The whole objective of what we would call “legitimate lobbying” is to exercise democratic rights in a transparent and open way. If you once offer or accept bribes or any incentive then that is a criminal offence rather than lobbying.
Interview with Derek Purdy by Valts Kalniņš
Could you first tell how you would define what lobbying is?
My personal view is that lobbying is no more than citizens’ exercise in their democratic rights to put their points of view to government officials and politicians. But the method that you use is important. The whole objective of what we would call “legitimate lobbying” is to exercise democratic rights in a transparent and open way. Not just in Latvia but in lots of countries there is this misconception that lobbying actually is something that should not be done, that it’s a kind of bribery. But that isn’t lobbying. If you once offer or accept bribes or any incentive then that is a criminal offence rather than lobbying.
What do you think the reasons are for this misperception? In many democratic countries people have been living with democratic rights for decades or even hundreds of years. So there should be an understanding of what it means but still there are those suspicions and misperceptions.
Years ago rich people in the country would try to influence the politicians and would probably be politicians themselves. And the average citizen could not see how the process was going on. Therefore it seemed that it must be corrupt in some way and quite often they were right, – it was corrupt. So the real key to effective lobbying is to get the transparency in the system. In countries where it has been done, public perception has changed, not fast but still.
Which countries do you have in mind?
The UK for example. Ten years ago there wasn’t a great degree of transparency in the UK system, and we had instances where Members of Parliament would be paid by large companies or individuals to stand up in Parliament and try influencing the way law was being made or debate was going on a particular bill. Quite a scandal occurred and eventually ended up with at least one Member of Parliament being jailed for taking money and attempting to influence the result of a vote. As the result, it was made illegal for Members of Parliament to accept any inducements. Voluntary registration of professional lobbyists was put into place so that lobbying could become a profession. These firms where urged to get together and form an association of lobbyists. And they are the people that now are allowed to lobby professionally for fees. They have to be accredited by the association and they have to comply with their own Code of Conduct. One of the things that the Code of Conduct stresses very clearly is that as a lobbyist you must not offer any inducement to a Member of Parliament. If you do commit a criminal offence, your service will be departed from the lobbying association and you would not be on the practise as a lobbyist. So there is a combination of self-regulation – the lobbyist association itself drew up the rule of Code Conduct – but there is also a criminal provision.
In one of your recommendations that you consider for Latvia is a kind of self-regulation that in principle could be desirable. What could motivate the professional lobbyists and lobbying companies to actually organise themselves?
The benefits of joining the association or forming association for a lobbyist is that, once they have their Code of Conduct in place and they abide by their Code, it makes them legitimate. One of the things in the UK system is that the lobbyist has to disclose who they are working for. In the UK one does not have to disclose how much they are being paid, which is the case in American system. In the US the lobbyist has to actually disclose what fee they get. I am not convinced that it is necessary to do that. But I think it’s necessary to disclose who they’re working on behalf of. The other advantage that they would get in the UK system is that they get the access to the appropriate people in the appropriate committees to put their point of view. You might say that in every democratic system everybody should have access, and they should, but it’s useful to induce to make professional lobbyists registered.
Some people say: “Well, lobbying is fine as long as you do it on behalf of yourself or as long you do it of an association or non-profit organization, but once you start lobbying simply because you are paid for it, that is a problem, because that means that those who are able to hire lobbyists they get an advantage or influence compared to those who can not hire those people.”
But the objective [in Latvia] is trying to put together some guidance material, not just for the professionals, but the whole lobbying process, including the individual citizens who can become more effective in lobbying on their own behalf or through an association.
There are quite a few countries in Europe, particularly in continental Europe, which either do not have any regulation at all for lobbying or have a very limited framework for regulating this activity. Do you see any advantages in just leaving the process alone?
I think that countries where there are no regulations at all demonstrate the highest feeling that it’s not a legitimate process. Those are the countries where there is the most suspicion about the process. Just to leave it alone and not do anything would only cause an increase in the level of suspicion. I think there’s probably a halfway house somewhere. I don’t believe that making a new law about lobbying would be an answer. Certainly, not in Latvia in this time. In the other countries [e.g. Lithuania] that I know that have done it, it has not been a success. And I think the answer is to devise a guidance about how lobbying should be done and possibly with voluntary registration of professional lobbyists to demonstrate the openness of the process. Hopefully in that way one can increase legitimacy in the public perception.
Do you have in the UK any institutional means or procedures that would actually somehow attempt to get a key representation for interests that are not organized and that do not possess specific resources for lobbyists and so on. And that’s probably one of the fears that, OK, you have the transparency system, that is good, of course, and you have all those lobbyists and associations, but in every society you have loose, which are not organized, which do not possess sources, cannot get together to act to protect their interests.
Every citizen in the UK has a right to approach an MP. Members of Parliament would go back to their constituency from Parliament usually at the weekend and they would hold what they call “surgery”, where any member of their electorate can come in and explain their problems. It depends then on how active the MP is. There is no law that says that he then has to do something. So it depends on how good he is as an MP and how much he wishes to represent his constituent. And that MP may then take the issue back to Parliament or committees. If he likes, he will talk to other MPs, which is called lobbying. The MP will lobby other MP: what do you think about this, don’t you think you should do something better. And the MP acting there is a lobbyist amongst its fellow MPs. And that’s the process that works, but there is no legal background of that. It just works because, presumably, it’s a process of democracy that evolves over the years.
So I know that you will still be working on such guidelines. Apart from the general principle of transparency, maybe you could name a few more of the basic building blocks or principles that would come in there, and to which the politicians should stick in their relations with friends and people who serve around them?
There you have laws about disclosure of interest. For example, again in the UK there is a register of interests, which Members of Parliament have to sign. If there is a debate coming up in Parliament or the local authority that would affect that company or that organization, that member must declare interest and not take part in the debate and not vote. And if they are found to do that, that’s an offence for which they could be heavily fined or even jailed.
So, at this stage in conclusion, your feeling for Latvia is that we should do what?
The feeling is that you should not at this stage create a specific law about lobbying, but you should look at the possibility of amendments of the existing laws and quite small amendments. And then you should look at introducing guidelines that your government would prepare. And you should also look at voluntary registration of the professional end of field. And you should look at the process of educating the public through schools and universities about what lobbying really is.