It's been a year since the Lobbying Bill passed into law – amid howls of protest from charities, derision from transparency campaigners, and warnings from Parliament. Is it delivering on its promises to clean up politics?
First, let's recall what the government said the legislation was going to do. It all began with a pledge made in the Coalition Agreement of May 2010: a commitment to 'regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency.'
Four years (and one too many lobbying scandals) later, the government came up with the Lobbying Bill. Except, by this stage, it had ballooned into the ‘Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill’. Out of nowhere the Coalition had decided to couple a transparency measure targeting professional lobbyists with regulation of charities and trade unions. It had become ‘the gagging bill’.
Not only that, the register of lobbyists as drafted in the Bill was a sham. The government’s stated aim of the register, according to Andrew Lansley who pushed it through for the Tories, was ‘to make it clear who is lobbying the Government and for whom’. You'd have a better idea of who is lobbying government if you were to stand on the corner of Whitehall with a clipboard.
Only a fraction of the UK’s lobbyists will be required to register; and these few will only have to state the names of any clients that have communicated with a minister (or permanent secretary, which is next to no one). So, the register will read: lobbying agency X has registered clients Y and Z. This quite obviously will not ‘make clear who is lobbying the Government and for whom’, so ‘ensuring greater transparency’ in our political system, as promised. This, instead, is government ticking a box.
Part 2 of the Bill – on non-party campaigning (the 'gagging' bit) – is also not turning out as promised by ministers. Tom Brake, who steered the Bill through Parliament for the Lib Dems, said at the time that the law was necessary to ‘stop our political system going the way of America’s – where wealthy and unaccountable millionaires can spend small fortunes trying to deliver specific electoral outcomes through so-called “Super-PACs” and alike... It is absolutely not going to restrict charities or campaign groups campaigning to change public policy.’
Unfortunately, the law has not rid British politics of unaccountable millionaires who wish to see specific outcomes. £50,000 a year can still buy you dinner with the Prime Minister. The Conservatives are still exploiting a loophole in the rules, which allows donations below £7,500 to “unincorporated” local party associations to remain anonymous. Last year 40% of the Tories’ funding for key marginal seats came from these secret clubs (a massive rise on what they provided in 2010).
And what of the promise to not restrict the ability of charities to campaign on public policy? A report out last week found the opposite: ‘Charities and campaigning organisations are feeling the chilling effect of the lobbying act and are not speaking out on important issues before the general election’, it concluded. Charities have become cautious about campaigning on politically contentious issues because they fear breaking the new law or the reputational risk of receiving vexatious complaints.
Dealing with the consequences of the Lobbying Act and the accompanying lengthy guidance on the law, which has been criticised as "incomprehensible" is also eating into charities’ resources. This is a sign of a bad law. It also afflicts part 1 and the statutory register of lobbyists. The new Registrar, Alison White, who has been hired to implement the register, is faced with similar challenges and is busy writing guidance (for the handful of lobbyists affected) to 'alleviate the ambiguity'. White, though, has had to resort to asking lobbyists to voluntarily provide additional information on the register, because, as written, the Lobbying Act is incapable of delivering even the very narrow aims of the government. The lobbying industry are, quite justifiably, calling for the introduction of the register to be stalled. It needs to be scrapped.
For a law that was designed to take big money out of politics; that it was promised would not place restrictions on charities; that began as a means of opening up the UK's £2bn commercial lobbying industry to some public scrutiny, the Lobbying Act has failed. Box ticked.