Transparency Bill – government concessions

Yesterday Lords amendments came to the Commons for consideration. The Government has accepted the principle of my amendment on including Special Advisers (SpAds) in the regime of transparency about who lobbyists get to meet in government. However, the Conservative Party refuses to ‘switch on’ this provision at this stage, and probably for the duration of this Parliament.

The Government therefore brought forward an amendment which will allow Ministers to bring those who meet SpAds into the register of lobbyists, but they will remain out for now. David Cameron says ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’. Since two of the big lobbying scandals of late involved advisers, the pine scent of transparency surely cannot be shut out of this part of Whitehall for much longer!

Meanwhile, the Government gave us in the Lords a bigger concession still which is that all Ministerial meeting data will now be put in one place, with better details of the subject of the meeting. This is a big, but not very well known, step forward in transparency. You can see Jim Wallace talking about it here.

On the non-party campaigning parts of the Bill, MPs were whipped to vote against our amendment on excluding background staff costs. This is a pity and of course put many of them in a difficult position over something where I do not think the Government’s case is very strong. My hunch is that the Lords will insist on its position about this, which is well-argued. We are now getting into an incredibly technical argument over the minutiae of whether the staff cost attached to organising a public rally needs to be included in an expenses return.

I sometimes think that Number 10 and the Whitehall machine militate in favour of dying in the ditch over quite tiny issues, and in so doing just put MPs in a really difficult position. If the Lords insists, my understanding of procedure is that the Commons cannot just disagree again, because that is ‘double insistence’ and would mean losing the Bill altogether. So it would be better to find a sensible compromise now than to enter into another stand-off over trivia.

The Government appears fairly set on keeping the broad scope to constituency limits. Having propounded the argument for making them narrower and simpler, I still incline to that view. However, you can read my speech in the Lords about why the particular amendment they in the end passed was defective. On this issue – much more than on staff costs – the Government is on firmer ground, rightly pointing to the potential effect of billboards, big public meetings and so forth on constituency results. I do not know if the Lords will push this but the majority on that was smaller than on staff costs last time, so it seems less likely that they will.

I will give a further update next week, when the Bill has been back to the Lords.

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