openDemocracyUK: Opinion

How Cameron’s vow to clean up lobbying turned into a loophole-ridden sham

Previous parliamentary inquiries into lobbying have gone ignored. It’s hard to imagine Johnson’s will be any different

Tamasin Cave
15 April 2021, 1.56pm
David Cameron's register of lobbying contain's 'glaring' loopholes
Paul Grover / Alamy Stock Photo

“This is a government and a party that has been consistently tough on lobbying,” Boris Johnson boasted in Parliament yesterday in response to an attack from Keir Starmer over the return of “Tory sleaze”. As proof of this toughness, the prime minister cited the register of lobbyists introduced in 2015 under David Cameron’s government.

So what did MPs of all parties say at the time about Cameron’s register?

“Chronically bad”, “glaringly inadequate”, “deliberately evasive”, “disingenuous”, “an exercise in box ticking” and “a dog’s breakfast”. The way the government had steam-rollered the inadequate legislation through was “shoddy” and “contemptuous of the public”, Parliament heard.

I spent a decade campaigning, alongside a coalition of NGOs, for transparency rules for lobbyists. Our central demand was a straightforward and robust register of lobbyists, such as exists in countries around the world. A register that would make public just who is bending the ear of government and what they are after, whether that’s a corporate tax break or a slice of the NHS.

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A register provides a small window into government, but a necessary one, if we are to be meaningfully informed and involved in how this country is run.

The “dog’s breakfast” we ended up with was a fake register. A sham. It covers only a tiny fraction of the thousands of lobbyists operating in the UK and then demands that they reveal nothing meaningful about their interactions with government. Take a look. You’ll see, for example, that a mozzarella cheese company used a lobbying firm to approach some unnamed minister about something in 2015, but not a mention in six years of the government dealings with BP, Amazon or Philip Morris.

What are the loopholes?

The loopholes are glaring. Lobbyists don’t have to declare who they lobbied, or what they discussed. They only have to register if they are a third-party lobbyist for hire – not if they’re directly employed by a company to lobby on its behalf, as Cameron was. Even then, the rules catch only those who lobby ministers and permanent secretaries (almost no one in the latter case), not those who lobby political advisers, most civil servants or regulators. And lobbyists can also avoid registration if their lobbying work is part of a larger contract, for example for management consultancy or legal advice.

This was all by design. Cameron only pretended to regulate lobbying. A case of being seen to act.

At the start of our campaign, around the time Cameron gave that speech about lobbying in 2010, I was buoyed by the evidence of public concern and parliamentary support, and the overwhelming evidence that the system was being abused. My inexperience gave me a naive confidence in the power of rational argument to win through.

The biggest problem isn’t lobbyists – it’s government

I thought the biggest problem we had were the thousands of professional persuaders that make up the UK’s £2bn influence industry. True, these lobbyists used every tool in their box to head off regulation: false arguments and dire warnings; phoney solutions and backroom dealings with ministers. They also courted us, tried to co-opt us, and called us names: “conspiracy theorists” and more puzzlingly, “unwashed”.

But what I quickly learned is that the biggest block to reform is at the top of government. Indeed, even the lobbyists who once fought us now acknowledge the act was “unfit” and are calling for tougher regulation to restore public trust.

Cameron only pretended to regulate lobbying. A case of being seen to act

Cameron told us that “secret corporate lobbying” was a big part of the reason that people are so “fed up with politics”, but that didn’t mean he was going to do anything effective to prevent it. There was no political will in Downing Street to shine a light on lobbying, we were told by one official at the time. And the register? It was “never going to happen”. Little wonder, then, that all we got in the end was a fake.

What did Cameron – and now, it seems, Johnson – fear would happen? Most lobbying is quite mundane and of little public interest. But by opening the curtains and letting a bit of light into the room, would we glimpse the “cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest” that Cameron referred to?

The late lobbyist Tim Bell dismissed a desire for transparency as an “obsession with wanting to look through people’s windows and go through their drawers . . . sure they will find some terrible conspiracy.”

There is no conspiracy. Instead, what many people have quite rationally grasped is that the public has been mostly evicted from decision-making to be replaced with lobbyists for commercial interests – with increasingly dire consequences for people and the planet. A new report looking into the influence of heavily polluting industries, for instance, finds a definite reluctance on the part of Johnson’s government to take them on. “We are never going to have change while these actors are so close to government,” says Peter Newell, a professor of international relations at the University of Sussex.

What will it take to change it?

This is why lobbying matters. It is the gateway problem. So, what will it take to change it?

The first call for rules governing lobbying in the UK came in 1969, following a scandal after a lobbying firm was hired to launder the UK reputation of the Greek military junta. Like every government since, Johnson’s calculation is that it is better to weather the storm of scandals than allow routine scrutiny of his government’s everyday backroom dealings with commercial lobbyists. Johnson has no intention “to start a conversation about the rights and wrongs of lobbying, let alone to propose a new system,” BBC News political editor Laura Kuenssberg reports.

Kuenssberg is right. Johnson has a longstanding dependence on commercial lobbyists – from those, like Lynton Crosby, who helped him win power, to the small army now employed inside government, not counting all the ex-lobbyists among his MPs (and in his Cabinet). He is highly unlikely to reform where Cameron didn’t.

So far, Johnson has attempted to restrict the response to announcing that one man, Boardman, will look narrowly and behind closed doors into the shenanigans between Cameron and the fintech company.

An 18-month inquiry recommended a decent register of lobbyists in 2009, which the government ignored

Labour is calling for a full parliamentary inquiry into lobbying. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has just announced another inquiry into the Greensill lobbying scandal. Channel 4 reported yesterday that the Public Accounts Committee and the Business Select Committee are set to announce inquiries too.

But it’s not clear what difference all this will make, beyond what Politico’s Playbook newsletter this morning called the potential for “spectacular grandstanding”. The Public Administration Select Committee conducted an extensive 18-month inquiry into lobbying that recommended a decent register of lobbyists in 2009, which the government then ignored. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee followed that up with an inquiry in 2012 into Cameron’s sham register, again ignored.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t think it will be found in the corridors of Westminster.

The first organised business lobby group in the UK launched in 1919, a time of popular, revolutionary ideas and a year after democratic reforms had just tripled the electorate. Greater public participation in reshaping this country was the threat that lobbying was the reaction to. I think, perhaps, the answer lies there.

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

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