I am writing in response to the Government’s post-legislative scrutiny review of Part 1 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014(“the Act”).
Park Street Partners is a consultancy engaged in corporate communications, public affairs and lobbying on behalf of a number of different clients. I have also in the past been the Chief Executive of Newgate Communications and MHP Communications, the latter at the time being the largest public affairs consultancy in the UK. I hold a number of posts in the PRCA: I am a member of its board, a member of the Public Affairs Board, and one of two standing members of the Professional Practices Committee of the PRCA. I am a past Deputy Chair of the APPC and, at one time, I was a Clerk in the House of Commons – and so have been on the receiving end of lobbying as well as acting as a lobbyist. Although I am drawing on all of that experience in writing this response, I should stress that I am doing so in a personal capacity.
This review is timely, not least given the media scrutiny the industry has faced in the past few months. The Act has been a success in some regards, but it must be viewed as an important step along the way, not the end of the journey, as far as regulation of lobbying is concerned. I hope that the Government will now make the changes needed to ensure that further steps forward are taken, not least in extending the provisions of the Act to a much wider range of lobbyists.
‘Lobbying’ is often regarded as a disreputable activity that in some ways distorts and corrupts the political process. This view is just plain wrong. Effective policy can only be formulated when it is properly and fully informed by the views of all those affected by it – in other words, by lobbying. Anyone involved in the political process knows that the worst policy mistakes have arisen when outside voices and experience have been ignored.
Generally speaking, those who object to lobbying really dislike something else: large companies which make a profit. They tend to think that education unions having a view on schools policy, animal welfare charities pushing for changes to the law in their area, thinktanks advocating for improvements, small businesses seeking Government support or even individuals writing to their MPs are all acceptable but a corporation advancing its interests is not. Yet all of these are lobbying, and they collectively make an essential contribution to ensuring that political decision-makers understand the impact of the choices they make. What lobbying does is remove officials, advisers and Ministers from the ivory tower that the political process builds around them (whether they like it or not).
However, where those who are worried about lobbying have a point is when the process is less than transparent. Lobbying is effective when policy-makers are able to hear from all sides, know who they are hearing from, and make a fully informed decision. If any part of this is covert it breaks down. The Act was meant to ensure that this was not the case, and it is only half successful. The rest of this document will suggest ways in which it can and should be improved.
Do you think any changes to lobbying and the lobbying industry have resulted from the Act?
It would be difficult to point to major changes in lobbying practice as a result of the Act since, as I will discuss below, its scope is so limited. That is not to say that the legislation has been pointless: in fact, it has provided a useful statutory back up to existing registers and self-regulatory structures. However, it has in reality only impacted on those lobbyists who were already signed up for registers and codes of conduct anyway; for the Act to make a real difference it must be expanded in three important ways.
Is the scope of the Act – who registers and why – appropriate?
No. The Act currently covers (in effect) direct lobbying of Ministers and the most senior civil servants (Permanent Secretaries) by consultant lobbyists. This is not good enough in three ways:
- Registration is only half of the story; those who register, and who are thus on some level at least are given a ‘stamp of approval’, should also be subject to a code of conduct that governs their behaviour, such as the PRCA Public Affairs Code. The Act at present does not require registrants to sign up to a code (although it does allow this to be declared), and some have chosen not to do so, whilst others have adopted codes of questionable value. All organisations on the register should be required to sign up to a recognised code of conduct which includes some way of them being held to account for their actions and behaviour.
- The interactions covered by the Act should be expanded to include Special Advisers to Ministers and could also cover a greater number of civil servants (to keep this manageable it would be sensible to limit this to Director General level and above).
- Most importantly of all, by far, the Act should be expanded to cover more of those engaged in lobbying. At a minimum this should include lawyers, management consultants and accountancy practitioners, as well as those in corporate communications and other consultancy businesses, all of whom lobby incessantly but can currently claim an exemption under Schedule 1 of the Act, saying they are carrying on “a business which consists mainly of non-lobbying activities”. This is unfair and untransparent.
There is a good argument for also covering charities and campaigning groups, thinktanks, trade unions and private companies, particularly if the proposal above relating to codes of conduct is also adopted.
Finally, as I have indicated above, ‘lobbying’ is a very broad term which covers all sorts of interactions with those involved in policy-making. The only realistic way to capture every instance of lobbying would be for those on the receiving end to log these meetings and other contacts. At present Government Departments publish quarterly logs of meetings, gifts, hospitality and overseas travel involving Ministers; these could be:
- More thorough: the list of topics discussed is cursory at best, and meetings held as a constituency MP or in a private capacity are not covered
- Published more quickly: there is often a significant lag between the period covered and publication
- Expanded to cover senior officials and advisers in line with the point made above.
Is the fee system proportionate and fair?
No. In particular I would argue strongly for a lower fee for small firms. It seems highly unfair that an organisation like Park Street Partners, with a relatively low turnover, should be charged £1,000 to register. This feels like an entirely arbitrary figure that is in effect a tax on operating, and a significant barrier to entry to the industry for some individuals and small companies.
The fees are in any event inexplicable when the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists at the moment has to deal with a relatively limited number of entries containing very little information. When I was involved in the APPC some years ago the register was far more extensive but was managed by one person working part-time at very low cost. It would be helpful to understand what exactly is paid for by the £100,000 or so spent on staff (excluding the Registrar himself) given the restricted nature of the duties undertaken by ORCL.
Of course, the fee system will have to be overhauled if, as I have proposed, the number of organisations covered by the Act is increased. This should provide scope to cut fees overall and particularly for smaller registrants.