Twelve months ago the government introduced new rules that promised to let us see which lobbyists are having a quiet word with our politicians. So, on the anniversary of the launch of the UK's lobbying register, how much more do we know about who is leaning on our politicians?
Not very much. As predicted by everyone, the register is failing to ‘shine the light of transparency on lobbying,’ as promised by David Cameron.
Over a quarter of the 124 lobbying firms that made the effort to register, don’t declare a single client. So, don't bother trying to find out from the register whose interests arch-networker Roland Rudd is representing. (Rudd is one of the UK's best-connected lobbyists: he's been mates with Prime Ministers; is brother of current Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd; and the man behind the main anti-Brexit campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe).
From other sources, we know that Finsbury’s busy lobbying for the scandal-hit car maker, VW; under-fire bookmaker, Paddy Power, and tax-lite tech giant, Google, a firm that spent $17m and $4.5m lobbying Washington and Brussels respectively.
The absence of clients is down to the government’s very tightly drawn definition of what constitutes lobbying. Under the rules, only if a lobbyist directly contacts a minister on behalf of a client, do they need to declare that client on the register. Lobbying of anyone else in government, including special advisers, is exempt, as is all lobbying by corporations themselves.
This exclusion of corporate ‘in-house’ lobbyists means that, incredibly, we know more about lobbying by the off-road motorcycle enthusiasts lobby group, the Amateur Motorcycle Association (a registered client of a lobbying firm), than the influence-seeking of global oil giant, BP, major UK car manufacturer, Toyota, and the UK’s powerful road lobby, the Automobile Association.
Not all lobbyists-for-hire are registered either, because of the narrowly-drawn rules. Sean Worth, one-time senior advisor to the Prime Minister, now with his own lobby shop, is absent, as is ex-special adviser to Danny Alexander, Will de Peyer. Lobbyist-cum-election guru, Lynton Crosby, is similarly missing.
Berkshire’s lobbying powerhouse
Not only is the register desperately incomplete, it is also completely misleading. If you are to believe the register, Berkshire-based lobbying agencies enjoy more ministerial ear time than the big accountancy firms and top law firms put together.
KPMG, PwC and Deloitte, all major government contractors, acknowledge they are at the same time commercial lobbyists (a small step in the right direction), but none has been compelled under the weak system to, as yet, declare the names of their corporate clients. Only Ernst& Young has made public that it is talking to the government on behalf of General Motors (makers of Vauxhall cars). Clifford Chance is the only magic circle law firm on the register, but who it is lobbying for... who knows?
What of the sugar lobby that is pushing back against the Chancellor’s proposed sugar tax? Neither of the industry’s powerful lobby groups: the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) and the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) is on the official register.
Both are led by people with years of experience defending addictive substances against public health measures: former alcohol lobbyists, a business that, in turn, learnt how to defend itself from the tobacco industry.
Say you are interested in the lobbying activities of fracking companies. The biggest in the UK, Cuadrilla, is listed on the register as employing a single lobbying firm (which isn't required under the rules to list its individual lobbyists, among which are likely to be well-connected ex- government advisers).
In the real world, Cuadrilla employs a small army of lobbyists: 7 firms in total, among them some of the most influential lobbying firms in the UK. It has hired 5 agencies directly, including local planning specialists; and a further 2 through its support for fracking lobby groups, each with their own lobbying firm.
That's a completely different picture than the one given by the register. It reveals nothing of the ‘industry-wide offensive’ the frackers are waging in the UK to sway public and political opinion.
It's the same with the pharmaceutical companies. Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical firm, looks from the register like it is paying for the services of a single lobbying firm. In fact, it has 8 on its books. These include lobby shops that employ: Andrew Lansley’s former right-hand-man; an ex-communications director at the medicines regulator, NICE; and a former close colleague of the man that runs the NHS. Pfizer spends roughly $10m a year lobbying Washington.
A very dim light
In truth, the register is working as intended. It was designed from the outset to reveal as little as possible. Twelve months on, it is clear that the government never wanted us to see who it is having a quiet word with, whether any favours are being exchanged, and which lobbyists are wielding unhealthy influence.
This is a bogus register. It needs to be scrapped and a genuine one put in its place.