Government defeats attempts to widen scope of lobbying register

The Government last night saw off attempts to rework its lobbying register at the committee stage in the Commons but again faced criticism it was not offering MPs a proper chance to debate the legislation.

Chloe Smith: rejected Labour amendments to the lobbying bill
Chloe Smith: rejected Labour amendments to the lobbying bill

Following its second reading last week the bill is now going through the committee stages. Yesterday was the only chance to debate part one of the three-part bill, which concerns the creation of a statutory lobbying register.

Lobbying industry trade bodies have come out against the bill because it does not apply to in-house lobbyists and have claimed the statutory register will offer less transparency than their voluntary registers because of what they say is an overly narrow definition of lobbying.

Yesterday a committee of the whole House voted down a Labour amendment that would have made the bill apply to all professional lobbyists, by 265 votes to 204.

An amendment tabled by Conservative MP Anne Main, which would have had a similar effect, was not put to a vote. Main's amendment closely resembled the definition of a lobbyist that PR industry bodies the APPC, CIPR and PRCA put forward to the minister responsible for the register, Chloe Smith, before the draft legislation was published.

Smith urged Main to withdraw her amendment and attacked Labour's proposal for all professional lobbyists to be covered by the register as 'simple-minded' and not 'robust'. She also claimed some amendments would have meant a local vicar or someone complaining about dog mess to their local council would have to sign up.

The Commons had five hours to talk over the bill but a number of MPs criticised the Government for not giving them enough time to debate all the amendments. They included Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, who said this was a 'scandal', and the chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Graham Allen.

Allen complained there was not sufficient time to go into questions about whether the category of those lobbied should be widened from ministers and permanent secretaries and whether the subject matter of a meeting should be disclosed on the statutory register.

Two other Opposition amendments were put to a vote and defeated: the first would have introduced a code of conduct while the second would have widened the activity regulated to include the provision of advice on how to lobby and the setting up of meetings for lobbying.

Several members voiced criticisms of the bill, including former lobbyists such as Tory Tracey Crouch and Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Thomas Docherty.

Their concern it was not clear that multidisciplinary agencies or large businesses with small lobbying divisions would be covered by the bill was shared by Tory MP Geoffrey Cox.

Docherty referred to MHP's doubts about whether it came within the definition of a 'consultant lobbyist' due to its multidisciplinary business and the restriction of lobbying to ministers and permanent secretaries.

Smith later insisted that the bill was meant to cover multidisciplinary agencies.

The bill will continue its progress with parts two and three – governing third party political campaigning and trade unions – being debated in committee.

For an as-it-happened account of yesterday's debate read our live blog below:

17.00 Proceedings are under way following the Commons congratulating the royal family on the birth of Prince George and the Prime Minister taking questions on the recent G20 summit.

17.01 David Cameron has not stuck around, but Chloe Smith and Tom Brake are on the Government benches.

17.02 Labour's Jon Trickett speaks for an amendment that the register of lobbyists should be universal.

17.03 'This Government always comes down on the side of vested interests,' says Trickett.

17.05 'The Government's choice to limit the register to consultant lobbyists will have the effect of narrowing the register... and it will deepen the shadows which people believe there are,' says Trickett.

17.07 Cameron Penny's criticism of the lobbying register is brought up.

17.09 An MP asks if Trickett has asked if national charities wish to register. Trickett says he has and he can think of some that lobby Parliament and should be registered. 'Anybody who is lobbying Parliament ought to be on the register,' he adds.

17.11 Trickett claims both lobbyists and people campaigning for more lobbying transparency are saying the bill is inadequate.

17.14 Tory MP Anne Main, who has backed the lobbying industry's definition of lobbying that should be regulated, stands up to point out more activity should be caught by the register.

17.18 At least 58 members of the government benches have current or recent directorships of consultancies, claims one MP.

17.19 The Government wants to be seen to be doing something while doing very little, says Trickett. 'We want to see which commercial forces lie behind particular decisions... to ensure big money can no longer buy influence by using underhand techniques.'

17.20 Trickett quotes UKPAC acting chair George Kidd's warning that the proposed register may do more harm than good.

17.22 Trickett accuses the Government of weakening the bill further by presenting an amendment (number 76) that he claims removes the requirement to explain which company a lobbyist is employed by. 'We would not know who else is employed by a company or who its shareholders or directors are,' Trickett says.

17.27 Trickett's understanding is questioned by Tory MP Geoffrey Cox.

17.29 Trickett insists the amendment will mean the register will not specify the company that directly employs a lobbyist. He presses the point that if only individuals are required to register there will be a knock-on effect on the funding of the register.

17.32 Trickett speaks up for an amendment that the register should cover the provision of advice on how to lobby.

17.33 Trickett is questioned on the cost of running the register as he wants it. 'I do not believe it needs to be costly,' he says.

17.35 Not a huge turnout in the House, with around 40 MPs in attendance, of whom about two thirds are on the Opposition benches.

17.36 Trickett quotes the CIPR as saying the Government's lack of engagement with the industry has resulted in a poorly drafted bill.

17.37 The deputy speaker asks Anne Main to take the floor. Main calls lobbying a 'subtle and devious art' and warns of not catching 'behind the scenes activity'. 'I don't hold my amendments so dear that I wouldn't support someone else's if they brought clarity to this bill,' she says.

17.41 Labour MP Paul Flynn gets a chance to call on the Government to withdraw the bill, after the recommendation of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee he serves on.

17.42 Still no contribution from Chloe Smith.

17.44 Main claims private lunches between MPs and lobbyists would be captured by her amendment.

17.45 Labour MP Chris Bryant urges everyone to be nicer about lobbyists.

17.46 Main says: 'I'm sorry if I have offended any gentle lobbyists... but there are quite a few who I wouldn't give the time of day to.' She talks of lobbying working through a chain reaction originating with a lobbyist targeting 'a single domino'.

17.50 Another MP says Main's definition of government excludes the Director of Public Prosecutions.

17.53 Graham Allen takes the floor. 'Even boxing has a code of honour so even when an opponent is battered and exhausted you don't keep him in the ring. [This bill] is battered and ready to fall over. People who are not here are putting other people up to do their bidding. We should end this cruel sport. We should put this bill into special committee.'

17.55 Allen claims his committee provided overwhelming evidence that the bill 'does not do what it says on the can'.

17.56 'This is the one per cent lobbying bill,' he says. 'Most of the problems we have seen in the media will not be tackled by this bill.'

17.58 Asked how many people will be required to register, Allen cites the PRCA's stat that fewer than one per cent of members have meetings with ministers.

17.59 Paul Flynn stresses the cost of a proper register would be 'minute' as the information is already there on computers.

18.01 Allen savages the Government with irony for successfully bringing about a consensus between Spinwatch and lobbying industry trade bodies.

18.02 Allen says Chloe Smith and Tom Brake are the 'fall guys'.

18.05 Tom Brake asks: 'What do we gain by extending the register to include in-house lobbyists when ministers are already reporting those meetings?'

18.06 Allen serves up a chance for Anne Main to push the point that the lobbying she is complaining about [a company securing permission to build a rail freight terminal in her constituency] took place at a private lunch.

18.07 Green Party MP Caroline Lucas slams the bill.

18.09 Kate Hoey questions how well ministers record meetings and informal contacts and asks what about permanent secretaries and special advisers. She brings up recent contact with herself from Starbucks, without going into detail.

18.11 Allen slams 'the prostitution by the Government of the House of Commons' in the way it has brought the bill forward.

18.13 Tory MP Geoffrey Cox expresses reservations about the bill but calls on opponents to ensure their criticisms are well-targeted, taking issue with Trickett's assertion that the Government is trying to exclude the employers of lobbyists. 

18.16 Cox gets on to his own problem with the bill, saying it offers the chance for specialist lobbying companies to avoid the register by becoming part of a larger business. He brings up the example of a City law firm with a lobbying team.

18.22 SDLP MP Mark Durkan calls the bill 'glaringly inadequate' and says it leaves the Government open to suspicion. 'None of the lobbying scandals we have seen over the years would be ameliorated by the scope of this bill and that has to be a matter of design on the part of this Government.'

18.30 Chris Bryant complains that the broadcast sector, which he says engages in a lot of lobbying, would be likely to go not to permanent secretaries but to junior officials and would not be caught by the bill.

18.32 Durkan accuses the Government of using charities and voluntary organisations that would be caught by part two of the bill as 'a human shield' against introducing more transparency.

18.35 Durkan warns people are going to find themselves caught up undeservedly in a scandal 'because we are leaving twilight zones' and calls for support for the amendments proposed by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. He tempers his support for Anne Main's proposed amendment to clause five.

18.38 Tory MP Tracey Crouch, who worked for a lobbying agency between 1998 and 2003 and was head of public affairs for Aviva between 2005 and 2010, says the lobbying industry has changed and more specialist lobbying agencies are now part of larger groups. She says lobbyists want transparency and a level playing field. She says the law firms, trade associations and think-tanks that Aviva employed would not be part of this bill.

18.42 Crouch claims that in 10 years as a lobbyist she never met with a permanent secretary. 'It was my job to influence civil servants at a lower level,' she says.

18.43 Crouch calls for the register to cover in-house lobbyists and multidisciplinary agencies.

18.45 A fellow Tory MP says it is ridiculous for accountancy firms not to be covered by the bill.

18.46 Chris Bryant's turn to speak - he 'entirely agrees' with Crouch. '[As a lobbyist] the permanent secretary is entirely irrelevant and the minister is the person of last resort you would go to.'

18.48 'When the mental health bill was coming through I wouldn't have been able to be a valuable member of the committee if it hadn't been for [mental health charity] MIND, the BMA and the pharmaceutical companies,' Bryant says.

18.51 'I can only think of one person who would be caught by this bill and that's the Prince of Wales,' adds Bryant, who confesses he used to be a lobbyist for the BBC in Brussels. He recommends the UK bring in a similar register to that in operation in Brussels and praises the UKPAC register.

18.53 Bryant challenges Tom Brake to tell him how many organisations will be caught by the register. Brake says the answer will come later and asks Bryant why he believes the statutory register will lead to agencies opting out of the voluntary register, which he describes are a selling point.

18.55 Brake says 350 is the answer Bryant is seeking and again asks Bryant why agencies should seek to come off the voluntary register.

18.56 Labour MP Thomas Docherty says he suspects the figure of 350 has been 'plucked out' of a comparison with Australia and Canada and bears no relation to the UK industry.

19.00 Bryant and Geoffrey Cox are arguing over what the Government amendments 93 and 94 on 'mainly a non-lobbying business' mean.

19.02 Bryant says this bill should be advanced as a private members bill on a non-partisan basis with evidence from people who know how the industry works.

19.05 Bryant gets into a case study of the music industry trade association lobbying on European legislation, which wouldn't be caught by the legislation. In a second case study he gets to the newspaper industry, with Lord Hunt the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. He imagines Hunt would be caught by the bill but believes Associated Newspapers' editor Peter Wright, 'who is spending almost all his time lobbying on this', and Telegraph Media Group executive director Lord Black would not be caught.

19.07 Thomas Docherty asks if Bryant is aware that Lord Black has given a Parliamentary pass to a lobbyist at the Telegraph Media Group.

19.12 Bryant says he 'loves' Anne Main's new clause.

19.13 Paul Flynn asks if Bryant is aware of the activities of Lord Blencathra, who was reported [by Flynn] to the Lords for lobbying for the Cayman Islands [but cleared by the Lords commissioner for standards of breaching any lobbying rules].

19.20 Labour MP John McDonnell takes the floor and discusses the lobbying of the transport department by BAA over a third runway for Heathrow Airport. He says BAA's lobbying agency would have been 'a smokescreen' for the real lobbying by BAA staff, who would have focused on persuading junior civil servants of their case.

19.22 McDonnell says governments are now outsourcing the gathering of material for making decisions, citing the Davies Commission for considering the expansion of aviation capacity. The commission would not be within the scope of the legislation, he says.

19.24 'This bill prevents me from protecting my constituents [in Hayes and Harlington] from a heavily resourced internal lobbying operation,' says McDonnell.

19.27 Labour MP and former lobbyist Thomas Docherty takes the floor and attacks the Government's definition of lobbying. He quotes the APPC's Iain Anderson's complaint over the 'crazy' grey areas of the bill and the FT's call this morning for the bill to be withdrawn.

19.34 Docherty says the bill is creating a burden for SMEs - specialist lobbying agencies. He claims there are only 10 to 20 agencies that would be caught by the current definition, which he thinks will face disproportionate costs.

19.38 Docherty brings up DLA Piper as an example of a law firm with a lobbying operation that wouldn't be caught by the bill.

19.40 Addressing Brake's point that APPC members would want to continue to be on a voluntary register, Docherty says having met the APPC their huge concern is that their members wouldn't want to bear the costs.

19.41 Brake again asks why agencies would want to come off a register on to which they have voluntarily entered.

19.42 Docherty goes back to the creation of UKPAC and says many of those who sign up to the voluntary register do so because they want to hold to the highest ethical standards. He says there is a real danger those firms say we don't lobby ministers or permanent secretaries so we don't need to register.

19.44 Labour MP Andy Sawford says surely it is the good guys who are on the voluntary register and we should be ensuring the bad guys are on the statutory register.

19.46 Brake says some of the past scandals Docherty has mentioned would be covered by the MPs' code of conduct.

19.47 Tory MP Mark Field appears to have given unreserved backing to the bill – probably the first person to do so today.

19.52 Docherty comes on to MHP's doubts about whether it comes within the definition of a 'consultant lobbyist' due to its multidisciplinary business and the restriction of lobbying to ministers and permanent secretaries.

19.55 Docherty says Babcock is a major employer in his constituency but the Government saying it has had a meeting with the public affairs director of Babcock leaves it unclear which part of Babcock the meeting was about.

19.57 After much grumbling from the floor about how long Docherty has been speaking for, he gives way.

19.58 Chloe Smith finally takes the floor and attacks the Opposition's amendments of 'consultant lobbying' to 'professional lobbying' as 'simple-minded'.

19.59 Smith presents the bill as a solution to a simple problem, explaining who ministers and permanent secretaries meet. Smith asks why the Opposition is backing amendments that would make a local vicar sign up as a lobbyist.

20.01 Docherty asks what does Smith know that everyone in the industry doesn't know.

20.02 Smith says the Opposition has failed to provide a robust definition of lobbying.

20.03 Chris Bryant tries to pin Smith down on the example of News Corp lobbying the Government over BSkyB. Smith responds by talking about the changes her Government has made to ministers' reporting, which she says were not introduced by Labour in its 13 years in power.

20.04 Smith urges the Opposition to withdraw its amendments, including the attempt to extend the definition to the provision of advice.

20.05 Tacking the attempt to extend the register to in-house lobbyists, Smith claims the publication of ministers' and permanent secretaries' meetings addresses this problem and challenges the Opposition to do the same.

20.06 Smith claims the Canadian system, which does cover in-house lobbyists, costs £3 million per year, and was necessary because the Canadian government does not have a system of publishing ministers' meetings.

20.08 Smith says multidisciplinary firms with a lobbying arm will be required to register by the Government's amendments.

20.10 Smith comes on to the amendments proposed by Anne Main, which closely resemble the definition put forward by lobbying industry trade bodies. 'I don't see what problem is being solved by requiring the registration of those who advise others,' she says.

20.11 This clause provides 'exceptionally widely for those who have to register', Smith says.

20.12 Main gets a chance to decry the bill as too narrow and ask why it doesn't address people lower than ministers and permanent secretaries.

20.13 Smith concedes Main has a point but the Government wants to be straightforward and regards ministers and permanent secretaries as key.

20.14 Smith claims Main's amendments would require people complaining about dog fouling near their local church to a local council to lobby.

20.14 Smith urges Main to withdraw her amendment.

20.15 Smith accuses the Labour front bench of 'spectacularly misunderstanding' the Government's amendments. She says the VAT registration threshold will exempt smaller companies from the cost of the register.

20.17 Moving on to 'incidental' lobbying, Smith reiterates it is the Government's intention for multidisciplinary firms to be captured by the bill and the Government has made amendments for that reason.

20.18 'I'm not proposing a fully blown regulator for the industry,' Smith concludes, adding she wants to avoid the US lobbying industry's 800-page manual.

20.20 Smith's opposite number Chi Onwurah gets the chance to get stuck into the bill. 'The amendments from the Government do not clear up any of the confusion. Ministers seem to have created a loophole where the vast majority of the lobbying industry will not have to register at all.'

20.22 Onwurah says she finds the minister's assertions the register would not impact the voluntary registers very hard to believe. She advises the Government to listen to its backbenchers' concerns that the bill does not capture what lobbying is and says she agrees with the Financial Times that this is bad lawmaking.

20.23 Amendment 2 is put to a vote. Amendment 2 effectively makes the register universal.

20.35 The amendment is defeated by 265 votes to 204.

20.45 Business continues with far fewer members taking part in the debate.

21.00 A series of amendments are proposed by Labour MP Gareth Thomas including one introducing a code of conduct to the statutory register; one introducing the disclosure of the financial value of lobbying activity on the register; and some picking up on the alleged conflict of interest between Lynton Crosby's activities as Tory election strategist and his lobbying interests.

21.12 Northern Irish MP Lady Hermon speaks up for her amendments for the minister to ensure the independence of the Registrar and ensure it is adequately financed.

21.20 Political and Constitutional Reform Committee chairman Graham Allen complains that the House will not have time to debate issues such as whether officials in the category of those lobbied should include civil servants and special advisers and what information about a meeting should be disclosed on the register.

21.29 Smith criticises the amendment proposing a code of conduct as showing the Opposition is proposing a fully blown regulator of the industry. She claims the industry does not want a statutory code of conduct. 'We have no reason to believe the industry wouldn't continue with its own codes of conduct. Their translation into statute is not feasible and can be unworkable and unenforceable.' She again attacks the Opposition for 'lazy draughtsmanship'.

21.33 Thomas protests that there are many in the lobbying industry who support a hybrid code of conduct.

21.35 Smith says she plans to ensure the independence of the registrar.

21.36 Lady Hermon says put it in the bill then.

21.37 Smith urges members to withdraw further amendments including the scrutiny of governmental appointments by a committee.

21.44 Caroline Lucas says the way the House has been forced to handle the debate, not having the ability to discuss many of the amendments, is a scandal and will be seen as such by the outside world. She criticises the Government for not doing more to force the disclosure of how much the tobacco industry spends on lobbying in the UK.

21.51 Thomas withdraws amendment 3 but seeks leave to press amendment 4, which introduces a code of conduct alongside the register.

21.52 Amendment 4 is put to a vote.

22.04 Amendment 4 is rejected by 280 votes to 210.

22.06 Amendment 9, which introduces the provision of advice and the setting up of meetings to the activities covered by the register, is put to a vote.

22.16 Amendment 9 is rejected by 289 to 209.

22.22 And that appears to be it for serious opposition to the bill's proposals for a register of lobbyists at the committee stage, with a series of Government amendments passed and the committee stage concluded for the part relating to the register.

- Read other stories on the lobbying bill by visiting our Big Issue

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