The Key Ideas

#27 Legislate for proper lobbying transparency in all layers of government

One crucial part of democracy is lobbying: the right of interest groups to seek to influence politics. It is right that lobbying and the presentation of ideas and arguments to politicians from outside politics is seen as fundamental to democracy. However, there are two problems with the current lobbying system. The first is that 'disorganised opinion' (which is to say groups of people who do not have organisations which represent their interests) are greatly disadvantaged, and this group of people are more likely to be the more marginalised and vulnerable in society. The aforementioned proposals in this chapter will go a long way to addressing that problem. The second problem is the complete asymmetry of influence and access involved. It is all very well to say that lobbying is good for democracy but that cannot ignore the fact that some lobby groups have enormous resources and privileged access. Certainly a community which faces an opencast mine can make representation to government—but big mining companies can pay for extensive direct access, take politicians on all-expenses-paid 'fact-finding' trips, hire PR companies to place lots of sympathetic media stories, commission expensive economic research to 'prove' their case, and so on. The fight between these interests is deeply unfair.

There is no easy or immediate solution to this; people are free to spend their money how they see fit, newspapers are free to write whatever stories they want, and so on. However, there is one thing we can do, and that is to make sure that everyone knows when a fight is unfair. This is simple: every lobbying campaign has a budget, whether it is an internal allocation of money for the purpose or a contract with an external lobbyist. Along with the registration for lobbyists, every lobby campaign should simply disclose its existence and its budget. No-one's rights or freedoms have been impinged, but the public (and politicians) will be in a position to make their own judgement about whether expensively obtained PR is the same thing as fair representation.

The best safeguard against undue lobbying and a host of other abuses of democracy is Freedom of Information. If 'the state' is simply part of the commons and if we own those commons collectively, the concept of information being withheld from us on a routine basis is very problematic. The Freedom of Information legislation in Scotland has made an enormous difference—but is still too restricted and often comes under attack from those who do not wish to share information. The legislation should be strengthened to remove as many exemptions as possible—and in particular the commercial confidentiality exemptions which allow private companies to operate public services without having the duty to provide clear and transparent information about how it operates. FoI should be extended to all government contractors and the ability of the Information Commissioner to hold authorities to account should be both strengthened and speeded up.