Lobbyists: seven key myths – Tamasin Cave

24 11 2013

handshake_2076887bThis month’s Lords debate on the Lobbying Bill included a statement by Lord Wallace for the government on why it is refusing to introduce a more comprehensive register of lobbyistsHe said: 

We have looked at other systems, in particular the Canadian one, which adopts the universal system of wishing to take on board every single lobbyist. It is a very large and expensive system and unlike what we propose it is funded by the public purse and costs the equivalent of £3 million a year.’

Except, when we asked the Canadian official in charge of its register how much it cost to run, we were told that an annual budget of just C$1.1 million – £707,000 – is spent on its administration. Who is right?

This seems like a good time to lay out some of the central myths surrounding the lobbying register. Lobbying is a persuasive industry and many myths have been put forward by government (and the industry) as to why a robust register of lobbyists would be impossible or undesirable.

Myth 1: It is impossible to define who is a lobbyist
It is true, given the range of actors involved in lobbying, that defining who should register is not simple. However, it can be achieved by defining what constitutes lobbying. Registration would then be required of anyone who is paid to undertake such activity. Robust definitions have existed in Canada, the US, Brussels and other countries for decades, which could be adapted to suit a UK context. A system of registration should not attempt to capture all lobbying activity, merely the most significant.

Myth 2: A robust register would be overly bureaucratic
The government is proposing a very shallow register, containing minimal information: merely who is lobbying. For it to be meaningful, a register must also require lobbyists to disclose whom is being lobbied and what they are seeking to influence. Information on lobbying spend would also reveal the scale of lobbying. Such information, which would allow Parliamentarians and the public to scrutinise influence on particular policy decisions, is held by lobbyists as a matter of course. International experience suggest that half an hour per quarter on average would be required to fill in a secure, online form. This is not an unreasonable burden to place on lobbyists.

Myth 3: The register would be expensive to operate
Costs associated with robust registration systems are not substantial. In Canada an annual budget of C$1.1 million (£706,682) is spent on the administration of the detailed national register. This includes salaries for the equivalent of six full-time employees and C $4-500,000 invested annually in technical work to maintain and upgrade the system. The European Union also operates a relatively detailed lobbying register. The 2013 operating budget of the Joint Transparency Register, serving both the Commission and Parliament, is €130,000 (£110,430).

Myth 4: A universal register would create a barrier to participation in politics
The register is concerned with transparency, not restricting lobbying. It should aim to make public all significant lobbying activity. As such, there should be a threshold under which small businesses and smaller charities would not have to register. Research undertaken in the US suggests that there are important benefits to civil society and businesses from lobbying transparency: by encouraging more informed debate around policy-making, it can boost participation and promote citizen trust in government. Registration must not be linked to access, nor would it create a list of ‘sanctioned’ lobbyists. It merely puts the identities of professional lobbyists and their activities in the public domain.

Myth 5: Lobbying is a legitimate activity rendering transparency unnecessary
Lobbying is an essential feature of good governance. In theory, it leads to better decision- making and ensures that different interests have a voice. In a liberal democracy, everyone has the ability to lobby. Concerns stem from what happens in practice within the context of the UK’s sophisticated, £2billion commercial lobbying industry. Certain players in society, through their paid lobbyists, enjoy disproportionate access and influence. Viewed from this angle, lobbying is perceived by many as a corrupting force that can undermine democracy.

Myth 6: Lobbyists can regulate themselves
The current system of self-regulation, operating since the mid-1990s, was described by the Public Administration Committee (PAC) as “little better that the emperor’s new clothes”. Self regulation fails to provide adequate transparency for a number of reasons: it lacks universality. A large proportion of the lobbying industry are not signed up, including nine out of ten in-house lobbyists, dozens of agencies-for-hire, law and accountancy firms, management consultancies and think tank; it is operated by self-interested actors that lack sufficient authority to police the system; and lobbyists are required to reveal little information.

Myth 7: The public does not care about lobbying
Lobbying will rarely be cited by voters as a priority concern. However, lobbying is viewed by many as a ‘gateway’ problem affecting a number of issues of public concern, such as the government’s willingness to tackle high energy prices, the practices of high street banks, or ensuring value for money from government contracts. Public unease over lobbying is growing, partly as a result of recent media coverage. Nearly two thirds of respondents to a recent poll said they saw lobbying as an issue of growing concern.1 Another survey revealed that 90 per cent of those polled believe that the UK government is run by a few big entities acting in their own interest.2 This should be of grave concern to politicians.

Tamasin Cave is a director of Spinwatch and a freelance editor and campaigner. 

This post originally appeared on the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom website and is reproduced with permission and thanks


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