“Open Up Lobbying” Sheffield Public Meeting – A SummaryPosted: April 22, 2012
This post summarises the discussions at our “Open up Lobbying” public meeting that was held on Thursday 12th April 2012.
60 people attended a public meeting in Sheffield to discuss the lobbying proposals and to comment on them. Speakers were Tamasin Cave of Spinwatch, Councillor Joe Otten, and MP Paul Blomfield.
The unsatisfactory nature of the current situation, on access to influence and power, was discussed, with all three political parties embarrassed at some point in the last three years by the action of some of their MPs and Lords. The culture of lack of trust in our politicians leads to a cynicism which is seen as very destructive of our democracy: disengagement follows and a belief that sleaze is inevitable. This can lead to the belief that voting cannot make a difference, with fewer people then bothering to vote, especially amongst those who are most needy and vulnerable. This is what politicians are hearing on the doorstep; the worry is about the disenfranchisement of part of the population, which current proposals on voter registration, making it more a consumer choice than a duty of citizenship, will also affect.
One participant likened the system to the Mafia, which is known to ensure political cover for its activities through a high degree of organisation, and bribery and threats. However, whilst the strategy of political influence is similar, no one was suggesting those extremes of criminal activity were common in UK.
Access to influence
A recurring theme during our meeting was the issue of access to influence for ordinary voters. This included how issues were discussed, with a strong plea for clarity of expression on this, so that ordinary people who were not experts could understand the arguments. Too often, those of us who have worked on an issue use jargon or short-hand phrases, or assume a level of understanding that is not there. Also, access for those who do not have internet access needs to be thought through.
Transparency is important but, how can we ensure equality of access?
One result of the corrosion of public trust is the demand for more direct democracy. Dangers of that were expressed by several speakers.
Public perception of politicians
Not that all our politicians are tainted by poor practices; the majority are not but suffer the same public disapproval; this is damaging. Some of our media have exploited this, for example by using legitimate and trivial examples of expenses to criticise MPs: one MP was castigated for spending and declaring on expenses £2.50 on a washing up bowl when setting up his office which included a kitchenette.
Lobbying as apart of the legitimate political process
Access to power via money and influence is part of this unhealthy culture. Of course, lobbying our representatives is part of the democratic process, and all sections of the community engage in it: writing to your MP is traditionally how to raise an issue. No one argued for stopping this; indeed, the importance of our representatives listening to opinions from all interests was stressed; it also gives them an opportunity to challenge those interests. For example, to ask the banks why they are not lending to small businesses. We expect our representatives to make decisions based on exercising their judgements when they have heard all the arguments.
Need for transparency
The problem arises when we do not know who is influencing whom, what resources are being used’, and with what inducements, and what network of contacts is being exploited: the lack of openness and transparency is the problem. Of course, it is essential that there is a flow of information about how legislation and governance is likely to affect businesses, as well charities, trade unions, and voluntary associations. But the line between information and pressure is a narrow one.
Favouritisms, both hidden and open, are another source of influence, with (for example) the Prime Minister declaring us a Christian country meaning that assumptions are then made in favour of the churches. Some “charities” are set up as convenient ways to deliver tax efficient mechanisms rather than for genuinely benevolent purposes.
Nature of current information
Lists of meetings with lobbyists, as currently published by ministers, does not add much information about what has been discussed. Indeed, the three month deadline for publishing such information is often missed, with some ministerial disclosures running 6 to 9 months late, preventing timely questions. The involvement of companies in helping (for example) to draft regulations that apply to their business activities was another cause of concern.
The lack of local or regional perspective to counter the metropolitan, London-centric lobby steamroller, was also seen as a problem with the lack of strong regional focus a real concern.
Whilst transparency is a vital part of the solution, it is not sufficient. An example from the US was cited, of private health companies using their influence to water down President Obama’s health proposals.
One view expressed is that the current proposals, whilst very modest, are at least on the table. This was at the insistence of the Lib Dems in the Coalition. For them, another associated part of the process of opening up lobbying was the need for transparency over party funding, and for an agreement to be reached on limits.
A five point strategy was proposed:
- A statutory code with a definition of what constitutes lobbying; and being a lobbyist
- Legal requirement to register if you meet that definition
- More public information on who is being lobbied on what, and how much they spend
- Meaningful sanctions if failing to comply
- Addressing the issue of movement from being a government minister or a senior civil servant to being (e.g.) employed by a company with an interest in that area of policy
The definition needs to be workable, with it being sufficiently wide to encapsulate the major players without being unduly burdensome to small organisations. There are already systems in place in other countries, so we do not have to re-invent the wheel. The Commons Library could be asked to research this. The current system of requiring some civil servants or ministers to wait a year before taking employment with firms in their policy area is not effective, being more honoured in its breach. A five year period is seen as more appropriate. A much more radical proposal, of banning such arrangements totally but providing much larger pensions, was not widely supported by the meeting. MPs having second incomes from companies and other organisations is also problematic.
It was accepted that registration would include not only lobbying companies and companies that lobby on their own behalf, but also charities and trade unions. However, the point was made that for large charities like Oxfam, their interests are well known, and it would be obvious on what basis they were lobbying, whereas a large company like Tesco might be lobbying on any one of a wide range of issues, for example: planning; food hygiene; transport; labour legislation; the environment; retail restrictions like selling alcohol to minors. So, much more information was needed, rather than “Ministers met Tesco”
Flaws in bidding processes influenced by lobbying
Examples of large companies that have become “preferred bidder” with many different contracts with government, and given new contracts despite not meeting previous contact targets, and sometimes engaging in illegal action leading to arrests, were described, with G4S and A4E cited as examples. It is hard to see why they continue to receive contracts in these circumstances, unless there is a powerful and successful lobbying process in place. It is known that there is the involvement of ex-politicians and civil servants in these companies. The use of the phrase “social enterprise” is no longer appropriate for these companies.
Several examples of small, local organisations in the voluntary or public sectors with successful completion of current contracts losing them to these “preferred bidder” were described, leading to loss of local employment and loss of expertise. The Citizens Advice Bureau was mentioned in this regard.
For the sanctions to be taken seriously, they need to be certain and effective: for example, public censure; in extremis, for elected representatives, to lose their seat.
Lobbying in Local Government
The question was raised about whether the lobby registration proposals should apply to local government and some contributors pointed out the murky doings that can happen with the “revolving door”. This was especially true with construction companies and planning issues. The link between the construction industry and council procurement processes has already been exposed as bad practice, but it still perpetuates, following a quick re-naming and shuffle of a few jobs: the structure that is grossly flawed remains. One contributor raised the difficulty she had faced (as a property leaseholder in a public housing complex) in seeking to discover why the cost of re-cladding her home (as part of a large project) was five times that of in Europe, with no satisfactory response despite a long campaign of Freedom of Information requests, and questions in Cabinet and Council. She wondered if well intentioned rules were being applied to stop ordinary people like herself challenging institutionalised ineptitude to the detriment both to the general public’s finances and to the poorest in Society.
By some, they believed that the concentration of power in the hands of an elected mayor created the danger of the possibility of undue influence. The “celebritisation“ of politics in this way did not encourage a values-based political practice.
However, we need to guard against seeing lobbying as necessarily meaning that the firms involved are not worthy of being awarded contracts. They should be judged on their merits. But too often it is feared that it is the lobbying not the merits that count.
Co-ordinator, Sheffield for Democracy