Bill protects lobbyists while targeting civil society

David Miller, Professor of Sociology at University of Bath

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The government bill on lobbying currently making its way through parliament has trade unions and most of the non-government organisation (NGO) world up in arms. But they are not complaining about the provisions on lobbying – focusing instead on the “gagging” clauses in the bill.

These – which are in the second part of the bill – bring in new restrictions on the activities of any organisation spending £5,000 a year on non-party-political campaigning on broadly defined “political issues”. The law will apply to campaigning that “may” influence an election and will be in force for a whole year before elections.

As Polly Toynbee notes, if charities “trip into electoral law they must send weekly reports of all their spending during the electoral period, when any slip risks criminal charges”. Part three of the bill also brings in new onerous regulations targeting trade unions.

Meanwhile the lobbying provisions in part one, promised in the Coalition agreement of May 2010, are seriously inadequate. Remember that David Cameron pointed to lobbying as the “next big scandal waiting to happen” in early 2010. This came after mounting lobbying scandals and stories of corruption in public life under successive governments. Who can forget Labour transport minister Stephen Byers and the “cab for hire” affair?

Since then the problems of the subterranean influence of lobbying and privileged access for corporate leaders has only got worse. To name a few: Conservative Party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas resigned over the cash-for-access affair; ministerial adviser Adam Smith resigned over News Corp’s lobbying on the BSkyB bid; retired “generals for hire” offered to lobby for arms companies; MP Patrick Mercer was caught out; as were two members of the House of Lords; and details emerged of Lynton Crosby’s clients.

Bill misses targets

In response to all this, the provisions of the bill would cover only lobbyists working as consultants, rather than in-house corporate lobbyists. This already excludes around 80% of lobbyists from registration.

But the bill is even worse, in that lobbying consultancies will only have to register if they meet with ministers or permanent secretaries. Meetings with special advisers and all other civil servants don’t count and nor does any other activity.

Thus, as the lobbying consultants’ lobby group, the Association of Professional Political Consultants notes, ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills had 988 meetings with lobbyists in 2012 – only two of which were with lobbying consultants. That is less than 1% of ministerial meetings, never mind the wider activities essential to lobbying and influence peddling.

It is not clear whether the gagging clauses have been put into the bill by fiendishly clever sleight of hand to distract attention from the lobbying register. Perhaps the hope is that the lobbying provisions will slip through unnoticed.

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