The Government's failure to make any progress in controlling the excesses of lobbyists was defended at the Political and Cosntitutional Reform Committee on Thursday by Miniter Mark Harper. (uncorrected version).
Q<458> <Paul Flynn:> We have just emerged from the worst parliamentary scandal for 200 years. The urgent priority of any incoming government was to try to rebuild confidence and trust in the political system. In the past two years, thanks to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, we have seen on our televisions Bell Pottinger boasting that it can sell access to the Prime Minister, and we have seen an official of your party, Mr Cruddas, saying that it costs £250,000 to buy access, for a meal, with the Prime Minister. These are not speculations; we have actually witnessed these things.
We have seen a new doctrine of absolution by resignation in the Fox case and in the SpAd case in the Culture Department—that once you resign, there is no investigation. That is, I think, a new method of sleaze. We have seen allegations of the influence of McKinseys on the Health and Social Care Bill. You have given two examples of how the Government have improved things. One, I think, was entirely spurious—there were no sanctions involved in the ACoBA one.
We should all feel passionately. I have just finished a book, which goes off to the printer today, about one of our colleagues who I think died prematurely—an entirely innocent, honourable gentleman—because he was part of the collateral damage from the expenses scandal. If we are passionate, we have a task which will take a decade before we restore the confidence that people previously had in politicians.
Don’t you really think that the tardiness with which your Government have behaved in trying to get a proper register for lobbyists—all the allegations, the disregard of the ministerial code—means that the judgment, after two years, is that the public have less trust in us now than they did when you were first elected?
<Mr Harper:> I do not accept the premise. Yes, the expenses scandal was very serious, and that is why Parliament took the decisions about setting up IPSA. We touched on this when the Deputy Prime Minister and I gave evidence, but I think that now—it took a while—the normal mechanism has demonstrated that people were actually held accountable. People who had committed the worst abuses—those who had actually breached the law—went through a trial, were found guilty and went to prison. Before the election, there was a lot of scepticism about whether that was ever going to happen. We have cleaned up our act: we have an independent body to do expenses—it has not been trouble free, and it has not been entirely popular with all colleagues, as I know—which is now working reasonably well. In that area, if you look at polling, people are confident about that.
On your various accusations, I do not accept your argument in the Culture Secretary’s case. That is not done and dusted. My understanding is that Frédéric Michel, Mr Smith and the Culture Secretary will all give evidence under oath to a judicial inquiry. On the idea that nothing is ongoing—that is a pretty high bar for them to have to deal with—I just do not accept that premise.
In terms of tardiness, I absolutely reject that. The previous Government did nothing on this issue for 13 years. We came into office with a commitment. We have published our proposals and we are going through a proper process. There is an argument that we could have rushed off and brought in legislation, not having paid attention to the consultation or waited for this Committee’s report. Looking at the consultation response, we would have ended up with legislation that was immediately controversial, that did not deal with the problem that people agreed existed, that was badly drafted, and—picking up Mr Chope’s point—that was probably not delivering what we wanted.
We are going through a proper process. It takes time, but I think it is better for Parliament if we are all clear about the problem, clear about the solution, bring forward well-drafted draft legislation, which your Committee can then scrutinise, pass a bill this Parliament, and then not have to come back to it again, because people will be confident that we have the right solution. The last thing we want to do is rush off in haste, cobble something together and then come back in six months and do it all over again. I would rather get this job done properly—get it done. Then, to pick up Mr Hart’s point—he is not in his place at the moment—we can get on with discussing the issues that the public do worry about at night: jobs and growth, and ensure that they are confident that we have a robust political system. We need to do the job properly rather than in haste and make a bodge up of it.
Q<433> <Paul Flynn:> There is a precedent. In the 1980s, I ran an operation publishing the questions from next-step agencies, which were not published in Hansard, and the Tory Government at that time nationalised my private enterprise, so it has happened before.
The question I wanted to ask—a one-word answer would suffice—is: if a former minister, during the two-year period from retiring, does in fact lobby, what can the Government do about it?
<Mr Harper:> I have been asked this question before and it is very clear in the code that they are prohibited from doing so.
Q<434> <Paul Flynn:> Yes, but what can you do about it?
<Mr Harper:> I am confident that ministers will comply with the terms of the code.
Q<435> <Paul Flynn:> I think that the word that you are looking for is “nothing”.
<Mr Harper:> We have not had a case yet where a former Minister has behaved in a way not in accordance with the code. Let us see what happens.
Q<436> <Paul Flynn:> If it happens, what do you do?
<Mr Harper:> Rather than always looking on the black side—
Q<437> <Paul Flynn:> You have claimed that this is a reform.
<Mr Harper:> I think that it is worth saying that this is a new provision in the code. It was not the case before that ministers were prohibited from doing this. Without mentioning any particular names, there have been cases in the past where, five minutes after ministers stopped being ministers, they went off and were paid for going back and lobbying their former colleagues for the private sector, so I think that there has been a step forward. It is very clear that, when ministers take office, they have to abide by the code. All those who are now former ministers, so far as I am aware, have abided by it. Let us wait and see how effective it is and not just assume that it will not work.
Q<438> <Paul Flynn:> And what will you do? It is a simple question. What can you do?
<Mr Harper:> I tend to take the view that people who are made Ministers of the Crown will abide by the code and follow its strictures. Let us just see and let us not be so pessimistic and look on the black side of human nature.
<Paul Flynn:> I do not understand how you can take this utopian view.
Q<408> <Paul Flynn:> Not the press but serious commentators have pointed out the gulf between the Prime Minister’s splendid rhetoric in February 2010 and the reality of what you have presented. Mark Adams, a lobbyist, has described the paper as “possibly one of the most shoddy documents I have ever seen government produce.” Sir Stuart Etherington, Chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said of the register: “Basically it’s so weak now there’s no point in us joining it.” Do you accept that the Government’s proposals are weak and in no way represent the spirit of what the Prime Minister said in February 2010?
<Mr Harper:> No, I do not. Part of this comes down to what problem you are trying to solve. The problem that we are trying to solve is a lack of transparency about those who meet ministers.
Q<409> <Paul Flynn:> You have said that a number of times. There are a number of things that I would like to ask you, if I can go on to that. You think it is okay. Fine; we have got that point. Let’s take not what the Government say, but what they actually do. The ministerial code was set up five years ago. There are three instances that possibly should have been investigated by the independent adviser—Sir Philip Mawer, as it then was, or the new adviser. One of them is the current case involving the Culture Secretary. There is also the case involving the Communities Secretary and one involving Mr Adam Werritty and the former Defence Secretary. All those are potential breaches of the ministerial code. None of them has been investigated. Why is that?
<Mr Harper:> I will let the Chairman decide how far he wants me to go. On the point about the Culture Secretary, the Prime Minister has made the position very clear. He is responsible for enforcing the ministerial code. He does not—
<Paul Flynn:> Shall we—
<Chair:> Paul, the minister has to answer the question.
<Mr Harper:> I shall try to keep the answers fairly brief, but you have asked me the questions, so I will try to answer them. As far as the Culture Secretary is concerned, the Prime Minister has made it clear that he is responsible as the arbiter of the code. The Secretary of State is going to set out all his evidence at the Leveson inquiry. The Prime Minister’s view is that the Secretary of State has not breached the ministerial code. The Prime Minister has made it clear that if, after having looked at all the evidence that is laid out, he takes a different view, he will act. That seems to me a perfectly sensible process. You have a judge in a public inquiry at which witnesses will give evidence under oath; that seems to be a much more robust process, in this case, than asking Sir Alex Allan to carry out a parallel process.
Q<410> <Paul Flynn:> Do you know the details about the Communities Secretary? The Communities Secretary had a dinner—a five-star dinner at the Savoy—with Bell Pottinger and one of its clients who had a case that they were bringing before his department. His reason for not registering it was that on that day he was eating privately and not ministerially, so we are not sure on what day he eats with his ministerial stomach and on what day he eats with his private stomach. Apparently, the Government accepted that defence, and that he did not have to register it. Is that an advance in transparency?
<Mr Harper:> This Government are far more transparent than any previous Government have been in terms of publishing the details of ministerial meetings, who ministers are meeting, when those meetings are with external organisations, and the purpose of those meetings. It is clearly for ministers to make a judgment about the extent of that publication, and then for the Prime Minister to judge whether that is in accordance with the code. I know you have raised this case before, and I think the Culture Secretary responded to those allegations publicly—I cannot remember, off the top of my head, what he said—but I think people were broadly content with his response. Clearly that is an issue for the code.
It is interesting to come back to this case, though, because it raises one important issue that the Committee might want to take a view on. We said in the consultation document that this was about not just lobbyists meeting ministers, but how they engage with Parliament. Clearly, if you take the view that there is only an issue about meetings with ministers, one potential solution that has been put forward by some in the industry is that you solve the problem completely by beefing up the extent of the disclosure that ministers make about their meetings. I would argue that it is about not just ministers, but meetings that lobbyists might have with parliamentarians because, after all, individual parliamentarians can change the law—they can change what is in legislation—so it is not just about ministers. If you limit it only to ministers, you are missing out a whole load of interactions that lobbying organisations have with Members of Parliament and Members of the House of Lords. That is why we have set up the register solution, as opposed to just dealing with it through transparency about ministerial meetings.
Q<411> <Paul Flynn:> Other Members will take up that point.
The investigation into the case of Adam Werritty and a former Defence Minister was conducted by a person who had no authority to conduct it. The sole enforcer of the ministerial code is the independent adviser. It was then Sir Philip Mawer, who said that he should have conducted the investigation, and who then resigned. The result of that investigation was certainly illegitimate, and many suggested it was inadequate as well. There was a resignation, which halted a full inquiry. How does it advance transparency when we still do not know the role of Mr Adam Werritty, who was in the pay of a number of think-tanks, most of them outside this country, and who, it is alleged, had an agenda to encourage a war between ourselves and Iran. This is the allegation: that a private defence policy was being pursued by a Defence Minister and his adviser—the most serious allegation one could make. It has not been investigated by the sole enforcer of the ministerial code. Why?
<Mr Harper:> I do not think you describe the adviser on ministerial interests correctly. The enforcer of the ministerial code is the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister is able to call on the independent adviser to investigate if, after consulting with the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister thinks that investigation is necessary. In this case it was not, because after the Cabinet Secretary had carried out some investigations and information came to light, the former Secretary of State for Defence decided that it was appropriate for him to tender his resignation and he ceased to be a member of the Government. It seems to me that, in that case, he accepted that he had behaved unwisely and he is no longer a member of the Government. It seems to me that the code, in that case, worked perfectly as it is supposed to.
Q<412> <Paul Flynn:> If the allegations are true, the worst possible outcome—just to repeat this—is that having been drawn into a war to get rid of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, and having stayed in Afghanistan to defend ourselves against a non-existent Taliban terrorist threat to Britain, we could have been drawn into a war on the basis of non-existent Iranian long-range weapons, carrying non-existent Iranian nuclear bombs. That is the agenda of some of the people who were paying Adam Werritty, and he was possibly influencing a Minister of the Crown. We do not know; it has not been tested or investigated. In fact, you have not used the ministerial code at all in the two years in which you have been in government, although there have been three cases. Doesn’t this mean that instead of building up trust in politicians, we are further undermining it?
<Mr Harper:> Mr Flynn, I am perfectly happy to sit here and expand on the Government’s foreign and defence policy on a range of issues for some time, but I do not think that is what the Committee asked me to come here for. Your characterisation of the British Government’s foreign and defence policy is not one that I or, I suspect, most people share. You are entitled to your view, but it is not one that we share. I do not think that the allegations you have put forward are supported by even a shred of evidence.
Q<413> <Paul Flynn:> I would be happy to provide you with that. Each of the self-regulatory bodies that has appeared before us has made its comments and submissions on this. The previous PASC suggested that we needed a statutory code that people had to abide by. You have pulled back from that. You have retreated from what happened in the previous Government—from recommendations that, disgracefully, were not taken up by the then Labour Government, though they should have been. Why didn’t you propose a statutory code of conduct alongside the register this time? What is your response to the argument that a register without a code of conduct will lead to less regulation of the lobbying industry, and that self-regulation usually means no regulation?
<Mr Harper:> On the point about a code of conduct, we made it clear in the consultation document that we published that we do not intend to set up a regulator for the whole industry or everyone who carries out some kind of lobbying. We are trying to set up a register to increase the transparency about those who meet with ministers and parliamentarians, so that people are aware of who is meeting who and the purpose of those meetings. Transparency is how you deal with the concerns that people have. It is a different point of view. We do not want to set up an industry-wide regulator—another quango to regulate the industry. We think that if we have transparency, that is how we will deal with it.
On your specific point about regulation and a code of conduct, one of the things that came through in a number of the meetings that I attended was an idea that we will consider that was put forward by some in the industry. They pointed out that a number of the professional bodies have a code of conduct. They suggested that it should be made very clear in the register if anyone registered was a member of an organisation that had a code of conduct and a mechanism for ensuring high standards.
The other thing that the Government will consider is whether ministers would meet with people who did not belong to an organisation that had a code of conduct and therefore tried to drive up standards. That may be a way of driving up standards and enforcing them. Government will consider that when we bring forward our final proposals.
Q<444> <Simon Hart:> On many topics that we have discussed with you on this Committee, there has always been a question about the extent to which the public are lying in bed worrying about this at the moment, and we could have that discussion perhaps on another occasion.
I do, however, want to pick up on one point you made. Obviously, you will not try to solve all the problems in this one measure. I think we all agree that lobbying techniques have changed quite a bit over the last few years. Do you think there is a risk that by imposing conditions or regulations, or however you might like to describe them, on traditional organisations such as Bell Pottinger, you end up driving lobbying into a different area? As you know, I am a former lobbyist of sorts. I would probably not have come under the register—although, strangely enough, I think I probably should have done—because most of my lobbying was done through third parties. We seldom sat down in a Minister’s office and engaged them. We facilitated people meeting their MPs in their constituencies, armed with the necessary evidence and information—and very effective that was.
<Paul Flynn:> Or invaded the Commons Chamber.
<Simon Hart:> Absolutely.