This is how a government elected to stamp out sleaze became worse than its predecessor.
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 27th January 2009
So now the circle is closed. The government which won a landslide victory in 1997 after Tory MPs were revealed to have taken cash for parliamentary questions now faces far graver allegations: cash for laws(1,2). Along the way, almost every policy which distinguished it from John Major’s corrupt and pointless regime has been abandoned.
The difference between these two moments – 1997 and 2009 – is that now there is nowhere to turn. There are the minor parties, but they have been systematically excluded by another broken promise: the failure to reform the electoral system. New Labour has engineered the worst of all worlds: it has sustained a system which ensures that only one of two parties has a chance of power, and it has rooted out the policies which made a choice between the two worthwhile. At least when the Tories were in government we could dream of something better.
It is fitting and unsurprising that the scene of the new scandal is the unelected second chamber whose proper reform Blair and Brown have spent 12 years avoiding. The deregulation of the banks, the love affair with the neocons, the failure to tax the rich, Peter Mandelson … is there any slithering cop-out which has not now returned to haunt this government?
The premise of Robert Harris’s novel The Ghost – that Blair’s premiership was the creation of a foreign intelligence service – is correct in spirit if not in substance. For twelve years the government of this country has acted as an agent of other powers: the US; big business; big money; anything except the electorate. It is hard now to believe that it was elected in a frenzy of hope very much like the excitement surrounding Barack Obama.
Tomorrow, with impeccable timing, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency launches its campaign in parliament for public scrutiny of the contacts between legislators and professional hustlers(3). There’s a major lobbying scandal about once a month in this country, and no one who is aware of the government’s failure to regulate this industry should be surprised. It was elected to stamp out sleaze, but since 1997 it has done almost nothing.
So do our noble lords, unmolested by the law, routinely put the interests of business above those of the people who didn’t elect them? As SpinWatch records, in 2007 some of them were selling parliamentary passes to lobbyists for defence, transport, freight and legal companies(4). In October of that year the Labour peer Lord Hoyle admitted that he had been paid by an arms company rep to introduce him to the minister for defence procurement, Lord Drayson(5), although Lord Hoyle was cleared by a house of lords committee in May 2008. Last year, Lady Harris gave a researcher’s pass to Robin Ashby, whose company lobbies ministers on behalf of BAE Systems and other weapons manufacturers. Lady Harris is paid by Mr Ashby as an adviser to another company he runs(6).
But the problem is not confined to the House of Lords. Lobbying undermines democracy throughout the British government. In March last year, for example, we discovered that the government passed data which it had withheld from the public to the airport operator BAA. The data showed that a third runway at Heathrow would immediately breach European noise and pollution limits, ensuring that it could never be built. BAA and the government worked together to re-engineer the figures to fit the limits. Their fake data was then presented to the public in the government’s consultation paper(7,8). It was used again this month to justify the decision to approve the third runway. This is the kind of wheeze you’d expect in Nigeria.
Like Nigeria, the UK has no effective safeguards against such collusion. As the House of Commons Public Administration Committee points out, “lobbying activity in the United Kingdom is subject to no specific external regulation.”(9) Nor is it subject to anything resembling self-regulation. The sleazebags who suborn our representatives operate in a world without rules.
On the other side of the fence, there are a few feeble constraints on the behaviour of MPs and officials. For example, former ministers and civil servants who want to work for the companies they used to regulate have to apply to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. Its members are a representative sample of British society: three lords and three knights, all white, all male, all educated at Oxford or Cambridge, all over 70 (10). These young firebrands never stop anyone from taking up a post in business, advising only that former ministers and officials do not become “personally involved in lobbying” for 12 months after they leave the government(11). This doesn’t prevent them from telling their new employers who needs to be lobbied and how, and where the most lucrative opportunities might lie.
The rules have actually slackened over the past few years. The new ministerial code published in 2007 dropped the requirement that meetings between ministers and lobbyists should be recorded(12). It’s not just that contacts between legislators and business lobbyists are virtually unregulated; we’re not even allowed to see what’s going on.
Earlier this month, the public administration committee proposed a series of anti-corruption rules. They’re a reasonable start, which would take us more or less to the position the United States reached in 1946, when the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act was passed. Since then the US Congress, which admittedly has even graver cases of corruption to contend with, has passed a series of further laws, culminating in the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. Anyone can now see, with a quick internet search, who is lobbying whom, whom they represent and how much they are being paid. Lobbyists who fail to comply with the rules can be imprisoned for five years(13). Last week Barack Obama signed an executive order banning everyone working for the government from participating in any matter relating to their former employment for two years after leaving office(14).
But even the public administration committee’s timid and dated proposals have been received with horror by government ministers. The Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson told the committee “we have a pretty good system in the UK” and demanded that it show him evidence of a systemic problem within the lobbying industry(15).
Some of us believe that a major scandal every few weeks is as much evidence as anyone would need, but Watson’s Fork is a cunning device. Without the regulations the committee proposes, whose purpose is to open the system up to public scrutiny, it’s impossible to accumulate the comprehensive evidence Mr Watson demands. Without this level of evidence, he won’t introduce regulations.
So what else should the government expect? The sleaze scandals, as they did during the dying days of the last Conservative government, will now emerge thick and fast, as disillusioned officials risk their liberty by leaking documents that should have been freely available, and journalists, scenting blood, close in. Labour will be driven from office with the same howls of execration that saw off the Tories in 1997. But this time there’ll be no bonfires, no bunting, no dancing in the streets, just the tired shuffling sound of a million more voters turning away from politics.
1. Jonathan Calvert, Claire Newell and Michael Gillard, 25th January 2009. Whispered over tea and cake: price for a peer to fix the law. The Sunday Times.
2. Philippe Naughton, 26th January 2009. Peers apologise, but deny wrongdoing, as Sunday Times releases audio. Times Online.
3. Lobbying Exposed, 28th January 2009, 10am, Portcullis House. The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency.
4. SpinWatch, April 2008. Lobbying: Access and influence in Whitehall – Public Administration Committee. Supplementary memorandum. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmpubadm/36/36we36.htm#note121
5. David Leigh and Rob Evans, 26th October 2007. Peer was paid to introduce lobbyist to minister. The Guardian.
6. James Macintyre, 26th June 2008. Exposed: the arms lobbyist in Parliament. The Independent.
7. Marie Woolf and Jon Ungoed-Thomas, 9th March 2008. Evidence fix led to third runway being approved. The Sunday Times.
8. See also Toby Helm, 18th January 2009. Fury at airport lobby links to No 10. The Observer.
9. House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, 5th January 2009. Lobbying: Access and
influence in Whitehall. Volume I, para 44. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmpubadm/36/36i.pdf
11. House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, ibid, para 96.
12. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, cited by the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, ibid, para 187.
13. Craig Holman, 2008. Making the U.S. Lobbying Disclosure Act Work as Intended:
Implications for the European Transparency Initiative. Public Citizen. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/comparl/afco/hearings/20071008/holman_en.pdf
14. Barack Obama, January 2009. Executive Order — Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel.
15. Tom Watson, 19th June 2008. Public Administration Committee – Minutes of Evidence. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmpubadm/36/8061901.htm