By Tamasin Cave
The government’s so-called ‘Lobbying Bill’ has provoked a furious response from charities and unions. They are right to be up in arms. The Bill couples a fake lobbying register with a very real assault on democracy in the form of a clampdown on the ability of charities and unions to campaign.
One consequence of this unannounced swipe at charities and unions in the same Bill is that debate over the proposals for a register of lobbyists have been muted. The very real concerns people have about the influence large companies have on our government have been silenced. The fundamental weaknesses of the current proposals for a register of lobbyists have been eclipsed. The attack on charities and unions is a very useful diversion. It is as if the government planned it.
The game-playing was predictable. Despite its firm commitment to shine a light on lobbying, this government has shown no appetite to expose its dealmaking with lobbyists to public scrutiny.
A brief look at the recent history of the lobbying register exposes how little regard they have for transparency and our right to know who is bending their ear.
- The Coalition commits to tackling lobbying through the introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists.
- More lobbying scandals hit the headlines: Liam Fox resigns over links to lobbyist; agency Bell Pottinger boasts of access to No10; and undue influence of corporations dogs NHS reforms.
- But no action is taken for nearly two years.
- Government publishes its first proposals for a register of lobbyists. They are widely criticised as not fit for purpose.
- The minister in charge of the lobbying register plans refuses to reveal under the FOI Act details of meetings with lobbyists to discuss lobbying transparency.
- The cabinet office official in charge of drafting the plans wishes transparency campaigners “would die”.
- No progress is made on the register for the next 18 months. Campaigners are told the lobbying register is ‘never going to happen’.
- More lobbying scandals involving Conservative Party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas; News Corp’s lobbying over BSkyB bid; banking sector lobbying funds; retired army generals offering to lobby for arms companies; nuclear power lobbying; and many more.
- Senior Conservative Party figures reported as saying that election strategist and lobbyist, Lynton Crosby advised government to drop register of lobbyists from Queen’s Speech.
- More scandals: MP Patrick Mercer gets caught out; as do a couple more Lords; and details emerge of Lynton Crosby’s clients.
- Government has had enough and publishes its proposals for a register of lobbyists. They are worse than its previous plans. What they have proposed is a fake register. Government decides to couple this with an attack on charities and unions, which could put them at risk of prosecution and could be in breach of the right to free speech.
If these proposals weren’t so damaging they would be absurd. But what they are is a diversion from the problem sketched out above, which is that commercial lobbying is embedded in our politics.
Ninety per cent of the UK public believe that ‘the country’s government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves‘. Over half of people in the UK think that Parliament is corrupt or extremely corrupt.
The government’s answer to this is to play silly games.