After months of delay, the Cabinet Office has finally provided a response to the Commons public administration select committee.
The committee of MPs proposed the possible creation of a statutory register of lobbyists in a major report earlier this year. Such a register would include details of agencies' clients and details of all meetings between lobbyists and MPs or officials.
The Government's response was finally published this morning. It states that ministers agree with the idea of a register of lobbyists, but believe it should be voluntary rather than statutory. Ministers also believe that such a register should not contain details of meetings with MPs and officals.
The Government says the industry's progress towards a voluntary register will be kept 'under review'. However, ministers have not specified a time frame within which the Government will make an assessment of the industry's progress towards effective self-regulation.
The response states: 'The Government believes that effective voluntary self-regulation must be the preferred approach. The Committee has made a number of recommendations directed at the lobbying industry, calling for statutory regulation only if the industry fails to make credible improvements to voluntary self-regulation.
'The Government agrees that the industry should be allowed the opportunity to develop a system of voluntary self-regulation which commands the confidence of those in and outside the industry. In doing so, the Government will keep the issue under review to ensure that progress is made in developing an effective system of voluntary self-regulation.'
On the content of a lobbying register, the response states: ‘The Government agrees with most of the elements for such a register outlined by the Committee. However, the Government does not agree that such a register should include the private interests of Ministers and civil servants. This should not be a matter for a register of lobbyists.'
According to the response, ministers are 'encouraged by the efforts now being made by the industry to develop a single and credible regime of voluntary self-regulation'.
It adds: 'The industry has continually improved its disciplinary procedures over recent years, including through the greater use of independent figures of standing to consider and rule on possible breaches.
'The Government urges the industry to embrace the opportunity provided by the Committee's Report. If a system of voluntary self-regulation can be made to work it would be a more proportionate and effective means of promoting the transparency and standards of conduct that should be expected of lobbyists without the potential risks associated with statutory regulation.'
The Government response also announces that departments will publish online information about ministerial meetings with interest groups and hospitability received in a ministerial capacity on a quarterly basis. It also extends the list of civil servants who will have to publish the details of hospitality and expenses they have received.
Select committee chair Tony Wright said today: ‘I am glad that the Government has accepted some of our proposals to increase the transparency of lobbying but disappointed that it has not accepted the case for a statutory register, which is where I think we shall eventually end up.'
The select committee's report, published back in January, stated that the lobbying industry should be given ‘six months following the publication of this report to see whether concrete and consistent progress can be made' towards greater transparency.
Failing this, the committee called on the Government to ‘bring forward a short bill' to force lobbyists to reveal their clients.