Exclusive: UK trade minister reverses decision to remove think tank meetings from public register

LONDON (Reuters) - British trade minister Liz Truss has reversed a decision to remove meetings she held with an influential free-market think tank from the public record, a move the opposition Labour Party said raised questions about lobbying in government.

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Secretary of State of International Trade and Minister for Women and Equalities Liz Truss leaves Downing Street, in London, Britain, July 14, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Two meetings and a dinner with the Institute of Economic Affairs will be added back to government transparency data after the department deleted them in August, arguing at the time that they were held in a personal capacity, not in her role as trade minister.

Labour has accused Truss of trying to hide the meetings and described the latest u-turn as “shambolic farce”, saying she appeared to have been caught trying to circumvent rules designed to stop “secret lobbying” of ministers.

On Thursday, one of Truss’s junior ministers wrote to Labour to say that the meetings would now be reinstated on the public record, according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters.

“The Secretary of State (Truss) was not immediately aware of these changes made at the end of August, and has now carefully considered the appropriate Cabinet Office guidelines,” Graham Stuart wrote in the letter.

“Sometimes it is not entirely clear-cut whether an event is ‘political’ or is independent of a Minister’s official responsibilities. However, in the interests of full transparency, she has asked that these entries are to be reinstated as per the original departmental publication.”

Stuart said senior Labour figures had not published transparency information about their meetings with the media since 2016.

The IEA is widely regarded as one of Britain’s most influential right-leaning think tanks. It promotes free-markets and its research has argued for a clean break from the European Union since the 2016 Brexit referendum.

The trade department originally said the IEA’s meetings with Truss were included on the transparency register due to an administrative error. The subsequent removal was the first in the department’s history. The department did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Labour’s trade policy chief Emily Thornberry said there were further questions to be answered about the meetings, including who Truss met and what was discussed.

“Behind this shambolic farce, there is a serious issue,” Thornberry told Reuters.

“The Cabinet Office rules exist to stop secret lobbying, dodgy dealing, and favors for cronies. Those rules are an important part of our democracy, and not for the first time, Liz Truss has been caught out apparently trying to get around them.”

Reporting by William James and Andy Bruce; editing by Guy Faulconbridge, William Maclean