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Legal blow to secret government lobbying

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The Department of Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) has lost an appeal to keep secret its meetings with business lobbying group the Confederation of British Industry.

The case has dragged on for three years and originally concerned secret meetings between the CBI and BERR, which was formerly known as the Department of Trade and Industry.

Friends of the Earth asked for information about a series of meetings between Digby Jones, then boss of the CBI and Alan Johnson, DTI minister, as well as a corporate jolly for senior civil servants and CBI staff. Last year the Information Commissioner ordered the DTI to release most of the information requested.

But BERR, including Minister of State for Trade and Investment Digby Lord Jones of Birmingham - previously known as Digby Jones, boss of the CBI - appealed the decision to the Information Tribunal.

The Tribunal ruled yesterday that most of the information requested by FoE should indeed be released.

Phil Michaels, head of legal at Friends of the Earth, said: "The Tribunal has recognised the strong public interest in members of the public having access to lobbying records and has recognised that transparency is particularly important where a group like the CBI has privileged access to Government to push their views. It is crucial that the Government now changes its outmoded culture of secrecy."

A spokesman for BERR said: "We believe that there are circumstances where it is in the public interest to protect the 'thinking space' necessary for good public policy formulation and to enable the Department to have a private discourse with external organisations."

The judgement reads in part: "In our view, there is a strong public interest in understanding how lobbyists, particularly those given privileged access, are attempting to influence government so that other supporting or counterbalancing views can be put to government to help ministers and civil servants make best policy. Also there is a strong public interest in ensuring that there is not, and it is seen that there is not, any impropriety."

BERR claimed that making such meetings public would have a chilling effect on meetings between it and lobby groups. The Tribunal said it viewed such possible effects with sceptism.

BERR has 28 days to comply with the ruling or to take an appeal to the High Court.

The full judgement is available as a 44 page pdf from here.

The victory is a big filip for the wider movement, led by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, to force the UK government to introduce more transparency into its dealings with lobbying groups. ALT is calling for compulsory registration of lobby groups and a record of their meetings with politicians and civil servants. ®

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