Sleaze creates a quagmire for lobbying and the UK political process. It drags down the whole environment and its effect on the public perception of the industry is truly one of the most frustrating aspects of a career in public affairs. People are quick to associate your work with the underhandedness of former politicians who have sought to feather their own nest through inappropriate – and sometimes illegal – acts to exhort influence in the return for money.
For as long as I have been in public affairs (and way before then) there has been a litany of ex-politicians who crossed over the line of lobbying and tried to create returns for themselves or their new employers in ways a professional consultant would never do. The legislation that was brought by the 2014 Lobbying Act was never going to be enough. The rules on transparency and reporting only captured those who defined themselves as professional consultants -ie. work for an agency.
It does not take long to think through the other types of organisations that also seek to influence political decision-makers regularly – charities, campaigning groups, think tanks, trade unions and private companies to name just a few. However, to date, these are all exempt from a regulated register of lobbying practices, despite many employing in-house lobbyists. Their inclusion in the UK’s regulation is a logical and crucial step forward that can go some way to improving the system we have.
I am not against individuals (both politicians and lobbyists) having personal connections that smooth the way for the two groups to interact. Contacts can be helpful and should continue to be allowed as long as there is no conflict of interests, and everything is transparent and out in the open.
The public’s trust in politics is low, as is understanding about the purpose and process of lobbying. There is also a lack of transparency in the political process. Lobbying is a two-way activity. Those being lobbied also have a responsibility to ensure it is carried out ethically and transparently. Ministers are required to publish their diaries, but publication is often not timely or contains limited information. If we were able to move to a system that decision-makers publish their diaries promptly, with meaningful information about what topics were discussed and with whom, it will help all of us understand far more on what is happening and why. These disclosures would no doubt create some good newspaper and Twitter fodder, but shining a light on our decision-making process is not going to cause irreparable damage.
Each time a sleaze scandal hits the airwaves, or another ex-politician who has overstepped the mark is all over the Sunday papers, I hope this will be the catalyst for real improvements. We need to be better at making a virtue out of a crisis. The more the status quo is challenged, the sooner there is enough political will to move to a regulatory system which will mean lobbying actually helps itself to improve the transparency which our Westminster system needs.