and people cannot make accusations of secret meetings, because it is all out there in the open. If ministers make decisions and the Government bring forward policies, people are aware of whom they have met and they are aware of those discussions, and the public can make a judgment on whether they think ministers have reached the right decisions in the public interest, having listened to all the views, or whether they have done something else. That is the problem that we are trying to solve. We are not pretending that this register solves every problem that there has ever been that people might say involves lobbying. Some of those problems may be more about the ministerial code and the conduct of ministers or about something else. They may have lobbyists involved in the process, but we are not trying to solve every problem; this is about solving the problem of transparency, much of which is about public perception, rather than reality.
When I think about how I have made decisions, you listen to different views, you weigh them up, and you take a decision in the public interest, but if I am not transparent about whom I have met, the public might not believe that to be the case. This is about giving the public confidence that those decisions are properly reached.
Q444 Simon Hart: On many topics that we have discussed with you on this Committee, there has always been a question about the extent to which the public are lying in bed worrying about this at the moment, and we could have that discussion perhaps on another occasion.
I do, however, want to pick up on one point you made. Obviously, you will not try to solve all the problems in this one measure. I think we all agree that lobbying techniques have changed quite a bit over the last few years. Do you think there is a risk that by imposing conditions or regulations, or however you might like to describe them, on traditional organisations such as Bell Pottinger, you end up driving lobbying into a different area? As you know, I am a former lobbyist of sorts. I would probably not have come under the register-although, strangely enough, I think I probably should have done-because most of my lobbying was done through third parties. We seldom sat down in a Minister’s office and engaged them. We facilitated people meeting their MPs in their constituencies, armed with the necessary evidence and information-and very effective that was.
Paul Flynn: Or invaded the Commons Chamber.
Simon Hart: Absolutely. There were several ways in which we could make our point. There is some quite aggressive charity campaigning, which is often very effective and very controversial. It may be online or it may come in a million different forms, all of which stand a chance of influencing the direction that a government may take, but it will not appear here, although it may have quite a powerful impact. Are we at risk of them thinking that they will get something that is completely transparent and will eradicate whatever the problems are, when it will make no difference at all?
Mr Harper: You highlight a risk, and we must make sure that being more transparent about some things does not cause inadvertent problems. That is partly the point of doing this thoughtfully and carefully, and not rushing off to a short-term solution that has inadvertent consequences. Picking up your specific point about some of the campaigning that organisations do to persuade members of the public of a view, and then encouraging them to raise that with their Member of Parliament, it seems to me that that is legitimate.
Q445 Simon Hart: I think it is a good thing.
Mr Harper: We are absolutely not trying to stop or to get in the way of constituents raising issues with their MPs.
Q446 Simon Hart: Yes. This is really important. The 38 Degrees online campaigning site had a mass-campaign on forestry, and the Government changed their mind about their policy-some would say rightly-yet if the 38 Degrees agenda and the people who make up that lobby organisation had been known to the wider public, the argument might have been slightly different. I am sorry to interrupt, but that is a classic example of when transparency was not available to everyone, yet the effect on government policy was huge.
Mr Harper: You make a good point about organisations. In that case, the organisation did not directly lobby the Government. It effectively gave information to the general public, who decided whether they wanted to raise it with their MPs. The source of some of the e-mails that Members of Parliament receive has become fairly obvious, and MPs can make a judgement about the extent to which they want to rely on them. In the forestry case that you raise, I do not think it was just the volume of e-mails. MPs received representations from their constituents. As a Member for a forest, I received correspondence from and had conversations with constituents and, as a minister but with my constituency hat on, I made my views known privately to my ministerial colleagues. There has been quite a lot of that going on as well. The credit for the Government’s rethink of their policy lies a little more widely than just a lot of e-mails, but I take the point.
It depends on the scope. If we go to everyone who lobbies the Government more widely, these organisations may be in scope. They were not in our initial proposals, but some of the views we have received are that all campaigning organisations should be captured, but that would make the register a much wider beast than we initially set out. We will look at the responses that we have received. We have had responses from several campaigning organisations that have encouraged members of the public to respond on this issue as well, but they will respond only if they find the arguments that they are given compelling. In some senses, the public have a check-a role in controlling that sort of lobbying.
Q447 Simon Hart: You mentioned that a meeting between a minister and a representative of Tesco was what it appeared to be, whereas a meeting between a minister and Bell Pottinger might not be, in terms of transparency. The question I would put to you is that it is a simplistic way of looking at it, because there are 1,000 different issues that Tesco might want to raise with the minister, varying from planning to pricing. In terms of organisations, particularly larger organisations-the Countryside Alliance, which I worked for, lobbied government on 20 or 30 different issues-it is simplistic to suggest that it is obvious because of what their name is. Likewise, if you are determined enough, and some of our witnesses clearly have been, there are already ways, through FOI and other existing legislation, to discover what it was that Bell Pottinger was in your office talking about, and to demand much more than the register is going to provide by way of copies of exchanges, letters and e-mails.
Mr Harper: Let me pick up that point. The register is not designed to be the solution to every problem. One important thing about transparency, and about increasing transparency, is that it enables people to use other tools at their disposal to do some of that work to get more information. For example, even if you do not publish the information in the register, if it is information that is within the scope of the FOI legislation, you can use that, but often you cannot use it unless you know that a meeting has happened. If you know that a meeting has happened with an organisation, you can then ask a question about what was discussed and those sorts of things, and then obviously the Government will apply the appropriate rules in the Freedom of Information Act.
You need the raw material, unless you are just going to encourage people to send in FOI requests, asking for any meetings you have had with anybody ever. You want focused questions. Some of the transparency that we are talking about here will help people-it could be individuals, other organisations or the press-ask those focused questions and use some of the other tools at their disposal to then do that work. We are not pretending that the register is the complete solution. It is an essential tool in that level of transparency, but then there is the further work that people can do using other tools to put things into the public domain.
Q448 Simon Hart: Will you put a sunset clause in there so that we can review its effectiveness after a year or two?
Mr Harper: As a standard rule, government look at things post-legislatively, and select committees can do that as well. Certainly, it is always sensible to review things to see if they have had the desired effect and have delivered what you wanted. That is a sensible way of governing. As well as government looking at it, we will also look to the select committees to see whether what we have delivered does what we wanted it to do.
Q449 Stephen Williams: There is not a great deal left to ask. That is the danger of going last. Simon was asking Mark about what problem this was trying to solve. I come in from a different perspective. Where is the demand for the problem to be solved coming from? Is Mrs Jones in Lydney or Mr Smith in Coleford saying, "Mark, I want to know what you are up to"?
Mr Harper: It is one of those things where there are peaks and troughs. When there are scandals, for want of a better word, or a particular focus in the media on these stories, people may decide that they want to know. It is probably unlikely that most of my constituents spend any significant part of their day trawling the Cabinet Office website to see who I am spending my days meeting. When various stories happen, people want to know that ministers are being transparent about who they are meeting, and that if they wanted to know, they could. It is also about making sure that we have good government. If you have an appropriate level of transparency and ministers make it clear who they are meeting-even if people do not check the information, they are happy that it is out there and that things are above board-things function better. It is probably not the sort of thing that keeps people awake at night, but I suspect that when there are issues about it, those are the sorts of things that you either do not want to happen or, if they do, the Government want to be able to turn around and say, "No, actually there isn’t anything to this. We had some meetings with this organisation; we published the details of them; we know what they were about. It is fairly straightforward. You don’t need to be concerned about this because we have been very transparent about what we’ve been doing." It is part of the general move we have made towards being more transparent. A lot of the information we have published about procurement, meetings and things like that improves the way that government is conducted overall.
Q450 Stephen Williams: How easy do you think it would be for the residents of Lydney and Coleford to find out what their Member, who happens to be a minister-or any minister-is getting up to? Mr McKinnon has been mentioned several times by colleagues; he tells us that, at the moment, in terms of the information that the Government publish, you would have to view at least 24 departmental websites. There are other bits of the Government that are not in a department, including you. There are 150 different files, so it is pretty difficult to get just a snapshot at a moment in time of who is meeting who and talking about what. Once we get this register in place, how easy is it going to be for our constituents to find out what their government ministers are doing and who they are meeting?
Mr Harper: That comes back to the point that I think Mr Hunt was alluding to, which is that the Government have published the raw material in a reasonably accessible format. It is pretty straightforwardly published in the two different file types. The question then is the extent to which other people cut and interpret the data and present them in a way that people find meaningful. It seems that, yes, the Government could try to do that, but I suspect, knowing a little bit about the IT industry, which I used to work in, and looking at a lot of the innovative ways people use IT now to display information, that other people are likely to do that much better than the Government-whether it is people like Mr McKinnon, who gave evidence to you, or media organisations.
Often when media organisations are covering particular stories, they will take the raw material and publish it either in their printed copies or make it available on their website. They will cut it in different ways. It kind of depends what you are looking for. The raw material is out there, but often people are not just doing it in a random way to say, "I want to see who every minister is meeting with." They will have a particular reason or subject they are interested in, or they may have a particular range of organisations they are concerned with, and they will want to cut the data in different ways.
The important thing for the Government is that we put the data out there; then people can cut the data and display and look at them in different ways, depending on what their need is. There will be private individuals, organisations or media organisations who will take care of presenting the information in a different way. If the Government tried to present it in a way that was interesting to everybody for every possible use, I suspect they would fail.
Q451 Stephen Williams: Is that not an admission-perhaps you are preparing the ground for this fact-that the way you propose to publish the information will make it very difficult for an armchair auditor, which is how the Prime Minister described citizens, to do this for themselves? They will have to rely on third-party organisations that have their own agendas putting this information together. If we suppose that Mr Jones in Lydney wants to see how many ministers a particular lobbyist has met, it sounds as though he will not be able to find that out from what the Government are proposing, other than by going through every single departmental website.
Mr Harper: This is one of the questions about the register, the information we publish in it and the way it is published. In terms of what is published in the register, clearly this will be, again, partly about making sure that it is proportionate. Having enormous quantities of information that is not very useful is probably a good way of making sure it is difficult to find stuff out. That is partly why we are trying to understand what information needs to be on the register and what should be published. Something we did not really talk about in the consultation document-it sounds as though, in light of the evidence you have taken, you may be giving us some advice on this-is how to publish it and make the information easily available. In the consultation document, we did not really go into any great detail about the register, how it would be available, how you would pool the information and some of that level of detail. It sounds as though you may well be thinking about giving us some advice in that area, and that would be welcome, to make it as easily accessible as possible.
Q452 Stephen Williams: Otherwise, it is sort of bathroom-window transparency, isn’t it? You know something is going on, but the view is obscured, which may be a good thing. Some transparency would be in order for you to see clearly through the information that the Government are providing. In terms of what information the Government already provide-this may not exactly be best practice to base the future on-with ministerial meetings, only the month in which the meeting took place is published, rather than the exact date. If you are having a three-star lunch-as opposed to Mr Pickles’s five-star lunch-in April, that is interesting to know, but it would be more interesting to know that you have had a three-star lunch five days before a White Paper comes out. Why are the Government not publishing information more precisely at the moment?
Mr Harper: That is a point of view. The fact is that the Government are publishing the information that they publish, which was not previously published, so I think we have taken a step forward. Clearly, people will argue that we should publish it in ever-tougher degrees of detail. There is a balance in terms of what you publish. I do not know the extent to which the Committee has looked at what ministers already publish, and whether you will have any views about whether there should be any changes in that. Clearly, if you make recommendations, we will look at those seriously. We have published stuff that we think is useful. If you have recommendations about that, please make them, and we will look at them seriously. It is important that when we publish the information, it is accurate.
Q453 Stephen Williams: You can be accurate about dates, surely?
Mr Harper: One of the things that slows it down is checking what is published, so the more you publish, the more it has to be checked. Again, there is a balance there, but that is why we are working on speeding it up and publishing it on a timely basis. If you make recommendations, we will absolutely look at those and take them seriously.
Q454 Stephen Williams: An analysis has been presented to us, which I think comes from Mr McKinnon as well-he is clearly very busy. It says that of 8,000 meetings currently disclosed on a monthly basis by the Government, only 0.2% have been with third-party lobbyists. Does that not rather undermine the whole basis of the Government’s proposal that only third-party lobbyists should be on the register, when quite clearly, an awful lot of meetings are taking place with other people who seek to influence government and will not be required to register?
Mr Harper: You can look at that the other way round, of course: of those 8,000 meetings, in 99.8% of cases, it is very clear who the minister is meeting and the purpose of the meeting. Actually, you could argue that the Government are being incredibly transparent, and we are trying to close the gap that is left, because there is, perhaps, a disproportionate perception issue. To be quite frank, some of this is about perception. Ministers clearly know when a lobbying company comes to see them, and they will ask who they are coming on behalf of. It would be extraordinary if that were not known to the minister, and I was challenged on that at some of these meetings that I held. I said, "No, of course ministers know, but it is about making sure that the public know and are confident that it is all transparent and above board." The way I would prefer to look at the information you have just given me is to say that we are being 99.8% transparent, and what we are dealing with here is ensuring that we go the last mile.
Q455 Stephen Williams: Trade unions, charities and other people have already been mentioned, but what about think-tanks? I read yesterday-in The Times, I think-that the Government are to contract out some more policy-making analysis to think-tanks outside the civil service. If Ministers are having more meetings with think-tanks, should they not be registered as lobbyists, too, particularly as their role potentially seems to be becoming more important, in terms of policy formulation?
Mr Harper: If ministers are having meetings with external organisations, think-tanks would fall within that definition already. If a minister either has a meeting with, or people come to see him from, a think-tank, my understanding is that that would be covered by the existing disclosure regime, so people would know that that was happening. We have put down think-tanks as a particular case in the consultation document, along with trade unions and charities, in terms of whether they should have to be in the register. Some people think they do and some do not, so, again, we have asked for views on that. I think I am right in saying that we have heard mixed views about some of those other organisations and whether they should be included. I do not know yet where the balance of that falls.
Q456 Sheila Gilmore: The 2009 Public Administration Select Committee report on this issue noted the following: "Some of the concerns that exist around improper influence are…linked to the power of informal networks of friendships and relationships." Obviously, that issue has come up a lot again recently. There is the archetypal round of golf, but there are also the Sunday walks and the meeting at a dinner party or whatever. Will these proposals allay in any way people’s concerns about those more informal networks? Is there anything we can do about that?
Mr Harper: To some extent, this brings us back into the debate some of the issues that I raised about the ministerial code in answer to Mr Flynn’s questions. Clearly, you could take an extreme position and say that once somebody became a Minister of the Crown, they were to cease ever having contact with any other human being on any basis, but I think that would be ridiculous. Ministers have to conduct themselves in a way that is appropriate.
For example, if ministers meet people socially because they happen to know them, they should discuss things in a way that would be appropriate publicly, so they should be perfectly happy to disclose what the Government’s policy is on something that has already been announced, but if the minister wants to have a discussion with the person about the detail of something, they should do it in the proper way. That person should come to see them and they should have a meeting, with a civil servant to take notes, in a proper way. That is how the minister would protect themselves from any allegations. That was part of the concern and part of the reason why the former Defence Secretary said that he resigned-because he accepted that some of the ways in which he had behaved had caused concern. He accepted that.
Some of this is about how ministers conduct themselves, and it does say in the ministerial code that it is not just about what we do, but about conducting ourselves in a way that does not lead to the perception of wrongdoing. As I said, some of this is about how ministers conduct themselves. I do not think you could say that every single time you talk to anybody for five seconds at a reception, that somehow has to be registered. I think that would be ridiculous. It would have the opposite effect. The effect would be that ministers never talked to anybody, never listened to anybody and were terrified to engage with anybody. We would get worse decision making. What we want to do is to encourage ministers to listen and to engage, but to do so in a transparent way.
My view is therefore that ministers should be perfectly happy to explain to people what the Government’s policy is in a way that has been disclosed publicly, but they should not go beyond that. If they want to have a discussion with somebody about a policy area, if they want to listen to some evidence from or hear the thoughts of people who are involved in that area, they should have them in to the department and have a meeting, with notes taken by officials so that everybody knows that it has been done in a proper way. Clearly, it is perfectly appropriate for Ministers to listen to the views of their constituents, but equally if I had a constituent who had a professional interest in one of my policy areas, I would want them to come to see me in my ministerial capacity and I would deal with that in the proper way. This is partly about how ministers conduct themselves. That is dealt with through the code, rather than by making the register a diary of ministers’ social engagements. I think that is the way you have to handle it.
Q457 Sheila Gilmore: Do you think that there is almost a danger of people getting so anxious that they become less likely to disclose things? There is the idea of the media running around with cameras and sitting outside your door to see who you meet on the way to the local post office or whatever. People may be disposed to be less than candid about some of their social engagements, but then again, in the end, that makes people even more suspicious.
Mr Harper: Some of this is about judgment, balance and being sensible. It is about ministers always having to ask themselves about how they are conducting themselves. Are they comfortable with how they are conducting things, and would they be comfortable if people knew about what they were doing? That is one of the tests. When I was in business, one of the tests we had when we were thinking through how we conducted ourselves was very appropriate for politicians: the, "Would I be happy if this was on the front page of the newspaper?" test or, alternatively, the, "Would I be happy explaining it to my mother?" test. Those are actually quite good, common-sense ways of deciding how you are conducting yourself and whether you are comfortable with it, but they are more about the code than about the register; that is my view.
Q458 Paul Flynn: We have just emerged from the worst parliamentary scandal for 200 years. The urgent priority of any incoming government was to try to rebuild confidence and trust in the political system. In the past two years, thanks to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, we have seen on our televisions Bell Pottinger boasting that it can sell access to the Prime Minister, and we have seen an official of your party, Mr Cruddas, saying that it costs £250,000 to buy access, for a meal, with the Prime Minister. These are not speculations; we have actually witnessed these things.
We have seen a new doctrine of absolution by resignation in the Fox case and in the SpAd case in the Culture Department-that once you resign, there is no investigation. That is, I think, a new method of sleaze. We have seen allegations of the influence of McKinseys on the Health and Social Care Bill. You have given two examples of how the Government have improved things. One, I think, was entirely spurious-there were no sanctions involved in the ACoBA one.
We should all feel passionately. I have just finished a book, which goes off to the printer today, about one of our colleagues who I think died prematurely-an entirely innocent, honourable gentleman-because he was part of the collateral damage from the expenses scandal. If we are passionate, we have a task which will take a decade before we restore the confidence that people previously had in politicians.
Don’t you really think that the tardiness with which your Government have behaved in trying to get a proper register for lobbyists-all the allegations, the disregard of the ministerial code-means that the judgment, after two years, is that the public have less trust in us now than they did when you were first elected?
Mr Harper: I do not accept the premise. Yes, the expenses scandal was very serious, and that is why Parliament took the decisions about setting up IPSA. We touched on this when the Deputy Prime Minister and I gave evidence, but I think that now-it took a while-the normal mechanism has demonstrated that people were actually held accountable. People who had committed the worst abuses-those who had actually breached the law-went through a trial, were found guilty and went to prison. Before the election, there was a lot of scepticism about whether that was ever going to happen. We have cleaned up our act: we have an independent body to do expenses-it has not been trouble free, and it has not been entirely popular with all colleagues, as I know-which is now working reasonably well. In that area, if you look at polling, people are confident about that.
On your various accusations, I do not accept your argument in the Culture Secretary’s case. That is not done and dusted. My understanding is that Frédéric Michel, Mr Smith and the Culture Secretary will all give evidence under oath to a judicial inquiry. On the idea that nothing is ongoing-that is a pretty high bar for them to have to deal with-I just do not accept that premise.
In terms of tardiness, I absolutely reject that. The previous Government did nothing on this issue for 13 years. We came into office with a commitment. We have published our proposals and we are going through a proper process. There is an argument that we could have rushed off and brought in legislation, not having paid attention to the consultation or waited for this Committee’s report. Looking at the consultation response, we would have ended up with legislation that was immediately controversial, that did not deal with the problem that people agreed existed, that was badly drafted, and-picking up Mr Chope’s point-that was probably not delivering what we wanted.
We are going through a proper process. It takes time, but I think it is better for Parliament if we are all clear about the problem, clear about the solution, bring forward well-drafted draft legislation, which your Committee can then scrutinise, pass a bill this Parliament, and then not have to come back to it again, because people will be confident that we have the right solution. The last thing we want to do is rush off in haste, cobble something together and then come back in six months and do it all over again. I would rather get this job done properly-get it done. Then, to pick up Mr Hart’s point-he is not in his place at the moment-we can get on with discussing the issues that the public do worry about at night: jobs and growth, and ensure that they are confident that we have a robust political system. We need to do the job properly rather than in haste and make a bodge up of it.
Paul Flynn: Haven’t you forgotten-
Chair: No, Paul, you have come back three times and some colleagues have only been once.
This has been a helpful session, Minister. You have also pointed us towards one or two areas that it would be particularly helpful for us to look at in depth. We will obviously look at the whole thing in depth. I leave you with the thought that where we have been successful has been where we have interacted effectively with government. I think we managed to move the show forward when you have listened to us and we have presented a rational case.
Mr Chope: Chairman, I thought we were going to ask the Minister one or two questions outside lobbying.
Chair: There is time and, if the Minister is willing, I am happy to allow other questions outside the lobbying sphere.
Mr Harper: The Minister is content.
Q459 Mr Chope: Since the Minister was last here, we have had the Queen’s Speech and the announcement about a bill being introduced in relation to the composition of the House of Lords. Could you tell us any more about the specific timetable for that bill? What is meant by the expression the Prime Minister used of "seeking consensus"? Does that mean that the threat that was hanging over this legislation of it being "Parliament-Acted" has now been lifted?
Mr Harper: As colleagues will know, the Joint Committee that was scrutinising our draft bill did that very thoroughly and published its report not very long ago. We are, obviously, considering its recommendations. It made a number of recommendations. It is worth saying that it broadly endorsed the approach we adopted. It accepted by a significant majority that there should be an elected House-that was not actually one of its narrower decisions. It broadly endorsed our approach on 80/20 and on a number of other things. It also accepted that the primacy of the House of Commons could be maintained, and made some recommendations in other areas that we are seriously considering. On timing, the Leader of the House said last week at business questions that he expected the legislation to be brought forward before the summer recess. I would not demur from or add anything to what he has said.
In terms of its parliamentary passage, it will be a Government Bill, taken through in the usual way. I think that the point the Prime Minister was making about consensus is that of course there are different views in all parties on this, but it was in all three parties’ manifestos and all three Front Benches agree that it is something we should do. It is absolutely true that the public do not have it at the top of their list of things that they grab us to talk about when we knock on their doors or pass them in the street, but they broadly agree that we should elect at least most of the people who sit in the upper House of our legislature. It is a fairly uncontroversial proposition for the public. They think it is pretty straightforward. We should deal with the detail, but we should get on and do it, and that is what the Government intend to do.
Q460 Mr Chope: What about the Parliament Act-is that now removed as being a threat? Obviously, it is rather inconsistent with the approach of trying to get consensus to have a threat hanging over heads that, if their Lordships try to amend the bill in any way that the Government do not like, they will force it through under the Parliament Act.
Mr Harper: On the context and the Parliament Act, we want the bill to pass in the usual way. We would expect that, when the Commons passes a bill, particularly on this subject, and sends it to their Lordships’ House, it would be debated and almost certainly amended. There is a question about whether you are talking about a bill that will be amended or one that their Lordships will try to block. I think it is perfectly in order for their Lordships to debate and amend the bill to improve it, but I do not think it would be appropriate on this subject, if the House of Commons has taken a clear decision, for their Lordships to try to block it. That was the context in which the Prime Minister was asked the question about the Parliament Act. I very much hope that we will not have to use the Parliament Act. I hope we will be able to pass the bill in the Commons, with a significant cross-party majority, send it to the House of Lords, have the bill improved, and then have a more democratically legitimate legislature in our country, which is something that the public support.
Chair: With colleagues’ consent, I will close the meeting. We expect to produce our report towards the end of June, Minister, and look forward to taking some of its proposals forward with you, when we finally see some legislation towards the end of the year, we hope.
Mr Harper: I look forward to it. Thank you very much indeed.
Chair: Thank you so much for your time this morning.