The Government’s plans to constrain the activities of what modern parlance might term the “lobbying community” are suffering from many of the same problems as its proposals for press regulation: difficulties of definition, industry recalcitrance, and the worry that, even after all the wrangles, there will remain a lack of transparency about the real relationship between politicians and those who seek to influence them. No wonder, then, that the Committee on Standards in Public Life has dismissed them as “feeble”.
As with the press, state action in this area will always be untidy and unsatisfactory; such is the nature of the beast. However, one simple move would do much to allay pervading public cynicism about lobbying and the feeling that too many ministers are feathering their own nests. We have seen ex-ministers describe themselves as taxis for hire and the like; an outright ban on politicians becoming lobbyists or advisers to companies for sufficient time for any “favours” to remain unpaid must, therefore, to be a part of the legislation. The committee suggests a gap of two years; that should be an absolute minimum.
Second, many of the arguments about recognition and inclusion could be resolved by a more comprehensive requirement on ministers, and their advisers, to declare submissions from, and meetings with, interested bodies on general policy or legislation. Much the same goes for MPs and peers, including shadow ministers.
The public would then be able to take a view on which interventions are trivial and benign, and which more serious, even potentially corrupting. The lobbying scene is one of legitimate public interest. No one is suggesting prying into politicians’ private lives, or invading their privacy. The documents on their desks, the meetings in the diaries, and the parties to which their special advisers are invited are a different matter. They belong in the public domain.