Labour makes screeching lobbying register u-turn. Will Tories follow?

Following yesterday’s lobbying scandal, Labour has firmly committed to a statutory register of lobbyists.  The offical line from Labour HQ is as follows:

‘We believe that the time has come to support a statutory register of lobbyists and we will bring forward proposals to that effect in our manifesto, building on the work we have already done to create a voluntary code.’

It is a remarkable statement, given the Government’s distinct lack of enthusiasm for such a register up until now.

When the House of Commons public administration select committee called for a statutory register in January 2009, the Government shrugged its shoulders and took over ten months to respond. When it finally did respond, in late October 2009, there appeared to be very little appetite for a statutory register. Instead, public affairs firms were encouraged to go away and develop a voluntary system. ‘The Government believes that effective voluntary self-regulation must be the preferred approach,’ the response stated, quite clearly.

It remains to be seen exactly what shape Labour’s statutory register takes. As a minimum it would have to include names of all lobbyists and their clients.

Would it also detail all meetings between lobbyists and MPs? What about meetings with officals? And who would pay for the thing? – the taxpayer? Or would lobbyists be forced to pay? What about charity lobbyists, surely they shouldn’t have to cough up? But should they really be given an advantage over small businesses, for example?

However it pans out, Labour’s u-turn puts the Tories in a tricky position. So far, they have talked tough on lobbying but held back from supporting a statutory register of lobbyists and their clients. It is a stance that many senior Tories are privately happy with – not least those that own lobbying firms!

But can it last? With lobbying now firmly back in the headlines, it might be difficult for the Tories to preserve the idea that they are best placed to clean up politics if they are not prepared to match Labour every step of the way on lobbying.

In short, Labour has decided to talk tough. Don’t be surprised if Dave seeks to get himself on an even footing…

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