When David Cameron singled out lobbying as “the next big scandal waiting to happen”, he wasn’t wrong. Since coming to power, his government has been rocked by a series of scandals about the access and influence of lobbyists, and yet the Lobbying Act, which was supposed to clean up politics, has failed on every measure.
This is an act so flawed that it has achieved the rare feat of uniting lobbyists and transparency campaigners against it. According to the Association of Professional Political Consultants, it only covers 1 per cent of ministerial meetings, leaving most of those lobbying government unregistered and unregulated. Instead of tackling the lobbying industry, this abysmal act clamps down on charities and grassroots campaigners. Its definition of lobbyists excludes people such as the Conservative adviser and lobbyist Lynton Crosby but the regulations in Part Two stifle campaign groups such as 38 Degrees and the RSPB. This law does nothing to stop vested interests lobbying at the heart of No 10, but makes it harder for grassroots campaigners to hold government to account. It really says it all about who David Cameron stands up for.
The Lobbying Act is so bad that virtually none of the scandals that brought it into being would have been prevented by it. Its limited scope means that meetings between News Corp and the then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt would not have been disclosed. But the regulations around charities and campaigners are so onerous and unclear that the laws will have a chilling effect, silencing a voice that the government has a duty to hear. In doing so, the coalition has reinforced people’s distrust in politics, underlining the impression that Westminster is out of reach to all but a privileged few and making it harder for ordinary people to make their voices heard.
This is why Labour will repeal the act and replace it with real, comprehensive lobbying reform in the next parliament. We will shine a spotlight on relations between lobbyists and government by setting up a statutory register that will cover all professional lobbyists, not just “consultant lobbyists”. We’ll also introduce a code of conduct, backed by sanctions to encourage the highest standards of lobbying practice.
We will also tackle the “revolving door”, which sees people moving between jobs in government and jobs in the lobbying industry. We need proper oversight to make sure people don’t abuse the connections they’ve made during their time in office. We will also make sure that people who hold senior jobs in politics can’t also be lobbyists without the public knowing about it. Anyone doing a senior job for the government or for its political party who is also a professional lobbyist will have to declare it.
The Lobbying Act was a wasted opportunity to clean up politics and give people faith that their government makes decisions in the interests of the country, not vested interests behind closed doors. Instead it has cracked down on the very institutions – charities, campaign groups and trade unions – that provide a voice for those who aren’t heard often enough. When he became Labour Leader Ed Miliband said: “politics is basically broken. Its practice, its reputation and its institutions – I’m in it and even I sometimes find it depressing. This generation has a chance and a huge responsibility to change our politics. We must seize it and meet the challenge.” The Lobbying Act has done nothing but damage our politics, but Ed Miliband and a Labour Government will put it right and deliver the reform our politics needs.