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Lobbying ban for ministers of up to five years recommended in wake of Greensill affair

·3-min read

Ministers should be banned from political lobbying for up to five years after leaving office, the anti-corruption watchdog has recommended.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life has published its interim review of lobbying guidelines in the wake of the Greensill affair involving David Cameron.

A number of inquiries have been launched after it was revealed that the former prime minister texted Chancellor Rishi Sunak on behalf of Greensill Capital, a finance firm which employed him as a lobbyist.

Mr Cameron also sent WhatsApp messages to Health Secretary Matt Hancock and other ministers in an unsuccessful attempt to get Greensill access to a COVID-19 loan scheme.

Giving evidence to MPs over the matter last month, Mr Cameron said there were "important lessons to be learned" and former prime ministers should "think differently and act differently" when it comes to lobbying.

In the foreword to the committee's report, chair Lord Evans said there was a need for "significant reform" in four areas.

The committee had identified "immediate issues with the current operation of the standards regulatory regime" and "point in the direction of necessary reforms".

Speaking to Sky News, Lord Evans said there was an "urgent need for much better transparency and information" on lobbying.

Asked if Mr Cameron had broken the rules with his lobbying on behalf of Greensill, he said: "That's not a matter for us to determine. We're not an investigative committee. But what is clear is that there is public concern around this."

On ministerial lobbying, the report said: "Government departments and ACOBA [Advisory Committee on Business Appointments] should be able to issue a lobbying ban for a longer period of up to five years where they deem it appropriate.

"Whether or not a longer ban is warranted will depend on the nature of the position held by an applicant in government.

"If an applicant had a particularly senior role, or where contacts made or privileged information received will remain relevant after two years, a longer ban may be necessary to ensure that former officials lobbying government are not directly benefiting from their time in office when they do so."

Other recommendations include a two-year ban on ministers and senior officials taking a job in their policy area once they leave office, new guidance on the use of modern forms of communication (texts and WhatsApp messages), closing the loophole on not disclosing "informal lobbying" (such as drinks and/or dinner) and lobbying information being published more regularly and in more detail.

Lord Evans said it was "unusual" for the committee to publish its findings in advance of its final report, but noted that the "system of standards regulation is currently under sustained public scrutiny", and the upholding and enforcement of the Seven Principles of Public Life is the subject of a number of parliamentary and government inquiries".

"The committee is releasing these findings now to contribute to that debate in a timely manner," he added.

The committee's final report and recommendations will be sent to the prime minister later this year.

It was set up in 1994 in the wake of the "cash-for-questions" scandal, in which Conservative MPs agreed to ask questions in Parliament in exchange for money.

Analysis: Committee calls for a beefing up of the rulebook, with 'transparency' the main theme
by Rob Powell, political correspondent

One of the main takeaways from the David Cameron lobbying row was not that rampant rule breaking had been ignored, but that no actual wrongdoing had taken place.

Today's interim report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life seeks to address that by calling for a beefing up of the rulebook.

No doubt with the Greensill scandal in mind, the findings focus on how long former ministers should wait before lobbying government and whether transparency rules are broad enough to cover informal approaches using text messages or social invites.

But the review also acknowledges that black and white bans are not always sufficient and that restrictions may need to be "tailored" to individuals.

That reflects a view in the findings that the sharing of expertise between government and business is not a bad thing and that it would be unreasonable and impractical to completely ban informal approaches to ministers.

The key term used throughout is "transparency" with an overarching theme that lobbying is a necessary and inevitable part of government.

But with that comes the requirement that the public have the right to know who is talking to who; as well as what they are talking about; and why.

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