The government’s ‘transparency’ is clear as mud

Tamasin Cave argues the American lobbying regulations should show the Tories how to do transparency, and that the watered down British version doesn’t work.


By Tamasin Cave of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency

The government’s plans to open up lobbying were published last Friday.

Transparency’s a slippery term. Cabinet Office minister Mark Harper used it a lot last week to describe his proposals for a compulsory register of lobbyists. These plans, he says, will bring lobbying out into the open and address public concerns about who is influencing our politicians.

It’s worth looking at what transparency in lobbying means in other countries, compared to what the government set out today.

Say, for example, you wanted to know the influence a bank like Barclays is having on government policy.

In the US, Barclays has for years had to comply with a law that requires it to disclose on a public register: Its lobbyists; which officials they are lobbying; what the bank is lobbying for (changes to policy, stopping new regulations etc); and how much it is spending trying to influence government.

Here (pdf) is Barclays’s declaration on the US public register for the first quarter of 2011.

It tells us the names of Barclays’ lobbyists; and that it spent $1.3 million lobbying the Senate, Treasury, and Securities and Exchange Commission, among others, on a range of issues including the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms, the American jobs and closing tax loopholes act, and something called creating American jobs and ending offshoring.

So, what if we wanted to know about its efforts to influence British politicians? Under our government’s proposed system we would learn… nothing.

It is proposing that in-house lobbying teams be exempt from the new rules. So, none of Barclays’ team of full-time, employee lobbyists would have to register. We would know nothing of their activities. The equivalent team in the US spent $3,967,500 on lobbying in 2010.

However, under Harper’s plans, if Barclays hired a lobbying agency to boost its influence with government, these lobbyists-for-hire would be required to sign up to the register. The government believes the new rules should only apply to ‘those who undertake lobbying activities on behalf of a third party client’ – ie agency lobbyists.

Barclays currently employs at least two lobbying agencies in the UK: Cicero Consulting and Weber Shandwick. The government’s plan is that these, and only these, should have to declare who their clients are and provide a list of their lobbyists (and potentially how much they get paid, although the government doesn’t sound convinced).

It wouldn’t reveal who is lobbying on Barclays’s behalf, nor who they are targeting in government or its regulators. And crucially nothing on what they are lobbying for, the specific government policies, regulations, legislation, or government contracts they have in their sights.

This last piece of information is crucial. It’s the bit that allows the public to scrutinise lobbying – the activity of trying to influence public officials – and it’s the piece of information that has the potential to make government more accountable.

It was in this context that David Cameron, two years ago, talked about crony capitalism:

Lobbying, we all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way. In this party, we believe in competition, not cronyism. We believe in market economics, not crony capitalism. So we must be the party that sorts all this out.

Don’t be fooled. The proposals outlined last Friday suit lobbyists and the government alike. Without significant changes to these plans, it will remain the case that only they will know what deals are being done. The rest of us will be as much in the dark as we are now.

Cameron also said:

“I believe that secret corporate lobbying… goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics”.

Waiting nearly two years for plans like these are another reason.

See also:

Lobbying is just the latest way the Bully boys are monopolising power – John Cryer MP, December 8th 2011

Bell Pottinger is sleazy, but lobbying can be so much more – Jonny Mulligan, December 7th 2011

Latest lobbying scandal leads right to Cameron’s door – Tamasin Cave, December 6th 2011

Exposed: The lobbyist who said “the public has no right to know who our clients are” – Tamasin Cave, October 18th 2011

Fox’s sliminess shows how much we need lobbying regulation – Tamasin Cave, October 10th 2011

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