Forum for Debate

SCT’s Forum for Debate provides protagonists on either side of an issue or public debate  –  including think tanks, commentators, academics and campaigners – with an opportunity to set out their well-considered, rational arguments and then allow a limited number of exchanges between them. Rather than then hosting an open forum or blog, the debates are designed to encourage visitors, guided by links provided by the British Library, to seek out further information about the issues and engage in face-to-face debate themselves. The  debates could also provide material around which Speakers’ Corner Committees can organise their own local events.

The latest in the series appears below. Previous debates can be found in the archive.


Lobbying in the UK – Well Regulated or Out of Control?

Central LobbyThe practice of lobbying has always been an essential feature of democratic politics. Indeed, Central Lobby, the space in which constituents may meet their Member of Parliament, is the architectural focus of the Palace of Westminster and in the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution asserts that “Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably … to petition the Government.”

It is every citizen’s right to seek to persuade their elected representatives of their point of view whether on a matter of purely personal interest or on the great issues of the day. For their part, in the forming of their own policies and opinions, politicians depend to a large extent on the information, insights and arguments they receive from third parties, whether individuals, campaign groups, charities or businesses.

But rights can be abused and there is widespread concern that organisations with the greatest resources secure disproportionate influence on policy-making, that their dealings with Governments are characteristically secret and unaccountable and that decision-makers, including politicians, too often stand to gain from their relationships with professional lobbyists and their clients.

To what extent are these suspicions justified and are current checks and balances adequate? Are new forms of regulation required and, if so, who and what should be regulated and by whom? How do we preserve the age-old right of advocacy while ensuring that undue influence does not undermine our democratic process?

Francis Ingham

Public Relations Consultants Association

Francis Ingham is Director General of the UK Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) and Chief Executive of the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO).

He is also External Examiner to the American University at Richmond, Trustee of Speakers' Corner Trust and the Master of the City of London Company of Public Relations Practitioners. He was educated at Oxford University where he read Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

Founded in 1969, the PRCA is the professional body which represents the UK PR and public affairs industry.

The largest PR association in Europe, the PRCA represents over 18,000 individuals working across the industry. Its public affairs members are required to adhere to a Public Affairs Code of Conduct, and to complete a quarterly Public Affairs Register declaring staff and clients.

ICCO is the voice of public relations consultancies around the world. Its membership comprises national trade associations in 32 countries across the globe: from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Australasia. Collectively, these associations represent over 2,500 PR firms.

Tamasin Cave

Spinwatch

Tamasin Cave is a writer, campaigner and commentator.

Her book A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain (Vintage 2015), co-authored by Andy Rowell, shines a light into 'one of the darkest an least-understood corners of our political culture', the UK's £2 billion commercial lobbying industry.

Tamasin writes for Spinwatch and since 2007 has led the campaign for transparency regulations for lobbyists in Westminster.

Spinwatch investigates the way that the public relations industry and corporate and government propaganda distort public debate and undermine democracy. As the go-to organisation for information in this field, Spinwatch routinely tracks PR and lobbying firms and corporate front groups, exposing their spin and deception.

Spinwatch is a project of Public Interest Investigations, a non-profit company founded in 2005 which carries out cutting-edge research into key social, political, environmental and health issues in the UK and Europe.

Spinwatch is run by an editorial collective of journalists and academics with decades of experience in the policy fields it covers.

Proposition

Lobbying - an essential feature of our democracy

Let’s be clear: our democracy simply would not function effectively without the lobbying industry.

Now I know that’s a bold claim. But it’s an accurate one. No Government is so omniscient that it can decide how our lives and livelihoods should be regulated without listening to the evidence, opinions, arguments and objections of those whom it governs. Lobbying is, at its heart, the fundamental right of individuals and organisations to make their case to those who have been elected and the civil servants who work for them.

The argument is made that lobbying is the preserve of multinationals, able to throw vast amounts of money at the process, distorting decision-making. It’s the ‘thank you for smoking’ argument, an enjoyable enough film, but a pastiche of reality.

Yes, large companies lobby. And some of them are tobacco or alcohol or armaments firms. But for each lobbyist making the case for why plain packaging is a dumb idea, there’s at least another one from a charity arguing the opposite.  Because charities, trade unions, professional bodies, trade associations lobby too. Indeed, while for many big businesses lobbying is just one, often very small, part of their operation, for many charities, it is almost the entirety of their work.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not criticising every charity and I’m not defending every big business. Some charities I approve of; some I don’t. Some businesses I use; I don’t like the products of others. But each and every one of them has the right to make their case to Government for the simple reason that Government’s actions can affect them so fundamentally: can put them out of business or make their lives easier; can speed along their charitable aims or be a roadblock to them.

In a well-functioning democracy, Ministers make decisions based on evidence rather than personal prejudice or intellectual ignorance. And that evidence isn’t innately available to them. It can’t just be googled. It has to be found by listening to the people affected. The League Against Cruel Sports and the Countryside Alliance each have a right to make their case; so does British American Tobacco and ASH; as does the CBI and the TUC. And then it’s up to Ministers to weigh that evidence and MPs to vote on their recommendations.

There should, of course, be a framework in which lobbying happens, both to ensure that the process is fair and to reassure the public of that fact.

And in this regard, the world has moved on since the 1990s and significantly for the better. There are rules which govern the conduct of MPs, doubtless not perfect but certainly effective enough to prevent any rerun of the Cash for Questions farrago.  And there are greater restrictions on how Ministers can make use of the knowledge and contacts they have gained in office once they leave it.

Do I think that everything is perfect? That the status quo cannot be improved? Absolutely not. Ministers still fail to publish their events diaries on time, or even at all. They should be made to do so.

Ex-Ministers still revolve through the door into jobs that are obviously too close to their previous privileged positions. That should be stopped too.

The Government’s lobbying register positively excludes the vast majority of the industry and is far smaller than the voluntary ones in place: the Lobbying Act should therefore be reformed fundamentally to include all of those who lobby.

But the next time somebody tells you that lobbying corrupts politics, please bear this in mind. In every ‘lobbying scandal’ there are no actual lobbyists. There are politicians at the end of their careers, offering to exert improper influence on former colleagues. There are journalists filming those politicians, pretending to be lobbyists, and offering them large amounts of money. But there are no actual lobbyists.

Lobbying is clean. It’s an integral part of democracy. I’m proud to defend it.

Proposition

Benign in theory - but in practice, money talks

In the lead up to the 2010 general election, David Cameron made a pitch to the electorate that spoke directly to voter frustration with our broken political system. Lobbying, he said, specifically “secret corporate lobbying.... goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics”.

He spoke of our “fears and suspicions” about how our system works, with “money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest”. “We all know how it works,” he confidently assumed.

But do we? Lobbyists, the paid persuaders whose job it is to influence the decisions of government, typically stay out of the limelight. As one notes, “the influence of lobbyists increases when . . . it goes largely unnoticed by the public.” Lobbying is most effective when secret.

Which is why we should begin with an understanding of what it is lobbyists do, how they go about it and why.

Relationships with politicians and officials are the stock-in-trade of lobbyists. Take Google, recently in the news over its ‘mates rates’ tax deal. It has an impeccable in-house lobbying team that in recent years has included an old friend of Cameron’s, a former aide to Nick Clegg, the daughter of the PM’s neighbour and an ex-advisor to Jeremy Hunt during his stint in charge of internet regulation. These people are hired because they speak the same language as our lawmakers, know what makes them tick and, crucially, can open doors.

Politicians don’t make decisions in a vacuum though and so lobbyists also seek to shape public debates through the media. They seed it with information they want politicians to see and work hard to keep out inconvenient facts they would rather they didn’t - a skill they have also mastered online. Lobbyists also engineer support for business-friendly policies by creating or enlisting credible third parties like think tanks to act as arms-length spokespeople. The nuclear industry spreads its messages “via third party opinion because the public would be suspicious if we started ramming pro-nuclear messages down their throats,” as one nuclear lobbyist succinctly put it.

All this takes money. It is true, or partly true, that money spent on lobbying does not equate to influence - politics is not nearly that straightforward. Yet lobbying is not seen as a cost but rather an investment, one that delivers a return. Lobbying has become another way of making money, whether from heading off a threat to profits (for example, pushing back against curbs on particular products like cigarettes or alcohol) or applying pressure to open up new markets (take the recent NHS reforms). One study in the US, where data on lobbying spending is available, estimates that from an annual corporate lobbying spend of roughly $3.5bn, the value of the resulting corporate subsidies alone is about $90bn a year.

This goes a long way to explaining why lobbying is dominated by corporate interests. It is certainly true that others also make an investment in lobbying – trade unions and charities, for instance – yet their influence is often limited. There has been, for instance, no equal or equivalent counter to the UK’s powerful bank lobby either before or since the financial crisis.

So, when David Cameron described for voters how lobbying works: “the lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear,” he was giving us the abridged version.

The result of all this activity – lobbying is an estimated £2bn industry in the UK – is that commercial lobbyists acting for particular, narrow interests have bent our system of government to their will to such an extent that that arguably it no longer serves the interests of the wider public.

In theory, lobbying is benign. It leads to better government. It gives people a voice. And, in a liberal democracy, everyone rightly has the ability to lobby their representatives. The problem lies in what happens in practice.

Response

I take issue with almost all Tamasin’s assertions, reflecting as they do the usual lazy allegation-without-evidence model that those who vilify lobbying revel in.

And yes, the PM was equally guilty of this when he made his sweeping generalisations about the industry he once worked in - generalisations which, in power, he rightly has not repeated. Rightly, because they are plain wrong.

It simply is not the case that lobbyists ‘engineer business-friendly policies’. Business-friendly lobbyists argue for them; business-unfriendly lobbyists argue against them.

Tamasin bizarrely cites the tobacco, alcohol and nuclear industries. Bizarrely, given the increasing costs and regulation of the first two and the decades-long lack of investment in the last one. If their business lobbyists were so powerful and the scales so weighed in their favour, the atmosphere in which they operate would have moved to their advantage surely? It hasn’t. It has moved against them.

And that’s because it is downright untrue to say that ‘lobbying is dominated by corporate interests’. The businesses who lobby are matched by the charities, think tanks and trade unions from across every part of the political spectrum that do the same.

Three final comments. Lobbying is secret. No it isn’t. Check out our own Lobbying Register  - which includes charities and corporates.

Lobbying is worth £2 billion. No it isn’t. The entire UK PR industry is worth slightly under £10 billion. Only 6% of industry professionals do lobbying as some part of their work. The £2 billion is just a made up figure.

And let me return to the point I’ve made previously. No lobbying scandal involves real lobbyists. Fake lobbyists? Yes. Journalists? Yes. Has-been politicians? Yes. Genuine lobbyists? No. Either the lobbying industry is so effective and secretive that they’ve covered up every real single real scandal - or its critics are chasing shadows. I say the latter.

Response

“I’ve been working with people like Steve Hilton, David Cameron, George Osborne, for 20 years-plus... I know all these people. There is not a problem in getting the messages through to them”.

That was Tim Collins, ex Conservative MP and now chief lobbyist at one of the UK’s biggest lobbying firms, Bell Pottinger, caught on camera boasting of his contacts and what he could do for clients.

There are not many charities that can claim this kind of access. Yes, everyone has the right to lobby government - but not everyone is heard. Clients of Bell Pottinger – oil and gas firms, tobacco giants, gambling interests, large property developers – stand a better chance of ‘getting their messages through’. Otherwise, why hire a lobbying firm?

In a well-functioning democracy, Francis says, Ministers make decisions based on evidence. Ours is not a well-functioning democracy. We have a rigged system that leads to bad decisions.

Take one recent example. In February, Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock announced a ban on charities in receipt of government grants from using the funds to lobby. It’s a gag on charities. Why was it introduced? A rational weighing of evidence?

It was because of lobbying by the ‘think tank’-cum-business lobby group, the Institute of Economic Affairs. It received thousands of pounds from an anonymous donor to push for the change. (It has also been funded by the tobacco industry which has a particular interest in silencing public health charities). No attempt was made by government to consult with organisations that might be affected. This is bad policy-making and it's far from unique.

Government decisions are made all the time – on climate change, banking risk, public health, housing, taxation – that are informed by the demands and prejudices of a small number of people who enjoy privileged access and influence, uninhibited by public scrutiny.

It’s not about lobbying being clean, or dirty. It’s about how it rigs the system against the public.

Conclusion

Tamasin is right. Tim Collins did say that and while he was boasting, he probably wasn’t exaggerating. He does indeed know those people.

But she’s wrong when she suggests that only big corporates attract people from the political class. Jackie Ballard, ex-MP, became CEO of the RSPCA; Mark Oaten, ex-MP, became CEO of the Fur Trade Federation; Peter Wanless, ex-senior civil servant, became CEO of the NSPCC; Damien McBride, ex-Number 10, went to CAFOD before returning to Labour's ranks; and just this month, Simon Hughes, ex-MP, became Head of Public Affairs at the Open University.

Now we can all argue about the rules on revolving doors. I think that they’re better than they were but that they could be improved.

But what patently isn’t defensible is the suggestion that lobbying ‘rigs’ the political system, because lobbying is full of professionals representing completely opposing views and making the case for them. ‘Transparency’ campaigners conflate disliking a cause – particularly when it’s successful - with thinking that it’s illegitimate.

What we need is genuine transparency. We need a lobbying register that includes all of those who lobby and doesn’t focus simply and unfairly on third party lobbyists. Yes, third party lobbyists should be on there, declaring their staff and their clients. And guess what? These ‘bad guys’ of the industry have been doing so every quarter for the past twenty years via the PRCA Register.

But they should be joined by charities, by think tanks (right and left wing alike), by professional bodies, by trade unions - and by campaigning groups (sorry Tamasin, that includes yours).

Partial registers, as the Government’s is currently, aren’t only unfair, they are also un-transparent and ultimately, I hope and believe, unsustainable.

So here's what we need, and what I am sure Tamasin and I can agree upon:

• the Government should introduce a register of lobbyists that covers all of those who lobby, from whatever sector or status or political perspective, and covering professional bodies such as mine, and campaigning organisations such as Tamasin’s
• this register should identify staff, clients (where there are clients), holders of Parliamentary passes and holders of political office - as ours does currently
• Minsters’ dairies should be published on time and accurately
• the rules on revolving doors should be re-examined and most likely tightened.

And once this is done, we should all accept that we have set the rules, that they are fair and that organisations’ and individuals’ voices have a right to be heard. And that if Ministers come to conclusions which we don’t like, on the balance of the evidence that they’ve considered, those decisions are democracy in action - made better by the contribution of lobbying.

Conclusion

The industry-run voluntary lobbying registers that Francis says provide transparency were described in the most recent parliamentary inquiry into lobbying as ‘little better than the emperor’s new clothes’. They were introduced with the purpose of delaying real transparency measures.

Let’s take a single example - Incisive Health, founded by Bill Morgan, ex-health secretary Andrew Lansley’s former right-hand man (it has also just hired the Department of Health’s recent finance chief). The register tells us that it lobbies for private healthcare firms, insurers and pharmaceutical giants. That’s it: a list of clients. Not what these companies are seeking to get from government, which policies they want changed, which contracts they are after or whose doors Morgan and his team are opening.

Genuine transparency in lobbying would make this information public. We would know who is lobbying whom, about what. Without that, lobbying remains secret.

Finally, to Francis’s call for more evidence. Let’s look at a couple of lobbying campaigns that show the lengths to which businesses go to shape public policy.

Take the fracking industry. Energy giant Centrica and Britain’s biggest fracking firm Cuadrilla (in which Centrica has a stake) currently employ a staggering eight major lobbying agencies in the UK. You don’t hire an army of lobbyists this size merely to present your case to government. You need it to fight a public and political persuasion campaign.

News Corp’s lobbying to persuade government to approve its takeover of BSkyB, which would have created the UK’s most powerful media group ever (had it not been for the phone hacking scandal), didn’t centre on reasoned argument.

Murdoch unleashed a campaign that included: using influential others to front the lobbying, reframing the deal as being in the national interest, warning that a refusal to approve the bid might jeopardise jobs and nurturing close, social relationships with key officials, flattering them, schmoozing them with hospitality and drawing them into a relationship of common cause. The lobbying was ‘formidable and relentless’, in the words of Lord Leveson. It was concerned solely with engineering policy in News Corp’s interest.

Lobbyists for the tobacco industry – worth focusing on because tobacco has pioneered many lobbying tactics adopted by others – have sought to limit the influence of anti-smoking groups or, as one Philip Morris document described the tactic, ‘minimising the effectiveness of the antis’. Its lobbying strategy detailed how it wanted to ‘diminish funding for antis’ activities’, ‘weaken [their] credibility’, ‘drive a wedge between anti groups’ (the divide and rule tactic) and ‘position antis as extremists.’ This so clearly goes beyond simply arguing the case for business.

These aren’t my assertions, Francis. A lot of the time we just repeat what you lot say, but just so everybody can hear this time.

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