|The Persuasionists - what now for lobbyists?|
|Friday, 27 July 2012 03:33|
‘Dark arts’, ‘fat cats’: Lobbyists are used to name-calling. But will the government’s much vaunted register ever materialise? Molly Pierce investigates.
In May 2010, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties formed a Coalition to govern the UK, following an inconclusive General Election. The various incompetencies that have followed that formation won’t be detailed here: but one particular part of the Coalition’s statement has come to have a great deal of significance for that part of the communications industry that is involved in public affairs. The parties will tackle lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists. We also agree to pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding in order to remove big money from politics.
“The government wanted to regulate through this register,” said Phil Morgan, director of policy and communications at the CIPR. “But unless the register was to be backed up by a statutory code of conduct, that wouldn’t have been possible.”
The statement also makes – or rather confirms – a particular assumption about lobbying. The implication that lobbying is something to “tackle”, i.e. that it is a negative; an implication backed up by the language of “[w]e also agree to pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations... in order to remove big money from politics” links together “lobbying” and “big money”. This perception, that lobbying is the preserve of moneyed corporations, is one that the profession has fought against for years.
These dual confusions, over what the register’s purpose was, whether it was to regulate or simply list; and over exactly how lobbying works and who it works for, have dogged the proposed register for two years. Multiple issues have arisen and been ignored or half-dealt with, but the plans to register lobbyists in the UK persist. So why is it so important to have this register? What will it mean for the profession? And will we ever actually get one?
In the 2006 pamphlet Friend of Foe? Lobbying in British Democracy published by the Hansard Society and comms and recruitment consultancy Ellwood and Atfield, Philip Parvin quotes CIPR estimations of the numbers involved in lobbying. The CIPR estimated that the size of the PR profession in the UK at that time was around 48,000, and that around 30% of that number, so 14,000 people, undertook activities that come under the broad classification of public affairs and lobbying. Parvin also points out that the CIPR estimated the worth of the UK PR industry at around £6.5 billion: meaning that public affairs was worth some £1.9 billion at the time – and more now. The chief executive of the PRCA, Francis Ingham, says that approximately a quarter of the PRCA’s membership is involved in lobbying. “We know this because of our public affairs register. For some, it’s a marginal part of what they do; for others, it’s integral to their business,” he said.
The numbers involved in the public affairs profession mean that the register is a good idea. “We completely believe that a register is needed,” said Morgan. “Lobbyist activity – including the details of who an agency’s clients are – should be public knowledge, and the CIPR supports moves within the industry to become more ethical, and more transparent.”
Another factor that backs up the necessity of creating a register is the public perception of the lobbying and public affairs industry. A recent investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which was splashed in the Guardian, revealed that the financial services industry had spent £92 million in 2011 on lobbying politicians to secure “policy victories”. The investigation prompted a slew of accusations that the money spent, and power exerted, by lobbyists were enabling the financial industry to overshadow Britain’s wider economic interests.
Another BIJ investigation, printed this time in the Independent, captured senior executives at the well-respected comms firm Bell Pottinger Public Affairs boasting of their influence over policy-makers and their access to the highest levels of government. The sting was designed to elicit responses from public affairs professionals when asked to take on the public affairs of clients of questionable intent and history: the journalists posed as representatives of the government of Uzbekistan and its cotton industry, which has been accused in the past of human rights violations and child labour use.
These two investigations have caused severe damage to the reputation of the industry, but there is a sense that it is being used as a scapegoat. Vince Cable spoke to the media after the recent report on financial lobbying and castigated the industry, saying that “[t]he banking sector is disproportionately influential.”
“The government is using the public affairs industry as a shield,” said Ingham. “Its predecessors did the same thing for many years. But in virtually every lobbying ‘scandal’, there are no lobbyists involved. It’s far more often ex-MPs or ex-Ministers who are peddling bogus access.”
Ingham is robust on the necessity of the government publicly acknowledging the importance of the public affairs industry. “A great deal of the problem is caused by Parliamentarians,” he said. “It’s a two-way process, and MPs can’t continue to duck the issue, because at least half of it is their problem – who is the subject of the system, if not politicians?”
Lionel Zetter, an independent public affairs consultant who is also extremely active on the other side of political life, having stood for Parliament and worked at Conservative Central Office, was also adamant on the fact that government provides a counterweight for lobbying. “It’s an important part of the democratic process,” he said, “and just as there is a register of politicians and regulation of their activities, there should be for lobbyists.”
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry recently, at which the subject of lobbying arose. Clegg commented at one point that there was a problem of politicians not knowing who they were meeting with – a comment perceived by many as throwing the role of the SpAd under the bus – and then later said that there wasn’t a problem. Ingham called his comments “inane”: “Either there is a problem or there isn’t. The government spin on this issue is getting tiresome. If Parliament believes there is a problem, then it’s within its power to solve that problem.”
So why has it been so hard to create a register? The problem seems to lie in a lack of commitment from the government. In July 2010, the UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC) was formed, comprising of the CIPR, the PRCA, and the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC). In November of that year, UKPAC opened the register, with the plan to have it populated by APPC, CIPR and PRCA members, and then to make it available to the public.
However, just over a year later, the PRCA withdrew from UKPAC in a blow to the organisation’s credibility. Ingham still stands by this decision, controversial as it was. “UKPAC didn’t have the credibility to hold the statutory register or to speak on behalf of the public affairs industry,” he said. “We had no particular relish in leaving the council – we’d invested a lot of time and money in it, and took the decision with regret – but it just wasn’t working.”
The CIPR stuck with UKPAC, and at the time Jane Wilson, CEO, called the PRCA’s decision “disappointing” and “counter-productive.” Morgan believes that staying with UKPAC was the right move. “The importance of UKPAC,” he said, “is that it currently shows how the delivery of a register through an independent body would look in practice. And the difficulties surrounding the register reflect its subject, which is complex.”
Since the PRCA’s withdrawal from the Council, the register has crept forward. In January of this year, Communicate reported on the consultation launched by the government, which opened the plans for a register to public opinion. The CIPR debated the proposals for the register with Mark Harper, the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, at which point it became evident that there was a major flaw in the government’s initial commitment.
Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists, the white paper produced by the Coalition, focused the register on professionals who undertake lobbying on behalf of a third party client. Itquickly became clear that almost no-one supported this limitation to the register.
A CIPR survey presented to Harper in February indicated that 70% of its membership believed that in-house public affairs practitioners should be included in the register, contrary to the original proposal. The CIPR response to the consultation also included the strong support of its members for the inclusion of trade unions, freelancers, charities and think tanks in the register – they had previously been put forward as being classified under a ‘good cause exemption’, underlining the negative perception of ‘traditional’ lobbyists allied with business. A PRCA statement at the time backed this up: “We would caution the government that a register which fails to include charities, lawyers, trade unions, accountancy firms and the like would be a failure. It would be unfair to multi-client agencies, and would leave a majority of the lobbying industry uncovered.”
Zetter gave evidence to a Political and Constitutional Reform Committee hearing in February to the effect that although there was broad support in the industry for a register, there was little appetite for expensive and bureaucratic regulation. “Broad and shallow” was his maxim – including those members of the industry whose work is done in-house.
He believes forcefully that lobbying is a power for good in democracy. “It works because there are two – at least two – sides to every argument. Government has to hear from all those sides,” he said. Asked to cite a recent example of a positive outcome of lobbying, he said: “It’s difficult, because most lobbying is done reasonably discreetly at a policy and civil servant level. But working with the Airport Operators Association recently has succeeded in pushing aviation, and particularly the issues of air passenger duty – of which we in Britain pay the highest rate in the world, restricting tourism and investment – and of net capacity – there have been no new runways built in and around London for the last 30 years – have seen some rewarding successes.” The day after we spoke, the consultation on expanding airports was delayed for a second time, but there are reports that George Osborne and other Conservative MPs are warming to the idea of a third runway at Heathrow, at least.
Zetter is also adamant that opposition to lobbyists – effectively, lobbyists arguing the other side of the argument – are crucial, citing Plane Stupid as an example of effective expansion of the debate around a particular issue. “It is patent rubbish not to include charities or organisations such as the CBI in any definition or register of lobbyists,” said Ingham. “And if the register is truly universal, it will show that lobbying is very much not just the preserve of big business – it’s in fact an integral part of this country’s operation.”
“Those arguing against lobbying and public affairs consultancy are in fact lobbyists themselves,” points out Morgan. “It’s a small group, though: there isn’t any sort of universal concern that lobbying is ‘A Bad Thing’.”
Days before going to press, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons released its report on the register. The Committee recommended that the plans as they stood should be scrapped. The basis for this recommendation was the focus on those who lobby for third party clients – pointing out that although in-house teams wouldn’t have to register under those proposals, ‘one-man band’ lobbyists would have to give their professional details and pay for the privilege.
This echoed a point made by Morgan, who said that a register that introduced a compliance burden along with a hefty price tag wouldn’t benefit the industry. “We believe in full disclosure up to a reasonable and sensitive point,” he said.
The Committee’s report went on to highlight the fact that government records of ministerial meetings suggest that meetings with third party lobbyists make up less than 1% of all meetings with Ministers, and suggested that the register as it was planned would meet the Coalition’s initial pledge, but do little to address the underlying need. It recommends that instead the government should “introduce regulation to cover all those who lobby professionally, in a paid role, including those who lobby on behalf of charities, trade unions, and think tanks.”
There is strong support within the industry for a register: but frustration with the political interference that’s being run. “It works well, and it’s pretty transparent,” said Zetter. “It will work better when it’s more transparent.”