The fags and booze crackdown that wasn't: or why we need a register of lobbyists

Why can’t we see how much is being spent by private healthcare companies to push for NHS reform, why can’t we see which companies thought the Work Programme was a good idea?

Senior Tories are determined to axe the “Lib Dem hobbyhorse” of a statutory register of lobbyists . . . one Tory source said the proposal was effectively dead as ministers focused on “big issues” instead of devoting resources to an idea cherished only by the Liberal Democrats.

“We need to tackle the issues that the country cares about such as immigration, benefits and the economy,” he said. “It is ironic that Nick Clegg is gunning for the lobbying industry when he was a lobbyist once upon a time.”
Now, about this “next big scandal waiting to happen”. Bluntly, one has to wonder at what point our Prime Minister will deem said scandal to have happened. The Queen’s Speech of 2013 was most notable not for what was in it, but for what wasn’t. 
For a start, lobbying reform wasn't there. But that wasn't the thing which caused a stink: that was the issue of plain cigarette packaging. It seems a pretty obvious policy to adopt. Rightly, the government is keen to make smoking a frowned-upon, niche activity on a par with watching hentai porn or Morris dancing, and having upped taxes and hidden the packets in supermarkets, this seemed the next logical step. I’m certainly OK with it, and I speak as an enthusiastic social smoker. (I only smoke when I'm out drinking. And quite often when I'm not. Anyway.)
Maybe you don't like the idea, but that's not the point. The point is that it was suddenly binned. Why? Because Ukip had been selling itself as the pro-smoking, or if you prefer, pro-lung cancer party? Or was it more to do with lobbying from the tobacco industry? Department of Health minutes show that lobbyists had met government officials in January and February and told them that the industry would have to source its packaging from abroad, resulting in job losses. Other arguments included the contention that it would boost the trade in illicit cigarettes - although commercial sensitivity laws mean we can’t actually see the workings behind this.

Fine. The tobacco lobbyists have as much of a right to put forward their view as anyone else. (For more on this, Thank You For Smoking is a brilliant film, by the way). But then the links between the Prime Minister’s aide, Lynton Crosby, and tobacco firms were exposed - and challenged by a Tory MP, no less. The PM’s spokesman said Crosby had no impact on the decision, but don’t the quotes in that FT story sound rather like his lines in this Mirror piece about “getting the barnacles off the boat”? This, incidentally, is the old lie that we should forget about this - and lobbying reform itself, and gay marriage for that matter - because the Government’s like me trying to walk and send a message on its phone: it can't try to do too many things at once or it'll end up inadvertently sending its mother a sex text before walking into a lamppost.

And of course, it wasn’t just tobacco packaging that was conspicuous by its absence. The Government seemed all excited about a minimum unit price for alcohol a while back - look, it even made a commitment on it - but that’s died a death too. So which argument won the day? Of course there’s a debate to be had about punishing responsible drinkers, but how much weight did threats from the alcohol industry to pull out of the government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal carry? Should we take Jeremy Hunt’s word that it’s been delayed solely due to a legal dispute in Scotland?

Here’s the uncomfortable truth about lobbyists. We need them. Many MPs will freely admit that they couldn’t do their jobs without the information they provide. They highlight the concerns of charities, businesses and individuals who otherwise wouldn’t be heard. But the problem is that without a statutory register, a compulsory code of conduct, and an obligation on all politicians and civil servants to declare their meetings, the industry simply comes across as sordid. Countless Government decisions appear suspicious, when they may very well not be.

Let’s stick with the tobacco industry. Last year we learned that JapanTobacco International has wined and dined 21 MPs, of whom 19 were Conservative. Crispin Blunt had gone to see England play India (£694), and Philip Hammond and his wife had been taken to Chelsea Flower Show (£1,132.80). This raises a serious question, quite apart from who in God’s name would pay over a grand to look at some plants. Given the vast sums of money being splurged on influencing the views of our elected leaders, why aren’t we kicking up a bigger stink about transparency? Why can’t we see how much is being spent by private healthcare companies to push for NHS reform, why can’t we see which companies thought the Work Programme was a good idea?

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency has made a couple of very good points on this. First, this isn’t a left/right wing issue. Look at how lobbyists in favour of HS2 have worked to “shit up” opponents of the scheme - many of them Conservative. And secondly, the Government’s plans, as they currently stand, are inadequate.

We have to tackle this issue, for the good of our democracy. Lynton Crosby would presumably tell you all this is a distraction from the big issues. But then Lynton Crosby would say that, wouldn’t he? One can only hope that’s a response echoed by our ministers. And we shouldn't just have to hope.


A smoker. Photo: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.