A malign influence

Lobbying is corrosive. The lobbying industry adds nothing of genuine value to society. It is insidious because it undermines citizens’ belief that democracy is transparent and that politics seeks to serve the public interest. It fosters the impression, if not the also the reality, that policy is being made for the benefit of the few rather than the many.

One of the most welcome commitments the Government made in the May 2010 Coalition agreement was that:

We will regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency.

Oliver Letwin published the consultation paper Introducing a statutory register of lobbyists last week. It was shortly followed by the Guardian article on The Chemistry Club, which reinforced – if such reinforcement were necessary – just how pernicious lobbying is.

Liberal democrats have a long and noble track record of championing the cause of open government. Transparency is vital to liberal democracy. Many will therefore have a close interest in this consultation. They should have. Because the Government’s proposals are lousy.

A cynic might say that is entirely predictable, given the nature of the problem. The consultation proposals have all the hallmarks of having been watered down as a result of, um, lobbying.

The Government is proposing that all a register should contain is a lobbying company’s registered address and company number, the names of employees engaged in lobbying, whether those employees are former ministers or senior civil servants, and the company’s client list. The register would be updated quarterly and, it is proposed, be administered by an independent organisation and funded through registration fees.

The Government is seeking a register “which is a proportionate and considered response to public concerns about the lack of transparency in the lobbying industry” (p10).

Well from where I’m sitting the proposals as they stand appear in no way a proportionate and considered response to those concerns. They are thoroughly inadequate.

The Government does very little to establish an effective basis for the discussion. It asserts that:

Lobbying – seeking to influence public policy, government decisions or legislation – can improve results by ensuring that those developing and considering the options are better informed about the consequences of the available options.

But it does not explain why lobbying is necessary, given that good practice in policy development should entail a formal consultation period during which interested parties can submit representations that typically then become part of the public record. The only answer is so that some parties gain privileged access, including access prior to proposals being developed, in order to head off uncongenial options or push for those that better serve sectional interest. This is not a practice that is as self-evidently desirable as the Government appears to think.

Of course, the Government’s position is further undermined by the fact that they have consistently abused and ignored the process of consultation over the last 18 months. For example, there is a consultation on the new Right to Buy running at the moment. It was launched the day before Christmas and runs for six weeks including the festive period, when the guidelines state that it should run for 12 weeks. But that is another discussion.

In implementing a register Mr Letwin:

does not wish to create an obstacle to necessary interaction with policy makers or an undue burden on those who work as lobbyists or employ lobbyists.

Which is fortunate, because if the proposals were any weaker they would be non-existent. It seems to me is statement has lobbyists’ fingerprints all over it. The consultation paper does not defend the implication that lobbying represents a necessary interaction with policy makers. And in my view the Government is entitled to place as substantial a burden as it wishes upon the work of lobbyists, given that the whole point is to restore public confidence in decision-making.

If you think about the proposed contents of the register it does not include any details of who the lobbyists are meeting or what topics they are lobbying about. The Government’s position is that Ministers are already required to publish lists of who they meet so this isn’t a necessary part of the register. But that places the burden upon the concerned citizen, who will be required to do the research to piece together the picture to work out which lobbyists are meeting with which Minister.

And nothing in the proposals will give any indication of the topics upon which the lobbyists are seeking to influence Ministers. We will be left guessing.

It is proposed that the new register only covers third party lobbyists. So those employed directly by companies are not required to join. This inequitable approach is a bit odd, because you might expect the fiercest lobbying from in-house lobbyists. I understand that it has also been suggested that it might be unlawful anyway.

The proposal as they stand mean that the information will only, at best, allow us to match up particular lobbyists with particular Ministers at formal meetings. It will shed no light on less official interactions. So the activities of The Chemistry Club, exposed in the Guardian, would not be brought to light because it centres on business representatives meeting Ministers and civil servants in a restaurant rather than an ‘official’ meeting. Yet it is in these less formal, more sociably, environments that the real damage to democracy is done. This is where common understandings and identifications are much more likely to be formed and sustained. These are then carried over to the formal policy making process. So these practices are all the more insidious.

The Government’s proposals will do almost nothing to restore confidence in political decision making. They represent a system that is weaker than that already operated in several other industrialised countries where lobbying on behalf of business is rife. They need to be substantially strengthened.

The consultation closes on 13th April. I hope as many people as possible submit a response.

The Government may well choose to ignore the concerns that many have over the negative impact of lobbying. But at least if they receive strong representations on the nature of those concerns during the consultation then they will have to be more transparent in ignoring them, rather than being able to claim that no one told them their approach was inadequate. In the process they will underline the extent to which they are siding with the lobbyists rather than the people.

Image: © FotolEdhar – Fotolia.com

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