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:
- It must cover all paid lobbyists, including lobbyists-for-hire working in lobbying agencies, PR firms, law firms, management consultants, and think tanks; and lobbyists employed in-house by companies, trade bodies, trade unions and charities (there are ways of exempting small businesses and small charities).
- It must give us meaningful information on what lobbyists are up to. As a minimum: who is lobbying and for whom; which agency of government is being lobbied; and broadly what they are seeking to influence (which policy, law, regulation, or contract). A good faith estimate of what it being spent on lobbying would also show scale, disparities and trends in lobbying.
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.