In the News: February 2017

This is the first in a new monthly blog series which will provide an overview of news on some of the campaign areas Unlock Democracy works on.

Defending the rule of law

If you cast your mind back to December 2016, Unlock Democracy ran a campaign where we called on the Lord Chancellor Liz Truss to the defend the rule of law. This was in response to the Daily Mail’s attack on the High Court judges after their ruling on Gina Miller’s article 50 challenge. The Supreme Court’s outgoing President, Lord Neuberger, offered some thoughtful comments in an interview with BBC Radio 4 this month. He told the BBC that “the rule of law together with democracy is one of the two pillars on which our society is based," adding that "if, without good reason, the media or anyone else undermines the judiciary that risks undermining our society.”

Lobbying transparency

February was bursting with examples of private companies and big business getting up to their usual tricks, trying to get around transparency rules to influence government policy behind closed doors.

Unlock Democracy’s Director, Alexandra Runswick, was quoted in an article about a Scottish PR agency boasting about their ‘little black book’ of political contacts - giving rise to the impression they are trying to profit off political influence.

We were also quoted in an article about Jeremy Hunt’s trip to the USA, which raised concerns about US private equity and insurance firms eyeing up the NHS in a post-Brexit trade deal.

It was also once again left to journalists to uncover dodgy backroom lobbying through a Freedom of Information request, which revealed that George Osborne met with the boss of Ineos to discuss fracking and cracking down on trade unions - which the government eventually followed through on.

There are positive signs coming out of Wales, with the Welsh Assembly exploring whether they need to implement tougher lobbying rules - you can read our submission to the consultation here. In a win for transparency, the Welsh government announced it would begin publishing ministerial diary data. Unlock Democracy’s Director told BBC Wales that this was a positive “first step,” but emphasised that the public needs access to "meaningful information" if publishing diaries is to be an "effective tool to scrutinise actions taken and policy decisions made behind closed doors".

House of Lords reform

With the House of Lords threatening to challenge the government’s Brexit plan, reform of the second chamber has dominated headlines this month. Unlock Democracy supported the Mirror’s campaign, which called on the public to feed into an inquiry into slashing the number of peers.

Following the airing of BBC Two’s new documentary, ‘Meet the Lords,’ we also blogged about why the House of Lords need to be dragged into the twenty-first century.

Dodgy donors

The end of February brought the scandalous revelation that pro-Brexit campaign funding had been channeled through the DUP to take advantage of a political donations loophole that exists in Northern Ireland, which was first reported by Open Democracy. Unlock Democracy told the Times that this kind of activity “gives the impression that the party is a shill for private interests that are purposefully avoiding transparency and accountability measures in place in the rest of the UK.”

Election expenses

Leaked emails suggest that Theresa May’s top adviser, Nick Timothy, played a central role in the South Thanet general election campaign. An investigation into election expenses fraud in the 2015 general election continues to be ongoing, while news also emerged that in the 2016 poll in Northern Ireland, one in four MLA’s filed incorrect campaign expenses.