The folly of the lobbying register

A register of lobbyists would be an expensive bureaucratic folly that would serve no useful purpose. There may be a perception that lobbying in Britain is of scandalous proportions, but that does not necessarily make it so. Many of the high profile lobbying “scandals” reported in the media in recent years involved behaviour that was already banned (eg. the House of Lords’ cash-for-questions affair), or was later judged to have not biased any decision (eg. Jeremy Hunt and BSkyB) or was based entirely on speculation (eg. Lynton Crosby’s alleged influence on various government policies). There are several interest groups, including disgruntled activists and Her Majesty’s Opposition, that have an interest in fostering the belief that policy is dictated by hidden forces that lie beyond democratic control.

The government’s proposal for a statutory register may be “dog’s breakfast”, as one Labour MP put it, but it could hardly be otherwise. The fundamental problem is that it is extremely difficult to define what a lobbyist is. The government intends to apply the term to advocates working “in a professional capacity”. Whilst in opposition, the Prime Minister criticised “secret corporate lobbying”. It seems likely that this sort of professional, private advocacy comes most readily to the public’s mind when ‘lobbying’ is discussed. The secrecy element has already been tackled by the present government, which has instructed MPs to publish, on a quarterly basis, details of meetings with outside interest groups, as well as any hospitality received. To demand more than this would risk having confidences betrayed and privacy intruded upon. It is neither practical nor desirable for every conversation between a politician and a citizen to take place in public, nor can we expect every conversation to be transcribed and minuted. MPs must be trusted to register meetings appropriately.

That is the ‘secrecy’ issue. As for the ‘corporate’ issue, there is no doubt that businesses have a motive to lobby for legislation that will profit them. There is an extensive literature within public choice economics that studies how politicians and interest groups undermine the free market with rent-seeking policies. (It could therefore be argued that the most effective way of reducing the intensity of lobbying would be to reduce the amount of regulation and legislation, but that is a discussion for another day.)

Interest groups are not all driven by profit, however, and it is not obvious that “corporate lobbying” should be singled out for special treatment. Nor is it obvious that “third party lobbyists” should be regarded as special—and, implicitly, undesirable—cases. The rationale for targeting corporate and third party lobbying appears to be that those who lobby for profit (whether their own profit or that of their client) are particularly pernicious, but there is no reason to assume that a commercial lobbyist will be any less honest, or less dishonest, than a lobbyist who is driven by ideology, political belief, religion or any other passion.

We cannot assume that groups which oppose genetically modified crops, or a new bypass, or a new off-license, are more scrupulous about the information they give to politicians than the GMO company, the road-builder or the licensee. Every interest group has an incentive to mislead the politician and gain ‘undue influence’. The citizen who opposes the building of a wind turbine near his house is no less self-interested than the spokesman for the wind turbine company.

Nor should it be assumed that commercial lobbyists hold any more influence over politicians than the charities, citizens’ groups, faith groups and political organisations that use similar tactics and strategies. Indeed, the evidence points in quite the opposite direction. A 2007 survey found that 62 per cent of MPs were “more persuaded by arguments put forward by charities than businesses’ (31 per cent disagreed). It also found that 91 per cent of MPs believed that charities were “fairly effective” or “very effective” at communicating with them. 88 per cent said the same about “interest groups”, but only 57 per cent said the same about businesses. Only 20 per cent of MPs thought that “companies are generally more adept at lobbying than charities/pressure groups”. Moreover, MPs tend to receive more approaches from non-commercial lobbyists. The survey found that 59 per cent of MPs received more than 20 approaches from “interest groups” each week, but only 39 per cent received more than 20 approaches from “businesses”. 51 per cent of MPs received more than 20 approaches from charities each week, compared to just 22 per cent who received more than 20 approaches from trade associations.

Forcing commercial and/or “third party” lobbyists to sign a register will only serve to create unnecessary expense and bureaucracy. The result, as Douglas Carswell points out, will be that businesses stop outsourcing their lobbying to public affairs companies and start doing it ‘in house’. No wonder the public affairs industry opposes the statutory register.

The narrow view of lobbying as an activity carried out by commercial interests for financial gain is unsatisfactory for the reasons given above. Unfortunately, the broader view is no better. If a lobbyist is someone who attempts to persuade a politician of their point of view, almost anybody who ever speaks to a politician should be put on the register. The definition could reasonably be extended to any newspaper that prints an opinion piece and, by extension, to the businesses which advertise in the newspaper (and thereby have some influence, however marginal, on the newspaper’s editorial stance). We have recently discovered that Price Charles and Stephen Fry have had private meetings with the Prime Minister to discuss policy. Should they have to put their names on the register? And if not, why not?

The recent speculation about whether Lynton Crosby influenced government policy hinged on the distinction between Crosby lobbying the Prime Minister and Crosby having a conversation with the Prime Minister about a specific policy. Crosby eventually denied having done either, but the furore revealed how difficult it is to make such a distinction. In terms of influencing a politician, an informal drink in a constituency pub might involve no less lobbying than a formal meeting with a representative from the public affairs industry.

The “lobbying process” that the government has referred to while drafting its proposal barely exists in any definable way. It is not possible to formalise, monitor and regulate private conversations without the application of laws which would require an unacceptable and impractical policing of MPs’ day-to-day lives. The unintended consequence of such regulation will be more informal drinks in the pub and fewer official meetings, leading to less transparency and more scope for ‘scandal’.

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