By Angela Harbutt
A lot has been discussed in the past few days about The Sunday Times expose “Cash For Access” and Panorama’s yet to be aired (but seemingly similar) expose.
The Sunday Times alleges that “PEERS have been caught offering to ask parliamentary questions, lobby ministers and host events on the House of Lords terrace for cash”. The Panorama expose is yet to air but has resulted in Patrick Mercer MP resigning the Conservative Whip. The allegations seem similar.
This has prompted a surge of cries for Government to clean up parliament and for Ministers scrambling to “do something”. In this instance “something” appears to be revisiting the right for constituents to recall an MP and to introduce a “register of lobbyists”.
Nick Clegg has been at the forefront of this, saying that the present scandal showed how “the political system has long been crying out for head-to-toe reform” and vowing to force a statutory register of lobbyists into law.
Reform of the political system may be necessary – but are the reforms proposed by Government the right ones? I would argue no.
I have no problem with giving voters the right to force a by-election. Always assuming that careful rules can be put in place to prevent MPs opponents from forcing spurious recalls in marginal seats. But that rule that won’t help one iota with the subject of the Sunday Times sting – The House of Lords.
The House of Lords is in a mess. It failed to sort out the expenses fiddling fiasco – with many Lords getting off scot free despite blatant breaches of the oh-so-loose rules. OK, some had to pay back some of the money they had swindled, but there seems to be no mechanism for expelling people found to have done wrong. Surely what we need is more explicit rules for Lords and much tougher sanctions for wrong-doers?
Having not seen the Panorama programme, it is difficult to judge the extent of the problem amongst MPs. So far all we have seen is one MP allegedly breaking current parliamentary rules. If some MPs are willing to break the current rules why would anyone assume that installing more rules (and not even rules for the MP themselves) will improve the situation?
Frankly it leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. Responding to political sleaze with a promise of a statutory register of lobbyists is akin to politicians saying
“not our fault guv – it’s those bastards over there – blame them – we politicians can’t help ourselves”….. “When sharp suited men arrive waving £50 notes we have no free will. No choice in the matter. What we need to do is remove temptation and opportunity from us weak-willed politicians and all will be well in the world.”
Same old politicians turning the spotlight away from themselves and onto someone else.
And then we must consider what that “statutory register of lobbyists” would look like. Because this gives me great cause for concern. How do you define lobbying and/or lobbyists for the purposes of the register?
If you define lobbyists as those who undertake lobbying activities on behalf of a third party client you are, by definition, excluding those large organisations that have in-house lobbying. A small consultancy operating for, say, Stop the Badger Cull would be required to register but a large company employing in-house lobbyists would not. That’s hardly fair – and should rightly be rejected. Even if you did force such an unfair system into place, I suggest that many organisations would simply shut down their external lobbying contracts and move the activity in-house. Back to square one – except the big boys are fine and the small guys get whacked.
Then again if you choose instead to define lobbyists as those who lobby MPs (i.e. focus on the act of lobbying) then surely you encompass thousands of people from every walk of life? Whilst it may be easy to identify those individuals who, say, spend 50% or more of their time on “lobbying”, it isn’t, after-all, just the in-house lobbying team that can and will be deployed. Any employee, director, patron, or charity ambassador must surely be counted as a lobbyist if, in the course of their interaction with a politician, they put the case of their charity, cause, campaign or company? Are we really suggesting that Cancer Research UK (which seems to lobby the government daily on one topic or another) must register every member of staff, volunteer and cancer ambassador that ever has any interaction with a politician?
A step too far surely? Some have suggested that charities should be excluded. Well that’s where most of the lobbying comes from as far as I can see? There are 27,000 charities out there that survive on taxpayers’ cash for more than 75 per cent of their income. I dare say a large number of those, big and small, lobby politicians all too regularly, arguing for everything from more regulation to more funding. Their vested interest – in perpetuating their income streams – runs every bit as deep as those from business. (There is a strong and growing case that those charities receiving money from government should not be allowed to lobby their paymasters at all – but that is another topic for another day).
In any event, you can’t exclude a charity lobbying for more foreign aid spend from the register but force a campaign group representing taxpayers to be included in the register, surely? Unless this whole statutory register of lobbyists business is not about reform of parliament at all, but a thinly disguised anti-business campaign.
Of course, it should be mentioned at this point that 38 Degrees raised 66,000 signatories during the consultation on “Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists” supporting its statement that Government should “Stop Secret Lobbying”. And actually I am in favour of that. They also call on rules to force “politicians to reveal who they’re meeting and what they talked about”. I am in favour of that too.
It’s just as far as I am aware Ministers are already required to publish a list of all meetings they have with third parties (who and about what) together with any gifts etc received. (eg “Ministerial gifts hospitality travel and external meetings”).
Except you see they don’t always follow the rules either. I won’t bore you with the whole sorry tale (you can read it here), but one Minister had a secret (sorry “informal”) meeting with an APPG and a state-subsidised “charity” that the Minister did not include in their published list of meetings. When an FOI exposed the existence of that meeting, and later what they discussed, (including lobbying for the exclusion of certain groups from an on-going consultation) – the meeting was suddenly and secretively added to the public list of meetings on the (inappropriately named) “transparency” web site.
Of course no money changed hands, unless you consider the APPG group which secured the Ministerial meeting, receives support from the aforementioned state-subsidised charity - in the form of administrative support, provision of materials, funding for group receptions and for design, printing, photography, and dissemination costs relating to group publications and stationery. Oh quite a bit then.
And there we come full circle. You see the problem isn’t the lobbying at all. I don’t mind that a lobbying group met with a Minister. I mind that it was kept secret. And I mind that, although against the rules, when the meeting was exposed, they just amended the public records and went their merry way. The minister received no sanction or public cross-examination.
A statutory register of lobbyists would not have prevented that from happening. Nor will it prevent future cash for questions or cash for influence scandals.
The problem here is not the lobbyists it’s the politicians – who believe they can act with impunity – and that is where the focus of attention should firmly remain rather than seeking out more scapegoats. Throwing the public a bone (in this case a register of lobbyists) and trusting it will keep then distracted until the storm blows over is an age-old politicians trick. One we we should have grown wise to by now.
, register of lobbyists
, Sunday Times