David Cameron’s promise to clean up lobbying wasn’t worth a hill of beans

Meet Dave, the former lobbyist who promised to sort out political lobbying. Anthony Devlin/PA

With little fanfare, Westminster’s official Register of Consultant Lobbyists has launched. It was a rather muted and low-key affair considering the high-profile stories and scandals we have witnessed in relation to lobbying over the last few weeks.

We have seen The Guardian revealing that nearly 20% of staff members employed by MPs and peers also have lobbying or outside interests. The tobacco industry has been trying to influence the recent vote on plain packaging. And then of course there was the Channel 4 Dispatches “cash-for-access” documentary featuring Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind.

In this pre-election phase of spin overdrive it may appear puzzling that the government has neither trailed nor trumpeted its long-promised blow against broken politics and sleaze by creating the UK’s first mandatory lobbying register.

The last time David Cameron was seeking election he assured anyone who would listen that he would reform the “far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money”. On closer inspection, however, it is obvious that there is little to shout about – and indeed much to worry about from a lobbying transparency perspective.

What went wrong

As the Bill made its way through the houses of parliament there was a pretty fierce debate regarding the gagging provisions relating to non-party campaigning (charities and NGOs were rightly furious about measures to restrict their campaign work around elections).

As a result, almost no attention was paid to the lobbying transparency part of the Bill – and the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act (2014) has now saddled us with an absurd lobbying register that escaped proper scrutiny during the parliamentary process.

Because the government remained defiantly deaf to entreaties to rectify the obvious flaws with this element, the new register fails all the key tests of any meaningful lobbying disclosure system. Instead of being a small element of a comprehensive and tenable lobbying disclosure and ethics system, the Register of Consultant Lobbyists represents the dismal totality of the government’s solution to lobbying transparency.

What is worrying about this system is that it potentially creates a false sense of transparency around lobbying. In practice the register is likely to reveal little more than already appears on websites of commercial consultancies, particularly those who have already voluntarily disclosed this information through industry self-regulation measures.

When interviewed on the BBC this week Alison White, the new registrar overseeing this system, stressed that the statutory footing means that the minority of professional lobbyists covered must comply. True, but this feeble defence for the register only serves to highlight its many shortcomings. It is hard not to have some sympathy for White, who now has perhaps the most pointless and thankless job in British public life.

Alison White, overseer of the new lobbying register.

The flaws

The register has a number of key weaknesses. It will not be possible to tell from the information disclosed who is lobbying whom, on what issues, how much time and money is being devoted to influencing the political process, and what tactics are being used.

The register only covers consultant lobbyists’ direct contacts with ministers and high-ranking officials – in practice only a small part of lobbying activity. Defenders of the new register claim it will protect ministers and their senior civil servants from confusion and conflicts, as they will now know all the different interests represented by the influencers for hire they meet. One would have to be rather credulous to think that this is a game-changer in the business of power and influence.

The register also only captures a small proportion of the lobbying industry – those working for commercial lobbying agencies, usually representing multiple clients. The kinds of lobbying not captured includes the in-house lobbying of large companies where they directly represent themselves to decision makers (even if they are acting on the advice of consultants and public affairs lawyers). The same goes for representative bodies like the CBI, IoD and large charities and NGOs.

Big business: not much to fear. Dragon Images

The background research, analysis and strategy that underpin the most sophisticated lobbying campaigns will remain shrouded in secrecy. The coalition building and extensive contacts programmes run by the public affairs divisions of politically active businesses will not be disclosed by this register.

Likewise third-party techniques that draw upon and mobilise think tanks, the mass and social media, and indeed even the public, as concerned citizens or fake grassroots (“astro-turf”) campaigns, will remain outside the purview of the lobbying register. This is a significant missed opportunity, particularly as more comprehensive lobbying registers are now being introduced in nearby jurisdictions such as Ireland.

Silver lining?

As with much of our politics nowadays, there is an interesting Scottish dimension to the lobbying issue. In February Holyrood’s Standards Procedures and Public Appointments committee recommended the introduction of a mandatory lobbying register that the Scottish government is obliged to act upon before the next Holyrood elections in 2016.

It too is likely to be more ambitious than the Westminster model. The Scottish government is currently considering the thresholds that will apply in a Scottish register, but the direction of travel is clear. The talk is about creating a level playing field that will require “those that lobby in-house to register as well as those that represent third parties”. The ambition is that “organisations would need to register based on what they do, not who they are”.

While Westminster failed to properly get to grips with lobbying in this parliamentary session, it is possible that the issue will re-emerge after the election. In the context of a hung parliament, how the prospects for a credible Westminster lobbying register are affected by the political positioning of both Labour and the Scottish National Party (SNP) remains to be seen.

Among those occupying the Labour benches at Holyrood, there is strong support for a lobbying bill – but this enthusiasm does not yet appear to be shared by many around the Labour leadership in London. It can only be hoped that a Scottish lobbying register can act as a positive demonstration and reminder of this issue for the Westminster political class.

The bottom line is this: the kinds of pledges that UK politicians easily make about restoring trust in politics during election campaigns need to be matched with a serious commitment to delivering proper lobbying transparency and ethics rules when in office.

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