Submission to the Public Administration Select Committee: A statutory lobbying register

Unlock Democracy is the UK’s leading campaigning organisation for democracy, rights and freedoms. A grassroots movement, we are owned and run by our members. In particular, we campaign for fair, open and honest elections, a stronger Parliament and accountable government, and a written constitution. We want to bring power closer to the people and create a culture of informed political interest and responsibility. Unlock Democracy is a founding member of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, set up in 2007 with a number of organisations including Spinwatch, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

Executive Summary

1.    Unlock Democracy welcomed the government’s commitment to introduce a statutory register of lobbying interests. However, we are disappointed that proposals that took so long to produce are so limited in scope. The Public Administration Select Committee published its report recommending a register in 2008 and it was part of the Coalition Agreement and yet two years into the new Parliament we are only just at the green paper stage. We are particularly concerned that the lack of senior ministerial leadership on this issue had allowed the policy area to drift.

2.    Unlock Democracy is not opposed to lobbying - indeed we lobby Parliament, the UK and devolved governments and local government. Lobbying is a part of the democratic process, the problem is when it's done in secret so the public have no way of knowing who has been putting pressure on the government to do what, or how much money they are spending on exerting that pressure.

3.    The perception that companies and wealthy individuals can buy access and influence is undermining trust in our political system. There have been a number of scandals in recent months that have demonstrated this, from the Fox/Werrity affair , to the allegations of Bell Pottinger  boasting about their access to the Prime Minister and McKinsey’s alleged influencing of the Health and Social Care Bill .

4.    We believe that the government’s proposals are fundamentally flawed and will do little to promote transparency in lobbying. Our main concerns are that the definition of lobbying is too narrow and that the level of information recorded in the register would reveal little about the network of relationships between government and those who lobby. 

5.    Unlock Democracy wants an open and transparent lobbying system. We believe that the purpose of any lobbying register should be to capture lobbying activity rather than individual lobbyists. This means that both in-house and agency lobbyists should be covered by the register and that the register must include information not just on who the lobbyist’s client is, but also who is being lobbied, the policy area that is being lobbied and the amount of money that is being spent on lobbying. This does not have to be an arduous or overly bureaucratic process. Unlock Democracy has completed a mock registration form for the first quarter of 2012 to demonstrate how this could be achieved without putting an undue burden on the organisations concerned. 

6.    The proposed register of lobbying interests only covers lobbying activity at Westminster. While we think this is the necessary and appropriate place for a new regulatory framework to be developed, in the longer term we believe it would be appropriate for this system to be introduced for the devolved parliaments and local government as well.

Does the Government's consultation paper represent a balanced approach to the idea of a statutory register? 

7.    No, it doesn’t. The proposals essentially extend the current voluntary regulation system to all third party lobbyists and puts the register on a statutory footing - they would do little to open up the industry and allow voters to scrutinse who is seeking to influence the government. 

8.    The Prime Minister has said that 

“we want to be the most open and transparent government in the world.”  

We welcome his commitment to this agenda and believe that the register of lobbyists is an fundamental aspect of this policy programme. For the register to be a meaningful step forward in transparency, it is essential that the focus is on capturing lobbying activity rather than individuals who lobby. 

9.    The fundamental flaws in the government’s proposals stem from both how they define lobbying and lobbyists. The government takes the view that only those lobbying on behalf of third party clients should be required to register. Unlock Democracy strongly disagrees with this approach. We believe it is unfair to multi-client lobbyists as it excludes the in house lobbyists who account for a significant amount of lobbying activity in the UK. 

10.    Unlock Democracy lobbies Parliament and the government - employing four staff who spend part or the majority of their time on lobbying activities. We estimate that our expenditure on lobbying in the first quarter of 2012 is approximately £21,600. Under the government’s proposals we would not be required to register because we employ our own lobbyists in-house. However, if we paid for a self-employed lobbyist or an agency to do this work for us they would have to register. Unlock Democracy takes the view that what matters is capturing the lobbying activity, not whether the person doing the lobbying is working for one or many clients. 

11.    Mark Harper MP has argued that in-house lobbyists do not need to be included in the register because,

'When an in-house representative from a company comes to see me, the public knows what's happening and that is transparent. If someone from an agency comes to see me, no-one knows who they're advocating for – and that's not transparent.' 

12.    We do not believe that is the case. Unlock Democracy is currently lobbying the Cabinet Office on a number of different policy areas. If we were to have a meeting with Mark Harper it could be about individual elector registration, House of Lords reform, lobbying, boundary changes or other democratic reform issues that we may wish the government to pursue. This would not be apparent just from the the fact that he was meeting us. 

13.    Lobbying is an important part of a democratic culture, it allows different views and experiences to be heard, but we need to be open and honest about who lobbies and what they are lobbying for. This means acknowledging that it is not just large agencies who lobby, but also charities, voluntary sector organisations, trade bodies, companies, trade unions, media organisations and universities. 

14.    We are aware that there may be concern about including smaller businesses or charities in a new regulatory system. We are sympathetic to the desire to reduce bureaucracy for organisations and Unlock Democracy supports ALT’s recommendation that small businesses and charities should be exempt from registering. ALT has provisionally defined small as organisations that do not employ the equivalent of one full time public affairs person or spend £6,000 or less per quarter on lobbying activity . We are working with bodies such as the National Council for Voluntary organisations to ensure that the right balance is reached between capturing lobbying activity and light touch regulation. 

15.    However, we believe that a comprehensive lobbying register does not have to be an undue burden. We have completed a draft filing that includes the level of information we would want to be captured on a register to demonstrate how we think this could work in practice. It took us approximately 20 minutes to complete and as some of the information is unlikely to change each quarter we would expect this to be less for subsequent filings.

16.    The assumption in the consultation paper seems to be that in-house lobbyists do not need to be covered because they account for very little of the lobbying activity in the UK. This is a mistaken assumption and we believe that the figures quoted in the white paper grossly underestimate the number of in-house lobbyists working in the UK. The consultation cites figures suggesting that there are between 320 and 450 in-house lobbyists employed in the UK,  which is fewer than half the number of those working for agencies. However, in a paper published in 2009 the lobbying industry cites academic evidence suggesting that there are four in-house lobbyists for every agency lobbyists .