A senior arms lobbyist is gaining access to ministers, MPs and peers inside Parliament using a research assistant pass allotted to a member of the House of Lords who benefits financially from one of his companies.
Robin Ashby, who is chairman of a defence consultancy firm that offers to ask questions of government on behalf of its clients "without your fingerprint being evident", includes among his acquaintances the Defence Secretary, the Chancellor and the Chief Whip.
Mr Ashby's firm, Bergmans, lobbies on behalf of more than a dozen large defence and aerospace companies including BAE Systems, Northern Defence Industries, UK Defence Forum, Boeing and Rolls-Royce, which has been criticised for its past links to the Burmese regime.
Mr Ashby's name features on an official staff list that was published by the House of Lords for the first time last night following pressure from media outlets including The Independent.
As Bergmans' key lobbyist, Mr Ashby enjoys unfettered access to the Palace of Westminster. With his pass, he can bring several colleagues or members of the public into Parliament's numerous entertainment venues, including the Lords' terrace bar overlooking the Thames where he "frequently" meets Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, and other ministers.
Mr Ashby can also use the pass, which is allotted to Baroness Harris of Richmond, to access the House of Commons library, which offers valuable research facilities at no cost.
Lady Harris is a Liberal Democrat whip and spokesman on the police and Northern Ireland. She receives a "regular" income from a separate company run by Mr Ashby, Great North News Service, for which the peer acts as an "adviser", according to her parliamentary declaration of financial interests. Meanwhile her "researcher" gains access to the Palace of Westminster's corridors of power and a string of top-level ministers.
As well as submitting Freedom of Information questions to government, Bergmans offers insider information about how the British Government works to a host of foreign countries including the Bahamas, Bahrain, the USA and Russia. On Bergmans' website, Mr Ashby is shown meeting, among others, Tony Blair, his former press secretary Alastair Campbell, the Chancellor Alistair Darling, the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, the Chief Whip Geoff Hoon and Mr Browne.
MPs have been required to supply full information about their staff since 1985, but members of the Lords were exempt from the rule until last night.
On his entry, Mr Ashby names Bergmans but describes it as "a research and public affairs consultancy that campaigns to urge MPs and peers to keep manifesto promises to hold a referendum on the EU Constitution/Lisbon Treaty". He does not mention its host of defence and arms clients.
Mr Ashby told The Independent that he felt "iffy" about whether or not he should have a pass, "because there is substantial potential for misunderstanding". "It is quite possible for you to make me look bad," he said.
Mr Ashby said his "primary" reason for holding a pass was to provide "security" advice to Lady Harris. She told The Independent that Mr Ashby "advises me from time to time but not that frequently". She added that if she wants advice, she can call on him. Lady Harris admitted that she "occasionally" contributed to the Great North News Service, run by Mr Ashby. She added that she takes "an interest" in defence matters.
Mr Ashby said he "compartmentalises" his roles while in Parliament. "I am very clear with ministers – I informally declare my interests to senior ministers," he said. He added that he did not use his pass to bring clients into Parliament and photos taken of him with ministers were taken outside the Palace of Westminster. The lobbyist said he frequently met the Defence Secretary at events on the parliamentary terrace. "I see Des Browne every time we have a welcome home for troops and he says nice things about me. He appreciates what I've done," Mr Ashby said.
The services offered by Bergmans – which has a specific defence subsidiary run by Mr Ashby – include: "Opinion polling, focus groups, fundraising advice, governance, manifesto writing, socio-economic research, campaigning, visual images, and lobbying." But, the company's website adds, "many organisations are concerned that by asking for information they may prejudice their relationship with government, especially where the departments in which they are interested are also their potential customers.
"Bergmans Research therefore offers a confidential FoI [Freedom of Information] service – we'll ask the questions ... that you can't, without your 'fingerprint' being evident. In the past few months we've asked and had answers to questions about planning studies, past purchasing decisions, advice to Ministers, future plans."
Mr Ashby is also founder and head of the UK Defence Forum, which organises meetings between industry executives, civil servants and politicians, including Lady Harris. Mr Ashby provides secretarial services for the Royal Navy All Party Group in Parliament. Lady Harris is not a member of the group.
The latest recommendation from the Parliamentary Committee on Standards and Privileges states: "[The] interpretation of the 'ultimate client' rule should be amended. In future, where a Group is assisted by an outside consultancy, the names of any clients of the consultancy with a direct interest in the work of the Group should be listed in the Register."
The Labour MP Tony Wright, chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into lobbying, said: "If lobbyists are getting parliamentary passes to ply their trade, and if lobbying companies are putting in FOI requests to conceal the identity of their clients, then these are issues of real concern that need attention."
The key players
Baroness Harris of Richmond, Liberal Democrat Peer
Angela Harris first met Robin Ashby when she was on North Yorkshire's county council between 1981 and 2001. While chairman between 1991 and 1992, she was impressed by the media skills of Mr Ashby, who acted as press officer to the council. Lady Harris went on to serve as chairman of the North Yorkshire Police Authority from 1994 to 2001. During that time, she decided to stand for the Liberal Democrats in the 1999 European elections. After failing to get elected, she was appointed a life peer for the party the same year. Lady Harris now serves as a whip in the Lords, and speaks on police and Northern Ireland issues. She was born in Lancashire in 1944 and was educated at Canon Slade Grammar School in Bolton. Lady Harris is married, with one son from a previous marriage.
Robin Ashby, Lobbyist
Robin Ashby is not afraid to be described as a friend to the political stars. Asked to confirm he met "the cream of New Labour" last night, he was quick to add, "and the cream of the New Tories, and occasionally even the Liberal Democrats".
A graduate engineer with a finance background, Mr Ashby worked for British Steel and Middlesbrough Borough Council before joining Bergmans – "the longest established public relations consultancy in Newcastle" – in 1981. In 1992, he became its managing partner. Now a "player" around Westminster, he says he was advised by police to get a pass "because you're here so often".
The lobbyist describes Baroness Harris as a friend whom he has known "for the thicker end of 25 years". Lively in manner and keen to network, Mr Ashby describes himself as a "frequent writer and speaker on crisis management".