John O’Connell is Chief Executive of the Taxpayer’s Alliance.
Whenever a new lobbying scandal emerges, the forgotten victim tends to be the taxpayer. A well-heeled special interest is usually after a subsidy, higher government spending or a bespoke tax break. The current episode is no different: at its heart lies a proposed solution to late payments within the NHS that could have cost taxpayers’ money.
Alongside taxpayers, small business loses out. Most can barely get hold of their local councillors, but taxpayer-funded groups and large companies can meet ministers and senior civil servants. Think of the business rates bill for the publican who served you your first post-lockdown pint on Monday; then think of the big companies that can secure meetings with HMRC to discuss their tax bills.
So lobbying has become synonymous with pleas from the well-connected for politicians and bureaucrats to reach even further into taxpayers’ pockets. Matt Ridley wrote about this in a column for The Times way back in 2013: “In Westminster the interests of spenders are represented by phalanxes of ministers, MPs, peers, lobbyists and journalists. The interest of the taxpayers is represented by a couple of lonely Treasury ministers and a few small voices such as the Taxpayers’ Alliance: it is an unequal battle.”
Indeed, we at the TPA spend pretty much every day attempting to fend off endless demands for more public cash. And while the requests of big business rightly get a lot of attention, there is a pretty broad spectrum of groups working hard to have more of your money. Many of the most prolific offenders are funded by taxpayers’ money themselves, using cash given to them by the Government (or councils, quangos etc) and access to senior people to lobby for even more money to be spent on their cause.
Many from the “social justice” wing of the campaigning world evidence this. The Runnymede Trust received significant amounts of cash from UK Research & Innovation over the five years up to 2020. At the same time, it has regularly made political interventions. The left-wing think tank the New Economics Foundation, which has actively campaigned for more public spending, received £127,715 the following year. Public sector organisations themselves lobby for even more cash, such as HS2 Ltd.
You’ll hear less about these groups in the noisy debate on lobbying. Prosaically, it’s because many groups engaging in lobbying are seen as “acceptable” or “nice” – allowed to lobby freely and openly because of the causes they champion. This probably also explains why their pleas for more cash are given relatively unchallenged platforms on broadcast media. If someone dares to point out that we spend too much money already, and that we ought to show restraint in order to keep taxes low, the Twitter mob descends.
Policy-making benefits from external contributions. Politicians and mandarins should of course be encouraged to learn from practitioners and hear from those who may be adversely impacted by their decisions. So there is a very real danger that a knee-jerk reaction to the Greensill affair will miss the mark. For instance, the focus on David Cameron is entirely understandable and reasonable – he’s the former prime minister – but solutions concocted with him too sharply in focus could tie up politicians and miss out mandarins, as pointed out by this site.
Badly thought out rules could see chats with companies registered, but not – for example – those with Fleet Street hacks. And if we let permanently offended and perennially angry Twitter mobs guide the proposals – which unfortunately happens all too often – we could end up cracking down on whomever they deem are “bad” lobbyists but not the (publicly-funded) “good” ones.
Let’s not forget, groups raging a guerrilla war against the taxpayer – dragging the public discourse towards more spending always being the only answer (a view not shared by most voters) – are far more powerful than they like to let on. It suits them just fine to undeservedly perch on the moral high ground and watch the private sector firms take the heat in the battle below, before resuming their taxpayer-funded lobbying unaffected.
So taxpayers need a system which tackles the root cause of the problem; one that says enough is enough to evermore spending pledges. That means fewer grants, streamlined quangos with stricter operational remits, ditching pointless schemes that waste time and money, better and more transparent contracts and ending programmes that have run their course or achieved their objective. Stop giving anyone or any organisation a reason to constantly ask for more cash. After all, we spend our own money better than bureaucrats and politicians.