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Lobbying a new government and Parliament

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.

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