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.
3 September 2013
"The so-called Lobbying Bill exposes the government as out of touch with genuine public concerns. There are widespread fears that this country is run by a 'cosy club at the top', in Cameron's words, acting in their own interest. Yet with this Bill, government is refusing to allow public and Parliamentary scrutiny of its dealings with powerful lobbyists. At the same time, it is attacking organisations that do command widespread public trust, namely charities.
"The Bill has provoked a furious response from charities and unions. They are right to be up in arms. But the assault on charities' ability to campaign is also a very useful diversion from the central concern, which is that commercial lobbying is embedded in our politics.
"The government must pause this Bill and allow it to be radically redrafted to allow proper public scrutiny of the commercial £2billion lobbying industry."
Tamasin Cave, Spinwatch director.
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.