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Priti Patel had to go – other Ministers should take note

Written by Duncan Hames on Wednesday, 8 November 2017

What began last week as reports of chance encounters on a personally funded holiday, has led to the drawn-out departure of a Cabinet Minister. Whatever the politics of the situation, Whitehall rivalries or other considerations in play, her offence was to undermine what protects our government from capture by private or foreign interests.

All around the world democratic states are falling under the influence of narrow private interests, and in the worst cases into the grip of powerful business and political cliques. The Department for International Development understands this, as do our diplomats, but this trend is not by any means limited to developing countries.

Core to Britain’s defences against this threat are its institutions, the rules which govern them, and the transparency that exposes when they are under assault – encapsulated by the Ministerial Code, but extending into the conventions of collective responsibility and cabinet government. There are procedures for conducting external meetings, for agreeing initiatives with other government departments, and ‘write-rounds’ of proposals to seek consensus from Ministers. From the outside, the work of Transparency International on UK politics has focussed on bringing lobbying out of the shadows, and demanding greater openness from Ministers about their external meetings with private interests.

In this case proposals for giving aid money to the Israeli army were put to civil servants by the Minister after her previously undisclosed meetings with parties who had clearly worked around the departmental officials they could well have expected to resist. We know that these meetings followed what is presented as a chance encounter with an industrious lobbyist and Conservative peer, whom the Jewish Chronicle reports has ‘taken literally hundreds of Tory MPs to Israel over the years’.

One can imagine how stifling the processes of the Civil Service can feel to an enthusiastic and ambitious minister who just wants to throw themselves into their work at every opportunity – even on holiday. There may be nothing more sinister to what has happened here, but to ignore it would have weakened the credibility of the rules that govern those who govern us, and undermined what defends the public interest from being usurped by those advanced by private lobbyists and foreign governments.

This initiative broke all sorts of diplomatic protocols, but what most concerns us is conducting undisclosed, unrecorded ministerial meetings set-up and attended by a professional lobbyist, and the ministerial actions that might follow, including the direction of public funds.  The Secretary of State in this case has paid the price, but there is no good reason to assume she has been the only offender.

The lack of transparency about lobbying is a major vulnerability in our political system at precisely the time when companies are jostling to change business regulation post-Brexit and foreign powers are alleged to be interfering in western democracies.  These threats are real, and the risks arising from secretive lobbying must be addressed explicitly in the Government’s long-promised anti-corruption strategy.

Photo Credit: Flickr

 

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Read 168 times Last modified on Wednesday, 08 November 2017 19:39

Duncan Hames

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