How lobbying works – and why this Bill won’t change a fracking thing

James Cusick investigates the reality of corporate influence

As anti-fracking protesters march on the drilling site in the Sussex town of Balcombe, some environmental campaigners will doubtless question how the previously little-known method of extracting shale gas came to be regarded as the key potential solution to Britain’s energy problems.

They may not be surprised to learn that lobbying is a major part of the answer.

At the end of 2011, the chairman of the drilling company Cuadrilla, Lord Browne, arranged a series of meetings about fracking with senior ministers in the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). The former chief executive of BP – who holds a formal advisory role in the Cabinet Office – is understood to have picked up the phone at his Chelsea home and called the then Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, to raise the matter.

Meetings were also agreed for the DECC minister, Greg Barker, while arrangements were also made for the company’s senior management to meet DECC’s minister in the Lords, Lord Marland, and another minister, Charles Hendry.

Soon, the company went for another tack. Finding their work with the energy department wasn’t working, they went for the Treasury instead. And though they are understood to not have been involved face-to-face in the DECC meetings, corporate affairs consultants – lobbyists working for the drilling company – played their part behind the scenes.

With their help, academics were brought in to analyse and publish data on the scale of shale gas’s UK worth. Trusted journalists were contacted. Lists of those with opinions that mattered, including MPs, were drawn up. A lobbying strategy, aimed at changing and utilising the opinion of key players, was developed. The focus, with the Treasury at the centre, was on reducing the UK’s energy bill, ending the reliance on gas from abroad.

In the wake of these meetings, government assistance in ensuring Cuadrilla maximised the financial benefits of the energy “fracking” licences the company holds at 10 sites throughout the UK was said to be critical in convincing the Treasury that fracking could solve Britain’s energy problems.

Details of the discussions, however, remain officially confidential. There is currently nothing available to the public from the Treasury which says whether the Chancellor, George Osborne, nor any of his ministers, or senior Treasury civil servants, have been lobbied by specialist political consultants representing Cuadrilla. One might imagine it’s these kinds of activities – perfectly legal, but understandably of interest to the public in a democracy debating a major change policy – that a bill on the “transparency of lobbying” would help disclose.

Yet, when the Government’s proposals on this subject become law – including a statutory register of lobbyists, supposedly designed to police Britain’s £2bn industry – the public will still be no more informed about Treasury lobbying than they are now.

Tamasin Cave, director of Spinwatch, branded the proposed register “a fake”. “The Government has proposed the very narrowest definition of who the register should cover: it will include only consultant lobbyists, a minority in the industry,” she said. “In-house lobbyists are excused, firms whose main business is not lobbying are excluded, and it restricts disclosure only to consultants who lobby senior officials and ministers.”

The Independent has learned, through discussions with some of London’s leading political strategy companies, the third largest sector in the world behind Washington DC and Brussels, that Chloe Smith, the Cabinet Office minister piloting the bill, has barely spoken to any of the UK’s major lobbying and corporate affairs firms.

Many claimed that while David Cameron and his Cabinet know very well how lobbying campaigns work, this knowledge has been ignored to create legislation aimed at tackling a “fantasy-driven idea of lobbying” rather than the real thing. Is it all dark arts, firm handshakes in quiet corners of expensive London restaurants, political intelligence worthy of the military, and the covert use of Westminster networks? No. And the real methods, the ones that matter, will barely be affected by the plans.

Knife-edge Commons votes, worthy of a Hollywood thriller script, where MPs votes and opinions are ruthlessly harvested and campaigns won by relentless lobbying, do occur. “But they are rare,” said an award-winning adviser. “What a client is mostly looking for is political judgement, to have us decode what’s happening inside the Government,” said another insider.

According to many in the industry, top clients are not secured by offers to get CEOs private dinners with ministers, but detailed campaigns designed to challenge or force a policy through on the back of ostensibly bland-looking documents.

“We try and convince agnostics by commissioning economic data, micro and macro analysis, that might force a policy rethink. Tailored strategies are devised to change opinion. We often use the Treasury’s own economic model to predict an outcome they didn’t see. That’s difficult to ignore.”

From competitive “pitches” in communication companies’ boardrooms – where designer furniture and bespoke computer graphics are wheeled out – potential clients are routinely promised the inside track and the “correct outcome” on government thinking, the future plans of Whitehall departments, and what one strategist called “a political risk analysis of what’s coming”. This may cover anything from fox hunting to the steel industry, from mobile phones to food companies.

What of addressing direct contact between lobbyists and ministers, the central issue that Mr Cameron’s lobbying bill is supposed to tackle? This provision will end up making little to no difference about how UK lobbyists operate.

Meetings with select committee chairmen may happen; invitation-only dinners with interested clients and government advisers take place. But more often the real work is done by feeding big names, advisers and aides from Number 10 with data to help change their minds.

One source quoted the old Roosevelt wisdom. “FDR is supposed to have said: ‘You’ve convinced me, now go out and put pressure on me.’ That’s exactly the UK model. The anatomy of most lobbying is to convince the Government by creating arguments it can’t ignore.”

For many companies this is an advanced point in a campaign’s anatomy. As one director noted: “By this time, at least according to the Government’s bill, no lobbying has been done. If there’s no contact with ministers – even if we’ve arranged for clients to see ministers unaccompanied – nothing has happened. So 95 per cent of what we do is irrelevant by this stage? It’s nonsense.

“We may have contacted professional bodies, consumer groups, former ministers with influence, leading industry figures, commentators, heads of select committees, special advisers; we could have produced opinion-changing economic data swirling around Whitehall. We could have choreographed, but not attended, ministerial briefings. Yet the gaping holes in this legislation says nothing needs to be registered.” Alexandra Runswick, director of pressure group Unlock Democracy, said the Government was “behaving recklessly” by legislating on a clichéd image of lobbying.

She said: “The problem with lobbying is not respectable lobbying consultants who abide by a code of practice and already work in a relatively transparent way. The problem is underhand activity by private consultants, think-tanks, law firms, and in-house lobbyists.”

In 2010, the Prime Minister said he wanted to “shine the light of transparency” on lobbying. He said he wanted to “come clean” about who was buying power and influence.

Spinwatch claims the Cabinet Office may have “deliberately misrepresented” the nature of commercial lobbying – and that if the Government wanted evidence of the reality of lobbying, they need only look at the Leveson Inquiry and the covert relationship between News International’s lobbyist Fred Michel and Adam Smith, the special adviser to Jeremy Hunt while he was Culture Secretary and overseeing Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB bid.

For a former permanent secretary, once at the very centre of Whitehall, an important opportunity is being missed because “a fantasy is dominating Number 10’s thinking on this issue”.

He added: “The Prime Minister believes most people see lobbying as a dark art. Former ministers are caught on camera and a clean-up is promised. But this legislation won’t stop such scandals. It’s Hollywood law, a fantasy. This bill is taking the public on a giant joy ride.”

Balcombe: Protest succeeds in halting drilling

Caroline Lucas has made her case against fracking outside an exploratory drilling site in West Sussex after joining more than 1000 campaigners in a placard protest.

The MP and former leader of Green Party joined activists from across the country at the “Reclaim the Power” camp in Balcombe.

Fracking firm Cuadrilla temporarily suspended its operation following advice from police following six days of demonstrations.

Today, environmentalists staged a noisy march, banged drums, chanted anti-fracking messages and held aloft banners.

A tense stand-off occurred between protesters and police, who surrounded the Cuadrilla drilling site entrance. They chanted “This is what democracy looks like,” and “There are many, many more of us than you,” while a police helicopter hovered overhead.

Cuadrilla, which has been conducting exploratory oil drilling near Balcombe, temporarily suspended its operation after taking advice from Sussex Police amid fears of unrest during the six-day Reclaim the Power camp, which began last Friday.