Is a register of lobbyist enough?

There is a practice for UK prime ministers to be asked in the Commons about their engagements that day before the supplementary questions would come in and start asking them what really was meant to happen. It always seemed to me to be an odd tradition and I couldn’t find or see the logic to it. Recently reading Matt Cooper’s book Who Really Runs Ireland, it occurred to me that maybe it isn’t such an arcane practice and one that we might actually want to think about adopting in some form. In his book he outlines meeting between then serving Taoisigh and businessmen at which it seems obvious policy was effectively ‘sold’. He shows that after one meeting where a businessman made a contribution to Fianna Fáil and in return he was given a line in a Finance Bill which saved him over a million Euros in taxes. The policy change was one for which he was effectively the only beneficiary.

It seems to me that a register of lobbyists would hardly have stopped such meetings take place nor indeed is it likely would the lobbyists even have been on the register. The register wouldn’t work because it is just about the formal lobbying that takes place, but informal lobbying can be much more effective and commonplace.  It would make it easier if we knew and had a record of everyone that ministers and Taoisigh met, and not just in formal meetings. These could be put up on websites the next day. It might be thought of an invasion of the politician’s privacy, but we could argue they’re well paid for it and we can think of them as public property. It would make it easier for journalists to look for connections between decisions and make it more difficult for underhand lobbying of ministers.

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5 thoughts on “Is a register of lobbyist enough?

  1. @Eoin
    “The register wouldn’t work because it is just about the formal lobbying that takes place, but informal lobbying can be much more effective and commonplace.”

    Well what about both a compulsory register of lobbyists, in addition to what you suggest?

    IMO, we need all the checks and balances on the exercise of power that we can get.

    While it is good to point out the weaknesses of proposals for such checks and balances, our current situation shows clearly that the powerful have wrecked the economy – yet again.

    The powerful will always find a way to be heard. It is up to the rest of us to devise ways to ensure that what they want is not at our expense!

    There has been nothing to stop journalists investigating the lobbying of Ministers. For example I have yet to see a full detailed account of how we in Ireland ended up with two non-interconnecting Light Rail Lines, both built during this century! This was the result of pussillanimous government not facing down lobbyists grouped in the Dublin Chamber of Commerce.

    How SMART an economy can we expect such a government system to devise?

    The powerful include all those public sector union chiefs who went along with what Senator Joe O’Toole is reported to have said of benchmarking – “It is an ATM”. Any union whose membership consists solely of public sector employees is also a lobbyist and should be registered as such.

    Some such people had an inside track under the Partnership process – which was just a glorified form of lobbying.

    There is no sign that such people accept that the ATM is empty, their accounts are overdrawn and that as is possible with all overdrafts, instant payment is now being called in.

  2. @Eoin
    What kind of Freedom of Information legislation is needed to ensure that the kind of information you seek (in respect of Ministerial engagements) is available, as a matter of routine?
    IMO, this should be part of a system of checks and balances on the powerful explicitly written into the Constitution.
    As an academic, perhaps you would point out where such legislation exists, how it is implemented and the effects it has on the use of government power ie. covering not just elected politicians, but appointed officials. I would be very interested in references to this, particularly to smaller democracies.

    We need a system of government that places more emphasis on the rights of the citizen rather than the liberty of the subject.

    To what extent would the changes passed by vote (are they now implemented?) in the UK Parliament, outlined by Noel Whelan in Irish Times on 13th March last, support the kind of checks and balances we need urgently here? see here for
    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2010/0313/1224266197371.html

    How do these changes compare with what is practised in other smaller democracties?

  3. Donal, I’ve no objection to a register of lobbyists, but am merely sceptical that it will allow us find out why, for instance, the Luas trams didn’t meet.

    In Sweden politicians work within a goldfish bowl and even letters to the prime minister are available as a matter of course – though they are not legally required to pro-actively offer these, in practice they do so, and most of this can, or will soon be available electronically. See http://portal.unesco.org/ci/en/files/26159/12054862803freedom_information_en.pdf/freedom_information_en.pdf and http://fs.huntingdon.edu/jlewis/FOIA/PrivInt/global_survey2004.pdf

    In Ireland the FoI legislation first requires one to know what they’re looking for and the process is slow, and can be slowed down by a department if it wants to slow it down. I’m not sure how practical my suggestion of keeping a register of all of a minister’s meetings is, there’d probably be a way around it. I suspect it works in Sweden where there’s a culture of openness.

    The changes to the HoC that Noel Whelan highlighted are important but are still pretty conservative in that the government there still retains a good deal of control over the agenda, but as he pointed out these are much more than mere technical changes. They’re in the right direction.

  4. There is no doubt that a register of lobbyists will not easily eradicate the type of lobbying Eoin describes. On could well call it the Galway tent phenomenon where people have access to politicians in an informal setting and are able to persuade them to take a particular view on an issue or purse a particular policy.

    Nevertheless a register of lobbyists would help in that in the future if, for instance, a similar line in the finance bill helped a specific individual and it was showed that this individual or his company had lobbied the minister or involved then this would be a breach of the rules and a sanction should be imposed. Registers of lobbyists will only work if there is a sanction invoked for breaking the rules. That is why I am so sceptical of a voluntary register which will merely be a type of optical illusion.

  5. I have to agree with the scepticism above. A voluntary register is no answer to this kind of problem. There is currently a register at the EU level but the rules and the code of conduct are not mandatory. The register is badly in need of reform as it only demands certain information if the organisations budget is over a certain limit. Even at this point the code of conduct is not mandatory. If a similar register is proposed for Ireland I can see it having almost no effect. So the only solution would be a mandatory register connected to organisation finance. Only after satisfying certain conditions would access be granted.

    With regard to the suggestion that politician’s schedules should be made available I cannot see this working unless you go one step further. You would have to access the schedules for all departmental staff. Direct lobbying as explicit as the line in the finance act is not as common as speaking with civil servants and I would be wary that by simply looking at the top level you would miss important meetings. I attempted during research last year to claim the schedules of civil servants under freedom of information. The process was so slow and expensive that I was forced to give up. This process should be made much easier if we want to take this issue seriously.

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