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Friends of the Earth wins lobbying lawsuit

Friends of the Earth wins lobbying lawsuit
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Friends of the Earth wins lobbying lawsuit 1

Finance | Tania Mason | 6 May 2008

Friends of the Earth has won its battle to force the government to hand over documents detailing meetings it has held with the UK’s most powerful business lobby group.

Last Thursday the Information Tribunal ordered the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR) to stump up the minutes of meetings between its predecessor, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

The Tribunal ruled that there was a “strong public interest in understanding how lobbyists, particularly those given privileged access, are attempting to influence government policy”. 

Three years of legal wrangling

Friends of the Earth’s victory follows almost three years of legal wrangling that began in July 2005 when it requested details of lobbying meetings between the DTI and CBI that took place soon after the last General Election.

The documents include minutes of monthly meetings between trade secretary Alan Johnson and CBI director-general Sir Digby Jones, and notes of a private away-day between senior DTI and CBI staff.

In 2007 the Information Commissioner ordered the DTI to release most of the documents but DBERR, where Lord Jones is now a minister, appealed to the Information Tribunal to revoke that decision.

During a four-day hearing before the Tribunal, DBERR and the CBI argued that if records of lobbying meetings were not kept secret, the lobbying process would have to change and government policy-making might be damaged. 

John Cridland, deputy director general of the CBI, said: “I hope we aren’t going to reach the point where people need to meet by the lake in St James’s Park with a rolled-up copy of the FT under their arm in dark glasses.” He even warned that the work of government could grind to a standstill if the content of such meetings became public.

Signal for greater transparency

But in its ruling published last week, the Tribunal gave a clear signal that it supported greater transparency, by ordering DBERR to hand over most of the information requested. The Department now has to decide whether to appeal to the High Court – though it can only do so on points of law – or send FOE the papers within 28 days.

The ruling comes as lobbyists face scrutiny from the Public Administration Select Committee, which is carrying out an ongoing inquiry into the lobbying industry. A hearing next week will see the committee examine the so-called 'revolving door policy' when government ministers move into the private sector after leaving office.

Phil Michaels, head of legal at FOE, said it was a particularly important case because it was the first time the Information Tribunal had been asked to rule on issues of public interest around lobbying, and it had sent a clear message that it expected more openness. 

DBERR said it was scrutinising the judgment and hadn’t yet decided whether to appeal.

John Hudson
Chair of trustees
Ealing Junior Music School
7 May 2008

This is excellent news. When an organisation as powerful as the CBI has monthly meetings with the government, but refuses to release the minutes, the ONLY implication must be that there is skullduggery/dishonesty involved. If there is nothing to hide, then why hide it? The pathetic resp[onse by the CBI that this will result in secret meetings in St James Park simply underlines that the CBI and the current government do not believe in democracy.

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