Lobbying: A scandal unknown?

18 February 2010

British Parliament by johannes pape.David Cameron last week called political lobbying "the next big scandal waiting to happen". In a major speech on transparency in politics he said "secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics".

Everyone who works in politics is aware of the presence and influence of lobbying. Indeed, having worked in both public affairs and parliament myself, I was struck by the historian David Starkey's recent remark that the modern UK Parliament was little more than "lobby fodder". The rise of the lobbying industry risks drowning out the voices of those that do not have the money, access or know how to make their voices heard.  

Full Fact decided to look at possible areas where the next lobbying scandal could arise and spoke to experts on all sides of the lobbying debate. We looked at the registers of MPs and Lords commercial interests. We also studied the register of interests for parliamentary staff.

Analysing the influence of lobbying is difficult. As a recent Public Administration Committee report explained, "secret lobbying by its very nature leaves no evidence trail… there could still be a significant problem even with little concrete evidence of one."

A lucrative business

Mr Cameron's attack on the industry surprised many. At the top end of public affairs personal connections reap commercial benefits. It's why lucrative contracts are available to those like Andrew MacKay, Mr Cameron's former advisor, who is to join a leading agency after the general election for a reported six figure salary.

Lobbying is seen as a problem because those with money are able to gain greater influence over decision makers. Commercial lobbying is big business. The latest estimate is that it is a £2 billion a year industry. It would not be if those involved did not think that it worked.

Tamasin Cave from the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (ALT) said: "The problem of undue influence in politics is only increasing. Lobbying is much more pervasive in the UK than is generally recognised…. yet the public — and Parliamentarians — have no idea who is lobbying whom about what."

Dr Phil Parkin, author of the Hansard Society report into lobbying from 2006, does not however see it as a major cause for concern. He considered Mr Cameron's decision to announce a political scandal before it happened as "a bit irresponsible" and said there was a problem with "the narrow conception of what lobbying is". Of course, it is not just big business that is engaged in lobbying. Charities, think-tanks and unions all promote a specific interest and seek to do so by lobbying decision makers.

These differing viewpoints illustrate the complexity of considering the role, influence and value of lobbying in British politics.

Access - parliamentary passes

A quantative analysis of the parliamentary passes issued to staff shows that almost 250 individuals who work for Lords and MPs have paid roles with third party interest groups. These roles range from business consultancy, think-tanks, charities and unions. Many appear to be substantial. There are campaign managers and parliamentary officers for charities, executive directors for private companies, heads of public relations and freelance management consultants. One staff member is a "self-employed campaigner on a contract basis", another is an "independent parliamentary and political consultant". 

Staff who work across the parliamentary estate are allowed to do outside work as long as it is declared. But having a contact 'on the inside' can be a very useful way for interest groups to follow parliamentary developments, build networks, and access confidential meetings and information.

The current register does not indicate how much staff are paid or how many hours they work in outside roles. The House of Commons authorities confirmed to Full Fact that, "in sponsoring applications, Members' declare that the staff in question require access to the Palace and its facilities for work directly related to that Members' parliamentary business."

Yet, the pass system seems to leave room for exploitation. The House of Lords has new rules coming in from 1 April 2010 which will limit peers to three passes for secretaries and research assistants. Until now there has been no limit. For the Lords, this is a very generous allowance considering there is no financial support for personal staff and very few have any. In effect, Lords have a potentially significant power of patronage to dish out passes to individuals as they see fit. This is likely to continue under the new system.

Embedded in Parliament

Many outside organisations seek to influence parliamentarians on all issues from Heathrow airport expansion to human rights in Tibet.  Full Fact's investigation also found the presence of at least two organisations which are effectively embedded in Parliament. Policy Connect and EURIM are two membership organisations which link business with parliamentarians and policy makers. They each charge annual membership fees.

Both are described as non-profit making organisations. They are led by parliamentarians and act as a conduit to help business interests communicate with Parliament directly. EURIM does not have a permanent staff but employs individuals to work as rapporteurs to write research papers and support its working groups. There are currently five parliamentary pass holders who report working for EURIM.

Policy Connect is based near Westminster but has eight paid staff with parliamentary passes. Among its activities it runs associate parliamentary groups and has written reports on policy issues.

Membership of EURIM costs over £4,000 per year for large corporations. Benefits of membership include "genuine opportunities to influence policy", "access to valuable information sources" and "excellent networking opportunities with policy makers". Parliamentarians do not pay a membership fee.

One of the strands of Policy Connect's work is the National Skills Forum. The annual cost of membership is £6,750. Benefits include monthly meetings in Parliament, "an exceptional opportunity to network with politicians" and input into the Forum's research programme.

The Westminster Sustainable Business Forum, another Policy Connect offshoot, initiated a report into the Government's flagship Building Schools for the Future programme. Launched in Parliament in November last year, it was paid for by three business members of Policy Connect who each have a commercial interest in the future of the school building programme.

In defence of lobbying

While questions may be asked about the level of influence of certain organisations, there also needs to be recognition that lobbying is a legitimate activity. Everybody has a right to represent their views and to seek support in doing so.

Governments and legislators benefit from expert third party input to fill knowledge gaps and to deepen understanding. Charities, think-tanks, industry, individuals and organisations at all levels seek to communicate their views.

In Dr Parvin's view, lobbying plays an "important role in representative democracies" and is not an issue of widespread concern.

Yet there is far from a consensus on the significance of the issue. In its 2009 report on lobbying, the Public Administration Committee said there was a problem and was contemptuous of the industry's efforts at self-regulation. It said there was genuine concern about "an inside track, largely drawn from the corporate world, who wield privileged access and disproportionate influence."

It called for a statutory register of lobbying activity. The Government has so far rejected this call, insisting that it would continue to monitor the industry's efforts at self-regulation.

Proposed solutions

Given Mr Cameron's claim that lobbying is a scandal waiting to happen, his suggested solutions fall short of campaigners demands. The ALT say an extension of the ban on ex-ministers going into lobbying is a step in the right direction, but this falls far short of the committee's recommendation for a ban lasting several years.

The Alliance's spokesperson, Ms Cave, said the Conservatives had so far failed to support  a compulsory register of lobbyists which she believes to be "the one real transparency reform on the table".

Dr Parvin considered a statutory register fine in principle but saw a difficulty over the practical question of who to include in it. His belief is that the debate around lobbying has been mis-framed and a much wider definition beyond just commercial interests is needed.

In his view, a statutory register may then require organisations such as think-tanks and charities who do not consider themselves lobbyists to participate. This does not appear to be the thinking of the committee. 

A postscript

Beyond the important debates about a statutory register, the reality is that most lobbyists' tools are available to all. They involve things like monitoring and reporting what happens in parliament and government, writing to and meeting with MPs and ministers and responding to government consultations. All this is based on publicly available information and engagement in this way can yield significant results.

Commercial lobbying benefits from a continued perception that the political process is opaque and complex. Public affairs, for a price, offers its clients a reassuring hand through the dense thicket of policy, personality and politics in Westminster and Whitehall.

The unfairness of the system isn't that lobbying happens; it is in the inequality of access. If you do not have money you cannot pay a commercial lobbying firm. If you have not worked in policy making or politics engaging effectively in the political process does not appear easy.

The continued perception that Westminster and Whitehall are inaccessible political bubbles is a big part of the problem. In that environment, the power of professional lobbying grows while public engagement in politics declines.

Government and politics can be made simpler. A more accessible Parliament and a more informed citizenry would follow. In a more diverse and engaged polity, legitimate concerns about the influence of commercial lobbying may also then diminish.

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