Lobbying. The descriptor we use for seeking to influence key decision makers. It’s been a part of commercial life for centuries and many societal structures were and are built on it such as the medieval guilds, modern trade associations, and a myriad of other bodies who exist to influence, persuade and argue. Law firms too. Covington, for instance, is the law firm with the biggest lobby turnover of 93 law firms registered to lobby in the EU. When organized lobbying can be powerful and while that power can be used abusively, it is also a necessary for informed policy formation in a democratic society.
Who lobbies who can be controversial as we see with the current controversy surrounding the ex UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital, a then troubled finance company. What is lobbied can be equally controversial as land zoning corruption scandals in 1990s Ireland has shown. So while it has had a bad name on the back of scandals where influence was wrongly peddled and traded, lobbying is nevertheless necessary and a force for good. Policy makers and legislators need lobbyists to identify when a new policy or new law is needed and to understand how the policy or law will impact and, critically, what the alternatives might be. Lobbyists need legislators to legislate effectively and with as little bureaucracy as possible. That tension is usually a good one, despite the occasional bad actors.
But sometimes the balance goes askew – as it did in Ireland in the years prior to the economic and property crash of 2008. Several tribunals of enquiry had examined allegations of corruption in the beef industry, retailing, and in planning matters. Allegations of improper influence by key players and payments to politicians loomed large and involved senior politicians and businessmen. In one instance the Taoiseach (head of government) and former Minister for Finance, failed to give a credible account for large donations he received while indicating he kept his money under his mattress. Another former Taoiseach, with a penchant for expensive French shirts and racehorses, was unable to clarify how he had amassed his obvious wealth. The various tribunals of enquiry racked up significant expenditure and while ultimately seen as legally toothless they were nevertheless credited for highlighting illicit and unethical behavior in high places. It impacted political and business reputations. A leading lobbyist was convicted of corruption, and a former Minister for Justice accused of corruption, was imprisoned for failure to declare tax on payments received. Others lost their political positions. Lobbying became a tainted concept.
In the aftermath of the subsequent financial crash and the shock of having the IMF informing key decisions, Ireland enacted the Regulation of Lobbying Act in 2015. Born of a nation fed up of political wrongdoing and the perception of lost sovereignty, the new legislation was positively received. This positivity has largely continued over the last 6 years and the register is now seen as a marketing tool by many lobbyists and a welcome source of information for media and political pundits. In publishing the headline issues being lobbied upon, it also has the effect of ensuring such issues are not ignored. By providing factual information it limits the potential for inaccuracies and speculation. It’s limited in its impact beyond that as it only gives a snapshot of issues and applies only in the more serious lobbying influence situations. While criticized for not going far enough, it nevertheless is accepted and worked to with compliance levels reported by the regulator as high.
The Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 is about the who lobbies, what about and with whom.
- Who is making, managing or directing is defined as a representative or advocacy body or other 3rd party with at least one full time employee or an employer with at least 10 such employees. It does not generally include unpaid volunteers unless they are directed by an employee or official of the organization they represent. So most local issues by local groups are outside the remit of the legislation. However, there is a particular place for land lobbying, reflecting the Irish obsession with property ownership and the planning scandals of the past. Planning and rezoning lobbies are thus specifically covered (unless related to an individual’s principal private residence on less than 1 acre) and without the requirement to have an employee.
- What is the relevant issue for lobby reporting is defined to include the initiation or development or modification of public policy or a public programme. Lobbying on the preparation and amendment of law is covered but excluded is the implementation of such policy or programme or where the matter is of a technical nature only. Also representative bodies do not have to declare the identities of individual members on whose behalf they are lobbying. Normally the sector only is identified.
- The with whom is limited generally to designated senior public servants and to politicians.
Excluded from the Act are the activities of expert policy groups (like the Company Law Review Group) generally established to advise the State. The representative nature of these groups in itself will often balance out the interests of stakeholders and as such are valuable to Government Ministers in formulating public policy. Also excluded are contributions to public consultations issued by government and it’s agencies. So the obligation to report a lobby excludes much of the local and more minor issues that politicians and less senior public officials will be approached on as well as government initiated public consultations.
The range of public policy issues lobbied in the last 2 years covers a broad span. Health leads the field with a significant footprint, as might be expected given the pandemic. The second most commonly lobbied area is economic development and industry followed by agriculture. Education and training with justice and equality issues follow in fourth and fifth place respectively. Sub categories of business issues are not easily identified. However the most lobbied on business issues were politicians, followed by the government department with responsibility for business issues and the Taoiseach (head of government).
The experience of the lobby register in Ireland is interesting for a number of reasons.
- Most lobbying comes from the business and farming sectors.
- The geographic spread of registrants shows a concentration of lobbyists in areas with a significant multinational or sectoral presence. As expected Dublin has the highest number of lobbyists. Both Galway (a medical device hub) and Cork (a pharmachem hub) are strongly represented.
- Only 16 Northern Irish lobbyists have registered most likely reflecting the UK lobbying regulation.
- Irish lobby returns are almost 14 times that of the UK despite the Irish republic population being 13% that of the UK.
- Unsurprisingly, the most lobbied topic for 2020 was health, however it has also topped the league in each previous year since reporting began in 2015.
- Draft legislation, currently being debated, proposes to enforce a 12 month cooling off period for former officials/advisors taking up positions as lobbyists, an increasingly common practice here.