Say you're the head of a company that relies on some rather nasty practices to make its profits – like polluting the planet or damaging people's health, say. We'll call them EvilCorps.
There's a danger that ministers might not take too kindly to EvilCorps' activities. So it employs some seasoned public affairs professionals to help out and get EvilCorps' evil message across. It needs the regulators off its back, perhaps. Maybe EvilCorps has its eye on a particularly juicy public sector contract. Or possibly it just wants the government to leave it alone and carry on with whatever evil thing it's up to.
What can the lobbyists do to make sure EvilCorps does what it likes? Well, quite a lot, actually. You may be astounded that any one of these are possible under current rules. EvilCorps' lobbying team, according to a report published today by Transparency International (TI), can do any of the following:
- Lavish vast amounts of gifts and hospitality on public officials
- Get politicians in their pocket by offering them advertising, or use of facilities, or providing them with consultancy work
- Get all non-ministers on to the company books by getting them moving through the 'revolving door' between the public and private sector
- Pay a think-tank to fund research into why their particular kind of evil is good for the economy – and insist that their identity remains secret
- Set up an all-party group which brings together industry lobbyists and parliamentarians together in the Commons – without revealing who's attending
- Place staff on secondments inside government and get them to influence policy
- Hide the true purpose of any meetings with ministers, special advisers and permanent secretaries by summarising them as 'general discussion' in declaration rules
- Lobby ministers without declaring it if it can be proved it occurred in private time or when the MP is conducting constituency business
- Rest assured that ministers aren't going to let them down, as they're allowed to obscure or withhold all the evidence for the policy decisions – in EvilCorps' interests – which are eventually made
This is the state of play in 2015 – exactly five years since David Cameron, then a wannabe prime minister, declared that lobbying "is the next big scandal waiting to happen".
Cameron's time in Downing Street hasn't changed much. Under his watch money is exchanged regularly for access to politicians. Peers have been acting as paid lobbyists. MPs who've left government have taken jobs with companies seeking public sector contracts. Major party donors have been offered peerages. Ministers have failed to declare lobbying meetings.
There is more. But the above is enough to suggest the system is broken. When Cameron spoke in 2010, he was suggesting that lobbying would replace expenses as the most damaging story affecting British politics. The difference is that expenses dominated the headlines, whereas lobbying has not been reported in the same way. It just happens, with a depressing regularity, that slowly sinks into the public consciousness. With this result:
Today's report on lobbying from TI, which tries to work out exactly why the public are so downcast, should make for grim reading in Downing Street. Cameron has not done enough, by a long stretch, to fix the problem.
Take the coalition's flagship Lobbying Act, which became law last year. This was Cameron's biggest reform but it is so poor that even the group lobbying on behalf of lobbyists thinks it is useless. Only one per cent of lobbying interactions with ministers will actually be covered by the register, which is set to be launched soon. This, according to Iain Anderson, chairman of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, is "hardly the great transparency breakthrough the government is hoping for".
And the problem is far deeper than just encouraging a bit of transparency here or there. There are, TI says, 39 lobbying loopholes that exist across the UK "where the rules allow behaviour that can enable corrupt activity and lobbying abuses". The Northern Irish Assembly, House of Lords, Scottish parliament and Welsh Assembly are all ranked above the House of Commons in terms of their lobbying transparency standards. It's the rules, so lax as to be useless, which are at the heart of the issue.
The case for the defence does not seem very robust. Anderson, speaking on behalf of lobbyists everywhere, may be prepared to write off the Lobbying Act but suggests tainting everyone with the stigma of corruption is unfair.
"The notion that MPs are somehow 'captured' or ensnared by a ruthless lobbying industry is something of an insult to parliamentarians and only serves to reinforce some of the more unfair and wildly inaccurate stereotypes about lobbyists," he says.
"Indeed, it's also worth remembering that it's not just lobbyists who contact MPs - sometimes policymakers seek out expert outside opinion from within the lobbying community."
Yes, most MPs and public officials are good, noble people working hard to make Britain a better place. The problem, TI's executive director Robert Barrington says, is that the rules are so weak as to make it easy for people to break their spirit, if not their letter. "It's curious and confusing that something is permitted in the Lords but not the Commons, and that the devolved assemblies have better rules than Westminster," he says. "If politicians are serious about cleaning up politics, they need to close the lobbying loopholes that open the door to corruption."
They have not done so yet. And for Cameron, that represents a serious failure. Lobbying, he said five years ago, is "an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money". It is an ongoing scandal uninterrupted by his time in government.
This is one abject failure the prime minister may not be able to get away with, however. If Nigel Farage's Ukip profits from the public's cynicism on May 7th, Cameron's poor performance in tackling lobbying could end up playing a part in pushing him out of power.