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Lobbying Reform Can Help Restore Confidence in British Politics

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The 15% turnout for last week's police commissioner elections points to a worrying divorce between policy-makers and voters. It suggests a feeling of growing powerlessness and political apathy that seems to have infected the (non) voting public. Back in 2009 when the MPs' expenses scandal broke there was a sense that we had reached the nadir, and that, with the election of a new government, public confidence and trust in politics might begin its renewal. But the truth is that that confidence, if anything, has diminished further. However, just weeks away from the introduction of much anticipated legislation to increase lobbying transparency, I am hopeful that an industry that is much maligned, poorly understood and often blamed for reducing confidence in policy-making might actually be able to play a small role in renewing confidence and trust in the business of politics.

This week Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, criticised the three main parties for not acting on his recommendations to clean up party funding. He said the current system created "an issue about people having access of a kind other people don't enjoy. That is not fair". With cross-party talks over party reform deadlocked - perhaps terminally - the only immediate hope to offer more transparency to the way organisations lobby policy-makers is through the creation of a statutory register of lobbying.

In legislation planned for early next year, the government is likely to introduce a lobbying register - an easy to access list of practicing UK lobbyists. Combined with proper government disclosure of all ministerial meetings with lobbyists it has the potential to create a system that offers transparency and enhances public confidence. But there is a fundamental problem with the government's reforms - they don't go far enough. Which is why as a lobbyist I will, counter-intuitively, be lobbying for more comprehensive reform.

In its consultation the government said that the purpose of a lobbying register should be "to increase transparency by making available to the public, to decision-makers and to other interested parties authoritative and easily accessible information about who is lobbying and for whom". That sounds fine in theory, but the devil is in the detail: the government's proposals only included proposals for third party (or consultancy) lobbyists to be included - omitting the vast majority of the UK's other lobbyists. Findings presented to a recent parliamentary committee show that of 8,000 declared ministerial meetings with government departments just 18 - less than a quarter of one percent - were with lobbying firms. The fact is that the vast majority of lobbyists are companies, trade associations, management consultancies, law firms, think tanks, charities and arms of government itself.

A subsequent report by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee report found that that "defining the activity of lobbying is fundamental to defining who is a lobbyist. The government's consultation paper fails to do so." I agree. The creation of a comprehensive register really should not be too burdensome or complicated task: it is one that many lobbyists support and are willing to pay for. An easily searchable register should help to weed out wrong-doing. Recent allegations that a minister was employing a lobbyist who in turn was using her insider access to help her other clients secure ministerial meetings would be unimaginable under a publicly searchable registration system. After all, what minister would knowingly employ a lobbyist, in the light of the potential conflicts such a relationship can throw up, let alone the strong likelihood of a public backlash?

But the lobbying register is only one half of the required reforms. The other half has to come from the government itself. Details of meetings between ministers and third parties are already published regularly, but not always adequately or in a format that is standardised or easily searchable. As the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee recommends, there is much the government can do immediately, without primary legislation, to improve transparency around who is lobbying whom, through enhanced disclosure of ministerial meetings. This includes publishing information about ministerial meetings, quickly - ideally no more than a month after a meeting takes place.

The chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life said that without party funding reform, there risked being a repeat of the "cash for access" affair which forced the resignation of the Conservative Party co-treasurer earlier this year. In its continuing absence, there is a chance to get a lobbying register onto statute. It has the potential to take lobbying out of the shadows.

The public needs to see who we are and better understand what we do. A statutory register of all lobbyists would give the public the chance to find out for themselves and let us and our activities be judged and scrutinised. With confidence in politics at such a low ebb, it would be at least a start.

One other thing: Sir Christopher suggested that his committee might conduct an inquiry into lobbying. We would welcome that too, as a further useful opportunity to shine light on what we do.