Call for change to Welsh private ministerial meetings

Dewi Knight says we need greater transparency in lobbying which properly regulated is a vital part of the democratic process

Were it not for the success of the London Olympics, then surely the Leveson Inquiry would have grabbed the title as the spectator sport of 2012. As coverage swung from Coulson to Chipping Norton, and Blair to Brooks, the casual nature of the relationships between senior ministers, media executives and favoured journalists were exposed.

However, the public can already access information on meetings between Cabinet members and outside individuals and groups. The Ministerial Code for UK Government ministers expects “details of Ministers’ external meetings’ to be published ‘at least quarterly”. For example, the July update on the Wales Office website discloses Cheryl Gillan’s meetings with, amongst others, the Tomos Watkin Brewery, three with S4C, and one with True Wales. The Scottish ministerial code requires a “monthly list of engagements carried out by all Ministers is published three months in arrears”. This is not a fool-proof system, but at least there is a duty on Ministers (and their advisers) to let us know with whom they’ve been having lattés, or perhaps Cwrw Haf in Ms Gillan’s case.

It may be surprising to know but the Welsh Government ministerial code doesn’t require this information to be published. In a recent Western Mail piece on lobbying regulations, a spokesperson for the Welsh Government said:

“We are open and transparent… We see no need for lobbyists in helping people gain access to ministers or officials.”

It’s often forgotten in the easy rush to accuse ‘lobbyists’ of undue influence or special access, that a transparent system needs politicians to be more open about their meetings.

Much of the commercial public affairs industry already publishes detailed information about fee-paying clients and staff. Public Affairs Cymru, the national membership body for public affairs professionals in Wales is campaigning for ‘made in Wales’ arrangements to promote transparency in public affairs. This includes changes to the Ministerial Code, a stronger relationship between our members’ Code of Conduct and AMs Code of Conduct and clearer rules and guidance on cross-party groups.

At one point earlier this year it looked as if the UK Government’s proposals to introduce a lobbyists’ register would also have ‘regulated’ the industry in Wales. In our view this would have been flawed from both a constitutional and operational perspective.

Indeed, a report this July from the Westminster Constitutional and Political Reform Select Committee criticised the UK Government’s plans to focus on those who lobby on behalf of third party clients, instead of covering all who lobby, including charities, unions and think-tanks. The report also recommends that the UK ministers publish information more regularly about meetings and improve the level of detail in these disclosures.

With ‘in-house’ professionals dominating the Public Affairs Cymru membership and wider industry, we believe that any ‘made in Wales’ system must address this reality if we are to promote further transparency in our profession and wider political life in Wales. Cathays Park may “see no need for lobbyists in helping people gain access” but this is a common misinterpretation of the work done by those in public affairs.

There has been no scandal here of ‘selling’ access or wider practices that cause concern. For example, there’s been no issue with ‘lobbyists’ using parliamentary passes, and talk of ex-AMs being given passes was opposed by Public Affairs Cymru. Our Code of Conduct is clear that our members should not ‘hold or seek’ passes which confer entitlement to access to elected public office holders. We were pleased when the Presiding Officer confirmed that there were no plans to give former AMs passes.

Furthermore, The Presiding Officer, along with Mick Antoniw, Chair of the Standards of Conduct Committee, has recognised that the National Assembly needs to review its arrangements on lobbying and AMs Code of Conduct. Gerard Elias QC, the Independent Standards Commissioner will report in early October.

Articles on ClickonWales regularly focus on the lack of scrutiny and accountability in Welsh  policy-making.  The more than 200 members of Public Affairs Cymru play a critical role in both holding government to account and contributing ideas and evidence to the National Assembly and Welsh Government. Lobbying and public affairs activity is an entirely legitimate and a vital part of Welsh democracy.

Dewi Knight is Chair of Public Affairs Cymru, the national membership body for public affairs professionals in Wales.

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