Today’s revelations about the £76 million a year lobbying operation by Uber to swing government policies in its favour, and about the failure of successive ministers in the UK to properly declare meetings with the company, are the latest in a string of lobbying scandals.
These scandals entrench cynicism and distrust about politicians, and are deeply corrosive to democracy. They suggest a system that is rigged in favour of very large corporations with expensive lobbyists and those who can gain privileged access to those in power.
Last Autumn, the UK’s top ethics body, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) found that the UK’s regime for transparency around lobbying is “not fit for purpose”, adding that it is too difficult to find out who is lobbying who, with little proper detail about the content of meetings. It called for greater transparency for a wider group of people who are lobbied, and for all informal lobbying to be properly recorded and declared.
These recommendations were not new. Nine years earlier, the same body made a series of recommendations to protect the integrity of decision-making by bringing greater transparency to lobbying. It called for publication of information on any “significant contact” where policy was discussed, and for guidance to ensure the principle of ‘equality of access’ is respected. These recommendations went unheeded. CSPL’s 2021 report has also yet to receive a government response.
Last summer following the Greensill scandal, the government commissioned a review by Sir Nigel Boardman which also found the rules in the UK about transparency in lobbying to be broken. Boardman made a series of similar recommendations for much more frequent and more detailed information on lobbying to be released, with greater accountability where government departments and ministers fail to do so.
Boardman similarly called for the government to ensure that private and informal meetings are properly declared, and that the equity in lobbying be strengthened to level the playing field and avoid situations where one company or vested interest captures the minister’s ear.
These reports have been gathering dust but they need to be urgently acted upon to restore trust in politics. At the same time, we need much stronger consequences when ministers fail to live up to standards in public life and breach their duties to be open and honest about who they are meeting and how it affects their decision-making.
Susan Hawley, Executive Director of Spotlight, said:
“The health of our democracy is at stake here. The perception that decisions are being taken in cosy chats behind closed doors with those who can pay the most for access drives people into the arms of conspiracy theorists and extremists. We’ve now had several independent expert reports laying out a clear blueprint for reforming our broken lobbying regime in the UK. The failure to take action is a monumental failure of political will and is undermining trust in government.”