Comment: Murky world of lobbying needs more than just transparency

Let's not pretend the Liam Fox lobbying scandal is an isolated aberration. As long as politicians have power, there'll be people seeking to co-opt that power for their own ends.

By Ed Hammond

Every so often in Britain, a political scandal breaks which centres on the murky world of high-level policy-making – and, in particular, access to government ministers.

The same questions are always asked: should we try to reduce the influence on policy of lobbyists? If so, how should we do so? Will an increase in transparency – in the form of a register of lobbyists – make any difference?

Lobbyists aren't a universally nefarious presence, a collection of shadowy figures who stalk around the corridors of Westminster. Charities lobby, to speak up for people who might not otherwise have a voice. The crux probably lies in the way that we in Britain approach evidence-based policy-making.

In an ideal world policy would be made purely on the basis of evidence, with options being weighed up dispassionately on the basis of cost and benefit, in an easily understandable way that was open and transparent. However, there's no room in this technocrat's paradise for ideology, and party politics. We have to accept that decisions are often made, not on the basis of evidence, but on the basis of political (big and small 'p') expediency and personal preference – along with many other reasons. Because the horse-trading involved in this kind of decision-making probably wouldn't reflect well on the decision-maker, the tendency is to keep this process secret. Secrecy doesn't encourage the effective balancing of different kinds of evidence. A weak argument robustly made, or made by a friend or acquaintance to whom one is generally receptive, can, in the absence of a contrary voice, be more persuasive than it should be. Poor decisions result – even when the decision-maker him or herself does not profit financially.

The darkness of the way decisions are made provides an ideal environment for the mushrooming of the lobbying 'industry'. There's an argument that says that the decision-making process must be somehow insulated from the need for openness and transparency – because options must be discussed in a full and frank way before being publicised, or opened up for comment. But with this comes the risk that discussions and decisions will not reflect the best interests of the wider population, but the narrower interest of a cosy elite.

We saw these risks play out in the MPs' expenses scandal in 2009, and to a lesser extent this year in the phone-hacking scandal, which raised the issue of the close relationship between successive governments and certain elements of the national press, and the use of this relationship to exert significant influence.

Will transparency in the process of lobbying – the publication of a register – make any difference to this? It's difficult to see how it would on its own. The Commons' public administration committee, investigating this issue in 2009, recommended a mandatory register (which would, in particular, help to identify who professional lobbyists represent – particularly multi-client lobbyists). It suggested the provision of minutes of meetings. It suggested, too, ways in which certain not-for-profit bodies, and individuals contacting their MP or a minister directly, could be excluded from the requirement, making the system more manageable.

But this only goes so far. The publication of a register would be a significant step forward – placing the UK more in line with other Western democracies such as the US, Canada and Australia – but would still not address some of the deep-set, cultural issues around the way decisions are made. Lobbyists, and decision-makers, approaching the register as something with which to 'comply' rather than as an opportunity to be more genuinely open about the business they transact, will inevitably develop loopholes and ways around whatever system is established.

This isn't a defeatist argument – it's an argument that we need to be more ambitious about tackling those deep-set, cultural issues, and stop trying to convince ourselves that transparency will automatically bring about accountability – or that the two are somehow one and the same. Earlier this year, in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, CfPS called for a proper debate and consideration of what accountability of governmental decision-makers should mean in practice, and suggested that the public administration select committee could be well-placed to lead this.

Such a review could help us take some small steps towards creating a 'culture of openness', a society in which lobbying can exist comfortably but where its purpose and role is much more clearly defined. The well-rehearsed arguments that openness leads ultimately to better decisions are true, but strangely unpersuasive to decision-makers – but if nothing else, perhaps the threat of scandal, and the growth of a perceived 'rift' between the general public and a political elite, will provide the strongest push in that direction. In time, a response from decision-makers that is driven by this fear could lead to a more coherent understanding of what openness really is. One thing that's clear is that this is going to be a long time coming, and won't happen by default. And transparency is only the first step.

Ed Hammond is a research and information manager at the Centre for Public Scrutiny

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