David Cameron promised to “shine the light of transparency on lobbying” and later declared that lobbying in this country was “out of control”. Strong words from a former PR man, but so far only words from the Prime Minister, no action. Lobbying reform appears to be stuck on Cameron’s crowded back burner. Why the delay? Maybe it’s been labelled ‘too difficult – put off for as long as possible’ or perhaps he’s been overwhelmed by lobbyists trying to convince him that self-regulation is working just fine.
Whether we like it or not, lobbying has become a part of politics. Lobbyists are paid huge sums to influence politicians’ decisions on behalf of their clients. The ‘industry’ has developed under our noses and yet we have little idea about the activities of lobbyists and absolutely no idea about who is lobbying who and for what reason – or how much money is changing hands. Lobbying is to all intents and purposes, secret. That cannot be right. We have a right to know exactly what is going on.
The government is apparently proposing that there should be a register of lobbyists. This turns out to be a proposal that would require minimum disclosure. It would only cover lobbying agencies i.e. those who undertake to lobby on behalf of third parties. It would exclude the thousands of people who work in-house for large corporations, trade bodies, charities and others. This is non-sensical when in-house lobbyists outnumber lobbyists-for-hire by at least 4 to 1. It would mean, for example, a supermarket with a team of 10 in-house, full-time lobbyists wouldn’t have to register, but if it temporarily took on an agency to increase its lobbying firepower, only the agency would have to register its lobbyists.
But ‘registration’ is a red herring. It will reveal who is lobbying for whom, but without any disclosure of what is being lobbied for, it’s a complete waste of time. Where’s the transparency?
What is being lobbied for has to be made public – and well in advance of the lobbying taking place – or any reform will be utterly meaningless. Those opposed to any proposed lobby should be given the opportunity to put their case too. The amount of money being paid for any lobbying initiative should also have to be disclosed.
If our democracy is to grow and flourish, we have to be completely aware of what is being said and done in our name. Secret lobbying by vested interests undermines our democratic process. It cannot be allowed to continue. Unless we demand complete transparency, we will end up with dysfunctional politics. It’s happened in the US, it must not be allowed to happen here.