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Businesses influencing Government policy 'scandal that never goes away'

Attempts by big business to influence politicians and Government policy is the "scandal that still never goes away", the Lords has heard.

Labour's Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe warned the public and others are "still in the dark" about who is seeking to sway the decision-makers, with the existing register of lobbyists a "very expensive exercise that serves no-one whatsoever".

He told peers around two people a day have visited the website hosting the register of consultant lobbyists over the past six months.

Around half of the £300,000 annual cost has been recouped from the lobbying industry in registration fees, Lord Brooke said.

Peers heard 136 firms have signed up - short of the 700-plus registrants hoped for by the Government.

Lord Brooke raised his concerns as he proposed reforms designed to replace the existing register of consultant lobbyists with a new register covering a wider range of lobbying activity, including in-house lobbyists.

Under his plan, lobbying activity would be regarded as a person - including peers, MPs and their staff, plus civil servants - arranging or making possible a meeting or communication with a public official on matters relating to specific parliamentary business or government activities.

A summary of what or who was being lobbied and an estimate of spending on such lobbying activity would also be among the details required.

A code of conduct for lobbyists would be created under the law, according to Lord Brooke's Lobbying (Transparency) Bill.

He told peers: "The last time that this topic of transparency and lobbying was discussed in this House, it took a back seat to what popularly became known as the 'gagging Bill', which was a surprise and unwelcome attack on the charity sector.

"As a consequence part one of the 2014 Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act was given neither the time nor the attention it deserved and this Bill seeks to rectify that."

Lord Brooke went on: "Far from being the next big scandal to happen, as David Cameron described lobbying in 2010, it is the scandal that still never goes away.

"No party is immune and with every lobbying scandal, public trust in politics is eroded. We must seek to bring that to an end.

"The Government was warned that the incredibly narrow lobbying register it introduced last year would make no difference to this feeling of disillusion from politics.

"When it comes to seeing who is influencing decision-makers and for what, we and I - and I include parliamentarians in this - are still in the dark.

"The current register has been in operation for 18 months. It has failed abysmally.

"Three-quarters of the industry working in-house is exempt, and of the consultant lobbyists covered just 136 firms have signed-up - which is a long way from the 700-plus registrants which the Government, when they were pushing the Bill through, anticipated."

He bemoaned the lack of detail, adding: "It's little wonder that in the past six months the register has been viewed by the public a total of 363 times - which is just an average of two people visiting the website a day.

"For this, the system has so far cost over £500,000 with an annual cost just shy of £300,000 - only half of which is currently being recouped from the industry in registration fees, which currently stand at around £1,000 per firm per year.

"There can be no doubt that the current register is a very expensive exercise that serves no-one whatsoever."

Tory Lord Lansley, who during his time as a cabinet minister brought in the previous lobbying regulations, said the new proposals sought to include too many people.

He said: "We do end up, I'm afraid, with what seems to be legislation that says on this register we should have almost everyone, whenever they talk to almost anyone else in the public sector at all about any issue in any fashion.

"Now, this is not a small register. (Lord Brooke) in his legislation is proposing to go from a minimalist position to a maximalist position.

"I think I'd just contend to the House that in the course of debate on this legislation, whether or not it succeeds on this occasion, we can do a service by debating how far we move from the minimalist position but certainly reject a maximalist position.

"Because it seems to me the legislation (proposed by Lord Brooke) goes far too far."

Lord Brooke's Bill is highly unlikely to become law without Government support.


From Belfast Telegraph