Why a statutory register of lobbyists alone won’t solve the problem

Summary

Further thoughts following the Sunday Times’ sting on Tim Yeo MP – looking at which lobbyists might not be covered by such a register

Another weekend, another lobbying sting about what a politician might or might not do. This post follows on from my previous post about lobbying on how social media can be used to bring some much needed transparency.

It makes for even more depressing reading – all the more astonishing given the level of publicity around lobbying and the general low regard politicians are held in anyway. The case of Tim Yeo being reported in the Sunday Times will inevitably increase calls for a statutory register. On his website standing up for lobbying, Mark Adams (Ex-Private Secretary to Tony Blair) under ‘Myth 7’ says that such a register alone might end up being viewed as a licence to lobby. The current ‘self regulation’ of the industry by the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) means that members of it are already subject to this code of conduct.

Are you registering the firms or registering the individuals?

This is something that the APPC are currently wrestling with. It states that not all organisations are eligible for APPC membership, but that people who have in-house roles within organisations may wish to become members. This underlines one of the key points about lobbying: Wealthy and/or well-resourced interest groups don’t necessarily need to go to external lobbying firms to lobby the government on their behalf: they can employ people in-house to do this for them. We got an insight into how this can operate at the highest levels in the case of Adam Smith, Jeremy Hunt and Leveson. As far as I am aware, it wasn’t an external lobbyist Smith was receiving all of those texts and emails from, it was a very senior member of a massive international corporation.

Should people who lobby on behalf of organisations have to sign up to a statutory register along the lines the APPC is looking at?

That’s one possibility – going down the route of a chartered institute and then requiring any firm, campaign group, trade union or professional association who have people functioning as policy and parliamentary officers to have membership of said institute. The argument for having such a set up in place is that chartered institutes have codes of conduct against which they can take disciplinary action against their members when breached.

The problem with this comes back to the point Mark Adams made – you risk membership being seen as a licence to lobby. It also runs the risk of creating a two-tier system of lobbying – one for wealthy/well resourced interests that can afford to hire lobbyists that are members of a would-be chartered institute, and the existing one where constituents lobby their MP for the rest of us. Such a set up would not solve the wider problem of larger corporate interests having a disproportionate influence on politics. In fact it risks entrenching them.

…Which brings us back to transparency of political processes

Transparency isn’t just about publishing stuff. I remember almost a decade ago early on in my civil service career about a conversation involving what was an awkward Freedom of Information request. One of the ideas muted was to publish everything and overwhelm the person who had requested the information in the hope that the information that seemed to be causing some embarrassment would be buried in that avalanche. I kicked up a fuss about it because I could not see what public interest would be gained from doing so, and the idea was dropped.

My point? Transparency isn’t just about the publishing. It’s also about the publicising too.  For example, you can look at the register of All Party Parliamentary Groups here. They’ve been in the news lately over the administration of these groups – costs of which are often borne by outside organisations. In the case of the APPG on ‘extractive industries’ have a look at who bears the costs. It’s also charities that provide support too. In the case of the Women in the penal system, it’s the Howard League for Penal Reform. You could say that the ‘professionalisation of charities’ has led it – understandably – to copy some of the tactics of big business. Also, not all of the APPGs seem to be listed on the register. I’m inclined to think it’s more oversight than conspiracy (the latter in general assume the competency of too many people!) with the omission of the PCS Union’s APPG that represents civil servants, not least because its chair John McDonnell MP (Lab) and vice-chair Caroline Lucas MP (Green) – who both follow Puffles – are highly active in Parliament speaking out on behalf of civil servants. It’s also an APPG that has quite a large number of MPs in it in the grand scheme of things – reflecting the constituencies that have lots of civil servants living in them. In John’s case, it’s the immigration officers that work at Heathrow Airport and in Caroline’s case, its civil servants working both locally in Brighton and those that commute to London every day – many a department being in walking distance from London Victoria.

If big business is well-connected to MPs, why shouldn’t charities be?

It’s the imperfect solution that we currently have – people relying on professional campaigning charities adopting corporate lobbying tactics to get their way. In one sense it reflects the past relationships throughout the 20th Century of large employers facing large trade unions. The problem with any association that has lots of members – whether trade unions or federations of businesses – is that not everyone will agree with the line taken by those at the top of those associations.

In the case of trade unions, not all trade unionists will be Labour Party supporters. Some will be in the trade union movement in spite of, not because of the trade union link to Labour. For some that might involve wanting to align their trade union with another party – eg The Greens, or one of the many far left sects, while for others they might be there for the safety net it provides – even though they might be Lib Dems, Tories or non-aligned.

In the case of big business, a business association might for example want to lobby the government of the day to relax environmental standards because it is ‘costing business too much.’ But if your firm has a competitive advantage over rivals because of your sustainability credentials (knowing that higher standards could put competitors out of business), where do you stand?

Hence moving away from smaller groups of influential people lobbying on behalf of the rest of us, towards much wider conversations and debates…

…debates where the discussions that politicians and civil servants have with representatives of these groups are made public. Ditto the representations made by these interest groups. One of the areas of exploration I’d like to see in policy-making in general are systems and processes where larger interest groups have their representations scrutinised by users using social media – and where their representatives can be cross-examined over it too. After all, the technology is there. Politics would be all the more better for it too.

One thought on “Why a statutory register of lobbyists alone won’t solve the problem

  1. I found it odd when working for an MP that a caseworker who actually worked in Parliament could have to wait 4 or 5 months for a pass yet every lobbyist I met seemed to have one often from members of the House of Lords….I’d start with sorting that out…

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