Lobbying takes its name from the Lobby of the House of Commons.

Lobbying is the process of trying to persuade the government, or a political party, to change their policies. The term originates from the lobby of the House of Commons where you could go to try and persuade your MP to adopt a certain position. Lobbying is an important part of the British political process and is sometimes very controversial. So how does it work, how significant is it and what major controversies have there been surrounding it?

How does lobbying work?

Lobbying normally takes two forms. The first is ‘in-house’ lobbying. This is when charities, corporations and other bodies will employ full-time lobbyists to direct their attempts to influence the government. Big organisations, like multi-national companies, will spend significant money on this process. For example, in 2017 a study suggested that major companies had spent £25 Million lobbying the European Government in the last two years (the EU monitors this spending, the UK does not).

Other lobbying comes through lobbyists who work for lobbying firms. These firms take on contracts to try to influence the government in a certain way. In the UK some of the most prominent lobbying firms include:

Bellenden – Has lobbied on behalf of AQA, Scottish Power and Serco Defence.

Teneo (formerly Blue Rubicon) – Has lobbied on behalf of Coca-Cola, British Gas and Shell.

Connect Communications – Has lobbied on behalf of Peabody, the Police Federation and Unison.

Lexington Communications – Has lobbied on behalf of Mars UK, Pfizer and the Premier League.

What are the rules surrounding lobbying?

David Cameron called lobbying the next big scandal in 2010.

Historically there have been relatively few rules surrounding lobbying. This is based on the fact that lobbying equates with free speech. However, in 2014 the Coalition Government legislated on the issue and Parliament passed the Lobbying Act (2014). In 2010, following the MPs Expenses Scandal, David Cameron had picked out lobbying as “the next big scandal waiting to happen”.

As regards lobbying, the 2014 Act did one key thing – it created a register of lobbyists. Anyone who meets the statutory definition of lobbying must sign register and account for their lobbying activities. The Acts definition of lobbying is “contacting a UK government minister or permanent secretary (or certain equivalents) on behalf of a third party, in return for payment”.

There are a number of limits to this provision. The most significant, however, is that the register is only applicable to individuals or firms lobbying on behalf a third-party. This means that in-house lobbyists were unaffected, meaning the regulation of the most powerful companies and organisations was largely therefore unaffected. Perplexing, it is those firms who spend the most on lobbying that the act is likely to have a minimal effect on, whilst smaller organisations like charities, will have their lobbying efforts impacted. In 2015 Transparency International estimated that only around 4% of lobbyists were actually on the register.

In addition to this, there are rules of what lobbying roles former Ministers and Civil Servants can take. There are time limits in place to prevent Ministers and Senior Civil Servants from becoming lobbyists straight away. This is to try to limit the ‘revolving door’ problem.

How significant is lobbying in the UK?

The figures on lobbying in the UK are very significant. For example:

  • The annual spend on lobbying in the UK is estimated to be around £2 Billion.
  • It is estimated that around 4,000 people work in the lobbying industry.
  • 8/10 lobbyists are from FTSE 100 companies, the largest companies in the country.
  • The Hansard Society has estimated the average MP is contacted around 100 times a week by lobbyists.
Labour MP Zarah Sultana gave a powerful Commons speech about her experience of lobbying.

By their very nature lobbyists are likely to overstate their own successes, it is important for their future business. However, there can be no doubt they can have a significant impact.

The NFU lobby on behalf of farmers.

For example, even just taking one organisation like the National Farming Union (NFU) multiple examples of successful lobbying can be found:

2010 – The NFU successfully lobbied the EU to ensure mandatory country of origin food labelling.

2015 – The NFU successfully lobbied so that plant nurseries would be exempt from business rates.

2022 – The NFU successfully lobbied to have Small Woodlands qualify as Ecological Focus Areas in Scotland.

2023 – The NFU successfully lobbied to ensure rural households receive additional energy help when they were ‘off-grid’.

What have some of the most significant lobbying scandals been?

Despite being a fundamental part of the political process, lobbying is often a controversial issue and there have been a number scandals relating to it.

David Cameron and Greensill Capital – 2021

Cameron called lobbying the ‘next big scandal’ but upon leaving office was himself embroiled in a big lobbying scandal!

The most famous recent lobbying scandal surrounded former Prime Minister, David Cameron. Following leaving Downing Street David Cameron became a paid advisor to Greensill Capital, a company owned by Lex Greensill who had previously been an unpaid advisor to him whilst he was Prime Minister. Along with a salary, Cameron received significant shares in Greensill, meaning it was in his financial interest for the company to grow significantly. In 2020 at the start of the COVID crisis Cameron attempted to persuaded Government Ministers to allow Greensill to join the corporate Covid Financing Facility (CCFF). This would enable the company to issue Government insured loans and could potentially make the company significant money. Between the 5th March and 26th June 2020 David Cameron or his team contacted Government Ministers, including the then Chancellor Rishi Sunak, over 45 times.

Cameron did not break the Lobbying Act (2014) that he had introduced because he did not technically count as a lobbyist because he was employed directly by Greensill Capital. However, as former PM he had extraordinary influence that he was seeking to exploit for financial gain. It is estimated Cameron made £3.3 Million from the company which has now collapsed.

Cameron was called to give evidence to the Treasury Committee where he was grilled for his lobbying engagements.

Owen Paterson and Randox – 2020

Owen Paterson faced a 30-day suspension for lobbying.

Owen Paterson was an MP and former Northern Ireland Minister. In 2015 he became a paid advisor for a company called Randox. This is a global healthcare company. In 2019 he was earning around £8,333 a month for his part-time consultancy role for which he worked 16 hours a month. As required, he declared these payments on the Register of Members Interests. In March 2020 at the start of the COVID pandemic Randox was a awarded a huge government contract without a proper tendering process. During this period, Paterson had contacted Government Ministers on behalf of Randox but these meetings were not minuted, as required by parliamentary rules. Later, Randox was awarded further contracts.

During an investigation in October 2021 Paterson was found to have breached parliamentary rules by lobbying for Randox in the way that he had. The Commons Standards Commission recommended he be suspended from the House of Commons for 30 days, this would be the joint longest in modern history and would also make him liable to a recall under the Recall of MPs Act (2015). Paterson subsequently resigned, but not before having been supported by Boris Johnson, something which damaged the Prime Minister.

The Ecclestone Affair – 1997

The Ecclestone Affair damaged Tony Blair.

When New Labour came into government they planned to ban the advertising of tobacco products in sports. However, they gave Formula One an exemption of one year despite other sports not getting the same treatment. It then emerged that Bernie Ecclestone, the owner of Formula One, had donated a £1 Million pound to the Labour Party. This very much led to the suggestion that the lobbying by Formula One (and the money donated) had led to an unreasonable change in government policy.

Lobbygate – 1998

Derek Draper’s boasting got him in serious trouble.

This controversy surrounded Derek Draper who had been a senior aid to Peter Mandelson and then left to become a lobbyist. He was fired after boasting that there were only ’17 people who count’ inside government and that he was ‘intimate with every one of them’. The issue of the so-called ‘revolving door’ was very much at play in this scandal.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the system of lobbying?

Some of the potential strengths and justifications of lobbying include:

Lobbyists can provide expertise – Lobbying is a well-funded activity and can lobbyists can often afford to carry out detailed research to support their points. This can consequently help the decision-making process in Government.

There is some regulation – Since the Lobbying Act (2014) there has been some greater transparency surrounding lobbying that has bought a little more trust in the process.

Lobbying is free speech – There is an argument that lobbying is simply an extension of free speech that it is essential is maximised in a representative democracy.

Some of the weaknesses and criticisms of lobbying include:

It disproportionality helps already powerful interests – The organisations that can best afford to lobby government are those that have the most money. As such, they can dominate the agenda and push out smaller interests. This is particularly the case with large corporations who can afford in-house lobbyists who do not even have to register their activities.

The revolving door weakens government – The revolving door refers to the process whereby Ministers and Civil Servants leave office or their role in order to become lobbyists. They are then able to use their expertise and contacts to support their lobbying. This leads to mistrust of the process, as shown in the Greensill scandal.

The Qatari Government spent huge amounts on hospitality for UK MPs during the World Cup.

The Lobbying Act (2014) has serious gaps – The Lobbying Act 2014 was meant to improve transparency over lobbying. However, it only scratches the surface and the cast majority of lobbyists do not fall under its regulatory umbrella. In addition, there are no limits on hospitality and gift giving, meaning this is a mechanism that is often used to influence Ministers. For example in the most recent Register of Members Interests it was disclosed that a number of Parliamentarians had received hospitality from the Qatari Government during the World Cup. In fact, the Qatari Government spent £260,000 on hosting UK MPs during the tournament. In addition, recently:

Gary Sambrook received £3,1000 in hospitality from the Israeli Government.

Helen Grant received tickets for Wimbledon worth £895.

Matt Hancock received £11,638 in hospitality from Hawksmoor Technology Advisors.

Article Summary

Lobbying is a natural part of an open democratic society. However, it clearly has the ability to be abused to benefit the rich and powerful. In the UK, there have traditionally been few regulations on lobbying and those bought in recently have not done enough to make it more transparent.

Key Terms

Register of Members Interests – The register than MPs have to sign when they received a payment from a company or an equivalent gift that would have a cash value.

Lobbying – The process of trying to influence the government or politicians towards a particular policy outcome.

Lobbying Act (2014) – An Act of Parliament that sought to bring more transparency to lobbying in the UK but has not gone far enough to address key issues.

Revolving Door – The process whereby Ministers and Civil Servants leave office or their role in order to become lobbyists.

Specification Links:
Edexcel: Paper 1 – 1.3 (Democracy and Participation)
AQA: Paper 1 – (Pressure Groups)
WJEC: Paper 2 – 2.3.2 (Participation through political parties, pressure groups and political movements)

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