Lobbying Transparency — Reading East

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A while ago, as part of a 38 Degrees campaign, I wrote the the four candidates for the Reading East constituency in the upcoming election, asking their opinions on improved lobbying transparency, and urging them to pledge support for a mandatory register of parliamentary lobbyists. This was in-part driven by my conviction that the recent Digital Economy Act was pushed through parliament largely due to intense lobbying from the music industry, and other “rights-holder” groups, of which we, the electorate, have no oversight, or even visibility. It was also in-part driven by my firmly held belief that secretive and unaccountable lobbying harms democracy and lowers confidence not just in our government, but in our system of government.

This is the mail I sent:

I am writing to ask you to pledge your support for real transparency in lobbying.

This is the first general election of my adult life in which I have been genuinely unsure of which candidate to vote for, so I am reaching out to you to help me make that decision by letting me know where you stand on issues important to me.

As a constituent, I would like to know that you are committed to greater transparency in politics and accountable decision-making. I’d like you to pledge support for a compulsory register of lobbyists.

I would also like to see your Party publicly commit to introducing a compulsory register of lobbyists straight away if they become the next government. Please sign the pledge for lobbying transparency at http://www.38degrees.org.uk/sign-the-lobbying-pledge

I look forward to your reply.

Yours,

William Goring

Since I thought their responses might be of interest to more people than just me, I thought I’d pop them up here for anyone interested to see1. They’re listed below in the order in which they responded.

Anneliese Dodds – Labour

Dear William Goring,

Thank you very much for your email and for raising this issue with me.

In principle I support this- however I would be concerned to learn more about the detail.

Rather sadly, I know quite a bit about this issue as one of my PhD students works on the topic of the regulation of lobbying in the EU and elsewhere. There are some nations where very strict systems have been introduced, however in those cases many lobbyists simply fall ‘under the radar’ and do not participate in the regulatory system- making things even more opaque. Compulsory schemes are only effective if the sanctions and inspection regime is sufficiently stringent to force compliance.

Any system would need to strike a balance between (rightly) promoting transparency and accountability, but at the same time being flexible enough not to encourage ‘grey’ activity outside of the regulated arena.

Thanks again for getting in touch with me about this and all the best,

Anneliese

My response:

Annelise,

Thank you very much for your prompt and considered response. I’m very glad that this important issue is something you’ve given so much thought to.

The details of the recommendations 38 Degrees is asking you to pledge support for are readily available in the Public Administration Select Committee’s First Report of 2008-09 (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmpubadm/36/3602.htm). There is further information available in the Fifth Report and Third Special Report of 2009-10.

I would guess from the cautious tone of your mail that this isn’t something you’re prepared to pledge support for at this time. However if I’m wrong, or if you have further comments, I’d be very pleased to hear them.

Also, I’ve asked the same question of the other Reading East candidates, hoping to collate the responses on my web site for all local constituents easy reference, would you be OK with my reproducing our exchanges that way?

Thank you very much for your time.

Will

Very quickly, she got back to me with:

Dear Will (if I may),

Thank you for your email, I do appreciate it.

To be completely honest with you yes, I would hope to have more time to consider this issue before pledging support for any specific approach to this problem. There are so many cases where regulatory responses have failed to eliminate the behaviour they were created to prevent, either because they were hastily put together, or because of a lack of consideration of unintended consequences. I am not in any way suggesting that this would be the case with the new regulatory regime you suggest below, but I would want to read it carefully to prevent against this.

I have been very concerned by the activities of some lobbyists (whilst certainly the UK picture is far brighter than in many other nations, that does not mean we do not have some severe problems, particularly with revolving doors), so I think there should be some kind of a public policy response put in place- I am just not really able to make a judgement right now about which one.

Yes, I would be very happy for you to put our exchanges on the website you mention, please do go ahead.

Thanks again and best wishes,

Anneliese
ps I do like your email footer- rather more interesting than mine ! :)

So – she’s not going to pledge support for a mandatory register at this time, which is a shame, but I find I can’t really fault her for wanting to give more thought to the issue, especially as she raises real concerns about practical applicability and enforceability.

Rob White – Green Party

Hello William,

I am happy to support your campaign and have signed the petition.

Fair is worth fighting for!

Best wishes
Rob White

A good, positive response. I’m a little concerned that he doesn’t give the impression of considering open lobbying a personal priority, but he does support it, and has signed the pledge, so no complaints.

I’ve emailed asking if he minds being included in this rundown, but so-far no response.

Gareth Epps – Liberal Democrats

William,

Thanks for getting in touch. As far as lobbying transparency is concerned, I have long supported a compulsory register and was, 10 years ago, one of a small group of people who campaigned and won the support of the Liberal Democrats for such a thing – as with so many things, we were the first political party to do so.

I would argue that self-regulation has not worked; there are too many loopholes within which unscrupulous individuals and companies can operate.

Please do get in touch if I can help further with this or any other matter.

Yours sincerely

Gareth Epps
Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary candidate for Reading East (and one of your local Katesgrove councillors)

That’s a great response; he’s been on-board with the idea for a long time, and actively pushing it within his party. Nevertheless, he doesn’t specifically mention the 38 Degrees pledge, so I followed up with a request for clarification:

Thanks for your prompt and positive response – I’m sure you’re extremely busy right now. :)

I’m extremely pleased to read that your opinions on lobbying align closely with my own, but you don’t mention whether you signed the pledge at 38 degrees; an oversight? Or is there something about the pledge you disagree with?

Also, I’m hoping to reproduce the correspondance I have with all the Reading East candidate on my website for easy reference by local constituents, is this something you’d be OK with?

Thank you again,

Will

It took a while (but given the circumstances, I’m not going to hold being busy against him,) but he did respond with the following:

Hi Will,
I’ve signed the pledge. Email correspondence is by its nature public so no problem there: what’s your website?

G

So there you have it. He’s signed the pledge, but since he’s supported a mandatory register for a long time it probably wasn’t even necessary. For my money the best of a good bunch of responses.

Rob Wilson – Conservative

I haven’t heard back from Rob Wilson yet. We’ll that’s not entirely true; I did receive a letter from him a few days after my mail but it wasn’t about transparency in lobbying; it was about the Digital Economy Act. Either it’s a second response to a mail I sent him a while ago on that subject (it did read very similarly to the first one, but in more election friendly language) or the email I sent him got misclassified, and the wrong standard response sent.

In support of the second hypothesis, both letters I’ve had from Mr Wilson have felt very much like form letters and have lacked the personal touch present in the correspondence with all of the other candidates. Of course, Mr Wilson is an MP, and one with above-average responsibilities, so it’s understandable if a little disappointing. My feeling is that when a constituency’s MP’s duties make him too busy to engage personally with his constituents, something has gone wrong with the system.

  1. Obviously these responses, while reproduced in good faith, and with permission where I could get it, aren’t covered by my Creative Commons license. []

One Response to “Lobbying Transparency — Reading East”

  1. Mark Whiley

    Ditto Will.

    Following the 38 Degrees campaign I also sent an email to the same four candidates and got a reply to every single one of them excluding Rob Wilson MP.

    Being actively involved in student politics at Reading University and attending a Q+A meeting with him two Monday’s back, I asked him face-to-face why he hadn’t replied in over a week. His response was a nervous “ok, I’ll get onto it” before scampering off with Tory faithful to parade once more around Campus. He’s had about a month now to respond and no reply.

    He also failed to appear at our student hustings citing a ‘personal enagagement’ whilst his Twitter feed announced he was having his hair cut.

    I’m biased as hell being involved with Gareth’s campaign, but it’s disgraceful we have an MP that replies to his constituents less than the Parliamentary Candidates he’s facing and ducks out of talking not only to students (on three occasions: general hustings; climate change hustings; and higher education hustings, although he appeared at NUS Town Takeover); but also at GREN’s environmental hustings as well.

    I could send you my responses as well but they’re very similar :P