openDemocracyUK

Why does transparency matter?

Britons believe the country to be run largely in the interests of the few. The government could go a long way towards fixing this by improving its transparency, particularly on lobbying.

Alice McCool
2 November 2015
lansley.jpg

Andrew Lansley now advises private health firms. Flickr/NHS Confederation, CC BY 2.0

The social housing estates demolished to make way for luxury apartments. The banks which continue to be slackly regulated despite scandal after scandal costing the taxpayer billions. The cigarettes which remain in sexy, well designed packaging but continue to kill around 100,000 people per year.

Why do these injustices prevail in 2015 Britain? One reason is lack of transparency around government decision making. Transparency matters. This is perhaps stating the obvious. But it’s easy to forget these issues that impact the lives of all of us behind buzzwords like ‘transparency’, ‘open data’ and ‘accountability’. This is why we at Transparency International UK have launched the #TransparencyMatters campaign. This seeks to crowdsource the perspectives of activists, students, journalists and other members of the public, in order to understand why transparency matters to people.

 

Lobbying is an important part of our democratic system. My organisation pushes the government on the anti-corruption agenda. The problem is, this process can be abused by powerful companies and individuals looking to further their private interests at the public's expense.

This creates a risk that governments make decisions distorted by the commercial concerns of particular organisations, with the public good coming second. It also neglects the interests of less wealthy and powerful groups, such as charities, community groups and people like you and I.

Often, this effects the most vulnerable in society. Advocate for the rights of people with Type 1 diabetes, Amy, wrote to us explaining that the monthly bottles of insulin that diabetics need to survive cost from about £4-£40 dependent on the country. This helped the insulin industry reach annual profits of over £15 billion in 2013. Meanwhile, in 2015 alone, pharmaceutical companies declared a spend of nearly £27 million lobbying EU policymakers. As Amy writes;

‘It’s shocking that the monopoly of insulin-producing companies, and so many other pharmaceutical companies, are able to secretly exert pressure on policymakers to allow them to make such gross profits by making people pay such a high price for their survival.’

What needs to be done? Here in the UK, we were treated to the introduction of a Lobbying Act in 2014. Lucky us, right? Not exactly. This poorly drafted law has been widely criticised, even by the lobbyists themselves. The register defines less than 4% of lobbyists, provides such little detail about meetings – and in such an inaccessible format – it can barely be used to hold government to account.

Tackling lobbying abuse isn’t just about transparency. It’s worth remembering that alongside better transparency over donations to political parties, another way to reduce corruption in this area would be a cap on political donations of £10,000 per donor per year. The ‘revolving door’ between the public and private sector should also be better regulated by restrictions over those in power taking on jobs related to their work in government once they’ve left. The current system leaves room for abuse with the potential to affect all of us.

In November 2014, the Guardian reported that the director of Tesco and former head of the Food Standards Agency lobbied the government to not publish a report into the food poisoning contamination rates for chicken in supermarkets. This is another worrying example of a case which may have put commercial concerns before public health.

And transparency isn’t just important in lobbying. Being Transparency International and all, lobbying is just one area (albeit a very important one) where we think more transparency is needed.

Take transparency in public contracting. Around half of the UK government’s spend on goods and services now goes to private contractors. But unlike public institutions, we don’t have a right to access information from these companies about how our money is being spent. Transparency matters here because we are losing our right to know about the running of public services such as back-to-work schemes and healthcare.

In 2013 Transparency International UK did a survey in which 59 per cent of respondents believed that the UK government is 'entirely' or 'to a large extent' run by a few big entities acting in their own best interests. If there was more transparency about who public officials are meeting with, and what companies are up to, the government could begin to rebuild the trust of the British public. I challenge them to do that.

 

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