LOBBYING INDUSTRY REFORM
Welcome to our first 35 Debate, a series of email dialogues in association with 35 Communications. Always keen to pursue best practice and promote debate, 35 Communications asks ‘Is the lobbying industry in need of reform?':
What should be done about the lobbying industy? In this, the first installment of 35 Debates, we ask whether there’s a case to be made for urgent reform. Two eager protagonists have agreed to exchange a few friendly emails in the hope of winnng over the other. Taking part... David Miller from the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency who is also a founder member of Spinwatch and Ben Atfield, a partner in Ellwood and Atfield the search and selection specialist for communications with a political and regulatory context.
Dear Ben, Public trust in politics is at rock bottom and barely a day goes by without a scandal about undue influence on politics.The other week it was the House of Lords, last week it was the revolving door between the banks and the financial regulator, the FSA, whose deputy chair has just resigned. Common to each scandal is the question of privileged access and vested interests. It is time we cleaned up politics. But we cannot do it just by tightening the ethical behaviour of MPs and civil servants and regulators. It takes two to tango in the lobby dance besmirching the name of democracy.The activities of the vested interests represented by lobbyists need to be opened up to the light of day as well.
That is why we think that a register of lobbyists needs to be introduced. It would force lobbying consultancies, in-house corporate lobbyists, lawyer, accountants and others to reveal who they are working for in an easily accessible public register overseen by an independent body. What have the lobbyists got to hide?
Hello David, If you’re not careful, your approach will end up contributing to the prevailing climate of cynicism and lack of trust in politics. Something I’m sure you don’t want to do.
Let’s first deal with your request for a ‘Register’. One already exists for commercial lobbyists. Set up and maintained by the Association of Professional Political Consultancies (APPC), it gives details of circa 90% of UK lobby firms, names all the staff they employ and all the clients they represent. It also has a clear code of conduct. It might not be perfect but these structures never are. In the USA, they have incredibly detailed laws covering lobbyist both at a national and state level and noone would suggest that even this extreme regulationdelivers perfect results. So you’re going to have to be more specific – what sort of register do you want and for whom?
The question we have been given refers to the ‘lobbying industry’. You have characterised this as consisting of commercial lobbying companies, inhouse corporate lobbyists, lawyers and accountants.This covers only a fraction of those who actively
lobby government and the civil service. You need to include, NGOs, charities, trade unions, religious organisations, civil society groups, quangos, professional bodies, trade associations, academics, think tanks, journalists, chairman and non-executive
leaders, the list just goes on. Your thing might be ‘corporate’ lobbyists but surely if you want real transparency it should apply equally to everyone who lobbies. Don’t you agree?
I don’t think a new register is necessarily a good or bad thing. However, I’m sure it is a technical solution to a political problem. If you’re not careful we could end up with a state regulator, because that’s what your ‘independent body’ is. However, we are not
talking about the regulation of the utility or banking industry. Your proposal is to regulate a fundamental aspect of our democracy. Such a body would endlessly be drawn into regulating and interfering in all aspects of public debate and the cut and thrust that is intrinsic to politics. What would you call your new independent body? Of Democracy?
The problem we face is that vested interests are able to interfere with the political life of our country – the financial crisis is a particularly apposite example.
Ben, You can’t be serious about the APPC register, can you? The PPC does not include 90% of UK lobbying firms. There are several hundred altogether and only 61 in the APPC. What’s more, there are hundreds more law and accountancy firms, think tanks, policy groups and similar organisations which engage in lobbying which will never be caught by the APPC register. Moreover, the existing register is voluntary and there are no penalties for inaccuracies. The Public Administration Select Committee rightly concluded it was a fig leaf.
As a first step, I would go for the kind of system the most recent reforms in the US (including Obama’s new measures) have introduced. These include mandatory disclosure of clients, the issues lobbied on and the amount of money spent. Is it perfect? No, but it is a first step in opening up politics. Don’t I agree that any rules should apply to everyone? Of course I do. I have said so repeatedly. NGOs and other critics of the system should be transparent too. is is not least because there are all sorts of NGOs and seemingly independent or respectable institutes which are in fact fronts for vested interests. The Financial Times published a
long analysis of this ‘web of deception’ only last week. The industry has failed to outlaw such tactics and cast out the PR and lobbying firms that use them. Hence binding regulation is necessary.
Am I not worried about a ‘state’ regulator? The problem we face is that vested interests are already able to interfere with the political life of our country – the financial crisis is a particularly apposite example. e more democratic interference there is
with such activities, the better.
Any new body cannot, like the Financial Services Authority, be stuffed with people from the industry. It needs to be independent and able to wield powers to investigate and sanction wrongdoing. The aim of this is to make democracy work by letting in the
light. So why not call it a sunlight institute? The tide is moving in favour of transparency. Even the Law Society seems to be in favour now. It is time the lobbyists realised that they cannot remain a subterranean profession for ever.
PS -The Daily Mail is even on our side now!
Hello David, ‘Sunlight Institute’? Very Orwellian and 1984ish. I think you’re right about the “tide moving in favour of transparency”. Just not so sure it’s a good thing. Being on the side of ‘greater transparency’ sounds good, kind of noble and decent. No sensible or honest person could possibly take exception to more transparency. Could they?
Personally, I’m in favour of strong freedom of information legislation. However, I have concerns over those shouting for greater transparency. Firstly, it’s such an opaque and ambiguous concept. These days I expect it’s easier to conceal something, the
louder you shout “greater transparency”. My second worry is that I think it’s used as a moral explanative, as in (said while pointing the finger): “They doesn’t believe in greater transparency!” It’s designed to secure a defensive response, rarely does anyone someone reply, “Its none of your business”
You have to admit that those who demand greater transparency from those who lobby are almost always directing their guns towards commercial lobbying, ‘big business’ and their ‘vested interests’. The rather insidious inference is that vested interests are negative. You say you want a register of those who lobby to include everyone who lobbies. I think your real concerned is ‘big business’ – which is fair enough but shouldn’t you just come out and say it?
You argue that vested interests are already able to interfere with the political life of this country. So what? Isn’t the contest between different ‘vested interests’ what politics and a healthy democracy is all about? You might be suspicious of Monsanto, BP or lobby firm ABC, but I think its reasonable for someone else to be equally suspicious of Friends of the Earth or anti-Heathrow runway organisation X.
Every organisation has vested interests. You can’t legislate them away. In fact, the struggle to find the collective interest is what politics and democracy is all about. If you’re not careful more registers, rulebooks and regulation could undermine our political life and liberal democracy.
So what? Isn’t the contest between vested interests what politics and a healthy democracy is all about? You can’t legislate them away.
Ben, This is all rather vague. The point of transparency is to open the political process as opposed to concealing interests. I agree that it is reasonable to be suspicious of campaign groups. That is why any register needs to apply to all. But when you answer ‘It’s none of your business’ and ‘So what?’, it suggests you don’t really like the idea of a better informed, participative democracy.
Take the financial crisis. Are you suggesting it is none of our business how the banks secured the privileged position with government that led to the current malaise? Lobbying transparency would not ‘fix’ the political system by itself. But it would be a start on the road to strengthening citizens over vested interests.
What defenders of the established order need to explain is why they are opposed to opening up the political system to public scrutiny.
Hello David, I’m absolutely in favour of the public scrutinising politics. Where we disagree is you want to increase the power and the influence of the State over our political life, while I think it not only unnecessary but also incredibly perilous. You are dangerously naive if you think the state is a value-free, disinterested body. You want every campaigning body with a “vested interest”registered and policed. Sounds totalitarian to me and I’ll lobby to stop that any day.