22 January 2014
The government's register of lobbyists being yanked through Parliament will do nothing to expose the £2bn influence industry that is embedded in our political system.
Today ministers rejected even minor improvements put forward by the Lords to the Lobbying Bill. Crucially, the government has ignored pleas to include lobbying of ministerial special advisers (as a trigger for registration). This is to wilfully ignore the central role these advisers play in the lives of lobbyists.
The government has shown itself to be deaf to the legitimate concerns people have over 'secret corporate lobbying', as David Cameron described it in opposition. The panicked way the bill is being rushed through Parliament also reveals the government's contempt for Parliamentary process and public debate.
The bill does nothing to expose big money corporate lobbying, but it will muzzle public interest campaign groups. You couldn't make it up.
Commercial lobbyists overwhelmingly think that they should be regulated, according to a poll published today by lobbyists' trade body the Public Relations Consultants Association.
Ninety one per cent of the industry polled thought that the proposed register of lobbyists should include all lobbyists, regardless of whether they work for an agency or in-house.
The government, in its wisdom, disagrees. The register it is introducing, which could compete its journey through Parliament in a matter of days, excludes all in-house lobbyists and even some working in agencies.
Which is why, according to the survey, only four per cent of lobbyists believe the government’s lobbying bill will significantly increase the transparency of the industry.
17 January 2014
The Lobbying Bill, working its way through the Lords, remains a dog’s breakfast, despite efforts by some peers to improve it.
Monday’s session in the House of Lords created the potential for a tiny tweak to the Bill. One of the major loopholes in the government’s Bill was made marginally smaller when peers voted through an amendment that would require lobbyists who meet with ministerial special advisers (SpAds) to register their lobbying.
As it is currently drafted, only lobbying of ministers and permanent secretaries would trigger registration, which as any commercial lobbyist will confirm, is seldom the case. It remains to be seen whether the government will accept this minor change to the Bill.
Regardless, the register of lobbyists proposed in the Bill remains bogus. It will not allow us to see who is influencing our politicians and for what, whether that’s a tax break, more privatisation or fighting against public health measures. As shadow cabinet office minister, Baroness Hayter remarked this week: 'It introduces a register of lobbyists so limited that it is not worthy of the name and might actually make things worse.'
Meanwhile the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and others campaigning for a register have given evidence this week to Members of the Scottish Parliament conducting an inquiry into the need for a register at Holyrood. Commercial lobbyists in Scotland were also given the opportunity to present their case.
Downplaying their role in influencing the decisions of government, representatives of the lobbying industry insisted their role was merely to ‘inform’ politicians’ decisions. No mention was made of the massive, persuasive campaigns orchestrated by lobbyists to shift government thinking.
A representative from the trade body, the Association of Professional Political Consultants, Illiam Costain McCade, did suggest, however, that commercial lobbyists would be willing to reveal more information on their lobbying activity, namely their interactions with politicians. He told the inquiry that lobbyists in the APPC would be willing to publicly declare more than just who is lobbying, but also who they’re meeting in government and what was discussed. Previously, the lobbying body has agreed only to reveal the names of lobbyists and their clients, information that is useless for anyone trying to find out about lobbyists’ dealings with politicians. This is a welcome step forward.
The Scottish inquiry comes on the back of a commitment in the summer by the Scottish government to introduce a bill on Lobbying Transparency within this session of the Scottish Parliament, after Labour MSP Neil Findlay’s private members’ bill got cross-party support in Edinburgh.
Finally, looking forward to this programme from the BBC on Monday: Declared Interests: the business of politics (Radio 4, 8pm). It promises to expose ‘the ways in which outside interests try to gain access to the corridors of power without anyone breaking the rules.’ Timely stuff.
9 December 2013
Sign our petition calling on the government to rewrite the lobbying Bill and introduce a proper register of lobbyists in the UK.
Launched by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and the Open Knowledge Foundation, the petition demands the UK government gives citizens a proper register of lobbyists in the UK.
As we’ve written about before, the lobbying register proposed in the Lobbying Bill (which is currently going through parliament) only covers a small portion of the UK’s £2 billion influence industry. We think this needs to change and call on the government to rewrite the bill to address this. The full text of the petition is copied below, and you can sign up here.
If you agree that citizens should be able to see who is lobbying government and which decisions they are trying to influence, please sign and share the petition with friends and colleagues:
STOP SECRET CORPORATE LOBBYING
The government is poised to let corporate lobbyists off the hook: we have just weeks to stop them. Having been slammed for proposals that unfairly cracked down on charities, the government is now trying to pass a watered down ‘register of lobbyists’, which would do nothing to stop the malign influence of big corporations over our political system.
For a truly democratic result, all lobbyists must be obliged to say who they’re meeting, what decisions they are seeking to influence and how much they are spending. If the government is serious about rebuilding public trust, it must rewrite its proposals for a lobbying register now, and keep its promise to citizens.
Why is this important?
The UK has a £2 billion commercial lobbying industry – the third largest in the world – that is embedded in our political system. But the government’s current proposal would exclude the vast majority of commercial lobbyists and give the rest an easy ride. The new rules would apply to as little as 5% of all lobbying activity, and those they did affect would hardly have to provide any information at all.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg promised they would run the ‘the most open and transparent government in the world’ but they have yet to deliver on their promise to shine a light on secret corporate lobbying, which advances the interests of the few at the expense of the many. This is their last chance to propose a register that covers all lobbyists and includes meaningful information about their activities.
13 Nov 2013
According to reports, the Conservative Party has just deleted its entire archive of speeches (and press releases) from 2000 until May 2010 from its website. This, it says, is to 'improve the experience for visitors' to its website. Others have accused it of pressing delete 'to make people forget about its broken promises and failures'.
This latter explanation appears to be backed up by evidence that the Tories have also deliberately deleted all trace of these past commitments and statements from the Wayback Archive, the main internet library, through which old webpages can be accessed. The pages can still be retrieved, however, from the British Library's own archive of the site, apparently.
So, in the interests of providing access to this material, here is the relevant section from David Cameron's momentous speech on lobbying - 'The Next Big Scandal' - just ahead of the 2010 general election:
"Now we all know that expenses has dominated politics for the last year. But if anyone thinks that cleaning up politics means dealing with this alone and then forgetting about it, they are wrong. Because there is another big issue that we can no longer ignore.
It is the next big scandal waiting to happen. It’s an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.
I’m talking about lobbying – and we all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way. In this party, we believe in competition, not cronyism. We believe in market economics, not crony capitalism. So we must be the party that sorts all this out.
Now, I want to be clear: it’s not just big business that gets involved in lobbying. Charities and other organisations, including trade unions, do it too. What’s more, when it's open and transparent, when people know who is meeting who, for what reason and with what outcome, lobbying is perfectly reasonable.
It’s important that businesses, charities and other organisations feel they can make sure their voice is heard. And indeed, lobbying often makes for better, more workable, legislation. But I believe that it is increasingly clear that lobbying in this country is getting out of control.
Today it is a £2 billion industry that has a huge presence in Parliament. The Hansard Society has estimated that some MPs are approached over one hundred times a week by lobbyists. Much of the time this happens covertly.
We don’t know who is meeting whom. We don’t know whether any favours are being exchanged. We don’t know which outside interests are wielding unhealthy influence. This isn’t a minor issue with minor consequences. Commercial interests - not to mention government contracts - worth hundreds of billions of pounds are potentially at stake.
I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.
We can’t go on like this. I believe it’s time we shone the light of transparency on lobbying in our country and forced our politics to come clean about who is buying power and influence.
Politics should belong to people, not big business or big unions, and we need to sort this out. So if we win the election, we will take a lead on this issue by making sure that ex-ministers are not allowed to use their contacts and knowledge - gained while being paid by the public to serve the public - for their own private gain."
6 November 2013
Yesterday's Lords debate on the Lobbying Bill included a statement by Lord Wallace for the government on why it is refusing to introduce a more comprehensive register of lobbyists. He said:
'We have looked at other systems, in particular the Canadian one, which adopts the universal system of wishing to take on board every single lobbyist. It is a very large and expensive system and unlike what we propose it is funded by the public purse and costs the equivalent of £3 million a year.'
Except, when we asked the Canadian official in charge how much its system cost, we were told that an annual budget of just C$1.1 million – £707,000 – is spent on its administration. Who is telling the truth?
This seems like a good time to lay out some of the central myths surrounding the lobbying register. Lobbying is a persuasive industry and many myths have been put forward by government (and the industry) as to why a robust register of lobbyists would be impossible or undesirable.
Myth 1: It is impossible to define who is a lobbyist
5 November 2013
The Lobbying Bill, or at least part of it, has been parked for a rethink.
Thanks to determined opposition to the bill, the government has been forced to pause another piece of legislation (this one, coincidentally, also steered by Andrew Lansley).
Ministers will now go away for up to six weeks to reflect and consult on its plans to place gagging orders on charities and civil society groups.
However, the rest of the bill will apparently proceed as intended. This means that the proposals for a register of lobbyists, in Part I of the bill, will not be rethought. This despite the wide opposition they have also drawn.
Criticism of the proposals has come from Parliament, including the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the Commons and the House of Lords Constitution Committee. More recently, the heads of 11 trade unions added their weight to a campaign initiated by the commercial lobbying industry - a strange coalition, but then this is a strange bill – calling on the proposed lobbying register to include all lobbyists, not just the handful the government is proposing.
Rarely has a piece of legislation been so unpopular. The government has tuned in to critics from the charity sector. It must now show good sense and pause to reflect on its plans for a register of lobbyists.
1 November 2013
David Cameron put in another good performance on the need for transparent government, at this week's Open Government Partnership summit.
He told a room of delegates from around the world that he was 'enormously proud' that Britain was 'at the heart' of the movement towards more open government. He then proceeded to lecture the room on what was needed to get transparency to be the norm for governments everywhere.
Three things we're on his to do list: 'We've got to translate words into deeds. We can't just talk about open government, we've got to deliver,' he said. 'We've got to practice what we preach,' he said. And, 'We've got to get out there and make the argument for open government,' before modestly claiming to be at the 'vanguard' of the movement: 'When people tell us all this is self-satisfied lecturing and pie in the sky nation building, we've got to say 'no'. It is people who are demanding open government,' he said.
It was his praise for civil society groups demanding change, though, that really took the biscuit. 'We've got to give our full-throated support for the groups that promote and support transparency,' he said.
'No force in the world can hold back an idea whose time has come, and transparency is definitively an idea whose time has come.'
No force, except, that is, the Coalition government. Transparency campaigners asking that the government fulfil its promise to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists – a transparency commitment made a full three and a half years ago – have been given short shrift.
The register that it is intent on introducing is so inadequate, 'it is as if they hadn't bothered', as one MP put it. It has been dubbed the 1% lobbying bill for the amount of lobbying activity it will expose.
Cameron and Frances Maude who joined him on stage, have recognised transparency as a necessary part of modern government. They have heard the demands for openness. And yet, as yet, on the issue of who is influencing government they have failed to act. Their words have failed to translate into action. They are still just talking.
7 October 2013
It is good-bye, then to Chloe Smith and hello… Greg Clark, now in charge of constitutional reform at the Cabinet Office.
The resignation over the weekend of Chloe Smith, who helped throw together the Lobbying Bill, marked another low for the government's proposed register of lobbyists. It has had a sorry passage to this point.
But we are still a long, long way from being able to see who has the ear of our politicians. The Bill enters its report stage in the House of Commons tomorrow. It will remain a 'dog's breakfast'.
Which means we are relying on the Lords to improve it. Many will hate it because, as Graham Allen MP, head of the Political and Constitutional Reform committee said, the way that it has been produced – at speed and without scrutiny – drags the House "into disrepute”. "It would be unacceptable if it produced good law; it is absolutely intolerable that it produces such terrible law," he said.
Some peers, however, are likely to support the current Bill, exempting as it does most lobbying activity. A key test for the new register of lobbyists is whether it will allow public scrutiny of lobbying by companies associated with Lords Bell, Chadlington, Clement-Jones, Mandelson, Hunt, Cunningham, Cumberlege, Warner, Blencathra… The list is long. At the moment, it's unlikely it will.
We must wait and see whether they will be on the side of good policy-making, or not.
10 Sept 2013
Last night was MPs' opportunity to scrutinise the government's so-called lobbying bill. The first part of the bill. The bit that was supposed to tackle commercial lobbying with a register of lobbyists.
They did not hold back.
The Bill was 'battered and bloodied and ready to fall over', said Graham Allen MP. 'Layers of inadequacy and evasion had been deliberately built into the bill', said another opposition MP. One condemned it as not just a waste of time, but also a 'disingenuous' exercise in box ticking.
Mark Durkan went further: 'Many of us directly suspect that those... who will find themselves in danger from part 2 of the bill [the part that will gag charities] are essentially being used as a human shield to protect those who should be targeted in part 1 of the bill [commercial lobbyists], but who are deliberately being allowed escape.'
Conservative MPs waded in too, echoing many concerns from the Labour bench and adding that the bill: didn't reflect the way lobbying is conducted in this country (from former lobbyist turned MP Tracey Crouch); it was invitation to evasion; it would decrease transparency and allow the vast majority in the lobbying industry to avoid registration, said by many. It would capture 1% of lobbyists.
The government was accused of using 'dubious' and 'dodgy' numbers to back its case. At one point the minister, Chloe Smith - one of the 'fall guys' handed the job of steering the bill through – claimed that the robust Canadian register of lobbyists cost a massive £3million pounds to run, when in fact by the Canadian's own figures, the annual budget of its register is £706,682 (C$1.1m). The government was accused of making up numbers.
MPs lined up to tell their stories of corporate influence. Mentioned were: the airports operator BAA's lobbying over Heathrow expansion; News Corps lobbying over its bid for BSkyB, newspapers lobbying against regulation; lobbying by law and accountancy firms, by property developers, Starbucks, the banks. None of this lobbying would be captured by the current register as defined by the government, MPs pointed out. Government had probably not wanted to open this can of worms. But excluding so many lobbyists from registration was - and will remain - an open invitation to name those out of the bill's scope.
But it was the process by which the government has introduced the bill that came in for the heaviest criticism, MPs being given four and a half hours to debate a Bill that is widely seen as not fit for purpose. It was an unacceptable abuse of Parliament, said Allen. It was a mockery and showed contempt for the public, said another. It opened up Parliament to ridicule and suspicion. Many thought it brought the House into disrepute.
Allen summed up the widespread feeling that Parliament – and the public – were being ignored by a 'blindfolded' government: 'The public expected that we would do something about lobbying. There was almost a contractual agreement saying very clearly that lobbying should be dealt with,' he said adding: 'The people who will suffer the most here are either the public, who will be disillusioned because we failed to do what we said we would do, or perhaps the biggest losers will be ourselves as an institution."
A series of Government amendments were passed.