Opaque!

The UK's Failed Attempt to Increase Transparency in Lobbying

Amy Melissa McKay

The government of the United Kingdom is reputed to be among the world’s most transparent governments. Yet in comparison to many other countries, its five-year-old register of lobbyists provides little information about the lobbying activity directed at the British state. Further, its published lists of meetings with government ministers are vague, delayed, and scattered across numerous online locations.

To assess the completeness of the lobby register, as well as the lists of meetings with outside interests published by the Ministries since 2010, Antal Wozniak and I matched as many groups as we could across 72,000 reported ministerial meetings and more than 1,000 lobbying clients and consultancies (McKay and Wozniak 2020). We found significant discrepancies between these two sources of information about lobbying in the UK. Over the same four quarters, we find that only about 38 percent of clients listed in the lobby register appear in the published record of ministerial meetings with outside groups, and less than 5 percent of groups disclosed in ministerial meetings records appear in the lobby register.

From this comparison and our review of the circumstances leading to disclosure of lobbying activity in Whitehall, we draw several conclusions that together suggest that the Government purposely chose to keep lobbying in the UK in the dark:

    • Lobbying regulation in the UK is among the very weakest of countries that have developed lobbying disclosure laws;
    • The set of lobby clients listed in the Register is significantly different from the set of groups with whom ministerial offices report having met;
    • Collating information about ministerial meetings is too burdensome for any layperson to do;
    • The debate surrounding lobbying transparency as the law was being written made clear that the proposal was not robust enough; and
    • Lobbying clients meet more frequently with Government ministers than unregistered groups, and a small number of lobby clients dominate over the others.


We revisit the classification of the UK as “medium-robust” according to the criteria set out by Keeling, Feeney and Hogan (2017), and make two corrections that move the UK total score from 33 to 26 and put it in the “low robustness” category (Chari, et al. 2019). It is now ahead of only two systems that are in effect today—those of the Netherlands and “the strange case” of Germany (Ronit and Schneider 1998).

The Overlap between Groups in the Lobby Register and Groups in the Ministerial Meetings Data in 2015

Notes: Circles and overlap are proportional in size to the populations indicated. The data show that in 2015, 38 percent of lobbying clients appear in the meetings data, and about 4 percent of groups in the meetings data appear in the lobby register.

Only about 4 percent of groups and individuals who met with ministers also appear in the register of consultant lobbyists. With regard to the meetings data, we find that just 290 of the 764 groups that appear in the register in 2015—38 percent—also appear among the 6446 visitors in the meetings data for 2015. Counting in terms of meetings rather than groups, 90 percent of reported ministerial meetings were with groups and individuals whose names do not appear as clients in the lobby register. These high numbers were anticipated by the Public Relations and Communications Association and openly discussed during the bill’s debate on the floor of the House.

Understanding who are the people meeting with government ministers is important, because ministers and their staff tend to meet with the same people (read lobbyists) repeatedly. The 10 percent most frequent visitors account for 64 percent of all meetings with department officials, and the 1 percent most frequent visitors are present at 28 percent of the meetings. Even among registered lobby groups, there is skew: the most frequently visiting 10 percent of registered lobbyists attend nearly half (46 percent) of all meetings held with registered lobbyists in 2015. This uneven distribution is evidence that some lobbyists have far greater access than others (also see Dommett, et al. 2017).

The Government’s list of lobby clients and consultancies and its publication of ministerial meetings has largely failed to increase transparency. Users have significant difficulties in identifying lobbyists and meeting attendees, let alone what measures they might be lobbying about or how much money is involved. These lapses make it easy for firms and special interests to manipulate the policy process to their will, without being noticed.

Bio

Amy McKay is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Exeter. She was trained at Duke University and Rice University and has held positions at Georgia State University, the University of Iowa, and the U.S. Senate. She studies lobbying and money in policymaking.

Funding

This research is supported by the Agendas and Interest Groups grant funded by the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK.


References

Chari, Raj, John Hogan, Gary Murphy, and Michele Crepaz. 2019. Regulating Lobbying, 2nd Edition: A Global Comparison. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Dommett, Katharine, Andrew Hindmoor, and Matthew Wood. 2017. "Who Meets Whom: Access and Lobbying During the Coalition Years." The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 19: 389-407.

Keeling, Sean, Sharon Feeney, and John Hogan. 2017. "Transparency! Transparency? Comparing the New Lobbying Legislation in Ireland and the Uk." Interest Groups & Advocacy 6: 121-42.

McKay, Amy Melissa, and Antal Wozniak. 2020. "Opaque: An Empirical Evaluation of Lobbying Transparency in the UK." Interest Groups & Advocacy. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41309-019-00074-9

Ronit, Karsten, and Volker Schneider. 1998. "The Strange Case of Regulating Lobbying in Germany." Parliamentary Affairs 51: 559-67.