The revelations this week about the true extent of the Murdochs’ influence on the government are truly shocking. The facts are still being established but it is alleged that a NewsCorp lobbyist was able to get insider and confidential information about the government’s dealings with Ofcom and was even advised by a special adviser on how to unpick Ofcom’s arguments when they opposed the proposed takeover of BSkyB. But what should be of even greater concern is the fact that under normal circumstances we would never have had any way of finding this out.
The government is currently proposing introducing a statutory register of lobbyists but their definition of lobbying is so flawed that it will reveal little meaningful information. Frederic Michel, the NewsCorp public relations executive at the centre of this scandal, would not even be covered by the government proposals because, like three quarters of all lobbyists, he works ‘in house’ for a particular organisation, rather that for a multi-client agency.
Scandals involving inappropriate links between professional lobbyists, politicians and civil servants have been constantly in the news. Whether it is about Rupert Murdoch, changes to the NHS or banking sector reform, time and again it emerges that lobbyists have been courting politicians and officials to change laws and regulations or award them, or their clients, government contracts, all too often to benefit their bottom line rather than the public interest.
As it happens, last Friday a delegation from Unlock Democracy and 38 Degrees handed in a petition signed by 73,400 people, 1,344 individual consultation responses and a letter signed by 28 campaigning organisations, calling on the government to beef up its proposals to introduce a register of lobbyists.
We want a set of rules which affects everyone trying to influence government. Lobbying is an important part our democratic system. It is what we all do when we contact our elected representatives to let them know we care about an issue. It is one of the ways that MPs and Ministers find out about different views on policy areas and bring expert groups into the policy-making process.
It is also big business. Lobbying is an industry worth £2 billion in the UK and it is estimated that knowing a cabinet minister can earn you over £113,000 a year. The problem is, at the moment, most of this is done in secret. We can’t make an informed decision about what is or isn’t appropriate. If we don’t know who is pulling the strings, how can we hold our elected politicians to account?
The government proposes that lobbyists only reveal who is lobbying. Information on a register will only be meaningful if lobbyists' are required to reveal their dealings with government – who is being lobbied and what they are being lobbied on. We also think the amount of money spent on lobbying should be declared so that the disparities in the amounts of money spent can be clearly seen. This doesn’t have to be complicated or bureaucratic. As part of our consultation response Unlock Democracy has drafted an entry for the type of register we would like to see; it took us about 20 minutes.
This latest incident only highlights how weak the government’s proposals are. We need a register that covers all lobbying, whether it is done by in-house lobbyists like Fred Michel, “consultants” like Sarah Southern who was filmed by the Sunday Times boasting of her ability to get “face time” with the Prime Minister, public affairs companies like Bell Pottinger, large corporations with their own in-house teams, law firms, trade unions or campaigning groups like Unlock Democracy. We are not opposed to lobbying, but this kind of secret lobbying, buying access (and even influence if Peter Cruddas, the former co-Treasurer of the Conservative Party, is to be believed), can subvert democracy by giving those with the greatest resources undue influence and privileged access to politicians.
A statutory register of lobbyists is an essential step to increasing transparency in government. It would not cover individuals lobbying their MP, unpaid lobbying activity or small charities or voluntary organisations such as the local community group campaigning to save a local pub or cinema. But it would shine a light on the companies and organisations trying to influence a particular policy and how much they are prepared to spend to achieve their goal.
David Cameron has committed the UK to being “the most open and transparent in the world” - opening up lobbying is a good place to start. It should not take a major inquiry like Leveson to reveal the extent to which politicians and lobbyists have colluded; it should be put on the public record in a timely manner as a matter of course. In a case such as this one, such disclosure would almost certainly have made the individuals concerned think twice about their behaviour.