With the controversial Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill passing through the Lords last night, the government can now tick the box that says it has introduced a register of lobbyists. But it has not fulfilled its promise to open up lobbying.
The register of lobbyists, now set to become law is a fake. A sham. It will not allow the public to see who is influencing our politicians.
As the graphics above and below show, the government's register fails in two key ways. First and fundamentally, it covers barely any lobbyists, requiring only those working as lobbyists-for-hire who meet ministers (or permanent secretaries) to register (image above). 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 (image below). 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 epic time-wasting.
Westminster’s failed attempt to open up lobbying continues; making the case for a register in Scotland; and the business of politics exposed.
First, the Lobbying Bill, working its way through the Lords, remains a dog’s breakfast, despite efforts by some peers to improve it.
Monday’s session in the House of Lords created the potential for a tiny tweak to the Bill. One of the major loopholes in the government’s Bill was made marginally smaller when peers voted through an amendment that would require lobbyists who meet with ministerial special advisers (SpAds) to register their lobbying.
As it is currently drafted, only lobbying of ministers and permanent secretaries would trigger registration, which as any commercial lobbyist will confirm, is seldom the case. It remains to be seen whether the government will accept this minor change to the Bill.
Regardless, the register of lobbyists proposed in the Bill remains bogus. It will not allow us to see who is influencing our politicians and for what, whether that’s a tax break, more privatisation or fighting against public health measures. As shadow cabinet office minister, Baroness Hayter remarked this week: 'It introduces a register of lobbyists so limited that it is not worthy of the name and might actually make things worse.'
Meanwhile the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and others campaigning for a register have given evidence this week to Members of the Scottish Parliament conducting an inquiry into the need for a register at Holyrood. Commercial lobbyists in Scotland were also given the opportunity to present their case.
Downplaying their role in influencing the decisions of government, representatives of the lobbying industry insisted their role was merely to ‘inform’ politicians’ decisions. No mention was made of the massive, persuasive campaigns orchestrated by lobbyists to shift government thinking.
A representative from the trade body, the Association of Professional Political Consultants, Illiam Costain McCade, did suggest, however, that commercial lobbyists would be willing to reveal more information on their lobbying activity, namely their interactions with politicians. He told the inquiry that lobbyists in the APPC would be willing to publicly declare more than just who is lobbying, but also who they’re meeting in government and what was discussed. Previously, the lobbying body has agreed only to reveal the names of lobbyists and their clients, information that is useless for anyone trying to find out about lobbyists’ dealings with politicians. This is a welcome step forward.
The Scottish inquiry comes on the back of a commitment in the summer by the Scottish government to introduce a bill on Lobbying Transparency within this session of the Scottish Parliament, after Labour MSP Neil Findlay’s private members’ bill got cross-party support in Edinburgh.
Finally, looking forward to this programme from the BBC on Monday: Declared Interests: the business of politics (Radio 4, 8pm). It promises to expose ‘the ways in which outside interests try to gain access to the corridors of power without anyone breaking the rules.’ Timely stuff.
The Lobbying Bill being debated this week will do nothing to expose corporate lobbying. If we are going to diminish their influence in government, we need to understand their tactics better and call them out.
The addiction industries – gambling, alcohol and now sugar – had it tough last week. All are under pressure to defend their industries against increasing evidence of their harm and calls for intervention. But the chances of this government acting in the wider public interest are almost nil. Lobbying by these industries has put paid to that.
The lobbying strategies they employ to win politicians to their cause are strikingly similar. And they have all learnt their tactics from one industry: tobacco.
The lobbying starts with denial. When the sugar industry was last week forced onto the back foot by public health scientists calling for action to cut sugar intake to protect public health, the predictable response was to deny the now substantial evidence showing sugar’s harm: ‘Sugars... are not the cause of obesity,’ said industry lobby group, the Food and Drink Federation. This has long been the position of the industry.
Support for the government's mock register of lobbyists shows the Liberal Democrats are not reliable champions of clean and open politics.
Ahead of this week’s debates on the controversial Lobbying Bill, Lib Dem peers Paul Tyler and Shirley Williams are seeking to reassure their natural allies in the charity world. The Gagging Bill, as the legislation has been dubbed, will not impact the sector it says, contrary to what 120 NGOs believe.
According to the Lib Dem peers in today's Guardian, "the point" of the Bill, which introduces curbs on the money spent in the run up to elections, is simply to "prevent big money piling into constituency election campaigns, dwarfing the spending limits of candidates themselves, and effectively buying seats for rich benefactors."
This "noble purpose", they claim, is an issue dear to the Lib Dems, who have always pushed tirelessly to stop influence and access being auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Yet, the Lib Dems active involvement in pushing through Part 1 of the Bill, the supposed register of lobbyists, exposes their true position: they don’t want big money damaging their electoral hopes, but they are happy for corporate lobbyists – whose trade is in access and influence – to remain under the radar.
The £2bn commercial lobbying industry, which as we have seen recently is more than capable of shifting public policy, is of little concern to the party. The regulations in Part 1 of the Bill, which are supposed to open up ‘secret corporate lobbying’, are a sham. They will do nothing to shine a light on who, on a regular basis never mind in the run up to an election, has access and influence over government. Thus far, the Lib Dems have been unwavering in their support for the government’s mock register of lobbyists.
If the Lib Dems are at all concerned about influence and access, they will support Labour’s amendments in the debate this afternoon. If not, their insistence that they are the party of probity and the natural allies of those in the charity sector that defend the public interest, will ring hollow.
Iceland has sent four former directors of its bank Kaupthing to prison for fraud. But the chances of similar legal action happening in the UK are low, where fraud investigators have a poor record.
The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is the main agency for investigating and prosecuting major fraud. It was formed in 1988 after a spate of high-profile cases. A government-sponsored inquiry into share price rigging at Guinness in the 1980s concluded that too many executives at major corporations had a 'cynical disregard of laws and regulations … cavalier misuse of company monies … contempt for truth and common honesty. All these in a part of the City which was thought respectable'.
But rather than changing corporate laws, amending personal liability of directors, or creating an effective enforcement agency, the government created the SFO.
Last week, the SFO's case against businessman Victor Dahdaleh collapsed because at the last minute it could not provide evidence of alleged graft. This is not the only case the SFO has botched. It spent between £25-40m investigating price-fixing by pharmaceutical companies supplying the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), but the case collapsed because of errors in the interpretation of law.
Previously, the SFO was very slow in taking action against BAE Systems over allegations of corrupt practice. The SFO mislaid 32,000 documents relating to the case. It is currently facing a lawsuit for damages from the Tchenguiz brothers after dropping a three-year investigation into the collapse of Icelandic bank Kaupthing.
A 1991 report tracked down by DeSmogBlog from the University of California-San Francisco's Legacy Tobacco Documents reveals that the State Policy Network (SPN) was created by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), raising additional questions over both organizations' Internal Revenue Service (IRS) non-profit tax status.
Titled 'Special Report: Burgeoning Conservative Think Tanks' and published by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, the report states that State Policy Network's precursor — the Madison Group — was 'launched by the American Legislative Exchange Council and housed in the Chicago-based Heartland Institute'.
Further, Constance "Connie" Campanella — former ALEC executive director and the first president of the Madison Group — left ALEC in 1988 to create a lobbying firm called Stateside Associates. Stateside uses ALEC meetings (and the meetings of other groups) as lobbying opportunities for its corporate clients.
'Stateside Associates is the largest state and local government affairs firm,' according to its website. 'Since 1988, the Stateside team has worked across the 50 states and in many local governments on behalf of dozens of companies, trade associations and government and non-profit clients.'
Sign our petition calling on the government to rewrite the lobbying Bill and introduce a proper register of lobbyists in the UK.
Launched by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and the Open Knowledge Foundation, the petition demands the UK government gives citizens a proper register of lobbyists in the UK.
As we’ve written about before, the lobbying register proposed in the Lobbying Bill (which is currently going through parliament) only covers a small portion of the UK’s £2 billion influence industry. We think this needs to change and call on the government to rewrite the bill. The full text of the petition is copied below, and you can sign up here.
If you agree that citizens should be able to see who is lobbying government and which decisions they are trying to influence, please sign and share the petition with friends and colleagues:
STOP SECRET CORPORATE LOBBYING
The government is poised to let corporate lobbyists off the hook: we have just weeks to stop them. Having been slammed for proposals that unfairly cracked down on charities, the government is now trying to pass a watered down ‘register of lobbyists’, which would do nothing to stop the malign influence of big corporations over our political system.
Conall McDevitt, the SDLP South Belfast Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLA), resigned in September after it emerged that he had failed to declare receiving £6,750 from PR and lobbying firm Weber Shandwick between March and August 2010.
A little noticed implication is that his declaration implicates Weber Shandwick in an apparent breach of the code of conduct of the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC).Weber Shandwick was paying McDevitt, its former Belfast managing director, to 'mentor the company team that replaced him after his election' while he was working as an MLA.
Previous reporting of the story has noted the Assembly code breach and that the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) is investigating whether a breach of its rules has occurred.
However, Weber Shandwick is also a lobbying firm and a member of the lobbyists' lobby group the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC). Weber Shandwick's Belfast office is listed in the APPC register and McDevitt himself was listed as providing lobbying 'consultancy services' in the period 'until 29.1.2010', the day he was elected as an MLA. According to article 7 in the APPC code of conduct, lobbyists:
must not offer or give, or cause a client to offer or give, any financial or other incentive to any member of representative of an institution of government, whether elected, appointed or co-opted, that could be construed in any way as a bribe or solicitation of favour.
The code also clearly forbids lobbyists from employing or making any 'payment in money or in kind' to 'any MP, MEP, sitting Peer or any member of the Scottish Parliament or the National Assembly of Wales or the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Greater London Authority'.
Weber Shandwick, one of the biggest PR and lobbying companies in the UK, appears to have breached these rules by paying McDevitt while he was an MLA.
A few days ago, I was told by the organisers of a 'social media' festival that the hashtag was my 'new best friend'. As I’ve never hugged a hashtag or cried on the shoulders of one, I felt it was important to question this 'wisdom'.
Like millions of others, I’m addicted to Facebook and, to a lesser degree, Twitter. I check these websites so frequently that I often forget they are owned by vast corporations.
Some of these firms’ activities are inherently anti-democratic.
Facebook’s Brussels office is headed by Erika Mann, a former German member of the European Parliament. She has long fought to enable the interests of big business triumph over those of ordinary people.
During her 15 years as an MEP, Mann continuously advocated that the European Union should liberalise its trade with the United States.
At one point, it seemed that her calls were being ignored by political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. All that changed in February this year, when Barack Obama expressed his support for such an agreement during his State of the Union address. Talks aimed at reaching a very broad trade and investment deal were formally launched in July.
Now wearing her Facebook hat, Erika Mann is still extolling the apparent virtues of “free” trade at every available opportunity.
In April, she spoke at a conference in Dublin, where Facebook’s international headquarters are located. Mann argued that it would be'extremely important' for an eventual deal to make the standards faced by internet companies in the EU and US 'more coherent'.
Is it still possible to be shocked by the arrogance of New Labour's architects? I didn't think it was. Then I started investigating Peter Mandelson's stint as the EU's trade commissioner.
In 2007, Mandelson sent a threatening letter to several ministers in the Thai government after it overruled patents on medicines for AIDS and high blood pressure. Taking such steps to reduce the costs of prescription drugs could make Thailand lose foreign investment, Mandelson warned, employing a tried and tested bullying tactic.
Briefing notes prepared for Mandelson by Brussels officials acknowledged that the Bangkok authorities were legally entitled to circumvent the intellectual property "rights" of major pharmaceutical firms on public health grounds. The officials nonetheless advised Mandelson to instruct the Thais that any patent-busting in which they engaged must be restricted to medicines for AIDS. Extending it to treatments for heart disease and other ailments would set a "dangerous precedent", the officials argued.
Those documents indicate that Mandelson's willingness to act as a battering ram for Western multinationals knew few bounds. The idea that a relatively poor Asian country could put the interests of its own citizens before those of the world's top pharmaceutical companies was anathema to his mindset. His attempts to make Thais recovering from heart attacks foot higher medical bills constituted a far more greater affront to humanity than those misdemeanours which prompted him to resign (twice) from the British cabinet.
During his four years in Brussels, Mandelson pushed the EU's agenda to new extremes.