Political and Constitutional Reform CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Taxpayers’ Alliance

Responses to the Issues Raised in the Consultation

1. The Government is right to point out in the Consultation Paper that lobbying—whether it be by individuals, charities, campaign groups, think-tanks or businesses—is not only a legitimate activity but also one which over the years has done, on the whole, a great deal of good. Lobbying ensures that those drafting laws and regulations are better informed than they otherwise would have been about the potential consequences of their actions, and thereby paves the way for improved legislation.

2. The Consultation Paper goes on to assert that the Government does not want to create obstacles for those involved in necessary interaction with policymakers, nor to regulate (and potentially deter) “the essential flow of communication between business leaders and Government, civil figures, community organisations and Government”, and we welcome these reassurances.

3. The Government could deal with the regulation of lobbying in a number of ways, ranging from the lightest-touch approach to the most heavy-handed system of regulation. In our view, there are four possible approaches, and we discuss the merits of each in turn.

Approach 1: No register of lobbyists.

Approach 2: A register of those lobbying for third parties.

Approach 3: A register of those lobbying for third parties and businesses.

Approach 4: A register of everybody lobbying for third parties, businesses and civil society.

4. We support Approach 2, in line with the Government’s position in the Consultation Paper.

Approach 1: No register of lobbyists

5. Some might argue that as long as there is full disclosure of who ministers have been meeting, there is no need for everyone potentially involved in lobbying to be included on a register. The Consultation Paper states that “information about which stakeholders are meeting Ministers to put forward their views on policies is… already in the public domain” by virtue of the publication of quarterly information on ministers’ meetings.

6. But that does not necessarily ensure maximum transparency about “who is lobbying and for whom”, since there are many professional lobbyists who represent a number of different clients. The Government has rightly identified as problematic the fact that some meetings between ministers and representatives of lobbying firms are being recorded without anyone knowing on whose behalf the lobbyist is lobbying.

7. So no register is not an option, especially since the Government is now “committed to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists” as part of its drive towards making politics more transparent.

Approach 2: A register of those lobbying for third parties

8. The second approach—and the one which the Government appears to have judged to be the right one, based on the Consultation Paper—is for any register to cover those companies and individuals paid to undertake lobbying activities on behalf of third party clients.

This is the approach which the TaxPayers’ Alliance favours

9. This means that there is complete transparency when it comes to those companies or individuals who represent a variety of clients, but no unnecessary burden for those who engage in lobbying activities exclusively for a single charity, campaign group, think-tank, community group, trade union, business etc.

10. The Government appears to accept in the Consultation Paper that whenever anyone is employed exclusively to lobby on behalf of one organisation, it is clear whose interests they are representing. To have them sign up to the register would be potentially costly, time-consuming and bureaucratic—and without any additional transparency being achieved.

11. Moreover, if any of those in-house lobbyists are attending meetings with ministers, those encounters are still going to be declared by the minister in the usual way.

Approach 3: A register of those lobbying for third parties and businesses

12. The pressure for a statutory register of lobbyists has largely come about because of concerns about the influence of business interests on the policy process. So it could be argued that the statutory register should also cover those lobbying on behalf of profit-making enterprises. Were this third approach to be taken, for-profit organisations would be covered and not-for-profit groups and individuals (‘civil society’) would be excluded from the need to register.

13. However, it is possible to imagine difficulties with this third approach:

Imagine Widgets R Us is a successful widget manufacturer in a town in North Wales and the local MP has the Minister for Widgets visiting his constituency and is keen to show off a local success story. The MP and minister tour the widget factory with the Managing Director, who uses the opportunity to lobby the visiting minister for tax breaks for widget manufacturers. Should he have been required to register as a lobbyist prior to that extended opportunity for high-level lobbying?

Likewise, the Association of Corner Shop Owners has tens of thousands of members and a small staff in its London HQ, representing the interests of its members (who run profit-making enterprises). Should all those staff need to register as lobbyists for seeking to do the job they are employed to do, ie represent their members’ views to those in power? And what about when an individual member accompanies the staff to meetings in Whitehall: does he or she have to register as a lobbyist as well?

Approach 4: A register of everybody lobbying for third parties, businesses and civil society

14. If the Government were to reject all of the approaches described above, it is hard to see any other remaining viable option except a broad brush catch-all approach that forced anyone involved in lobbying to sign up to the register.

15. We are very concerned that to adopt this fourth approach would be to open a veritable Pandora’s Box of those who would potentially fall foul of the need to register—a move which would have the potential to dissuade some from engaging in public policy debates at all. Consider the questions raised by the putative situations in the following examples:

A think-tank employs a full-time Parliamentary Affairs Manager to take a lead on dealing with government relations who, some might suggest, should be on the register of lobbyists. But what about the organisation’s Director General, who also regularly meets with politicians to push her think tank’s arguments: should she have to register too? And what about the think-tank’s army of researchers with specialist knowledge, each of whom might be called upon to accompany the Parliamentary Affairs Manager to meetings with ministers when their area of expertise is being discussed: would each of them really be expected to register as well?

A teenage boy is outraged at one of the announcements in the Budget and sets up a Facebook page and website for a campaign to reverse the decision. The campaign—let’s call it “Scrap the Window Tax”—hits a nerve, gathers massive momentum and the young man is quoted in the media and ends up securing a meeting with a Treasury Minister to press his case. He has proved himself to be a very successful lobbyist: but wouldn’t he have fallen foul of the law if he had failed to register himself as a lobbyist before embarking on his campaign?

The Government announces plans for an onshore wind farm near a village, so the residents’ association in the village is fired into action to oppose the plans. The Chairman of the association takes a lead in organising meetings with local council leaders and ministers at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, among others, as well as taking charge of briefing journalists and other opinion formers. He doesn’t take a salary but the residents’ association covers all his expenses and travel. Will he be expected to have registered as a lobbyist?

A female pensioner runs a small animal welfare charity in her spare time as a labour of love. She has become well known to the national media who use her as a commentator on animal welfare issues and is a regular protester outside DEFRA, where ministers have got to know her and occasionally engage with her formally on animal issues. Does she need to register as a lobbyist?

The political editor of a tabloid newspaper has strong views on a whole series of issues and regularly runs campaigns in her pages during which she enjoys access to the relevant government ministers to press her case. It is extraordinarily high-level lobbying, so does the journalist need to register as a lobbyist?

Conclusion

16. The point we seek to make above is that there are tens, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of “lobbyists” around the country. All kinds of people have reason or desire to try and influence those in power: some are paid to do it, others are not; for some it is part of a day job, for many more it is merely a private passion. Yet we live in a time when many are unwilling to engage with the political process and it would be irresponsible in the extreme to do anything that would hinder or deter that engagement in any way.

17. Any attempt to introduce a lobbyists’ register that goes further than that tightest definitions (Approach 2 and, at a stretch, Approach 3) could result in increasing numbers of people disengaging from the policy-making process altogether, put off by the cost or red tape involved in joining a lobbyists’ register. The unintended consequence of such a move could in fact be a higher concentration of lobbyists acting for third parties dominating the policy space, or the criminalisation of scores of people trying to get their point of view across to those in power.

18. One need only look to the US to see the consequences of heavily-regulated lobbying. The Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) has burdened legitimate policy organisations with considerable bureaucracy (forcing them to track how much of each individual’s time is spent lobbying, for example) whilst other groups have restructured to navigate their way around the regulated set-up. Meanwhile, non-partisan think-tanks have effectively been politicised, whilst the net effect of the LDA has been to make it harder for lawmakers to get the advice and counsel of experts who want just that: advice, not favours in return. This cannot be a good thing.

19. In terms of other questions raised in the Consultation:

We agree there is no justification for demanding that those signing the register should have to declare how much they are paid by the third parties they represent.

Returns on a quarterly basis seem sensible.

Those individuals and companies having to sign the register should have to fund it. Assuming that either Approach 2 or 3 is taken, those signing up are from the business community, so taxpayer-funding should not be necessary.

The register’s operator should have no additional functions besides accurately reproducing and usefully presenting information provided by the registrants.

Assuming that those needing to sign up can provide the relevant details by entering them on a website, the register itself should be relatively cheap to run and there is certainly no justification for creating a mass of associated bureaucracy for the administration of a mere set of online lists. We don’t see why this could not be put within the remit of a Cabinet Office civil servant, rather than creating a new quango to be headed by some grandly-titled appointee earning a six-figure sum, which past history sadly shows us is so often the result of the introduction of a burdensome new set of regulations.

April 2012

Prepared 12th July 2012