EXCLUSIVE-UK trade minister reverses decision to remove think tank meetings from public register

LONDON, Sept 3- 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. Labour has accused Truss of trying to hide the meetings and described the latest u-turn as “shambolic farce”,…

By William James and Andy Bruce

LONDON, Sept 3 (Reuters) – British trade minister Liz Trusshas reversed a decision to remove meetings she held with aninfluential free-market think tank from the public record, amove the opposition Labour Party said raised questions aboutlobbying in government.

Two meetings and a dinner with the Institute of EconomicAffairs will be added back to government transparency data afterthe department deleted them in August, arguing at the time thatthey were held in a personal capacity, not in her role as trademinister.

Labour has accused Truss of trying to hide the meetings anddescribed the latest u-turn as “shambolic farce”, saying sheappeared to have been caught trying to circumvent rules designedto stop “secret lobbying” of ministers.

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

“The Secretary of State (Truss) was not immediately aware ofthese changes made at the end of August, and has now carefullyconsidered the appropriate Cabinet Office guidelines,” GrahamStuart wrote in the letter.

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

Stuart said senior Labour figures had not publishedtransparency information about their meetings with the mediasince 2016.

The IEA is widely regarded as one of Britain’s mostinfluential right-leaning think tanks. It promotes free-marketsand its research has argued for a clean break from the EuropeanUnion since the 2016 Brexit referendum.

The trade department originally said the IEA’s meetings withTruss were included on the transparency register due to anadministrative error. The subsequent removal was the first inthe department’s history. The department did not respond to arequest for comment on Thursday.

Labour’s trade policy chief Emily Thornberry said there werefurther questions to be answered about the meetings, includingwho 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 favours for cronies. Those rules are animportant part of our democracy, and not for the first time, LizTruss has been caught out apparently trying to get around them.”(Reporting by William James and Andy Bruce; editing by GuyFaulconbridge, William Maclean)