The House of Commons is the most vulnerable to lobbying of any of the UK’s legislatures

How concerned should we be about lobbying? Very, according to the campaign organisation Transparency International in this blog by their director Robert Barrington. Their new report argues that lobbying is a serious problem, that it cannot be tackled in isolation from other related issues, that the system is beset by loopholes, and that the House of Commons is most vulnerable of all of the UK’s assemblies and parliaments to lobbying. 

The report we have published today, Lifting the Lid on Lobbying, suggests that the vulnerability in our political system that David Cameron predicted in 2010, when he said that lobbying was ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen’, has arrived.  It has not come in one big scandal, but in a series of small but serious events. In fact, there have been no fewer than fourteen scandals since he made that remark.

Our research tells us three important things:

  • You can’t just regulate lobbying – it has to go hand in hand with regulating political party funding and the ‘revolving door’, otherwise the problem will just migrate to the least well regulated area.
  • The system that exists to regulate it is in serious disrepair – there are at least thirty-nine loopholes we have identified; and the Lobbying Act has not only solved nothing, although barely a year old it is a thoroughly discredited piece of legislation.
  • The House of Commons has the worst regulations – now we have parliaments and assemblies in different parts of the UK, we can compare them for the first time.  Bad news for the Commons.

We measure the robustness of the system because, as in most corruption research, evidence of corruption itself is hard to find.  That does not mean there is no corruption – it means that what corruption does exist is hidden.  That’s why we often talk about corruption risk or corruption vulnerability – because we can see how it could happen, even when we cannot obtain hard evidence that it does happen.  Many of those fourteen cases came about though investigative journalism, sometimes using sting operations – leading supporters of the status quo to promulgate the rather weak argument that it was the fault of the journalists not the corrupt former Minister, or civil servant, or Peer.

*For an explanation of the rankings click here

Despite the lack of hard evidence of abuse, allegations abound: that the food industry has managed to block better labelling about obesity and a sugar tax; that the energy industry has forced up fuel prices; that the drinks industry has fought off  attempts to control alcohol sales, opening hours and labelling ; that the banks have been able to evade the consequences of the financial crisis; that accounting firms have not been brought to book for facilitating aggressive tax avoidance; etc.  Of course, we don’t actually know the truth, because there is so little transparency.  And when we do find the truth, it seems that almost everything is actually permitted by the existing rules, however blatant or absurd it may seem.

To be clear, Transparency International is not against lobbying.  As an advocacy organisation, we ourselves value the opportunity to get the issue of corruption on the political agenda, and put forward our point of view as to what needs to be done.  Companies and other entities that lobby often have useful information and perspectives to add to debates on key issues.  It is important that we have an economy in which a responsible private sector can thrive.  Of course, there are some differences.  Charities, regulated by the Charity Commission, are required to act in the pubic interest; companies act in the interests of their shareholders.  And perhaps most markedly, there is a difference in scale.  Even the very largest charities have  relatively little money to allocate to lobbying.  Large companies have relatively large amounts of money at their disposal. The UK lobbying industry is worth £2billion per annum and is the world’s third largest after Washington and Brussels.  Most of that £2 billion is not from charities or public interest groups.

Does it matter?  Yes indeed.  Here are three reasons why.

  1. Trust in democracy.  Our 2011 survey of UK corruption found that 59% of the public believed that the UK Government is ‘entirely’ or ‘to a large extent’ run by a few big entities citing in their own best interests; and 67% of the public thought that political parties in the UK are ‘corrupt’ or ‘extremely corrupt’.  That leads to voters being disillusioned with the entire system, and to consequences we can only guess.
  2. Trust in our laws.  Our legal and regulatory framework governs every aspect of our daily lives.   Laws and regulations need to be created and administered in the public interest, and not skewed towards whoever pays most or lobbies best.  If we can’t trust the laws that govern us, we have a fairly fundamental problem.
  3. A fair society.  In many spheres there is increasing concern about the concentration of wealth and the distortions it creates.  The same is true of lobbying and money in politics.  If money is the key determinant of how political power is obtained and exercised, the result will be, to put it simplistically, a society which is run for the benefit those with money at the expense of the rest.  That is not a recipe for a harmonious society.

We have made fifteen recommendations in our report, and at their heart lies transparency.  We believe that at minimum people in this country should be allowed to know what is going on, and they can judge for themselves whether it is right.  At present, too much goes on at exclusive dinners and behind closed doors, such as the secretive Bildeberg gatherings.

But transparency is not enough to solve the problem. This message will not be well received, but in my belief we need a renewed commitment to ethical standards in public life  amongst our politicians and senior civil servants.  Even now, many are unwilling to accept the underlying the seriousness of the MPs’ expenses scandal, which is that many MPs fell far short of what the electorate expects of them, and many others were complicit in their doing so.   Those caught out in lobbying or revolving door scandals are seldom censured by their colleagues or their parties.

Those thirty-nine loopholes have got a bit too large: everyone who values our democracy and a fair society should be pressing for change.

Note: this post originally appeared on the Transparency International Blog and is reposted with permission. Please see the original for links to other resources regarding the ‘Lifting the Lid on Lobbying report‘. The views contained here are those of the author and not those of Democratic Audit UK or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

Robert BarringtonRobert Barrington is the Executive Director of Transparency International UK, the UK’s leading anti-corruption organisation and part of a global coalition sharing one vision: a world in which government, business, civil society and the daily lives of people are free of corruption. Transparency International fights corruption, poverty, and injustice with local colleagues in over 100 countries.

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