6 December 2011
Claims of influence and access by lobbying firm Bell Pottinger have been met by an astonishing denial from Downing Street, the prime minister's official spokesman telling reporters today:
“It simply isn't true to say that Bell Pottinger or any other lobbying company has influenced government policy... I am challenging this idea that this company or any other lobbying company have influenced policy.”
It’s in the interests of lobbyists to advertise their influence on politicians, and in politicians’ interest to deny it. But is there any truth in the government’s claim; should lobbying firms just shut up shop and go home?
Leaving aside the too-many-to-mention UK government policies covered in the fingerprints of lobbyists, and the obvious truth that companies wouldn't pay for lobbying if it didn't work, there are a number of studies that explain why companies invest in lobbying. (Most are from the US, which says a lot about the transparency they have in lobbying stateside, and how little knowledge we have of our industry here, clothed as it is in secrecy).
Alliance for Lobbying Transparency statement: 6 December 2011
“This is reminiscent of the old Tory days of sleaze. A Conservative government at the heart of yet another lobbying scandal. Last month’s led to the resignation of the defence secretary. This one leads to the Prime Minister himself.
One of the lobbyists caught by today’s investigation by the Independent / Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Tim Collins, is the chief lobbyist at Bell Pottinger Public Affairs. He is caught on camera boasting of his contacts:
“I was in the Conservative research department with David Cameron and George Osborne… I was in the Shadow Cabinet under two or three leaders, again with David Cameron and George Osborne… I've been working with people like Steve Hilton, David Cameron, George Osborne, for 20 years-plus. Edward Llewellyn, who's the Prime Minister's chief of staff, was my deputy in Central Office for a long time. Steve Hilton was my deputy in a different capacity. I know all these people. There is not a problem in getting the messages through to them.”
In a speech before last year’s election, David Cameron attacked “secret corporate lobbying”: “We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear… It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works… a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.”
We all know how it works now.
Yet, in government, Cameron’s hostility to lobbyists appears to have evaporated, along with his commitment to “shine the light of transparency on lobbying in our country”.
In recent months we have learnt that it is “completely commonplace" for Whitehall departments to contact corporate lobbyists about government business using text messages as a way to avoid disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. We’ve seen the “systematic use of private e-mails” by education Secretary Michael Gove for the same reason. Local government secretary, Eric Pickles, kept hidden a dinner with lobbyists (the same firm, Bell Pottinger, incidentally) and businesses with an interest in his department, because he claims to have attended in a ‘private’ and not a ‘ministerial’ capacity. A week before the publication of the government’s radical changes to the planning system, planning minister Bob Neill enjoyed an informal drink on the lawns of Westminster Abbey with Tesco’s chief lobbyist Lucy Neville-Rolf.
Meanwhile, there are the very private relationships between members of the Cabinet and lobbyists: former defence secretary Liam Fox’s friendship with lobbyist Adam Werritty led to his resignation. Last month, the partner of energy secretary Chris Huhne was caught hawking her services to lobbying firms on the strength of her “excellent contacts... from Cabinet members to more junior ministers”; The health secretary Andrew Lansley’s wife runs a lobbying firm that boasts clients in the drug and food business, and advices on establishing “positive relationships with decision-makers”. Nick Clegg, who is ultimately responsible for the lobbying register’s introduction as head of the Cabinet Office, will not take a position on the policy because his wife is a lobbyist.
We were reminded last month of the Prime Minister’s relationship with his neighbour and close ally Lord Chadlington, thanks to a deal they had struck over a plot of land and a garage. Like Lord Bell, Lord Chadlington owns and runs a vast communications group that includes three lobbying firms, whose clients include HSBC, Tesco and the City of London Corporation. Employees include lobbyists George Bridges, who is Cameron's former campaign director and a good friend of the Chancellor George Osborne; and Malcolm Morton, an ex-adviser to the Cabinet Office Minister in charge of regulating lobbyists, Mark Harper.
“I believe that it is increasingly clear that lobbying in this country is getting out of control,” said David Cameron in opposition. The situation under his leadership, is undoubtedly worse.
And yet, there is no sign of the only measure capable of revealing such behind-the-scenes lobbying – a statutory register of lobbyists. It’s time his government ignored the private protests of the influence industry – whether Conservative peers, former colleagues, friends, neighbours, or wives – and listened to public demands for transparency.
The longer he delays the greater the smell.
Alliance for Lobbying Transparency statement, 17 Oct 2011.
Although David Cameron once said that lobbying was the next great political scandal, the Conservatives have so far refused to regulate lobbying, despite the commitment in the May 2010 Coalition Agreement.
In the wake of the Fox / Werrity scandal, the Tories must now force their many friends in the lobbying industry to operate in the open.
We urgently need public scrutiny of who is influencing this government’s decisions and how. Whether it's on health policy, changes to planning, banking reform or defence.
A robust statutory register of lobbyists would let us see how many millions are being spent by private healthcare companies, or the size of the supermarket lobby, or which arms companies are lobbying our defence secretary. This one simple register has the power to radically alter public understanding, and change political debate.
For too long lobbying scandals have merely claimed the careers of individual politicians, but left the huge influence industry untouched. Finally the spotlight has turned on those paying to persuade our politicians, an industry that's worth £2bn in the UK.
Lobbbyists have sought to delay and weaken the coalition’s commitment to regulate lobbying. This must not be allowed to happen. We need to see who is influencing whom, and we need to see the money that they’re spending.
This government's commitment to transparency looks increasingly like spin.
Without irony, the minister in charge of introducing lobbying transparency regulations, Mark Harper, is refusing to release details of his discussions with lobbyists over lobbying transparency rules.
SpinWatch submitted an FOI request to the cabinet office in August 2010. Fourteen months on, the release of the information is still being blocked.
Now is the time that our politicians need to prove that their relationship with the people of this country counts more than their friendships with lobbyists.
2 October 2011
With a straight face, the Policy Exchange think tank is hosting an event at next week’s Conservative conference called: Let there be Light: Technology, transparency and fixing Britain’s broken government.
The line up of speakers includes: Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office (and co-founder of Policy Exchange); Rishi Saha, Director at PR and lobbying giant Hill & Knowlton and former Head of Digital Communications in No 10; and Piotr Brzezinski, Head of Digital Government at the Policy Exchange.
So, should we be looking to politicians, think tanks and lobbyists for how to fix Britain’s broken government?
Let’s start with politicians: Policy Exchange’s first chair, Michael Gove, for example, appears to be using technology to hide government business from the public: he’s just been caught using a private email account (registered in his wife’s name) to discuss policy with his advisors. This, they (wrongly) claim, exempts such correspondence from Freedom of Information laws.
More regressive use of technology was revealed last week: the routine use of texts by ministers to contact corporate lobbyists about government business, again as a way to slip through the net of Freedom of Information requests.
Do think tanks fare any better on transparency?
Radio 4’s latest File on 4 programme posed the question: Is there a conflict of interest when public servants take private sector jobs?
The so-called ‘revolving door’, which the programme examines, is part of the lobbying toolbox. How does a company wanting to secure government contracts get its foot in the door of the government department? One of the best ways is to employ an insider, someone with the political contacts in the department and detailed knowledge of how the system works.
While some have argued that this leads to better understanding between commerce and government, the pitfalls are enormous. “Crony capitalism ” is how David Cameron referred to it in a speech on lobbying last year: “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.”
When a Committee of MPs conducted an inquiry into lobbying a couple of years ago, it concluded on the issue of the revolving door: “With the rules as loosely and variously interpreted as they are, former Ministers in particular appear to be able to use with impunity the contacts they built up as public servants to further a private interest”.
This appears to be particularly the case with former health ministers. Here's a list:
David Cameron's refusal to deny that he has discussed details of Murdoch's bid for the rest of BSkyB with his friends in News International moves the 'phone-hacking' scandal into new territory.
If it wasn't apparent before, this is now also a story about lobbying. While phone-hacking and alleged police corruption are undoubtedly more awful, and must be tackled, the consequences of unrestrained political influence are potentially much more serious.
On Wednesday the prime minister repeatedly stressed he 'never had one inappropriate conversation' with anyone in the Murdoch empire over the deal. He was at pains to explain that he had completely taken himself out of any decision-making about the bid.
But how credible is this account? Is this really how lobbying works, with constraints put on friendly relationships, and barriers erected between ministerial colleagues and friends of ministerial colleagues?
Not according to Cameron.
"We all know how it works," he confidently said in a speech on lobbying ahead of the general election: "The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear."
With seer-like powers, Cameron predicted in February last year that "secret corporate lobbying" was "the next big scandal waiting to happen". I suspect at the time he didn't picture himself at the centre of it.
18 April 2011
The lobbying industry's attempt at proving that transparency is safe in its hands is so bad it should be taken offline.
The industry's voluntary register of lobbyists, overseen by the industry-run UK Public Affairs Council, is in its design a misleadingly incomplete record of the activities of lobbyists in the UK. However, the latest version, which according to its website went "live on 15th April", is now so wrong it should be shut down.Entries for key lobbying agencies have disappeared, such as Cicero Consulting, which embarrassingly is run by Iain Anderson, head of one of the trade bodies responsible for the register. No entry either for Helen Johnson Consulting, the firm run by the chair of the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC), another industry group in charge of the register. College Public Policy, again run by members of the management committee of the APPC, is registered as a lobbying 'client' rather than a lobbying agency, and as such, lists no clients. Type the names of a number of key agencies into the search box - Weber Shandwick, Edelman, Citigate - and they variously exist as 'clients' or not at all.
The short walk up Whitehall this weekend provided one snapshot of why hundreds of thousands of us turned up to protest.
Shuffling past Nick Clegg’s Cabinet Office, amidst the banners and bells, and beautifully timed to a soundtrack of Dolly Parton’s ‘Nine to Five’, I looked to the right and there they were: Clegg’s true ‘alarm clock heroes’, a group of doctors and nurses gathered outside the Department of Health. Four hours into the march and they were still loudly condemning health secretary Andrew Lansley’s plans to fling open the doors of the NHS to private healthcare companies.
Five minutes further up Whitehall, however, and we got a timely reminder of the government’s unwavering support for the private sector. Outside the smoked-glass windows of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (lobbyists for the big drug companies), stood an impenetrable line of police. Whether the protective shield was the idea of the ABPI or the government is irrelevant. What is clear is that the pharmaceutical industry enjoys a relationship with the government that is off limits to the public.
It’s not just big drug companies that enjoy close ties with our politicians. Private health companies across the board have built a dense and largely opaque network of political contacts with one aim – to influence policy in their interests. They don’t have to shout.
10 March 2011
"The new register of lobbyists published by the UK Public Affairs Council" says Austin Mitchell MP, "is riddled with errors, omissions, inconsistencies and redactions... it includes the entries of only a very small percentage of the thousands of lobbyists who should be registered and it includes substantially less information than many registrants would have wished."
Mitchell's criticism comes in a Motion he's raised in the House of Commons, which highlights the lobbying industry's "failure to deal with registration in an open, transparent, comprehensive and professional manner".
It calls on the government to quit stalling and "bring forward legislation to regulate the lobbying profession without further delay", underlining the indisputable fact that "the consistency and clarity of statutory regulation is now the only appropriate course of action". The government's timetable for a statutory register has slipped six months to May 2012.
He's not alone in his criticism and frustration. Many have slammed the voluntary register since its launch last week, including one senior lobbyist who called it 'dreadful' .
While the UKPAC voluntary register does nothing to increase the transparency of lobbying, what is now clear as day are the industry's motives for launching it. As Telegraph blogger Ian Douglas writes: "The UKPAC list... [is] designed to avoid grasping the nettle of regulation."
The government should take note of the growing impatience with the industry's tactics (and apparent government complicity). You've said you'd regulate lobbyists. Let's get on with it.