Briefing: ongoing lobbying loopholes despite recent government commitments to reform

17 October, 2023 | 1 minute read

After reforms to lobbying rules are eventually implemented, there will still be no requirement to disclose non-diarised informal lobbying in departments’ transparency releases, even if it impacts upon or shapes government policy. This major loophole was highlighted by a recent Financial Times article.

In July 2023, the government published its long-awaited response to reports by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and Nigel Boardman on lobbying and standards in public life. In Spotlight on Corruption’s analysis of the response we highlighted significant gaps, including:

  • No implementation timeline for the new single database where all departmental transparency returns will be published; or for when the government will make departments’ transparency publications quarterly rather than monthly.
  • Failure to widen the application of transparency obligations (as recommended by CSPL and Boardman) to include special advisers, despite their influence over ministerial decision-making and role in formulating government policy.
  • No measures to improve accountability for transparency returns by penalising departments that fail to file the right information on time.
  • The government rejected giving any stronger independence for ethics regulators, including the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests (though the government did accept some tweaks in the Independent Adviser’s role in May 2022).
  • A refusal to widen the scope of the register of consultant lobbyists to cover in-house lobbyists, and no requirement for registered lobbyists to meet a statutory code of conduct or grant any powers for the Registrar of Lobbyists to impose tougher penalties for non-compliance.
  • The government has recently indicated that all current Ministers will have to sign an enforceable “deed of undertaking” committing them to abide by the Business Appointment Rules, with fines of £19,000 if the rules are breached. While welcome, the Committee might question whether the fine amount is a sufficient deterrent or whether it may become a cost of doing business for firms hiring ex Ministers.
  • The government has committed to require disclosure of diarised phone calls and virtual meetings which occur in place of an in-person meeting, as well as in-person meetings. However, the government will not expand those transparency requirements to include letters, WhatsApp messages, impromptu phone calls or emails, which it argues “do not alone evidence a substantive lobbying engagement” . As demonstrated by the case study below, this is a major loophole.

To read the full briefing, click on the link below.