The government's Lobbying Bill has come in for intensive criticism in recent weeks - and for good reason. We at Transparency International think it is an unusually poor piece of draft legislation, and ahead of the second reading last week prepared a briefing outlining how the Bill could be improved.
Essentially, the Bill is in such desperate need of amendments that it needs to be entirely re-written- but ideally should be scrapped, or 'withdrawn and redrawn' with a view to being reintroduced in 6 months or so as recommended by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. This is due to three fundamental flaws:
1. Its declared purpose of regulating lobbying through creating a register will not work. There is near-universal agreement, including from the lobbying industry, that the current proposals for a register will be entirely ineffective. As it stands, the Bill exempts the vast majority of lobbyists.
2. It would have further consequences - whether intended or unintended - that go far beyond regulating lobbying into controlling the normal activities of unions and non-governmental organisations. The Electoral Commission is clearly uncomfortable about this. Most charities that have thought about it - including the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) which sought a legal opinion from a leading QC - see it as a grave threat to their freedom of expression.
3. There is little point in regulating lobbying as a stand-alone activity. What needs to be regulated is the ability of - usually rich - special interest groups to manipulate politics to suit their own ends. We need to regulate, and have full transparency over, those who seek to push for decision-making by governments, law-makers and regulators in their own interests and not the public interest. That means regulating the revolving door, dealing with party funding and addressing the honours system - ambitions that go way beyond what is in this Bill, and that don't seem to be on the government's horizon.
We also believe that a reassessment of the Bill should take place only after the Committee on Standards in Public Life publishes their consultation on lobbying, to which TI-UK submitted our key positions on the topic earlier this year. We look forward to reading the report and can only hope that the government will not ignore any recommendations it may make, as it did for those in the Committee's previous report calling for a cap on political donations.
Good legislation on lobbying and political influence would benefit the Government. The British public has not forgotten the MPs expenses affair, cabs for hire, sale of honours, stings by the journalists and other recent scandals. Unless those in power provide robust, comprehensive and clear legislation preventing a repetition of such episodes, they may find the voters do not forgive either.