In post-referendum Britain, where Brexit means Brexit, but not much more than that yet, lobbyists at home and abroad are swiftly kicking into gear to take advantage of this fresh opportunity to shape UK policy.
Law firms and the finance industry have already begun setting up unique Brexit units. And among the items at the top of their list is setting the rules for new international trade deals. (But as we have seen so far with TTIP and TISA, for example, these don’t tend to espouse the goals of tackling climate change and protecting environmental standards.)
As Alexandra Runswick, director of Unlock Democracy, explained: “Brexit is likely to lead to a substantial increase in lobbying.
“Obviously there will be large numbers of trade deals being negotiated which many firms would want to influence but also all the EU regulations currently in UK law will have to be reviewed and the government will need to decide whether they are kept as they currently are, repealed, or replaced with something else.”
But before you start critiquing who is lobbying and for what, there’s one pesky little problem which needs to be addressed: transparency.
Unlike in the US, Canada, Australia and the European Union, Britain does not have a functioning lobby register. Scotland and Ireland have also introduced lobby registers more stringent than the one currently in place for Westminster.
“The fundamental problem is that at the moment in the UK there is no transparency about [lobbying],” Steve Goodrich of Transparency International UK told DeSmog UK.
“We do know already that the UK has a fairly big lobbying industry. Estimates vary, and there is no accurate data on it because there’s no transparency around how much is spent on these activities.”
This lack of transparency then, “leads to significant mistrust in the political system”, he said.
It’s estimated that more than 4,000 people are working as professional lobbyists in Britain, and that about £2bn a year is spent on lobbying. Most of this is spent by big business, from big oil to tech giants.
Recently, for example, DeSmog UK revealed that ExxonMobil has been heavily lobbying the UK government against green transport policies since the start of the year.
UK Lobby Register
Of course, in principle, there’s nothing wrong with lobbying, Goodrich said: “Lobbying in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. It’s good that people put forward their points of view, but it needs to be done in a way that’s transparent, it needs to be done in a way that provides equal access and opportunity for everyone to make their voices heard.
“And, it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t induce public officials to act corruptly, whether it be in return for immediate or prospective awards, or in the interest of private interests over the public. That’s fundamentally the problem regardless of the actual scale or nature of the shift of lobbying toward the UK from the EU.”
In 2015, the register of consultant lobbyists was launched after it was passed into law the year before. However, according to Transparency International, fewer than one in 20 lobbyists are covered by the register.
A report put out by Transparency International shortly after the register launched found that corporate interests dominated lobby efforts in the UK with FTSE 100 companies making up eight out of 10 of the private organisations that met most often with MPs. There is also little to prevent the “revolving door” of public officials being hired by private firms seeking to take advantage of their knowledge gathered while in office.
The register’s weaknesses, however, were overshadowed at the time by very real concerns that the another part of the same bill – often referred to as the ‘gagging bill’ – would stifle the ability of charities and voluntary groups to criticise government policy.
So, in an effort to now bring attention to the lobby register section of the 2014 Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act, a group of British Peers have launched a Private Member’s Bill with the hope of improving things.
And earlier this month, the bill passed its first hurdle in the House of Lords where debate saw cross-party support for the initiative, which Runswick of Unlock Democracy, as well as the NGO Spinwatch, helped to draft. The bill is now headed to the committee stage before it is debated again.
Introducing the bill, Labour peer Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe said: “When it comes to seeing who is influencing decision-makers and for what, we—and I include parliamentarians in this—are still in the dark.
“The current register has been in operation for 18 months, and it has failed abysmally. … We need to sweep away this failed model and replace it with a genuine register of lobbyists.”
He continued: “The best thing we can say about the existing legislation is that it was a false start. It leaves us where we are, but we find ourselves today in a wholly different landscape.
“The UK’s withdrawal from the EU, however, only adds urgency to the case for genuine transparency in lobbying. We are about to witness a lobbying bonanza, as the Times put it last month, thanks to Brexit. According to what the lobbyists are saying, it presents business with opportunities to be seized.”
According to Lord Alverthorpe, since the register became active, just 136 firms have signed up to it. Originally, the government anticipated more than 700 to register.
The new bill seeks to fix this lack of transparency and create a more robust register by introducing a code of conduct, expanding the definition of lobbyists to include in-house and consultant lobbyists (arguably the biggest loophole in the current register), declare the names of those lobbying as well as stating who they are lobbying and on what subject. The bill also calls for the register to be publicly funded, as it the case in most other countries.
Criticising the influence of private, vested interests, Conservative peer Lord Andrew Lansley said: “Corporate demands on government have become overbearing. Governments have been keen to nurture business and the market, and they have had little will to limit the power of business. They have failed to avert the economic instability, the human exploitation, the inequality, and the environmental degradation consequent upon the favouring of corporate interests.”
But, without the support of Theresa May’s government it’s unlikely this bill will pass.
Runswick explained: “It is unlikely to become law because it is a private members bill. These are backbench measures, i.e. not proposed by the government.”
“Assuming the bill completes all its stages [in the House of Lords where it started],” she said, “it will then be sent to the House of Commons. It will only get debating time at all if an MP decides to take it up… even then, it is very easy for private members bills to be defeated – they can just be talked out.
“Fundamentally, the problem is that the government controls most of the debating time in the House of Commons, so if they don’t want something to happen, it doesn’t.”
In May’s first speech as Prime Minister in July she said the government “will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few” but by those of the public.
As Lord Alverthorpe put it: “If the Government are prepared to embrace this modest Private Member’s Bill, that would be a fair indication that those words are going to be put into reality.”
Photo: Robin Sones via Creative Commons