This week Nick Clegg said he remained committed to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists despite the fact that a bill didn’t appear in the Queen’s Speech. If we were entering the final year of a Parliament this omission might be less surprising – it’s never going to be a big hit on the doorstep. But still two years out from an election, the Government missed the perfect opportunity to introduce a reform that would increase public and political confidence in a much-maligned industry and the political class. Instead, despite Nick Clegg’s reassurances (his Conservative colleagues are less keen) I fear lobbying reform is being quietly aborted.
More than a year ago the Government consulted on plans to create a statutory register of lobbyists. Their vision was deeply flawed – only including agency lobbyists and omitting the vast majority of lobbyists working in-house or in law firms, trade unions and so on. So the three trade bodies who represent the lobbying firms and individual lobbyists got together in an attempt to develop a workable and acceptable register. The APPC has operated an effective register for many years and along with PRCA and CIPR could see that there was a merit in developing a statutory register of lobbyists so long as it was universal – creating an accessible online resource regularly updated with the details of all those who seek to influence public policy and law and covering lobbying activity across all levels of Government, not just Whitehall.
This so-called universal register would allow armchair auditors at a glance to see who’s working in the UK as a registered lobbyist. And in so doing it would prevent those conflicts of interest that have emerged in recent years. Only recently a minister was compromised when it became clear he was employing someone who also worked as a lobbyist – a completely unacceptable conflict.
More importantly a register would – combined with departmental data on which ministers are meeting which lobbyists – provide a more complete picture of the interactions between the lobbied and the lobbyists. It’s really not rocket science and I dare say it enjoys support from most parts of the Commons. David Cameron himself spoke passionately about the need for reform before the start of his Premiership, the Lib Dems and Labour back the principle of a register as does the Public Administration Select Committee and even we – the trade bodies who represent lobbyists – are backing reform.
Intriguingly the politics of dropping the bill seem odd. Unlike the policy red meat for the backbenches included in the new legislative agenda like a tough immigration bill – or similarly the measures that were shelved to shore up backbench support – omitting lobbying reform doesn’t seem to give Cameron a great deal of kudos amongst his own MPs. I’m speculating here – but dropping lobbying reform could be used by Nigel Farage as another way to reinforce his own party’s anti-establishment credentials (‘the Coalition refused to regulate the lobbyists’ and so on).
Chloe Smith admitted recently that Cabinet Office Ministers have had no meetings with lobbyists on this issue since September last year. I’m afraid that won’t do. Three years since the Coalition made its pledge and still with no legislation and none planned for the next 12 months the holding line that the Cabinet office keeps wheeling out that “the Government is committed to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists” (echoing Clegg’s words this week) is no longer credible. It is difficult not to conclude that the Government is – quietly – washing its hands altogether of lobbying reform.
Iain Anderson is the Deputy Chairman of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, and co-founder of the Cicero Group.