This week the Liberal Democrats face a test of their commitment to transparency in government when the House of Lords considers Part 1 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. Bizarrely for a Bill with transparency in the title, it will provide the public with less information than we already have under the discredited system of self-regulation.
Last week the BMJ published details of the way the drinks industry had lobbied government to drop the commitment to minimum alcohol pricing including 130 meetings, few of which were in the public domain. This is not about any single policy, the “cosy relationship” identified by the BMJ could also influence the response to the pubco/tenant relationship, for example.
As drafted the Bill will only cover consultant lobbyists, not the 80% of the industry that work in house for a specific organisation and limits the definition of lobbying to contact with government ministers or permanent secretaries. This would only cover 1% of lobbying activity in the UK and makes the Bill look more like an empty attempt at fulfilling a pledge than a genuine attempt at open government. The lobbying industry and transparency campaigners are united in calling for a register that includes all professional lobbyists. Will the Liberal Democrats stand with us and vote to amend the Bill?
Recent Lib Dem Peers, including Lord Tyler and Baroness Williams, have publicly called for support for an amendment that will exempt charities from Part 2 of the Bill (which aims to regulate campaigning activity by third-parties in an election year). While this is clearly an attempt to placate charities that are up in arms about their rights to non-partisan campaigning, it is misguided.
What Lord Tyler’s amendment would do in practice, however, is open up the very real potential for corporate lobbyists to exploit this loophole and actually set up charities to create the type of Super-PAC style funds that this Bill is purported to address. Furthermore it starts to create a false divide between ‘campaigning groups’ and charities when we all know that it is necessary for charities to campaign in order to fulfil their charitable objectives. This could easily be the thin-end of a regressive wedge and something charities should be wary about supporting.
* Alexandra Runswick is the Director of Unlock Democracy.