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In February 2010 David Cameron predicted that lobbying was “the next big scandal waiting to happen”. In 2014, Cameron’s Government passed the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act, which established a register of consultant lobbyists and required that all their activity be regularly reported.

Lobbying is not necessarily harmful. The fact that businesses, professional associations, and advocacy groups are free to advocate their viewpoints directly to politicians allows for a broader set of opinions to be considered and can therefore lead to more effective policy making. However, in order to have a broader range of viewpoints considered fairly, the access that lobbyists have to politicians must be equal. In addition, this access must be transparent so that politicians can be held accountable for listening to, or ignoring, the perspectives presented to them. Lobbying, therefore, can improve governance provided that it occurs within suitable regulatory safeguards.

Events during the Covid-19 pandemic, however, have demonstrated these safeguards to be insufficient. Within a context of a record peacetime deficit of £303 billion, the UK has seen a series of controversies related to government lobbying. Most prominent among these was David Cameron’s lobbying of former colleagues on behalf of Greensill Capital, the involvement of cabinet ministers in contracts for the procurement of personal protective equipment, and the Prime Minister’s communications with Sir James Dyson.

These cases demonstrate that access to government by lobbyists is at present neither equal nor transparent. A relatively small group of private interests have enjoyed far greater access than others and have done so with low levels of transparency. This situation raises the question of whether private interests had inappropriate influence over government policy.

At a minimum, these episodes have undoubtedly degraded the credibility of the Government and its response to the pandemic. Polling in April of this year revealed that forty percent of voters view the current government as untrustworthy. As yet, this perception does not appear to have dampened the Conservatives dominant position in the polls. However, once the UK’s vaccination programme, and the popularity that came with it, comes to an end there is a serious risk that the Government will be left with a damaging reputation for corruption. In order to maintain public trust, therefore, the government should seek to reform the present system of lobbying registration and reporting.

At present, only consultant lobbyists are required to register whereas in-house teams working directly for companies, advocacy groups, or representative bodies are specifically exempt. Furthermore, lobbying is only considered as such if it attempts to influence ministers, permanent secretaries or a small group of eight senior public figures. Because of these exemptions the Association of Professional Political Consultants estimated during the passage of the 2014 Act that less than one percent of lobbying activity would be covered by the statutory register. 

These limitations stand in contrast to regulations overseas. Irish legislation defines a broad set of Designated Public Officials in local and national government and requires that both in-house and consultant lobbyists register their communications with them. Canada similarly registers both in-house and consultant teams operating at the federal level. Likewise, the US Lobbying Disclosure Act requires registration from in-house lobbyists whose budget exceeds a set level and covers the lobbying of all members of Congress and almost all employees of the federal government.

In addition to its limited scope, the UK lobbying register also suffers from a lack of detail. Consultant lobbyists are required only to report their clients on a quarterly basis. By contrast Irish lobbyists are required to specify which officials, on what subject, by which method of communication and on behalf of which client they are lobbying. Canadian lobbyists are required to submit reports on any “oral and arranged communications” on a monthly basis.

The Greensill affair also clearly demonstrates the limitations of the current restrictions on post-governmental employment. David Cameron was able to lobby his former colleagues from his position at Greensill Capital due to the limits of the two year ban on ministerial lobbying – a fact which led the Committee for Standards in Public Life to recommend an extension of this ban to a maximum of five years, dependent on the seniority of the minister in question.

However, simply extending the ban on post ministerial lobbying will not be sufficient to fix the current issues in post ministerial appointments. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments has no enforcement powers and thus, by the admission of its own secretariat, “depends on voluntary cooperation from applicants”. The inadequacy of this arrangement is demonstrated by George Osborne’s accepting the editorship of the London Evening Standard in 2017 without first consulting ACOBA and, more recently, by Bill Crowther’s failure to report to ACOBA that he was hired as an adviser to Greensill Capital whilst simultaneously leading the UK’s Crown Commercial Service.

Improvement of the UK’s lobbying regulations must therefore be twofold. The system of registration and reporting must be made more transparent. This can be achieved by extending reporting requirements to in-house lobbyists, expanding the list of public officials to which lobbying must be declared, and requiring that lobbyists declare which public officials they are lobbying and on which subject.

Simultaneously the ease with which ministers and civil servants are able to lobby their former colleagues should be reduced by allowing ACOBA to ban lobbying activities for a maximum of five years after government employment. In addition, ACOBA should be given enforcement powers to improve the currently insufficient levels of compliance.

The pandemic and its associated scandals have demonstrated that reform of the UK’s lobbying legislation is vital. Statistics from ACOBA and research into lobbying reveals that it is becoming more so. The number of former ministers and civil servants applying to ACOBA to approve post-government employment rose 40% between the years 2018-19 and 2019-20, research from Professor Anne Rasmussen has shown that levels of lobbying within Europe and North America are rising and reports from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism claim that the UK’s lobbying industry is “thriving”.

Within this context, the UK must update its lobbying transparency legislation to a standard in line with our international partners as a matter of priority. Failing to do so would ensure that lobbying, just as in 2010, will have the potential to become the “next big scandal”.

Henry is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Number 10]