Don’t let the lobbyists register drop off the agenda

Daisy Cross

by Daisy Cross

The expenses scandal did much to expose the less attractive side of British politics, the steady, unrelenting trickle of data leaving no party unaffected, and many believe it has furthered the gap between the electorate and party politics, exposing the lack of transparency within our politics and creating widespread mistrust of the political system itself.

Spinwatch’s recent claim that 15 per cent of new Labour and Conservative MPs elected in the 2010 general election have roots in the lobbying industry, is another wake up call and suggests that the link between politics and lobbying isn’t going away, and it will become ever more difficult for Government to keep its hands clean.

The last couple of years are full of cases that have highlighted the problems surrounding the ambivalent attitudes towards lobbying in the UK.

In March the Times and Channel 4 unearthed a “cash for influence scandal”, where Labour MP Stephen Byers, the former trade and transport secretary, was caught on secret camera offering his services for up £5,000 a day. His reputation was tarnished – he didn’t contest the next election – but he wasn’t technically in breach of any regulation, which could have been the final indiscretion needed to urge government to get a hold of its horses.

In 2009 the Sunday Times released a recording of Labour peer Lord Taylor of Blackburn saying some of the companies he’d worked for “would pay me £100,000 a year…that’s cheap for what I do for them. And other companies would pay me £25,000.”

Conscious of the damage inflicted by repeat scandals, a clean-up of government featured heavily in all the main parties’ campaigning, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats included plans for a UK register of lobbyists in their manifestos. It seemed a bi-partisan interest in clawing back electorate trust had transcended the fickle pre-election rhetoric when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats included the promise of a formal lobbying register.

And on Wednesday 2 June, Number 10 confirmed that Nick Clegg would take on responsibility for the register, as well as the Independent Parliamentary Safeguarding Authority, responsible for policing MPs’ expenses.

So what next?

Timescales and details of the register’s remit have yet to be disclosed, although it is expected that the establishment of some sort of formal register will happen during the course of the five year duration of the current parliament. An Early Day Motion calling for a statutory register had gained 26 signatories by 6 June this year, but interest seems to have dwindled in recent months with hardly any media coverage since.

More energy and effort must be invested in this; all political parties must lend their support if the register is to happen. Any proposals must consider both the public interest and the industry but above all they must be effective in ensuring that all lobbyists have to join the register and disclose all the information necessary to make its existence meaningful. Otherwise the register will be nothing but a fig leaf, unable to dress the exposed reputation of British politics.

A formal register, if formed through cross-party collaboration, with the full support of the lobbying industry, could be good news for politics in Britain, as well as benefitting public perception of lobbying. But it won’t change the fact that most lobbying still goes on behind closed doors. Any new legislation must go hand in hand with public awareness of the principles of transparent government, and a supporting mandate from the lobbying industry.

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