This hasn’t been a good week for education reformers. Narrow, high stakes testing - their quick fix for improving learning – is in the dock. But it will take more than a few botched tests to stop corporations from profiting from this '$4.5 trillion opportunity'.
Mid week, it emerged that a Sats spelling test due to be taken next month had been accidentally published as a ‘sample paper’ by the Department of Education months ago.
Given that no one has any idea how many children have used it to practice for the test, headteachers called for schools to be allowed to spend their time more fruitfully, rather than taking what is now a seriously compromised assessment. Today the schools minister Nick Gibb agreed and suspended it.
At the very same moment we, in the UK, learnt of the error, thousands of children in New Jersey sat at their desks looking at blank screens instead of the maths and English tests they were due to take.
Splits occur within European Commission, as European Parliament, Ombudsman and NGOs increase the pressure for implementing UN rules for contacts with tobacco industry lobbyists.
In February, European Commission President Juncker took many by surprise by flatly rejecting a European Ombudsman's ruling recommending full transparency around tobacco industry lobbying.
So, the PM's is in. The Chancellor's too, but a bit trimmed. Boris' is much bigger. Corbyn's was late. Many are unremarkable.
What real difference has it made that that our political leaders have published details of their tax affairs?
Not a lot.
Should we be demanding more: that all politicians publish annually? What about the tax affairs of politicians' family members? As the Panama papers have shown, offshoring money isn't something people necessarily do under their own name. It's done through spouses, trusted friends and by parents.
The risk of going down this path, as Aditya Chakrabortty noted earlier this week, is that the publication of politicians' tax returns will descend into a morass of semi-titillating detail.... [but] will miss the wider truth.'
Twelve months ago the government introduced new rules that promised to let us see which lobbyists are having a quiet word with our politicians. So, on the anniversary of the launch of the UK's lobbying register, how much more do we know about who is leaning on our politicians?
Not very much. As predicted by everyone, the register is failing to ‘shine the light of transparency on lobbying,’ as promised by David Cameron.
Test your knowledge first with our 'who's lobbying' quiz!
Over a quarter of the 124 lobbying firms that made the effort to register, don’t declare a single client. So, don't bother trying to find out from the register whose interests arch-networker Roland Rudd is representing. (Rudd is one of the UK's best-connected lobbyists: he's been mates with Prime Ministers; is brother of current Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd; and the man behind the main anti-Brexit campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe).
From other sources, we know that Finsbury’s busy lobbying for the scandal-hit car maker, VW; under-fire bookmaker, Paddy Power, and tax-lite tech giant, Google, a firm that spent $17m and $4.5m lobbying Washington and Brussels respectively.
The absence of clients is down to the government’s very tightly drawn definition of what constitutes lobbying. Under the rules, only if a lobbyist directly contacts a minister on behalf of a client, do they need to declare that client on the register. Lobbying of anyone else in government, including special advisers, is exempt, as is all lobbying by corporations themselves.
There is a transparency trend developing across many countries in Europe and beyond. Dozens of countries have introduced legislation around freedom of information and access to documents, and in some cases open-government data initiatives. We are also seeing numerous systems for disclosing lobbying, the latest of which is about to be passed into law by the Scottish parliament. But I’m afraid the Scots are not pushing the envelope. There’s reason to expect improvement, but the torch on offer will not shine a light as widely as one might like.
You can easily recognise many of the drivers of these global trends. We’re in an era where people don’t trust politicians or big business; where social media and other new communication platforms are making it easier to participate in politics; where there is a general desire for greater public accountability.
Financial services dominate the list of the UK's top corporate lobbyists at the EU level, says LobbyFacts.
Barclays, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, HSBC, Morgan Stanley, Royal Bank of Scotland and Aviva are all in the top 15 of UK-based companies spending most on EU lobbying, with their collective spending totalling between €6,736,619 and €7,536,614 in the most recent year for which figures are provided. (For many of these companies which originate from outside the UK, London provides their European base, which is why they feature in this list of top UK lobbyists at the EU level.)
As the European Commission launches its public consultation on the future EU lobby transparency regime, members of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) give their reaction.
Vicky Cann, from Corporate Europe Observatory, a steering committee member of ALTER-EU says:
ALTER-EU is a veteran of EU lobby register reform processes and up to now, change has been glacially slow. For this new consultation to be genuinely different, the Commission must seek views from far and wide across Europe and crucially, must be prepared to grasp the lobbying bull by the horns. A legally-binding register – which goes further than a de facto mandatory register - is the only way to ensure that citizens can properly see who is influencing EU decision-making, on which issues, on whose behalf, and with what budgets.'
Big Tobacco likes to neuter its opposition, whether they be critics or competitors.
We know this from whistleblowers and internal company documents. Twenty years ago, BAT responded to the original and most famous fag whistleblower, Jeff Wigand, who was later played in the Hollywood movie The Insider by Russell Crowe, by circulating a 500-page dossier of dirt in a smear campaign that backfired after the smear became the story.
More recently, a new whistleblower Paul Hopkins revealed last year how BAT had been spying on its competitors in East Africa and undertaking corporate espionage even though the company has a near monopoly in the region.
BAT even set up a fake branch of a union to undermine its competitor, Mastermind. The codename for the secret mission was ‘Operation Snake’.
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.
Latest policy to gag charities, including public health charities, recommended by tobacco-funded think tankBy Tamasin Cave
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.