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Will Latvia finally introduce long-awaited lobbying regulations?


An earlier version of this post originally appeared on the Transparency International Latvia (Delna) website.

The results of recent parliamentary elections in Latvia demonstrate that citizens are demanding change from their government, including how policymakers combat corruption across the country.

Despite several large-scale corruption, bribery and money laundering scandals, the previous Parliament largely ignored corruption issues. In the 2018 election, corruption was one of the main issues of concern to the voting public, and 65 per cent of the former Members of the Parliament (MPs) were voted out of office.

There are encouraging early signs that the new government has the political will to introduce more transparency into government and strengthen the fight against corruption.

The need for transparency

The new Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins of the New Unity party announced that anti-corruption, anti-money laundering and the fight against a shadow economy will be among the main priorities of his administration.

While these priorities are welcomed by Latvian citizens, if Karins and the new batch of MPs want to rebuild public trust, they should also introduce more transparency into government decision making processes and the work of Parliament.

Limited information

Currently, it is difficult to obtain information on lobbyists and their interests in Latvia. For example, a legislative footprint, which provides a detailed public record of those stakeholders or lobbyists that provide input to policymakers, can be very difficult to follow for a specific piece of legislation.

Despite recommendations by international organizations and several attempts to regulate lobbying since 2008, there are still several deficiencies in how lobbying is defined and how lobbyists operate in Latvia.

Previously, the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau developed four different approaches to lobbying regulations. In 2016, the President of Latvia also organized an expert group on the issue and presented its recommendations to Parliament. Yet despite these efforts and promises, few improvements have been made.

Unregulated lobbying

Weak controls on lobbying means that powerful interest groups can influence laws and policies, and can do so without the public being fully aware of who is influencing government decision making.

Equally troubling, unregulated lobbying also means that decision makers are not sufficiently informed about how to work ethically with lobbyists and how to manage the information lobbyists provide.

Unregulated lobbying poses serious risks for conflicts of interest and can undermine public trust and fuel public perceptions that all lobbying is bad.

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Ethical lobbying

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.

The European Parliament Think Tank made this point in a recent publication on lobbying practices in Canada:

“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.”

The paper goes on to highlight how Canada, one of the first countries in the world to regulate parliamentary lobbying, passed legislation to ensure lobbyists register their activities.

Advocating for change

With renewed hope for change, Transparency International Latvia (Delna) recently organized an event for MPs to discuss the implementation of a balanced regulation on lobbying. A balanced regulation recognizes lobbying as an important part of consultation with stakeholders and ensures equal access to information and public institutions.

An event at Parliament for International Anti-Corruption Day (Image: Ieva Ābele, Saeima/Flickr)

In cooperation with the Defense, Internal Affairs and Corruption Prevention Committee of Parliament and two other experts on constitutional law, we discussed the need for Parliament to take action in 2019 and pass legislation in line with international standards and best practices.

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Lobbying regulations worldwide

With more countries around the world introducing lobbying registers, there are many lessons to learn. For example, Chile and Ireland introduced notable lobbying reforms in 2014 and 2015 respectively, which have strengthened lobbying regulations. In addition, in the last eight years, several countries in the European Union (EU), including France, United Kingdom, Austria, Slovenia, Poland and Lithuania, introduced mandatory registers for lobbying disclosures.

European policymakers also think transparency in lobbying delivers better policy. In a 2015 survey of 600 European parliamentarians and officials, 89 per cent agreed that “ethical and transparent lobbying helps policy development”.

The Open Government Declaration, signed by 75 countries worldwide, including Latvia, is also focused on these issues. The declaration states:

“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.

As a participant of the Open Government Partnership and its anti-corruption working group, Latvia has a great opportunity to reform its lobbying policies by working collaboratively. The provision of formal timelines and accountability mechanisms could help the government overcome some national challenges, thanks to increased technical support and an opportunity for peer learning.

Key recommendations

1) Adopt a law on lobbying transparency

The law should include a broad definition of lobbying, lobbyists and lobbying targets, as well as include a requirement for the publication of legislative footprints.

2) Create open, equitable and responsive channels for public consultation

Provide the public with an equal opportunity to participate in lobbying efforts by ensuring that consultations are open to all. Consultations should be widely promoted and run for a sufficient period of time for participants to review the issues under consideration and provide meaningful responses. Copies of all written and verbal submissions to legislative consultations should be published online.

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

A register should disclose the identity of the lobbyist and the subject of their lobbying, information on the target institution or decision maker, the 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.

4) 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 provides a comprehensive framework for a code of conduct for public officials. In addition, codes of conduct for lobbyists should be developed in open consultation. Both should be enforced by an independent regulator, who may receive and investigate complaints from the public, impose meaningful sanctions, and report transparently on its activities and outcomes.

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This blog is part of a 25th anniversary series showcasing anti-corruption efforts from chapters around the Transparency International movement.

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