Nuala Haughey: Ireland’s mandatory lobbying register is now online. But what exactly does it mean? Well, for the first time members of the public are able to go online and search a database to see who is attempting to influence policy or legislation in a range of areas. (www.lobbying.ie)
So far, some 700 individuals and organisations (including TASC) have registered with the new Registrar of Lobbying, which is part of the Standards in Public Office Commission.
By 21st January 2016, the first online returns must be filed, outlining lobbying activities carried out in the four months from September to December 2015.
Some groups have already started filing returns ahead of this deadline, from the Donkey Sanctuary of Ireland, which is seeking controls on donkey production on welfare grounds, to Edelman PR, which filed a nil return.
The searchable register has already proved fertile ground for journalists. For example, The Sunday Times reported last month on apparently successful lobbying by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland to exclude priests from Garda vetting unless they mainly work with children.
No doubt, there will be many more headlines as this new transparency tool shines a light on attempts to influence policy, much in the same way that the introduction of Freedom of Information laws almost 20 years ago spurred yards of newsprint.
There are several aspects of this new regime that are progressive. For a start, registration is mandatory rather than voluntary as is the case with the EU’s Transparency Register which has 7,000 organisations registered, more than half of whom represent corporate interests (88 are law firms).
Secondly, the register doesn’t just cover the activities of professional lobbyists – it also includes lobbying by a range of interest groups including trade unions, charities, non-profits, advocacy groups and representative bodies.
Thirdly, the definition of lobbying is fairly straightforward, focusing on communications (emails, meetings, phone calls, informal conversations, etc) between those who lobby and the lobbied (although the list of communications that do not have to be registered is unduly long and somewhat woolly).
There is a fine balance to be struck in regulating in this area: a register must ensure that there is appropriate transparency without creating excessive bureaucracy or impinging on the democratic right of citizens to interact with their local TD.
As I pointed out in this 2014 study, the real value in this kind of public register is that it will become a one-stop shop that would allow citizens to track significant attempts to influence senior policy-makers. On the downside, the greatest risk associated with it is that it will be a sideshow, shining a light on only a fraction of the actual lobbying that takes place, while allowing powerful interests to continue to influence policy ‘under the radar’.
There can be no doubt that even with this register in place, secretive and unregistered lobbying will continue. There are those – both lobbied and lobbyists – who will always seek and use influence in informal venues, which have quaintly been called the 'anterooms' of lobbying.
While it is certainly too early to pronounce on the comprehensiveness of the new register, it is somewhat disheartening that the Standards Commission’s own advisory group has already said they believe that there are a number of groups with access to designated public officials – the lobbied to you and me – that will not be captured by the Act.
However, at least we can see that these issues are being raised and disclosed, thanks to the fact that the minutes of meetings of the advisory group are to be routinely published under a new Transparency Code (see TASC’s submission on the code).
Thankfully, there is an inbuilt review in the law after one year of operation, and thereafter at three year intervals. We already know that beyond the first year mark the class of civil servants who are defined as the lobbied is to be expanded. The enforcement provisions in the law underpinning the new system will also take effect after a year. It is critical that the first review highlights any loopholes that could act as a conduit for unregulated or secretive lobbying lacking in transparency.