Trying to get to grips with lobbying

Lobbying is - despite what many might hope - an inescapable feature of modern democracy. Diverse and plural societies such as ours rely on it for the representation of opinions and interests that would be lost in the broad themes of electoral politics.

It is however an activity that has - with good reason - fallen into disrepute. As a shadowy industry has evolved around it, characterised by expensive consultants, a 'revolving door'  between public sector posts and lobbyist roles (particularly for ministers and senior civil servants) and numerous examples of potentially excessive and unwarranted influence by particular groups and individuals, public perception of lobbying has turned increasingly negative.

The increase in 'government-by-quango' has also helped muddy the waters. Huge amounts of public resources (in both money, personnel and time) are now dedicated by taxpayer funded organizations to their lobbying practices. Indeed the Government is now the second biggest employer of professional lobbyists (paid by Government to lobby, perversely, the Government) after business. Pushing for general policy change, or just in their fight with other quangos over dwindling Government funds, public bodies are now a central feature in the lobbying landscape. Moreover, the co-opting of the charitable sector by the state (transforming it into a publicly funded service delivery sector) has made the situation even more unintelligible; observers now are unable to easily distinguish charities from quangos, political campaigns and lobby groups (for more see here).

These developments are not only wasteful and unwelcome, they are also fundamentally undemocratic. Smaller groups and campaigns within society are closed out of debates by expensive corporate lobbyists, funded either by powerful industries or the taxpayer (without their consent, or knowledge).

Aware of how difficult it is change public attitudes, quangos have opted instead for the much easier tactic of lobbying for policy change. Despite the fact that most were set up to lay the foundations for new policy in the future (be it a more green approach in business, or a more colour and gender blind employment environment) quangos have chosen instead to approach the problem from the other end, pushing for law and regulations which will then impose an new environment upon society, prematurely.

In any country this is undesirable, but in a state as big as ours it leads to ridiculous instances in which separate taxpayer funded public bodies are furiously lobbying against each other over an issue.
This could almost be funny, if did not involve so much taxpayers money. 

It is a welcome sign then to see that Parliament also trying to get to grips with lobbying. Last Monday's Public Administration Committee (PAC) report - Lobbying: Access and Influence in Whitehall - is the first concerted effort to address concerns over lobbying since 1991, and while it does not address explicitly the issue of taxpayer funded lobbying - (this was not in its remit) - it does put forward some sound proposals which would help address problems with lobbying in general.

It is not in our interest to stamp out lobbying altogether, but rather to bring it out into the open, and put an end to some of its more egregious aspects (such as ex-Ministers using their influence and access excessively).

To this end the PAC recommends the setting up of a regulator for the lobbying industry, with which
every person employed in lobbying must be registered. This authority (similar to ones found in the USA and Canada) would be empowered to monitor the activities of lobbyists, and act on cases of malpractice.

Professional lobby groups (often knows as Public or Government Affairs consultancies) will also be forced to make public their client lists, and state explicitly the purpose of their lobbying (the policy which they are trying influence).

The activities of ex-public sector officials (or ex-lobbyists for that matter) needs to be bettered monitored, and the PAC report recommends a significant strengthening of the rules and structures which currently operate. In particular it wants to see the introduction of an on-line register of all politicians and senior civil servants interests, updated continuously.

The reports recommendations are, in short, framed in the interest of openness, and while total transparency is probably impossible, anything would be an improvement on the current state of affairs.

So there should be cautious endorsement of theses proposals. While not perfect they are a step in the right direction; everyone should be opposed to regulation for regulation sake, but self-regulation has clearly failed in this industry, and an extension of independent oversight would be in the public's interest.

However, it remains the case that these recommendations still miss the biggest issue: taxpayer funded lobbying.

In line with the Byrd Amendment in the USA, laws should explicitly prohibit public sector organizations, or any body in receipt of public funds, from using those funds to hire professional lobbyists (whether in-house or through outside consultants). Indeed any organisation in which 75 per cent of its annual income comes directly or indirectly from the taxpayer should be banned outright from participating in lobbying activity of any kind (be it even throwing expensive soirées for politicians).

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