Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fox on the run highlights lobby activity

The Liam Fox affair in the UK has once again highlighted lobbying activity and its role in the democratic process. 

You’ll generally find lobbyists towards the bottom of the popularity league table, along with the usual suspects such as estate agents, journalists, bankers, . . .and of course politicians.
Like death and taxes, lobbyists will always be with us.   So, are they undemocratic propagandists with only the interests of their lords and masters to consider, ready to use any means to get their way, or, as the European Parliament website suggests, do they “provide Parliament with knowledge and specific expertise in numerous economic, social, environmental and scientific areas.”

The only rule seems to be that there are no rules.   For every example I’ve come across where lobbying has been partial, obstructive and anti-progressive, there is another, where the lobbying can provide important insights to help effective legislation.

When I was working on new food labelling laws earlier this year, a reputed €1 billion was spent by the food industry opposing new rules for front of pack labelling, for traffic lights and for other improvements all called for by consumer  and health groups and clearly demanded by the vast majority of customers.

However, a more recent lobby, by members of the National Farmers Union in the East Midlands, was a useful contribution to the debate about the new proposals for the Common Agricultural Policy, and helped me – a non-farmer – to clarify the issues in my own mind while increasing my awareness of the situation facing a particular group of my constituents.

In the European Parliament, new rules for lobbyists came in earlier this year, and while it remains to be seen how effective the new regime will be in regulating lobbying behaviour, there have been some important improvements.  For example, there is now a lobby register, which clarifies who they are, what their interests are, as well as requiring them to provide a limited amount of financial information.  Above all, we have established a code of conduct for lobbyists, with access denied to Parliament as well as adverse publicity if the code is broken.  

We've taken action here in the European Parliament, and it's time David Cameron finally put forward some proposals for how the UK Parliament regulates lobbyists

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