UK Politics

Lobbying: Union anger over 'cynical' coalition move

Media captionThe BBC's Norman Smith explains how lobbyists are getting access to Parliamentary passes

Trade unions have accused the government of "cynically" exploiting the lobbying scandal to bring in new curbs on their political influence.

The coalition said on Monday it would introduce a long-promised statutory register of lobbyists by July in an effort to clean up politics.

In a surprise move, new union rules will be included in the proposed bill.

But a Liberal Democrat source said the details of the proposals "categorically" still had to be agreed.

MP Patrick Mercer and three peers - Lord Cunningham, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, Lord Laird - have been accused of being prepared to offer to do parliamentary work for payment.

All deny wrongdoing and their cases are being investigated by standards watchdogs.

'Transparency'

The coalition is committed to introducing a statutory register of professional lobbyists - companies who attempt to influence politicians on behalf of corporate clients - in an effort to increase transparency and cut down on abuse of the system.

Labour leader Ed Miliband had promised to back legislation to tighten up the rules.

But on Monday afternoon it was revealed that the planned bill would also include tighter controls of third-party funding of general election campaigns and moves to make it harder for trade unions - Labour's biggest backers - to take strike action.

The third-party funding rules will apply to organisations affiliated to political parties - such as the unions - as well as those making major donations of more than £100,000 a year.

If the bill becomes law, the full cost of campaign expenditure by such organisations will count towards a party's election spending cap at a local and national level.

The bill will also require trade unions to carry out an annual audit of their membership and demonstrate that the figures they produce are accurate, in a move to end the current system of self-certification. This is seen by unions as an attempt to curb strike action.

The prime minister's official spokesman said the package would "enhance the transparency of the role of third parties in the political system".

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg insisted the proposals were not solely aimed at trade unions but would also include other groups, such as animal welfare campaigners, tactical voting groups, rural campaigners, religious groups and individuals, who "spend money to determine the outcome in particular constituencies".

He said such groups had spent a total of £3m at the 2010 general election.

"What we want to do is make sure this increasingly important type of campaigning is fully transparent and isn't allowed to distort the political process," he told MPs.

But a Lib Dem source said: "The details are still to be agreed. This is not about how people fund political parties."

'Tit-for-tat politics'

The source added: "The details have got to be worked out and we will come forward with proposals shortly... I can absolutely categorically tell you that the details have yet to be agreed.

"The Liberal Democrats will not sign up to anything that is tailored only for the trade unions. That is not what this is about."

Chloe Smith, minister for constitutional and political reform, said the coalition hoped to achieve a cross-party deal on the proposals, which will shortly be published in full.

But TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "The government is cynically trying to exploit a political sleaze scandal to crack down on unions, which are democratic and accountable organisations.

"We already have some of the most restrictive union laws in all of Europe and this move smacks of naked opportunism.

"Making it harder for working people to take strike action and for unions to support local candidates is not the way to clean up politics."

Darren Hughes, director of campaigns and research at the Electoral Reform Society, said: "Regulating the unions without touching big business is a joke. This kind of tit-for-tat politics is why nothing ever gets done."

Asked whether any consultation had taken place on the proposals, Mr Cameron's official spokesman said: "There has been a process of deliberation within the government on the entire package."

Parliamentary passes

Labour MP Graham Allen, chairman of political and constitutional reform committee, called on the government to include all organisations that lobby politicians, including charities, companies and trade unions, in the new legislation, not just dedicated PR or lobbying firms.

"The government's proposal for a register that included only third-party lobbyists would do little to improve transparency about who is lobbying whom, because meetings involving such lobbyists constitute only a small part of the lobbying industry," said Mr Allen.

All-party parliamentary groups are also facing a shake-up following the investigation into lobbying by BBC Panorama and two national newspapers.

There are hundreds of all-party groups covering everything from the affairs of foreign countries to social issues, such as bullying and accident prevention, to leisure activities such as bridge, angling and beer.

They do not have any official status within Parliament and are not funded by it - but they do receive administrative support and other benefits from outside organisations and there are concerns they are being used as a way to get round the rules on issuing security passes.

The Commons Commission, chaired by Speaker John Bercow, is checking the role of 80 people given passes by all-party groups. These include representatives of businesses, charities and think-tanks. In the meantime, no new passes in this category will be issued.

The names of the holders are publicly declared in Parliament's register.

Mr Bercow also promised reform of all-party groups before the summer recess, after a working party led by former foreign secretary Jack Straw called for greater financial transparency and more rigorous rules on setting up and running such groups, including taking minutes of meetings.

More on this story