Committee on Standards of Conduct
STD(3) 03-07(p4): Wednesday 21 November 2007
Chair’s Visit to Strathclyde University
Attendance by the Chair at the Communication & Conflict Conference, Strathclyde University, Glasgow on 7 September 2007.
I was invited to attend in my capacity as Chair of the Standards Committee. The particular session I was present at was entitled "Lobbying” and was advertised as a roundtable discussion.
The purpose of the discussion was to consider the role of lobbyists within the UK and whether firmer regulation should be applied to their activities. Specific note was taken of the recent announcement by the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) at Westminster of an inquiry into the "transparency of the lobbying industry, the effectiveness of recent attempts at self-regulation, and whether the rules for those in Parliament and Government should be changed”.
It was reported that the European Transparency Initiative, launched in early 2006 by the European Commission, has recommended a voluntary register of lobbyists. This register would include financial information regarding fees, turnover, and lobbying budgets. The Commission has indicated that if a voluntary system is not seen to be working, then a mandatory register could be imposed.
Although advertised as a "roundtable” discussion it was actually a panel of individuals (including me and an MSP) being questioned by an audience that appeared to be drawn mainly from academia. The discussion lasted for about 90 minutes and often strayed from the point. Nevertheless important questions were raised about the role of lobbyists and the influence that they had with elected representatives.
These questions included whether lobbyists, by their activities, were helping or circumventing the democratic process. Do they exert undue influence over politicians or do politicians simply take their efforts into account when making decisions?
Some questions related to formal versus informal lobbying. For example, would we want to regulate "lobbying” by groups of local constituents or trade unions? Should charities (some of which are very well organised) be covered by a register in the same way as professional PR firms could be?
It was recognised that there could be different rules applying in the devolved administrations that reflected local circumstances. Hence the invitation to us.
I said during my contributions that I was not aware of particular problems in Wales as a result of lobbying activity. I added that I would be reluctant to agree to proposals that could result in barriers being created between people and groups in Wales and their elected representatives. Therefore in the event of any proposals for regulations coming forward we would have to be very clear about which organisations they applied to.
I argued that ultimately it was up to elected politicians to take responsibility for their decisions and this included any representations made to them by lobbyists.
However it was clear that problems had occurred in other parts of the UK including Scotland. There was a reference to the "Lobbygate” revelations in 1999 that led to the Scottish Standards Committee launching an inquiry into commercial lobbying. That resulted in a recommendation that a register of commercial lobbyists should be created. But this has not happened and self-regulation still applies. There was a suggestion that the Scottish Parliament is going to consider introducing the recommendation.
The discussion concluded by agreeing that the situation should be monitored. I am of the view that there is no need to introduce another tier of regulation in Wales at this time but that we should keep it under review.
Jeff Cuthbert AM