As parliamentary assistant to Lord Low, the chairman of the RNIB, Will Moy is the holder of a coveted parliamentary pass. He spends nearly all of his working time in the House of Lords. The layout of the Palace of Westminster means he can walk through to the Commons, but he can't enter the Commons bars, the Bishops' Bar, the Lords Guest Room or the terrace. "The perks are actually very limited," he says. "The main benefit is that I can avoid the queues to get into the building. I can go into the staff canteen, but none of the members' bars."
But Moy's situation is not typical: he says he is one of only half a dozen people who work in the Lords full-time as assistants for crossbench peers. The RNIB pays Moy to be a personal assistant to Lord Low, who is blind, but he also provides Lord Low with background information on any issues in which the peer is interested. But the Lords are clamping down on pass holders: a spokesman for the house says access to the terrace has never been officially allowed, but the rule was not enforced until six months ago after complaints it was becoming too crowded. And in June it published its first list of pass holders after pressure from transparency campaigners - the Commons has, for the past decade, regularly published registers of the interests of all MPs' pass holders (known as 'research assistants', though many are not in the paid employment of MPs).
Passes show the name of the sponsoring peer, the name of the holder and the expiry date (all are fixed-term, but can be renewed any number of times). Details of permitted areas are not printed, but colour coded. There are several categories of pass: one for building contractors and drivers, one for full-time staff of the house, one for researchers and several categories for 'other staff'. A spokesman for the Lords says he cannot list all the categories because of security regulations.
Some in the sector have objected to the current system, arguing that passes should be distributed evenly among all charities and NGOs. However, anyone can ask for a pass: a peer or MP will issue one if they think the pass holder can provide them with useful information on issues they are interested in.
Others point out that a pass to enter the building is not an open ticket to influence. "Parliamentarians listen to the quality of your arguments," says Ben Summerskill, director of gay and lesbian rights charity Stonewall. "You can't lobby peers just by bumping into them in the lobby; they will ask you to make an appointment. The peers and MPs we won over on the Fertility Bill a couple of months ago were the ones we saw privately."
But a pass does grant access to the Lords 'printed paper office', which contains copies of bills, lists of amendments and copies of recently published white papers and other official documents used by the house. These documents are available elsewhere, but only at the printed paper office can they be accessed without charge (white papers can cost £40). Peers and MPs can choose to have someone brief them on these papers if they want to, but insiders say it's almost impossible to distinguish between people picking up papers autonomously and people doing it on behalf of their members.
Having a pass is not the only way to play an active role in Parliament. Many charities now set up All-Party Parliamentary Groups - groups of MPs and peers from all parties that meet together informally to discuss a particular issue of concern, such as childcare or breast cancer. Moy says there has been an explosion of these groups in the past few years, from about 300 to more than 500. Of the 130 current APPGs supported by third sector organisations, only 33 include third sector pass holders - the other members simply go through the normal security procedures at the door.
Only a minority of lobbying happens inside Parliament. Moy says both corporate lobbyists and lobbyists from large charities prefer to target officials long before the legislative stage. "Parliament tends to be where you go when you haven't already got your agenda across in the white paper, the green paper or the discussions with ministers," he says. He says it is rare for Parliament to overturn significant Government policies: noteworthy examples are the mooted merger of the Human Tissue Authority with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which was given the thumbs down by the Draft Bill Committee, and the expected defeat in the Lords of the clause in the Counter Terrorism Bill that would extend the time terrorism suspects can be held without charge to 42 days.
In June, the Commons Public Administration Select Committee launched an inquiry into lobbying, the first since 1991. It will consider whether lobbying needs to be regulated and examine the funding of APPGs by lobbying companies. One idea is to create a separate category of pass specifically for lobbyists, with no access to the printed paper office or canteen, which they could apply for without going through an MP or peer. Some say this would level the playing field; others argue that it would open the door further to private sector lobbyists, who already outnumber those from the voluntary and public sectors put together.
But Summerskill says publishing the register of pass holders is transparency enough. That certainly seemed to be the case in June, when the Lords' first published list revealed that Baroness Harris of Richmond's adviser, Robin Ashby, was a managing partner of public affairs company Bergmans Defence Consultancy, which numbers many major defence firms among its clients. Concerns that Ashby would use his access to lobby ministers on their behalf led to him having his pass withdrawn almost immediately.
Summerskill says peers will consider, when deciding whether to award a pass, how the pass holder will affect their reputation. Being associated with a charity will generally have a positive effect on a member's image, but charities need to consider party political allegiances when choosing a peer to approach for a pass.
How much influence a pass really gives you is hard to measure, but Moy agrees with Summerskill: "In the Lords, you live and die on the quality of your argument. Access is a matter of convenience."
The 732 peers in the House of Lords have registered a total of 543 passes for access to the Lords. They have been declared as follows:
(figures supplied 31 July, 2008)
HOUSE OF LORDS PASS
Sarah Joiner, Patron, MS Trust since 2007
Pass issued: May 2008
Sponsored by: Baroness Gardner
"I was diagnosed with MS in 1981 and became patron of the MS Trust last year. I have been going into Parliament as an assistant to my mother, Baroness Gardner, for five years. I got a pass this year because of tightened security. We used to be able to breeze in if we were known.
"I write questions for my mother to ask, and before asking them she always declares her interests. I provide information to the APPG for MS, and to peers discussing end-of-life care policy. I go in only when specific questions are being asked that I'm involved in - otherwise I use email; the Lords is not easy for a wheelchair-user."
HOUSE OF LORDS PASS
Geoff Fimister, Campaigns officer, RNIB
Pass issued: 1987
Sponsored by: Lord Bilston
"I knew Lord Bilston when he was a member of Wolverhampton Council in the 80s and I've worked for him, unpaid, ever since. I give him background on policy issues. The pass is also useful for the RNIB, but not all my work for Lord Bilston relates to the charity. I've been with the charity only for a year or so, so it's a fortuitous coincidence that I have a pass.
"I use it to attend meetings in committee rooms and informal meetings in the cafeteria. I can't go into the library. I don't know where else I'm entitled to go. It doesn't enable you to do anything that you wouldn't be able to do anyway - it's just less slow."
HOUSE OF LORDS PASS
Barbara Hearn, Deputy chief executive of research, National Children's Bureau
Sponsored by: Baroness Blackstone
"I met Baroness Blackstone through Estelle Morris, our president and a life peer. The other two pass holders at NCB have different sponsors.
"We have passes so we can give parliamentarians information on children and young people's issues, primarily because we clerk the APPG for children. Each APPG has external people who clerk and support it. It's up to parliamentary officers whether they offer a pass.
"I go to meetings every few weeks. I've never found out if I can do more. The other two pass holders use them to plan meetings with parliamentary officers about their agenda for the year, so they go in more often."
HOUSE OF LORDS PASS
Ben Summerskill, Chief executive, Stonewall
Pass issued: 2003
Sponsored by: Lord Alli
"We started working with Lord Alli in 2003 on the campaign to repeal section 28 of the Local Government Act 1998. I meet him once every few weeks, but only when there's specific business. The pass means I bypass security, which otherwise takes 30 minutes, but anyone can lobby a peer - you just arrange to meet them.
"It's a two-way street: I hope we're there as support, not just that he's helping us. The name of your sponsor is written clearly in big letters on your pass, so there's no secret alchemy of the sort there was with commercial lobbying in the late 80s and early 90s."
Peers who sponsor passes to third sector organisations
Denotes a House of Lords pass sponsored by a peer, coloured according to the area of interest in which the passholder works. Where a passholder represents more than one third sector organisation, the organisations they represent are separated by a forward slash
Lord Alli - Stonewall
Lord Anderson of Swansea - Christian Solidarity Worldwide
Lord Ashley of Stoke - UK Council on Deafness Radar
Lord Bilston - RNIB
Baroness Blackstone - National Children's Bureau
Baroness Blood - Northern Ireland Council for Integrated
Education/Independent Children's Homes Association Groundwork UK
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale - Prison Reform Trust
Lord Davies of Coity - James Whale Fund for Kidney Cancer
Lord Desai - Council for the Advancement of Arts, Recreation and
Lord Dubs - FIA Foundation, a road safety charity
Baroness Henig - Royal School for the Deaf & Communication Disorders
Lord Janner of Braunstone - World Jewish Affairs Fund Commonwealth
Jewish Council Trust/World Jewish Affairs Fund
Baroness Jay of Paddington - Stonewall
Lord Judd - Oxfam
Lord Kinnock - British Council
Lord Macdonald of Tradeston - British Humanist Association
Baroness Massey of Darwen - National Children's Bureau Barnardo's
Baroness Pitkeathley - Carers UK
Baroness Smith of Gilmorehill - John Smith Memorial Trust
Baroness Whitaker - Unicef UK
Lord Whitty - NCVO/Cancer Research UK
Baroness Wilkins - National Centre for Independent Living
Baroness Gardner of Parkes - MS Trust
Lord Kirkham - Duke of Edinburgh's Award
Lord Lucas - Campaign for Adventure
Lord Mayhew of Twysden - Airey Neave Trust
Baroness Miller of Hendon - RSPB
Baroness O'Cathain - Christian Institute
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford - Christian Institute
Lord St John of Fawsley - Royal Fine Art Commission Trust
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior - Companion Animal Welfare Council
Lord Vinson - Taxpayers' Alliance
Lord Avebury - National Secular Society
Lord Carlile of Berriew - Action to Regenerate Community Trust
Earl of Glasgow - British Museum
Lord Lester of Herne Hill - Fair Trials International
Lord Shutt of Greetland - Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Religious Society
of Friends (Quakers)
Baroness Tonge - National Energy Action
Lord Tope - Scope
Lord Adebowale - Turning Point
Lord Bhatia - Ethnic Minority Foundation
Baroness Coussins - CILT, the National Centre for Languages
Baroness Cox - Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust
Baroness Howarth of Breckland - Remploy National Children's Bureau
Baroness Howe of Idlicote - Youth Sport Trust
Earl of Listowel - Children's Safety Education
Foundation/Mencap/Volunteering England/Anne Frank Trust/Helena Kennedy
Lord Low of Dalston - RNIB RNIB
Baroness Masham of Ilton - Society for the Protection of Unborn Children
Lord McCluskey - John Smith Memorial Trust
Lord Rix - Mencap Mencap Mencap Leonard Cheshire
Earl of Sandwich - Save the Children Refugee Council
Baroness Stern - Children's Society
Bishop of Chester - Evangelical Alliance Christian Action Research and
Bishop of Manchester - Evangelical Alliance