The Transparency in Lobbying Bill – more holes than a sieve


Why the Lobbying Bill will do next to nothing in bringing much-needed transparency to the policy-making process.

The Bill documents are here. And…it will have its second reading in the Commons 24 hours after publication. This means people will have next to no time to analyse and scrutinise the thrust of the Bill before MPs decide on whether they accept the principles of the Bill. Note too that the Bill was published in the week before Parliament breaks up for the long summer recess. [Updated to amend]: The Permanent Secretary at Cabinet Office & First Parliamentary Counsel Richard Heaton tweeted to Puffles (He follows Puffles) that second reading will actually be in the autumn. It was only the publication of the bill (First reading) that happened just before recess. My mistake.

Irrespective of the merits or otherwise of any piece of legislation, it is political tactics like this that put people off Westminster politics. All of the main parties are guilty of this. Ditto with the number of Government policy statements published in the week before the long summer recess. At least fifty written statements have been published in the past few days – meaning that MPs and the public have limited ability to scrutinise the changes because they are buried under the avalanche of policy changes. It gives life to the saying that if you want no one to find out about a policy change, table a written statement to Parliament.

The Transparency of Lobbying Bill – it’s not just lobbying

The Bill covers three stages:

  1. A register of lobbyists
  2. Non-party campaigning
  3. Trade Unions

The problem in principle with this bill is it is a hybrid bill – it combines three different things that in the grand scheme of things should be dealt with in three separate pieces of legislation. Corporate lobbying is one issue, non-party campaigning is another – especially when put in the context of campaigning by charities, and finally trade unions and their relationship with Labour and other political parties is a third. Irrespective of the merits of what the published bill contains, my view is that each of these issues should be dealt with in separate pieces of legislation.

Why the section on lobbying (Part 1 of the bill) is flawed

For a start, it only covers professional lobbyists. It does not cover in-house lobbyists that are employed directly by professional bodies, think tanks, trade federations, charities or pressure groups. Schedule 1 Part 1 at the end of the bill explains the differences, stating clearly that constituents contacting their MPs, and those employed directly by organisations such as the ones mentioned above (and acting on behalf of their employer) are specifically excluded from this bill. Hence the sorts of organisations that will be covered by this part of the bill are organisations that should already be part of this association.

The second key flaw in this part of the bill is who the the activities of lobbying are aimed at. The bill states government ministers and civil servants at permanent secretary grades or equivalent. The problem with this is that if you are a lobbyist, you know very well that it’s not the permanent secretaries that do the policy detail. The heads of policy units are normally those at the lower grades of the senior civil service. As a number of very senior civil servants said to me over the years, the higher up the civil service you go, the less policy you do – it’s much more planning, people management, horizon scanning and risk-management. It would be far better for the bill to define what a civil service policy function is, and state that anyone that is paid for the majority of their job to influence those civil servants acting in policy functions is covered by the bill.

Also, special and political advisers paid for by the tax payer are conspicuous by their absence (in terms of people on the receiving end of lobbying). This is a massive hole in the bill – something that I would expect MPs and peers will want to patch up during the committee stages of the bill. I’m taking it as a given that this bill will get through Parliament because there is enough political will from both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to clip the wings of Labour’s trade union backers – hence why trade union issues have been bundled into this bill.

What about the register itself?

The functioning of register in itself isn’t really of huge interest to me – though it will be for others so please scrutinise this if that’s you. What is noteworthy is the creation of new criminal offences in relation to the register, and also of civil penalties too. Something for the lawyers and those interested in legal things to scrutinise.

Part 2 – non party campaigning

In this section, the bill becomes quite complex because of the links and amendments it makes to existing legislation – hence the explanatory notes come into play here. If you are a political campaigner of a cause not under the umbrella of a political party, it’s worth having a look at these. Have a look at paragraph 91 of the explanatory notes as this sets out who has to inform the Electoral Commission under the new clauses in the bill. Party political activists and trade unionists too will want to look at some of the expenditure limits.

This is quite a significant section of the bill because it sets out a series of requirements on third party campaigning organisations – including new reporting requirements regarding donations, and on how regular which reports need to be made to the Electoral Commission. Does your organisation fall under the remit of this proposed legislation? Also, not the offences and penalties in this part of the bill – one of which relates to the forfeiture of donations.

Part 3 – Trade unions

This in part stems from a couple of successful High Court challenges by employers to stop strikes from going ahead on the grounds of technicalities. Basically employers took legal action to stop trade unions from striking because of alleged irregularities in ballots. The BA cabin crew action was one example. In a nutshell this part is about compelling trade unions to get their membership systems in order. It’s not this part that trade unionists are likely to take issue with, it’s Part 2 of this bill.

Is this bill party-political in its nature?

It is certainly one that is looking towards the 2015 general election. The issue that I have with this bill is that it doesn’t deal fully with the problems that it sets out. It doesn’t deal with the problems associated with corporate lobbying and it doesn’t deal with the problem of party funding. The problem Labour face is that they risk having their financial hands tied without being able to tie the Conservatives’ donations from wealthy donors down in the same way.

It will be interesting to see how Labour respond in their arguments in the Commons at second reading, as well as what structural changes it will make both to its party and to its link to trade unions in response to this legislation. How will it impact the actions Ed Miliband set out recently?

Food for thought.


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