The UK government’s lobbying register is ineffective – but there are plenty of good examples overseas

By on 13/11/2015
Steve Goodrich is senior researcher with Transparency International’s UK branch.

Two years ago, the UK government introduced a register of lobbyists. But it doesn’t do the job required, says Steve Goodrich, of Transparency International UK. Why not learn some lessons from across the Atlantic?

The word ‘lobbyist’ takes its name from the lobbies of the Westminster Parliament, where those trying to influence MPs and peers gathered before and after debates. These days, the verb lobbying covers any attempt to influence public servants – civil servants as well as elected representatives. And although it is often seen as an unfavourable activity, lobbying is an essential part of any democracy.

In order for governments and legislatures to work effectively, they need to engage with those potentially affected by their decisions. This could include individual constituents, big multinational companies, professional associations or civil society groups. This engagement can provide evidence to inform decision-making, highlight problems with existing policy and enhance the scrutiny of draft laws. However, it can also be abused by those looking to further private interests.

What can go wrong?

In the UK, a number of well-publicised lobbying scandals over the past five years have exemplified what can go wrong. These include the ‘generals for hire’ scandal, in which former military figures flouted a ban on lobbying; the Lord Blencathra scandal, when a peer received payments to lobby on behalf of the Cayman Islands; and the ‘cash for access’ scandal, when two senior MPs were caught allegedly offering their services in return for payments. In almost all cases, lobbying scandals involve the actual or potential misuse of entrusted power for private gain.

How do you prevent scandal from happening?

Although these scandals cover disparate types of misbehaviour, there are some common solutions to help prevent them. These include making lobbying transparent and accountable through a public ‘register’ of regulated activity; clearly delineating acceptable behaviour through codes of conduct, including how to deal with potential conflicts of interest; limiting political contributions to reduce the risk of cash for influence scandals; controlling the revolving door between the public and private sectors; and ensuring there is effective policing of these rules.

The most well-known of these measures are registers of lobbyists. A good register should be able to provide lobbying transparency without unduly inhibiting the right to free speech, assembly or petition of government. In short, they need to be effective but proportionate. Transparency International (TI) believes that voluntary registers don’t work and that they should be mandatory, with a statutory requirement to register and comply with the rules on lobbying transparency. They should cover direct and indirect communication by lobbyists with public servants for the purpose of influencing policy or decision-making; and all types of paid lobbyists, including those who are “in-house”. And they should provide sufficient information for the public to understand who’s trying to influence public officials and what they are trying to influence. Although some of this information should already be accessible outside the register system via freedom of information requests, publishing it proactively as open data can reduce the administrative burden on public bodies.

There should be a single body responsible for maintaining and publishing the register, and monitoring and ensuring compliance with the rules. This organisation should have sufficient resources to carry out this role effectively, including civil sanctions to provide proportionate deterrents to non-compliance.

How have registers been implemented in practice?

In the UK, the current statutory register of lobbyists fails on many of these standards. It only covers consultants, so the majority of lobbyists – who work in-house – are not included. Recent research by TI-UK found that whilst there were around 90 organisations on the UK’s register, more than 2,700 organisations lobbied ministers during a three-month period. By comparison, Canada, whose register covers in-house lobbyists, had around 8,000 active organisations on its register during 2014-15, and the US’s federal register contained around 11,000 during 2015.

The UK’s register also only covers communications with ministers and permanent secretaries. However, a significant amount of lobbying is aimed at lower level civil servants and Parliamentarians. Canada’s system covers a wider range of public servants, including Parliamentarians and deputy heads of department, and the US’s Federal rules cover a much wider range of executive and legislative staff.

The most significant failing in the UK’s system is that it doesn’t require registered lobbyists to provide any information about who they’ve been talking to and why. The UK government claimed that it was already publishing this information in lobbying meetings data. However, this information is often published a year late; contains no meaningful information about what’s discussed (in the data TI-UK analysed, one department described the purpose of 48 meetings as “to discuss trade and investment”); and doesn’t capture other forms of communication, such as emails, phone calls or letters.

In the US and Canada, regular disclosures include the details of which bill or issue is being lobbied on, and they cover more than just face-to-face meetings within their scope.

Where next for the UK?

It’s been almost two years since the UK Lobbying Act received royal assent, and there’s been no official review of how it has been working in practice. However, TI-UK has highlighted a number of deficiencies with the Westminster lobbying register and how the UK protects itself from lobbying abuses. As I write, the Scottish Government is preparing to take its own lobbying Bill through the Scottish Parliament. Although our initial analysis of the Bill identifies room for improvement, this provides a golden opportunity for Scotland to lead the way in lobbying reform in the UK.

 

Steve Goodrich is senior research officer with Transparency International’s UK branch.

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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