Monday, 6 May 2013

Lobbyists & Cross-Party Groups under the microscope

Last week, the Assembly's Standards Committee reported back on a review – requested by Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) last year – into lobbying. The review also looked at Cross-Party Groups, coming up with a total of 8 recommendations.

The report's findings were covered too by A Change of Personnel, Western Mail and Betsan Powys at BBC Wales.

The need for a lobbying review

Lobbyists, or public affairs/political consultants, work to influence decisions on behalf of clients in the public, private and third sectors. Wherever there's power, there'll be lobbyists – no matter how small the Welsh political class is.

I presume lobbyists work by "networking" AMs, ministers and their staff, organising/sponsoring functions and events and generally putting the right people and organisations in touch with one another.

The UK Government are considering a register of lobbyists, taking devolved administrations into consideration, prompting the Llywydd's intervention. However, Westminster are running into problems trying to define what a "lobbyist" actually is.

In Wales, for instance, would an organisation like Cymdeithas yr Iaith count as "lobbyists"? Would trade unions? What's the difference between unpaid grass-roots "campaigning" and professional paid "lobbying"? It's difficult.

Some say lobbyists are parasites, pressurising elected officials into working for special interests which – as a practice - undermines democracy. We don't elect AMs or MPs to do the work of charities, trade unions and companies, we elect them to represent us as the electorate. We'll let them know if we want them to work on something specific or not.

One thing I neglected to mention back in January, was that some AMs complained that because they're readily accessible in the Siambr (via computers) – and on camera - lobbyists see them too and know if they can contact them, even if AMs are busy with something else. There's no escape. I guess that's something that comes with the job though.

However, personally I think lobbying is broadly a "good thing", especially if it means bodies like charities get access to ministers or AMs, who can take up their causes in the Senedd and give them some publicity. Ministers are probably pressed for time too, so lobbyists might "screen" interested parties to make sure there's no time-wasters.

It's another thing entirely if lobbying's used to influence decision-making and policy directly. However, it's worth noting that there haven't been any complaints made against lobbyists in Wales.

*Tin foil hat time*. That could be because our political class, as I've said, is small, with everyone knowing everyone else – "You scratch my back....". Plus, as A Change of Personnel pointed out, there could be "off the record" discussions that haven't been taken into consideration by the review. That might seem slightly conspirational, but no doubt harbouring a few truths.

The review and its recommendations

Both the Standards Commissioner – Gerard Elias QC – and the committee agreed that lobbying is important to democracy, as it makes the Assembly more "open" as an institution, and AMs "available". All AMs presumably have to do is talk to lobbyists or their clients. Whether they take up their concerns or causes is up to them.

The committee make a distinction between lobbying an AM and lobbying a government minister. If you lobby an AM, you might get a question in the Senedd, support for a campaign or closer scrutiny of both government decision-making and legislation in a particular area.

If you try to influence a minister, you might get policy decisions go your way. That's more serious. It's suggested that the First Minister review the Ministerial Code - with a view towards recording meetings between ministers and lobbyists - as well as a review of complaints procedures against ministers.

Even if the committee disagreed with the need for a lobbyist register in Wales – especially as defining a "lobbyist" is so difficult - they note there's "no room for complacency".

They propose a code of practice for AMs' dealings with lobbyists (Annex C in the report), which will be approved by the Assembly. Another recommendation from the Standards Commissioner is improved financial information and record-keeping by lobbyists themselves.

Public Affairs Cymru - which represents lobbying organisations - already has its own code of practice, which the committee welcomed.

Although there haven't been complaints about lobbying, the Standards Commissioner said he had "received representations" about former ministers, AMs and civil servants becoming lobbyists when leaving office. He dubs it a "revolving door issue".

Former ministers and senior civil servants are (generally) barred from lobbying governments for two years after leaving office, but there's no similar requirement for ex-AMs. There's no recommendation here, but the Commissioner said the committee could look at it another time.

Cross-Party Groups

Cross-Party Groups (CPGs) are special focus groups or informal committees. If you wanted to be spiteful you could call them "after school clubs" for AMs. They're linked to lobbying as they allow AMs to discuss matters in a non-partisan environment, with individuals from outside organisations often included as members. The committee say there've been more concerns raised here compared to professional lobbyists.

There are currently around 50 CPGs, covering a wide range of topics. Many are quite specific : local campaigns, disease awareness, economic sectors or representing occupations. Some seem....odd - Cross-Party Group for Beer and the Pub, for example, which amongst its aims seeks to "promote the wholesomeness and enjoyment of beer".  Or even morbid – Cross-Party Group for Funerals & Bereavement.

However, they help AMs (and organisations) come together to discuss issues which might not be important enough to be on the Senedd's agenda, but need an ongoing commitment or special focus. Some can be influential too. The trainspotters in the Cross-Party Group for Rail played a role in setting out the case for electrification, for example.

The problem is that apart from occasional press releases, we don't know what they do or what they discuss. None of the CPGs maintains any record of meetings other than a simple page on the Assembly website with contact details and lists of members.

For all we know, some might meet very infrequently and are there to add lines to AMs' political CVs. Some might be seen as a way for AMs and other members to get "perks" too. I don't think that happens - we would've heard about it by now - but there's clear ambiguity there.

The Assembly Commission already issues guidance for CPGs. To make this clearer, the committee have drawn up new rules (Annex D in the report), summarised as :
  • CPGs won't be bound by Assembly Standing Orders, and will be formally separate from the Assembly itself.
  • They musn't cover matters covered by existing Assembly committees.
  • They must be chaired by an AM, and office holders (i.e secretary) within the CPG must be elected at an inaugural general meeting. Memberships must also be listed when registering a CPG and CPGs must re-register at the start of each Assembly term.
  • CPGs will be required to hold an annual general meeting (AGM) and produce an annual report and financial statement (setting out expenses and hospitality).
  • CPGs won't take precedence over "Assembly business" and must use Assembly resources sparingly. They won't have access to Assembly staff for instance, and non-Assembly members/staff will need to be escorted through Assembly estates. Some limited funds will be available to "engage with constituents" only – subject to a business case.
  • CPGs will need to make arrangements themselves for translation to meet any requirements of the National Assembly Official Languages Act 2012.
  • Meetings will be publicised on the Assembly website (with advanced notice) and minutes will need to be published within 4 weeks of a meeting.
  • Failure to comply with these rules could lead to the Assembly withdrawing recognition of the group - effectively shutting them down. Complaints against AMs in relation to CPGs will be dealt with the usual way via the Standards Commissioner.

I have to wonder why perfectly clear and sensible rules like these haven't been adopted from the outset?


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