Lobbying: what the “view of the council” neglects to tell us

7 Mar

In the somewhat odd agenda for the next EDBF TAFF, the following paragraphs in italics below is given as the “view of the council” on lobbying taken from a government paper produced in 2008 and cited in the agenda for the next TAFF.  We are not aware of the council ever having discussed lobbying, let alone voted on anything to do with it, so presumably this means either the view of the Chief Executive, or possibly the Leader, or possibly the Cabinet or possibly a combination of two or three of these!  Contrast, therefore, the first (in italics) paragraphs which the Chief Executive has quoted from this document with a selection of other paragraphs chosen by us.  Spin?  You decide.

The Council’s view of the East Devon Business Forum Debate on the role of a joint body, particularly with reference to allegations of inappropriate lobbying. A definition of lobbying is: “in a professional capacity, attempting to influence, or advising those who wish to influence, the United Kingdom Government, Parliament, the devolvedlegislatures or administrations, regional or local government or other public bodies on any matter within their competence”.

In January 2009 the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee published a report ‘Lobbying: Access and Influence in Whitehall’  which noted, amongst other findings, that: “The practice of lobbying in order to influence political decisions is a legitimate and necessary part of the democratic process.

Individuals and organisations reasonably want to influence decisions that may affectthem, those around them, and their environment. Government in turn needs access to the knowledge and views that lobbying can bring.

Now, these paragraphs come from a document produced in 2008-09 and published in 2008 – long before the current coalition came into power, so presumably represents the views of the Labour Party.  We would be somewhat surprised if the coalition government agrees with it nowadays!

We now  quote below some OTHER paragraphs from the same document:

….. Lobbying should be—and often is—a force for good. But there is a genuine issue of concern, widely shared and reflected in measures of public trust, that there is an inside track, largely drawn from the corporate world, who wield privileged access and disproportionate influence. Because lobbying generally takes place in private, it is difficult to find out how justified concerns in this area are. This is why there have been demands for greater transparency, and why lobbying has been regulated in a number of jurisdictions, generally through registers of lobbyists and lobbying activity. A further issue of concern related to access and influence is the transfer of staff in both directions between Government and (predominantly) the business world—the ‘revolving door’.  …..

….. We propose that the ethics of the activities of lobbyists should be overseen and regulated by a rigorous and effective single body with robust input from outside the industry. …..

…..  There are two issues of concern specific to multi-client consultants: the potential for conflicts of interest between their clients, and for lack of clarity about who a consultant is representing in a given situation.

….. In essence, because secret lobbying by its very nature leaves no evidence trail, there could still be a significant problem even with little concrete evidence of one. …..

….. What is clear to us is that reform is necessary. Lobbying the Government should, in a democracy, involve explicit agreement about the terms on which this lobbying is conducted. The result of doing nothing would be to increase public mistrust of Government, and to solidify the impression that Government listens to favoured groups—big business and party donors in particular—with far more attention than it gives to others. Measures are needed:

• to promote ethical behaviour by lobbyists, with the prospect of sanctions if rules are broken.

• to ensure that the process of lobbying takes place in as public a way as possible, subject to the maximum reasonable degree of transparency, and

•make it harder for politicians and public servants to use the information and contacts they have built up in office as an inducement to other potential employers. …..

…..Transparency could be both a guardian against unethical activity and a means of assurance to a sceptical public. Any means of ensuring transparency can only be effective and comprehensive if it is imposed through a regulatory framework. …..

…..There are also steps that the Government could take now and without legislation to make information about its meetings with outside interest groups publicly available.  There is a perception that real government takes place behind closed doors. This may be partly because of media portrayal or innate distrust of those in power. But there seems to be a culture of secrecy in some parts of government beyond that which is strictly necessary, and beyond that seen in some other countries. Cultures and attitudes need to change. Government should and could be more open and more transparent about how it formulates policy and takes decisions. …..

…..Some of the concerns that exist around improper influence are closely linked to the power of informal networks of friendships and relationships. …..

….. We do not believe that transparency requirements are ever likely to be enforceable through self-regulation. …..

….. Establish a clear separation between promoting and representing those involved in lobbying activity, and regulating that activity. …..

….. Lunches are the kinds of contacts which can be of as much potential concern as formal lobbying meetings on the record with business or other interest groups. …..

So, over to you, elector, over to you.

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