Once again, lobbying – the ‘next scandal waiting to happen’ as David Cameron so presciently put it – is back in the news.
This time the Sunday Times has exposed some of the country’s most prominent military chiefs as seemingly side-stepping the rules on lobbying over defence contracts in return for large cheques from fictitious arms dealers.
It’s almost a year since the Bureau exposed Bell Pottinger boasting abouts its influence with government to our journalists posing as consultants for the Uzbek cotton industry.
Since then the Government has consulted on plans for a lobby register – a register that has been widely criticised as it would not include in-house lobbyists. The latest sting adds to strength to arguments that any register should include all lobbyists, not just PR agencies.
The role of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) which scrutinises the new roles of exiting ministers, officers, senior civil servants and special advisers, has also been called into question by the sting. Acoba can ban acceptance of private jobs for up to six months after leaving office and lobbying for up to two years.
But Acoba is completely toothless; it has no powers to punish those who flout the bans. One of the officers stung by the Sunday Times described the rules as having no legality and the system for enforcing them as broken.
An earlier investigation by the Sunday Times revealed that many former ministers and civil servants had set themselves up as private consultants, allowing them to avoid public scrutiny of their relationships with business because they were not required to identify their clients. They were required to gain approval of their consultancy position from Acoba, but did not have to list their clients.
Fourteen former ministers set themselves up as consultants in 2010-11 compared with just one in 2005-06.
The NGO Transparency International has highlighted other problems with Acoba besides its toothlessness, including a lack of transparency over its approval process.
Acoba is not currently bound to publish reasons for its advice and the data that it does publish is inadequate to allow public or media scrutiny – it does not publish information on applications that have been withdrawn, for example.
Neither does Acoba’s remit extend to the future employment of MPs, despite the fact that some MPs, such as committee chairs, have considerable individual influence.
If the government is serious about stamping out ‘cash for access’ scandals, Acoba should be as much a focus as the long-awaited lobbying register.
Written by Melanie Newman