News 10th Aug 2022

Restoring trust in our lobbying system

Rose Whiffen

Research Officer

Rose is a Research Officer specialising in political corruption. Her work covers issues of money in politics, lobbying, the revolving door and open governance. She was a key researcher and writer of Transparency International UK's 'House of Cards' report which explored access and influence in UK housing policy and contributed to other reports, such as 'Track and Trace', which explored Covid procurement. She's previously held roles at Democracy Club and Spotlight on Corruption, and completed an MA in Corruption and Governance from the University of Sussex.

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Related Publication

Two recent official reviews into the UK’s lobbying system concluded that ‘radical improvement’ is needed. In this blog, we analyse whether government departments have upped their game on the timeliness, completeness and meaningfulness of the data they publish.


Trust, it seems to be the flavour of the month in politics. Conservative leadership hopefuls professed the need to restore it, resignation letters stated that recent government actions had damaged it, and one of the final two contenders to be the next Prime Minister is even using it as a prominent campaign slogan. It’s perhaps no coincidence that politicians are focusing on this word at the moment: following the fallout from ‘partygate’, recent polling revealed that the attributes people most look for in a politician is that they are “honest” and that they “can be trusted”. 

The good news for any new Conservative leader is that there are already ‘oven-ready’ proposals that would help draw a line under recent events. Both Nigel Boardman’s review of the Greensill lobbying affair and the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s (CSPL’s) report into upholding standards set out a number of important reforms that, if implemented properly, could help the Government avoid a further damaging and distracting scandal. Central to these reviews are calls for much greater transparency over who has access to our decision makers.

Both reviews highlighted that the current lobbying system did not meet the public’s expected level of openness. This perceived opacity can fuel public suspicion that lobbying is a ‘murky world’. It doesn’t help when tens of millions, sometimes billions, is wasted or at risk because of these efforts to influence Whitehall. It is perhaps unsurprising then that a recent poll found 63 per cent of respondents thought the British system of government is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful.

In order to assuage these perceptions, Nigel Boardman and CSPL offered suggestions to update ‘ministerial meetings returns’. These are departmental data intended to disclose who is lobbying government, why and when. Despite their noble purpose, both Boardman and the standards watchdog found this data was in need of ‘radical improvement’. In particular, they recommended that government should release this data more frequently, such as in a monthly publication cycle (currently it’s quarterly); do so in one location (not spread across 20+ departments’ websites, which we have to collate together in our Open Access tool); and include a wider range of communications such as those held on instant messaging platforms ( not just face-to-face discussions, and some phone calls irregularly appearing too).

Crucially, CSPL stated that if this transparency data remained poor then this would strengthen calls for introducing an “expanded lobbying register”. We’ve previously advocated for a more comprehensive register like those in the US, Canada and Ireland. These routinely capture the legislation that registrants want to influence and their objectives, as well as often having more timely disclosures.

Since the publication of these recommendations over a year ago, we’ve monitored whether or not there has been a radical improvement in the timeliness, completeness and meaningfulness of this data.[1] Our findings make a compelling case that more radical reform should be on the cards.



Mandated by Prime Ministers in their ministerial code, these datasets are supposed to be published quarterly by departments. There’s no detailed public guidance about what this means in practice, although it’s ended-up being a quarter in arrears, with at least six months between a meeting taking place and information about it reaching the light of day. An update to the ministerial code in May 2022 provided an opportunity for the Prime Minister to implement calls to move these disclosures to a monthly schedule, yet it was not taken. Consequently, government policy is still to publish three months after the end of the relevant reporting period.

We analysed how timely departments were in releasing these transparency returns against this very conservative publication schedule, which is summarised in the chart below. As you can see, despite ample time to collate and disclose these details, many parts of government shoot well beyond their own deadline. It is not clear that there are any consequences for this. The same departments are also consistently late: the Department for Education; the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and its former incarnation as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; and the Home Office.



The darkest red colour denotes where a release took over nine months to publish, with several taking nearly a year.

As CSPL pointed out, these delays can obscure accountability as the information is released so far after the instance of it occurring. The Committee propose that a monthly publication schedule would be more appropriate and in line with transparency requirements elsewhere, such as the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. This would also align with the publication timescales in countries like Canada, where it took an average of 28 days in 2020, from a communication occurring to details of that communication being published, with almost one in ten of these disclosures released within five days of the communication taking place. [2]



We also looked at how complete the data was and if there were any gaps where the data was not published at all. As of early August 2022, there were still ten files missing from seven departments’ websites, providing an information black hole equivalent to almost a year’s worth of ministerial engagements. None of these missing disclosures relate to the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic between Q1 and Q4 2020, when the pandemic may have disrupted departments. Six occur after both the CSPL and Boardman reviews criticised government for dropping the ball on lobbying transparency. All of these will be late when published.

It’s worth noting this analysis just focusses on whether a department publishes their data, not whether the returns themselves hold all relevant meetings with ministers. As recent experience shows from here, here, here, here and here, ministers too often forget these obligations or claim they are out of scope because they were for ‘political purposes’ – a dubious defence that results in the evasion of scrutiny.

Our analysis also does not include the various other ways and means that ministers talk to outside interests about government affairs. Despite a surge in phone calls being logged during the pandemic – a trend caused by internal Whitehall guidance rather than a substantive policy shift – we know little of these or other interactions using a whole gamut of modern technology. Given what we know from recent exposés it’s these conversations, via WhatsApp and email, that are often the most enlightening.

In both cases it is the substance of discussions that matters, not the setting or the form lobbying takes. The real judge as to whether something should be disclosed is if official government business was discussed, as outlined in the Ministerial code.

Both the CSPL and Boardman reviews raise informal lobbying as an area for concern, and also advise that guidance is updated to close the current loopholes on modern forms of communication. This was recently also recommended by John Penrose, the Prime Minister’s former Anti-Corruption Champion.



We also looked at how meaningful the data is; did the descriptions of meetings give us useful insights into their purpose?

Looking at the period Q1 2021 to Q1 2022, we found that two of the most listed purposes in the ministerial meetings data were ‘to discuss business’ (130 times) and ‘to discuss energy’ (97 times). Considering the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy reported the overwhelming majority of these engagements, the descriptions do not reveal any additional information than a reader might have concluded already. We note that in the last quarter (Q1 2022) these two phrases were used less often and hope this continues.  

Other frequently used phrases include ‘introductory meeting’ or ‘introductory meeting in new role’ (203 times). Whilst these meetings may well be introductory talks between key stakeholders and new ministers, this broad generic labelling provides little information about the meetings, and is akin to other generic labels banned in government guidance to departments. Without further context, such as which law, policy or grant these organisations want to influence, these descriptors are virtually meaningless.

These blanket terms could be avoided with stricter guidelines. The term ‘general discussion’ is already off limits, but as CSPL advised, these guidelines could be updated to encourage more compliance by departments.



Taking stock of the facts, it’s hard to make the case that government is making substantive headway in delivering on the transparency reforms advocated by the CSPL and its own internal review. Despite some minor improvements in the quality of the data, likely the result of some heroic efforts by civil servants to turn things around, things seem to be getting worse, not better. And this is only based on what we do know. The real picture of lobbying in the UK remains a mystery given how much is withheld from public view. Currently, we’re reliant on a small but dedicated group of journalists to tell us. It seems probable that this will not change so long as the current approach to shining a light on lobbying remains solely dependent on departments and their ministers.

As we outlined in our paper “Understanding access and potential influence in Westminster”, the solution is for the Government to introduce a new, expanded statutory lobbying transparency regime. It should also consider retaining a radically improved departmental disclosures alongside this new system. This dual reporting would safeguard against accidental or intentional failures to report. Also, as there are likely to be some exemptions to any new, lobbying register for small businesses, their attempts to influence ministers would still be recorded in departmental disclosures.

Elsewhere in the world, statutory lobbying registers require those lobbying officials to declare their intentions and interactions, giving the public a clearer insight into who, how and why people and businesses are seeking to curry favour and change policy or laws. The UK falls far behind its peers on this front, leaving the British public in the dark. Real change is needed to ensure we remain a modern, open and trusted democracy.


[1] NB Q3 2021, Q4 2021 and Q1 2022 were all after both reviews had been published.

[2] See our policy paper, “Understanding access and potential influence in Westminster” for more information