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Finding Out Who’s Lobbying Who in Government – And About What?

Written by Ben Cowdock on Wednesday, 7 September 2016

This could be a defining week for bringing the often overlooked issue of lobbying back onto the political agenda. Theresa May has pledged to provide a government driven ‘not by the interests of the privileged few’ but by society as a whole. This is an early opportunity to turn words into action. On Thursday Baroness Hayter will initiate a debate in the House of Lords to acknowledge the need for greater regulation and transparency over lobbying undertaken by business and private interests. Friday will see the second reading of the Lobbying (Transparency) Bill in the House of Lords, which looks to bring in some much needed reforms to the lobbying system.

Lobbying in itself is by no means a bad thing; it’s an important part of democracy as it provides a way for experts to give advice and information to government on key issues. However the system as it stands leaves the public in the dark on how private interests attempt to influence decision makers, undermining public trust in government.

The need for reform is highlighted by the last quarter’s disclosures of who key government decision makers have been meeting with. For Ministers, this data is required to be published under the Ministerial Code, whilst similar data is also required from Permanent Secretaries and Ministers’ Special Advisers. These information sets are supposed to give the public insight into who has been interacting with decision-makers and what has been discussed, but this is by no means the case.

Let’s start with some good news; last quarter’s data sets are an improvement over previous quarters’ as they’ve been made available fairly swiftly. TI-UK’s 2015 report on lobbying highlighted that in previous years the lobbying data had been published a year out of date, meaning the public were unable to keep up to date with the activities of Ministers. The data from the first quarter of 2016 however represent a departure from this, with 21 out of 23 departments having published their meetings data in a timely manner.

Whilst the data is being published quicker there’s still room for improvement on the format the data is published in. The Government has committed to releasing all of its data in machine-readable formats like CSV, this is to make it easier for the public to analyse and compare across government departments. The latest data for Ministers meetings has 8 data sets out of 23 which are not machine-readable, limiting its usefulness to the general public. The process to clean the data to a point where it’s useful usually requires a data specialist, which the vast majority of people won’t have access to.

There is also the added difficulty of the information not all being in the same place. To access meetings data, the public have to manually search department by department; a time consuming exercise and possibly a barrier to this information being used. As Lord Tyler pointed out; why have the Government not brought all the meetings data together into a single, searchable database on the gov.uk website? This has been done to great effect by TI-EU at the European level with all meetings between the European Commission and lobbyists recorded and published in the same place in an easy to use way. This format could be applied to the UK system by the Government.

Another severe limitation of the data is the detail it goes into when referring to specific meetings. For most meetings the public are given a five word description at best of what was discussed. In some cases however they gain even less insight than that. In the latest Ministry of Defence meetings data for example the Secretary of State and 6 Ministers attended 79 meetings with lobbyists, of these 79 meetings the purpose of 44 were described as ‘Discuss Defence Issues’ or ‘Defence Issues’ and 11 meetings were described as ‘Company Site visits’. Whilst the Ministry of Defence may be able to excuse this lack of transparency by citing national security issues, the same cannot be said for departments like Transport which has dozens of meetings labelled simply ‘rail discussion’ or ‘aviation discussion’. This problem occurs across Government resulting in the public remaining very much in the dark on what the Government is discussing with private interests.

As well as a lack of clarity over what’s discussed in meetings between key decision makers and lobbyists, the system also has obvious blind spots which have not been addressed. Under the current system Ministers are able to avoid reporting meetings with lobbyists if they say they attended it in a private capacity. This came to light in 2011 when Theresa Villiers failed to record a meeting with a lobbyist and personal friend from a development company. The case also highlights that non face-to-face meetings also don’t have to be recorded, meaning emails, phone calls, texts and letters go unreported. This means the public are unaware of what could be a great deal of interaction between private interests and the Government.

Part of the fallout of Brexit is that now more than ever there will need to be more scrutiny on the actions and conduct of those who hold elected office here. For this to work we need the right tools to hold decision makers to account; this is why it’s vital that lobbying is effectively monitored and reported. The debate and second reading of the Lobbying (Transparency) Bill this week provide a welcome opportunity to move towards change and build greater public trust in the Government.


Read 786 times Last modified on Wednesday, 07 September 2016 15:40

Ben Cowdock

Ben is Investigations Lead at Transparency International UK, responsible for leading research into corrupt money entering the UK. He holds an MA in Governance and Corruption from the University of Sussex.

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