On Tuesday 30th January 2024, the House of Commons debated the subject of the fossil fuel industry’s political lobbying. From the personal investments of MPs and Peers, to the industry’s privileged access to meetings with Ministers, the debate considered the deep entanglement between the fossil fuel industry and the UK’s politics.
Caroline Lucas MP (Brighton Pavilion, Green Party) speaks at the adjournment debate on fossil fuels and political lobbying Tuesday 30th January 2024.
Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, lead the debate. She laid out various examples of the fossil fuel industry’s political influence in action, and proposed measures to create a firewall between the industry and policy-making.
“… we have to ask ourselves why this Government, and others before them, have presided over, and colluded in, the frankly criminal decisions that have seen yet more oil, gas and coal continue to be explored and exploited. The answer to that question can be traced back to one consistent factor: the role of the fossil fuel industry in our politics.”Caroline Lucas MP, fossil fuels and political lobbying adjournment debate, 30 Jan 2024
At the end of each day’s sitting in the House of Commons, there is a half hour adjournment debate. These debates are an opportunity for backbench MPs to raise an issue and receive a response from the relevant Minister.
As these debates do not require participation from other MPs, it is often the case that only the MP who applied for the debate and the Minister are in attendance. However, in this instance, there were various other cross-party MPs there, who made supportive interventions. This was largely due to the emails that they received from their constituents urging them to attend, using our email-your-MP tool, co-sponsored by the StopRosebank campaign and Tipping Point. Thank you everyone who took the time to do this!
- The lack of urgency in the political response to the climate crisis is mostly the result of fossil fuel industry political lobbying. The industry has used its vast resources to delay, weaken and disrupt climate policy at every turn. The UK repeatedly claims to be world-leading in its response to the climate crisis, but the same day of the debate, the Climate Change Committee issued an interim report stating that the UK is off target to meet its climate goals.
- The fossil fuel industry enjoys privileged access to meetings with Ministers, which allows it to shape policy. Opening case study, based on research published by Fossil Free Parliament: how Offshore Energies UK (OEUK) – the leading trade body for the oil and gas industry – used its privileged access to Ministers (we’re talking 211 meetings in the year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – that’s almost one every working day) to ensure the Windfall Tax was as favourable to the industry as possible. This was part of a larger lobbying effort over the course of 2022 to reinstate the ‘Fiscal Forum’ – a special advisory group comprising of OEUK and the Treasury, which essentially allows the industry to shape its own tax regime. To read about this in much more detail, please see our report.
- The revolving door: it is very easy for politicians and senior civil servants to take on roles with the fossil fuel industry after, or even during, their time in politics. They just have to register with the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) if they take up this work during their time in office, or just within two years of leaving office. In the vast majority of instances, ACOBA approves the appointment, and regulation breaches – say the appointment offers an unfair political advantage to the company who has hired the former politician – very rarely result in serious repercussions. The chair of ACOBA, former Conservative MP and now Lord Pickles, has called the organisation “toothless”. (Please see the discussion of our ask ‘Break the Revolving Door’ for fossil fuels and politics revolving door case studies.)
- Many politicians receive significant financial (and other) benefits from the fossil fuel industry, which creates a conflict of interest. A few examples given: Theresa Villiers, MP for Chipping Barnett and former Environment Secretary, held £70 000 worth of shares in Shell that remained undeclared until last year. Nadhim Zahawi, MP for Stratford-upon-Avon and former Chancellor under Boris Johnson, received more than £1 million in direct payments and shareholdings from the fossil fuel industry. Sir John Hayes, MP for South Holland and the Deepings and former Minister of State for Energy, has been receiving £50 000 per year for 80-90 hours of consulting work for BB Energy, a company that trades more than 33 million metric tonnes of oil a year. (Note: John Hayes was present, having been informed that his interests would be referenced, and he intervened to state that he broadly agrees with the points that Caroline Lucas was making about the problem of lobbying, and wished to assert that he “never lobbied any Minister on any matter connected with the interests”.)
“…there is a direct link between fossil fuel money and the positions that MPs take in Parliament, it is self-evident that the rules cannot be fit for purpose.”Caroline Lucas MP, fossil fuels and political lobbying adjournment debate, 30 Jan 2024
- The transparency regulations don’t go anywhere near far enough. The threshold for declaring shareholding stakes is £70 000 for MPs and £50 000 for Lords. There is no requirement to declare income from dividends, or from the sale of shares. Shares can also be moved into blind trusts when MPs become Ministers – removing all possibility of scrutiny.
- End lobbying meetings with the fossil fuel industry, and other interactions that happen behind-closed-doors or ‘off the record’. If meetings have to occur with the fossil fuel industry – to discuss, for example, the green transition – then there must be full transparency, with the content of the meeting publicly disclosed as quickly as possible.
- Eliminate the benefits. The fossil fuel industry must not be allowed to make donations to parliamentarians, or offer benefits-in-kind.
- Close the revolving door. No staff exchanges between government departments and the industry; no sitting MPs to take on any work, paid or unpaid, for the fossil fuel industry; a greater time period between leaving office and assuming work in the fossil fuel industry.
- De-platform the industry. The industry should not be permitted to sponsor, or have any kind of presence, at party conferences. And parliamentarians should not implicitly endorse the industry by sharing a panel with them or attending fossil fuel industry-affiliated events. No industry representation in Parliamentary organisations, expert or advisory bodies, or at climate negotiations.
- Who in government has overall responsibility for monitoring the influence that fossil fuel companies have as a result of their political lobbying?
- Can the Minister confirm whether or not the government is satisfied that the measures currently in place are sufficient to ensure parliamentarians aren’t influenced by fossil fuel lobbying?
- Will the Minister agree that this goes to the heart of how government and parliament are run, and therefore that it warrants the establishment of – for example – a new dedicated select committee to properly scrutinise the influence of the fossil fuel industry and other corporate influence on political decision-making, as well as to make recommendations for change?
Wera Hobhouse, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath
Made two interventions. In the first, she spoke about how future generations will be unable to forgive past generations for fixating on the energy “of the past”. In the second, she argues that the biggest problem is no longer climate denial – but climate delay. Lucas agreed.
Jim Shannon, DUP MP for Strangford
Suggested that all political decisions should be influenced by facts and reasoned opinion. And that lobbying can be a part of this, because “it is through lobbying that we learn more”. Lucas broadly agreed, but stated that the problem really arises when the there is money involved.
Jonathan Edwards, Independent MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr
Argued that the overall “cost of politics” – election campaigning – needs to be reduced or restricted. “Political parties go looking, as they are at the moment, for vast amounts of money to spend on electioneering, but it comes at a cost, because the funders who give them that money then want something in return.” Lucas agreed.
Hywel Williams, Plaid Cymru MP for Arfon
Asked Lucas if she “had any confidence” that things might change at the next election, given that Labour have said that they will not revoke the new oil and gas licenses signed off by the Conservatives. Lucas replied saying that the stance Labour had taken was more-than-disappointing, given that if they were to say that they would revoke the licenses, that would really disrupt investment in new oil and gas projects right now.
Alison Thewliss, SNP MP for Glasgow Central
Pointed to how Norway collects much more tax from the fossil fuel industry than the UK does, so that they are at least bolstering their sovereign wealth fund, while the UK’s only inheritance will be an unliveable future. Lucas agreed.
Sir John Hayes, Conservative MP for South Holland and the Deepings
As aforementioned, Hayes stated that he largely agreed with the points Lucas was making, and wanted to assert that he has never lobbied any Ministers with regards to his own interests in BB Energy.
Alex Burghart, Conservative MP for Brentwood and Ongar and Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office, was responsible for responding to Caroline Lucas’ points and questions. The following points summarise his response:
- The government believes that lobbying is “a legitimate part of political development in all areas, as long as it is conducted transparently and ethically”
- He argued that the measures to ensure that lobbying is conducted transparently and ethically are already good and that they are being improved – for example, from January 2024, lobbying meetings will have to be reported quarterly.
- Any changes to the approach in the way that Members’ interests are registered needs to be decided by the Parliamentary Standards Committee, not the government.
- The government believes that fossil fuel companies need to be a part of the transition, particularly because the industry currently supports 200 000 jobs. He also argued that the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill does not contravene the UK’s climate commitments because even the Climate Change Committee has said that fossil fuels will need to be a part of the UK’s energy mix for decades to come. (Note: The CCC has been critical of the government’s pursuit of new oil and gas projects in the North Sea.)
- Closed by arguing that continuing to have a relationship with the fossil fuel industry is crucial to democracy – in which all parties and organisations, across the spectrum of view points, must be engaged with.
This debate presented a critical first step towards the possibility of Parliament restricting the political access and influence of the fossil fuel industry. For the Commons to even formally discuss fossil fuel lobbying as an issue is unprecedented, and suggests that the tide could be turned on the industry’s political license – like the tobacco industry before it.
Given how often adjournment debates are attended only by the MP who applied for the debate and the Minister, we were really pleased by how many other MPs came along and made supportive interventions. We would like to thank Caroline Lucas for blazing the trail in this direction, for speaking to the issue in such a compelling fashion, and for working with our research into OEUK and the Windfall Tax. We would also like to thank everyone who took the time to email their MP to ask them to attend.
Of all of the points that Alex Burghart made in response to Caroline Lucas’ speech and questions, there were two that stood out to us. First, the point about the number of jobs that the industry supports – and why it is therefore responsible for parliamentarians to continue to engage with the industry. And second, about how – generally – engagement is the democratic choice. The jobs point has served as further encouragement to our team to put greater effort into collaborating with industry workers on any mutual objectives with respect to a just transition. Meanwhile, the engagement point reinforces the need to strengthen the public and political understanding about how engagement with the fossil fuel industry is only further serving the industry’s interests, and not that of people and planet. The fossil fuel industry has made it perfectly clear that it intends to remain the fossil fuel industry, and not evolve into the renewables energy. Their business model is completely antithetical to a liveable future, and therefore the only responsible position for our parliamentarians to take towards it is to legislate its fast and just decline.