Another month, another lobbying scandal. The last led to the resignation of the defence secretary. This one leads to the prime minister himself.
One of the lobbyists caught by this week’s investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and published in The Independent, Tim Collins, is the chief lobbyist at Bell Pottinger Public Affairs. He is caught on camera boasting of his contacts:
“I was in the Conservative research department with David Cameron and George Osborne… I’ve been working with people like Steve Hilton, David Cameron, George Osborne, for 20 years-plus. Edward Llewellyn, who’s the prime minister’s chief of staff, was my deputy in Central Office for a long time.
“I know all these people. There is not a problem in getting the messages through to them.”
That may be the case for lobbyists, but not so for the rest of us. Public and Parliamentary calls for the government to deliver on its coalition pledge for a statutory register of lobbyists have been met with near silence.
A mandatory register would require all lobbyists (above a minimum financial threshold) to publicly declare who they are, who they are lobbying for, which areas of government policy they are seeking to influence, and how much money is being spent on their activities. To work, it must include for-profit, trade union and charitable lobbying (although only those with significant lobbying budgets). It’s a straightforward system of registration, with a minimal degree of bureaucracy.
The US has successfully operated a register of lobbyists for well over a decade. Canada and Australia too. (It’s worth noting that lobbyists who have been screaming that a register won’t work in the UK, routinely comply with regulations abroad). The UK – with the world’s third largest industry after Washington and Brussels, worth in the region of £2billion – is way behind the curve on this.
Due to publish its plans last autumn, the government has again shifted the deadline for a consultation on the register to early next year. Further pressure has been put on the government just this morning, with one of the lobbyists’ key bodies dropping its opposition to statutory regulation, and urging the government to “deliver such a register without further delay.”
It seems the government is now the only block to reform.
David Cameron attacked “secret corporate lobbying” in a speech before last year’s election:
“We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear… It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works… a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.”
Now in government, Cameron’s hostility to lobbyists appears to have evaporated, along with his commitment to “shine the light of transparency on lobbying in our country”.
In recent months we have learnt that it is “completely commonplace" for Whitehall departments to contact corporate lobbyists about government business using text messages as a way to avoid disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.[i] We’ve seen the “systematic use of private e-mails” by education Secretary Michael Gove for the same reason.[ii] Local government secretary, Eric Pickles, kept hidden a dinner with lobbyists and businesses with an interest in his department, because he claims to have attended in a ‘private’ and not a ‘ministerial’ capacity.[iii] A week before the publication of the government’s radical changes to the planning system, planning minister Bob Neill enjoyed an informal drink on the lawns of Westminster Abbey with Tesco’s chief lobbyist Lucy Neville-Rolfe.[iv]
Meanwhile, there are the very private relationships between members of the Cabinet and lobbyists: former defence secretary Liam Fox’s friendship with lobbyist Adam Werritty led to his resignation. Last month, the partner of energy secretary Chris Huhne was caught hawking her services to lobbying firms on the strength of her “excellent contacts... from Cabinet members to more junior ministers”; The health secretary Andrew Lansley’s wife runs a lobbying firm that boasts clients in the drug and food business, and advices on establishing “positive relationships with decision-makers”.[v] Nick Clegg, who is ultimately responsible for the register’ introduction as head of the Cabinet Office, will not take a position on the policy because his wife is a lobbyist.
We were reminded last month of the Prime Minister’s relationship with his neighbour and close ally Lord Chadlington, thanks to a deal they had struck over a plot of land and a garage. Lord Chadlington owns and runs a vast communications group that includes three lobbying firms, whose clients include HSBC, Tesco and the City of London Corporation. Employees include lobbyists George Bridges, who is Cameron's former campaign director and a good friend of the Chancellor George Osborne; and Malcolm Morton, an ex-adviser to the Cabinet Office Minister with the responsibility of introducing a register of lobbyists, Mark Harper.[vi]
“I believe that it is increasingly clear that lobbying in this country is getting out of control,” said David Cameron in opposition. The situation under his leadership, is undoubtedly worse.
Bell Pottinger, the focus of the latest controversy, is just one of hundreds of lobbying agencies, trade bodies, think tanks, law firms, management consultancies, accountancy firms and corporations that make up the UK commercial lobbying business. We know next to nothing about the influence they exert on government policy. This latest scandal reveals actually very little.
Had we a compulsory register of lobbyists, we would be able to see, for example, the vast army of private healthcare companies lobbying for the current health reforms, and how much they have invested in lobbying for a slice of the NHS £100bn budget (many are the same companies that were at one point spending $1million a day lobbying against Obama’s healthcare reforms). We would be able to see the huge sums of money being spent by City interests to block reform and regulation. And we would see the tactical investment made by countless companies for government contracts (we know that in the US the rate of return on lobbying is about $1:$100).
Transparency in lobbying has the power to change the nature of debate in this country. No longer would be outraged by the dubious activities of one firm. We would be scandalized by a whole industry successfully shaping the way Britain is run for their own private gain. We would have insight into the decisions taken by government, and the forces at work to influence them.
If the government caves into the demands of its friends (wives / neighbours / former colleagues) in lobbying, we’ll be left in the dark, none-the-wiser about the private interests shaping our lives.