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The government's gagging law is still a dangerous shambles

While severely limiting the ability of civil society to function for a full year before a general election, the primary alleged targets of the bill - professional lobbyists - escape largely unharmed.

The storm of outrage among civil society organisations over the government’s bill to stifle campaigning by voluntary bodies, pressure groups and charities for a year in advance of the next general election has eclipsed debate on the abject weakness of the same bill’s proposals for a register of lobbyists. The lobbying bill – the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill – is now being examined in a most intense hub of lobbying activity in the UK, namely the House of Lords.

In February 2010, just months before the general election, David Cameron made a speech in which warned that lobbying “is the next big scandal waiting to happen”. He said, “It’s an issue that . . . has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.” He spoke about shining “the light of transparency” on lobbying so that politics “comes clean about who is buying power and influence.”

The bill, as drafted, shines only dim light on less than 80 per cent of the UK’s £2 billion commercial lobbying industry. It seeks to introduce a register of a small minority of  lobbyists – those who lobby on behalf of clients -  so it would really only cover those who work for an agency or work freelance and not the “in-house” lobbyists who are employed directly by companies and organisations. The register, condemned by Labour peer Dianne Hayter as a “skeleton register”, therefore misses out the vast mass of in-house lobbying with which government departments routinely engage – by, for example, the formidable bankers and insurance associations, the ABI and BBA, the pharmaceutical, defence, tobacco, processed food and sugar manufacturers, the trade associations, the media, law and accountancy firms, HS2, Heathrow, etc.

Worse still, the register would only cover those who lobby ministers and Permanent Secretaries, a tiny proportion of lobbying activity. Most contacts are with mid-ranking departmental officials, special advisers, MPs and peers. Moreover, the bill merely requires registered lobbyists to list their clients, but not to say who is being lobbied about what, yet only by revealing the lobbyists’ dealings with ministers, civil servants and parliamentarians can the process be made transparent and policy-makers be held to account.

The bill is being rushed through Parliament because the government wants to get it on the statute book in time for the restrictions on civil society to come into force a year before the election in 2015. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) has complained that the bill’s proposals are seriously flawed as a result of the “rushed way” in which it has been introduced, the “inadequate consultation with those it affects”, the neglect of Parliament and absence of pre-legislative scrutiny. It has been, the select committee says, “an abject lesson in how not to introduce legislation.”

The government’s arrogance has in effect created a loose alliance between the select committee, the lobbying industry and democracy campaigners like Unlock Democracy and Spinwatch on the case for a universal statutory register. The government published a consultative paper in 2012 outlining its proposal for a third-party only register which was rejected by the overwhelming majority of respondents. But the government is carrying on regardless. 

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations warned the government that a limited register “would ignore the significant role played in influencing public policy by in-house lobbyists. This approach would also build loopholes into the register, which might be exploited by unscrupulous operators. Having a register which did not encompass the vast majority of the industry would, in our view, not meet the Government’s aim of addressing the concerns about a lack of transparency.”

Three industry trade bodies – the Chartered Institute (CIPR) along with the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) and the Public Relations Consultants Association – agreed a joint definition of lobbying to underpin a statutory register of lobbyists that was both universal and transparent. This document was sent to ministers. The CIPR explained, “The definition we have proposed supports the common position between the three organisations that a register of lobbyists should be universal – that it should include everyone who seeks to influence public policy and law, with a number of common sense exceptions.” The Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee agreed, saying in their report, “the definition will be key to the success and effectiveness of any future register”.

The APPC has now joined forces with the TUC and Unlock Democracy in a last-minute attempt to sway the government, building on an analysis of the meetings of BIS ministers and permanent secretaries that found that only 1 per cent were with “third party” lobbyists. Hence the “1% is not enough” campaign which the three bodies have launched to demand that 100 per cent of professional lobbyists are part of the UK’s statutory registration regime.

But Cameron and Clegg are evidently quite at home in the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money that the Prime Minister once condemned. Indeed, they are about to make it cosier for themselves by stifling civil society in the run-up to the 2015 election. What a difference power and patronage make!

 

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About the author

Stuart Weir is a political activist. He was formerly editor of the New Statesman when he launched Charter 88, and director of Democratic Audit at Essex University.


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