The government should scrap its plans for a statutory register of lobbyists because it simply wouldn’t be very effective at improving transparency, an influential committee of MPs has recommended.
The advice from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is the culmination of a six-month inquiry into the proposed register which involved six evidence sessions and a public consultation.
The intention of the statutory register was to regulate lobbying of government and make it easier to find out who was gaining the ear of ministers and their advisers. But the latest draft of the proposals meant that the register would apply only to those who carry out lobbying on behalf of third-party clients. In-house lobbyists would not be captured by the legislation.
In its conclusions, the Committee said this meant the register would have very little impact. It said it had seen no evidence to suggest that third-party lobbyists are a particular problem – “indeed the government’s own records of ministerial meetings suggest that third-party lobbyists make up less than 1 per cent of all meetings with ministers”.
Singling out third-party lobbyists would “meet a Coalition pledge, but do little to improve transparency about lobbying”, it said.
The UK Public Affairs Council had warned in its evidence that introducing a register without a code of conduct could actually reduce regulation of the lobbying industry.
The Committee concluded: “We believe that no statutory register is better than what the government currently proposes.”
Medium regulation would be better
Instead, the Committee recommended that the government should abandon the statutory register proposal and instead bring in “medium regulation” to cover all those who lobby professionally, in a paid role, including charities, trade unions and think tanks. This system would “require lobbyists to disclose the issues they are lobbying government on”.
It said the government can do plenty to improve transparency without a statutory register, such as publishing information about ministerial meetings within a month of their happening; improving the level of detail in meeting disclosures; publishing the company or charity number of the organisation doing the lobbying, and standardising the format of meeting data.
The NCVO, which had responded to the consultation on behalf of its charity members, welcomed the Committee’s advice. Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive, said: “We are pleased that this report recognises the limitations of the government’s proposals and strengthens the recommendations for publishing details about ministerial meetings.
“The committee’s new proposals for a wider register have some merits. If these are taken forward, it will be important to do this in a way which does not place a financial or administrative burden on charities. It is particularly crucial that they do not discourage smaller charities from engaging with the political system.”