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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?

A smoker. Photo: Getty

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.