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THE NEW PARLIAMENT SHOULD FINALLY GIVE LATVIA A LOBBYING REGULATION

The picture is a property of the Parliament of the Republic of Latvia

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The results of 2018 parliamentary elections in Latvia demonstrated that society demands change. Voters rejected 65% of the former Members of the Parliament. The government formation process took three months, however, there are indications that political will exists to introduce more transparency and strengthen the fight against corruption. Will the new politicians finally introduce the long-awaited lobbying regulation? 

 

The timing might be right considering the low levels of trust in the government but especially in the parliament of Latvia. Several large-scale corruption, bribery, money laundering scandals and a murder of insolvency administrator were revealed in 2017 and 2018 by Latvian media, law enforcement institutions and U.S. authorities. However, the issues didn’t receive adequate attention and prioritization from the people in charge of the decision making. Anti-corruption was not included in the former government’s declaration and thus neglected. The new Prime Minister Mr. Krisjanis Karins (New Unity) has declared that anti-corruption, anti-money laundering and fight against shadow economy will be priorities of his government.

If he and the new MPs want to rebuild public trust, they should introduce more transparency of the decision-making process and the work of MPs. Currently it is difficult to follow the legislative footprint in Latvia and information on lobbyists and the interests they represent remain largely secret. Despite recommendations by international organizations and several attempts to regulate lobbying since 2008 there is still no lobbying definition and several deficiencies in the current regulatory framework remain.

Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau has previously developed four different approaches to lobbying regulation (in 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2017), the President of Latvia organized an expert group in 2016 and presented its recommendations to the Parliament. Before 2014 elections political parties promised to solve lobbying issue, but later some of them didn’t keep the promise arguing that creation of the register would be useless due to burdensome costs and easy circumvention. Before 2018 elections the promise was given again. It’s time to walk the talk.

No control on lobbying means that many observers in Latvia see lobbying only as a process in which powerful interest groups influence laws and public policies for private gain. Decision-makers on the other hand are not sufficiently informed about how to ethically deal with lobbyists and how to manage the information they provide. There is also the issue of “informal lobbying”, using of “influential friends” and disclosing information “exclusively” for a select few. This situation possesses a serious risk of non-transparent influence and conflict of interest, undermining public trust and fueling the public assumption that all lobbying is bad.

When conducted with integrity, transparency and equality of access, lobbying is a very important part of a healthy democracy and a legitimate avenue for interest groups to be involved in the decisions that may affect them. Moreover, as argued by the European parliament think-tank: “The recent populist backlash against traditional political systems in many countries has put the issue of ethics at the forefront of government attempts to demonstrate that public policy is carried out without undue influence or interference from vested interests.”[1]

With new hope for change we in Transparency International Latvia used the International Anti-Corruption Day to invite the new MPs to discuss the implementation of a balanced regulation on lobbying. A regulation that recognizes lobbying as an important part of consultation with stakeholders and ensures equal access to information and public institutions. In cooperation with the Defense, Internal Affairs and Corruption Prevention Committee of the Parliament and two other experts on constitutional law we organized an event open for all MPs and Parliament staff. Around 20% of Parliamentarians attended, most of them newly elected.

The discussion was constructive and without opposition to the general idea of the need to regulate lobbying. Representatives from major parties (New Conservatives and Development/For!) have promised to bring this discussion into Parliament in 2019 and further collaborate with experts for the implementation of a lobbying legislation in line with international standards and best practices. These promises will now need to be turned into action.

With more countries across the world introducing lobbying registers over the past decade there are lessons to learn from existing examples and it is harder to use the “it will work only on paper” counter argument. Chile and Ireland have introduced notable reforms while several EU states (Ireland, France, UK, Austria, Slovenia, Poland and Lithuania) have introduced mandatory registers for lobbying disclosures in the past eight years[2]. European policy-makers also think lobbying transparency delivers better policy. In a survey of 600 European parliamentarians and officials, 89 per cent agreed that “ethical and transparent lobbying helps policy development”.[3]

The Open Government Declaration, signed by 75 states (including Latvia) is focused on these issues, too[4]: “We commit to making policy formulation and decision-making more transparent, creating and using channels to solicit public feedback, and deepening public participation in developing, monitoring and evaluating government activities.” Regulating lobbying effectively is essential to fulfilling these objectives.

The participation of Latvia in the Open Government Partnership and its Anti-Corruption group is a great opportunity to help the Latvian government deliver lobbying policies by working collaboratively. The provision of formal timelines and accountability mechanisms would help the government overcome some of the challenges of encountered at the national level, thanks to technical support and the opportunity for peer-learning.

Key Recommendations by Transparency International Latvia

TI Latvia recommends the government to take the following four steps to implement lobbying legislation in Latvia:

  • Adopt law on lobbying transparency

The law should include a broad definition on lobbying, lobbyist and lobbying target and publication of legislative footprint.

  • Create open, equitable and responsive channels for public consultation

Authorities must provide the public with an equal opportunity to participate by ensuring that consultations are open to all, widely promoted and run for a sufficient period of time to permit participants to review the issues under consideration and provide meaningful responses. Governments should publish a copy of all written and verbal submissions to the consultation online and demonstrate in their response how and why certain views have been taken into account and others have been disregarded.

  • Establish a mandatory, open-data, public register of records of interactions between lobbyists and public officials

This should disclose sufficient information about an interaction and include identity and subject matter of the lobbyist, information on beneficiary and target institution/decision-maker, type and frequency of the activities, documentation shared with the decision makers and source of funding. This information must be registered and disclosed in a timely fashion (e.g. on a quarterly basis) and published in open-data format on a single, online, free-to-access, user-friendly platform.

  • Introduce mandatory codes of conduct for both officials and lobbyists and ensure there are appropriate sanctions in place for non-compliance

The International Standards for Lobbying Regulation[1] state that public officials’ codes of conduct must be comprehensive and address key behavioural principles, record-keeping obligations, the duty to avoid unregistered contact with lobbyists, conflicts of interest procedures, gifts and hospitality registrations and interest and asset disclosures. Lobbyist codes of conduct should be developed in open consultation. Both codes must be robustly enforced by an independent regulator, which is constituted to receive and investigate complaints from the public, impose meaningful sanctions that act as a deterrent, and report transparently on its activities and outcomes.

More information:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZupartrHaM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STJeriu7MK4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6DrJ0daIOs

Authors: Liene Gatere and Antonio Greco from Transparency International Latvia

[1] Transparency International, International Standards for Lobbying Regulation, 2016.

[1] European Parliament Think Tank, Regulating lobbying in Canada, 2017, available at: www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document.html?reference=EPRS_BRI(2017)603896

[2] European Parliament, Infographic: Regulation of lobbying across the EU, 2016, available at: www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ATAG/2016/595830/EPRS_ATA%282016%29595830_EN.pdf

[3] S. Mulcahy, Lobbying in Europe (Transparency International: 2015)

[4] Open Government Partnership, Open Government Declaration, available at: www.opengovpartnership.org/open-government-declaration

This blog was drafted under the framework of the “International Anti-Corruption Day Small Grants” project funded by Transparency International secretariat.

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