The launch yesterday of a 12-week consultation marks the latest stage in halting the advance of Government moves to rein in parliamentary lobbying. On the face of it, the proposals set out by the minister, Mark Harper, would, if introduced, represent a considerable improvement on the current state of affairs, which amounts to a scandalously opaque free-for-all.
There would be a statutory register that all lobbyists would have to sign and penalties, up to and including prison, for failure to register and other forms of non-compliance. So basic are such requirements, however, that they invite two questions: why on earth are such provisions not already in place and why is the process of getting them on the statute book taking so long? Given that the Government itself has been bitten by the lack of regulation hitherto – as shown by both the Adam Werritty affair, which forced the resignation of the Defence Secretary, and the revelations published in The Independent about the activities of Bell Pottinger – it was not unreasonable to hope for rather more dispatch.
Instead, as became apparent yesterday, we are in for three months and probably more of hair-splitting about definitions: precisely what constitutes parliamentary lobbying and who would be covered by the term lobbyist. Charities, think tanks and trade unions are all gearing up to contest their inclusion, while in-house lobbyists appear to be exempted. A dispute is also brewing about how the register is funded, and there appears to be no provision that would require lobbyists to say who or what they are lobbying for.
Even at this early stage it is not hard to see how a coach and horses could be driven through what already seem unduly modest proposals. With the recent transfer of David Cameron's former director of policy to a lobbying firm, the incestuous relationship between lobbying and Government remains all too clear. This is an area where full transparency is essential, both as to the nature of the activity and the money involved. This consultation looks destined to be a missed opportunity.