19 May 2008 

The penultimate evidence session of the current Parliamentary inquiry into lobbying offered a strange mix of obfuscation and revelation. In the first of two separate sessions were representatives of three of the UK’s most powerful companies; Lucy Neville-Rolfe for Tesco, Tom Kelly for BAA and Chris Brinsmead for AstraZeneca.

The Committee of MPs, said its chair Tony Wright, had called them in to find out what they get up to in terms of lobbying, and how they would feel about transparency regulations to open up the world of lobbying to greater public scrutiny.

The next hour and twenty minutes of questions and answers had a familiarity to it, certainly from the point of view of the Committee and anyone who’d listened to previous sessions with lobbyists. Answers were guarded, questions were side stepped and the witnesses were defensive. This despite Tony Wright’s reassurance that lobbying could be seen as a good thing, and a warning at the top of the session for the three to avoid being ‘coy’ in their responses. “Don’t come here to lobby us,” Wright advised. “I want you to tell us like it is”.

Many would be hard pushed to recognise the picture then painted by the witnesses. All three, it seems, were working not for profit, but for the public good, whether it was working to prevent climate change or helping the Government to encourage more science students. According to Neville-Rolfe, Tesco has a ‘dialogue’ with Government (it’s all about dialogue) to explain what they think should be done to help Britain. “It’s a win, win” for Tesco and the country, she said. Similarly Brinsmead saw his drug company working “to the same ends” as the NHS.

Given this ‘constructive dialogue’, one wonders why the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry, of which Brinsmead is the President, needed to draw up a lobbying ‘battle’ plan, which Tony Wright had got his hands on. In it, according to Wright, the ABPI talked about ‘deploying ground troops’ to ‘weaken political and professional defences’, after which it planned to ‘follow through with high precision strikes on specific regulatory enclaves in Whitehall and Brussels.’ Quite a different picture of lobbying.

On the issue of the revolving door and privileged access to decision-makers, Tom Kelly, who was Tony Blair’s spokesman at No10 until he moved to BAA, suggested that MPs were vastly overstating his role in Government and therefore his access and influence. In response to a question about the size of his contacts book, Kelly – the man who replaced Alastair Campbell -  replied that they extended as far as the press officers of Government departments.

All of which led Tony Wright to say, at the beginning of the next session, that it had been quite difficult to work out how central lobbying is to these three companies. The second session heard from John Sauven of Greenpeace, Owen Espley of Friends of the Earth, and Tim Hancock of Amnesty.

Information flowed much more freely during this next hour, with evidence of lobbying by BAA, Tesco and the nuclear industry all under the spotlight. The previous assertion by the corporate representatives - that open dialogue with Government was necessary for better public policy making - was also put into some doubt by Espley describing the lobbying activities of the Confederation of British Industry.

In July 2005, he explained, Friends of the Earth requested details of meetings between the CBI and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) that had taken place shortly after the last General Election. At the time, Friends of the Earth was concerned that the CBI had been making exaggerated claims over the costs of environmental regulation, claims the Government seemed to be taking at face value. Requests by Friends of the Earth under the Freedom of Information Act of details of meetings between the CBI and the then DTI had been refused.

At the beginning of May 2008, however, the Information Tribunal ruled that the government should disclose the information, stating: "In our view, there is a strong public interest in understanding how lobbyists, particularly those given privileged access, are attempting to influence government so that other supporting or counterbalancing views can be put to government to help ministers and civil servants make best policy." Clearly making the case for lobbying transparency regulation.

Had lobbying by the nuclear industry had an impact on the Government’s decision to support a new nuclear energy programme, the witnesses were asked by Gordon Prentice MP. John Sauven pointed to the extraordinary lobbying power of the nuclear industry just from the revolving door. Former MPs, MEPs and Ministers Jack Cunningham, Richard Caborn, Ian McCartney, Brian Wilson and Alan Donnelly are all now employed by the nuclear industry with obvious influence. By contrast, Sauven went on, the first public consultation on nuclear power had been rejected by the High Court for being deeply flawed.

One of the cases of improper lobbying Sauven recounted was the collusion that went on between the Department for Transport (DfT) and BAA over the consultation on Heathrow expansion, where the two bodies, having made their decision, then attempted to reverse engineer the outcome. This “almost fraudulent” process only came to light after sifting through a lot of requests under the Freedom of Information Act. It was only from this information that concerned MPs and campaigners were able to piece together just how embedded and how influential BAA was in the DfT.

The obvious imbalance in lobbying resources between local community groups and companies like Tesco was also raised by Espley. Quoting a report by Friends of the Earth into how supermarkets get their way in planning decisions (PDF), he described a case in Dartford where developers lobbied to change the area’s Local Plan to include specific proposals which would allow for a new Tesco. The Plan was duly changed. It was only after a Public Inquiry that permission for the new development was withdrawn, the proposals “having not been the subject of full statutory examination” in the words of the Planning Inspector.

Espley asked the Committee to remember the local communities “meeting on a wet Tuesday evening in their community centre”, without the small army of lobbyists, lawyers, planning specialists, PR consultants and seemingly unlimited funds Tesco and others employ. People who bother to get involved in civic matters need to know that the system is working for them too, he said. It’s not a case of corporate versus community – none of the witnesses were anti-business - merely that for the public to have faith in decision-making, there needs to be more transparency.

The sum of these two sessions finally brought some clarity to the inquiry. Back in January, Paul Flynn MP voiced his frustration with witnesses from the lobbying industry: “We’re not really getting to the truth on this,” he said. This week’s complete lack of candor from the corporates – coupled with hard evidence from experienced NGOs -  exposed the Committee to some truths and the urgent need for transparency in lobbying.

The latest session can be watched on Parliament TV (available for 28 days after the session). A transcript of the session will be available on the Public Administration Select Committee's Inquiry into Lobbying webpage.