IN A few weeks, the government will publish a bill to introduce a statutory lobbying register. The principle is sound: a one-stop shop outlining the details of every lobbyist in the UK. Combined with full disclosure of ministerial meetings, it would renew public confidence about who’s lobbying, who’s being lobbied, and how often. Yet the coalition intends to introduce a register that only covers a fraction of lobbyists. And it will do virtually nothing to increase transparency.
Lobbying is a fundamental part of the policy-making process. Unlike in the US, where Congressional offices are packed with policy wonks, an MP’s budget is more modest. As many MPs will testify, lobbyists are essential to helping frame policy, with good lobbying leading directly to good policy. Recall the recent dramatic increase in the capital allowance limit from £25,000 to £250,000? It was arguably the result of lobbying from the likes of the Federation of Small Businesses.
But the government intends to introduce only a partial register, covering so-called third-party lobbyists – public affairs agencies and management consultancies. Yet they are rarely the ones who meet with MPs or ministers. A recent analysis found that, of the 8,000 ministerial meetings declared by departments, just 18 were with a representative of a lobbying firm. The vast majority were with in-house lobbyists from charities and large corporations.
Big businesses, charities and unions all have legitimate concerns that a comprehensive register could lead to financial and administrative burdens. But a well-designed register would be inexpensive and easy to administer. Existing registers already operated by the lobbying industry take little more than a few minutes to update on a quarterly basis. Based on the cost of managing these existing schemes, the expense of registration need be only a few pounds for an individual.
One big sticking point is the issue of a code of conduct. If the government created and managed a new code itself, the process risks being expensive, especially if you include the cost of developing an independent arbitration process to enforce it. But this would be unnecessary duplication: ethical codes of conduct already exist, so there’s no reason why a hybrid model couldn’t be developed, where every lobbyist signs up to a government register at the same time as declaring which industry code they adhere to.
This light-touch, inexpensive and universal register would have practical benefits. Armchair auditors could see who’s working in the UK as a lobbyist. It would prevent conflicts of interest in government – only recently a minister was compromised when it became clear he was employing someone who also worked as a lobbyist. It would also enable Parliamentary authorities to see who is a registered lobbyist, and therefore who can and cannot be issued a Parliamentary pass.
It’s a shame that big business, the unions and the government oppose a universal register. The coalition’s scheme is half-baked, and will do nothing to prevent the next lobbying scandal – precisely what the Prime Minister said reform should be designed to do.
Michael Burrell is chairman of the Association of Professional Political Consultants.