Comment: The lobbying bill is either cock-up or conspiracy

Robert Barrington: 'The current lobbying bill is not fit for purpose.'
Robert Barrington: 'The current lobbying bill is not fit for purpose.'

By Robert Barrington

"A useless dog's breakfast." That's how Graham Allen, chair of the Commons political and constitutional reform committee, this week described the government's lobbying bill.

Allen's comments came on top of a growing tide of criticism, including voices from charities and unions warning that the bill could restrict charity campaigning, normal union activity and even freedom of speech. 

Is it so bad - and if so, do we actually need a lobbying bill?


On the latter point, a cautious yes.  Yes, because Transparency International (TI) research published last month showed that an astonishing 90% of the UK public believe that 'the country's government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves'. This has been fuelled by a series of scandals and revelations, including the report in July 2011 that David Cameron met key executives of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation 26 times during his first 15 months in office.

However, we should also be cautious. What we need is a good lobbying bill, not just a bill that will give the appearance of action while failing to address the real problems.  

Transparency International would prefer to see a bill that is built on a full and fair analysis of the problems surrounding the corruption of democracy in its various forms.

The distortions of democracy go beyond lobbying into party funding and the revolving door, to say nothing of the honours system, and unless those issues are also tackled the risk is that the special interest groups will just find a new way of exercising influence.

We should be clear that lobbying is not always a bad thing. Transparency International and many other civil society organisations often try to speak to MPs and civil servants to present information and ideas. Ordinary citizens may speak to their constituency MPs about issues of relevance to them. Companies or trade bodies may have legitimate arguments that need an airing.

Of course, there is a difference between those groups that operate in the public interest and those operating in the private interest. But the point remains that politicians, regulators and civil servants need to hear all sides of an argument before making a decision.

The problem arises when special interests, backed with large amounts of cash, are able to buy greater access and influence than anyone else. Government policy, regulation and legislation can then effectively be bought. There are plenty of academic studies that demonstrate how lobbying has distorted government policy. In the UK, allegations abound about tobacco regulation, minimum pricing for alcohol, food labelling and banking regulation, to name but a few.

At its heart is an issue that goes beyond lobbying to one of real concern: that rich special interest groups can distort government policy so that it does not operate in the public interest. This relates not just to lobbying but also to political party funding and the so-called revolving door between politics and the private sector.

So what are the solutions? The government is stating that transparency is the answer and that a register of lobbyists is a necessary part of this. Right and wrong.

Transparency is a necessary component of the answer. But it is not the whole answer, and a register of lobbyists is only a small component of transparency. Let us remember that in the distorted and money-fuelled politics of the US, there is a register of lobbyists - and nobody thinks it has solved the problems.

What else could be done? Those who employ lobbyists should be transparent about who they are lobbying and for what purpose. We need to see appropriate criminal penalties - jail for those who break the law, meaningful fines for lobbying companies that get it wrong, and the permanent end to a political career for those who transgress.

Strong leadership on ethical conduct must come from the most senior people in each party - not only by setting a personal example but by rigorously mucking out their stables.

Finally, the government should wait until there has been a proper examination of the issues and then produce a well-crafted bill that is a proportionate response to the problem.

So what about the proposals the government has announced? Overall, it is a missed opportunity. It is unlikely that we will have another government-sponsored lobbying bill in the foreseeable future, so this one needs to be as good as possible. 

The current lobbying bill is not fit for purpose.  To take one example, the proposed register of lobbyists clearly would not capture most lobbyists, or indeed most lobbying.

It is unclear whether this bill is so poor because it was hastily drafted or whether it is deliberately designed to avoid addressing the real issues while at the same time giving scope for the government to attack interest groups it does not like.  Either way, it is a weak response to a problem the government seems to have half-understood.

What makes this bill look even more ill-timed is that the committee on standards in public life has recently launched a consultation on precisely this subject. What is the government's motive in ignoring this, just as it has ignored the committee's previous recommendation for a cap on political donations?

What the government has failed to grasp is that voters think British politics is corrupt and that is the problem it needs to deal with. Sixty-seven per cent of people polled in our survey said they thought political parties in the UK were corrupt or extremely corrupt. Fifty-five per cent felt the same way about parliament.

Voters remember the MPs expenses scandal, cash for questions, the sale of honours, the stings by the Sunday Times and many other deeply unsavoury episodes. Voters, non-voters, and British democracy need a response that is proportionate to the size of the challenge. This bill is, sadly, not the response that is necessary.

Robert Barrington is the executive director of Transparency International UK, the UK’s leading anti-corruption organisation and part of a global coalition sharing one vision: a world in which government, business, civil society and the daily lives of people are free of corruption. Transparency International fights corruption, poverty, and injustice with local staff in over 100 countries.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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