Mark Glover: Another chance to improve lobbying transparency has been missed
Despite the best efforts of lobbying registrar Alison White, there will be no imminent move to strengthen the lobbying register with a robust code of conduct.
In bringing forward its plans for a statutory lobbying register in 2012, the then minister for political and constitutional reform Chloe Smith MP said that she was "determined to find a solution that provides transparency without hindering legitimate lobbying by those with an interest in government policy".
Fast forward five years and the resulting register has not delivered the improvement in lobbying transparency that was promised. Last week the lobbying registrar Alison White published her findings following a consultation on lobbyists' compliance to the industry's codes of conduct and although some improvements are suggested an opportunity has been missed.
When a lobbying agency completes its quarterly return, the respondent is asked whether they have undertaken "to comply with a relevant code of conduct". This is a very sensible and welcome aspect of the statutory register. It means that any organisation that signs up to an external code which governs or part-governs lobbying behaviour can signpost their compliance.
However, the register as it currently operates allows organisations to declare compliance to an "other" code without forcing them to provide any more information on the code. APPC has always argued that this is a significant defect of the register. It means that, in theory, organisations can create their own code, declare adherence to it and what’s more they do not even have to share the text of that code publicly. Hardly a high water mark of transparency!
We’ve argued that not only should the code in question be accessible to public scrutiny, but that firms should only be able to declare adherence to a code that meets specific criteria. Namely, that a code must include specific reference to public affairs activity, it must be applicable to more than one organisation, it should include disciplinary mechanisms, it should be subject to independent arbitration and it must be regularly reviewed and if necessary updated.
By meeting such a high bar the credibility of each code would offer the public confidence in the quality of the external texts that registrants sign up to. This seems to us like a very basic, simple and obvious approach. Unfortunately, the Registrar has felt that the Act restricts her from delivering this.
It’s very difficult to argue that a code of conduct is anything other a vital corollary to any lobbying registration system. After all, with any statutory scheme the value to the public of registering is not just about the act of disclose itself but about the behaviour implied or directed by the act of registration. There are currently 16 agencies who have chosen to say they comply with an ‘other’ code. Of these, four can only be accessed by contacting the agencies, which is nothing more than a nod towards transparency.
In fairness the Registrar does suggest that in future there will be a direct link from the statutory register to where the codes of conduct are hosted online, an improvement, which if delivered, I very much welcome.
Once again despite the Registrar’s best efforts, an opportunity to significantly improve an already disappointing and ineffectual register has been missed. There are just 140 agencies signed up, which between them represent only an estimated 1% of the total of UK lobbying activity.
Early next year we’re expecting to see the launch of a statutory register in Holyrood, which is set to be vastly different from the Westminster version,. Perhaps ministers in Whitehall might use that opportunity to properly review the current system and make some real reforms that will give the register the credibility and coverage it currently lacks.