How nice to see that concerns raised on this blog about the undue influence exerted on MPs by their other interests have been raised in Parliament, along with a Bill to publicise attempts to influence MPs by lobbying organisations.
What a shame that the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill was introduced on the last day before the Parliamentary summer recess in order to prevent anyone complaining about what it contains, is a load of self-serving rubbish that isn’t worth the paper it has been written on – and as such is a symptom, not only of the state of the current government, but of modern UK politics in general (I blame whoever runs the Politics, Philosophy and Economics course at Oxford).
As Unlock Democracy – the campaigning group for democracy, rights and freedoms – puts it, the new bill “is not a statutory register of lobbyists, which the government committed itself to in its coalition agreement; it is a statutory register of lobbying consultants. That simple change has, at a stroke, exempted more than 80 per cent of the £2 billion lobbying industry from having to comply with the register.”
This means the bill does not address the problem of lobbying at all. UD director Alexandra Runswick said: “The problem with lobbying is not the respectable lobbying consultants who abide by a code of practice and already work in a relatively transparent way; the problem is the more underhand activity, whether it is employed by consultants, think tanks, law firms, in-house lobbyists or private individuals.
“By establishing such a gaping loophole, the government will simply drive business away from lobbying consultants and into the arms of less reputable agencies.
“This bill is the next big scandal waiting to happen.”
The organisation has published its own draft bill, that seeks, in the words of Green MP Caroline Lucas, “to deliver real transparency over who is lobbying whom, what’s being spent and who lobbyists are working for – if a special adviser is also working for a tobacco company we need to know about it.” Step forward, Lynton Crosby – the next big scandal.
Mr Crosby, who is David Cameron’s election strategist, works for a company of ‘campaign specialists’ called Crosby Textor, that advised private healthcare providers on how to exploit perceived “failings” in the NHS, according to The Guardian, and of course also works for tobacco giant Philip Morris International.
This is, of course, a huge conflict of interest and Messrs Cameron and Crosby had only themselves to blame when a political row erupted after the government suddenly dropped its much-publicised plans to remove all branding from cigarette packets.
Hugo Rifkind sent up the situation on Radio 4’s The News Quiz (Friday, July 19): “Lynton Crosby… is a strategist for the Conservative Party, and also a lobbyist on behalf of tobacco companies, and there’s an outrageous suggestion that this whole thing about plain packaging on cigarette packets could be somehow linked to his other role… Lynton Crosby is obviously a fine, upstanding man, he has obviously done nothing wrong. Obviously he has completely compartmentalised these two parts of his life and I’m really amazed we’re even talking about it.”
In an interview, David Cameron said he made the decision to U-turn on cigarette packaging at the kitchen table in his Downing Street flat.
But the flat is accepted as being territory that is not recognised as a place for meetings with anybody – lobbyists included – and the comedy Prime Minister did not say whether Mr Crosby was in the room (or had been) when he made that decision.
So what we see is a weak show of willingness to legislate, completely undermined by a strong demonstration of the hold that corporate lobbyists have over their servants in politics – including, in this case, the British Prime Minister. It seems he is working for them, not you.
Michael Meacher’s blog provides a handy list of other inadequacies in the Lobbying Bill:
It allows professional lobbying firms to keep their clients secret, provided they limit their meetings to special advisers and mid-rank officials; they will only have to reveal their clients if they meet ministers or permanent secretaries.
The register of lobbyists it will set up will exclude companies whose lobbying activities constitutes only a small part of the business.
It also discriminates against trade unions even though they are campaigning organisations, not lobbyists.
The bill limits the amount trade unions and other registered ‘third parties’ can contribute directly to general election campaigns by three-fifths, from £988,000 to £390,000. And it proposes that unions will be forced to undergo annual audits on the size of their membership.
Neither measure has anything to do with the bill’s main purpose and both should be struck from it before it is allowed onto the statute book.
And, as Mr Meacher notes, there is “not a word about the £25bn a year the Tory party get from hedge funds and the banks which makes them the biggest lobbyists of all”.
Perhaps those who drafted this nonsense (it is sponsored by Andrew Lansley, who was responsible for that other great travesty, the Health and Social Care Act 2012), should take time during the summer recess to consider withdrawing it altogether and replacing it with something fit for purpose.
With this government, that would be a refreshing change.
The petition for REAL MP accountability – proposing that they be banned from voting on matters in which they have a financial interest – is at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/44971
(The first Vox Political collection, Strong Words and Hard Times, is now available and may be ordered from this website)