Reining in the influence industry

By David Miller | It comes as no surprise that the European Commission is relaxed about Peter Mandelson’s meetings with the aluminium magnate, Oleg Deripaska, at a time when the trade commissioner was party to discussions that would affect the business of the Russian.

Brussels has long had a reputation as being unaccountable to public opinion. Despite the commission’s attempts to open up EU decision-making to greater public scrutiny — through its European Transparency Initiative — secrecy remains the modus operandi. The system governing the behaviour of officials allows for widespread conflicts of interest. Parliamentary rules for MEPs have been described by one British MEP as a “scandal waiting to happen”.

Numerous cases have been documented of apparent conflicts of interests involving MEPs. Giles Chichester hit the headlines this summer after breaking the rules on MEP’s expenses and was forced to resign as chairman of the Conservative party in Brussels. However, little has been made of his problematic ties to the nuclear industry. He is president of a pro-nuclear industry lobby group known in Brussels as “The submarine of the energy industry”. Until recently, he also held the key position of chair of the EU parliamentary committee with responsibility for nuclear issues, including nuclear safety, decommissioning and nuclear waste disposal.

Another example is Scottish Conservative MEP, John Purvis, who has a financial stake in a firm that invests in the biotechnology sector. At the same time he has been seen as a leading advocate for biotech in the European parliament. Another Brit, Caroline Jackson MEP, sits on the parliament’s environment committee and drafted a report on the EU’s waste framework directive while at the same time being a paid advisor to private waste company, Shanks.

Jackson is one of five EU officials nominated for a “Worst Lobby Award”, an initiative organised by a coalition of civil society groups pushing for greater transparency in Brussels. Among the corporate interests up for an award is the International Air Transport Association for its deceptive lobbying campaign to avoid CO2 reduction obligations in the aviation sector. Also nominated is The European Alliance for Access to Safe Medicines for hiding the involvement of the big pharmaceutical companies in their campaigns.

The awards spotlight just a few of the thousands of mainly commercial organisations that seek to influence EU policy. In Brussels, as in Britain, lobbyists operate in an almost entirely unregulated environment. In June the European Commission attempted to increase transparency in the industry by introducing a register of lobbyists. Registration, however, is voluntary and as few as 10% of the thousands of commercial lobbying firms that peddle influence and access in Brussels have so far chosen to sign on to it.

Thanks to the recent insight into the affairs of the rich and powerful, we should be under no illusion in Britain that undue influence is also being exerted on our policy-makers. Our lobbying industry, which today includes law and accountancy firms, management consultancies, think tanks, charities and others, has grown to be worth an estimated £1.9bn. It is embedded in our political system, and, as in Brussels, it operates away from the public gaze.

Under the radar of most journalists, a parliamentary inquiry has been taking place into the normally opaque world of lobbying. Throughout the last 12 months, the influential public administration select committee, chaired by Tony Wright MP, has taken evidence on whether certain interests are being afforded privileged access to, and undue influence over, our decision makers. It has also sought to find out what effect this is having on public trust in politics.

The recommendations the select committee will make in the next few weeks are key. If it finds, much as the British public suspects, that there is an enormous disparity in access and influence in our political system, it should recommend action: that the government introduce a mandatory register of lobbyists. This is the first step in opening up the opaque world of lobbying to public scrutiny. The effect will be to increase the accountability of government to the people they serve. Something that the majority of the British public has long ceased to expect but should now demand.

The Mandelson-Deripaska affair gives us a rare insight into the relationship between politics and the wealthy elite. A register of lobbyists would guarantee that information on those who seek to influence our politicians is systematically put into the public domain.