Lobbying shouldn't be a dirty word but it is fast becoming one.
The lobbying power of the City and financial institutions has received some very critical coverage in the press today following the publication of a study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and some tough comments by the Business Secretary, Vince Cable.
The study is in-depth and detailed and the numbers involved – both in terms of money and people – will shock many. What the study lacks and most of the coverage today fails to address is context.
There is no comparison with what other major sectors spend and how they operate. Lobbying may be a dirty word to some but it is an important part of the modern democratic process. Our society is complex, with many over-lapping, competing and complementary interests and it is right that all of those interests have the chance to be heard when laws are being made that affect them. The biggest challenge is ensuring equality of access which is one of the concerns the report highlights but without comparative data it is hard to ascertain to what extent the City and the financial services sector is buying a disproportionate access.
All governments rely on specialist advice to help them shape and deliver the finer points of legislation, a point that Dame Angela Knight (pictured), the outgoing chief executive of the powerful British Bankers’ Association, made to The Guardian. She rather overstated the extent to which the BBA and others help to polish up legislation – as oppose to influence it – but provision of expertise is an important aspect of the relationship between any business sector and the government.
It is also simplistic to aggregate all of the spending by the financial services sector as it is a large and varied sector, a point that Mr Cable made to the Independent: "I do worry that Britain's financial sector, particularly the banks – as opposed to more successful and less problematic financial services like insurance – are too dominant and too easily assumed to represent the national interest."
It is also the case that different parts of the financial services sector end up lobbying against each other on some issues.
The report suggests there is an air of arrogance about the way the banks, in particular, operate in political circles and I have seen that first hand on many occasions over the years. They believe they have a right of access to ministers and top civil servants but I have also seen this arrogance blow up in their faces with MPs, no more so when they are asked to explain why they aren’t supporting small businesses in their constituencies.
My biggest concern about the coverage of the Bureau’s report is that there seem to be so few solutions on offer to the problem of buying privileged access – if that is what we accept is going on. Lobbying has become a dirty word which it not healthy and we are already seeing MPs steer clear of events that could lead to people accusing them of getting too close to certain sectors. What this is leading to is a less well informed Parliament which will eventually lead to much poorer legislation.
The challenge is, as I have said on many occasions, to ensure proper transparency. That doesn’t just mean counting the number of meetings that have taken place or how much was spent on wine but actually publishing the documents that were discussed and the minutes that were taken.
There is also a serious issue to be addressed on equality of access and this is one for Parliament to sort out. The City has money, aviation has money, the travel industry has money, oil has money. All these sectors can resource their lobbying. Consumer groups don’t have money, residents’ associations don’t have money, small businesses don’t have money… you get the picture. This is a tough one. I believe MPs have to work abit harder to get these people in front of Select Committees and create less intimidating consultative processes that get them involved so that lobbying isn’t about buying influence but is about ensuring that the democratic process is better informed. It isn’t enough for MPs to say they see many of these people in their constituency surgeries as that is arm’s length from the centre of power. They need to find a way of ensuring everyone can get to the centre when they need to.
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