The head of the UK’s lobbying watchdog has called for tougher disclosure rules to show which ministers have been solicited, as well as a review of exemptions made use of by David Cameron and Philip Hammond.
Harry Rich, who is in charge of the register of consultant lobbyists and their clients, said it would “significantly assist transparency” if lobbyists were asked to reveal which ministers and permanent secretaries they had spoken to – as well as when, how and what about.
He also told the Guardian that it would “definitely enhance transparency” if contact between consultant lobbyists and special advisers was brought under the regime. “The more transparency there is, the more the aims of the legislation are being upheld,” he said.
Rich is making suggestions for more transparent lobbying declarations in a submission to parliament’s public administration and constitutional affairs committee (Pacac) in his first public intervention on the subject since taking the job in 2018.
In the submission, he suggests declarations include which minister or permanent secretary was lobbied, dates of the communications, medium of communication – whether by meeting, letter or email, phone, text – and topics of communication. “The fact that the targets of lobbying activity are not identified on the register feels like a significant gap,” it says.
At the moment, Rich’s staff enforce compliance partly by having to spend time cross-checking between information provided to them by lobbyists and incomplete, patchy information that appears on the government’s records of ministerial meetings.
“It is quite tricky to do given the thinness of the information but also the difference in the two lots of information,” he said. “My interest has to be principally the register and it’s based on my four years of experience in the job and knowing it would make compliance a lot easier. As far as ministerial published data is confirmed, that is not part of my remit. But I can say that if that data was more timely, more full and more complete, that would make compliance work from my side a lot easier.”
The Guardian recently revealed huge and inexplicable differences in ministerial meetings disclosed by different departments, with Liz Truss declaring just two meetings as foreign secretary in a three-month period, compared with 51 by the Welsh secretary.
Rich also suggested that ministers could look again at the exemptions that allow lobbyists not to register under the current system, although changes could require primary legislation.
The role of registrar of consultant lobbyists was created by legislation in 2014 to shine a light on the activities of lobbying. The watchdog recently provisionally found that former Conservative MP Owen Paterson broke transparency rules by failing to register as a lobbyist for Randox, a healthcare firm. Paterson could face a fine of £7,500 but he has an opportunity to appeal.
However, a series of loopholes has allowed senior politicians lobbying on behalf of companies to argue successfully that they are not covered by the legislation. Those not caught by the act include any person or company not VAT registered, therefore foreign firms, any in-house lobbyists and anyone for whom lobbying is “incidental” to their main business are not covered.
“You can do quite a lot of lobbying work for £85,00 and more significantly it exempts foreign businesses from registration under the act,” Rich said.
Both the in-house exemption and the “incidental” exemption were used successfully by former prime minister David Cameron to argue that his lobbying activity for Greensill was not covered by the legislation. Philip Hammond, a former chancellor, was also able to use the incidental exemption to argue that he had not engaged in consultant lobbying activity for OakNorth Bank.
Had the incidental exemption not applied, Hammond’s email to Charles Roxburgh, second permanent secretary at the Treasury, to promote software developed by OakNorth would have been an act of consultant lobbying and therefore a registrable communication.
On the incidental exemption, Rich’s submission said “the policy intention and the meaning of this provision are unclear and it is the most contentious, vague and problematic drafting in the legislation”.
He added: “I have no particular views on the policy intention. But nobody actually knows what it was meant to do and should do. I think whichever direction it goes in it would be helpful if it was clear what was intended.”
He said he believed the office of the registrar was doing its job “well and within the confines of the law in front of us”, having achieved an increase in the number of businesses registered as consultant lobbyists from about 150 to 194 in the last year.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We have committed to undertaking post-legislative scrutiny of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 which governs the consultant lobbying regime.
“We will provide a response to the Pacac call for evidence in due course.”