Lobbying rules 'could be strengthened' after Greensill scandal

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Harry Yorke
·4 min read
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George Eustice - AFP
George Eustice - AFP

The rules around lobbying could be strengthened in the wake of the Greensill scandal, a Cabinet minister has said.

George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, suggested that “tweaks or changes” in certain areas could be implemented once a number of reviews and inquiries into the controversy had concluded.

However, in comments that drew criticism from Labour on Sunday, Mr Eustice also insisted that there were already some “quite robust systems in place”.

Citing the ministerial code, he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “It is about how ministers conduct themselves based on the people they have talked to.

"So, we should be worried less about who they have talked to, worried much more about 'are they unduly influenced by individuals?'

"And that is why they declare meetings they have, that is why they declare financial interests, it is why they declare any other potential interests of family members – and that does happen and we all do that."

It comes days after Boris Johnson launched an independent review headed by Nigel Boardman, a leading lawyer, to look into Greensill’s access to Downing Street and Whitehall.

David Cameron, the former prime minister, worked for the company and privately lobbied ministers on its behalf before it went into administration last month.

Several Parliamentary inquiries are also underway, as is a probe by Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, into second jobs held by civil servants and the so-called “revolving door” between Whitehall and the private sector.

Downing Street on Sunday said that it would not preempt the findings of Mr Boardman, who will report back to the Prime Minister later this year. He may also provide recommendations for reform.

However, other senior figures in Whitehall have suggested that the ministerial code is in fact one of the areas most likely to be strengthened, amid concerns that it is too ambiguous.

One source told The Telegraph that the case for rewriting the code – which sets out the requirements expected of ministers – was a “strong one”.

They added that any change was likely to see the code both shortened and simplified, with clearer guidance issued on the standards expected of ministers to prevent conflicts of interests.

Others have called for the code to include a range of sanctions available if ministers are found to be in breach, amid concerns that the current expectation is either that those under investigation are exonerated or forced to resign.

Sir Alex Allan, the former adviser to the Prime Minister on ministerial standards, is among those to have publicly called for a clearly-defined sanctions regime.

There are also suggestions that contracts for civil servants, consultants and temporary contractors could be tightened.

Meanwhile, The Telegraph has been told that calls for Westminster’s lobbying watchdog to be given legally binding powers are likely to be resisted, with senior Whitehall insiders claiming it could cost the taxpayer up to £40million.

The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), which vets applications from former ministers and senior civil servants seeking new jobs in the private sector, can issue advice on the rules and express its objections but does not have the ability to force applicants to comply.

By handing Acoba the ability to block appointments or issue penalties for breaches, campaigners say it would be better able to police the so-called “revolving door” between Westminster and the private sector.

But The Telegraph has been told that the calls are unlikely to materialise due to the costs associated with bolstering Acoba’s powers and the resources required to do so.

One insider said that placing it on a statutory footing would require the hiring of lawyers and accountants, as well as securing office space to accommodate a larger organisation.

Further costs could also be incurred through paying former civil servants gardening leave, should the rules around the period after leaving the public sector be tightened, it was suggested.

While Acoba’s yearly expenditure currently totals just £320,000, according to its annual accounts, sources suggested a full statutory body could end up costing tens of millions of pounds annually.

However, William Wragg, the Conservative chairman of the Commons public administrations and constitutional affairs committee, told The Telegraph it was a “fanciful figure”.

He said arguments about the cost of bolstering the watchdog must “not become a deflection from not doing anything” and urged others against pre-empting the findings of a series of inquiries into the scandal, including one that will be launched by his committee this week.