Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
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Use of WhatsApp for lobbying needs greater transparency, say MPs

Lobbying of Ministers over WhatsApp and other Non-Corporate Communication Channels (NCCCs), should be subject to the same disclosure regime as face-to-face meetings, says the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in its new report. 

PACAC calls for greater transparency over the informal lobbying taking place over instant messaging channels and advises that the use of NCCCs should be blocked on official devices, failing the implementation of a transparency regime that “can command public confidence”.  

The report finds that “the application of such principles would likely have required the disclosure of Greensill Capital's interaction with Ministers and officials”. The Committee’s inquiry, launched in 2021 to conduct post-legislative scrutiny of the 2014 Lobbying Act, was requested by the Government following the Greensill scandal, which exposed weaknesses in lobbying rules. 

In oral evidence to this inquiry, the Government acknowledged that the Lobbying Act needed reform, but ruled out any reform which would require primary legislation. The Committee is critical of this approach by the Government and finds that “there are deficiencies in the Act that cannot be resolved without [reform]”. It argues that “it is contrary to the principles of effective government to conduct post-legislative scrutiny without being open to the possibility of its outcome requiring legislative change”. 

The report emphasises that the Lobbying Act 2014 was designed to work with “other transparency measures, in particular the quarterly departmental transparency releases”. These are intended to disclose meetings, gifts, and hospitality, involving Ministers and senior officials. 

Taking account of the influential role that Special Advisers (SpAds) can exert in the policy formulation process, PACAC recommends expanding the scope of transparency releases to include disclosure in full of all SpAds’ meetings. At present SpAds are only required to declare meetings held with senior media figures, a situation which the Committees describes as “anomalous” and one which “undermines public confidence in the integrity of the lobbying process”. 

The Committee welcomes the Government's commitment to producing an integrated platform for transparency data, which will make the data, currently published separately by each Department, more easily accessible. With the current regime of quarterly publication, MPs say that “information may be several months old by the time it is released”, and state that they “expect the Government to move swiftly from quarterly to monthly transparency publication”, upon the single, integrated platform for transparency data disclosures taking effect.  

Evidence submitted to PACAC during its inquiry raised concerns about missing information within the quarterly transparency releases, finding that Ministers' meetings with company representatives that were announced through official Government social media accounts were missing from the subsequent transparency releases.  

The Committee also heard that meetings declared in transparency releases are often accompanied by information “too cursory to provide any clarity about their purpose”.  

In response to recommendations by both the Committee for Standards in Public Life (CSPL) and Nigel Boardman, that this issue should be addressed, the Government agreed to prepare new guidance requiring that meeting descriptions should include "relevant and instructive information". PACAC states that it would expect the descriptions of the meetings to include, “at a minimum, details of the policy area and any specific regulations, legislation, or funding under discussion”.  

The report discusses the need for transparency disclosures by non-government parties, acknowledging that, following a change of government, “much of the policy a government implements—at least early in a new Parliament—will have been developed in Opposition”.  

Opposition members will be lobbied too, and while shadow ministers are currently only required to make declarations as Members of Parliament in the Register of Members' Interests, PACAC’s MPs “encourage… shadow ministers and other frontbenchers from non-government parties, to routinely publish details of the meetings they hold with outside bodies on their webpages in a timely manner”.  

The Lobbying Act 2014 established The Register of Consultant Lobbyists. The Committee finds the Register contains too little information, and recommends that it should include not only a list of clients on whose behalf lobbying has been conducted, as it currently does, but also the subject of lobbying, dates of lobbying, and the medium through which lobbying took place. 

Chair's comment 

The acting Chair of PACAC, the Rt Hon David Jones MP, said: 

“Lobbying in Whitehall is recognised as a key feature of our democracy, but the current legislation and transparency regime do not ensure that the public is fully informed about influences being brought to bear on policy formulation, across Government and non-government parties alike.  

“We welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce a single, integrated platform for transparency disclosures and look forward to seeing this introduced as soon as possible, along with a move to more frequent publication of transparency releases. 

“Increasingly, lobbying activity is undertaken on instant messaging channels such as WhatsApp and this is an area which we think needs greater transparency, to bring it in line with reporting of face-to-face meetings held with Ministers, in order to increase public confidence in the democratic process.” 

Further information

Channel website: http://www.parliament.uk/

Original article link: https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/327/public-administration-and-constitutional-affairs-committee/news/201201/use-of-whatsapp-for-lobbying-needs-greater-transparency-say-mps/

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