20 January 2012

Response from the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency to government proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists.

Tamasin Cave of ALT says: "As anticipated, the government's plans for transparency regulations for the influence industry have lobbyists' fingerprints all over them. The proposals lack both breadth and depth: they would reveal on only a tiny proportion of the industry, and then no meaningful information. The lobbying industry has triumphed here. This is what they want; a partial system of minimal disclosure.

The key flaws in the government's plans are:

  • It would only cover lobbying agencies: the plans are for only 'those who undertake lobbying activities on behalf of a third party client' should be covered, ie lobbying agencies. This would exclude the thousands of people who work in-house for large corporations, trade bodies, charities and others. This is non-sensical when in-house lobbyists outnumber lobbyists-for-hire by at least 4 to 1. It would mean, for example, a supermarket with a team of 10 in-house, full-time lobbyists wouldn't have to register, but if it temporarily took on an agency to increase its lobbying firepower, only the agency would have to register its lobbyists. 
  • It would reveal little meaningful information: It is one thing to know who is lobbying for whom, but without disclosure of what they are lobbying for, it would be impossible to scrutinse the influence they are having. The register must reveal their activities: we need to see which policies, legislation, regulation and government contracts they are seeking to influence. Imagine the case of defence company X: It hires lobbying agency Y. This much would be recorded on a public register under the government's plans. What would not be revealed is that defence company X is lobbying for a government contract worth millions of pounds. Or supermarket X is hiring agency Y. Are they lobbying on tax issues, planning law, food or alcohol policy? Without this being revealed, the information on the register would be meaningless.

In addition, ALT considers the following key to a robust register:

  • Financial information: the government acknowledges the call for financial information to be included on the register, but appears luke-warm on the details. We need public scrutiny of how much money is being spent trying to influence our politicians. If we knew, for example, how much money was being spent by the private healthcare industry for the current NHS reforms, it would change the debate entirely.
  • Independent of the industry: ALT agrees with the government that the register should be held by a body independent of the industry. However, it should be publicly funded with adequate resources to monitor and enforce it.

Today's announcement is long overdue. Nearly two years ago David Cameron warned that lobbying in this country had got 'out of control'.  Now is the time to shine a light on those that seek to influence our politicians. The government must now listen to a public that feels shut out of decision-making and allow real public scrutiny of lobbying. We need a statutory register to require lobbyists to reveal who is is lobbying whom, what they are seeking to influence and how much money they are spending on lobbying. Anything less and we can assume that they are willing to put the interests of their friends in the influence industry above public demands for full transparency."

The Cabinet Office's consultation document can be downloaded here.