The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency: Campaigning to end secrecy in lobbying.
Lobbyists are paid to influence government decisions. So, whether it's the private healthcare lobby pushing for the current NHS reforms; or banks lobbying against reform of the financial system; or the construction industry wanting to get their hands on greenbelt land, the activities of lobbyists affect our lives in countless ways.
We think the public should know who is influencing government decisions.
And the government agrees in principle - it has promised to make lobbying transparent with a register of lobbyists. But its current plans to open up the influence industry are a sham. Now is the time to tell them what you think, and put an end to the back-room deal nature of politics. Read on.
The Coalition has at last found someone to take on the poisoned chalice of lobbying registrar; the final stage in a tortuous, and under this government, fruitless process to shine a light on the murky world of lobbying.
The government's preferred candidate for the job is businesswoman Alison White, who was quizzed by MPs this morning. From her performance in front of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, White is confident of her ability to act as an independent regulator of lobbyists. She described herself as 'a very resilient and determined person'. She will need to be.
By her own admission, White is new to lobbying. She has no previous experience of working as a lobbyist, nor of dealing with lobbyists. This should be seen as an asset. Here is someone truly independent of the business, ready to take them on. However, her lack of experience and knowledge of the lobbying industry, as members of the committee were quick to point out, could be a serious disadvantage.
Did she appreciate, as Paul Flynn MP put it, that "lobbyists are some of the most skilled, the most devious, the most persuasive people in the parliamentary family. You’re going to take on some very tough customers… What is there in your background to suggest you can take on these monsters?"
Ignore his language if you want. Flynn is making an important point. So much time has been wasted in the past five years since the coalition government promised to bring transparency to lobbying with a register of lobbyists. Its been a masterclass in lobbying, watching the commercial industry endlessly argue, shape-shift, distort and distract in a bid to hold back meaningful regulation of lobbying. They are professional persuaders.
Tracey Crouch MP asked whether White, given her lack of previous experience of the industry, might not notice any subtle changes made by lobbyists to avoid disclosure. Would she, for example, be able to call out those who relabelled their lobbying as more general 'communications', which would exempt them from the register. Crouch is a former lobbyist. She knows how they behave.
Just as crucially, did White understand the limitations of her role as registrar, asked Mark Durkan MP. That is, did she understand the limitations of her role as overseer of a register so limited in scope that it may not be workable in practice? Was she surprised by the limited role she would play, regulating such a tiny fraction of the lobbying industry? The past frustrations of the committee of MPs was palpable. In the past 18 months, they've have gone all out to expose the serious failings of the government's proposed register.
What about the registrar's role in providing guidance on precisely which lobbyists must register? White quite rightly said it was early days and that she would be listening hard to the industry and others before determining exactly who would be covered by the transparency rules. However, she may find she has been left an impossible task. Will the register capture enough lobbyists-for-hire to provide meaningful information to the public? Will sufficient numbers of lobbyists be signed up in order to cover White's operational costs (the government's register being industry, rather than state, funded)? Will it cover law firms, like DLA Piper, and management consultants, like McKinsey, and force them to reveal their clients (I admire her optimism here)? Will it include think tanks, many of which provide the exact same services as lobbying agencies? White said her approach would be to positively 'motivate and encourage' lobbyists to sign up. She'll also need a massive stick.
Finally, what happens if the register fails? What if it doesn't reveal all that much, which is likely; or if its obvious failings are exposed when a lobbying scandal hits the headlines, which is also likely. Will White be prepared for her Newsnight interview to defend her register? From her answers, it is clear the government has presented the role of registrar as more of a behind-the-scenes, low-key office job than perhaps the Committee envisaged. It says a lot about the quality of the legislation. It's nothing to shout about.
This was a good introduction to the arena Alison White may soon find herself in (if her appointment is approved). For five years (and the rest), the policy has been dogged by misinformation and dishonest argument, attempts to stave off regulation by the industry, and by a complete lack of political will and seriousness about tackling the excesses and secrecy surrounding the UK's £2bn commercial lobbying business.
The government's register is designed to provide minimal transparency. We wish the new registrar luck in achieving this. The best place to start would be listen closely to this committee of MPs.
As Martin Kettle writes in today’s Guardian: nothing else matters now in British politics. Yesterday’s poll showing that Scottish independence could be a reality in less than a fortnight is finally being given the space it warrants among London’s political commentators.
Thus, yesterday’s revelation that Lynton Crosby, aka the 'Wizard of Oz', lobbied a Conservative Minister on cigarette packaging just days before taking up his role as Tory election guru, has passed almost unnoticed. Crosby must be breathing a sigh of relief.
For Crosby-watchers – which includes anyone with concerns about the influence of tobacco and alcohol companies on policy, fracking firms on the UK’s energy strategy, and private healthcare lobbyists on the NHS – having concrete proof that Crosby lobbied the government is, though, significant.
Until yesterday we have had to accept both Crosby and David Cameron’s denials that he has been meddling in policy. We have been able to connect the dots – from Philip Morris International hiring Crosby’s lobbying firm to derail plans to sell cigarettes in unbranded cartons, to the government kicking these plans into the long grass – but never managed to see the full picture.
Crosby has always insisted that accusations that he used his position as Tory campaign director to influence the policy were “false”. In a carefully worded statement last summer, he said: "At no time have I had any conversation or discussion with, or lobbied the prime minister, or indeed the health secretary or the health minister, on plain packaging or tobacco issues.”
Now we have hard evidence that in late 2012 – just a fortnight before the Tories announced Crosby's appointment as their election strategist – Crosby lobbied his friend, Lord Marland, then minister for intellectual property and a former Conservative party treasurer, against the introduction of plain packaging.
Which casts doubt on the Prime Minister’s assurances just six months later that "Lynton Crosby does not lobby the government, he does not lobby me, he gives political advice and I think that’s a very clear situation.” If David Cameron had said that “Crosby has recently lobbied the government, but doesn’t anymore, now that he’s working at the heart of government,” that would have been clearer. As it is, the Prime Minister’s statements – which include an insistence that the furore over Crosby’s lobbying was a "media invention" – appear at best highly misleading.
What other policies might Crosby have been influencing? We know that his firm, CTF Partners, works, or has worked, for companies in alcohol, banking, property development, the oil industry, and private healthcare, as well as tobacco. But, unlike most agencies in the UK, it chooses not to voluntarily disclose the names of its clients. Nor does it need to, according to Cameron: "[Crosby’s] work, his lobbying, the lobbying business is a matter for the lobbying business," he said.
This, of course, runs counter to Cameron’s previous statements on the need to shine a light on lobbying and “force our politics to come clean about who is buying power and influence”. "We all know how it works,” said Cameron of lobbying. “The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.... I believe that secret corporate lobbying goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics,” (an issue Owen Jones alludes to in his discussion on what lies behind support for Scottish independence). It is absolutely in the public interest to know who is influencing which public servants and public policies.
CTF Partners has amassed a staff with considerable connections to achieve this aim. They include Mark Fullbrook, ex-head of campaigns for the Tories who deputied on Boris Johnson’s successful 2012 London Mayoral campaign and is married to Tory MP Lorraine Fullbrook; David Canzini, who has a 20 year career working for the Tories including director of party campaigning; Sam Lyon, former spokesperson for Boris and a large number of other Boris campaigners, including Isabel Mackay and Robin Knight.
The chances of Crosby being forced to reveal his clients under the government’s new rules for lobbyists are almost nil. The register of lobbyists, introduced in the much criticised Lobbying Bill, which was supposed to shine a light on who was influencing whom and about what, is a sham. But, Crosby may yet have to come clean about which commercial interests have hired his lobbying firm.
When he was first appointed as Conservative Party election supremo, Lord Ashcroft warned Crosby against “becoming the story” in Westminster. “I’m sure you’ll get on with the job and stay out of the limelight,” the Tory donor wrote. Crosby has largely managed to contain the story of his lobbying so far.
How much longer he will stay behind the scenes – and how much more of his lobbying will emerge – remains to be seen.
1 July 2014
On the eve of the Conservative Party’s annual fundraising dinner, the Guardian today reveals last year’s secret guest list and, with it, the murky world of political donations and lobbying.
The Conservative Party intended the list to remain private. Despite promises by this government to be 'the most transparent in the world', the public aren’t to know the company that they keep.
But, as the final preparations are made for tonight’s fundraiser at the Hurlingham private members’ club in west London, documents passed to TBIJ show the web of bankers, businesspeople, foreign interests and lobbyists that twelve months ago pressed the flesh with Conservative politicians.
Among those that David Cameron and members of the Cabinet spent the evening with are:
Buying a seat at a minister’s table provides these already influential and advantaged individuals – there was an estimated total wealth in the room last year of £11bn – with an opportunity to forge relationships with our politicians, demonstrate their support for the party, and crucially open discussions with Ministers about their concerns.
The consequences of such a system – one that provides private access for the wealthy and well connected, while everyone else is excluded – are all around us.
27 June 2014
Here’s a little test for the government’s statutory lobbying register (when it eventually arrives).
Former Planning Minister, Bob Neill (on the left here at a lobbing agency reception), has taken a job with a lobbying agency that has so far refused to sign up to any of the voluntary registers that the statutory register will replace.
This means that his new employer, planning specialist, Cratus Communcations, does not currently declare its clients, which include housebuilders and developers.
Nor would it – probably – under the government’s new statutory system given the enormous loopholes. Nearly 40% of agency lobbyists (the only section of the industry that is covered by the new legislation) say they won’t have to register and declare their clients, as they “never” have direct face-to-face engagement with ministers or permanent secretaries (one of the criteria that triggers the requirement to register). Only 9% of agency lobbyists say they meet ministers or permanent secretaries regularly. The rest only do so occasionally.
This means that Cratus Communications, which now employs a Tory ex-minister that less than two years ago was responsible for local government and planning, is unlikely to start declaring who it is lobbying for any time soon. We’ll be as much in the dark as we are now.
“We must be the party that sorts all this out,” David Cameron said of lobbying in the run up to the last general election, singling out the problem of ‘ex-ministers for hire”.
What he’s done instead is give us a sham register.
12 May 2014
A businessman who spent a year advising the government has revealed his shock at the influence and access lobbyists have with ministers.
As “entrepreneur in residence” at the Business Department, Lawrence Tomlinson had an unrivalled view of how lobbyists operate. He concluded that finance lobbyists are seen as "indispensable" by ministers.
What was shocking, he said, was the "influence of certain organisations, trade associations and individuals within government," singling out the British Banking Association, who he noted “have their foot through the door” of government and are capable of overwhelming attempts by others to change policies.
Tomlinson added that, while lobbying can serve a valid purpose, the process must be transparent, and conflicts and interests must be declared. He also criticised the common practice where former senior officials and special advisors who write government policy go on to work for major corporations: “In parts of government, there is a revolving door with the large corporates who have a deep interest in government policy,” he said.
"The conflicts of interest are plainly apparent, and the number of lobbyists and force they have, can hardly be matched by the business community. These interests need to be made more transparent to prevent these conflicts having an impact on our policy making processes.”
The laughable response from the government to Tomlinson's damning observations was to point out that David Cameron had just introduced a register of lobbyists, which he claims will shine a light on lobbying. It is widely acknowledged that the register introduced by the Coalition in January is a sham. For a start, it would not include the British Bankers Association, or any lobbyists working in-house for corporations (large or small). In fact, it deliberately excludes more than 80% of the UK's £2billion lobbying industry. And then, it requires those lobbyists that fall into its tiny net (with massive loopholes) to declare nothing of their lobbying activity.
Tomlinson, who has seen lobbyists operate from inside government, is right to speak out. His remit was how to improve policy for small firms. He has seen with his own eyes that SMEs don't have a hope in hell against the influence of big business and bankers.
As Spinwatch's Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell set out in their new book on lobbying, A Quiet Word, large corporations have been allowed to become dominant in government. The amount they spend on lobbying and the associated influence of their lobbyists has bought them a structural advantage. They are drowning out everyone else.
A Quiet Word also notes, as Tomlinson does, that rather than being seen as parasitical, corporate lobbyists should more accurately be viewed as subsidising government. As lobbying activity has increased, so our government has become ever more dependent on lobbyists to function.
As the book reveals, politicians can on occasion be candid about this: "Lobbying is absolutely fundamental to the way we legislate in the UK, right across the board," according to Tim (Lord) Razzall, a politician of forty years’ experience, at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference. "The lobbying organisations do your . . ." He corrects himself: ". . . a lot of the work for you." Legislators are "inundated" with appeals from lobbyists whenever laws are being crafted. "Very often" the way to get changes to proposed laws is simply to email them over. Do politicians actually take any notice of the overtures of lobbyists? "Absolutely," said Razzall. The government takes a "huge amount" of notice.
And why do large corporations spend disproportionately more on lobbying that anyone else? Because they see lobbying as a tactical investment. Put simply, lobbying pays. It delivers a financial return. And the payback can be "astronomic", as the FT noted yesterday, describing the return on lobbying by hedge funds in Washington.
When it comes to lobbying, it is the case that there is a corporate elite and there is everyone else (SMEs, NGOs, the public etc). Transparency in lobbying is one small step to addressing the disparity. It is one that this government has yet to take.
To discover more about corporate lobbying, and how commercial lobbyists buy access and influence to our government, get hold of a copy of A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain by Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell. "A timely account of how voters are conceding power to a silent industry", says the Mail on Sunday.
29 April 2014
Statement from Tamasin Cave of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency following the decision to ban Conservative MP, Patrick Mercer from Parliament for six months. Mercer has now resigned triggering a byelection in his Newark seat.
The punishment comes as a result of revelations published last year, when it was alleged that he accepted cash in return for tabling questions in the Commons, agreeing to set up an All Party Parliamentary Group and offering to produce a Parliamentary report on behalf of a client in return for £4,000.
"Mercer must be reeling after this judgement. There is no question he will have seen others behaving in a similar way and getting away with it. There is a culture within British politics where accepting cash for influence is deemed, if not acceptable, then not overtly risky behaviour.
Three years ago the Prime Minister said that lobbying was the 'next big scandal waiting to happen'. Since then, nothing has been done to rein in the commercial lobbying industry. Cameron has introduced what is widely-viewed as a bogus register of lobbyists.
Mercer did wrong, but he will also be aware that while he has been severely punished, the government has refused to control, or in any way expose the £2bn lobbying business to scrutiny.
Politicians know better than most that we have a problem with commercial lobbying in this country. The scandal is that they refuse to do anything about it. Mercer's going won't solve it."
23 April 2014
Australia's rules for lobbyists, which the UK has chosen to copy, are set to be reformed in the wake of yet more lobbying scandals.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott is said to be 'deeply concerned' about the continuing behaviour of officials and former MPs in his Liberal Party as they try to covertly influence government decisions outside of the rules. In recent weeks, an official inquiry has exposed evidence of murky political influence-peddling in the party.
As a consequence, Australia's weak transparency regulations for lobbyists have come under scrutiny. Currently, only lobbyists-for-hire working on behalf of third party clients are required to declare their existence on a public register. Lobbyists working in-house for corporations are exempt from the rules.
This is the model register of lobbyists adopted by the UK government earlier this year. It will require that only a tiny fraction of lobbyists sign up. As one former Australian politician says of this system: 'What you've got covered is the tip of the iceberg.'
'Chairmen of boards, boards of directors, CEOs, directors of government relations for any Australian company can walk in and out of any Australian parliament unrecorded and unregulated.'
The UK government has been warned that scandals involving lobbyists will continue to dog politics unless robust transparency rules are put in place. Yet, it is determined to follow the weak system adopted by Australia, a system now undergoing urgent reform.
“We need to bite the bullet and get this process done and dusted," Liberal party member and long-term advocate for party reform, John Ruddick, told the Guardian.
The UK government seems intent on taking the same road, one that inevitably leads to more scandals, resignations and damage to the reputation of politics.
4 April 2014
The Lobbying Act, which was passed by the Coalition in January this year, purports to introduce new transparency rules for lobbyists. The statutory register of lobbyists contained in the Act, however, is a fake. It will not allow the public to see who is lobbying the government.
Ed Miliband has now committed Labour to introducing a more robust register. Sensibly, Labour's register would cover all lobbyists. The Coalition's covers only a small fraction of the industry. It remains to be seen, however, whether the opposition would require lobbyists to reveal enough information to allow us to know who is lobbying whom in government, what they are seeking to influence, whether that's fracking regulations, NHS contracts, or more tax breaks for multi-nationals. The current register, as laid out in the Lobbying Act, would reveal none of this. It is merely a list of (some) lobbying companies and their clients.
A robust register of lobbyists that is fit-for-purpose must:
The government must now own up to the fact that its new rules for lobbyists are a sham. Everyone knows they are a sham (including the commercial lobbying industry). Any more lobbying scandals in the run up to the general election will expose them for what they are.
29 January 2014
The government's proposed register of lobbyists is set to become law, as the controversial Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill passed through the Lords last night.
The register of lobbyists that will now be introduced will not open lobbying as promised by the coalition in May 2010. As the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency has said all along, the government's register is a sham. A fake. It will not allow the public to see who is influencing our politicians. It merely allows the government to tick a box.
As the graphics below show, the government's register fails in two key ways. First, it covers barely any lobbyists, requiring only those working as lobbyists-for-hire who meet ministers (or permanent secretaries) to register. All in-house lobbyists working inside banks, energy firms, payday loan lenders, alcohol and tobacco companies etc are exempt, as are corporate lobbyists in business lobby groups like the CBI, as is anyone who doesn't lobby a minister directly, which is the majority.
Second, it will reveal nothing of what or whom they are seeking to influence. Lobbyists in those agencies that have direct contact with ministers will be required to list merely their clients. There will be no record of dealings with special advisers, civil servants or regulators; no information on what they are seeking to influence or what deals are being done; nor how much money is being spent to sway government.
The government's decision to pretend to open up lobbying will come back to bite them. Lobbyists are a permanent feature in British politics. They are not going away and neither will the widespread feeling that their private interests are being favoured over the public interest.
This new law will do nothing to open up decision-making and restore trust. It is an exercise in time-wasting.
22 January 2014
The government's register of lobbyists being yanked through Parliament will do nothing to expose the £2bn influence industry that is embedded in our political system.
Today ministers rejected even minor improvements put forward by the Lords to the Lobbying Bill. Crucially, the government has ignored pleas to include lobbying of ministerial special advisers (as a trigger for registration). This is to wilfully ignore the central role these advisers play in the lives of lobbyists.
The government has shown itself to be deaf to the legitimate concerns people have over 'secret corporate lobbying', as David Cameron described it in opposition. The panicked way the bill is being rushed through Parliament also reveals the government's contempt for Parliamentary process and public debate.
The bill does nothing to expose big money corporate lobbying, but it will muzzle public interest campaign groups. You couldn't make it up.