Public Affairs: Row over union lobbying

Tories and Labour at odds over inclusion of trade unions in register.

The Conservatives are preparing to do battle with Labour over the planned statutory register of lobbyists by insisting that trade unions will be comprehensively covered by any new rules.

The Government's vision for a lobbying register is due to be unveiled in a consultation paper later this month, but Cabinet Office minister Mark Harper has signalled his determination to ensure it covers 'every trade union official who seeks to influence MPs and ministers'.

Harper was speaking at a House of Commons debate last week. His comments were at odds with those of Labour backbencher John Mann and suggest the Tories may be squaring up for a fight with the numerous Labour MPs from union backgrounds.

Mann, a former union official, told MPs 'trade union liaison officers' should not be covered by the forthcoming lobbying register. He said: 'The issue is this: what access is gained to Parliament?'

But Harper responded by accusing the Labour MP of 'double standards'. He added: 'His line about trade unions not being encompassed by the transparency rules is unsustainable. Given the fact that the party he represents gets 85 per cent of its donations from trade unions ... I am afraid that his argument is simply not defensible.'

Mann hit back: 'I have not put that argument. Lobbyists are lobbyists and trade union lobbyists are lobbyists. However, every trade union member and trade union official is not a lobbyist.'

But Harper insisted: 'Every trade union official who seeks to influence members and ministers is engaged in lobbying, and they should be covered by the transparency rules just like everyone else. They have nothing to hide and it is important that the honourable gentleman recognises that.'

Last week's debate was initiated by Labour MP Paul Flynn. Two lobbying firms were mentioned during the debate. Mann cited the numerous former Tory aides at Quiller Consultants as evidence of 'the interchangeability between the political world and the lobbying world'. He also referred to Bell Pottinger's lobbying for the Government of Sri Lanka, 'where 146,000 people have disappeared without trace'. Mann told MPs: 'That is why transparency is important.'

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