Who’s going to shine a light on what lobbyists do?
Twitter had a field day when the Cash for Cameron storm broke last night. It would almost be funny if it were not so serious. SturdyAlex’s blogpost “The C-word” covers a number of the points I wanted to include in this post, so refer you to his post on the ‘cash for access’ issues – in particular ‘The Leader’s Group’. This allows me to focus on two issues: Transparency and political literacy.
Are the problems systemic?
Political parties are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. They are however subject to regulation by the Electoral Commission. I imagine today’s events will provide a little bump for traffic heading to its website on party funding. Party funding is an issue that has not gone away. It was a shame that John Major vetoed Nolan’s original inquiry into political party funding – which was around the time of Cash for Questions. That’s not to say he’d have been any more successful than his successor looking at this issue, Sir Hayden Phillips. Since then we’ve had Cash for honours, Cash for Access Mk 1 and the MPs’ Expenses Scandal. We also had another lobbyists’ scandal just before Christmas 2011. I can’t help but think that the problem is systemic – i.e. cannot be put down to a few bad apples that happen to have been caught out.
While transparency on the whole is a good thing, it can only go so far. This is especially the case with MPs’ interests. Jacob Rees Mogg and Nick Raynsford are good examples. The information is public, but within the Westminster world these sorts of ‘remunerated extra curricular activities’ are seen as acceptable. The same is the case with members of the House of Lords, who by their nature have more time on their hands for directorships and consultancies – something that did not avoid the attention of campaigners against the Health and Social Care Bill.
Should peers (& MPs for that matter) be barred from voting on issues where they have a direct financial interest? At the moment all they have to do is to ‘declare items in the register of interests’ under their name at the start of each speech. Few people actually take the time to look at what those interests are, and even fewer report on them. It feels as it’s ‘the done thing’ and the rest of us have to live with it. With peers, censureship is particularly hard because no one can vote them out of office.
Who knows what lobbyists do?
Articles from the archives of the mid-1990s are becoming interesting reading again in the light of recent news. The first time I came across the term ‘lobbyist’ was during the dying days of the Conservative administration, when the name Ian Greer seemed rarely off of the front pages – in particular with the Neil Hamilton case. As that linked article states, Greer was one of the first of a new breed of professional lobbyists that emerged in the 1980s. Their numbers have since proliferated and you can find a number of them advertising vacancies on the House of Commons-funded website W4MP.
Some within the lobbying profession have tried to tighten things up – whether the Code of Conduct of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, or Mark Adams’ blog Stand up for lobbying. (Adams’ blogposts are worth browsing through to get a feel for life closer to the front line of lobbying).
One area that has been on the radar for some time is the way some lobbying firms use All Party Parliamentary Groups to influence agendas. I first stumbled across this at a conference I was invited to where I got talking to someone who was the secretariat for one such group. Being the curious type I asked lots of questions about how she got into the field that she did. Innocently I asked if she was paid for by Parliament. When she replied that she wasn’t, & that she was working for a professional lobbying organisation, alarm bells in my head started ringing. In the main, most MPs don’t have the time to scrutinise what’s happening in the APPGs that they are members of. (If you work for an MP, please note this guidance). This potentially gives whoever is running the secretariat for such groups a significant amount of influence – face time with MPs, the drafting of Parliamentary Questions (PQs), even tabling of amendments to Bills. How many MPs and Peers have signed their names up to amendments to Bills without knowing what the detailed implications of their amendment actually are? It reminds me of the example former MP, Minister & TV-AM presenter Gyles Brandreth mentioned in his diaries (1990-97) when a ministerial aide got Brandreth to put his name to a written PQ even though Brandreth had no idea what the question was about.
While it might have been fairly straight forward to keep ‘the dark arts’ of lobbyists within the Westminster bubble in the 1990s, I’d like to think that in social media world some light can be shone onto said arts. What might seem acceptable in Westminster might not be outside of it. We saw this with the MPs’ expenses scandal. But it wasn’t just the transparency that had the impact, it was the publicity too. I wonder if there are any lobbyists out there who would be more than happy to do a ‘public service’ and start putting up some blogposts and digital videos to explain to the general public what lobbyists actually do, & show some [annonymised] case studies of where they have had an impact on government policies.
Political literacy (i.e. people’s understanding of basic political/constitutional processes)
One of the purposes of this blog is to help explain to people some of the things that happen in the world of politics, policy-making and public administration. Citizenship classes in schools also goes some way to helping teach some of the basics of how politics functions (or malfunctions as the case may be). I’d like to think that social media and recent campaigns has increased levels of political literacy. It has certainly been good for awareness-raising and enabling people to ask more targeted informed questions to their political representatives. How do we break it out of the politics’ social media bubble?
This is one of those strange paradoxes. Do scandals like this make people more angry to the extent that they want to get more involved in politics, or does it reinforce already negative views they may have about politicians and politics? If it is the latter (and more people disengage from politics in general), does it make politicians and political parties ripe for the picking by small groups of powerful vested interests?