The Independent View: Transparency in Government

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.

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9 Comments

  • Simon McGrath 14th Jan '14 - 9:10am

    “The lobbying industry and transparency campaigners are united in calling for a register that includes all professional lobbyists”
    Well yes of course the big lobbying firms are in favour of a register. It will enable them to heap extra costs on the smaller firms and reduce competion. There may be arguments in favour of a register but lets not be naive about motives.

  • Alexandra Runswick 14th Jan '14 - 11:03am

    Simon a lobbying register doesn’t have to be expensive or bureaucratic. As part of our submission to the initial government consultation on this Unlock Democracy submitted a sample return which included who we were lobbying, what policy areas we were lobbying on, the staff involved and a good faith estimate of the money we spent on that lobbying. It took us about 20 minutes to complete. You can find the form on our website http://www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/page/-/publications/120315%20LobbyingconsultationFINAL.pdf It is also worth noting that there are usually exemptions for very small organisations for example those that do not employ the equivalent of one full time public affairs person or spend £6,000 or less per quarter on lobbying activity.

  • Yes, that estimate that only 1% of lobbying activity will be covered by the bill is consistent with what I was told before Christmas by a relation who is a professional lobbyist. He said it would make no difference whatsoever as that 1% is in any case well covered by rules on meetings with ministers. This really is Potemkin regulation – a façade with absolutely nothing of substance behind it.

    For another approach that appear to have value I here repeat part of a comment I made on David Boyle’s recent post.

    Being somewhat of an insomniac I caught part of the Lords debate on this in the early hours of this morning starting with an amendment moved by Lord Norton of Louth (one of the country’s leading academic experts on Parliamentary and constitutional issues). His point was that the bill is misconceived, that it sets up onerous (and expensive to comply with) registration and reporting requirements but will do precisely NOTHING to tell us who is actually lobbying about what.

    His alternative proposal was to extend existing procedures (therefore much cheaper to implement) so that contacts between lobbyists (whether consultant lobbyist, in-house corporate lobbyist or someone representing voluntary organisation) and ministers or policy-making civil servants (and not just Permanent Secretaries as in the bill) should be recorded and subsequently published. Lord Norton argued that this could be done relatively easily and cheaply and, more to the point, would actually target lobbying rather than a small minority of lobbyists. The amendment was supported on all sides of the house but inevitably lost to the government steamroller.

  • The problem with Lord Norton’s amendment was that it too simple and logical, plus it was an amendment that effectively did away with most of the bill… So would of resulted in a loss of face by the government if they had accepted it…

    No the best thing tha can happen is for this bill to be lost as this would permit the quiet adoption of Lord Norton’s amendment before 2015…

  • James Sandbach 15th Jan '14 - 12:14pm

    Well said. Whilst corporate/commercial lobbying and influence with it’s associated and un-transparent cash nexus with Government and politics needs to tacked this is a blunt instrument there is a real problem with Government regulating the campaigning activities of charities and civil society – I can’t think of a single progressive change and development in public policy (from universal suffrage and abolition of slavery onwards, to modern human and social rights) that has not been put on the political agenda by such campaigning activity from interests, organisations and community leadership (including Unions) outside parliament – such progressive change is rarely initiated from Government and Parliament itself. The basic criticism from NGO sector, 38 degrees et all is fair – that to make this activity harder by increasing the financial control and regulation of such campaigns especially in election run-ups, risks undermining democracy itself.

    It’s no defence for Lib Dem MPs to say they’ve amended the legislation to take it back to something more like Labour’s PPREA (Political Parties, ElectionS and Referendums Act 2000) regime and the associated accounting thresholds it introduced, as the Lib Dems were the most highly critical opponents of this legislation at the time.. including that it created a much more difficult environment for volunteer led local parties to flourish and operate (and remains the bane of every local party’s treasurer’s life). The party’s campaigning roots are from the same stable as civil society organisations. If our Parliamentarians don’t see this basic problem and contradiction here, then they’ve forgotten where they came from….

  • So the Health & Social Care Act risk register will be released when?

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