January 27, 2010
Nick Hurd calls on the Government to abandon plans to change accounting arrangements for NHS charities as the proposals risk undermining public confidence in the independence of those charities.
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): The Charity Commission does not agree with the Government. It warned 18 months ago that the proposals risk undermining public confidence in the independence of NHS charities, but still the Government dither. Those accounting standards were never meant to be applied to charities. Other countries have chosen not to apply them in this way. They are being imposed because of bureaucratic diktat. The issue needs gripping by Ministers, so will the right hon. Lady pledge to work with colleagues in the Department of Health and Monitor to persuade the Treasury not just to defer a decision for another year, but to drop this whole nonsense altogether?
Angela E. Smith: I am not sure that there is any disagreement in the House on the principle of what the Government seek to do. NHS charities should have their funds independently administered by the trustees, which is the law. As I said, the Health Minister, who has been dealing with the matter with the Treasury, fully understands the views of the House and will ensure that they are represented at all times.
January 7, 2010
Nick Hurd winds up a debate on the Public Administration Committee’s report ‘Lobbying: Access and Influence in Whitehall’.
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Benton. On behalf of the packed ranks of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I wish the Minister a very happy birthday. One is not 30 every day, as I think you know, Mr. Benton, so I hope that she puts on her dancing shoes tonight.
I congratulate the Select Committee on its report. The Committee matters, because it has a habit of picking on important subjects a little ahead of the curve and applying itself to them with considerable incision and persistence. The report does it a great deal of credit. I certainly learned much from it, not least about possible lessons to be learned from international spheres of regulation. The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) spoke well on that.
I congratulate the Chairman, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), on the elegant way in which he framed this debate and on his typical modesty in the words that followed his comments on being heir to the throne.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on stepping up to the plate and playing the role of a speaking Parliamentary Private Secretary to such effect. I understand that there are 12 PPS vacancies in the Administration, such is the reluctance of Labour Back Benchers to serve the current Prime Minister. I can only assume that after today’s performance, the number is down to 11. I hope so, not least because of the robust position that the hon. Gentleman took with his own Minister.
I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the proactive part that he has played in triggering the interest of the Committee in this important issue, because there clearly is a risk here. He and the Chairman were very clear on the risk of a blow-up. The Chairman was right about how this place operates: if something must be done, a mentality takes over, and there is the risk that we will probably do something entirely disproportionate to what has occurred. Therefore, it is important to try to look at this proactively and relatively calmly.
The context is exactly as the hon. Member for Pendle described: we are operating in an atmosphere of low-arguably, zero-trust. We have, in effect, destroyed confidence in Government institutions at a time when the country needs to have confidence, and we are engaged in the painstaking process of rebuilding it.
This is not just about MPs’ expenses. I do not know what the experience of colleagues has been, but certainly in my constituency, I hear a voice of anxiety-anger-about how decisions are taken. In part, it is about the remoteness of decision making, and the feeling that communities are not involved or listened to. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) spoke about the effects of centralisation in the process. There is also anxiety about the way in which the Government make up their mind on things and then consult. In my part of the world, the words “public consultation” and “sham” are synonymous.
There is also real anxiety about undue influence on the decision making of the Government. That came home to me when I was speaking to a conference of voluntary organisations, as the Minister does regularly as well. I remember vividly a lady shouting at me from the back, full of anger, about her perception of the influence that pharmaceutical companies had on the Government. I have no means of knowing whether she was right or wrong, but she had strong feelings and influenced the audience.
I recognise such passion and anger because it is what my constituents and most of the residents of Hillingdon feel about the decision on the third runway at Heathrow. The process was inflamed by a perception that the Department making the decision was far too close to BAA-the major beneficiary of the decision. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 was extraordinarily useful to my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) in exposing that unhealthy proximity in that process.
Kelvin Hopkins: Will the hon. Gentleman not agree, though, with the point that I made about the role of Downing street in respect of BAA? It was not just about the Department; those decisions were made in Downing street, where the lobbying took place.
Mr. Hurd: I cannot prove or disprove that. I am trying to get across the public perception that the decision was over-influenced by that BAA’s access to and privileged relationship with the Department for Transport. The reality is one thing. However, I am more concerned about the perception and how it compounds public unease about the way that decisions are taken by those who govern in their name.
I congratulate the Committee, because we need to look at this issue more closely. The balance of the report looked at those doing the lobbying, notwithstanding the powerful statements made by the hon. Member for Pendle on the need for greater policing of what happens, for example, to Ministers once they leave office with their freedom to pursue gain elsewhere, and the need to look again at the system of regulation there.
I found the report persuasive in its message that the current system of self-regulation is not effective, for the reasons stated, including a lack of consistency and the lack of one trusted body. Although it has not been picked up so far in the debate, the point was well made about it being difficult for the three organisations to combine the role of being effectively a trade association that is dependent on members and a regulator of those members. That dynamic and tension is unsustainable.
The third point made by the report, which was persuasively argued, was about there being no evidence of an effective complaints process in this system.
The report was clear, and the line of the Committee was clear, about the need for a new body to enforce standards and a mandatory register of contacts. I found the Government’s line less clear, when it eventually came-we will return to that. The hon. Member for Pendle described the Government’s response as limp and feeble, and I agree. I was certainly disappointed with it. The Government’s line seems to be that they prefer to focus on those who are lobbied, rather than on those who are doing the lobbying. In that context, I welcome the move to produce quarterly publications of information about ministerial meetings, which is a welcome development. I share the view of the hon. Member for Luton, North that that should be extended to senior officials as well, because as the hon. Member for Pendle said, the move to greater transparency is inevitable and we must go with it.
I was less clear about the Government’s view in respect of the need for a register. They have clearly come down on the side of more effective voluntary self-regulation, which is our instinct as well, but the Committee Chairman described their response as “gnomic”-not a word that I would ever use to describe the current Minister; certainly not on her birthday-and I agree. The response is unclear in that regard. The Committee Chairman cited the following quote:
“The Government agrees that any system of regulation …voluntary…or statutory…requires a register of lobbyists to ensure that lobbying activity is transparent.”
But a few pages earlier, a large section is given over to expanding on the possible risks of mandatory registration, as outlined by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The message from the Government is not clear enough in this respect. I should like to press the Minister to be clear, because if we are to go down the path of more effective voluntary self-regulation, which is our instinct, we need to send a much stronger signal to the industry than the Government’s response delivers, particularly on the need for greater transparency. The hon. Member for Pendle was powerful in that regard, but we endorse that principle.
The hon. Member for Selby kindly quoted my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), who said:
“Public affairs firms should publish all client lists and their full-time and part-time staff… The Solicitors’ Code of Conduct should also be amended so solicitors’ firms who engage in public affairs work can disclose their lobbying clients”.
I should like the Government to be clearer on their position. I get no sense from their response about a big stick being waved in the direction of the industry and no sense of urgency. In fact, they have taken a long time to say very little indeed.
I close my remarks with three questions to the Minister. First, why the delay in responding? I am not a member of the Committee, so I am not privy to the correspondence or the explanations given, but a change of Ministers is not a sufficiently good response in respect of a delay of nine months in responding to such an important report-seven months more than the parliamentary protocol dictates. I should like the courtesy of some explanation for that unusual delay in responding.
Secondly, if the message is, “We want to see more effective self-regulation,” what will the Government do to assess the response of the sector? The Government response is silent on the process from here on and silent on a timetable. This is an opportunity for the Minister to place on the record a much stronger message to the lobbying industry, saying that if it fails to self-regulate effectively, it should be prepared for intense pressure from Parliament to legislate to ensure greater accountability.
Thirdly and more specifically, we are concerned about a trend within lobbying for public sector organisations to hire lobbyists to effectively lobby the Government. We published a dossier called “Government Lobbying Government”, which identifies some £10 million of public money being used apparently in this circle of public sector organisations-predominantly quangos-lobbying Departments for funds or legislative action. That strikes us as unhealthy and quite wrong in the current climate of concern about public expenditure. We draw the Government’s attention to the action in the United States, where the Byrd amendment of 1996 prohibits the use of federal contracts, grants, loans or moneys to influence, or attempt to influence, the Executive or legislative branch. The Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994 states that moneys derived from Government contracts in excess of $500,000 cannot be used to fund the influencing of legislative action, directly or indirectly.
I should like the Minister to place on the record her position on the Government’s approach to clamping down on public money being used by public sector companies to lobby the Government.
I congratulate the Committee on an excellent report that throws some useful light into some potentially dark corners.