23 October 2009

UK Government Blows it on Lobbying

If you wanted proof that the UK government is still an enemy of transparency, try this:

The Government is grateful to the Public Administration Select Committee for its examination of lobbying in the UK, which is the first Parliamentary inquiry on the subject since 1991.

It is right that the Government remains alert for signs of improper influence over any aspect of our public life and the Committee's Report provides a helpful opportunity to look again at arrangements and to ensure that it has the right framework in place to ensure confidence in the way outside interests interact with government.

In responding to the Committee's recommendations, it is first important to set out the context of this inquiry. While the Committee's Report focuses mainly on the relationship between the lobbying industry and Government, it must be remembered that lobbying goes much wider than this. Lobbying is essentially the activity of those in a democracy making representations to government on issues of concern. The Government is committed to protecting this right from improper use while at the same time seeking to avoid any unnecessary regulation or restriction. As well as being essential to the health of our democracy, its free and proper exercise is an important feature of good government.

What this conveniently glosses over is the difference between "making representations to government on issues of concern" - which is what you and I as citizens do all the time, mostly by sending emails to MPs and ministers - and *lobbying*, which is now an entire industry of people employed to use every trick in the book, from the most to least subtle, to get what their clients want.

The first - making representations - is just what it seems: someone expressing their view and/or asking for action. Lobbying, by contrast, is your typical iceberg, with most of its intent invisible below the surface. That is why a lobbyists' register is needed - so that others can work out the iceberg. The UK government's refusal to countenance this - and the pathetic excuse it offers for doing so - are yet another blot on this administration's record as far as openness is concerned.

And if you're wondering why it is so obstinate, maybe this has something to do with it:

The Government agrees that any system of regulation, whether it is voluntary self-regulation or statutory regulation, requires a register of lobbyists to ensure that lobbying activity is transparent. The Government agrees with most of the elements for such a register outlined by the Committee.

However, the Government does not agree that such a register should include the private interests of Ministers and civil servants. This should not be a matter for a register of lobbyists. Ultimately, major decisions are taken by Ministers. Information about Ministers' relevant private interests is now published as well as information in the Registers of Members' and Peers' Interests. In addition, relevant interests' of departmental board members are also available publicly. However, the Government believes that the proposal for a Register of the private interests of civil servants would be a disproportionate requirement that would place a significant burden on departments and agencies while adding very little to the regulation of lobbying. Both Ministers and civil servants are already subject to clear standards of conduct for dealing with lobbyists.

But hang on a minute: if the argument is that such information is *already* made available, then there would be no *extra* burden in providing it to both authorities. It would only be information not already declared that might require effort - and that is precisely what should be made available. Yet more pathetic - and transparently false - logic from the UK government, which is still trying to keep us from scrutinising the engines of political power.

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Anonymous said...

Interesting. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that, if this had been a matter any interest group other than ministers themselves (and their senior influencers in the civil service), the answer would have been Yet Another Database.

As it is, they seem content to point to information which is currently kept in different silos - whereas, again, if this had been 'citizen' data, their argument (on past form) would have been that it should be combined/aggregated in the interests of 'joined-up government'.

Perhaps the most annoying aspect is to see policymakers exercising a right to consent and control over disclosure, which is in so many instances denied to the rest of us.

Glyn Moody said...

@Robin: nicely summarised.

Crosbie Fitch said...

An alternative to petitioning for transparency, given a well feathered nest tends to be more persuasive than a few more votes, is the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" stratagem.

In other words, enable the interested public to stump up funds for their lobbying in competition with that of the corporations.

If government is by corporations for corporations, then let the public incorporate and lobby with their collective wallets.

Glyn Moody said...

@crosbie: interesting idea.

Crosbie Fitch said...

All you need are around 60 million people, some of whom are so interested they'll put their hands in their pockets, an Internet that connects them, and a means of enabling the contingent transfer of their funds to those they would lobby.

It's the difference between "If you do X we might vote for you" and "If you do X we'll make it worth your while".

The latter is how things really get done, and is thus de facto and de jure whether anyone likes it or not.

Thus the only way in which you'll get pecuniary lobbying made transparent is to legitimise it.

Glyn Moody said...

@crosbie: so will this be one of your micropayment services?

Crosbie Fitch said...

It's possible given the resources to make it.

At the moment I'm just a snowflake with an eye on the thermometer, i.e. too soon to gamble on a snowball let alone a rolling one. Making a snowman is just one of several large ventures that could follow.

But yes, it's something that my Contingency Market would enable.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps brown envelopes should carry serial numbers, they really do stir the interest for the cause. p