Thursday, 22 March 2012

Controlling lobbyists

Monday’s Western Mail contained this robust defence of lobbying and lobbyists from – as it happens – a lobbyist.  The article issued a dire warning that democracy itself is endangered by any attempt by government to control lobbying.  A little over the top, methinks.
Lobbying is, as the author says, a long-standing part of our democratic process, and I share his concern that a government proposal which applies only to ‘third party’ lobbyists “will not fulfil its main purpose of increasing transparency”.  That strikes me, however, as an argument for extending the scope of the proposal rather than opposing it.
I understand the concern he expresses about whether a comprehensive proposal might lead to a situation where no group, organisation, or individual could put any case to ministers without having first registered as a lobbyist, and posing the question in that way underlines the complexity of the issue.  But the fact that an issue is complex is not an excuse for ignoring it, which seems to be the desired outcome of the article.
It’s worth getting back to the nature of the concern many of us have about lobbying and lobbyists.  That concern is not about whether individuals, groups, or companies can talk to ministers about their concerns, and seek to promote particular approaches and solutions.  In itself, that is simply a normal part of democracy.  The concern is about fairness and transparency.
Do those who have enough money to spend on receptions, hospitality, and professional PR merchants, and even to employ former politicians and civil servants, enjoy an unfair advantage in gaining access to politicians and therefore in putting their case over and above ordinary members of the public?  And is there a danger that, as a result, policy decisions may be taken which favour those groups rather than the interests of society as a whole?
Politicians do not have to be corrupt to be swayed by regular contact (even if in a social environment with no mention of the policies which the hosts wish to change) to lean in a particular direction.  The whole process is simply relying on the social nature of people.  The government’s current proposals may well be deficient in getting to grips with the issues, but surely there can be little disagreement about their existence.
What threatens democracy is not an attempt to control and regulate lobbying, but the continuation of a situation where it appears that influence over policy can be bought.


Valleys Mam said...

Agreed -it seems to me that geting pally and drunk wih politicians and spads is part of the job.
Being mates and having access is just a continuation of the way business is done in Wales -and I dont mean private sector business as in trade
If lobbying is to be pat rof the scne it shoul db eopen and democratic , not a tool of those who can afford to buy it.
There are many hidden voices who if heard would so benefit Wales
But if you are not part of the Mochyn Du/Eli Crew -no chance

John Dixon said...

Tha point about the two hostelries is well made.

I've heard it said that Wales has less of a problem with lobbyists than England because the Assembly is more transparent. I'm not so sure - not about the transparency bit, but about the less of a problem bit. There are lots of advantages to being a small country with a small legislature, but there are some disadvantages as well, and we shouldn't be one-eyed about the balance.

With fewer legislators, and a more informal approach to things, and with less need for security and barriers, it's potentially a lot easier to buy influence. The need for control in Cardiff is every bit as great as it is in London. And we shouldn't wait for the first scandal to become public before recognising the danger.