The scandal of a lobbying law that will make a bad situation even worse

Inside Whitehall: It’s a bill that nobody wants, being reluctantly promoted by a government that didn’t want to do anything in the first place

Oliver Wright
Monday 12 August 2013 20:40
Conservative MP Patrick Mercer was filmed by the BBC's 'Panorama' agreeing to lobby on behalf of Fiji
Conservative MP Patrick Mercer was filmed by the BBC's 'Panorama' agreeing to lobby on behalf of Fiji

A few days ago I phoned up the Cabinet Office to ask them a simple question. Could they point me in the direction of a single person, group or company who agreed with their new law to regulate Britain’s lobbying industry?

I would accept any lobbyist, company or transparency campaigner – regardless of their motive. All I wanted was someone – anyone – who thought what they were planning to do was a good idea.

A little while later I got a phone call back. The response: our lobbying bill is not an area of policy where we decided to seek “stakeholder endorsement”. That, for the uninitiated, is Whitehallese for no.

And it’s not surprising. Because the Government’s lobbying bill, which begins its passage through Parliament in a few weeks’ time, is possibly one of the worse pieces of legislation ever to have been drafted. Not only does it singularly fail to address the problem it seeks to solve – but it actually makes that problem worse. And along the way it has achieved the unlikely feat of unifying lobbyists and transparency campaigners in condemnation. Nice work.

So how did we get here?

The Government committed itself to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists in the coalition agreement after a string of industry scandals going back to “cash for questions”. The idea was that anyone who lobbied the Government should be made to declare who and what they were lobbying for in a clear and transparent manner.

It was more of a Lib Dem ideal than a Tory one. But having warned in opposition that lobbying was the next great scandal waiting to happen, David Cameron could hardly ignore the problem in government.

It should have fallen under Nick Clegg’s ambit – but because his wife Miriam works for a law firm that itself does lobbying he had to recuse himself, and it fell instead on the shoulders of Mark Harper, his Conservative junior minister.

And that’s where things started to go wrong. In January 2012 he published a consultation document on plans for the new register which was widely regarded as inadequate. It would not cover companies which employed lobbyists directly – only third party lobbyists would have to register.

The companies would not have to say what they were lobbying for – or how much they were being paid. The plans in effect merely replicated the voluntary industry register of lobbyists which already existed.

The proposals were criticised by the industry, transparency campaigners, and perhaps more pertinently, the cross-party House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which made a number of sensible suggestions for how the legislation could be improved.

But then silence from the Government. Almost a year and a half passed and there was still no sign of the promised Lobbying Bill.

Senior Whitehall sources now say that David Cameron had decided to quietly drop the idea altogether. Mr Harper was moved on to become Immigration Minister and his replacement, Chloe Smith, ignored that area of her brief almost entirely and failed to meet with any of the interested parties. The Lib Dems say they tried to push the issue but were stonewalled by the Tories on every occasion.

And then, of course, Tory MP Patrick Mercer was allegedly caught by the BBC offering his services for cash to promote the image of the rather unpleasant military regime in Fiji, and amid the furore, the lobbying legislation was quickly resurrected.

But the Government’s long-awaited bill is even more inadequate than its previous proposals. Not only will it just cover third party lobbyists – not those employed directly by companies and trade bodies – but the definition of a lobbyist is drawn so tightly that any company that wants to escape being part of the register can easily do so.

The only lobbying covered is that of ministers or permanent secretaries – whereas everyone knows the most effective lobbying goes on at a much more junior level. Thus, under the law, a lobbyist can still push their case with special adviser or official – and none of us will be any the wiser.

The register also fails to cover lobbying of ministers at events like party conferences – another glaring omission that makes the legislation a nonsense.

At the moment, the industry – aware of its poor reputation – has a voluntary register of lobbyists, which includes some basic information. But the chances are that when the new statutory register comes into force this will disappear – and we’ll know much less about who’s pushing for what as a consequence.

So there we have it. A bill that nobody wants, that will make a bad situation worse, being reluctantly promoted by a government that didn’t really want to do anything in the first place.

That’s as big a scandal as the problem it was set out to address.

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