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Bill protects lobbyists while targeting civil society

Money makes the world go round … or flat, depending on who is paying. Jason Mrachina

The government bill on lobbying currently making its way through parliament has trade unions and most of the non-government organisation (NGO) world up in arms. But they are not complaining about the provisions on lobbying - focusing instead on the “gagging” clauses in the bill.

These - which are in the second part of the bill - bring in new restrictions on the activities of any organisation spending £5,000 a year on non-party-political campaigning on broadly defined “political issues”. The law will apply to campaigning that “may” influence an election and will be in force for a whole year before elections.

As Polly Toynbee notes, if charities “trip into electoral law they must send weekly reports of all their spending during the electoral period, when any slip risks criminal charges”. Part three of the bill also brings in new onerous regulations targeting trade unions.

Meanwhile the lobbying provisions in part one, promised in the Coalition agreement of May 2010, are seriously inadequate. Remember that David Cameron pointed to lobbying as the “next big scandal waiting to happen” in early 2010. This came after mounting lobbying scandals and stories of corruption in public life under successive governments. Who can forget Labour transport minister Stephen Byers and the “cab for hire” affair?

Since then the problems of the subterranean influence of lobbying and privileged access for corporate leaders has only got worse. To name a few: Conservative Party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas resigned over the cash-for-access affair; ministerial adviser Adam Smith resigned over News Corp’s lobbying on the BSkyB bid; retired “generals for hire” offered to lobby for arms companies; MP Patrick Mercer was caught out; as were two members of the House of Lords; and details emerged of Lynton Crosby’s clients.

Bill misses targets

In response to all this, the provisions of the bill would cover only lobbyists working as consultants, rather than in-house corporate lobbyists. This already excludes around 80% of lobbyists from registration.

But the bill is even worse, in that lobbying consultancies will only have to register if they meet with ministers or permanent secretaries. Meetings with special advisers and all other civil servants don’t count and nor does any other activity.

Thus, as the lobbying consultants’ lobby group, the Association of Professional Political Consultants notes, ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills had 988 meetings with lobbyists in 2012 – only two of which were with lobbying consultants. That is less than 1% of ministerial meetings, never mind the wider activities essential to lobbying and influence peddling.

It is not clear whether the gagging clauses have been put into the bill by fiendishly clever sleight of hand to distract attention from the lobbying register. Perhaps the hope is that the lobbying provisions will slip through unnoticed.

Stephen Byers: ‘a lobbying Bill? Quick, call me a cab…“ PA

Or perhaps the government is reaching for extreme measures beyond the worst excesses of Thatcherism. Certainly the bill seems to have divided even staunch allies of the government in the Conservative movement. This is the network of think tanks, commentators and academics bankrolled by corporations directly or indirectly via charitable foundations and trusts run by corporate leaders.

Thus loyalists such as Benedict Brogan at the Daily Telegraph and former leftists, turned conservative attack dogs, such as Spiked, are not worried by the bill. Others such as Alex Massie at the conservative Spectator and Paul Staines, better known as the blogger Guido Fawkes, have spoken out against it.

In fact, all of the key think tanks that paved the way for Thatcher and neoliberalism are also opposed: the Institute for Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute.

Vested interests

When it reached the Commons this week the bill was attacked from all sides. According to Graham Allen MP it is “battered and bloodied and ready to fall over”. Mark Durkan MP stated: “Many of us suspect that those charities, voluntary organisations and public advocacy campaign groups that will find themselves in line of danger under part two are being used as a human shield to protect those that should have been targeted in part one but have deliberately been given free licence and allowed to escape."

In the debate, MPs told story after story of corporate lobby influence. They included the airport operator BAA lobbying over Heathrow expansion; News Corp lobbying over its bid for BSkyB, newspapers lobbying against regulation; lobbying by law and accountancy firms, property developers, Starbucks, the banks. The clear message was that none of this would be captured by the proposed register. Opposition attempts to widen the scope of the lobby register failed this week despite some Tory MPs voting against the government.

We are left with the clear impression that the Conservatives do not want to face up to requiring their main supporters in big business to become even slightly more transparent.

As far as the rest of us are concerned - 90% of the UK public believes that UK "government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves”. It is clear that those interested in tilting the balance away from the big interests and towards a more participatory and democratic kind of politics will need to continue to oppose the attempt to gag civil society and further assault the trade union movement.

However, transparency and accountability remain the other side of the democratic participation coin. A lobbying register that captures less than 1% of lobbyist meetings with government, never mind revealing what issues lobbyists work on, how they do it and how much money is spent, will only help to buttress those vested interests attempting to “look out for themselves”.

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