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It’s time for transparency about lobbying if we are to clean up politics | Jon Trickett

Properly regulated lobbying can be a healthy part of democracy, but it needs to be open and fair to reassure a sceptical public

Prevarication. Obfuscation. Delay. These have been the three government watchwords as they try to work out what to do with the lobbying industry.

The government report on lobbying should be made as an oral statement to the House of Commons today, so that MPs have the chance to ask questions, but is more likely to be sneaked out as a consultation paper. The statement should then be quickly followed by legislation. Instead, there will be more delay while a long-winded consultation takes place.

Lobbying ought to be a healthy and necessary part of our democracy. It can help politicians to have fully informed debates, and allows for open access to government by constituents, individuals and organisations.

But, as the public administration select committee’s report stated, while lobbying “enhances democracy … it can also subvert it”. Many practitioners within the lobbying industry want to operate ethically. But after a string of scandals, such as the boasts by Bell Pottinger, it is clear that the current unregulated and closed circle of secretive lobbying of senior politicians by powerful commercial interests is undemocratic. The government needs to get serious about making lobbying transparent, and end the current uncertainty that exists in the lobbying industry.

The opposition will support actions by the government to regulate the industry. But let’s be clear: we will insist that the only way this can be done is by introducing a statutory register of lobbyists.

There is now widespread acceptance that there needs to be regulation. At a time of growing public concern about the access to and influence over elected representatives by some lobbyists, failure to act will show this government to be utterly out of touch.

Meaningful legislative proposals to protect and enhance our democracy must include the following: a statutory register of lobbyists with a clear definition of what lobbying is; a stipulation that everyone who comes under the new definition of lobbying must register; a minimal financial threshold for spending on lobbying and a stipulation that any spending in excess of that amount must be registered.

There needs to be a code of conduct with clear consequences for those who breach it, with the ultimate sanction of being struck off the register in the most serious cases (such as making illegal payments to MPs).

Senior public servants and politicians also need to have their activities subject to scrutiny. This should be the case, for example, with the so-called “revolving door”. It is damaging to public confidence when someone leaves a ministry one day and within a short time is employed by the industries that lobby that same ministry. Although guidelines state that former senior public officials and ministers who lobby government after they have left office should not do so for two years, it is clear that these rules could be stronger.

On this issue it seems that the government has made a U-turn. David Cameron stated in his “Rebuilding trust in politics” speech: “We will rewrite the ministerial code to make it clear that anyone who ignores the advice of the committee will be forced to give up some or all of their ministerial pension.”

The time has come to reassure a sceptical public that we are serious about cleaning up politics and to rebuild trust and confidence. The present voluntary system is not working. Properly regulated lobbying can be a healthy part of a democracy, but it needs to be transparent and fair. There is no excuse for further delay: the public will conclude that further prevarication is the product of the well-known links between many members of the coalition parties and the lobbying industry.

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