The central reason that the British people aren't allowed to know who is influencing our government is because there is currently little political will to open up lobbying.
However, there is a long list of other reasons given for why a register of lobbyists is a bad idea in the UK. Below are the most common myths used to oppose a register.
Myth 1: It is impossible to define who is a lobbyist
It is true, given the range of actors involved in lobbying, that defining who should register is not simple. However, it can be achieved by defining what constitutes lobbying. Registration would then be required of anyone who is paid to undertake such activity. Robust definitions have existed in Canada, the US, Brussels and other countries for decades. We could adapt their definitions to suit our political system. A register should not attempt to capture all lobbying activity, just the most significant.
Myth 2: A robust register would be overly bureaucratic
A register just needs to allow us to see who is lobbying whom, what they are seeking to influence (information on lobbying spend would also reveal the scale of any lobbying – is it worth £5000 to a company to delay regulation, or £500,000. This kind of information is held by lobbyists as a matter of course. International experience suggests that an hour, or two per quarter on average would be required to fill in a secure, online form. This is not an unreasonable burden to place on lobbyists.
Myth 3: A universal register would create a barrier to people participating in politics
The register is concerned with transparency, not restricting lobbying. It should aim to make public all commercial lobbying activity. It wouldn't affect lobbying by constituents, or by small businesses and small charities. Research undertaken in the US suggests that there are in fact some real benefits to these groups from opening up lobbying. It could help level the playing field for smller businesses seeking government contracts, for example. A register would not create a list of ‘sanctioned’ lobbyists and exclude others. It merely puts the identities of professional lobbyists and their activities in the public domain.
Myth 4: Lobbying is a legitimate activity. It doesn't need to be out in the open
Lobbying is an essential feature of good governance. In theory, it leads to better decision-making and ensures that different interests have a voice. In a liberal democracy, everyone has the ability to lobby. Concerns stem from what happens in practice within the context of the UK’s sophisticated, £2billion commercial lobbying industry. Certain players in society, through their paid lobbyists, enjoy disproportionate access and influence. Viewed from this angle, lobbying is perceived by many as a corrupting force that can undermine democracy.
Myth 5: Lobbyists can regulate themselves
For many years the UK's lobbyists have operated a system of self-regulation in the form of a voluntary register of lobbyists. It was described by a committee of MPs as 'little better that the emperor’s new clothes'. Self regulation will never provide adequate transparency for a number of reasons: loads of lobbyists refuse to sign up to it, including nine out of ten in-house lobbyists, dozens of agencies-for-hire, law and accountancy firms, management consultancies and think tanks; it is operated by self-interested actors that don't have the authority to police the system; and under self-regulation, lobbyists reveal minimal information.
Myth 6: The public does not care about lobbying
Lobbying will rarely be cited by voters as a priority concern. However, lobbying is viewed by many as a ‘gateway’ problem affecting a number of issues of public concern, such as the government’s willingness to tackle high energy prices, the practices of high street banks, or ensuring value for money from government contracts. Public unease over lobbying is growing. One recent survey revealed that 90 per cent of those polled believe that the UK government is run by a few big entities acting in their own interest. This should be of grave concern to politicians.