Last week I attended a public meeting about the UK Government’s plans to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists. It seems the proposals are something of a token effort and the meeting highlighted several ways to shine lights into more of this industry’s dark corners.
Speaking as one who lobbies in a volunteer capacity I’m strongly in favour of transparency and I have another axe to grind too: equality of access. It’s much harder for individuals and small groups to get their voices heard at the closed, secretive round-table discussions at which Whitehall policy is often developed.
The consultation details are posted on the Cabinet Office website. If you want to add your voice don’t hang around as the consultation closes on Friday 20 April. If you don’t have time to respond directly there’s a tool at Unlock Democracy you can use to make a quick contribution.
What follows is the essence of my response. The quotes are from the consultation document. I’ve only commented on the bits I think need to change.
How should lobbyists be defined?
Lobbyists should mean 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 may also include certain other categories of person following consultation. It should not mean those who engage in lobbying activities on their own behalf rather than for a client.
This definition is inadequate because it excludes the majority of the industry: lobbyists who lobby full-time on behalf of their employers rather than for third parties. I believe the definition should include all paid lobbyists: those working on behalf of clients as well as those employed by companies, trade bodies, business groups, trade unions and large charities. Staff and firms working on a pro-bono basis should also be included because the aim is to make lobbyist influence transparent, and influence is not necessarily the same as spending.
Information to be included on the register
The information on the register should consist of the company registration details; the names of those persons employed, contracted or otherwise engaged to carry out lobbying and whether that person is a former Minister or senior civil servant. The information should also include a list of clients on whose behalf the lobbyist carries out lobbying activities. The information might also include limited financial information.
The proposed information to appear on the register is insufficient to make it useful. In order to understand how lobbyists influence policy we also need to know the topics on which each lobbyist is making representations, how often they’ve had an audience with the Government on each issue, when those meetings took place and the amount of money being spent by each company (or individual).
[The information on the register] should not include details of meetings with Ministers, which are already made available by each Government Department on www.data.gov.uk.
The Government already publishes quarterly information about Ministers’ meetings. Information about which stakeholders are meeting Ministers to put forward their views on policies is therefore already in the public domain.
This is insufficient without also publishing the details of what those stakeholders discussed with the Ministers. It gives carte blanche to lobbyists working for large organisations, which can have a full range of interests, to lobby opaquely leaving the public to make vague assumptions about what’s going on.
A register should include those who lobby the UK Government and UK Parliament.
I think local councils should be required to maintain and publish similar registers as much murky influence is wielded by lobbyists at the local government level too.
The register is not intended to cover the normal interaction between constituents and their MPs.
I agree with this point however I would prefer the line to be drawn significantly closer to this thin end of the wedge than is currently proposed.
Nor should the essential flow of communication between business leaders and Government, civil figures, community organisations and Government and so on, be included.
There’s no justification given for this decision and I don’t agree with it. If influence is being sought through these channels then it should sought transparently. We must avoid allowing lobbyists to obscure their their operations by fronting them through organisations that are technically outside the register’s scope.
The Government 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.
In my opinion the extensions I’ve suggested would not impose any further obstacle for professional lobbyists than the existing proposals would.
To ensure universal access the register must be published in a machine-readable format compatible with the European Interoperability Framework definition of an Open Standard and licensed under the Open Government License.
In my opinion making lobbyist influence transparent is only half the battle towards an evidence-based policy-making framework in which all stakeholders are represented equally. The other half of the job is to ensure robust and meaningful public-interest representation during the legislative process. Lobbyists and commercial interests should no longer be allowed to hold opaque round-table discussions with minsters without seats at the table being made available to relevant public and consumer-interest groups too.