I was recently in the United States, working with pilots, cabin crew, representatives from Airbus & Boeing and American Airlines, arguing for a standard to deal with cabin air quality. This work, done under the auspices of ASHRAE, is vital if we are going to tackle the scourge of fumes escaping into the aircraft cabin environment. As I was talking to one of the pilots representatives, he was intrigued about the work of HolidayTravelWatch. I provided an explanation of our work, conscious of the great differences on travel consumer rights in Europe and that of the USA. When I finished my explanation, this pilot stated, "So you are a lobbyist!".
There are many labels that people attach to the work that I do, so being described as a 'lobbyist' did not cause me any angst.
The first time I encountered a real opposition to what I do was in April 2010, following a speech I made at the EU Commission to the 27 Member States on the future of the Package Travel Regulations. As we were being introduced to the audience, we were told that a representative from the Low Fares Airlines of Europe would be joining us later in the morning; he was in Brussels, and that he had been 'spotted' in various parts of the Commission.
During my presentation, I suggested to the audience that the goal of trying to legislate for airlines to be brought into a Consumer financial protection scheme (we know that here as ATOL), was too ambitious, because there was a need for the Consumer lobby of Europe to collate evidence and present that information against a very determined airline lobby in Brussels.
Following my presentation, the representative for the Low Fares Airlines, spent some 10 minutes telling the audience of the benefits that airlines bring to the EU economy - I don't think anyone in the audience objected to that obvious information - thereafter, he spent the following 20 minutes severely criticising what I had to say and how the airlines did not lobby in the way I suggested! Ouch; I only described them as a 'determined' lobby!
This week-end we have witnessed again the scourge of lobbying activity in Westminster. I also lobby in Westminster and have witnessed, in a number of areas, a very organised lobby machine on behalf of or supplied by industry direct. I have also seen how sophisticated such a lobby machine is, with legal representation/assistance sitting in the rows behind 'their' witnesses in Select Committee meetings.
It is also clear, that various industries have direct access, or easy access to UK Civil Servants or Ministers.
Compare that to our access and that of other Consumer campaigners!
From my perspective, we have good access in Brussels or Strasbourg. I meet with MEP's, Civil Servants and Officials right up to Cabinet Level. As an organisation we cannot afford the daily presentation of the Consumer case. There are organisations in Brussels that represent Consumer opinion, but they appear to be limited to the cohort that they draw that experience from and I worry that the full extent of Consumer experiences is not being extracted. When I meet with anyone in Brussels, I am always surprised as to the extent of their knowledge, even if they disagree with me, and my meetings allow for a real presentation of the Consumer story, and, we also witness the benefit of that lobbying activity in the proposed Directives, Regulations or policy that is published!
Compare now my experience at Westminster! Access is difficult! In 10 years I have only met directly with one Civil Servant. I have attended stakeholder meetings where I was left with the distinct impression that the Consumer agenda was not on the agenda. Many of these meetings are packed with Industry officials who in some cases, advocate quite openly, that laws should be abolished! With regards to MP's, I have found some of them to be startlingly ill-informed and unable to develop solutions to real problems offered by Consumers.
When I speak with my fellow Consumer campaigners, they often wonder why they suffer this imbalance and lack of access. To understand why Consumers often have difficulty in getting their voices heard, I would suggest that you read the now infamous Powell Memorandum, which sets out how 'Industry' will combat those that oppose them!
Now I am not suggesting that everything in the Memorandum was implemented, but all I would ask you to do is to sit back and think about how the messages you hear today are affected by the message of Industry, not just politically but also in the mainstream press.
Another recent experience relates to the issue of Carbon Monoxide. We are concerned about the lack of real protection for Consumers in holidays, whether they stay in a compex, cottage or use a portable barbeque. Because the issues are common, we have joined our fellow Consumer campaigners here in the UK to argue for greater protections for all (we are also working in Europe on a discussion about increased protections in holiday accommodation).
Those who follow me know that on 31 October 2012, we wrote to the Cabinet Office, seeking to understand how they were going to implement this government's new policy on Public Information Films with regards to Carbon Monoxide. We also asked for an official to meet with us and other campaigners to bring forward the reality of a true public/private partnership on this issue.
As we are now at Day 215 of this democratic deficit, I am left wondering if I were a large 'industry', would I still be standing at the front door?
Frankly, the contrast could not be greater between the Westminster experience and that of Europe and the United States!
Another example, concerns attempts by Consumer campaigners (I was involved in lobbying) to have laid down, 4 straightforward amendments to the Energy Bill, currently resting with the House of Commons. These amendments were designed to bring about conditions to protect you and me against Carbon Monoxide. I wrote to all the members of the All-Party Parliamentary Carbon Monoxide Group (once by e mail and twice by letter), and whilst there are a very small number of MP's/Lords who are 'engaged' on this subject, the majority, judging by the responses or lack of responses I have received, are failing in my view to consider the very issues that matters to their constituents.
If the public have a lack of confidence in our political system, then these experiences will I hope demonstrate why that is! Whilst the alleged receiving of money by MP's and Lords for lobbying is always going to be considered as repugnant, what concerns most ordinary people is the fact that their political masters appear disconnected from their everyday concerns.
For our part, we fully support the introduction of a Westminster based 'Lobbyists' Register.
Why? Quite simply, we are already on a Lobbyists Register - The EU Transparancy Register!
From now on, at the start of every political meeting we attend, we shall make the following statement during our introduction:
- That we are on the EU Transparency Register;
- That we fully declare our actitivities and interests;
- That we will spend 5,000 Euros this year on the expenses we inccur whilst lobbying;
- That we do not receive any public or other grants;
- That we do not provide any payment/payment in kind to any official whilst lobbying;
- That we do not employ any third party to carry out lobbying activities on our behalf;
- Our lobbying activities is entirely based on the Consumer story.
So the morning after the furore, I will leave you to decide how you think our political proces is working here in the UK and challenge the politicians to come up with something better and ensure that we all have equality of arms!