Lobbying is an essential part of our democracy. But lobbying abuses undermine our democracy. And lobbying scandals occur with alarming frequency.
This is neither a small problem nor a myth: The process of lobbying can be abused by those looking to further private interests, and the decisions which govern our lives and the business environment in the UK can be distorted by narrow interests.
Our new research at Transparency International UK "Accountable Influence: Bringing Lobbying out of the Shadows”, lays bare just how little transparency there is around lobbying in the UK. Less than four per cent of lobbyists are covered by UK lobbying register and no meaningful information is recorded on the focus or money behind those lobbyists.
When it comes to the UK government’s records of meetings between lobbyists and Ministers, our new research has found that these disclosures suffer from severe delays (the most recent data covers meetings that happened over a year ago); only half of UK government departments publish them in an accessible format; and hardly any of them provide meaningful information about what was discussed at the meetings.
Beyond transparency failings, there are also gaps in the rules. Of particular note, payments for parliamentary advice are allowed in the House of Commons, whereas they are prohibited in the House of Lords, Scotland and Wales. Not only is this a loophole in the rules, but it is a much exploited loophole. Over £3.4 million has been paid to 73 MP’s last year for external advisory roles.
Most lobbyists will have little concern of greater transparency about their intention and the means by which they influence decision-makers. Indeed, public interest lobbying thrives on transparency. Greater transparency can inspire understanding about corporate influence and build trust in the integrity of decision-making. This is important for confidence in business regulations, but – more broadly – for confidence in the institutions of government.
There is an urgency in this agenda too. With over 59 per cent of the UK public believing that the UK government is ‘entirely’ or ‘to a large extent’ run by a few big entities acting in their own best interests, it is time for politicians and lobbyists to wake up to the problem.
Transparency is important, but it is not enough. The UK also needs to consider limits on the role of ‘big money’ in political finance and more effective regulation of the revolving door of employment between the public and private sectors.
We have started a #transparencymatters campaign and will be keen to work with policy makers and lobbyists to improve the transparency and accountability of political influence in the UK.