‘Lobbyists’ have never been far from the seat of government. The term derives from the lobbies of the Houses of Parliament where Ministers gathered before and after debates: and where those that wanted to influence their opinion would go to get their attention. The verb ‘to lobby’ first appeared in print in Ohio, used in the context of local politics. While the word ‘lobbyist’ was first found in the 1840s and mostly related to Washington. But a recent a recent turn of events has put the spotlight on the interface between British lobbyists and politicians – calling into question where one ends and the other begins.
Barry Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield, has become the first serving politician to be officially registered as a lobbyist. He is listed on the register of consultant lobbyists because of his chairmanship of Policy Connect, a not-for-profit company that has held meetings attended by paying businesses and ministers.
Alison White, the registrar of consultant lobbyists, concluded that Policy Connect should be defined as a lobbying company because it is paid money by clients who are then given the opportunity to meet ministers. Her judgement follows an inquiry into whether informal parliamentary groups have been used to gain access to government.
Sheerman confirmed that he had reluctantly registered as a lobbyist, but disagrees with the rules governing the register. Maintaining that Policy Connect is a social enterprise providing a service for industry experts and ministers.
Although lobbying rules do not prevent MPs from holding a paid outside interest as a director, consultant, or adviser, the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament is unequivocal on paid advocacy, stating:
Taking payment in return for advocating a particular matter in the House is strictly forbidden. Members may not speak in the House, vote, or initiate parliamentary proceedings for payment in cash or kind. Nor may they make approaches to Ministers, other Members or public officials in return for such payment.
According to the MPs’ code of conduct, they are allowed to work as a consultant or be paid for advice, but are forbidden from acting as a “paid advocate”.
Part 1 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 introduced a new registration system for consultant lobbyists, which came into operation in March 2015, following a spate of ‘cash for access’ scandals in Westminster. The first Register was published on 25 March, and it included 53 entries.
The aim of the register is to gain transparency about possible influences of interest groups on Parliamentarians and their staff. Several studies indicate that lobby transparency leads to a decrease in corruption, and registers exist for several countries. Their effectiveness is rated differently, strongly depending on their exact regulations. Many non-mandatory registers do not include powerful lobbyists.
The restrictions under the lobbying rules apply for six months. A Member can free him or herself immediately of any restrictions due to a past benefit by repaying the full value of any benefit received from the outside person or organisation in the preceding six month period
All-party parliamentary groups (APPGs), consisting of members of both houses, meet together relatively informally to discuss a particular issue of concern. They are either country based, or subject based, the topics reflecting parliamentarians’ concerns. Officers are generally drawn from the major political parties and strive to avoid favouring one political party or another.
APPGs have no formal place in the legislature, but are an effective way of bringing together parliamentarians and interested parties. In the UK and many other countries, APPGs must be registered every parliamentary year and must hold an annual general meeting where the Chair and Officers are elected.
Their benefit, to campaign groups, charities, and other non-governmental organisations active in the field, is that they allow them to become involved in discussions and influence politicians. Often a relevant charity or trade association will provide a secretariat for the APPG, helping to arrange meetings, and keeping track of its members. Other APPGs may resolve their administration burden in other ways, either by borrowing capacity from an MP or peer’s office, or by employing staff of their own. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, for example, employs two members of staff paid for through subscriptions from its stakeholders.
As of 2015 there were more than 550 APPGs. Associate parliamentary groups are similar except that they are made up of not only members of the House of Commons or Lords but can also include members from outside Parliament.
In early 2016 the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists launched an inquiry into concerns that APPGs were being used to bypass lobbying registration rules, following reports that lobbyists were acting as APPG secretariats, so gaining access to legislators. White launched her inquiry earlier this year after a growth in the number groups, which are also allowed use of the Palace of Westminster’s catering facilities and can invite senior ministers and civil servants for meetings with donors.
So, Sheerman’s registration raises questions about the role of MPs and whether they should be both lawmakers and lobbyists. Furthermore, it highlights the part played by trade associations and others in influencing policy decisions. Which, if challenged, will further undermine associations’ claims to wield influence in an age where their gatekeeping role is already compromised.
From the public perspective, there is a rising tide of scepticism about the honesty of their representatives; the influence of private business interests over the public sphere; and apparent diminution of citizen’s rights. The electorate are entitled to ask increasingly uncomfortable questions. And expect satisfactory answers! Especially if we don’t want to re-enforce the belief iterated by John Gastil, Professor of Political Science at Penn State University, when he says, “There are two fundamental problems in American politics. The first is that most Americans do not believe that elected officials represent their interests. The second is that they are correct.”
Ethical Lobbying, an Oxymoron? By J van Boven