News 17th Jun 2021

Lessons from the Greensill scandal: How to bring lobbying out of the shadows

Rose Whiffen

Research Officer

Rose is a Research Officer specialising in political corruption. Her work covers issues of money in politics, access to influence and lobbying accountability as well as open governance. She previously worked as a Project Officer for Transparency International UK's 'Promise to Practice' project, where she led on the global anti-corruption pledge tracker. Before joining Transparency International, she worked for Democracy Club and previously interned for Corruption Watch UK, a precursor to Spotlight on Corruption.

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The date is 8th February 2010, the latest iPhone is the iPhone3GS, Tinie Tempah is about to release his number-one hit single ‘Pass Out’, and the Conservative Party haven’t been in government for 13 years.

After a series of political scandals, their  young leader and aspiring Prime Minister, David Cameron, states his intent to clean-up politics:

“We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way. In this party, we believe in competition, not cronyism.”

He goes on to vow to tackle “secret corporate lobbying” if elected to high office. To his credit, once in power, he updates the ministerial code to require ministers to record and publish the meetings they have with outside interest groups quarterly. His government also legislates to make it a legal requirement for consultant lobbyists to report their clients publicly, the rationale being that if a minister meets a consultant lobbyist, the public can then find whose interests they represent.

Flash forward to the present day. From mid-March 2021 it’s revealed that the same person, now a former Prime Minister, has been lobbying key government figures via every channel under the sun, all on behalf of a private company, Greensill Capital. They were attempting to secure a government-backed loan (the Covid Corporate Financing Facility) and encourage the use of supply chain finance in the public sector. This looks mightily like ‘secret corporate lobbying’.

The days roll on, as do the revelations into the extent of David Cameron’s attempts to influence ministers and officials. Reports claim that the ex-pm and other staff at Greensill bombarded ministers with 45 messages in just over a month between 5th March and 26th June 2020. This included correspondence to a range of senior figures within government, including the health secretary, Matt Hancock, the chancellor Rishi Sunak and the treasury minister, John Glen.

When challenged by the Treasury Select Committee about whether his actions were open to scrutiny, Mr Cameron,  states:

“These meetings are transparently reported ...because of the reforms I introduced in 2010 there is quarterly reporting, you see exactly who has been meeting who, and I think that is very important.”

Ironically, the ex-prime minister, in his new private sector role, put these reforms to the test.

In its recent report the Committee on Standards and Public Life (CSPL) provided a scathing assessment of the current transparency arrangements, here’s our take on where the issues lie and how the current arrangements stack up.

 

Accuracy

The public should be able to see the multitude of methods interest groups use to influence. Whilst the ministerial code requires that meetings between decision makers and external organisations are recorded and published, what about the plethora of others forms of communication? WhatsApp seemed to be the ex-PM's preferred method of communication, having sent nine messages via this channel to Rishi Sunak. The sheer quantity of texts, emails and calls to officials and ministers was likened to ‘stalking’ rather than lobbying by Angela Eagle, a member of the Treasury Select Committee.

Yet, without the work of investigative journalists, the public would not have known about the lobbying going on behind the scenes. This is because previously, departments have tended to only publish in-person meetings, leaving other forms of communication, including letters, emails and other electronic messaging, off the public record.

In addition, David Cameron and Lex Greensill, founder of Greensill Capital, were reported to have met Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, for a private drink. During this engagement, the three discussed using Greensill’s new payment scheme, ‘Earnd’, in the NHS. In theory, ministers are required to report back to their department if they talk about official business like this during social occasions.[1]  Matt Hancock claims he did pass the information on the meeting back to his department, yet for some unknown reason the meeting wasn’t published in official departmental disclosures, therefore we must rely on his word that this was the case.

 

Accessibility

For transparency data to be useful to the public and an effective accountability tool, it has to be accessible and published in a timely and complete manner. In recent years, updates to the formats of publication have greatly improved accessibility, but standards are slipping when it comes to the timeliness and completeness of the data.

Departments are required to publish meetings on a quarterly basis[2]. However, it took over half a year for the government to publish most of the recent set of disclosures covering Q4 2020. This is the joint longest it’s taken to publish these records since the end of 2014.  Joint with which quarter, you ask? That would be Q3 2020. So, for the two most recent set of ‘transparency’ returns, we had up to a seven-month delay between the occurrence of the meeting and its publication.

The reason why these disclosures are so consistently tardy is that they are subject to the government’s communication ‘grid’. Fundamentally, their publication is down to the discretion of the government. And the government has made best possible use of this discretion. Q4 2020 was published on a Friday after 6pm, not exactly peak business hours for journalists and ethics watchdogs. It also happened to be the day when attention was focused on local election results. Curious that. One could be forgiven from thinking this was an intentional attempt to bury this data whilst the media and public were distracted.

There are also two departments that still, to this day, have not published data for the period October-December 2020- the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Attorney General’s Office. Civil society have noticed patterns like this before, with some departments, such as the Ministry of Justice consistently not publishing data. This undermines the completeness of the data.

 

Meaningfulness

Departments are required to write a brief summary of the meetings, and whilst they are discouraged from using the term ‘general discussion’, these remain limited and often ambiguous. The only public record we have of Greensill lobbying the government are meetings with the Treasury Permanent Secretary, yet the descriptors of these meetings are a mere couple of words - “Discussion of eligibility for Covid support packages” - which does not convey the full intentions that Greensill had and the complexity of the issues they were advocating on. How can the public know lobbyists’ intentions when the information given officially is so brief? Indeed, how are civil servants ever to know what those seeking to influence government really intend to achieve without them being compelled to disclose this information?

 

Intelligibility

The way the meetings data is released also makes it hard to analyse. Each department publishes the meetings they have separately. You can't search for how often a company meets with the government as a whole, you would have to check each department’s individual disclosure. Disparate publications and the inconsistency in how departments record organisations (is it ‘National Housing Federation’ of ‘NHF’?) makes basic analysis unnecessarily time consuming to undertake. We pull these together into a single place, but we’re having to do a lot of data processing to do this, which should not be necessary if government published these in one file and in one place.

 

To finish...

Alas, these deficiencies are long-known and recognised by not only us, as evidenced in the most recent CSPL report and by the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO). And this is not the only case study, the shenanigans over the Westferry printworks were nowhere on the public record, again leaving it to public interest journos to let us know what's happening behind closed doors in Westminster. This isn't good enough.

In many comparable countries there are more reliable arrangements for providing transparency over access and influence in the corridors of power e.g. the US, Canada, Ireland all have lobbying registers that provide far highly quality information on the influence industry than the UK. We're falling behind our allies so long as we rely on this hotchpotch approach. Government needs to really up its game and provide a more holistic, timely and meaningful picture of who's bending ministers’ ears.

Legislation looks unlikely to be forthcoming, but in the meantime it's well within the power of government to introduce the following, as recommended by the CSPL:

1. Widen and clarify what departments should publish, so phone calls and WhatsApp messages are included in government disclosures

2. Increase the timeliness of these returns, so they happen once a month as a routine part of government rather than once in a blue moon as is currently the case

3. Publish it all in one location, like our open access platform so it's more accessible for those seeking to hold government and those lobbying it to account.