Glasgow MP asks Minister why Lobbying Bill targets fringes of problem and does not tackle real issues in Government.
Speaking in the House of Commons, John Robertson MP demanded to know why only 1% of lobbyists would be covered under the Government’s proposals. Mr Robertson told MPs, “If we are going to do it, let’s do it right” and asked to include all lobbyists on a register.
He challenged the fact that a number of people have found employment in Government departments, who might be working in the interests of various clients, or who still have connections to big business.
Speaking about the Prime Minister’s controversial appointment of Lynton Crosby as his election strategist, Mr Robertson said: “There is somebody working for the Prime Minister and it is clear that if he is in there, he will probably speak to the Prime Minister on any number of subjects of the day. Is it credible to think otherwise?”
Lynton Crosby, as well as working in Number 10, is a lobbyist for tobacco and alcohol companies. His presence has been linked with the dropping of proposals to bring in the plain packaging of tobacco and minimum alcohol pricing.
The Bill, having its second reading in Parliament today, is proposing to create a statutory register for lobbyists; limit the amount of campaign spending in the year leading to an election; and introduce more regulations for trade unions. Labour is calling for the Bill to be scrapped.
Speech in the debate on the Transparency in Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill
John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) and for St Albans (Mrs Main). I do not necessarily agree with everything they said, but at least they have been thoughtful and have a good idea of what they are talking about. A number of my Opposition colleagues have also made very good speeches.
We have to agree that not all lobbyists are bad. As Members of Parliament, we get a lot of information from lobbyists that we use to our benefit. There is no way that I, as a member of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, could see every person who wants a meeting with me, but I try to meet those who will shed a light on whatever idea the Committee is talking about at the time. We use that information when we talk to Ministers and that is how it should be.
I do not believe that the Bill gives us transparency. It is very narrow and I think that an idea was formed somewhere along the line about how it could be used. Although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) that it is a bad Bill, I also think that there must be a reason why these things are being done. These people are not idiots—they know what they are doing and there must be a reason behind it. Although the Bill is a bad Bill, I believe that its purpose is to stop my party winning the next election. If last week’s vote on Syria had gone a different way—I am glad to say that it did not—would that have been because third parties had lobbied us to support the Government in what they were trying to do?
We suffered as a party in the 2005 election when the coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, picked up a lot of votes on the back of an anti-war vote. Their support slackened off, as we saw when we got to the 2010 election. I believe that the Bill would have stopped the third parties in 2005 saying, “Don’t vote for a Government who go to war.” I think that worked against us. The Government are not that stupid, and avoiding that is one reason why we have the Bill. We have talked about the rail network and its effect, and the same applies here. The Bill could be used against anything that is anti-Government.
What are we doing? We are talking about registers of interests. Only 1% of those who lobby will be put on a register and the rest would not be on it. Why would that be? Who are we highlighting—the small groups, the individuals and the third-party wee groups who get together occasionally? Why would we want to do that? There must be a reason. Therefore, why are we doing that when we are not tackling the big lobbyists whom we met regularly? Why are they exempt? I ask these questions—I hope that the Minister can answer them—because I have not for the life of me worked out why the Government would want to do this.
James Duddridge: For many years, this House has not done enough to tackle lobbying. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) produced a massive Bill that was perhaps more along the lines that the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) requires, but it was too difficult; it bit off too much to chew to be good legislation. One might argue that this Bill is narrow in the wrong places, but is there not an advantage in having a narrow and focused Bill?
John Robertson: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, and I believe that he believes what he says. I actually believe that, if we are going to do this, everyone should be included. No one should be exempt, or everyone should be exempt. There is no point in putting a small group on to a register when everyone else can do as they will. If we are going to do it, let us do it right and put everyone on the list, so that we can see who is lobbying and that they meet the criteria.
Previous speakers have said that Ministers will be the only ones who will be covered by this. It is funny that although Members of Parliament were exposed on television for doing something, every time that a Minister was exposed there were always rules governing the fact that they could get away with it. I mentioned that Deloitte has been paying for a member of a Minister’s staff—the Minister is not in his place at the moment—for a number of years, yet Deloitte gets billions of pounds-worth of business from this Government. That has got to be wrong, yet according to all the rules of Parliament, no rule was broken. There is something wrong with that.
The Prime Minister employs someone in No. 10 who is obviously having an effect, but he says, “I have not talked to him on this subject.” Well, he has to talk about something, and I dare say that, whatever was important in Parliament, he was getting advice from that person on it. Whether that person should be allowed to give him that advice and whether he should have been allowed through the doors of No. 10 is another matter—and we need not go back to the matter of the gentleman who was supposedly a journalist who did his bit to try to help the Government to get into power and has now ended up facing court charges.
These things have happened, but people keep getting away with it, and I want to know why. If we are going to have transparency in lobbying, transparency in campaigning and transparency on the trade unions, we must do it right. We should not go off half-cocked and try to attack people whom we do not like politically or whom we particularly disagree with. We should include everyone in a proper manner. We should have proper scrutiny. We should talk to the relevant Select Committees to help us with that scrutiny, and we should not ignore them. Unfortunately, what we see is a Government who want to ignore everything unless it suits them, so the question is why.
Another example is that Volker Beckers, who is the former chief executive officer of npower, has become the chairman of the scrutiny committee of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. During his time as the CEO of npower, it did not pay a penny in tax. How can this happen? Is there no scrutiny of these people? Is no one observing what is happening?
Why has this been allowed to happen? Lack of transparency and lack of knowing what is going on are the cause, and the Leader of the House—unfortunately, he is not in his place—must take responsibility for that. He is the man in charge. If he is not following up these things, they are his fault. He is the man who should fall on his sword, and we should get someone who is willing to do what is required.
We have a voluntary register at the moment. I have never been happy with anything voluntary that is to do with business. I have always believed that the register should be mandatory. Unless we make it mandatory and the process is done in a proper manner that we are happy with as a Parliament, we will end up with the same problems that we have today, and we will still have the same arguments.
Let me register an interest as a member of Unite, although I have not received any money off it for some time—certainly not in this Parliament. That might be because I am not doing a good job—who knows? I like to think I have always been a good trade unionist. I believe in trade unionism. I believe in what trade unions do. I believe that trade unions fight for those who do not have the power to fight for themselves, and I do not believe that unions should be attacked any more than anybody else. It is amazing that we have a register for them. We have members lists but why do we not have a register of members of the Minister’s party? Should we therefore take on the Conservative party and disband it because it does not meet the rules? If we had a mandatory register, that would be the case, and I would be all for it.