Matthew Hancock, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, has said he had no discussions with the Institute of Economic Affairs about the anti-lobbying clause the think tank had called for before announcing the measure.
During Cabinet Office questions in the House of Commons yesterday, Hancock was asked by Anna Turley, the shadow minister for civil society, to publish all communications between his department and the IEA, whose research on so-called "sock puppets" was quoted prominently in the Cabinet Office statement announcing the anti-lobbying clause last month.
Turley pointed out that, four months before making the announcement, Hancock had received a £4,000 donation from Neil Record, chair of the IEA.
"That is surely just a coincidence," said Turley, "but in order to avoid any misunderstanding will the minister, who has said that he is committed to freedom of information, publish all communications between the IEA and his department as well as all the submissions and advice that he received from the civil service?"
Hancock responded by saying that he did not have any discussions with the IEA about the matter.
"It is about ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent on good causes and the right things, not on lobbying government," he said.
"It is right that taxpayers’ money should be spent on the things for which it was intended, not on ensuring that lobbyists can take politicians out for lunch."
Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the charity chief executives body Acevo, said Hancock’s comments raised "serious questions" and called on the minister to publish his meeting logs.
"He claimed quite clearly on the floor of the house that he had no discussions with the IEA," said Bubb.
"However, given that the policy was proposed by the IEA’s own reports, why would the minister not think it appropriate to discuss these matters with either the IEA, their employees, or their chair – with whom he had a long-standing financial relationship – beforehand?"
"Furthermore, given that we know the IEA had conversations with the Charity Commission prior to publication, and the regulator’s chair is appointed by the minister’s office, why would the minister not think it prudent to enjoin both the regulator and the IEA in those conversations?"
Emails released under the Freedom of Information Act this week showed that William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, had in 2013 asked an incoming board member to meet Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the IEA and author of the sock-puppet report, to discuss political campaigning.
Bubb said he was concerned the facts as reported presented an "opaque picture".
He said: "That is why, in the interests of transparency, probity and freedom of information, the minister must now commit to disclose full details of meetings with both the IEA and the Charity Commission that pertain to the anti-advocacy clause."
Asked to respond to Bubb’s comments, a Cabinet Office spokesman said: "As part of our commitment to being the most transparent government ever, we already publish details of all ministerial meetings with third parties on a quarterly basis. As he told the House of Commons, the minister has never discussed this issue with anyone at the IEA."
In the House of Commons, Hancock was also asked by Patrick Grady, the Scottish National Party MP for Glasgow North, to explain why the anti-lobbying clause was introduced with no scrutiny by MPs and if the minister would "urgently review it in the light of the public outcry".
Hancock replied by saying the clause had been in operation in the Department for Communities and Local Government, where it had worked well, which was why he had expanded it across the whole of government.