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Archive for June, 2010

All party groups in the post-expenses Parliament

June 30, 2010 Leave a comment

A report by the Institute for Government looks at the administration of the House of Commons after the expenses scandal, and mentions problems of associated with lobbying. In particular, it refers to All Party Parliamentary Groups (APGs), which are informal committees which allow MPs to meet with external groups in relation to particular areas of policy. The groups are often sponsored by companies and groups, for example providing staff to cover the administration of its work. While sponsorship has to be disclosed, there are concerns about the propriety of these arrangements. As the report states:

While MPs’ expenses have now been exported to IPSA, there are a number of other areas which the public may judge to be below the standards that they now expect. A few examples include the provision of subsidised food for MPs, and the sponsoring of All Party Parliamentary Groups and their overseas trips by organisations with a political agenda. The Speaker raised the second of these as being something that concerns him during Q&A after his speech to the Hansard Society on 9 June 2010.

A recording of that Q&A session can be found on the Hansard Society website (see Q&A Part II at minute 25) – in which the Speaker thought the funding of APGs could be cause for legitimate concern and that Parliament should be proactive in dealing with the issue now rather than once the issue explodes in the media.

Of course, APG’s have caused controversy the past – for example with allegations that sponsoring groups have written the APG reports – and the rules on disclosure have been tightened in response to those controversies (see Democracy Distorted at p.97). I would be interested to know exactly what reforms the Speaker has in mind – further tweaking of the disclosure rules or something more far-reaching? Proposals for bigger reforms have been met with objections in the past. The first objection being that MPs need to interact with outside groups and that APG’s provide a way of doing this. This is not so strong, as the existing funding arrangements are not necessary for interaction between MPs and the outside world. The second objection concerns alternative financing arrangements. One way to make MPs less dependent on external resources is to ensure that public funds finance the work of the groups. There was no appetite for this when the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards considered the issue in 2006 (see para 80-85), on the grounds that public funding would change the nature of the APGs. That was in 2006 – in an era of expenses and cuts, this solution is even less likely to happen.

The shock jock and Ofcom

June 16, 2010 1 comment

A legal challenge to an Ofcom ruling against the radio station Talksport is now being heard in the Administrative Court. The challenge is being brought by Jon Gaunt, the presenter of the radio show that had been found by Ofcom to be in breach of the Broadcasting Code. He is claiming that in finding a breach, the broadcast regulator failed to respect his right to freedom of expression.

In the challenged ruling, Ofcom described Gaunt as ‘well known for his combative and hard-hitting style with participants.’ On the programme, broadcast on Talksport, he interviewed a councillor about a policy that foster carers have to be non-smokers. During the course of an emotive interview, Gaunt referred to the councillor as a ‘Nazi’ and ‘ignorant pig.’

Following a number of complaints, Ofcom found the broadcast to be in breach of accepted standards of broadcasters and that the offensive content was not justified by the content:

the offensive language used to describe Mr Stark, and what would be considered to be a persistently bullying and hectoring approach taken by Jon Gaunt towards his guest, exceeded the expectations of the audience of this programme, despite listeners being accustomed to a robust level of debate from this particular presenter.

From the reports of the hearing yesterday, it sounds like Gaunt’s lawyers are emphasising that the exchange concerned political speech – after all it was an interview with a councillor on a policy matter. The criticism is likely to be that the Ofcom ruling is an interference with the content of a political discussion. The jurisprudence on freedom of expression under the European Convention has often stressed that political speech deserves strong protection, that politicians should tolerate a greater degree of criticism, and that the freedom to speak allows exaggeration and provocative messages.

Whatever you think of Ofcom’s ruling, the legal challenge does face some difficulties. First, the European Court of Human Rights has on a number of occasions upheld restrictions on such expression and stressed that the mass media in particular has ‘duties and responsibilities.’ So the fact it is on national radio station does not help the claim. Gaunt’s lawyer Gavin Millar QC has criticised some recent European Court of Human Rights decisions for failing to provide robust protection  to political speech (see [2009] European Human Rights Law Review 277). The case gives him the chance to see whether these arguments will have greater influence in the domestic courts. I am doubtful, as the courts here have also stressed the responsibilities of the media, especially broadcasters. The House of Lords in Prolife Alliance has also upheld restrictions on political speech on televisions which prevent the audience being offended by the broadcast.

A further difficulty facing Gaunt is that the courts have traditionally been unwilling to interfere with the decisions of the media regulators, giving some leeway to their assessment of the case.

Much will depend on the facts of the case, and the courts may move in a new direction. But from the perspective of precedent, the challenge looks like a long shot. In any event, we will find out soon.

Categories: Media

Lobbying a new government and Parliament

June 4, 2010 Leave a comment

Three news stories this week raise questions about lobbying, each showing slightly different ways that outside groups seek to influence government.

The first was in the Financial Times on Wednesday, revealing that the Lib Dems have become a more important target for lobbyists. The article reported, among other things, that the demand from interest groups and other organisations for stands at their annual conference has increased. If this is true, it is unsurprising. If lobbying is about influencing government decisions, it will gravitate to wherever the political power lies. As a result, there is probably something of a rush to make links with Lib Dems, who previously had less attention from such groups. What will be interesting is the extent to which the Lib Dems steer clear of the controversies that it has been so critical of in the past. I will also be interested to see if the Lib Dems benefits from more political donations now that it is in power. The party has complained about the loss of Short Money and they are usually much worse off than the other two major parties. However, they may find that being in power brings other benefits and helps to attract more private income.

The group Spinwatch reported that 19 of the new Conservative MPs and 11 of the new Labour MPs have backgrounds as lobbyists. The story is not just about the new intake of politicians, but also the ones that have just left and expresses concern about the number of former ministers and MPs that are  taking up consultancy posts. This obviously feeds into concerns about the ‘revolving door’ and, more broadly, about the political class. In terms of the latter, the worry is that many MPs have spent their working lives in politics related jobs (such as special advisors, lobbyists and PR consultants) before going into Parliament. It therefore comes as no surprise that those politicians will continue on that path once they leave Parliament – what else are they trained to do?

We shouldn’t just be concerned with MPs with formal connections to lobbyists. Any MP (or civil servant) may be targeted and influenced by external groups that can afford to hire consultants. So what is the solution? Spinwatch call for the quick introduction of a statutory register for lobbyists and criticise the government for failing to include this in the Queen’s Speech. I agree that there is a case for a statutory register and the longer the issue is left, the more likely the government will get used to (and attached to) the existing system. But I have concerns about rushing into such legislation. There are difficult questions of design to be addressed – who should register, what is lobbying, what information should be recorded, should it include the disclosure of astroturfing activities etc.  A quick piece of legislation might contain many loopholes or fail to cover certain activities or, at the other end of the spectrum, impose too many burdens on legitimate political activity. My warning is that rushed legislation – like that setting up IPSA after the expenses scandal – can impose more costs down the line. This doesn’t mean the government should sit on their hands. They should at least start to consider and consult on how a register could be implemented, even if legislation is not to be introduced immediately.There are also interim measures that could be taken, but there are not many quick fixes here.

I also think there are limits to what a register would achieve. It would make some practices transparent, but it would not prevent wealthy groups seeking an advantage in the political process. There will always be ways for well resourced groups to promote their cause that take place off the radar. Which brings me to the final item concerning lobbying, a report in the British Medical Journal that ‘[k]ey scientists advising the World Health Organization on planning for an influenza pandemic had done paid work for pharmaceutical firms that stood to gain from the guidance they were preparing.’ According to the report, there are ‘troubling questions’ about ‘the transparency of the science underlying its advice to governments.’ Some have dismissed such allegations as a conspiracy theory. Whether or not there is anything to the criticisms, the report at least shows the other ways that certain interests can, or at least appear to, influence government decisions – such as forming connections with researchers and experts. The point is that direct links between MPs and outside groups are only one part of the story (an important part) and that any solution to concerns about the political influence of well-heeled groups needs to focus on these other broader techniques too.