Labour MP becomes first serving politician to be registered as lobbyist
Rajeev Syal, The Guardian
Barry Sheerman chairs Policy Connect, a London-based firm that has held meetings attended by businesses and ministers
A veteran Labour MP has become the first serving politician to be officially registered as a lobbyist.
Barry Sheerman, who represents Huddersfield, is listed on the register of consultant lobbyists because of his chairmanship of Policy Connect, a not-for-profit company that has held meetings attended by paying businesses and ministers.
It follows an inquiry by Alison White, the registrar of consultant lobbyists, into whether informal parliamentary groups have been used to gain access to government.
She found that Policy Connect should be defined as a lobbying company because it is paid money by clients who are then given the opportunity to meet ministers.
Sheerman told the Guardian he had reluctantly registered as a lobbyist, but disagrees with the rules governing the register.
He maintains that Policy Connect is a social enterprise providing a service for industry experts and ministers.
Sheerman’s registration raises questions about the role of MPs and whether they should be lawmakers and lobbyists.
According to the MPs’ code of conduct, they are allowed to work as a consultant or be paid for advice, but are forbidden from acting as a “paid advocate”.
Duncan Hames, the director of policy at Transparency International UK and a former Liberal Democrat MP, said a bright light needed to be shone on how parliamentary groups give private interests access to holders of public office.
“Some MPs still seem to think it’s acceptable to take on extra jobs helping private firms navigate the corridors of Westminster. Not only does this raise questions about who they’re really working for, it suggests our public representatives are up for private hire,” he said.
“This can only be corrosive for trust in our democracy. The rules need to be changed urgently to make it clear that it is not acceptable for MPs to take second jobs advising clients on parliamentary or government affairs.”
Tommy Sheppard, a Scottish National party MP who was on the standards committee until May, said lawmakers should not be allowed to become lobbyists and asked the commissioner of standards to clarify the rules.
“It looks as if there is a case to answer. I think we should have as a matter of policy a rule that MPs should give up any lobbying responsibilities,” he said.
“There has to be a complete separation between those who make the laws and those who lobby for or against them.”
White launched the inquiry earlier this year after a growth in the number of all-party parliamentary groups, which are allowed use of the Palace of Westminster’s catering facilities and can invite senior ministers and civil servants for meetings with donors.
There are more than 550 APPGs, which exist to help MPs and peers discuss major issues of the day, according to the parliamentary register. The groups have received millions of pounds of external funding since the beginning of 2015.
Policy Connect, based near London Bridge, asks private companies to pay between £175 and £20,000 to become members of APPGs. In return, they are able to attend events and meetings in parliament, some of which are held with ministers.
Policy Connect is the secretariat or public inquiry point for nine APPGs, covering issues such as climate change, design and innovation, carbon monoxide, health, manufacturing, skills and employment, data analytics, and sustainable resources.
Ministers who have attended Policy Connect events include the Conservatives Rory Stewart and Robert Halfon, according to its website.
Sheerman was paid £2,200 a month to be Policy Connect’s chairman on top of his MP’s salary, which he gave to charity. He has given up the payment since registering as a lobbyist, a Policy Connect official said.
The lobbying register was set up in 2015 by David Cameron following a spate of Westminster “cash for access” scandals, but it has been widely criticised for including only third-party lobbyists and not in-house public affairs professionals.
Lobbyists only have to sign up if they communicate directly with ministers or permanent secretaries – the most senior civil servants in each department. Attempts to lobby more junior civil servants or special advisers are not within its scope.
Sheerman told the Guardian he is proud of successfully setting up a not-for-profit company that employs 24 graduates and provides a much-needed service for MPs and businesses.
“We instigated Policy Connect years ago as a not-for-profit social enterprise in order to facilitate a good, open conversation between industry and MPs,” he said.
“We are the antidote to lobbyists. We have argued it with everyone. In the end, we said ‘alright, if you say we have to [register], much against our better judgment, we will do so’. And we do so under protest.
“I don’t see it as lobbying. I see it as part of my job as a good legislator to get good policy.”
Sheerman, 76, said he did not believe he was in breach of the MPs’ code of conduct because he had spoken to Kathryn Hudson, the commissioner for standards, about registering as a lobbyist. “My understanding is that it is within the rules,” he said.
It is understood that there are no formal obstacles to MPs being on the lobbying register while serving their constituents.
A spokesperson for the standards commissioner said she has not investigated Sheerman and would not confirm or deny any meetings or advice offered to MPs.
uploaded: Mon, Jul 31 2017
modified: Tue, Dec 30 1969
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