Influence of lobbyists exposed by government adviser

Tamasin Cave

A businessman who spent a year as an adviser to the UK government has revealed his shock at the influence and access lobbyists have with ministers

As “entrepreneur in residence” at the Business Department, Lawrence Tomlinson had an unrivalled view of how lobbyists operate. He concluded that finance lobbyists are seen as “indispensable” by ministers.

What was shocking, he said, was the “influence of certain organisations, trade associations and individuals within government,” singling out the British Banking Association, who he noted “have their foot through the door” of government and are capable of overwhelming attempts by others to change policies.

Tomlinson added that, while lobbying can serve a valid purpose, the process must be transparent, and conflicts and interests must be declared. He also criticised the common practice where former senior officials and special advisors who write government policy go on to work for major corporations: “In parts of government, there is a revolving door with the large corporates who have a deep interest in government policy,” he said.

“The conflicts of interest are plainly apparent, and the number of lobbyists and force they have, can hardly be matched by the business community. These interests need to be made more transparent to prevent these conflicts having an impact on our policy making processes.”

The laughable response from the government to Tomlinson’s damning observations was to point out that David Cameron had just introduced a register of lobbyists, which he claims will shine a light on lobbying. It is widely acknowledged that the register introduced by the Coalition in January is a sham. For a start, it would not include the British Bankers Association, or any lobbyists working in-house for corporations (large or small). In fact, it deliberately excludes more than 80% of the UK’s £2billion lobbying industry. And then, it requires those lobbyists that fall into its tiny net (with massive loopholes) to declare nothing of their lobbying activity.

Tomlinson, who has seen lobbyists operate from inside government, is right to speak out. His remit was how to improve policy for small firms. He has seen with his own eyes that SMEs don’t have a hope in hell against the influence of big business and bankers.

As Spinwatch’s Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell set out in their new book on lobbying, A Quiet Word, large corporations have been allowed to become dominant in government. The amount they spend on lobbying and the associated influence of their lobbyists has bought them a structural advantage. They are drowning out everyone else.

A Quiet Word also notes, as Tomlinson does, that rather than being seen as parasitical, corporate lobbyists should more accurately be viewed as subsidising government. As lobbying activity has increased, so our government has become ever more dependent on lobbyists to function.

As the book reveals, politicians can on occasion be candid about this: “Lobbying is absolutely fundamental to the way we legislate in the UK, right across the board,” according to Tim (Lord) Razzall, a politician of forty years’ experience, at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference. “The lobbying organisations do your . . .” He corrects himself: “. . . a lot of the work for you.” Legislators are “inundated” with appeals from lobbyists whenever laws are being crafted. “Very often” the way to get changes to proposed laws is simply to email them over. Do politicians actually take any notice of the overtures of lobbyists? “Absolutely,” said Razzall. The government takes a “huge amount” of notice.

And why do large corporations spend disproportionately more on lobbying that anyone else? Because they see lobbying as a tactical investment. Put simply, lobbying pays. It delivers a financial return. And the payback can be “astronomic“, as the FT noted yesterday, describing the return on lobbying by hedge funds in Washington.

When it comes to lobbying, it is the case that there is a corporate elite and there is everyone else (SMEs, NGOs, the public etc). Transparency in lobbying is one small step to addressing the disparity. It is one that this government has yet to take.

To discover more about corporate lobbying, and how commercial lobbyists buy access and influence to our government, get hold of a copy of A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain by Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell. “A timely account of how voters are conceding power to a silent industry”, says the Mail on Sunday.