Here’s what you should know about the Lobbying Act

22 April 2021

During Prime Minister’s Questions on 14 April, the 2014 Lobbying Act, central to the controversy surrounding former prime minister David Cameron’s involvement with Greensill Capital, became a major point of contention. 

In response to Labour leader Keir Starmer’s questions about the legislation, Boris Johnson defended the current rules and pointed out that Labour had previously said it would repeal the Lobbying Act

Here’s a quick guide to the act, including what has happened since it was passed and what Labour has said about repealing it. 

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What is the 2014 Lobbying Act? 

Back in 2010, in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, Mr Cameron described lobbying as “the next big scandal waiting to happen”.

Ahead of the 2010 general election, Mr Cameron said "secret corporate lobbying" was undermining public confidence in politics, and that the Conservative party would introduce new rules such as banning ministers from lobbying the government for two years after leaving office. 

His statements followed the publication of a report published by the House of Commons Public Administration Committee in January 2009 called Lobbying: Access and Influence in Whitehall. The report found that there was “very little self-regulation of any substance” amid UK lobbyists, and recommended that the “ethics of the activities” of lobbyists should be overseen by a specific body. It also proposed that there should be a register of lobbying activity required by law. 

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, usually referred to simply as the Lobbying Act, is divided into three main sections

The first introduces “a statutory register of consultant lobbyists and establishes a Registrar to enforce the registration requirements”. Consultant lobbying is broadly defined on the Registrar’s site as “contacting a UK government minister or permanent secretary (or certain equivalents) on behalf of a third party, in return for payment.”

Crucially, this does not apply to organisations or individuals who lobby the government on their or their organisation’s own behalf. When Mr Cameron was lobbying on behalf of Greensill, which he was employed by, he was not breaking any rules by not being on the register, a watchdog found in March. Labour criticised the bill for covering “only a tiny minority of the industry” during its progression through Parliament. 

The second section regulates election campaign spending by individuals or groups not standing for election or registered as political parties. Until now this has been the focus of most of the criticism towards the act, with some charities saying it has seriously impacted the scope of their work, but more on that later. 

The third section increases legal requirements around unions’ obligation to keep their list of members up to date. 

Opposition to the law 

There has been opposition to the law both for the scope of its register of lobbyists and its limits on the actions of campaigning groups in the run up to elections.

During the progression of the original bill through parliament, Chloe Smith, then minister for political and constitutional reform, said that the legislation was intended to complement information that was already recorded about every ministerial meeting—records of which are published on departmental websites. She added that the registration of in-house lobbyists would duplicate information already published by government departments in records of meetings.

In a 2015 report, think tank Transparency International UK said the current register was too narrow and recommended it be widened to improve transparency around the lobbying industry. 

The government has not broadened the scope of the register, but in 2016 it announced that it would be inserting a new clause into all new and renewed grant agreements which would ban organisations from using government grants to lobby government and Parliament.

In the wake of the introduction of the act, the lobbying industry also introduced a self-regulatory hybrid code of conduct, setting out the expectations for members of the industry. The government did not directly introduce this code as part of the bill, and it is not legally binding. 

In the run up to the 2019 election a group of leading charities, including Shelter, Friends of the Earth and End Violence Against Women described the act as a “gagging law”, stating that it was preventing them from representing vulnerable people by limiting what they could say and do publicly in the 12-month run-up to elections.

In 2015 the coalition government appointed Conservative peer Lord Hodgson to carry out a review into these specific third party rules. A report was published in 2016, with a number of recommended changes including cutting the regulated period before a general election from twelve months to four.

The government has not changed the Lobbying Act in response to this report or its recommendations. 

Does Labour want to repeal the Lobbying Act? 

As we’ve already set out, Labour has long opposed the Lobbying Act and in 2019, under Jeremy Corbyn, the party announced it would repeal the act if it won the general election. 

This pledge was not new—as early as April 2014 the then shadow leader of the Commons, Angela Eagle said the Labour party would repeal the act if it came to power. 

Labour didn’t just want to repeal the Lobbying Act, it wanted to replace it with a new system that it said would “change how politics is funded”. 

Under the headline Tackling Vested Interests, the Labour Party manifesto stated it would introduce “a lobbying register covering both in-house lobbyists and think tanks and extending to contacts made with all senior government employees, not just ministers.”

The party also pledged to “increase the financial penalties available to the Electoral Commission and require imprints for digital political adverts”. An imprint is a disclosure stating who paid for and promoted the material. Digital imprints are also government policy.

Other pledges included stopping MPs from taking most second jobs (with some limited exceptions, such as nursing, to allow individuals to keep their professional registrations), replacing the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) with a “diverse and representative” board established in law, and changing the system of ministerial appointments to public office. 

Finally, the party said it would extend Freedom of Information rules to cover private providers of public services, set “new standards of consistent disclosure practice” and end the six-month time limit for the Information Commissioner to prosecute deliberately destroyed public records. 

This article mentions digital imprints, in the interests of full disclosure this is something that Full Fact has also campaigned for.

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