New rules now inching their way towards the statute books will do nothing to “shine the light of transparency” – in the Prime Minister’s words – on the murky world of political influence. Although the theory of a statutory register of lobbyists has much to recommend it, the details as proposed are of little practical value.
Only either those companies whose main business is lobbying or those arranging meetings with ministers and officials will be required to declare themselves. Meanwhile, in-house teams and firms with other strings to their bows will not.
There are two flaws here. One is that a list of Britain’s largest lobbying companies tells us nothing that we do not already know. The other is that the focus on meetings with ministers confuses cloak-and-dagger fantasy with the real world. Modern lobbying is less about clandestine dinners than about the more prosaic (and effective) business of commissioning economic analyses, getting together with campaign groups, and leading the public debate. The current plan has been described by one influential MP as “a dog’s breakfast”. How right he is. It should be scrapped and redrawn forthwith.
First, the Government must set out a definition of lobbying that is broad enough to be meaningful. Second, the industry’s existing, voluntary code – which requires signatories to list their clients – should be used as the basis of an upgraded statutory register that covers all who are engaged in political consultancy of any kind. Finally, transparency must extend to corporations’ in-house lobbyists, too: all meetings with ministers and senior civil servants should be logged.
In opposition, David Cameron famously warned that lobbying would be “the next big scandal”. For all the intervening legislative theatricals, the observation is as true now as it was then. And as long as there is no public record of who is talking to whom, on whose behalf, it will continue to be so.