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More on Lobbying

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My last blog was prompted by a story I read in the New York Times showing the amounts of money being spent by high tech companies seeking to influence the policies of US Federal institutions. I promised to look into what was going on in the UK and at EU level with a view to discovering if comparable data are available. Short answer: not really.

There seem to be voluntary registers of various kinds in operation around Europe and in Brussels. Some of these show which companies are using which lobbyists, but note the word "voluntary". While the EU rules require certain financial information to be disclosed by accredited lobbyists there is nothing that goes anywhere close to what the Americans have. Naturally this fuels a great deal of speculation. Perhaps the lobbying industry needs to hire some lobbyists to get this sorted out.

Before moving on

A friend at court is worth a penny in the purse

This wonderful 18th century reference just about sums it up. Jostling to get your voice heard by those in authority, with a view to getting them to decide something in your favour is as old as the hills. It's part of the essence of democratic politics.

Before moving on and consigning the issue of lobbying to that large box marked "if only I had more time I'd like to look into this" I thought I would report back on the little I did discover. Obviously this is a highly charged and highly political issue. It's about shaping public policy so it's bound to be.

UK Parliament looks at it

In 1984-85 the UK Parliament's Members' Interests Committee declared as follows:

It is the right of any citizen to lobby his Member of Parliament, and if he considers that his case can be better advanced with professional assistance he has every right to avail himself of that assistance

The comparison with lawyers is clear. The difference is lawyers are highly regulated. Lobbyists are not.

Oh dear

In the UK there have been several embarrassing instances where senior politicians were found to have accepted undeclared favours from lobbyists. Then there were cases where public figures seeking new careers as lobbyists were caught on camera promising, for example, that in return for £2.5 squillion, they could get the Pope and Oscar Wilde to write letters to Barnsley Borough Council supporting a developer's proposal to build a nuclear waste processing facility next door to Sainsbury's car park just off the High Street.

AT one point our Prime Minister clearly thought lobbying was important. In a speech made in February, 2010, when he was Leader of the Opposition, Mr Cameron said

It is the next big scandal waiting to happen. It's an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.

According to the Daily Telegraph the Conservative leader went on to say lobbying is a "£2 billion industry" with a big presence at Westminster. Apparently in some cases MPs are approached more than 100 times a week by lobbyists.

He said he wanted to shine "the light of transparency" on lobbying so that politics "comes clean about who is buying power and influence." Strong words. Let's see if they lead anywhere.

Other references

If you are interested a very helpful person from the aptly named Alliance for Lobbying Transparency pointed me towards a document published by The Hansard Society in 2007. It's called Friend or Foe and appears to be the source for the Prime Minister's claim that lobbying is worth £2 billion in the UK (the report actually says £1.9 billion). However, when I read the document I noted that that sum covered the wider canvas of "public affairs", which may only point to an issue about definitions.

Finally I was also directed to a web site that reports on the UK's voluntary register of lobbyists and their clients. It's called Who's Lobbying? I found Google and Microsoft on there but not the amounts they spend. Unlock Democracy also seems to be hot on lobbying. They are also running a campaign and their aims seem to me to be entirely sensible, as do those of the Alliance.