Stewart Stevenson MSP, speaking about the Lobbying Transparency Bill Dec 2015
Stewart Stevenson MSP, speaking about the Lobbying Transparency Bill Dec 2015

The Scottish Parliament is about to enter the final stage of debate on legislation to establish a national lobbying register and code of conduct. A lobbying register could allow citizens to better see who is meeting with politicians in an attempt to influence legislation, regulation or policy.

Since the Bill was introduced in October 2015, concerns have been expressed over its potential impact on certain groups – particularly small organisations in the charitable and voluntary sectors.  It has been suggested that requiring such organisations to register their lobbying activity would result in a ‘democratic chill’. In other words, it is assumed that registration will be perceived as a barrier to political participation and, as a result, smaller groups will be less likely to reach out to politicians and rightfully take part in the democratic process.

Cabinet Office minister, Matthew Hancock, speaking at the IEA in 2015
Cabinet Office minister, Matthew Hancock, speaking at the IEA in 2015

C'mon.... seriously?

This weekend saw another attempt by government to restrict lobbying by charities. Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock, announced that, from now on, any charity getting a government grant will be banned from using the funds to lobby government.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations does a good job of why the policy is unjust and likely to be counter-productive. It is ‘tantamount to making charities take a vow of silence,’ says CEO Stuart Etherington.

Not true, says Hancock. Government is merely ‘standing up for value for money’ and protecting the public purse. Taxpayers shouldn’t be made to foot the bill for charity lobbying, he says. It’s just a ‘common sense’, anti-waste measure.

A quick examination of the source of the policy – the impetus behind it –  suggests otherwise.

Jobs for the Boys, Daily Mirror front page, 11 January 2016
Jobs for the Boys, Daily Mirror front page, 11 January 2016

Time to put your foot in the revolving door, Dave.

The front page of today's Mirror, All aboard Cam's £1m gravy train, reports that 25 ministers from the coalition government are now making a small fortune working as directors, advisers or board chairmen, in 'businesses they used to govern'.

This comes on the back of yesterday’s Sunday Times story, MPs demand controls on jobs for ex-ministers, which exposes even more of this revolving door action. According to the paper, since 2010 former ministers and senior civil servants have had more than 800 applications for post-government work approved by the ‘watchdog’ tasked with monitoring the revolving door. Some of these jobs present potential conflicts of interest, the paper notes.

No reasonable person would begrudge these former politicians and officials a living. But, why so many in the pay of companies that they either used to regulate, or their lobbyists?

Just look, for instance, at the ministers who have recently moved from the department of energy and climate change to the energy sector (you could play this game in many other sectors: health, education and of course, defence). According to the Mirror, four of David Cameron’s former energy ministers now work for energy firms, or their lobbyists.

Take ex-energy secretary, Ed Davey. Last week it was revealed that he has bagged a job with commercial lobbying firm, MHP Communications. According to MHP, Davey will be paid to provide its clients with advice, counsel and ‘thought leadership’, aka PR, 'as appropriate'. This includes its energy clients.

According to David Singleton, editor of lobbying trade mag Public Affairs News, top of MHP’s client list is EDF, the French energy giant, 'an account that is worth close to a whopping £50k per month to MHP.’ As Singleton notes, Davey was intimately involved with EDF during his three years as energy secretary.

MHP chief executive Gavin Devine is candid about the value of Davey’s ‘unique insight into the energy sector’. ‘His knowledge of the top-level workings of Britain’s political system will prove immensely useful’ to clients, says Devine. That is, to companies that pay MHP to influence government.

Bear in mind, MHP already employs some top rank political insiders: former home secretary, Charles Clarke; ex-permanent secretary, Brian Bender; and more recently Davey's former Lib Dem colleague, ex-health minister, Paul Burstow, who works for MHP's healthcare clients.

It needs to be said that Davey and others have done nothing wrong in taking these jobs. But, what lobbying firms – and their clients that pay the bills – are buying when they hire former ministers and civil servants is insider knowledge and access to government.

What they are doing is rigging the system.

In opposition David Cameron promised to tackle this 'cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest': 'If we win the election,' he said in February 2010, 'we will take a lead on this issue by making sure that ex-ministers are not allowed to use their contacts and knowledge – gained while being paid by the public to serve the public – for their own private gain.'

And yet under his leadership, the trade in contacts and influence has boomed.

Despite the rhetoric, there are no real restrictions on the revolving door in the UK. The Advisory Committee doesn’t prevent the revolving door from spinning, it merely takes a note of people passing through. It's a word and on your way. It's not the Committee's business what these people get up to after that. It’s nothing more than a bad doorman.

Or as Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the public administration and constitutional affairs select committee, put it to the Sunday Times: ‘It is effectively a voluntary arrangement which has no sanctions or teeth’.

Predicting that this ‘highly unsatisfactory system’, will not last, ‘because I don’t see how it can possibly generate public confidence,’ Jenkins is calling for a ‘statutory system with clear rules which were enforceable with sanctions, [so] everybody would know where they stand.’

It's the right idea, but it's going to take a brave minister to get that one past colleagues with one eye on their next move.

Thursday, 26 November 2015 16:54

Scotland lobbying bill: how to improve it

By
Scottish Parliament
Scottish Parliament

The Scottish government is currently taking a Bill through the Parliament to try and make lobbying more transparent. We think it could be better. 

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency believes that the current draft bill is far too narrowly focused to deliver proper transparency around lobbying in Scotland. It will not allow us to see who is lobbying whom and about what.

We now have an opportunity to strengthen the Bill. The Standards Committee is asking for views on the government’s Bill and ways to improve it before it reports to the Parliament. The deadline is 30 November. 

This is how we think the Bill should be amended.

1. Expand definition so multiple modes of communication trigger registration

As drafted in the current Bill, only if lobbyists meet politicians face-to-face will they have to register their lobbying. We believe that it shouldn’t matter how you contact politicians – whether by letter, email, text, over the phone, or in person – it’s still lobbying and should trigger registration.

Corporate lobbyists protest transparency
Corporate lobbyists protest transparency

On the subject of the UK’s bogus register of lobbyists, the accounts for the Office of the Registrar have just been published. They reveal that the register cost over £264,000 to run last year (that would be a pretty good deal if the register actually did its job).

However, the government decided to make the industry pay for the operational costs of the register and, so far, this has brought in a paltry £2,463 in registration fees, or less than a hundreth of what the thing cost.

Friday, 23 October 2015 15:43

America suffers from crony-capitalism

By
The Koch Brothers, two of the US' most influential political lobbyists
The Koch Brothers, two of the US' most influential political lobbyists

Over in US, where at last count just 9 per cent of Americans said they had confidence in their legislators, a new study argues that lobbying is not only hurting democracy, but harming the American economy.

According to the report by the very dry-sounding Committee on Economic Development, the US economy is increasingly represented by crony capitalism and not competitive capitalism.

Crony capitalism, the report details, leads to 'rent-seeking through subsidies or taxes that benefit vested interests at the expense of others, rather than the pursuit of profit through socially and economically productive behaviour'.

It lays the blame at the door of lobbyists and privately funded elections.

Monday, 19 October 2015 15:25

'Conspiracy-theorists' hit Scotland

By

Meanwhile, in the Scottish press on Sunday we – that is Spinwatch, Unlock Democracy and our partners, the Electoral Reform Society Scotland – were dubbed ‘London-centric conspiracy theorists’ for suggesting that a light should be shone on the activities of lobbyists.

Scottish lobbyist, John Downie, made the comments in response to a short report we published a week earlier that was covered by the Sunday Herald (Revealed: new dossier untangles the shadowy world of political lobbying in Scotland). The report, Holyrood Exposed, is a guide to lobbying in Scotland. It takes you on a tour around some of the offices of the lobbyists in Edinburgh, all of whom are intent on influencing the decisions of the Scottish government. Scotland, if not already, should be aware of their presence. As lobbyists say, the most effective lobbying is that which goes unnoticed.

Downie, however, is insistent that Scottish politics is ‘a completely different ball game’. Echoing many Scottish politicians, he says the country doesn’t need ‘unelected’ Westminster-based lobbyists (that's us) ‘telling us how Scottish democracy should be run’.

Which pretty much makes our point. The report is as much a warning from Westminster.

Monday, 19 October 2015 14:43

London's reputation launderers

By
Cameron meets with Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabor Althani.
Cameron meets with Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabor Althani.

This weekend we learned that one of London’s top-end lobbying firms, Quiller, has been on a multi-year £60,000-a-month retainer to lobby for the United Arab Emirates.

This helps to explain how it can afford its very swish offices, which are currently nestled beside the Ritz in Mayfair and before that were a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace.

According to a Mail on Sunday investigation, Quiller was contracted 'to promote and achieve the foreign policy objectives of the UAE'. Leaked emails handed to the paper, however, reveal the tactics – all of which were to be ‘carried out in strict confidence’ – employed by the firm for its paymasters.

The emails show, for example, that Quiller successfully targeted top British newspapers and BBC journalists, leading to naked attacks on UAE’s arch-rival Qatar, some accusing it of being a haven for terrorists. One key member of Quiller’s staff admitted in an email that he had kept the UAE's involvement secret when talking to a journalist. The firm focused another journalist's briefing on UAE’s opposition, especially London-based campaigners against human rights abuses.

To coincide with the SNP conference this week, Spinwatch, Unlock Democracy and Electoral Reform Society Scotland have published Holyrood exposed: A guide to lobbying in Scotland.

Holyrood exposed takes you on a walking tour of Edinburgh’s influence industry: the commercial lobbying agencies; corporate in-house lobbying teams; industry bodies, think tanks, and management consultants.

It tells you which lobbyists have been hiring top SNP staff; which have been wining and dining Nicola Sturgeon's special advisers; shines a light on some of the tactics they use to get their way; and profiles some of the powerful players lined up for policy battles on alcohol pricing, plain packaging for cigarettes and fracking in Scotland.

Neil O'Brien of Policy Exchange, appearing on BBC News
Neil O'Brien of Policy Exchange, appearing on BBC News

The BBC’s founding father, John Reith, once remarked that there was ‘no electoral process anywhere in the BBC constitution and procedure’. This he considered quite proper, indeed he regarded it as a model ‘for other public bodies from Parliament down’. I disagree. Like Jeremy Gilbert I regard this autocratic model – as Reith himself described it – as indefensible, and if I had one broad suggestion for the BBC it would be to democratise both its ‘governance’ and its editorial processes.

Here though I would like to make a more modest proposal which would require few resources, or any organisational reform, but which would be a major step towards introducing more transparency in our politics.

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