Just before he took power back in 2010, David Cameron described lobbying as “the next big scandal waiting to happen”. He was right. But six years later, not much has changed. Theresa May has promised a government that is driven ‘not by the interests of the privileged few’ but by ordinary people. Will her words prove more meaningful than her predecessor?
Back in 2014, Cameron’s coalition passed the Transparency of Lobbying Act, which introduced a lobbying register for the very first time. Sounds pretty good, right? Think again. The lobbying register is so full of holes a Conservative peer actually tried to change the name of the Act, because he said it wouldn’t make lobbying any more transparent.
The register is completely unfit for purpose. It is too narrow and provides no meaningful information. Firstly, the register only applies to lobbyists-for-hire, exempting the vast majority of powerful lobbyists who work in-house. The UK register has just 136 registrants compared to 1,300 in Ireland - which has a much smaller lobbying industry. Secondly, lobbyists only have to name clients if they contact a minister on their behalf, even though lobbyists rarely meet with politicians on behalf of clients. Worse still, the register fails to capture the vast majority of lobbying, which targets special advisors or more junior staff who are responsible for drafting policy. Finally, it fails to provide any information about who lobbyists are talking to and what they are seeking to influence.
This bogus Bill has undermined public confidence in policymakers. Strong rhetoric has failed to result in strong action. Once again, there is a crisis of trust in our political institutions and in our politicians, who seem reluctant to remove a source of scandal. With Brexit on the way and the UK experiencing a period of huge political upheaval the Times warns that even more influence will fall into the hands of lobbyists vying to represent corporate interests in new trade deals.
Lobbying is essential for a healthy democracy but unless it is transparent, it will be dominated by the interests of the rich and powerful. Big business and corporations are able to channel money and resources into lobbying that charities and NGOs just can’t compete with. Without transparency there is no chance for public or parliamentary scrutiny. We need to know what is going on behind closed doors to be able to hold our elected politicians to account. We need greater lobbying transparency to restore public trust and enhance our democracy.
Unlock Democracy has been working with Lord Brooke to table a Private Member's Bill - to be debated on 9 September - which aims to scrap the current bogus lobbying register and replace it with a genuine register. This register would cover all paid lobbyists and would require them to state:
- Who they are lobbying
- Who they are lobbying for
- What they are seeking to influence
- How much they are spending
The Bill would bring the UK into line with other institutions such as the US, EU and Scotland. It’s time for Theresa May to put clear blue water between her and Cameron. She can set the tone for her Premiership by backing real lobbying transparency.