Prevarication. Obfuscation. Delay.
These have been the three Government watchwords as they try to work out what to do with the lobbying industry.
Finally released after months of delay, the Government report on lobbying has been sneaked out in the form of a written statement on a quiet Friday morning. The statement should be quickly followed by legislation but instead it has been revealed that there is to be more delay while a long-winded consultation takes place.
Lobbying ought to be a healthy and necessary part of our democracy. Not only can it help politicians to have fully informed debates, but it also allows for open access to government by constituents, individuals and organisations.
But, as the Public Administration Select Committee’s (PASC) stated, whilst lobbying “enhances democracy…it can also subvert it”.
Amongst many practitioners within the lobbying industry I have discovered that there is an aspiration to operate ethically. But after a string of scandals, it is clear that at its worst the current unregulated and closed circle of secretive lobbying of senior politicians by powerful commercial interests is unhealthy and undemocratic.
The Government need to get serious about lobbying transparency and end the current uncertainty that exists in the lobbying industry. If we are to give an assurance to a sceptical public that politicians are serious about cleaning up our act then we need action now.
The Opposition will support actions by the Government to regulate the industry. But let’s be clear. We will insist that the only way this can be done is by introducing a statutory register of lobbyists.
Furthermore, the Government must use this opportunity to sort out once and for all the serious flaws in the current system that allowed the recent scandals to happen. There is now widespread acceptance that there needs to be statutory regulation.
At a time of such growing public concern about the access to and influence over elected representatives by some lobbyists, failure to act will show this government to be utterly out of touch.
These are tests for meaningful legislative proposals to protect and enhance our democracy:
- A statutory register of lobbyists must have a clear definition of what lobbying is.
- Everyone who comes under the new definition of lobbying must register.
- There should be a de minimis financial threshold for spending on lobbying and any activity which is in excess of that amount must be registered.
- There needs to be a code of conduct with clear consequences for those who breach it with the ultimate sanction of being struck of the register in the most serious cases (such as making illegal payments to Members of Parliament).
Senior public servants and politicians also need to have their activities subject to scrutiny. This should be the case for example with the so-called “revolving door”. It is destructive of public confidence when someone leaves a Ministry one day and within a short time is employed by the industries which lobby that same ministry.
Although guidelines state that former senior public officials and Ministers who lobby government after they have left office should not do so for two years, it is clear that these rules could be stronger. On this issue it seems that the Government has made a u-turn. David Cameron stated in his “Rebuilding Trust in Politics” speech that:
we will rewrite the Ministerial Code to make it clear that anyone who ignores the advice of the Committee will be forced to give up some or all of their Ministerial pension.”
The time has come to reassure a sceptical public that we are serious about cleaning up politics and to rebuild trust and confidence. The present voluntary system is not working. Properly regulated lobbying can be a healthy part of a democracy, but it needs to be transparent and fair. There is no excuse for further delay and the public will conclude that further delay and prevarication is the product of the well-known links between many members of coalition parties and the lobbying industry.