David Heath MP writes… Action at last on a lobbyists’ register

It’s strange how this selective amnesia thing works. The official Opposition has been agitating over recent weeks about when the government will publish the promised consultation on a Statutory Register of Lobbyists. You’d think they had always been in favour of such a thing. Er, no, not exactly. Because there were calls for its introduction under the last government. Liberal Democrats, for instance, asked repeatedly why the then Labour government wasn’t responding to clear recommendations from select committees to do just that. Labour ministers didn’t want to know. We even proposed amendments to at least require companies to report on their lobbying activities. Voted down by Labour back-benchers, the same ones who now want action yesterday.

Well, today we have published proposals, and they’re pretty comprehensive ones too. The paper doesn’t answer every question; hardly surprising, it is after all a consultation, and this is a complex issue. But it does take us a significant step forward to meeting yet another of our manifesto pledges, and one which became a Coalition commitment. And we are committed to bring forward legislation on the back of those consultations which will significantly increase the level of transparency in lobbying.

And transparency is what it is all about. Lobbying in itself is a perfectly legitimate activity. We all do it in support of causes we care about. Charities and NGOs have it is as their core mission. I confess, I was for a brief period a lobbyist, when I was employed by the Worldwide Fund for Nature back in the 1990s to try to strengthen the Environmental Protection Act. I don’t think what I was doing was in any way dishonourable. But what we do need to know is who is being paid to influence decision-makers in government, and to be able to form a judgment about whether their activities have influenced the outcome. That’s what a statutory Register will do.

The problem is definition. There were some who argued that, because we as a government are keen not to over-regulate small businesses, companies with less than ten employees should have been exempt. But many professional lobbyists are in precisely that category, so the proposal includes them. Some definitions would include anyone having a conversation on their own behalf, or would prevent ministers talking to companies in a sector for which they have responsibility without the chief executive registering as a lobbyist first. Not a sensible idea, and in any case such meetings are already declared by ministers under existing rules. And if Mrs Jones comes to my constituency surgery to complain about her blocked drain, I don’t really want to compel her to register as a lobbyist first!

There are still some serious questions to be addressed. Should the register include detailed financial information? Or does that simply make the register over-bureaucratic without making things more usefully transparent? Should the activities of Trades Unions be included? Are we right to insist that the industry itself should fund the register, but that it should be run by a body independent of government or lobbying companies? Should the register be extended to those who lobby only the devolved administrations or local government? And what about sanctions for those who don’t stick to the rules?

We need answers to those questions before moving forwards. But after years of shilly-shallying by the previous government, at last something is being done, and that something is the statutory register which we as Liberal Democrats campaigned for in the last election. And that’s good news.

* David Heath is MP for Somerton and Frome and Minister of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

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