During a Political and Constitutional Reform Committee meeting this morning, Conservative minister Mark Harper defended his Government’s record on handling lobbying scandals.
Under questioning over how swiftly lobbying reform, which went through its consultation stage earlier this year, was being delivered, the minister said:
‘The last thing we want to do is rush off in haste, cobble something together and in six months time we’re back here all over again.
‘I just want to get it done properly rather than make a bodge of it.’
He did, however, pledge that the Government would publish a draft bill during this parliamentary session.
His words follow widespread industry criticism of the Government's initial recommendations, which focused purely on third parties and excluded in-house lobbyists.
Today's events also follow recent controversy over the contact between News International lobbyist Frederic Michel and the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt over News Corp's failed bid for BSkyB.
During the meeting of the committee, whose findings will feed into any eventual lobbying register, the Government’s handling of previous lobbying scandals was put under the spotlight.
Labour members questioned why the ministerial code had failed to be applied in recent scandals, including that around Adam Werritty's relationship with former defence secretary Liam Fox.
Rejecting the criticism, Harper nevertheless acknowledged that the process of releasing information around ministerial meetings needed to be speeded up.
‘The timeliness of publishing meetings was not all it could’ve been,’ he said. He added that ‘work was under way’ on the issue.
Harper told the committee that feedback from meetings with the public affairs industry was being considered, particularly around whether the register could specify whether lobbyists were covered by an industry code of conduct.
He also revealed that the possibility of exempting single-person or small lobbying firms from a register had been rejected.
He explained: ‘We decided against that as a lot of organisations in this industry are small and if you excluded them you would be missing out on a lot of transparency.’
Responding to the suggestion that a register could show who was covered by a code of conduct, Jane Wilson, CEO of the CIPR, said: 'This is a welcome indication of how the register could support the existing structures of professional self-regulation.
'Codes of conduct, such as those provided by the CIPR, PRCA and APPC, provide a link between professional standards, ethics and industry structures of learning and development. Steps towards government regulation of the industry would undermine that link and, in my view, ultimately provide a less effective regulatory regime for lobbying and public affairs.'
Meanwhile, Francis Ingham added: "Since lobbying proposals were included in the coalition agreement, we have we have seen several false dawns -not helped by a confusing consultation document. It is clear that the Government needs to produce draft legislation for a register that includes all lobbyists, and it needs to do so now.'