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Harriett Baldwin calls for more transparency in lobbying

25th June 2013

Speaking in a debate on lobbying reform, Harriett Baldwin highlights the importance of lobbying as part of the democratic process but calls for more transparency and for all MPs to publish details of meetings with professional lobbyists.

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Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): I support the amendment tabled by the Prime Minister and his right hon. Friends. From my point of view, lobbying is entirely healthy and integral to our democracy. This is a point that we have heard from a range of speakers this afternoon. I like to point out to my constituents that lobbying is named after Central Lobby. Central Lobby has given its name to this activity because any constituent can come to Central Lobby while Parliament is sitting, fill out a green card and summon their MP to the Lobby so that they can bend their MP’s ear on the issue that matters particularly to them. We should be looking to encourage and support lobbying and try to remove from it the taint that has suddenly emerged, as though it were intrinsically bad and liable to corruption.

One of the things that is so effective in our democracy is that most MPs are available to their constituents, to listen to them lobbying on a wide range of concerns. Every Friday I have an open surgery where people can come to raise issues with me. We should be proud of lobbying in our democracy. It enriches all our activities as parliamentarians.

I am pleased to hear the progress that the Government have made on transparency. I welcome the fact that all Conservative Cabinet Ministers list the details of the meetings they hold with a wide range of organisations, and in particular the fact that they name the private companies which employ public affairs representatives to come and lobby on behalf of their organisations. That is an advance in terms of transparency and I should have thought that the shadow Cabinet would welcome the opportunity to show that level of transparency as well.

Many of the issues being raised today are ones that we as MPs can address ourselves—[Interruption.] I am being heckled from the Opposition Front Bench. Yes, I am a Parliamentary Private Secretary. I have taken it upon myself to publish all the meetings I have with paid public affairs professionals and organisations that lobby me, either in the constituency or here. We as parliamentarians are entirely free to do that, and we can take the opportunity to shed some transparency and show our constituents that lobbying is not only open to them but is very much part of the work of an MP.

In the first month that I did that, I highlighted the fact that I had had meetings with, for example, the National Farmers Union. NFU representatives are extremely effective lobbyists on behalf of farmers in my constituency. They are extremely knowledgeable in a specialised area, and it is very important that an MP in an agricultural constituency such as mine listens to what they have to say on a wide range of agricultural issues. I agree that when I meet a paid public affairs professional, whether for a public affairs firm or employed by an organisation, I can reveal to my constituents that I have had such a meeting. That is not something that we as MPs are not able to do.

That brings me to the main point that I want to make in this argument. There has been much discussion today about what the Government ought to be doing, but as we heard from the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, there is much that we as parliamentarians can do to ensure that the public are aware of what we do, know when we meet with lobbyists and understand that lobbying is an inherent part of our democracy. That transparency could be emphasised in some of the other things that Parliament does. For example, not everybody knows that all-party parliamentary groups must publish who is sponsoring that group. They also have to publish when they work with an MP to take a room—the House of Commons accounts must show who hired the room.

Transparency in relation to early-day motions would also be healthy. I wonder whether colleagues will support me on this. I can honestly say that I have so far resisted signing a single early-day motion. We have seen how they are sometimes used by lobbyists as a way of showing that they have done something in Parliament, when in reality it is not a particularly effective tool. Some colleagues are more enthusiastic about early-day motions than others. That is another area where we as a Parliament and as MPs could do more to show transparency.

What do we say about organisations such as 38 Degrees? That organisation has done a wonderful job in bringing to our democratic attention a wide range of views held across the e-mail communication channel. Given that it plays such an active role in encouraging our constituents to lobby us on a wide range of issues, it would be interesting and informative to know how such an organisation is able to pay public affairs professionals and others to encourage constituents to write to their MPs. That is the level of transparency for which we as parliamentarians could take responsibility, rather than just relying on the Government to pass legislation. Such transparency is a matter for us as MPs to consider. We can do these things as individuals. We do not need to rely on legislation.

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that lobbyists, particularly in the charitable sector, should show some responsibility? Quite often I receive a fistful of postcards from a particular charity, purportedly from my constituents who have signed these cards, but when I write back to those constituents with a response to the postcard campaign, they often say, “I don’t know anything about this”, and we find out that somebody’s family has put in four or five cards on behalf of other people. A little more responsibility needs to be shown in that respect.

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have had the same experience. I then have to dig into my files and discover the original document. I send that back to the constituent, who is often quite surprised to discover that they have been encouraged to lobby me in that way.

Thomas Docherty: I find myself agreeing with the hon. Lady. Does she accept that what her own Government are proposing would not cover charities or organisations like 38 Degrees?

Harriett Baldwin: What I accept is that the Government are the ones taking the steps to publish meetings with organisations that represent themselves with their public affairs professionals. The Government are doing much more in the way of transparency than the Opposition were able to do in 13 years of power. I would love to see members of the shadow Cabinet publish details of their meetings, and I strongly hope that as a result of my persuasive remarks this afternoon, those are steps that the Opposition will soon take.

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Lady says that the Government have taken great steps on transparency, so will she encourage them to publish the pre-1997 papers relating to devolution legislation, which should be open and transparent for the people of Scotland? I look forward to her support.

Harriett Baldwin: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am a fervent supporter of us all being better off together, so I will support whatever is in the interest of our doing that.

The point I am trying to make is that there is an awful lot that Members of Parliament can do as individuals to help advance the cause of transparency. We should not all sit and wait until legislation is passed. We can take some responsibility in being open and transparent. I look forward to the day when that includes the meetings of the shadow Cabinet.

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