Former prime minister David Cameron insists he did not break any rules when he lobbied the government on behalf of the financial services company Greensill Capital.
Campaigners say the law on how businesses and others get access to UK government ministers is not fit for purpose.
What did David Cameron do?
The former Conservative prime minister started working for Greensill Capital in 2018 as a “part-time senior advisor”. The finance firm’s founder Lex Greensill had been an unpaid advisor to Mr Cameron’s government.
Last year, Mr Cameron texted the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on the subject of whether Greensill would get access to emergency government Covid loans. It has also emerged that a private drink took place between Mr Cameron, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Lex Greensill in 2019.
In the end, Greensill was not given money through the Covid Corporate Financing Facility. The company collapsed into insolvency in March this year.
Mr Cameron said in a statement that he was “breaking no codes of conduct and no government rules” in making representations to the UK government on Greensill’s behalf.
But he added: “As a former prime minister, I accept that communications with government need to be done through only the most formal of channels, so there can be no room for misinterpretation.”
The current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has launched an independent investigation into the affair.
What are the rules on lobbying?
Mr Cameron’s government passed the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, four years after he gave a speech predicting that lobbying would be the “next big scandal”.
There was strong criticism of the new law at the time from MPs across all parties, transparency campaigners and the lobbying industry.
Campaigners now say that Mr Cameron’s recent activities prove that the scope of the legislation was not wide enough.
The current system states that only “consultant lobbyists” need to register their activities.
That means that someone who works in-house to advance the interests of their company or organisation – as Mr Cameron accepts he did – does not have to register.
The Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists has already investigated the ex-PM’s conduct and confirmed that he was not required to register with them.
It raises obvious questions about how much lobbying is captured by the current transparency rules.
In 2015 Transparency International UK found that the then-new register only covered about 4 per cent of lobbyists, since the vast majority are not external consultants but work in-house.
There are other loopholes. Campaigners say external lobbyists could also conceivably work behind the scenes to help clients approach politicians – drafting letters or coaching executives on what to say – without declaring their activities.
And the 2014 Act defines lobbying very narrowly as a personal approach to a government minister or senior civil servant. Communication with an MP who is not a minister would not fall under the scope of the law.
What about ministerial meetings?
In theory, it should be possible to see which companies are meeting government ministers directly without using third-party lobbyists, thanks to separate transparency data published by the Cabinet Office.
Physical meetings and telephone calls are recorded here, but not texts or other messages. And the descriptions of what is discussed in the meetings are generally bland and uninformative.
It’s clear that not all communication between in-house lobbyists and ministers is published. The details of Mr Cameron’s communications with Mr Sunak and others only came to light because of newspaper investigations.
What happens in other countries?
Notably, Canada and the United States have much stricter lobbying rules. Both countries require many more lobbyists, both consultants and in-house employees, to register with the authorities.
In the US, companies are required to declare much they spend on lobbying politicians, and databases like OpenSecrets.org publish the details.
This exercise could not be replicated in Britain due to lack of transparency on how much money is spent on lobbying.
The US also has strict legislation governing lobbyists who act on behalf of foreign countries, whereas this is largely unregulated in the UK.
Is foreign influence a problem?
There is no British equivalent of America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires lobbyists working for clients overseas to make disclosures about their activities.
Little information is available on how foreign countries, some of them considered hostile to Britain’s interests, might seek to influence parliamentarians.
Last year, the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia Report stated that public relations professionals in the UK play a role “in the extension of Russian influence which is often linked to promoting the nefarious interests of the Russian state”.
The current legislation does not require foreign entities who hire lobbyists to register with the UK authorities.
There is no way of knowing how much foreign entities spend on lobbying in the UK, although figures from the US would suggest that some states spend considerable amounts of money promoting their interests in western countries.
Bob Seeley, a Conservative MP who wrote a report on foreign lobbying for the Henry Jackson Society think tank in February, told FactCheck: “If you compare how much companies need to declare in the US versus how little they do in the UK, then either it’s not happening here, which is difficult to believe, or it’s happening a lot, but we don’t know about it.
“Right now, we are an influence peddler’s paradise.
“We badly need a similar type of legislation to that the United States and Australia have. The US has had foreign lobbying legislation since 1938, to protect against covert Nazi influence and Australia has had theirs for a few years to help prevent undue Chinese influence, although they don’t refer to specific countries.”
The UK government has repeatedly said it is considering whether to follow allies like the US and Australia in adopting a foreign agent registration system.
Today a Home Office spokesperson told FactCheck: “The Government will introduce a foreign agent registration scheme as part of forthcoming legislation to counter hostile activity by states.
“This follows consideration of similar laws in like-minded countries including the US and Australia.”
David Cameron’s activities are still under investigation, but the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists has already said he was not required to register with the authorities as a lobbyist.
Campaigners say the affair proves current transparency rules are full of holes: a former prime minister was able to get direct access to senior ministers on behalf of a company without having to declare his activities.
Politicians from across the House of Commons have called for an overhaul of the current system. And some of the strongest calls for tighter legislation come from the lobbying industry itself.
Rachael Clamp, Chair of the Public Affairs Group at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, said: “The attempt to build public trust through more transparency doesn’t work if the majority of lobbying is unseen. Under the legislation, ironically passed by the Cameron government, it is too difficult for the public to ever find out about lobbying activity such as this. What has come to light, in this case, serves to highlight how inadequate the legislation is.
“We are happy to call for the widening of the regulations on behalf of the industry to include all lobbying activity because failing to do so does more damage to the important work of lobbyists who, once again, are not involved in a lobbying scandal.”