Lobbyists are paid to influence government decisions.
Their job is to shape the decisions of politicians and public officials: to mould government policy, delay or water down laws and regulations, and secure government contracts worth billions of pounds.
There are some 4000 people working in the UK's £2billion influence industry.
Most of them lobby for corporate interests. Lobbying by corporations is always a tactical investment. Whether facing down a threat to profits from regulation, or pushing for market opportunities from public sector contracts, lobbying has become another way of making money. This explains why the corporate sector dominates the influence industry, and why business interests can sometimes drown out the views of less well funded groups.
Lobbyists are political insiders. The industry is full of former politicians, ex-government advisers, and political aides. In other words people with access to decision-makers. Knowing people in government does not equate to having influence with government. But without access, influence is, if not impossible, then limited. You can only cook up deals once you are in the kitchen (the rest of us, incidentally, only ever see front of house).
Lobbyists also provide a raft of other services, including public relations. They use the media to push their case with politicians and people it with an array of seemingly independent 'third party messengers'. These are used to add credibility to a company's self-interested position. Lobbyists also work extremely hard to own the terms of any public debate, steering conversations away from those they can’t win and on to those they can. If a public discussion on a company’s environmental impact is unwelcome, lobbyists might instead push to frame any debate around the hypothetical economic benefits of their ambitions. Once this fabricated and narrowly-framed conversation becomes dominant, dissenting voices will appear marginal and irrelevant. Lobbyists also know how to avoid being in the news, remembering that policy-making by quiet negotiation is when they are most effective.
For more on what lobbyists do and how they operate, see: The truth about lobbying: 10 ways big business controls government.
Our political system is corrupted.
There is a palpable sense among many people that government now works, in large part, for the benefit of large corporations and the finance sector rather than in the interests of citizens.
Lobbying has been central to this.
The business of influencing government – commercial lobbying – is dominated by narrow, corporate interests. They have rigged the system in their favour. They are inside the tent helping to make decisions.
This is how David Cameron put it in 2010:
'We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big busi- ness find the right way to get its way... I believe that secret corporate lobbying... goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest. It is increasingly clear that lobbying in this country is getting out of control. We can’t go on like this.'
Lobbying is by no means the most significant challenge facing the UK government. But unless the influence industry is tackled, there is little hope of dealing with the big issues facing the country.
Lobbying is the ‘gateway’ problem.
Think of any number of issues facing the country and then ask this: how likely is it that this government, or any government, is going to take the necessary steps to tackle it in the wider public interest? Energy security and climate change; public health problems; dwindling tax receipts and the resulting pressure on public services; the rising cost of living and the fall in real terms in pay; a stable banking sector that serves the economy and not itself. The lobbies that dominate these areas of policy – the oil and energy companies, the sugar-heavy-drinks industry, the tax haven crowd, the employers lobby and the banks – benefit from the status quo.
We should be able to see who is influencing our politicians.
The easiest way to do this is with a compulsory register of lobbyists.
Done properly, this smallest of measures would allow us to see who is lobbying whom, what they are seeking to influence, and how much money is being spent in the process. A register will not prevent commercial lobbying. The information it contains merely gives us a window on the interaction between lobbyists and our politicians. It is another means of holding our politicians to account.
America has had transparency rules for lobbyists since the forties, and effective ones since the nineties. Canada has operated a register for twenty-five years. Despite having the third biggest lobbying industry in the world (after Washington and Brussels), lobbyists are still able to operate in secret in the UK.
A genuine register of lobbyists is founded on two basic principles:
Lobbyists would be asked to provide this information on a quarterly basis. The information is then made publicly available online. People in the UK would be able to see who is having a word with their politicians on the quiet.
That's what a decent register of lobbyists looks like.
We've put together a draft Bill, which puts some more flesh on the bones. We're not experts in drafting legislation, but it is based on lobbying transparency regulations from around the world and is intended to stimulate proper debate about what a UK lobbying register should look like.
Find out what the UK government has done instead, and what the Scottish government is proposing.
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.