What one MP’s side job tells us about the failings of the UK’s lobbying register

This week Barry Sheerman became the first sitting MP to sign up to UK’s the statutory lobbying register, as the result of his role as the Chairman of Policy Connect. Many would assume that MPs are prevented from being paid lobbyists, and they would be right. Sheerman, who was paid £2,200 a month through this side job, hasn’t broken any rules. Nonetheless, the idea that MPs can run organisations that undertake lobbying activity sits uncomfortably, and serious questions must be asked about what this says about the state of lobbying regulation in the UK.

The UK’s statutory lobbying register is meant to bring transparency to the what is an estimated £1.9 billion a year industry. Yet the register only captures a fraction of lobbying activity, as it excludes ‘in-house’ lobbyists - those that work for a specific company rather than a range of clients - who make up the vast majority of the industry. The register also  provides very little information; only consultant lobbyists have to register, and they only have to register if they are making direct representations to ministers or permanent secretaries. Registrants are not required to divulge what they are lobbying about, or how much they are spending on lobbying. Far from creating transparency, the register does very little to meaningfully open up the industry to greater scrutiny from the public and Parliament. What the register does require is the name of those running organisations employing consultant lobbyists, which is why Sheerman has had to sign up.

Not only is the register desperately incomplete, it is also misleading. On the first anniversary of the register research conducted by Unlock Democracy and Spinwatch found Berkshire-based lobbying agencies enjoy more ministerial ear time than the Big 4 accountancy firms and magic circle law firms… put together. KPMG, PwC and Deloitte, all major government contractors, acknowledge they are at the same time commercial lobbyists, but our weak lobbying regulation has not yet compelled any to declare the names of their corporate clients.

Policy Connect describes itself as a cross-party think tank with a “diverse network of independent groups, comprising All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), research commissions, membership forums and campaign coalitions”. On its website, the organisation prides itself on its network of groups having hosted “over 150 events a year influencing public policy and law makers”, and having “a rich history of influencing cross-party policy for over two decades”. This is, by even the most basic definition, lobbying.

That Sheerman is permitted to hold such a position shows a clear disconnect between the rules defining and regulating lobbying as set out by the government, and the reality of what is happening in the industry. Sheerman is not violating the MPs’ Code of Conduct, which explicitly prohibits MPs from becoming “paid advocates”.

This highlights very troubling failings with our existing lobbying register and regulations around lobbying in the UK. It takes quite a stretch of the imagination to believe that an individual can be the chairperson of a registered lobbying organisation, and be at the same time completely removed from lobbying activity undertaken by that organisation.

Unlock Democracy’s satirical pamphlet, ‘Lobbying Through Loopholes’, illustrates how tools like APPGs and organisations like think tanks are routinely used by companies to exert undue influence over the policy making process.

While the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists Alison White should be commended for using what little powers she has to their fullest extent, it’s clear that the lobbying register is not fit for purpose. The system we currently have in place does little to make transparent an industry that is shrouded in secrecy. What’s even more concerning is the damage done to public trust in politics when the impression is given that our elected representatives in Parliament are beholden to financial interests that may conflict with the duties they have to first and foremost represent constituents.