Let’s make it the world’s best register

As the November edition of Public Affairs News is sent to printers, the Cabinet Office’s consultation document on the statutory lobby register is also, it seems, ready to be published. The final version will – we are promised – be with us before November ends. At last!

Cabinet Office minister Mark Harper MP, who is in day-to-day charge of this issue within government, reckons that “people will find it pretty robust”. Let’s hope so. After the public administration select committee (PASC)’s admirably thorough investigation into the sector between 2007-2009 – and the subsequent lessons that can be learned from developments such as Brussels’ Transparency Register and the UK Public Affairs Council – the document cannot be anything else.
So – finally – things are coming to the boil. The Westminster Hall debate last week was notable for the fact that almost 20 MPs attended, with many making useful contributions. This may not sound like a stellar turnout, but it actually is a very good show relative to the apparently minimal interest in similar debates on lobbying in the past. Post-Werritty, interest in lobbying transparency is no longer a marginal pursuit.
Looking ahead, I have two principal hopes for the consultation. First is that everyone involved does not wilfully or inadvertently get bogged down (yet again) in the problem of defining a ‘lobbyist’. Although it is not easy, the definition issue must not be used by anyone – including, erm, lobbyists – to muddy waters and slow things down. Various different bodies and inquiries (in the UK and elsewhere) have produced perfectly acceptable definitions: the Government should pick one, work with it and get on with it.
My second hope is that debate over lobbyist registration rises above party politics and, rather like the ‘expenses scandal’ aftermath, there is agreement to try to transcend tit-for-tat political point-scoring. Both the Conservatives and Labour have been caught up with lobbying scandals past, remain massively vulnerable at present, and are surely susceptible to plenty of lobbying-related ‘duck house’-moments unknown. None of the main parties should feel they can throw stones at each other over ‘lobbying’. There was a bit of this going on in Westminster Hall last week and I found it irritating and extremely tiresome.
So, bring on the consultation document. Let’s hope we end up with a cracking piece of legislation that can make Westminster the lobbying transparency capital of the world.

Where there’s a Wallis there’s a way
I spent a couple of hours last Thursday evening among the audience in a University College London lecture theatre where European Parliament vice-president Diana Wallis was discussing the progress made towards lobbying transparency in Brussels.
Any fear that I may have harboured that the event might prove a rather dry, academic couple of hours were blown away by keen interest and insights provided by what was both a startlingly sizeable and clued-up crowd of students, campaigners and others.
Wallis spoke of her tough time convincing many in Brussels of the need to improve the transparency of the decision-making process and came across as an admirable advocate for the importance of lobbyists to good law-making.
The 80-strong audience evidently had a keen interest in the lobbying process and were right on the button with their questioning, in a way that I found quite energising.
Many would contend that Brussels still has a long way to go in respect of bringing greater transparency to its workings, and I would agree. But Wallis deserves credit for her leadership on this issue.
One of the big challenges remains getting the Council to sign up to the Transparency Register, a move that would mean the register includes all three main Brussels institutions. There is slow progress in this direction – and the eurozone crisis and continued economic malaise mean there are bigger priorities – but we must hope that Wallis and others will get there in the end.

7th November 2011 by Ian Hall

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