Lobbying - the “next big scandal waiting to happen” according to David Cameron before he become Prime Minister - has finally hit the headlines. The Government has promised to act, but the problem isn’t the rules regulating lobbying - it’s lobbying itself.
Following the scandal of a number of members of the House of Lords apparently being willing to take money to lobby on behalf of companies (and even countries), the Government has finally acted on its commitment to introduce a register of lobbyists. As it was announcing its plans, it emerged that the Prime Minister’s ‘strategic adviser’ Lynton Crosby’s company has as one of its clients tobacco firm Philip Morris - at the same time as the Government has ‘deferred’ to introduce legislation for the plain packaging of cigarettes due to a ‘lack of evidence’.
David Cameron has repeatedly refused to answer whether he talked to Crosby about plain packaging (in doing so, he’s pretty much confirmed he did). Labour has written to the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, asking him to examine whether there is a conflict of interest between Crosby’s commercial lobbying firm and the ‘strategic advice’ (never policy, according to Cameron) he gives to the Conservative party. In power, it should be noted, Labour also rejected plain cigarette packaging, and of course had it own scandals about the influence of tobacco money, most notably around F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation to the party.
Sarah Wollaston, Conservative MP for Totnes and a former GP, has described the plain packaging decision as “death by lobbyist” - ‘death’ in this context having a dark double meaning, giving that smoking kills 100,000 people in the UK each year. And in what was surely another page borrowed from the ‘good day to bury bad news’ media management handbook, on the same day as it published its lobbying proposals the Government also:
- ‘delayed action’ on gambling machines after lobbying from the gambling industry, claiming it is ‘waiting for further research’ on whether the high stakes terminals are addictive, despite it being obvious that they are;
- shelved plans for a minimum unit price for alcohol, again under pressure from industry lobbying. This led to the bizarre situation of the Government criticising itself; Public Heath England (PHE), the quasi-autonomous arm of the Department of Health created in April as a result of the NHS reforms, made clear it disagreed with the decision. Again, the Government cited what is fast becoming its favourite excuse - ‘lack of evidence’.
Not only will these decisions damage public health, they further damage the ailing health of our democracy.
Over the past few months we’ve been examining the ‘political class’ - who are the political elites that govern us, what qualifies them for this role, and how they are interconnected. This new series of posts on the ‘shadow politics’ is about the way the political class behaves and the consequences of its actions. The way the political class works, especially its often incestuous nature, means that in effect there exists a kind of ‘shadow politics’, quite different from the public debate and policymaking process that is visible to the rest of us.
The shadow politics
The shadow politics is not unique to this Government, but it is particularly pronounced under it - from public health policy to the NHS reorganisation, welfare changes to public service reforms such as the outsourcing of probation (none of which were clearly in the Coalition party manifestos or its programme for government, because that’s not how the shadow politics works).
The events of this week show glimpses of the shadow politics in action, and how it is fundamentally opposite to the ‘open policymaking’ the Government says it believes in:
- A range of rich and powerful interests, obviously, which because of their terrible public images are forced to work behind the scenes and through other means to subvert proper, evidence-based policymaking.
Big Tobacco and other interests know they can’t just rely on expressing their own views publicly. The resulting policies and decisions go against the public interest and favour their own private interests so clearly that they wouldn’t get a hearing - hence the need to focus on working in the shadows, including through the following means.
- Sustained campaigns to discount, discredit or at least cast doubt on expert and scientific opinion - and even common sense.
This is borrowed straight from the climate change deniers’ playbook - that ‘doubt still exists’, the ‘science is inconclusive’, and ‘further research is needed’. (Further research is however never required for whatever powerful private interests want - something we’ll look at in next week’s post).
- The role of parallel or ‘outrider’ organisations to create false ‘debate’ and doubt where there is none, or engender greater ‘certainty’ where there is actually very little.
This includes think tanks - some of which are notorious as the intellectual ‘sock puppets’ of organised interests - with the worst current offender being the Institute of Economic Affairs and its donor-friendly programme of work on so-called ‘lifestyle economics’. The IEA has campaigned against plain packaging, minimum alcohol pricing and high stakes gambling machines. The IEA’s funders include British American Tobacco, Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco International, although the ‘think tank’ itself refuses to reveal its donors. (We’ll be examining the links between the IEA, other thinks and tobacco companies in future posts).
- A revolving door of people between government, think tanks, lobbying groups, and private interests.
This has been noticeable in health and public health, most notably the appointment of Nick Seddon as David Cameron’s adviser on health policy. Seddon’s previous role was as deputy director of Reform, the free market think tank that receives extensive funding from healthcare and insurance companies; Seddon has called for an end to the NHS in its current form, and promoted the idea of an insurance-based system. Before joining Reform, Seddon was head of communications at private healthcare company Circle, the first company to take over the running of a NHS hospital. (Again, we’ll be looking in more detail at the revolving door in health in future posts).
So what is the Government’s proposing to do about lobbying? Not much, in reality. Its published bill proposes a new statutory register of lobbyists, financed by lobbyists themselves. Lobbyists will only have to record their clients on the register if they have met or written to a government minister or a permanent secretary running a Whitehall department, and the measures are not expected to come into force until at least early 2015.
This narrow proposal, and Cameron’s carefully worded response on the Crosby issue - that he was never ‘lobbied’ on the issue of plain packaging - points to the weakness of the legislation: the narrow definition of ‘lobbying’. The Association of Professional Political Consultants suggests that 99% of contacts between ministers and those seeking to influence them are not via political consultants directly but by representatives of corporations and special-interest groups, including think tanks, who will not be included on the register. Effectively the register will mean little more than a statutory list of consultancies, which pretty much exists already (the APPC says there are now 70 of these). Further, since the register only covers ministers or permanent secretaries, it won’t affect any of the other interactions between government and lobbyists, for example via special advisers (a common route for ‘interests’ to be conveyed to ministers).
The Government’s own summary of the responses to the consultation over the lobbying proposals clearly (but carefully, phrased as they are in Whitehall speak) reveal that most respondents argued for a much broader and more meaningful approach. The Government has simply ignored these calls. As a result, the independent Alliance for Lobbying Transparency has called the Government’s proposals a ‘sham’ (blogger Puffles similarly noted that it has ‘more holes than a sieve’). As the ALT says, the Government’s proposes that lobbyists only reveal who is lobbying and exclude over three quarters of the industry, including the tobacco companies that have fiercely resisted public health measures.
Instead, the ALT calls for a ‘robust public register of lobbyists’. Information on a register will only be meaningful if lobbyists’ are required to reveal their dealings with government – who is being lobbied and what they are being lobbied on. Further, it requires a broader definition of what ‘lobbying’ is. The ALT suggests a lobbyist is anyone paid to: arrange or facilitate contact with officials; communicate with officials to influence legislation, regulation, or government policy, and for government contracts and grants; work in support of the above. This would include in-house (i.e. company) lobbyists, law firms, management consultants, accountancy firms and think tanks.
Common sense and integrity suggests that no-one should be able to lobby government without it being clear who funds them. In addition, as we’ve argued here, the policymaking process must be much more transparent - about how were policies developed, by whom, with what evidence, and why alternatives were rejected. Most importantly, policy needs to be open to ‘guerilla’ campaigns - independent, self-organised, genuinely popular movements. A register of lobbyists, however broad and comprehensive, won’t in itself counter the fundamental inequalities in wealth and influence that exists between well-funded corporate campaigns and (groups of) ordinary people who want to inform policy, but it would at least be a start.
For these reasons, even with a comprehensive register, let’s recognise that lobbying isn’t at risk from corruption - it is corruption. In truth, in this context, we don’t need lobbying to be more ‘transparent’, we need to end behind-the-scenes lobbying in its entirety. Companies, organisations, campaigns and individuals should contribute to public hearings - any other interactions with government should be the rare (openly publicised and fully documented) exception. Now that would be open policy.
After all, if you are attempting to influence public policy, you should have no right to be concerned about your activities being wholly public. As David Cameron said himself: “The far too cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money has tainted our politics for too long.”