Today’s volte-face on capital gains tax shows that the government is capable of listening to entrepreneurs and their spokesmen. But do ministers pay too much attention to business lobbyists?
That is the argument of Friends of the Earth, which – in July 2005 – made a freedom of information request for access to records of lobbying meetings between the CBI and DTI (now BERR) after the last general election.
After the DTI refused to hand over all the paperwork the Information Commission ordered the department to release it. But the government has now appealed to the Information Tribunal to overturn that decision. The hearing is next week.
“It has taken almost three years to get to the final stage of our freedom of information request, which is far too long,” says Phil Michaels, legal head at FoE.
The inquiry begins on January 31 and will last several days – with the results probably made public a month or two later. Vast numbers of freedom of information requests are turned down. But it is hard to see why BERR would not want details of meetings with the CBI made open.
It says: “We believe that in certain instances it is in the public interest to protect the ’thinking space’ necessary for good public policy formulation and to enable the Department to have a private discourse with external organisations.”
Separately, a coalition of civil society groups gave evidence at a parliamentary committee today and called for new rules to be brought in to shed more light on lobbyist activities.
Many lobbyists have signed up to a voluntary code through an organisation called Association of Professional Political Consultants. This code prevents them from having financial relationships with MPs and MEPs, for example.
But David Miller of the University of Strathclyde, a member of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, argued that the current system of self-regulation was incapable of providing adequate transparency in lobbying.
“The public has a right to know on whose behalf lobbyists are working, how much money is involved, and the areas of policy they are seeking to influence,” said Professor Miller. “Specialist lobbying companies are adept at finding ingenious ways to disguise the role of their clients which is why genuine full disclosure is so important.”
The alliance – which includes Spinwatch, the National Union of Journalists, Friends of the Earth and Campaign Against Arms Trade – wants to see a mandatory public register of lobbyists with full financial disclosure.
It also wants to see an enforceable ethics rule for all lobbyists and new rules on what it calls the “revolving door” syndrome between the industry and public life.