Transparency International (TI) recently published its latest report ‘Lifting the Lid on Lobbying’. It’s a thorough look at the state of play on lobbying and identifies gaps and differences in permissible behaviour across the country. The report calls for all the UK nations to implement best practice that exists across the UK
TI’s report reiterates recommendations made by the Committee in our report ‘Strengthening Transparency around Lobbying’ published last year. The current government has taken a number of steps in its attempts to tackle lobbying: despite opposition from charities, MPs of all parties and other groups the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act became law in January 2014; the new lobbying Registrar - ex-Royal Mail commercial director Alison White – is now in post and overseeing the establishment and day-to-day management of the new lobbying register.
But it remains our view that the current arrangements and the lobbying register are not going to provide sufficient transparency and accountability to enable effective public scrutiny of lobbying.
Make no mistake, the issue of lobbying is a thorny one. No one - and certainly not us – has the perfect solution. How do you ensure that decision-makers get to hear a full range of views from those who will be affected by their decisions, while preventing vested interests from cornering the market? What we proposed was a set of practical steps which would strengthen transparency around the ‘lobbied’ so that an official, Minister or peer would be able to demonstrate probity to the outside world.
For instance, we recommended more timely, detailed disclosure about all significant meetings and hospitality involving external attempts to influence policy decisions and said that these disclosure arrangements should be widened to cover special advisers and senior civil servants as well as Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and Departmental Boards. We also argued that public office holders who are outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act (including Members of Parliament, Peers and Councillors) should be encouraged to disclose the same information. We argued for extending the lobbying rules to former Members of the House for two years in respect of approaches to Ministers, other Members or public officials; and suggested that former Members should register for two years any occupation or employment which involves them or their employer in contact with Ministers, other Members or public officials. We also asked for consideration to be given to Chairs of Select Committee having additional restrictions in relation to conflicts of interests and said that MPs should not accept any but the most insignificant or incidental gift or benefit from professional lobbyists.
The House of Lords has taken action to address our recommendations including introducing a statement of principle on how to deal with lobbyists, lowering the threshold for registering gifts and hospitality from £500 to £140 and introducing a new Code of Conduct for Members’ Staff with requirements to register interests in parliamentary lobbying and abstain from lobbying or using access to Parliament to further outside interests in return for a payment or other reward.
The current review of the standards regime for MPs provides an opportunity for the House of Commons – currently the weakest performer in TI’s ranking - to follow suit.
Leaving these issues in the ‘too difficult’ pile is a significant risk. Maintenance of high standards in public life requires vigilance. If we are really going to deal with ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen’ there needs to be a much greater culture of openness and transparency around lobbying; greater clarity for all public office holders on the standards expected of them and reassurance for the public that a more ethical approach to lobbying is actively being applied by all those individuals and organisations involved in lobbying.
We will continue to make our case.
FN: Ruth Thompson, Secretary to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, was a member of Transparency International’s project advisory Committee.