News 27th Aug 2020

Open Access 2.0: Bringing 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 controversy surrounding the Westferry Printworks redevelopment in London’s Docklands has once again brought the issue of lobbying to the fore. At Transparency International UK we have been monitoring various lobbying scandals in recent years, but not for a while have they captured the attention of the media, politicians and the public, quite like the Westferry affair. Rightly so.

In May this year, the High Court determined a planning decision made by the Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, was ‘unlawful by reason of apparent bias’. Mr Jenrick had stepped in to approve a planning application for a £1 billion development submitted by Westferry Development Limited, a company owned by media entrepreneur and now developer Richard Desmond. At first glance, giving the green light to a planning application – a decision which was later ruled unlawful - might seem like an honest mistake by a minister determined to increase the housing supply in a part of the UK where it is desperately needed. But as details of the events that led up to the approval began to emerge, serious questions were raised about cash for access, and potentially influence.

Firstly, in approving the application, the Secretary of State rejected not only the judgement of the local council and the independent Planning Inspector, who both concluded that planning permission should be refused, but also officials in his own Department. Disagreeing with one or two of these voices would be understandable but disagreeing with all of them – especially your own officials - seemed like a bold choice to say the least.

Secondly, as noted by the High Court, the timing of the decision raised suspicions of bias. Mr Jenrick approved the development the day before a charge, called the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), was due to take effect. This would potentially have required the developer to hand over an estimated additional £40million to Tower Hamlets Council to fund new infrastructure like roads and schools or community projects such as play areas and sports facilities.

The Secretary of State’s rationale was that this charge would make the development unviable and prevent much-needed new homes being built. But most of the new homes planned for the Westferry Printworks site would be expensive flats, far beyond the means of most Londoners. Those who would have been affected by the decision to approve the development might question why withholding investment in infrastructure but building expensive flats is beneficial to the community.  

Thirdly, and perhaps most worryingly, are the interactions between Richard Desmond and Mr Jenrick prior to the decision. As well as being a media mogul and developer, Mr Desmond has also previously been a political donor, and a generous one. In a series of events that Mr Jenrick has since described as ‘inadvertent’, the Secretary of State found himself sat next to Mr Desmond at a Conservative Party general election fundraiser at the Savoy Hotel on 18th November 2019. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mr Desmond raised the subject of his pending planning application and even showed Mr Jenrick a promotional video of the Westferry development on his phone.

Mr Jenrick, correctly, shut down any further conversation on the matter. But later that evening, the two men exchanged text messages and stayed in contact during the following weeks.

 

The Housing Secretary released details of his text messages with Mr Desmond following scrutiny in Parliament. Source: Annex_A___Supplementary_Documentation, Gov.UK

 

In the dialogue that followed, it is quite clear that the Secretary of State expedited the timeline for making his decision to ensure the CIL charge would not apply to Mr Desmond’s Westferry development.

 

Government officials discuss the timeline for the Westferry decision. Source: Annex_A___Supplementary_Documentation, Gov.UK

 

Whatever Mr Jenrick’s intentions were, a wealthy political donor had essentially bought access to bend a minister’s ear (with apparent success). On 15 June, the Housing Secretary told MPs he had acted in "good faith" and "within the rules." In a BBC Radio interview when asked what he had learnt from giving permission for a development that was later designated as unlawful Mr Jenrick said: “I wish I hadn’t been sat next to a developer at an event and I regret sharing text messages with him."

This does nothing to help address perceptions that money talks. According to data from Transparency International’s most recent Global Corruption Barometer, a public opinion poll, 76 per cent of UK respondents strongly believed that wealthy individuals exert undue influence on governments and action needs to be taken to stop this. Providing these individuals with privileged access to senior ministers at fundraising events only confirms these suspicions.

For years, we’ve been urging successive governments to address these concerns by taking big money out of politics. To help the public better understand the relationship between big decisions and vested interests, we’ve also called for greater transparency over who is lobbying ministers, when and for what purpose. This case shows the consequences of failing to act.

By maintaining a funding model in which they are dependent on raising money from a small number of wealthy donors, political parties leave themselves wide open to allegations of cash for access, and cash for influence. Similarly, if there was more transparency over engagements between decision makers and lobbyists, media exposés on the opaque links between these groups would already be a matter of public record. We mustn’t forget that we only know about the Desmond-Jenrick meeting because it was reported in the press, not because it was proactively declared, as is the case in other countries like Ireland, Scotland and Canada. This is a failure of the UK’s transparency regime.

In theory, any discussion between ministers and lobbyists relating to official business should be reported to their department and published quarterly. This is supposed to apply regardless as to whether it happened during office hours or at a private function. A natural reading of the Ministerial Code and its intent supports this (see paragraph 8.14 of the Ministerial Code and the accompanying guidance). But this ‘chance meeting’ at a party fundraiser involving official business was not published by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. We are yet to see any explanation as to why.

Unfortunately, until the UK gets a proper lobbying register, we are left to make do with what Departments publish. Whenever they are made available, we pull these disclosures into our Open Access database so you can easily search for engagements that have made it onto the public record. For example, we know Northern & Shell (one of Richard Desmond’s companies) met with the then junior education minister, Lord Agnew, in March 2018 to discuss ‘capital work’. Our subsequent freedom of information request found the meeting was to discuss Westferry Development Limited’s proposed financial contribution to a local school (known in planning terms as a Section 106 agreement).

In total, we now have over 60,000 meetings you can search, download and browse at your leisure. Although this won’t stop the next big scandal from happening, or shine a light into all corners of Whitehall, it makes the most of the information that is available and helps ask the important questions needed for those in positions of power to be held to account.