Whitehall’s cosy relationship with the lobbying industry needs to die
Author: Peter Facey
Published on Jan 29, 2012
As reported by the Sunday Times today (£), the civil servant in charge of the government’s policy on lobbying reform has resigned her position after calling for Unlock Democracy to “die” on Twitter (see also Spinwatch's report).
For the record, as an organisation we have not pursued any disciplinary action over this incident and, following the receipt of an apology from Ms Walsh Atkins, consider the matter closed. We would hardly be doing our job properly if we didn’t make an impression on civil servants!
Indeed, it is a credit to our supporters who have for the past few months put so much pressure on their MPs that it has resulted in this little outburst. We can only presume that their thousands of letters have been having an effect.
If yet another Twitter gaffe is not worth worrying about, the close ties with civil servants and the lobbying industry most definitely is. Tucked down in the Sunday Times article in paragraph 8 is the revelation that Cabinet Office staff have met with the UK Public Affairs Council, one of the trade bodies of the lobbying industry, at least four times since September 2010 and yet have ignored the requests of Unlock Democracy, Spinwatch and the Alliance of Lobbying Transparency for similar talks.
The result has been a consultation paper which proposes a register of lobbying activity that would tell us virtually nothing. All it would do is force public affairs companies to reveal their client lists; we would learn nothing more about who is meeting government officials - or why - at all.
The consultation paper has nothing at all to say about the need to change the political culture which dominates Whitehall in which ties between government officials and lobbyists is just a little bit too cosy for comfort, but this revelation does. So too do the reports last week about companies paying up to £1,800 to attend networking events hosted by the Chemistry Club at which senior government officials frequently attend. In this case there is absolutely no suggestion that civil servants and ministers have been paid to attend these events, but there is equally no denying that companies would not pay such exorbitant amounts if they didn’t feel they were getting something out of it. There is no reason for such events to exist: if government officials feel they need to network with industry they are perfectly capable of setting up such events themselves and thus avoid being open to the accusation that people are having to pay for access or that civil servants are sourcing out their judgement to private firms out to make a fast buck.
None of this will be addressed by a single civil servant losing her post; hopefully the Cabinet Office will from now on be more open to the suggestion that this is a rather more complex and troubling issue than their consultation paper would suggest.
- Mail: 'I wish it would die': Senior civil servant forced to resign after abusing campaign group on Twitter (29 January 2012)
- Independent: Lobbying official turned down reform meetings (30 January 2012)
- Independent: Lobby reform chief faces inquiry into Twitter abuse for campaigners (31 January 2012)
Peter Facey is the Director of Unlock Democracy