• Correspondence with Hugo Swire on lobbying bill ….

    2nd February 2014 | News | Claire
  • 2 September 2013
    Dear Mr Swire, Thanks for your messages. I recognise how busy you are and how your role on the front bench constrains your freedom to act independently. But I want to take this opportunity to clarify that there are two separate issues that I believe need your urgent attention.

    The first is the growing scandal about Lobbying in East Devon District where the Sidmouth Herald reports that an unnamed officer has cancelled the scrutiny meeting scheduled for tonight and has again vetoed for investigation the topic which was agreed by the Councillors (our elected representatives) a year ago. This scrutiny group was set up following widespread outrage in early 2012 at secretive and potentially corrupt practices by the local lobbying group, the EDBF.

    Nearly four thousand East Devon residents took to the streets about this in November 2012, the Daily Telegraph splashed an exposé in March 2013, there were massive votes of no confidence in local Conservative Party candidates in the May elections, and still there is secrecy and a suppression of democratic accountability at the higher levels of local government. This must be a concern for our MP, if only because the May 2015 General Election is approaching.

    The other issue is a widespread fear that the poor drafting of the Bill intended to rein in such lobbyists, which is before Parliament tomorrow 3rd Sept, means that non-commercial campaigning groups such as Amnesty, Sustrans, CPRE, the BMA, RSPB etc. even including our own Sid Vale Association, will potentially be gagged for a full twelve months before any general election.

    I am sure this is not what you would have intended but, if it goes through as worded and has such an effect, there will be further outrage across the political spectrum from your constituents.

    I trust you will report back to the community on your contribution to tomorrow’s debate at the earliest opportunity.

    I do not know whether Mr Swire has reported back to his constituents on this matter but he did me the courtesy of writing a personal letter explaining why he had no choice but to support the government. So I wrote as follows on 9 September 2013:

    Dear Mr Swire

    I am disappointed to note that you have not acknowledged the serious points I raised in my previous communications. I have had expressions of support and concern from a very wide range of people in the constituency, including members of the local Conservative Association, about both aspects of this issue.

    I know you have an important role in Government but you are also our representative and we need to know you are listening.

    I sincerely hope that you will consider the dangers to democracy in the apparent limitations on campaigning by third parties during election years in what seems like a hastily and badly drafted Bill. It is coming up for a second reading tomorrow.

    Please make clear that it is not your intention nor the intention of Parliament to prevent any group, other than established parties of professional politicians, from promoting opinions from May 2014 for twelve months. It sounds like a prescription for Putin’s Russia rather than our open democracy. Please refer the Bill back for redrafting.

    I also trust that you will send some sort of reassurance to your East Devon constituents that the suppression of our elected representatives’ enquiries into potential lobbying scandals in East Devon District Council has your attention and that you will take action on this as soon as you can find the time in your busy schedule.

    The level of secrecy seems quite unjustified and is financially costly to council tax payers, and politically costly to your party.

    A few weeks later Mr Swire wrote to reassure me that he did not believe the Bill would damage our democratic processes. He also explained why he could not intervene in the East Devon District Council’s apparent lobbying cover-up.

    I wrote to him on 9 October:

    Dear Mr Swire,

    I commend the government for seeking to “take the big money out of politics.” I am sure this is no easy task but it is worthwhile. You will be aware that there is continuing suspicion around this issue; and there has been some legal opinion that the effect of the Bill may be contrary to the Government’s declared intentions.

    I fear it is possible that judges in the future may interpret the law perversely but I feel we must trust our legislators to make the law as watertight as possible in defence of our liberties. Thank you very much for allaying my concern with your reassuring words.

    I trust you will be checking the details of the wording and potential future interpretations as the revised Bill goes into its third reading.

    Thank you also for your ongoing attention to concerns about EDDC. Much of the criticism may have been self-defeating in its stridency and personal animus, but I am persuaded that there is a serious case to answer.

    The problem has been well summed up, with some objectivity, in one of the responses to the revised Plan that have just been sent to the Planning Inspector:

    ‘The panel rejected two independent commissioned reports from Roger Tym and Atkins (on housing and employment requirements) in favour of a report by the East Devon Business Forum (which represents mainly large developers). This recommended much higher levels of growth.

    ‘When challenged at a Scrutiny Committee meeting, the Chief Executive described the Business Forum as “a kind of joint body” with the Council and ruled that the committee had no power to examine the very thing it was set up to do, i.e. scrutinise the general influence of the Forum on planning.’

    But the Planning Inspector has no power to consider the process by which the Plan was developed, only the viability of the final proposals. So the problem will remain unaddressed.

    Your constituents understood that the only route available to get the Council to investigate this alleged scandal was the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which set up a Task and Finish Forum in September 2012. But in September 2013, the fourth meeting of this investigative forum was postponed sine die. Previous meetings, at one of which the key witnesses had been instructed not to attend, without any notice being given to the Chair, had been inconclusive.

    Investigative journalists provided a non-democratic route for opening up one aspect of these concerns but this has simply led to a police enquiry following the resignation of one Councillor, whom I cannot believe to have been the sole source of deviations from due process, nor can he be responsible for the continuing secrecy on key decisions.

    Leading Conservative District Councillors have spoken off the record about their concerns and have urged me and others to pursue questions which they have found it difficult to take up in the council chamber for a range of reasons indicated in the above narrative.

    They are men of integrity who have said, in terms, that local citizens have a responsibility to continue pushing to find out how certain proposals found their way into the Local Development Plan.

    It seems that you are our last resource in finding a democratic route to getting an enquiry into these widespread misgivings about the District Council’s ability to investigate the transparency of its decision-making processes.

    I would be grateful for your advice on what steps would be appropriate for concerned and responsible citizens in your constituency.

    Mr Swire’s office responded with yet another instant automatic email acknowledgement but no further word or action. Four months later, I ask your readers whether they are confident that our democracy is in safe hands. What is to be done?