MPs put lobbying rules under the spotlight after Greensill scandal

Probe will examine weaknesses exposed by the Greensill scandal, including the disclosure of senior officials’ external meetings
Former prime minister David Cameron is grilled on his lobbying activities by the Treasury Select Committee in May last year

By Jim Dunton

27 Jul 2022

Members of parliament’s influential Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee have launched an inquiry into the regulation of parliamentary lobbying, after the Greensill scandal exposed weaknesses in the system.

Opening a call for evidence this week, the committee said the government-commissioned investigation will examine the effectiveness of the Lobbying Act 2014 and the wider transparency regime on lobbying.

PACAC will look at departments’ compliance with requirements to disclose external meetings attended by ministers, senior officials and special advisers.

MPs said that although details of such meetings are supposed to be published quarterly, they are often delayed. A lack of detail about the purpose of meetings is a further source of criticism.

The investigation will also look at “inconsistency” between departments on transparency publications, and the potential for transparency to be extended to other “possible routes of influence”, such as lobbying through WhatsApp or social meetings. Neither is currently covered by current disclosure rules.

Another line of work for the inquiry will be reviewing the scope of the Register of Consultant Lobbyists, which was created under the 2014 act. MPs said they will examine whether the register should include in-house lobbyists and those in law firms, accountancy companies and other types of consultancy who engage in lobbying activities but are not currently included.

As the Greensill scandal revelations demonstrated, former prime minister David Cameron persistently lobbied Treasury top brass – including permanent secretary Sir Tom Scholar and then-chancellor Rishi Sunak – on behalf of Greensill Capital in 2020. The firm went into administration last year.

Notoriously, he did not need to be on the Register of Consultant Lobbyists because he was employed in-house by Greensill Capital, reportedly receiving a salary of £720,000 in return for an expectation of just 25 days’ work over a 12-month period.

Because he joined the supply-chain finance firm more than two years after leaving government, Cameron also did not need to get his highly lucrative part-time job cleared by the anti-corruption watchdog, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.

Last month Acoba chair Lord Eric Pickles told PACAC he believed the register should be expanded to include all former cabinet ministers, prime ministers, and senior civil servants who work as in-house lobbyists.

PACAC chair William Wragg said the committee’s inquiry will go beyond the Greensill scandal and look at other developments, including revelations about the past lobbying practices of taxi-booking platform Uber.

“The government charged this committee with post-legislative scrutiny of the Lobbying Act in order to learn the lessons from the Greensill scandal,” he said.

“Recent revelations about privileged, off-the-books meetings between Uber and ministers shine a spotlight on some of the shortcomings of our lobbying laws. It is important we are reassured that this kind of influencing operation cannot go undetected.

“Gaps in current regulations have already been recognised in the Boardman inquiry and by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Our inquiry will build on this work and look at how we ensure lobbying transparency.

“We aim to come up with robust, practical, cross-party proposals which will bolster our political system against undue influence.”

The inquiry is taking written submissions of evidence until 2pm on 16 September.

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