In recent years the issue of lobbying has become increasingly prominent within UK politics. However we have yet to see the serious reform that many have called for. Reflecting on the limitations of their recent consultation paper, Graham Allen MP, Chair of the Constitutional Reform Select Committee, urges that the Government enact its commitment to tackle the regulation of lobbying during this Parliament.
Just before the 2010 general election, David Cameron made a speech in which he described lobbying as “the next big scandal waiting to happen.” The right of citizens to lobby their Government and elected representatives is fundamental to a healthy democracy. Lobbying can provide the Government and MPs with expert information and help to improve policy. But while lobbying in itself is a beneficial activity, problems arise when certain people or organisations have an improper influence over policymaking.
Currently, it is difficult to find out who is meeting whom about what. When we do find out what is going on behind closed doors, it can leave us feeling uneasy. I will take just a few recent examples. In December 2011, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism used undercover filming to record the lobbying firm Bell Pottinger boasting of its access to the Prime Minister. In March 2012, Peter Cruddas, the co-treasurer of the Conservative party, was filmed apparently offering access to the Prime Minister in return for donations. Incidents such as these contribute to a negative perception of lobbying.
Clearly, action needs to be taken. At first, the Government seemed willing to act. The Coalition’s programme for Government, in May 2010, contained a commitment to “regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency.” On 20 January 2012, the Government published a consultation paper, Introducing a statutory register of lobbyists. On the same day, the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, which I chair, announced that it would conduct an inquiry into lobbying, to scrutinise the Government’s proposals.
One of the key points about the Government’s consultation paper is that it defines lobbyists as “those who undertake lobbying activities on behalf of a third party client or whose employees conduct lobbying activities on behalf of a third party client.” It is only these lobbyists—not in-house lobbyists—who would be required to be on the register.
The consultation paper asked whether the Government’s definition of a lobbyist is correct, or whether it should be broadened to include in house-lobbyists, be they in commercial, trade union or charitable organisations. The Select Committee considered this in detail. Many of our witnesses felt that the Government’s definition of a lobbyist was too narrow. There is a certain lack of logic in restricting a register to third-party lobbyists. Lobbyists working in-house for a range of bodies, from large commercial organisations such as Tesco, to trade associations such as the Confederation of British Industry, and charities such as Friends of the Earth, would not be required to register. But if any of these organisations hired a lobbying firm to act on their behalf, they would be listed on the register as a client.
The Minister at the time, Mark Harper, told us that in-house lobbyists had not been included in the proposals for a statutory register because it is clear which organisation in-house lobbyists are representing when they meet Ministers. This is a valid argument, but, while it may be clear which organisation in-house lobbyists are representing, it is not always clear what the meeting is about. There is still a lack of transparency. One option would be to broaden the Government’s definition to include in-house lobbyists and implement a register that required there to be a disclosure of the issues on which Ministers were being lobbied.
It will always difficult to be define what is meant by “lobbying”, but other countries, such as the United States and Canada, have proved that it is possible to have a workable statutory system of lobbying regulation. The Committee’s final report concluded that a statutory register that included only third-party lobbyists would do little to improve transparency about who is lobbying whom. It called on the Government to scrap its proposals and think again. That was in July. We still haven’t had a response to the report.
Mark Harper told the Select Committee that the Government would publish a White Paper and a draft Bill on lobbying during this session of Parliament. That was in May. There is still no sign of either the White Paper or the draft Bill. If the Government is committed to tackling the regulation of lobbying during this Parliament, it needs to get a move on.
David Cameron was right when he said of lobbying: “It’s an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.” Now it is time to act.
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Graham Allen MP is Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee.