The Tory MP, Douglas Carswell, noted that Graham Allen MP described tomorrow’s Lobbying Bill as a “dog’s breakfast”. But, Carswell added, “he is wrong of course. Far more thought has gone into pet nutrition than into this Bill”. In fact, Carswell is himself wrong. No political party could, without great thought and ingenuity, introduce a Lobbying Bill which will have no impact whatever on lobbying, but which will indulge their favourite sport of bashing the unions, which has nothing to do with lobbying.
This has been a sleaze-ridden government. Tory party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas was secretly recorded offering access to government in return for large donations. Members of the government attended invitation-only events organised by the Chemistry Club, with the company paying up to £1,800 a head to meet ministers, senior government advisers and MPs at a series of events. Political lobbyists were paid thousands of pounds to help broker a meeting with Liam Fox through Adam Werrity. Bell Pottinger were secretly filmed boasting about its access to the heart of government, including its ability to persuade Cameron to speak to the Chinese premier on their behalf as well as its exclusive access to figures like William Hague. Last year the Tory party website openly offered donors the opportunity to attend events where Cameron was present, inviting supporters to join the ‘premier supporter group’, the Leader’s Group, whose annual membership costs £50,000. More recently, the Tory MP Patrick Mercer resigned the party whip when details of yet another lobbying scandal emerged.
What links all these lobbyist abuses? It’s the fact that not one of these scandals will be covered by the Government’s Bill. Most starkly of all, Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s election strategist, lobbies on behalf of Big Tobacco, private healthcare companies, and fracking companies, amonst others whilst at the same time working for Cameron. Yet the Bill won’t catch Crosby. The government has left a large loophole that lets Crosby get round being on the register.
The Bill is comically narrow. It only covers ‘consultant’ lobbyists so that it is estimated that it will only cover about 100 organisations (not the 700 the government claims) and 1% of Ministerial meetings. It won’t cover for example lobbyists working in-house or operating in law firms. Thus the Department of Business held 988 meetings with lobbyists last year, but only 2 were with ‘consultant’ lobbyists who would have to declare the meetings under the new law. The Bill sets up a new register with much lower standards of practice even than the current voluntary register, e.g. it makes no provision for a code of conduct. Loopholes could mean that lobbyists will be able to keep their client lists secret, and there will be no duty even for ‘consultant’ lobbyists to declare how much they have spent on lobbying. Above all, the Bill omits any provision for Code of Conduct backed by sanctions.