Sunday, January 19, 2014

The corporate lobbyists at the heart of government

The latest climbdown on the so-called ‘Gagging Bill’ is good news. But it can’t undo one of the most damaging effects of the whole sorry saga: the almost complete diversion of campaigners’ attention away from the issue of corporate lobbying, which is what the Bill was supposed to be about.

 This matters. A lot. Because even if we had been debating weedy proposals for a ‘lobbying register’ instead of the proposed new restrictions on charity campaigning, we’d have been tinkering at the edges of the problem. The biggest and most powerful corporate interests don’t need to rely on lobbying agencies to make their voices heard in the corridors of power: increasingly, they are being deliberately embedded into the policymaking process.

Before I discovered the bullshit-mine that is Michael Gove, I used to blog about this quite a lot. Here, for example, and here and here and here. For those without the time to plough through my back catalogue of ranting, a quick recap: the government has a little-known policy called ‘one-in, two-out regulation’ (previously known as ‘one-in, one-out’, before they made it even more dangerous and nonsensical than it already was). Essentially, any department that wants to introduce new regulations affecting business (or the voluntary sector) has to get rid of twice as much existing regulation.

 This is measured through the ingenious means of ‘regulatory impact assessments’, which estimate how much new regulations will cost those affected. Departments then need to find regulatory ‘savings’ worth double that cost burden if they want to go ahead. These impact assessments have to be reviewed by the Regulatory Policy Committee and the Reducing Regulation Committee before new regulations can be passed. Put this together with massive spending cuts and the net effect is that departments are making policy with both hands tied behind their backs – which, of course, is exactly the point.

When I first learned about the labyrinth of committees involved in ‘one-in, two-out’, I smirked for a while at the irony of such an elaborate bureaucracy being set up to police the reduction of bureaucracy, and thought no more about it. Then, through an accident of my previous job, I came across a guy called Alexander Ehrmann – essentially, the chief lobbyist for the Institute of Directors. And, on the IoD website, I discovered that Alexander Ehrmann was a member of the Regulatory Policy Committee.

Well. Mind. Blown. Just when I thought this policy couldn’t get any more outrageous, it now turns out that the people passing judgement on the assessments which accompany new rules are not Ministers or civil servants, as I’d naively assumed, but representatives of the regulated. Basically, this government is inviting paid corporate lobbyists into the policy making process and all but giving them a veto over new regulations.

This made me wonder who else was sitting on this little-known yet immensely influential body. So I had a look on the RPC’s website. The list of “independent experts” currently serving on the RPC certainly makes for interesting reading. Say hello to:

  • Jeremy Mayhew, a councilman of the City of London Corporation, the ancient and powerful body which effectively represents the interests of high finance (natch - their tentacles seem to extend everywhere, so it's hardly surprising to find them popping up here); 
  • Michael Gibbons, a company director with extensive interests in the energy industry (both past and present, including a current directorship at a power company and a prominent role in an industry trade body); and 
  • Professor David Parker, the government’s official historian of privatisation (who knew such a beautifully Orwellian thing existed?!). 

The eight-person committee includes just one woman, and just one representative of labour. Oh, and they happen to be the same person – Sarah Veale, Head of the Equality and Employment Rights department at the TUC. Now there’s government efficiency savings for you.

The committee has no publicly available conflicts of interest policy. When I emailed them to ask for a copy of any such policy, I was told: “We operate an internal policy which ensures that any members who have a conflict of interest on policy areas are not involved in the committee reviews of impact assessments relating to those areas.” Well, colour me reassured. How exactly this is supposed to work for people like Ehrmann, who must have an ‘interest’ in almost every regulation that crosses their desk, is not entirely clear.

But of course, that’s the point. The phrase ‘conflict of interest’ has almost no meaning under a system like this. These people are not there in spite of their corporate interests: they’re there because of them. In a Thatcherite mindset obsessed with the idea that giving business what it wants will get the economy moving, corporate connections are not ‘conflicts’ to be minimised but valuable expertise to be drawn upon. In other words, regulation is being systematically and deliberately put in the hands of the regulated.

You’ll be hearing much more about this from me over the coming weeks. But for now, I’ve got a favour to ask: if you’ve learned something from this post, if you’ve been at all shocked or dismayed by what you’ve learned, then please: share it.

We are scratching the surface of something deep and troubling here, and as far as I can tell, almost nobody seems to know about it. It’s time they did. The battle over charities’ right to campaign appears to be largely won; the battle for the soul of government urgently needs to begin.

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