Restoring trust in lobbyists and the lobbied

The Greensill affair is the biggest UK lobbying scandal in a generation. Since the Financial Times revealed that David Cameron lobbied the government last year on behalf of the now defunct finance company, it has emerged that the ex-premier peppered ministers and officials with 56 calls, texts or emails. Lord Jonathan Evans, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has made sensible proposals to police better the “revolving door” between the public and private sectors. But more reforms will be needed to achieve the transparency required.

Their aim should not be to bar ex-ministers or civil servants from joining the business world in later life. Officials have a right to remain active after leaving office, and pursue the salaries available in business or other professions, provided inside knowledge or contacts are not misused. A flow of staff, and expertise, between public and private sectors is useful. The door between the two should continue to revolve, but with clarity on the activities of those who pass through it.

The Greensill case has made it clear, too, that safeguards should apply to those still in office, not just those who have left — and not only to senior government officials but to civil servants and special advisers. One of the more eye-catching revelations was that the government’s former chief procurement officer took a part-time advisory role with the supply-chain finance specialist two months before leaving the civil service in 2015, after getting internal clearance. He then became a Greensill director in 2016.

Lord Evans proposes that government departments and the independent watchdog the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments should be able to ban ex-ministers and civil servants from lobbying for up to five years, where deemed appropriate. He also suggests business appointments should be banned for two years where applicants are directly responsible for policy, regulation or awarding of contracts relevant to the hiring company. Appointment rules should be made enforceable through civil servants’ job contracts, and parallel legal arrangements for ministers; if that is unworkable a statutory scheme, backed by civil penalties, should be explored.

Such measures are reasonable and proportionate. So is the recommendation that ministries publish details of lobbying contacts monthly, rather than every quarter — and that this extends to “informal” lobbying using communications such as WhatsApp and text messages. The Evans report notes that Cameron’s “extensive” lobbying for Greensill was not mentioned in any departmental disclosures. Campaign groups say disclosure rules should also be tightened; lobbying meetings are too often vaguely described as “introductions” or “general catch-ups”.

Other reforms are desirable. Acoba or an equivalent body should be given more resources and powers, and put on a statutory basis. Above all, the lobbyists’ register introduced, ironically, by Cameron should be extended beyond “consultant” lobbyists to include companies’ in-house representatives, who account for the bulk of lobbying work.

Lord Evans’ committee began its review before the Greensill case, which has spawned a series of inquiries or investigations into different aspects of the scandal; some will have their own recommendations. Prime Minister Boris Johnson should take a bold approach to implementing them. A full lobbyists’ register, for example, as used in Ireland and Canada, would do little to impede the machinery of government. But it would be important in starting to rebuild trust that has been badly dented by a succession of scandals.

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