A register for lobbyists who contact ministers and senior civil servants will be introduced within the next 10 weeks, according to the government’s new lobbying tsar, in spite of criticism that it will be unfair and riddled with loopholes.
Alison White, the registrar for consultant lobbyists, told the Guardian she was aware of protests from the industry and transparency campaigners but she would launch the register before parliament moves into election purdah on 30 March.
There had been speculation that the register – a key pledge in the coalition agreement and legislated for in last year’s lobbying bill – would not be launched before the election. Critics claimed that David Cameron and Nick Clegg were about to fail to keep their promise to clean up the lobbying industry.
The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act has been roundly criticised for penalising charities while letting many commercial lobbying firms off the hook. It is generally accepted that the legislation excludes all in-house lobbyists working inside banks, energy firms, payday lenders, alcohol and tobacco companies, as well as corporate lobbyists in business lobby groups such as the CBI.
Critics have claimed that lobbyists in agencies that have direct contact with ministers will be required to list their clients, but will not have to record dealings with special advisers, civil servants or regulators . They will not have to record who or what they are seeking to influence or what deals are being done, nor how much money is being spent to sway government.
In her first major interview since her appointment in September, White said: “I am well aware of the contrary views out there, but my role is one of implementation. There will be a statutory register because that is what is laid out in the lobbying act.
“But there is always a degree of ambiguity in what the legislation means. What I have been trying to do is to work with the industry to try to alleviate the ambiguity so that when the register opens it will be clear who it is that needs to register and about what.”
She said management consultants, accountants and lawyers may also be expected to register meetings with ministers or permanent secretaries. Her office has drawn up plans for an online register and guidance on who should register, which are still be finalised. “You will be able to log on to my website, there will be a link to the register and you will be able to register online,” White said.
She dismissed claims from lobbyists that fees for joining the register would be £3,000 per lobbying firm. “I have no idea where that number came from but just to be clear, the quantum of fees is a matter for the Cabinet Office, not for me. The fee has not yet been announced. But I believe that it won’t be too far into the future before that is announced.”
White, whose background is in turning around struggling businesses and organisations, said she was working on a tight schedule and her job would no longer exist if Labour wins the election and sticks to its pledge to scrap the bill. “If Labour scraps the bill, they will scrap me with it. I don’t exist outside the act of parliament.”
She said she would be willing to use her criminal and investigative powers against lobbying firms that seek to exploit loopholes in the law to avoid registering meetings. “For those who try to manouevre themselves outside those exemptions, I have the powers to take action, both civil and criminal penalties. The lobbying industry tells me that it is a professional industry. I have no reason to believe otherwise. But my name is White, not Green,” she warned.
White’s reassurances have done little to persuade transparency campaigners. Tamasin Cave, a director of Spinwatch, said: “Alison White doesn’t see her role as someone who can build public trust. She is there as someone who is doing a job for a government which wants to be seen to be doing something to fulfil its five-year-old coalition pledge. She is ticking a box whilst the public remains concerned about who is wielding disproportionate influence over government without any proper scrutiny.”
Lisa Nandy, the shadow minister responsible for lobbying, said the register was being rushed in to satisfy the coalition agreement without addressing problems in the legislation.
“It’s becoming clear what a shambles this legislation is. Key issues about the costs of registering and the information that will be published remain unresolved. If we do see a register this side of the election there’s a serious possibility that it will make lobbying less transparent than it is now,” she said.
“Ministers were quick to silence cancer charities but much slower to crack down on tobacco lobbyists like Lynton Crosby. While charities grapple with the lobbying act in the runup to election, for lobbyists, politicians and advisers it looks like business as usual.”
Lobbyists, some of whom held meetings with White on Monday to discuss the register, called for its implementation to be suspended. Iain Anderson, chair of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, said: “With little over 100 days to go before the general election there is no longer enough time to introduce the new lobbying register. Deferral until after the election would avoid some of the ongoing questions that remain unanswered by the Cabinet Office.
“If the government persist in their plans for a pre-election launch, then we urgently need a steer from the Cabinet Office about how much costs in the first year will be,” he added.
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