2 Sept 2013
The government’s so-called ‘Lobbying Bill’ has provoked a furious response from charities and unions. They are right to be up in arms. The Bill couples a fake lobbying register with a very real assault on democracy in the form of a clampdown on the ability of charities and unions to campaign.
One consequence of this unannounced swipe at charities and unions in the same Bill is that debate over the proposals for a register of lobbyists have been muted. The very real concerns people have about the influence large companies have on our government have been silenced. The fundamental weaknesses of the current proposals for a register of lobbyists have been eclipsed. The attack on charities and unions is a very useful diversion. It is as if the government planned it.
The game-playing was predictable. Despite its firm commitment to shine a light on lobbying, this government has shown no appetite to expose its dealmaking with lobbyists to public scrutiny.
A brief look at the recent history of the lobbying register exposes how little regard they have for transparency and our right to know who is bending their ear.
If these proposals weren’t so damaging they would be absurd. But what they are is a diversion from the problem sketched out above, which is that commercial lobbying is embedded in our politics.
Ninety per cent of the UK public believe that 'the country's government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves'. Over half of people in the UK think that Parliament is corrupt or extremely corrupt.
The government’s answer to this is to play silly games.
22 August 2013
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has embarked on a much needed inquiry into the government's 'dog's breakfast' of a lobbying bill, as the Committee's chair, Graham Allen, called it.
Spinwatch has submitted evidence to the Committee, which can be accessed here. In summary it says:
1) Since its pledge to introduce lobbying transparency in 2010, the government has shown a weak commitment to the policy, with long delays, proposals that lack a seriousness of purpose, and scant regard for the views of external interests;
2) The register of lobbyists, as proposed in the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill is not fit for purpose. It will not deliver on its stated aim of increasing transparency in lobbying and allowing public scrutiny to improve government accountability and public trust. It fails for two central reasons:
The government’s rationale for such a weak register does not stand up to scrutiny.
3) A register of lobbyists that would deliver on the government’s stated aim must include as a minimum:
Spinwatch and Unlock Democracy have drafted an alternative bill to provide a starting point for discussions and to stimulate a proper debate about what a genuine register of lobbyists should look like.
19 August 2013
Eric Pickles is planning to amend the Lobbying Transparency bill so that it covers local authorities. This would force lobbying firms that specialise in winning planning permission to reveal their clients. This is good news. It would also be good if they would have to list their lobbyists, many of whom are local councillors. This is not something that the government's proposed register will do though.
Pickles sees 'an opportunity to extend the lobbying register to local government, so shadowy third-party consultancies who help lobby councillors and council officers act in an open fashion.' He is, he says, 'committed' to increasing accountability in local government.
Now all we need is for Jeremy Hunt to stand up and demand that private healthcare companies are transparent in their lobbying, so that we can hold his department to account for its decisions. And then Michael Gove to demand that multinational education and technology companies lobbying his department do so in full public sight, so that he can account for his decisions. George Osborne could then insist that the banks and the rest of the financial sector publish details of their efforts to influence policy. And so on.
This is not the way to open up lobbying, piecemeal targeting of specific areas of government. Make it universal, covering all lobbyists across the whole of government. Pickles' suggestion does nothing to distract from the fact that this Bill and its register are a 'useless dog’s breakfast'.
25 July 2013
The Conservative Party's latest effort to quieten the row surrounding its election strategist, Lynton Crosby, and his secret commercial lobbying clients, appears to suggest that Crosby has given up his role as a lobbyist.
In an attempt to reassure the public that no conflict of interest exists, the Party has issued a set of 'Principles of Engagement' hastily drawn up in recent days. This includes the assurance that Crosby won't use his position as an advisor to the Tories, or his access to Ministers to further the interests of his clients, or to lobby for changes to policy on their behalf.
How is a commercial lobbyist to operate under such rules? The lobbying industry is full of political insiders because they have access to ministers. Half of a lobbyists' job is to get the ear of government for clients. The other half is to pass inside information from government to clients. A commercial lobbyist would not be doing their job were they not to do this.
If these rules were to apply, it may reassure the public, but be disturbing news to clients.
In other news
The government has chosen the Australian model for its register of lobbyists (but with even slightly less disclosure). Different versions exist in various countries, but the very minimal register covering only consultant lobbyists is only in place in Oz.
Coincidentally, the UK government's weak rationale for opting for such an incomplete and inadequate register is nearly identical to the reasons given by the Australian government when it brought in a public lobbying register in 2008.
In introducing the measure in 2007, Australian senator John Faulkner said: 'There is a legitimate concern that ministers... who are the target of lobbying activities are not always fully informed as to the identity of the people who have engaged a lobbyist to speak on their behalf.'
In other words, or in UK Dept Leader of the House of Commons Tom Brake's words: 'What will change is that when ministers are lobbied by companies that specialise in lobbying, people will be able to see who those companies are representing.'
This is a phoney argument. It seeks to paint the problem as one of a lack of transparency in who ministers are meeting and in who agencies are representing. As the figures show, of the nearly 1000 ministerial meetings last year, only 2 were with agencies. If this is the problem, surely better to get the minister to declare the ultimate client not the consultant on the meetings list?
The justification for excluding the very many more in-house corporate lobbyists from the register (those that work directly for Tesco, G4S, Wonga etc) is also identical to the line taken by the Australians: 'It does not apply to [lobbyists] in major companies... as the very nature of their employment means that it will be clear... whose interests they will be representing,' said Faulkner.
Tory minister Chloe Smith put it this way: 'Including in-house people is not necessary. If they meet with a minister, it’s clear to the public whose interests are being represented.'
This is an attempt to limit transparency to knowing who is lobbying. We are to know nothing of whom they are lobbying in government, or crucially, what they are lobbying for. Something that is far from obvious in the case of most corporations.
Why would the UK follow Australia's lead when it is the least effective transparency model out there?
23 july 2013
The government must really not want us to see its behind-the-scenes dealings with commercial lobbyists.
Its proposed transparency rules for lobbyists - in the form of a register - will reveal nothing of what goes on behind closed doors in Westminster and Whitehall. They are a sham.
As published in a Bill last week, the register will exclude 4 out of 5 paid lobbyists; and those that do have to register will have to reveal less than they voluntarily do at the moment. There are also significant loopholes for those that wish to keep their lobbying secret.
In his pitch to the electorate in 2010, David Cameron appeared to show that he understood people's concerns with lobbying: 'I believe secret corporate lobbying goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics... 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.'
'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,' he said.
And, as these proposals stand, this will remain the case.
15 July 2013
Tomorrow's Bill outlining the government's plans for a register of lobbyists is a case of about time. Over three years on from David Cameron declaring lobbying the 'next big scandal' and saying 'We can't go on like this', the Coalition is honoring its pledge. But, if tomorrow's Bill follows the government's proposals to date, the proposed register will be a sham.
If David Cameron sticks with these proposals, the government's register will be like a mechanic using gum to mend the radiator, handing back the car and calling it fixed. And when it breaks again – when another lobbying scandal comes along – the public will be rightly angry that they bodged it.
The government is predicted to cut and paste from plans it published last January. These were widely derided by the industry and public. They proposed that only third party agency lobbyists should be forced to register, and then only declare their clients. This is not a register of lobbyists in any real sense. It would force Lynton Crosby to reveal his corporate clients, but exclude over three quarters of the industry, including the tobacco companies that have fiercely resisted public health measures. In addition to excluding the majority of lobbyists, such a minimal register would contain no information on their activity: whom are they lobbying, what are they seeking to influence, and how much are they spending trying to bend the government to their will.
The graphics below illustrate why the government must include all commercial lobbyists in the UK's £2billion industry, and then require them to disclose basic information on their lobbying activity and their interaction with government: who is lobbying whom, about what, and how much are they spending. Without this, how will the public be able to scrutinise the influence industry? How will it help us to hold our politicians to account for their decisions? The truth is, it won't. It will be a sham.
Tamasin Cave, 23 June 2013
Right, we've got it. We know how lobbying works. Commercial lobbyists are paid to try and influence the decisions of government. That is their job.
In the Sunday Times' latest sting, this included 'mastermining' a House of Lords debate to push a paying client’s agenda; writing the debate's opening speech that was then delivered by a peer almost word for word; drafting parliamentary questions and early day motions; and setting up an All Party Parliamentary Group.
This is run of the mill stuff for lobbyists. It is how the industry works every day, year round, in a £2billion industry. The lobbyist in question, John Stevenson, of Freshwater Public Affairs, claims to have done "nothing wrong". A more useful way of looking at it is that he did nothing out of the ordinary. He was another commercial lobbyist doing his job, who happened to have been taped talking about it.
That it is mundane doesn't make it any less shocking, though. It is deeply concerning that commercial interests can direct and dominate the proceedings of Parliament to such a degree. But, if we are seeking to blame someone for this state of affairs, we need to look to our politicians.
They won't be surprised by the latest revelations. Politicians have kept secret the role that lobbyists play in our system of government: lobbyists are embedded in it. Politicians have a firm grap on the influence lobbyists have on the decisions made by them. Yet they refuse to act.
Now, we too understood that this is how our system works. If we suspected it before, we can be sure of it today.
Which is why the only credible response from government is that they show us the detail: who is lobbying whom, what are they seeking to influence and how much money is being spent in the process. This is why we need a robust register of lobbyists, not the pale imitation that the government is proposing.
There's no excuse anymore. People are clear-eyed about how lobbying works, what they get up to on a daily basis, and something of the scale of their activities. We must now be allowed to fully understand the impact it is having on the decisions taken by our government. And for that, we need complete transparency.
Tamasin Cave, 4 June 2013
If reports are to be believed, the register of lobbyists favoured by the government, which will be fast-tracked through Parliament will NOT be a register of lobbyists in any meaningful sense. It will not open up Britain's £2bn influence industry to scrutiny.
According to Downing Street the register that the government is planning to introduce will require any body which is paid to lobby on behalf of a third party to register, along with details of whom they are lobbying for. This is likely to mean a register of lobbying agencies who will be required merely to list their lobbyists and clients.
Tamasin Cave, 3 June 2013
The government has announced that its proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists are to be bundled up in a Bill with a clamp down on union funding of election campaigns. As one Tory MP rightly asks: “Can anyone tell me if it was concerns about trade union activity that prompted demands to deal with lobbying? Did I miss something?”
The decision to bolt on a number of tangential party funding reforms onto the lobbying bill, and the targeting of unions, shows a worrying lack of seriousness on the part of the government. They appear to be cynically playing party politics with a issue that there is genuine concern to people about outside the Westminster village. Labour has, I think rightly, called it "shabby" politics. "Grubby" was the word chosen by one senior Liberal Democrat. It is just not serious.
As important, however, is the form the register will take. Details are thin on the ground, but according to Downing Street the register will require any body which is paid to lobby on behalf of a third party to register, along with details of its client list. So, a register of lobbying agencies and their clients.
Just to be clear, this is NOT a register of lobbyists in any meaningful sense.
It is like a mechanic using gum to mend the radiator, handing back the car and calling it fixed. And when it breaks again – when another lobbying scandal comes along – they will point to their 'register' and say 'but we fixed it gov', when it is obvious that they didn't.
Such a register would cover less than a quarter of the lobbying industry (scroll down to the graphic). And then it would tell us nothing of what they are doing: whom are they meeting in government; which areas of policy are they seeking to shape; which laws and regulations do they want delayed or watered down; which taxes do they want cut; which multi-million pound contracts are they gunning for? None of that. Nothing that a statutory register of lobbyists is designed to capture.
When in January 2012 the government first put forward this proposal for a limited register – which amounts to little more than a marketing tool for lobbyists-for-hire – the plans were widely panned.
Let us just hope they don't try the gum trick this time.
Tamasin Cave, 31 May 2013
Patrick Mercer is the latest Conservative MP to quit the party amid reports he has been caught up in a 'major lobbying scandal'.
Mercer is understood to have been covertly recorded by BBC reporters posing as a fake lobbying firm seeking help in parliament for a fake client, believed to be related to Fiji.
Parliamentary records show that Mercer tabled a parliamentary question and put down an Early Day Motion calling for an end to Fiji's suspension from the Commonwealth.
The South Pacific Island faces accusations of human rights abuses. According to the Independent, its Government has been accused of subverting the rule of law, rounding up and arresting political opponents and disregarding Fiji’s constitution.
The responsibility for this mess, however, lies fully with David Cameron.
Three years ago the Prime Minister said that lobbying was the 'next big scandal waiting to happen'. Since then we have seen countless controversies, one of which led to the resignation of former defence secretary Liam Fox, but also involving former ministers, peers, ex-generals, special advisers and some well-connected commercial lobbyists.
In May 2010, the coalition government pledged to tackle secretive lobbying, promising a statutory register of lobbyists. Nothing of value has happened since.
There is a culture inside British politics where cash for influence is deemed acceptable. Politicians know all too well that we have a problem with commercial lobbying in this country. The scandal is that they refuse to do anything about it.
UK Parliamentarians have a long history of lobbying for repressive regimes, dating back to the Greek Colonels in the sixties. An All Party Group of MPs in that instance were mistakenly persuaded of the junta's intention to move towards democratic government.
London's lobbying firms are also sensitive to growing concerns that this is the place to come to get reputations laundered. As the Evening Standard reported in 2011: 'Top firms such as Bell Pottinger, Brown Lloyd James, Portland and Grayling are coming under intense scrutiny because of their work for foreign governments or in regimes of dubious repute.' The secrecy that persists around lobbying in the UK is undoubtedly a contributing factor.