UK: 300 staff working for peers and MPs have lobbying interests, analysis reveals

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Almost one in five declare lobbying or outside interests – but just 11 will have to sign the new lobby register.

Almost one in five staff members employed by MPs and peers also have lobbying or outside interests, an analysis of data by the Guardian reveals.

There are currently 113 passholders in the House of Commons who declare outside interests to other bodies, while another 206 in the House of Lords have similar links, the analysis of parliamentary records shows.

Those in possession of parliamentary passes include a defence industry lobbyist who was once suspended from the Palace of Westminster and people with links to banks, gambling firms and low tax campaigners.

Of more than 300 staff working for parliamentarians in Westminster with outside interests, the Guardian has found that only a maximum of 11 are likely to be required to sign the lobby register when it is introduced at the end of next month – and only then if they meet a minister or a senior civil servant in the course of their activities.

The register has been set up to satisfy David Cameron’s pledge in 2010 to curb outside interests in parliament. The prime minister described lobbying as “the next big scandal waiting to happen”.

It aims to target up to 75 “third party lobbyists” – public affairs companies employed by clients. But data shows that there are dozens of other bodies including thinktanks, PR companies, campaign groups and charities with access to a parliamentary pass.

The shadow communities minister, Hilary Benn, has acquired a parliamentary pass for his brother Stephen, who is a parliamentary adviser for the Society of Biology and, last year, reclaimed the family title Viscount Stansgate, which was dropped by his father, the late leftwing firebrand Tony Benn.

Stephen Benn said he helped to promote science in parliament. “I also provide Hilary Benn with occasional advice on matters relating to science,” he said.

Hilary Benn said he was “proud” to support his brother’s work to improve understanding and links between scientists and Parliament.

Among those who may be expected to register is the defence lobbyist Robin Ashby, the director general of the UK Defence Forum. Ashby was stripped of his parliamentary pass in 2008 after Lady Harris, who provided the access, said the pass could be “open to misinterpretation” due to his work as a defence lobbyist. His pass was reissued, sponsored by the former Labour defence minister Lord Moonie. Ashby said: “I’m retired from that line of work.”

Peers who provide passes to staff involved in public affairs include Lord Laird, the former Ulster Unionist politician who was banned from the House of Lords for four months after he told undercover reporters to offer “bribes” of free holidays to Fiji, in order to win the support of the upper chamber.

According to the register, he has given a pass to an executive working for Biscuit PR. Its website says it specialises in developing a climate of opinion and favourable starting points with stakeholders and key influencers including “national and international governments”.

Most of the staff with outside links do not see themselves as lobbyists.

But Tamasin Cave, a director of Spinwatch, which campaigns on lobbying transparency, said the figures showed that the lobbying bill, introduced last year, and the lobbying register, which will be introduced next month, should be scrapped. “If they fail to cover a majority of lobbyists who are allowed to wander into parliament at will, what on earth is the point?

“These figures show that the government has, either deliberately or through incompetence, blown a real chance to reform lobbying in parliament which allows vested interests to gain top level access to the levers of power. The lobbying registrar is producing a register which is utterly meaningless.”.

There is no suggestion that rules have been broken, but one lobbying organisation said the figures show the potential for abuse. Iain Anderson, the chair of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, said it was “wholly unethical” to allow anyone who does lobbying to hold a parliamentary pass. The 319 staff with lobbying links are in addition to 28 staff who have gone on overseas trips paid for by lobbying groups, and 19 who have received gifts and benefits from interest groups, including interns paid for by lobbying groups and working inside the parliament.

Cameron has pledged to look again at tightening the rules around lobbying after last month’s sting by undercover reporters when former foreign secretaries Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind were secretly recorded discussing lucrative work for a bogus Chinese firm. They have referred themselves to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and are under investigation by their parties. Both have denied any wrongdoing.

SOURCE: The Guardian, March 5th 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/mar/05/300-staff-working-for-pe...