Extraordinary story in the Sunday Times about the Audit Commission, the taxpayer funded local government regulator, spending £60,000 to lobby against the Conservatives. This is because of proposals from the Party to scale back the Commission's budget and endless regulations – which at present represent a heavy financial burden for town halls to comply with. In particular the Conservatives are pledged to scrap the Comprehensive Area Assessments (CAA.)
The Commission hasn't even been subtle. They chose Connect Public Affairs, a lobbyists founded by Labour MP Rosie Winterton. The firm advised the best strategy would be to try and generate Tory splits on the issue with “strong local lobbying response in order to mitigate and combat the activities of Eric Pickles." I can't imagine they will have much luck finding Tory councillors declaring how tremendously worthwhile the CAA is – the process is the most time consuming, scandalous, bureaucratic waste of money. But even more outrageous is the idea of taxpayers money being used to campaign against a political party and it evidently not occurring to the Audit Commission that this is not considered an appropriate way to behave in this country.
Anyway, the Conservative response has been robust. They have issued the following press release:
The town hall watchdog complicit in councils losing a billion pounds in failed Icelandic banks has hired lobbyists at taxpayers’ expense to lobby Parliamentary Candidates and the Shadow Cabinet, it can be revealed today. In a massive abuse of taxpayers’ money and breach of Whitehall probity rules, the Audit Commission has used public cash to try to change Conservative Party policy, lobby Parliamentary Candidates and town hall leaders, to press for more regulation on town halls and to persuade politicians that the Commission “spends public money wisely” after the Icelandic fiasco, and save its pet projects.
- Quango lobbies Conservatives with public cash: Parliamentary Questions have exposed that the Audit Commission has spent £56,000 in the last 12 months on hiring lobbyists, Connect Public Affairs. The work has included lobbying the Shadow Cabinet to try to “take steps to counter” the Conservative Party’s policy on abolishing the bureaucratic Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) regime, since “the Commission is vulnerable in terms of the policy formation of the Conservative Party”. This includes plans to “build an effective campaign to protect and develop CAA” and “to impress upon [council] leaders the value of the CAA to their specific authority" in order to "apply pressure on [Caroline] Spelman for change" to save the Audit Commission’s inspection red tape.
- Parliamentary Candidates in target seats: The lobbying included identifying Prospective Parliamentary Candidates in target seats and “up-and-coming Conservative MPs”, logging their “known interests”, attending party conferences, and to sell “the benefits of the new inspection regime to influential political actors”. These actors would then “feed positive messages about CAA to government politicians and decision makers”. Specially commissioned local election analysis bemoans the loss of Labour-run county councils and “key supporters of CAA”. The quango has decided that “identifying possible Conservative advocates at a local level must therefore be a priority for the Audit Commission”.
- Breach of Whitehall probity rules: This lobbying activity is in clear breach of Cabinet Office guidelines which state: “It will always be an improper use of public funds for NDPBs [quangos] to employ PR or other consultants to lobby parliament or government departments in an attempt to influence government policy”. Conservatives have pledged to introduce even tougher US-style rules to ban completely government bodies hire lobbyists to engage in political lobbying.
- Post-Icelandic spin: Internal documents reveal that the quango believed that the Icelandic fiasco “caused the financial robustness of the Commission to be brought into question”. It has previously admitted to Parliament that it failed to liaise with the FSA and did not consider its role to advise councils on investment risks. The winding up board of the collapsed Glitnir bank has sought to downgrade the priority creditor status of UK councils, meaning councils could lose 75 per cent of their deposits. Yet lobbying the Conservative Party is now more of a “priority” for the Commission.
Caroline Spelman, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local
“This is a complete abuse of taxpayers’ money by a body which is supposed to be standing up for taxpayers’ interests. We can no longer have confidence in the Audit Commission if it has become such a creature of the state that it bankrolls lobbyists to save its own skin and call for more red tape.
“The scandal of government hiring lobbyists to lobby government must stop. Conservatives will ban it outright to protect the interests of taxpayers’ from more regulation, more laws and more wasted spending from Labour’s out of control quango state.”
“The lobbying of Parliamentary Candidates by public bodies is utterly unacceptable and inappropriate – government agencies should stay out of party politics and the forthcoming general election.”