Lobbyists might never finish first in a popularity contest, but as an industry whose job it is to stick up for causes, whether popular or not, we’ve also got to make sure that the public understands why lobbying can be a force for immense good.
Now more than ever, as the government edges closer to implementing its botched lobbying legislation, it is vital that the public understands why these reforms do not go nearly far enough and could, perversely, reduce public confidence in lobbying.
For many people, cash for questions was their first introduction to the term lobbying, and it has been an albatross around our necks ever since. From the shattered reputation of a formative industry emerged a consensus to drive up transparency.
Two decades on, and much has been done.
Yet judging by the report out this week by Transparency International, you’d be forgiven for thinking that little has improved, and that we secretly welcome the government’s half-baked plans for a lobbying register. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We estimate that the government’s lobbying register will compel less than 1 per cent of UK lobbyists to sign up (it captures only third-party lobbyists, excluding all in-house operators). That’s like only sending one official to referee the World Cup finals.
Fewer than 100 lobbying firms are signed up to the beta version of the register. By anyone’s standards, that’s a joke.
We warned the government that excluding in-house lobbyists would miss off the vast majority of those people who meet with and influence ministers and senior policy-makers, but it didn’t listen.
Lobbying is undertaken by just about every sector of society you can imagine – from large corporates and law firms to think tanks and small charities.
They all have a legitimate voice, but in return, they should all be listed on any government register.
Read more: Report: MPs should not be paid to lobby
Members of the Association of Professional Political Consultants – the body charged with driving up standards in lobbying in the wake of cash for questions – already signs up to a strict code of conduct which, among other things, prevents firms employing MPs or peers and denies membership to lobbyists who hold parliamentary passes.
A statutory register is our opportunity to showcase just how ethical our behaviour is. But the government pulled its punches, refusing to include other lobbyists, and railroaded through a flawed bill in time for the election.
So we agree with Transparency International in saying that not enough is being done. But please don’t lump the lobbyists in with the government.
The government should go back to the drawing board and come up with a better register which covers every lobbyist.
It should also ensure timely and comprehensive publication of ministerial and MPs diaries – arguably the best disinfectant here and a good way to cross-reference entries on any lobbying register.
If you can see that a minister met with, say, a bank, you can check the bank also registered the meeting – it’s a double lock.
And parliamentarians, at the very minimum, should be banned from being law-makers and lobbyists at the same time – it’s high time that the parliamentary authorities got their own house in order.
I want to see public confidence increase in the important business of lobbying. The government’s partial register risks diminishing it.
It is a missed opportunity which we’ll all soon come to rue.