Reining in the influence industry
2.EUROPE: A Phone Book Without Numbers
NOTE: For more on the role of lobbyists see: http://www.lobbywatch.org/lm_intro.html
1.Reining in the influence industry
The Guardian, 31 October 2008
*Around GBP1.9bn is spent on lobbying. Registration and transparency is now required
It comes as no surprise that the European Commission is relaxed about Peter Mandelson's meetings with the aluminium magnate, Oleg Deripaska, at a time when the trade commissioner was party to discussions that would affect the business of the Russian.
Brussels has long had a reputation as being unaccountable to public opinion. Despite the commission's attempts to open up EU decision-making to greater public scrutiny through its European Transparency Initiative secrecy remains the modus operandi. The system governing the behaviour of officials allows for widespread conflicts of interest. Parliamentary rules for MEPs have been described by one British MEP as a "scandal waiting to happen".
Numerous cases have been documented of apparent conflicts of interests involving MEPs. Giles Chichester hit the headlines this summer after breaking the rules on MEP's expenses and was forced to resign as chairman of the Conservative party in Brussels. However, little has been made of his problematic ties to the nuclear industry. He is president of a pro-nuclear industry lobby group known in Brussels as "The submarine of the energy industry". Until recently, he also held the key position of chair of the EU parliamentary committee with responsibility for nuclear issues, including nuclear safety, decommissioning and nuclear waste disposal.
Another example is Scottish Conservative MEP, John Purvis, who has a financial stake in a firm that invests in the biotechnology sector. At the same time he has been seen as a leading advocate for biotech in the European parliament. Another Brit, Caroline Jackson MEP, sits on the parliament's environment committee and drafted a report on the EU's waste framework directive while at the same time being a paid advisor to private waste company, Shanks.
Jackson is one of five EU officials nominated for a "Worst Lobby Award", an initiative organised by a coalition of civil society groups pushing for greater transparency in Brussels. Among the corporate interests up for an award is the International Air Transport Association for its deceptive lobbying campaign to avoid CO2 reduction obligations in the aviation sector. Also nominated is The European Alliance for Access to Safe Medicines for hiding the involvement of the big pharmaceutical companies in their campaigns.
The awards spotlight just a few of the thousands of mainly commercial organisations that seek to influence EU policy. In Brussels, as in Britain, lobbyists operate in an almost entirely unregulated environment. In June the European Commission attempted to increase transparency in the industry by introducing a register of lobbyists. Registration, however, is voluntary and as few as 10% of the thousands of commercial lobbying firms that peddle influence and access in Brussels have so far chosen to sign on to it.
Thanks to the recent insight into the affairs of the rich and powerful, we should be under no illusion in Britain that undue influence is also being exerted on our policy-makers. Our lobbying industry, which today includes law and accountancy firms, management consultancies, think tanks, charities and others, has grown to be worth an estimated GBP1.9bn. It is embedded in our political system, and, as in Brussels, it operates away from the public gaze.
Under the radar of most journalists, a parliamentary inquiry has been taking place into the normally opaque world of lobbying. Throughout the last 12 months, the influential public administration select committee, chaired by Tony Wright MP, has taken evidence on whether certain interests are being afforded privileged access to, and undue influence over, our decision makers. It has also sought to find out what effect this is having on public trust in politics.
The recommendations the select committee will make in the next few weeks are key. If it finds, much as the British public suspects, that there is an enormous disparity in access and influence in our political system, it should recommend action: that the government introduce a mandatory register of lobbyists. This is the first step in opening up the opaque world of lobbying to public scrutiny. The effect will be to increase the accountability of government to the people they serve. Something that the majority of the British public has long ceased to expect but should now demand.
The Mandelson-Deripaska affair gives us a rare insight into the relationship between politics and the wealthy elite. A register of lobbyists would guarantee that information on those who seek to influence our politicians is systematically put into the public domain.
2.EUROPE: A Phone Book Without Numbers
By David Cronin
IPS, October 30 2008
BRUSSELS - A new European Union initiative officially aimed at improving transparency is providing only scant details about the influence that corporate lobbyists wield over the decision-making process, according to environmental and consumer rights advocates.
In June, the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, launched an online register to store details of public relations firms, lawyers and non-profit organisations who liaise with EU officials.
Unlike a similar scheme in the U.S., the lobby is entirely voluntary and, in the view of many campaign groups, its operation is not providing a clear picture about the resources lobbyists employ in seeking to shape legislation.
Jorgo Riss, head of the Brussels office of Greenpeace, said the register does not even give basic details of who works for firms active in the Brussels lobbying scene. "A lobby register without the names of lobbyists is as useful as a phone book without numbers," he said.
Riss argued that the U.S. system of mandatory disclosure of lobbyists -- which includes financial penalties for those who flout the regulations works better. Every three months, pressure groups in Washington have to fill out a four-page form, stating who they employ and how much money they have spent campaigning on each item of legislation they are following. This system, he said, has helped journalists and researchers uncover 'revolving door' cases -- where public officials have 'sold' their expertise to the private sector -- and other conflict of interests.
For example, the U.S. mandatory register has been deemed useful in drawing attention to the activities of Jack Abramoff, a Republican Party activist convicted of seeking to corrupt lawmakers with money, meals and free holidays.
According to estimates cited by the European Commission in 2005, Brussels has some 15,000 lobbyists, most of which represent corporate clients. Just 480 groups have so far registered their activities. These include 286 'in-house' lobbying departments of companies, 39 public relations firms or professional consultancies, and 120 non-governmental organisations or 'think-tanks'. Although many lawyers are known to be involved in drafting legislative proposals, just four law firms have registered so far.
Some of the world's largest public relations firms such as Burson Marsteller and Hill and Knowlton -- the company tasked with convincing the U.S. public of the 'necessity' of going to war against Iraq in the early 1990s -- have not yet signed up to the register, even though they have offices in Brussels. Burson Marsteller has been especially active in tracking environmental laws on behalf of the chemicals industry in recent years.
The register is limited to organisations, and does not apply to individuals hired to work on ad hoc campaigns. Nor does it provide any real transparency about 'expert groups' formed by the Commission to provide advice when it is drafting new proposals. When the Commission set up such groups to deal with the EU's policy on biofuels, those invited to participate came almost exclusively from an industry background, rather than one of campaigning on environmental or human rights issues.
A coalition of non-profit organisations known as the EU Civil Society Contact Group this week unveiled guidelines for improving the register. It is asking its affiliates to submit precise details of who works for them, and their budgets, as well as criticisms of the register's flaws to the Commission.
Fintan Farrell from the European Anti-Poverty Network said that the register "does not provide a clear answer to questions which we think are very important to citizens."
Many organisations, he added, had considered boycotting the scheme. But after a lengthy debate they decided it was "much more important to offer a constructive critique."
Monique Goyens, spokeswoman for the European Consumers Organisation (known by its French acronym BEUC) noted that the defeat of the EU's Lisbon treaty in a referendum in Ireland earlier this year had indicated that many ordinary people regard the Brussels institutions as aloof. "A strong register is in the interest of democracy and European citizens, who want to know who the real players in Brussels are, particularly at a time when the EU is struggling to gain the trust of Europeans."
About 80 percent of consumer legislation applying in the EU has been drafted in Brussels, she added, contending that there should be transparency about companies seeking to dilute particular proposals. For example, she said that manufacturers of chocolate eggs have had some success in ensuring that new legislation on toy safety will not affect them, despite evidence that children can choke on such gifts.
Valérie Rampi, the Commission's spokeswoman on transparency issues, declined to comment about the criticisms of the register, other than to say that its operation will be reviewed during 2009. (END/2008)