Just as parliament went into recess, the government published their long-awaited commitments on standards and integrity. These proposals couldn’t come soon enough, not least because they were responding to several reports from ethics watchdogs published up to two years ago. But also because, in that time, political scandals seem to have been more frequently in the news than out of it.
In October 2022, keen to move his government on from recent lobbying scandals (Owen Paterson, Greensill and Led By Donkey’s ‘Hanseong Consulting’ sting to name just three), Rishi Sunak announced he would turn the tide on such behaviour and lead a government with "integrity, professionalism, and accountability". With this sort of rhetoric, you couldn’t blame us for hoping for new commitments on standards would be top of his agenda. Instead we had to wait until July 2023 when, after much anticipation, the Cabinet Office finally issued its response to reports from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and Nigel Boardman’s review following the Greensill scandal.
But has progress been made? Or is this just a stopgap? We issued a quickfire review on the day, which gives an overall assessment of the highs and lows of the announcement. But now, as the dust has settled and parliament is in recess it’s time to have a look at the response in more detail, specifically at the government’s commitments to improve lobbying transparency – an area which, to date, it’s been sluggish to act on.
The first promise is a welcome one - to lobbying data available in a “single database to collate and publish departments’ transparency returns”. The government does already release this data to the public, but it’s scattered over more than 20 different web pages, making collating and analysing who is lobbying ministers a laborious affair. This new database would present a significant step forward. The clincher is, unfortunately, there is no timeline for when this database will go live. Next week? Next year? After the next election…? You get the gist. Additionally, it is essential that this database can be downloaded in an accessible format (such as csv) and that it covers historical lobbying information as well, enabling users to see trends across years. So, more details and more tangible timelines for delivery are needed.
There is a pledge around improving the descriptions of what is discussed in meetings between ministers and external organisations. Sloppy and opaque descriptors of engagements, such as "general discussion" or "introductory meeting", are a longstanding bugbear of transparency advocates, and reveal nothing meaningful about the content of meetings. In the most recent set of data released by departments, while "general discussion" has finally given up the ghost, there are still vague or redundant descriptors. To illustrate, in the latest disclosures there were almost 30 instances where the description of the meeting listed little more than the Department’s name or remit; for example, the Department of Levelling up, Housing and Communities held several meetings where they discussed "levelling up"… What is a member of the public supposed to understand about this conversation and how it might inform or shape policies that affect them? We hope that in the next release of data we see the fruits of the government’s assurances for "relevant and instructive information" to be disclosed.
Additionally, there are a cluster of promises which focus on making informal lobbying more transparent. For example, there is a pledge that government will expand the transparency obligations of departments to include “diarised phone calls and virtual meetings”. While this is a continuation of existing practices relating to virtual "meetings" and calls which increased during Covid, codifying this requirement is a positive step. The government acknowledged in their Covid-19 meetings transparency guidance that in-person meetings would be reduced but lobbying activity would still need to be recorded. For example, we found that in 2020 alone over 400 such "meetings" took place and were recorded as phone calls.
While these changes are a welcome step, they still don’t go far enough. The government hasn’t committed to including lobbying via WhatsApp, letters or impromptu phone calls and emails, despite these featuring heavily in recent scandals. While it notes “any discussion of official business must be reported back to officials” including conversations via WhatsApp, Zoom or a social setting, there is as yet no indication that they would be published. Clarifying that these engagements should be reported and made public would be a substantive improvement to the Ministerial Code.
While generally welcome, these commitments fail to address the reality of informal lobbying. What if a businessman texts the prime minister to discuss tax policy? Or a property developer meets a minister at a dinner to discuss their planning application? Clearly, if the Nolan principle of openness is to be taken seriously, these engagements should be a matter of public record. Unless and until we include them in transparency requirements, we will be left to rely on journalists and transparency campaigners to expose them.
Overall, these commitments present a starting gun on reform rather than the end of the race. Loopholes, which allow informal lobbying to only reach the public if exposed by the media, demonstrate that there is still work to be done. Moreover, effective implementation and a published timeline of these new pledges is key to continuing momentum on the strengthening of integrity and standards that is vitally needed to improve our politics.
Rose Whiffen is a research officer at Transparency International UK, an independent anti-corruption organisation. Whiffen specialises in political corruption and her work covers issues of money in politics, lobbying, the revolving door and open governance.
A version of this article first appeared on Transparency International UK website