The Greensill scandal reveals the flaws in our lobbying system

Lobbying is essential in politics. But for full transparency, the regulations must be reformed

April 17, 2021
David Cameron has said his work for Greensill Capital broke “no codes of conduct and no government rules.” Photo: Russell Hart / Alamy Stock Photo
David Cameron has said his work for Greensill Capital broke “no codes of conduct and no government rules.” Photo: Russell Hart / Alamy Stock Photo

David Cameron has finally broken his silence on the stories circulating in the media about his work for Greensill Capital. His 1,800-word statement emphasises that he has broken “no codes of conduct and no government rules,” but adds that, having “reflected on this at length,” there are “lessons to be learnt.”

Most of those calling for reform of the rules on political lobbying do not seek to prevent or even limit it. Lobbying plays an essential role in politics: lobbyists connect politicians with the multitude of different interests—individual, social and business—who have a right to represent their views to decision makers. Without lobbying, politicians could end up acting in a vacuum, unduly influenced by their own prior experience and preconceptions.  

The key is for lobbying activity to be visible. Only when interactions between politicians and lobbyists are transparent can the media and the public judge whether certain interests have had an unfair degree of influence, and whether decision-makers have acted in accordance with the norms of ethical behaviour in public life. 

Transparency gaps exist in the current system. One of the most obvious is the fact that the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists (the mechanism for making lobbying activity transparent) only records the activity of lobbyists employed as consultantsnot in-house lobbyists employed directly by a firm, as David Cameron was by Greensill Capital. This limited regime was the result of a fudge during the Coalition years, between the Liberal Democrats who wanted lobbying reform and the Conservatives for whom it was not a priority.  

The Labour Party is now calling for legislation to extend the requirement for registration to in-house lobbyists. This would be popular with lobbying firms, which have long argued for the levelling of the playing field which currently holds them to a higher standard of transparency than lobbyists employed in-house. The challenge will be to extend the boundary around those required to register their interactions with politicians and civil servants, without unintentionally catching those who probably should not be included, such as MPs’ constituents.

The current rules on lobbying could also be extended. The requirement to inform the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) about post-government appointments could be made mandatory and extended for longer than the current two-year period from leaving office: Gordon Brown recently suggested it should be extended to at least five years. This seems particularly important for high-profile cabinet ministers who have the most to trade with future employers—in terms of contacts and profile (as the Cameron case has shown)—but whose actions will also be of most interest to the public. ACOBA should also be extended beyond a transparency mechanism to become a real watchdog with powers to enforce its recommendations.

The government has not given any indication that it intends to strengthen the system, instead arguing that it has already “significantly increased transparency since 2010—routinely publishing details of contracts, spending and meetings, and introducing a statutory register of consultant lobbyists.” The last part is true, but the government’s claim to have increased government transparency over the past decade is more questionable.

Every month, government departments are required to publish all their spending over £25,000. Timeliness of publication has always been poor but according to analysis by the Institute for Government’s Whitehall Monitor, it has worsened in the past six years: in 2014, 38 per cent of data releases were published within a month of the spending taking place, as the Treasury requires; by 2019, only 20 per cent of releases were on time. There was a further drop in 2020—likely for understandable reasons connected to the pandemic—with only 16 per cent of releases for spending in January–November 2020 being made public on time.  

Delays have also affected publication of information about contracts awarded for work on Covid-19. The Government Commercial Function recommends that departments publish basic details of contracts within 90 days of them being awarded. But by November 2020, departments had published the details of fewer than half of the contracts worth more than £25,000 that were awarded in the first six months of 2020. 

Although delays in some frontline departments are understandable, publishing information about their contracting is even more important when they have—again for good reason—used emergency spending approvals and skipped the usual checks and procedures, like open competition for contracts. The government has been criticised for the propriety of some of its pandemic spending decisions, following reports of large contracts being awarded without competition to public relations firms connected to ministers, for example. The NAO found that suppliers offering personal protective equipment were 10 times more likely to win contracts when they were referred to departments by the offices of MPs and lords.  

Delays and lack of detail about what departments are buying, from whom and why, should not be allowed to become the “new normal” once the urgency of the pandemic recedes. They make it harder to hold the government to account for its use of public funds, to ensure value for money and to promote public confidence.  

Nor should the government ignore the lessons that have emerged from the story of David Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital. Nothing he did was against the rules, as he has now emphasised in a public statement. But his actions, once revealed to the public, have been widely condemned. That may tell us more about the adequacy of the rules than the propriety of his behaviour.