Arun Sudhaman 23 Jul 2013 // 12:36PM GMT
The UK government's leisurely consideration of lobbying regulation finally reached a climax of sorts last week, when it released a lobbying bill that would formalise the introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists. The fruits of that labour make you wonder why they bothered. Last year, we analysed the different regulatory regimes in place to police lobbying in various countries across the world, building on the work done by a trio of academics in Ireland, who classified different jurisdictions according to the strictness of their lobbying regulations. Looking at the proposed UK law through this filter does not make for particularly inspiring reading. It falls well short of even the minimum standards that other countries have adopted, raising questions over the UK government's actual commitment to credible lobbying regulation. Below I have listed the specific areas of concern, comparing how the UK law would operate compared to other countries. 1. Only professional consultancies are covered, that too only those whose main business is lobbying. This would exclude PR consultancies that have public affairs practices, along with in-house lobbyists from corporations, trade associations, NGOs, and thinktanks. As an example, the controversial communications between News Corp and culture secretary Jeremy Hunt would not be covered under the proposed register. According to the PRCA, only 23 percent of lobbyists in the country believe they will be covered. 2. Only lobbying of ministers or permanent secretaries orally and in writing is included, which excludes all of the other lobbying work that takes place at lower levels of government. 3. Far fewer details are required, particularly compared to countries like the US and Canada. In those jurisdictions, information is required as to who is being lobbied, who is doing the lobbying, which ministers are being approached, and how much money is being spent. The UK proposals, in particular, are weakened by not including spending disclosures and by there being no apparent requirement to spell out who is being lobbied. 4. Independent regulation. The PRCA states that the register will have independent oversight, but I struggled to reach this conclusion upon reading the bill. Perhaps I am missing something; I'd welcome enlightenment. 5. Cooling-off periods. No specific provision has been made, in contrast to markets where politicians are prevented from registering as lobbyists for at least two years after stepping down. The net effect is to place the UK well squarely within the 'low-regulation' band of countries, although even that conclusion is tempered by the glaring omission of PR firms and in-house lobbyists. This law may not have been conceived in haste, but it certainly seems to have been completed rather too quickly, perhaps as a response to the various 'lobbying scandals' that newspapers are so keen to set up. The UK might take a leaf from its counterparts in Ireland, who are currently in the process of enacting a 'medium-regulation' regime, which would include more information with regard to names and staff members involved in lobbying, the issues being lobbied about, potential ministries being lobbied, and specific bills. Ironically, UK lobbyists have been quick to criticise the proposed register. They are, no doubt, keenly aware of the added legitimacy a proper register would bring to their activities. If nothing else, the various 'lobbying scandals' have served to obscure the fact that lobbying is a fundamental democratic right. By making the crucial information public, a well thought-out register can reassure citizens who see lobbying as synonymous with undue influence by special interest groups. This register does not do that, and is all the worse for it.