UK coalition to mimic EU lobby register

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The Conservative-Liberal Democrat government in the UK is planning to introduce a register of lobbyists similar to that being discussed by the EU institutions, in an attempt to restore trust in politics following an expenses scandal that hit parliament last year.  

"The parties will tackle lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists," reads the text of the agreement, published on 12 May. 

"We also agree to pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding in order to remove big money from politics," it continues.

No details of the breadth of the register – or the timescale of its introduction – were immediately available.

However, it receives another explicit mention in the coalition's programme for government – presented on 20 May – which states: "We will regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency."

The programme – which was formally unveiled by UK Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg – covers the next five years, so the establishment of the lobby register is to be expected during the course of the current parliament.

UK government officials contacted by EURACTIV were unable to provide further information.

Addressing MPs at the state opening of parliament on Monday (25 May), Queen Elizabeth II did not directly refer to the register when presenting the 23 bills and one draft bill to be introduced by the new government during its first term.

"My government will propose parliamentary and political reform to restore trust in democratic institutions and rebalance the relationship between the citizen and the state," said the Queen in her speech, delivered amid the traditional Westminster pomp and ceremony.

The coalition government's promise to introduce a register represents a victory for the Liberal Democrats, as the Conservatives – like the previous Labour government – had favoured self-regulation and a voluntary code.

While the Lib Dems pledged in their manifesto to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, but the Conservatives stopped short of promising to do so. "The lobbying industry must regulate itself to ensure its practices are transparent – if it does not, then we will legislate to do so," read the Tory document.  

Public 'fed up' with politics

The public is still reeling from a series of high-profile MP expenses scandals, which rocked British politics last year and ensured that cleaning up politics was a major theme of this year's election campaign.

"I think people are so fed up with the way money and greed is corrupting our politics and it's why I've always said we need to go far further than reforming MPs expenses – we need to reform the whole rotten system," said Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg on the campaign trail.

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, an alliance of civil society groups who are concerned about the growing influence of lobbying on decision-making in the UK, described the introduction of a statutory register as "a significant policy U-turn for the Conservatives". 

Other transparency groups reacted cautiously to the news, warning of potential problems ahead on the road to establishing the register.

"The timescale hasn't been announced [and] big business pressure could change the government's mind again," said grassroots campaigning organisation 38 Degrees.

The group is collecting signatures from the public for a letter addressed to Cameron and Clegg, urging the government to turn the proposals into law as soon as possible.

"The announcement of plans to ban secret lobbying is a great step forward. But now it needs to be turned into law, quickly," argued 38 Degrees on its campaign website.

New ministerial code

Meanwhile, last Friday (21 May) the government published three documents to ensure greater accountability and transparency for ministers.

A new 'Ministerial Code', published by Prime Minister David Cameron, sets out the standards of conduct expected of ministers.

The code bars former ministers from lobbying the government for two years, tightens controls on government cars and numbers of special advisers, and requires regular publication of details of ministerial meetings, hospitality, gifts and travel.

Ministers’ meetings with external organisations will also be published quarterly.

The code makes clear that ministers’ decisions should not be influenced by the hope or expectation of future employment with a particular firm or organisation.

The new code governs all aspects of ministerial life, from access to official papers and appointments to the use of government resources and the handling of ministers’ private interests.

The government also published a list of cabinet committees, detailing the membership of each committee. 

"Our new government has a particular and historic responsibility: to rebuild confidence in our political system," wrote UK Prime Minister David Cameron in the foreword to a new, stricter code of conduct for ministers published last Friday (21 May).

"After the scandals of recent years, people have lost faith in politics and politicians. It is our duty to restore their trust," Cameron wrote.

Criticising the coalition government's decision to introduce statutory regulation for lobbyists, Francis Ingham, director-general of the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA), said "at this time of fiscal crisis, it beggars belief that this should be an incoming government's priority".

"This is a knee-jerk reaction and a mistake that shows a lack of understanding of the reality of public affairs. We will now work to show why the Conservative Manifesto commitment to giving enhanced self-regulation a final go was correct. This is policy-making on the hoof," Ingham complained.

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (ALT), an alliance of civil society groups who are concerned about the growing influence of lobbying on decision-making in the UK, welcomed the coalition government's decision to introduce a lobby register.

"This is a good first step in opening up government decision-making to greater public scrutiny. A statutory register of lobbyists will, for the first time, allow people to see who is influencing whom and about what,"said the ALT's David Miller.

"The new government must now work to introduce the measure as soon as possible and not allow the inevitable lobbying from the industry to water-down or unnecessarily delay their plans," Miller added.

David Babbs, executive director of grassroots campaigning organisation 38 Degrees, which had led calls for the introduction of a UK lobby register in conjunction with the ALT, said: "We're really pleased to see that the new government has promised to introduce a register of lobbyists' interests. This follows months of grassroots campaigning by thousands and thousands of people across the country."

"Now we need to make sure these promises are quickly turned into real action. Our members will be keeping an eye on the politicians to make sure they deliver," Babbs added.

"Led by newly inaugurated Prime Minister David Cameron, the Conservative Party campaigned against any transparency measures, promoting instead self-regulation. The Liberal Democrats, however, led by Nick Clegg, made lobbying and campaign finance reform a central part of their campaign this election, and won those concessions in the new power-sharing agreement," commented Evan Mackinder in a blog post for Open Secrets.org.

 

UK politics was rocked last year by a series of MP expenses scandals.

All three major parties – the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – were tarnished by the revelations, after it emerged that MPs had claimed on expenses for items ranging from toilet paper to the cost of clearing a moat.  

The breadth of the revelations shocked the public, forced dozens of MPs to leave parliament ahead of the election held on 6 May and led politicians from all three of Britain's major parties to pledge to clean up politics.

The election ended 13 years of Labour rule and brought to power Britain's first coalition government since the Second World War, made up of centre-right Conservatives and centre-left Liberal Democrats.

Talks between the European Commission and the European Parliament on establishing a common lobby register between the two institutions restarted earlier this month (EURACTIV 27/04/10).

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