Thursday, 20 October 2011

UK lobby scandal: lessons from Brussels

UK politics has over the last weeks been shaken by a lobbying scandal that led to the resignation of Defence Secretary Liam Fox. Fox allowed a close friend, Adam Werrity, access to government meetings at the highest level. There are strong indications that Werrity used his access to these meetings to promote the interests of undisclosed industry clients, likely including defence firms. Werrity acted as an advisor to Mr. Fox but had no official status whatsoever, which is a clear violation of the UK ministerial code.

The scandal has lead to wider questions being raised about Prime Minister Cameron's cabinet, who was elected on a platform that involved curbing the power of lobbyists. In particular it has led to renewed calls for introducing a statutory lobby transparency register. Such a register was part of the coalition`s June 2010 programme for government but appeared to have been stalled as a result of opposition from lobby consultancies.

Several Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have commented on the UK scandal. A fairly bizarre comment came from firebrand Tory MEP Roger Helmer who tweeted that the problem is not big business lobbying, but “those well-heeled, EU-Commission-funded environmental NGO”. It is hard to see how the UK scandal could lead to this conclusion! Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis argued the UK could "learn important lessons” from the European Parliament and the commission regarding the introduction of a lobby register. "The European parliament now has a leading position amongst European national parliaments with its joint lobby register for the commission and parliament”, Wallis told Parliament magazine. "Alongside clarifying who they are and their policy interests, lobbyists also have to disclose an amount of financial information, although there is always room to develop this aspect further”, Wallis added.

The lessons to be learned from Brussels, however, are both positive and negative. Serious mistakes have been made by the EU institutions in the process of designing a lobby transparency system. The most fundamental mistake was to launch a register that is voluntary, making it optional for lobbyists to join or stay in the shadows. And instead of deciding upon a register that delivers a reliable and complete overview of who is lobbying and with which resources, EU decision-makers gave in to lobbying pressures from vested interests and created major loopholes. The implementation of the register and oversight was left to Commission officials with very limited political will to secure genuine and comprehensive transparency. The clear conclusion is that lobby registers should be designed to be mandatory from the start, with broad and clear disclosure requirements, alongside effective enforcement. Politicians should resist pressures from lobbyists to do something different.

But there are also lessons for Brussels to be learned from the UK. The Guardian newspaper this week reported that Cameron's ministers met with corporate representatives on 1537 occasions in the first 10 months of government. There were far less meetings with NGOs and trade unions, leading to the conclusion that corporate interests are given privileged access by the Cameron government. The Guardian analysis was made possible by a policy of pro-active transpareny introduced by the previous government. All UK departments are expected to publish online records of meetings with lobbyists. In practice there are numerous problems with the implementation of the policy (departments are too late with publishing the records, and some records are very imprecise), but it is clearly an important contribution to transparency around the role of lobbying in decision-making. The website makes the information available in a searchable format. The European Commission should introduce pro-active transparency around its meetings with lobbyists as soon as possible.

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