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The Open Knowledge Foundation urges the UK Government to stop secret corporate lobbying

The Open Knowledge Foundation has joined the members of the UK OGP civil society network in signing an open letter which calls on the Government to put an end to secret corporate lobbying.

In its current form the government’s proposed lobbying bill (which is currently going through parliament) will let the vast majority of corporate lobbyists off the hook from being obliged to say who they’re meeting, what decisions they are seeking to influence and how much they are spending. Here are our five reasons why we think this needs to change. If you agree with us, then please sign and share the petition!.

The letter urges Ministers to redraft the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trades Union Administration Bill in order to enable proper public scrutiny of lobbying activity in the UK. Please share this letter (copied below) widely and sign the petition to call on the Government to put a stop to secret lobbying.

The Rt Hon Francis Maude MP
The Rt Hon Andrew Lansley MP
Cabinet Office
70 Whitehall
London
SW1A 2AS

Cc: Deputy Prime Minister
12 December 2013

Dear Mr Maude and Mr Lansley,

Response to Mr Maude’s letter of 1 November 2013 to the UK OGP civil society network re the Government’s commitment to lobbying transparency

As campaigners for greater openness in decision making, we applauded the Coalition commitment in May 2010 to ‘regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency’. However, we are extremely concerned that the current plans, in Part 1 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trades Union Administration Bill, will fail to deliver the transparency promised. The proposed register is not fit-for-purpose. In the short time the Government has allowed for debate on the bill, it has been heavily criticised by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee and Members of Parliament, as well as representatives of the consultancy industry and a wide range of civil society groups.

We urge you to redraft Part 1 of the Bill to:

  • broaden the definition of lobbyist to include all third party consultants and in-house lobbyists, whether corporate, union or charity;
  • extend the definition to include lobbying of mid-ranking civil servants and special advisors; and
  • introduce fuller disclosure requirements to include the target, topic and estimated cost of lobbying activity.

Central to our concerns is the narrow definition of lobbyist. As drafted, the Bill excludes at least eighty per cent of the industry, notably in-house lobbyists. It will also exclude most key consultant lobbyists through a significant loophole: those who in the course of their lobbying do not make contact with Ministers and Permanent Secretaries will not be required to register. This, as lobbyists and the lobbied well know, is the majority of lobbying activity. The justification for such a narrow definition does not stand up to scrutiny. The Government has defined the problem as a lack of transparency about who an agency is representing when it meets with a Minister. Official meeting lists reveal that this would apply to only a handful of meetings. As many in Parliament have pointed out, if this is a genuine problem, it would be better solved with improved disclosure from Ministers.

Of equal concern to us is the lack of any meaningful information on lobbying activity to be included in the proposed register. It would require lobbyists merely to register their clients, but reveal nothing of their interaction with government (i.e. whom they are lobbying, and what they are seeking to influence). This information is essential if the government is to realise its laudable aim through the register of ‘increasing public accountability and public trust in the UK system of government and improving the efficiency of government policy outcomes’. Fuller disclosure would also bring the UK in line with international standards.

The fundamental purpose of introducing a register of lobbyists is to allow the public to examine and understand the activities of lobbyists, to improve government accountability and ultimately to rebuild public trust. It is imperative to have in mind the widely held public perception of how decisions are taken by government, a view summed up by David Cameron as ‘a cosy club at the top making decisions in its own interest’. This lack of trust must be of serious concern to Government. Proper disclosure rules for lobbyists would go a long way to dispel this perception. The reality of lobbying in the UK, which would be revealed in a robust register of lobbyists, would be far more mundane than is popularly imagined. A refusal to introduce genuine transparency, however, would only reinforce the perception that public scrutiny is something politicians would rather avoid.

The shortcomings of the current Bill are all the more surprising considering the leadership you have shown through the Open Government Partnership and your vocal support for greater transparency. The current proposals threaten to undermine not only your ambition to be ‘the most open and transparent government in the world’, but also detract from the OGP initiative. Civil society groups long ago identified a robust register as a key priority for the Partnership, yet we encountered a surprising reluctance from some Cabinet Office officials to engage with us during the development of the proposals. The result is a register that is wholly inadequate.

The Coalition rightly identified ‘secret’ lobbying as an issue of public concern, one which ‘goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics’. ‘We can’t go on like this,’ said David Cameron. We urge you to now fulfil your commitment with a proper register which will allow public scrutiny of lobbying activity in the UK.

Yours sincerely,

Alexandra Runswick, Director, Unlock Democracy
Dr Andy Williamson FRSA, Founder, FutureDigital & Chair, Ivo.org
Anne Thurston, Director, International Records Management Trust
Anthony Zacharzewski, democracy campaigner
Gavin Hayman, Director of Campaigns, Global Witness
Graham Gordon, Head of Public Policy, CAFOD
Jonathan Gray, Director of Policy, The Open Knowledge Foundation
Maurice Frankel, Director, Campaign for Freedom of Information
Miles Litvinoff, Coordinator, Publish What You Pay UK
Simon Burall, Director, Involve
Tamasin Cave, Director, Spinwatch
Thomas Hughes, Executive Director, ARTICLE 19

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