15th Apr 2021

Action, not inquiries, is key to avoiding future lobbying scandals

Steve Goodrich

Head of Research and Investigations

Steve is Transparency International UK’s Head of Research and Investigations. He is responsible for managing TI-UK’s research unit and is our specialist on lobbying accountability, party funding and open governance. Before joining TI-UK in May 2015, Steve worked as a Senior Policy Adviser at the Electoral Commission. He has over five years’ experience working on political finance regulation, legislation and data.

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History has a tendency to repeat itself, and in politics perhaps more so.

Over a decade ago, an aspiring Prime Minister once called lobbying ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen’. Remember that? How prophetical.

Weeks later, a string of senior politicians were caught on camera offering their services – including privileged access and influence with ministers – to undercover reporters. Back then, the thought that longstanding public servants would be willing to sell their services on leaving office like ‘cabs for hire’ caused quite a stir. Something had to be done.

Following the subsequent election, the new government promised to clean-up politics.

It set-out to do so by legislating to make it a legal requirement for those lobbying in return for payment to declare their clients on an official register. Sounds good, right? Well, not quite good enough, actually.

At the time, most of those with experience of working in Westminster, including ourselves, thought the proposals didn’t go far enough. The new arrangements largely replicated the existing voluntary disclosures provided by industry bodies – we weren’t learning anything new. Whilst departments started publishing details of ministers face-to-face meetings quarterly – better than nothing and recognition is due to those officials trying to fight the good fight for better openness – these are often late, incomplete (e.g. Matt Hancock’s private drinks with Greensill is nowhere to be found), fail to capture a whole gamut of contact (letters, emails, text messages, phone calls), and are often meaningless (knowing a minister had an ‘introduction meeting’ or met with someone to ‘discuss business’ is hardly revelatory).

Furthermore, there was very little change to the rules governing what politicians can and cannot do after they leave public office. Time and time again, the body with responsibility for preventing former ministers and civil servants from abusing this transition for private again has been found wanting (see here, here, and here). It provides mere advice on new appointments and only has the power to write strongly worded letters to those who disobey. Giving this oversight some real teeth – the power to request information and issue financial penalties for breaches of the rules, say – would have made those seeking to cash in on their contact book a second thought. But no.

A big opportunity was missed.

Five years after the cabs for hire scandal, another sting showed little had changed. Two senior politicians were, again, caught on camera willing to offer the same privileged access and potential influence. They were later cleared of breaking parliamentary rules covering their conduct in public office, but save for a slight tweak to Parliament’s code of conduct, the risk of former ministers using their contact book for private gain remained unchecked.

Fast forward another five years and here we are again. The characters are different and this time it’s no set-up, yet it’s the same thing: a senior politician – the same one who prophesised this exact kind of mischief – using their connections to try and benefit their new employer.

Perhaps history often repeats itself due to the glacial pace of reform. There has been tinkering and tweaking of this rule and that, yet nothing that would actually address the problem head-on. A decade down the line and we’re no closer to knowing what happens in the corridors of power, or stopping those once in high office from cashing-in on their networks and know-how for private gain when they leave public service.

Frustratingly, what needs to happen isn’t exactly rocket science.

Countries like the US (here and here), Canada and Ireland all provide greater openness about attempts to influence government decisions. Consequently, we know more about who is trying to influence zoning decisions in rural Ireland than efforts to affect policy decisions in HM Treasury. Surely this isn’t right.

Similarly, one of the first acts of the Biden Administration was to toughen-up the White House’s rules on post-public employment, which include making restrictions on lobbying former colleagues in leaving public office contractually binding. Doing similar or more here would not require lots of money, yet could help end the seemingly endless cycle of scandal that undermines trust and faith in our institutions.

To avoid a repeat of Greensill, or worse, we don’t need any more inquiries or reviews. We need action.