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The Government has rejected a swathe of recommendations for more transparency over lobbying and ethics – in a move that has been condemned by the lobbying industry itself.
Pledges made by the Government to clean up dodgy lobbying in the wake of a series of scandals have fallen well short of transparency groups’ hopes.
In response to three official reviews into sleaze and cronyism, ministers have pledged minor reform to toughen up appointment rules for ministers, requiring them to sign a contract to make the revolving door watchdog ACOBA’s judgements legally binding.
Civil servants will also have new rules on what employment they can get after they leave Whitehall explicitly written into their employment contracts.
Business appointments (ACOBA) boss Lord Eric Pickles had called for the ability to financially sanction ministers to give the watchdog more teeth, but was rebuffed.
And though the Government has committed to publishing transparency disclosures for ministerial meetings with outside groups every month instead of quarterly, there is no clear timeline for the move. Over a dozen other calls from the reviews for stronger standards and more transparency were dismissed by ministers.
Crucially, the Government’s ethics advisor on ministerial standards, Sir Laurie Magnus CBE, will not be given independence to launch his own reviews – leaving probes into misconduct at the whim of the Prime Minister.
Even the lobbying industry itself is pushing for tighter rules, with around 95 percent of lobbying activity in Westminster remaining unregistered. The Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists has expressed frustration with the Government’s failure to order lobbyists to declare who they are approaching when pushing on policy.
Harry Rich, who leads the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists, expressed frustration with the lack of progress, particularly regarding lobbyists’ failure to declare whom they are approaching.
The lobbyist told Politico: “I’ve done a bit of lobbying in my time… You always start by talking to the special adviser…If one wants transparency in policy making, you need to know which special advisers have been influenced by which clients.”
Sue Hawley, the director of Spotlight on Corruption, criticised the lack of proper independence for Westminster’s ethics regulators: “The Government has misread the mood of the country on this. Poll after poll shows the public want more robust, independent oversight over ministers and politicians,” she told Politico‘s London Influence newsletter.
Tim Durrant, the program director at the Institute for Government, also expressed disappointment, saying: “At the end of last year, Penny Mordaunt said they hoped by the summer to move to monthly reporting, and all we’ve got by summer is a commitment that at some point in the future they’ll move to monthly reporting.”
“I think that reveals this is not a political priority and they are not putting in the resources to make those changes,” he added (Disclosure: the author works on transparency with Durrant at the Open Government Network).
And Alastair McCapra, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, lamented the lack of significant reform. “With a general election only months away now, politicians of all parties must surely want to face voters with a plan for radical improvement,” he told Politico London Influence.
Rose Whiffen, senior research officer at Transparency International UK, pointed out the flaws in the Government’s commitment to expanding transparency, stating, “Would a quiet chat with a party donor about Government policy or a planning decision make it into the transparency data? It should do, but there’s too much ambiguity in the proposals and the ministerial code, which would enable ministers to withhold these fireside chats from public view without consequences.”
The response from ministers comes after reviews into ethics from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Boardman review into the Greensill lobbying scandal, and the Commons’ Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs Committee.
Just Some of the Calls for More Transparency Ministers Rejected
With thanks to the Institute for Government.
Call: The independent adviser should be able to initiate investigations, and determine breaches of the ministerial code.
The Government rejects these recommendations, noting that under the current terms of reference “the independent adviser may now initiate an investigation having consulted the prime minister.”
The Government notes that the prime minister “has sole responsibility for the organisation of His Majesty’s Government” and therefore is the only one who can determine whether the ministerial code has been breached.
Call: The Government should introduce pre-appointment rules to ensure civil servants joining from a different sector are prevented from dealing with their former employer for a period of time.
The Government rejects this recommendation, arguing that the July 2022 policy on conflicts of interest deals with the concerns behind the recommendation without the need for new rules.
Call: ACOBA rules should prohibit appointments for two years where the applicant had direct responsibility of policy relevant to the hiring company, and five years where the applicant is lobbying the Government.
The Government rejects these recommendations, arguing that this approach is “overly broad” and could constrain movement in and out of the public sector. It also argues that a five-year ban “would be deemed as an unreasonable restraint on trade”.
The Government does not intend to broaden the definition of lobbying to wider groups, or require lobbyists to declare specific instances of lobbying. The Government is clear it does not intend to introduce new primary legislation to amend the current lobbying legislation.
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Call: Ministers must consult the commissioner for public appointments on make-up of the whole panel for significant appointments.
The Government rejects this recommendation, arguing that the “current process for significant public appointments is properly constituted” as ministers have to consult the commissioner on their choice of the senior independent panel member.
Call: The Government should update guidance to make clear that informal lobbying, and lobbying via alternative forms of communication such as WhatsApp or Zoom, should be reported to officials.
The Government argues that its recent guidance on the use of “non-corporate communication channels” already makes this requirement clear. It rejects the recommendation that letters, WhatsApps, impromptu phone calls or emails should be included in transparency declarations.
Call: The Government should strengthen the oversight of how departments manage the honours process.
The Government rejects this recommendation, saying that the Cabinet Office “undertakes continuous review and assessment of the honours process across Government.”
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