Points of View 19th July 2013

The Lobbying Bill – A Missed Opportunity | Robert Barrington, Transparency International UK

by Rachel Davies

When David Cameron said in 2010 that lobbying was ‘the next scandal waiting to happen’ he was both right and wrong. Right because it is an area which is ripe for scandal – a potentially unsavoury mix of money, power, politics and special interests. Wrong because by the time he said it, the scandal was already happening. A list of recent scandals can be found in TI’s paper on Corruption in UK Politics.

Transparency International’s research published last week showed that an astonishing 90 per cent of the UK public believe that ‘the country’s government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves’.

We should be clear that lobbying is not always a bad thing. TI and many other civil society organisations often try to speak to MPs and civil servants to present information and ideas. Ordinary citizens may speak to their constituency MPs about issues of relevance to them. Companies or trade bodies may have legitimate arguments that need an airing. Of course, there is a difference here between those groups that operate in the public interest (as regulated by the Charity Commission, for example) and those operating in the private interest. But the point remains that politicians, regulators and civil servants at times need to hear all sides of an argument before making a decision.

The problem arises when special interests backed with large amounts of cash are able to buy greater access and influence than anyone else. Government policy, regulation and legislation can then effectively be bought. There are academic studies, and a multitude of websites which vary from plausible to outright conspiracy theorist, in the US that demonstrate how lobbying has distorted government policy. In the UK, allegations abound about tobacco regulation, minimum pricing for alcohol, food labelling and banking regulation, to name but a few.

At its heart is an issue that goes beyond lobbying to the issue of real concern: that rich special interest groups can distort government policy so that it does not operate in the public interest. This relates not just to lobbying, but also to political party funding and the so-called revolving door between politics and the private sector.

So what are the solutions? The government is stating that transparency is the answer and that a register of lobbyists is the key to this. Again, right and wrong. Transparency is a necessary component of the answer. But it is not the whole answer, and a register of lobbyists is only a small component of transparency. Let us remember that in the distorted and money-fuelled politics of the US, there is a register of lobbyists – and nobody thinks it has solved the problems. Unfortunately, the UK government has actually abandoned plans for a lobbying register in favour of a register of lobbying consultants, thereby exempting the vast majority of lobbyists.

What else could be done? Here’s a quick list:
1. Tackle the supply-side. Those who employ lobbyists – usually large companies, but also others – should tell us who they employ as lobbyists, in all guises, the terms of reference on which they are employed, the subjects on which they lobby, and their total lobbying spend.
2. Big sanctions. What is at stake is the corruption of our democracy. Big criminal penalties are appropriate – jail for those who break the law, meaningful fines for lobbying companies that get it wrong, and the permanent end to a political career for those who transgress.
3. Ethical politicians and civil servants. There is a paradox here. They all believe themselves to be highly ethical. But history suggests that there are indeed some rotten apples and perhaps more than anyone cares to admit. There needs to be a breakthrough in self-revelation. I think the only place it can come from is the most senior people in each party – not only by setting a personal example, but by rigorously mucking out their stables. For example, when a colleague is caught with fingers in the till, they should be eliminated from politics, not promoted to the House of Lords.
4. Wait for a few more months until there has been a proper examination of the issues, then produce a well-crafted Bill that is a proportionate response to the problem – the problem being a vein of corruption in UK politics.

And what about the specific proposals the government has announced? There are some good things in it, though as the FT has pointed out even within its own limited ambitions this Bill has loopholes. Overall I would say it is a missed opportunity. It is unlikely that we will have another government-sponsored lobbying bill in the foreseeable future, so this one needs to be as good as possible. It is in fact a weak response to a problem the government seems to have half-understood. The distortions of democracy go beyond lobbying into party funding and the revolving door, to say nothing of the Honours system; and unless those issues are tackled at the same time, the risk is that the special interest groups will just find a new way of exercising influence. At first reading, the inclusion of a section on unions seems like an anomaly.  We would prefer to see a bill that is built on a full and fair analysis of the problems surrounding the corruption of democracy in its several forms.

What makes this Bill look even more like an ill-timed response is that the Committee on Standards in Public Life has recently launched a consultation on precisely this subject. What is the government’s motive in ignoring this, just as it has ignored the Committee’s previous recommendation for a cap on political donations? It is hard to put a favourable interpretation to this.

What the government has failed to grasp is that voters think British politics is corrupt, and that is the problem it needs to deal with. 67 per cent of people polled in our survey of last week said they thought political parties in the UK were corrupt or extremely corrupt. And 55 per cent felt that the UK Parliament is corrupt or extremely corrupt. Voters remember the MPs expenses scandal, cash for questions, the sale of honours, the stings by the Sunday Times, and many other deeply unsavoury episodes. Voters, non-voters, and British democracy need a response that is proportionate to the size of the challenge. This Bill is, sadly, not the response that was necessary.

Robert Barrington is Executive Director of Transparency International UK