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.
16 May 2013
David Cameron yesterday defended his political adviser Lynton Crosby over the lobbyist's commercial business in the UK.
Crosby is being paid by the Conservative Party to advise on its election strategy. At the same time, he runs a commercial lobbying agency, Crosby Textor, that has worked for companies in tobacco, alcohol, banking, property development and the oil industry. It doesn't disclose its clients.
Cameron denies that there is any potential conflict of interest, saying: "Lynton Crosby does not lobby the government, he does not lobby me, he gives political advice and I think that’s a very clear situation."
He added: "His work, his lobbying, the lobbying business is a matter for the lobbying business."
Which puts the ball in the court of the UK lobbying industry's representative bodies. If the firm is lobbying in the UK, perhaps the APPC, the PRCA, the CIPR or the most recent body to be set up to defend lobbying's reputation, the UK Public Affairs Council, should contact Crosby Textor to invite it to join the club of agencies that voluntarily declare their clients. If Bell Pottinger can be made to do it, anyone can.
In the absence of any compulsory register of lobbyists – a policy commitment ditched from the Queen's Speech reportedly on Crosby's advice – voluntary disclosure is what we rely on to know who is attempting to influence our politics.
Just before we voted him in, Cameron said: ‘I believe it’s time we shone the light of transparency on lobbying in our country... 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 could perhaps start by asking Crosby.
Voters want more accountability and open politics; abandoning lobbying transparency is to stick with the status quo and misread why Conservatives are disaffected
Friday, 03 May 2013
By Tamasin Cave
The FT reports this morning that the government is abandoning its plan for a register of lobbyists as it seeks to focus next week’s Queen’s Speech on core policies aimed at swing voters. The shift is apparently the work of the Tories’ election strategist, Lynton Crosby.
In place of political reform we are to get new laws that aim for the Tory heart on immigration, aspiration and the economy.
The news comes as voters turn to UKIP in the local elections in record numbers, trouncing the Conservatives in the South Shields by-election, for example.
The impetus behind the shift in focus in the Queen's Speech is clearly to summon voters back to the fold. Crosby, an Australian lobbyist and spin doctor, is famous for his old-school use of “dog whistle” messages.
But, abandoning lobbying transparency in favour of traditional Tory policies is to misread both the electorate and the appetite for political reforms such as the ‘abandoned’ register of lobbyists.
To see transparency rules for lobbyists as a liberal democrat, lefty policy is a basic error, but one that is pervasive in Conservative circles. If our experience is anything to go by, Britain’s conservatives are as concerned about the undue influence of powerful corporations as any on the left.
Take the response we’ve had to a recent Spinwatch report on lobbying for the HS2 rail line. In it we expose lobbyists (closely aligned to the Tory party) whose strategy is to “shit up” opponents to the scheme, a great many of them Tory voters. People are rightly worried that their views matter little compared to the companies that hire these lobbyists and who are set to benefit from the scheme.
An initial statement by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency on the Leveson report
29 Nov 2012
Lord Leveson was never going to uncover a ‘deal’ between the government and News International over the BSkyB bid. That is not how lobbying works.
What The Leveson Report does show however, in forensic detail, is the discrete and sustained lobbying campaign undertaken by NI through a deliberate network of personal relationships, what the report describes as the “serious hidden problem” of NI’s lobbying, “where the informal, ‘off-record’ and ‘personal’ is seen as an obvious and effective means of conducting lobbying”.
Leveson clearly states: “There is of course no evidence at all of explicit, covert deals between senior politicians and newspaper proprietors or editors; no-one should seriously have expected that there would be. These very powerful relationships are more subtle than that…. But there can be no doubt that within these relationships… there have been exchanges of influence on matters of public policy which have given rise to legitimate questions about the confidence the public can have that they have been conducted scrupulously in the public interest.
“The pattern which emerges is one in which senior press / political relationships have been too close to give sufficient grounds for confidence that fear or favour have not been operative factors in the determination and implementation of policy.”
David Cameron’s claim that Leveson “rejects the allegation emphatically” that his party struck a deal with News International is a highly selective reading of the report, and one that was immediately spun by the government.
The Prime Minister must acknowledge these very clear and legitimate concerns expressed in the report: that powerful relationships between politicians and the private interests of the press can trump the public interest.
Two and a half years have passed since his government promised to bring some transparency to lobbying, through a simple register of lobbyists. Let’s hope that Leveson doesn’t have to wait quite so long to see some reform of the press.
23 September 2012
The UK Public Affairs Council, the vehicle set up by the lobbying industry to try and avoid a statutory register of lobbyists, appears to have scored yet another own goal.
On Friday, it announced that registration to its voluntary register of lobbyists – originally restricted to members of the lobbying trade bodies that set it up – is now open to all. This is in response to widespread criticism that the UKPAC register has so far only included a fraction of the UK's lobbyists.
In announcing the move, UKPAC welcomed two new, non-member lobbyists to the register: Rt. Hon. Sir Geoffrey Pattie and Caroline Flynn-MacLeod of Terrington Management LLP.
Terrington Management is 'a government relations consultancy based in Westminster', offering among other things 'Political Intelligence'. Its website claims: "The experience of the Partners in Government (both national and international), in Parliament, in NATO, in business and in the military offers an unrivalled added value opportunity to clients."
And yet, no mention of these clients on the UKPAC register. Both Pattie and Flynn-MacLeod are registered as individuals employed by Terrington Management. Neither lists their clients.
That they work for Terrington Management is clear from its website. What's not transparent is to whom they are offering their 'experience of knowing where to go and who to see' in the UK government.
The government has promised to revise its proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists, proposals which are widely seen as not fit-for-purpose.
The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency welcomes the commitment, which is published in a document summarising responses to the Cabinet Office’s consultation paper “Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists”. However, ALT is concerned that document also appears to show the government is not listening to public concerns about lobbying.
The responses to the Cabinet Office’s consultation for a register show:
These responses are broadly in line with ALT's proposals for a register, showing that there is widespread support for a robust register of lobbyists.
This is in spite of the fact that the government appears not to have counted the views of the tens of thousands of people who took part in the consultation, including over 1,300 members of the public who submitted full consultation responses to the government through Unlock Democracy's website. Likewise, the views of the 74,000 people who signed a petition calling for a robust register of lobbyists also appear to have been ignored, being relegated to an Appendix at the end of the document. Ahead of the consultation, the Cabinet Office gave assurances to ALT and Unlock Democracy that the views of the public would be counted.
ALT now calls on the government to respond to this clear message from lobbyists, transparency campaigners and the public, and draft new proposals for a register that covers all the industry and one which contains sufficient meaningful information on lobbying. Only then will we be able to scrutinse the influence industry and its impact on government decision-making.
The government will now take this evidence, and the conclusions of the recent inquiry into lobbying transparency, and produce a White Paper and draft Bill before the end of this Parliamentary session (Spring 2013).
13 July 2012
Yet another Parliamentary inquiry has endorsed the need for a strong statutory register encompassing all lobbyists, to allow real public scrutiny of the influence industry.
A report published today by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee calls on the government to scrap its limited proposals for a register of lobbyists, and instead introduce one that covers all paid lobbyists.
Under the government’s current plans, only agency lobbyists would be required to behave transparently. This would mean, for example, that a group of small shops hiring a lobbyist to fight plans to expand supermarkets in their area would have to register while Tesco’s vast in-house lobbying team would be exempt. This is clearly ridiculous.
The Committee also calls for the register to include enough meaningful information to allow proper scrutiny of lobbyists' activity, namely who is lobbying whom. ALT believes it should also record how much is being spent trying to influence politicians. When we learn that the financial services sector has a fighting fund of nearly £100m a year, knowing lobbying budgets matters.
Over two years ago David Cameron warned that lobbying in this country had got 'out of control'. Why wait for more scandals? The government must get on with it, and create a robust register of lobbyists without delay.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee's verdict on the government's current plans can be read here.
25 April 2012
So, this Mr Fred Michel fellow, as he is now being called by the Conservatives, is a just a lobbyist trying to impress his boss, James Murdoch, claiming access he never had.
The 163 pages of emails released today by the Leveson inquiry are, say defenders of Jeremy Hunt, just a PR man showing off.
The emails show that Hunt’s office was in regular contact with Michel. For example, one reads: “Managed to get some infos on the plans for tomorrow (although absolutely illegal!),” referring to intelligence they'd gathered on a parliamentary statement Hunt was due to make. Another shows that when Hunt cancels a meeting with James Murdoch because he has received "very strong legal advice not to meet us today as the current process is treated as a judicial one", Michel reports to his boss that he can still talk to him on his mobile phone "which is completely fine"
And the government's response? Tonight Downing Street is insisting that Michel’s emails reflect “a whole series of conversations that didn’t take place ”.
Remember the government's response to the previous lobbying scandal? The one involving lobbyists at Bell Pottinger caught on film claiming access and influence with No10. A Downing Street spokesman came back with a familiar retort: "It is simply untrue to say that Bell Pottinger or any other lobbying company influences government". No truth to the claims of access and influence. Just more boasts.
What about the one before that? When attempts were made to paint Adam Werritty, the unofficial adviser-cum-lobbyist to now ex-defence secretary Liam Fox, as a Walter Mitty character, someone who indulged in fantasy, who "pretended he was something he wasn't". Another deluded lobbyist.
Will they try it again? Probably. Or will they finally face the fact that we have a problem with lobbying in this country and actually do something about it. Who knows.
Today, as the official consultation on proposals to introduce transparency regulations for lobbyists comes to an end, campaigners sent a big message to the government calling for it to rethink its plans.
Members of Unlock Democracy and 38 Degrees handed over a huge petition of over 74,000 signatures from members of the public calling for an end to secrecy in lobbying.
The petition calls on the government to create a robust compulsory register of lobbyists, which would reveal who is lobbying whom, what is being discussed and how much money is being spent on lobbying. It also calls for the whole of the lobbying industry to be covered by the new rules, not just the minority of agency lobbyists that the government currently proposes.
Over 1,300 members of the public submitted full consultation responses to the government through Unlock Democracy's website.
Campaigners also handed over a letter to Mark Harper, the Conservative minister responsible for introducing the news rules, from a coalition of 30 charities and campaign groups, calling for the same: a robust register that includes meaningful information, covering all professional lobbyists. Many of the signatories are lobbyists themselves and expect to be covered by the register.
The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency has also just submitted its response to the consultation. It can be downloaded here.