Submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee: The Lobbying Bill

Unlock Democracy is the UK’s leading campaigning organisation for democracy, rights and freedoms. A grassroots movement, we are owned and run by our members. In particular, we campaign for fair, open and honest elections, a stronger Parliament and accountable government, and a written constitution. We want to bring power closer to the people and create a culture of informed political interest and responsibility. Unlock Democracy is a founding member of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, set up in 2007 with a number of organisations including Spinwatch, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

Executive Summary

1.    Unlock Democracy welcomed the government’s commitment to introduce a statutory register of lobbying interests. However, we are disappointed that proposals that took so long to produce are so limited in scope. When the government consulted on its draft proposals in January 2012 the response from transparency campaigners and lobbying industry alike, was to call for a comprehensive register.  We are disappointed that having taken over a year to think about the consultation responses, including 1,337 from  individual Unlock Democracy supporters, these proposals are even narrower than initially suggested.  

2.    Unlock Democracy is not opposed to lobbying - indeed we lobby Parliament, the UK and devolved governments and local government. Lobbying is an important part of the democratic process, the problem is when it's done in secret so the public have no way of knowing who has been putting pressure on the government to do what, or how much money they are spending on exerting that pressure.

3.    The perception that companies and wealthy individuals can buy access and influence is undermining trust in our political system. There have been a number of scandals that have demonstrated this, from the Fox/Werrity affair , to the allegations of Bell Pottinger  boasting about their access to the Prime Minister and McKinsey’s alleged influencing of the Health and Social Care Bill . David Cameron’s prediction that lobbying was the next big scandal waiting to happen has been repeatedly proven correct, indeed these proposals were published in the aftermath of a scandal, yet these proposals would do nothing to prevent another scandal.

4.    The primary purpose of a register of lobbyists is to make information on who is attempting to influence government publicly available so that voters can hold the government of the day to account for the decisions it takes. Unlock Democracy sees this as an important step towards rebuilding public trust in politics. However, the Bill as currently drafted will have the opposite effect. The proposed register will capture very little lobbying activity and the broad exemptions are effectively an invitation to avoid disclosure.

5.    Unlock Democracy wants an open and transparent lobbying system. We believe that the purpose of any lobbying register should be to capture lobbying activity rather than individual lobbyists. This means that both in-house and agency lobbyists should be covered by the register and that the register must include information not just on who the lobbyist’s client is, but also who is being lobbied, the policy area that is being lobbied and the amount of money that is being spent on lobbying. This does not have to be an arduous or overly bureaucratic process. Unlock Democracy has completed a mock registration form for the first quarter of 2012 to demonstrate how this could be achieved without putting an undue burden on the organisations concerned.  Together with Spinwatch, we published a draft Lobbying Transparency Bill show how we believe lobbying transparency should operate in the UK.  You can find the bill on our website 

6.    We are also seriously concerned about the provisions on third party campaigning in Part 2 of the bill.  While we support the desire for transparency, the way that these proposals are drafted is so broad that we believe it would have a chilling effect on campaigning and political participation in the UK. The coalition has failed to present convincing evidence that this is a problem which requires urgent attention. There has been no consultation on these proposals, no attempt to build cross-party consensus and the exceptionally short timescale for the bill means that there is very little opportunity for scrutiny but they could do real damage to the health of our democracy. It is no exaggeration to suggest this could go down in history as the Dangerous Dogs Act of election law.