Post-legislative scrutiny review of Part 1 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014

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.

Overall context

‘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.

All along there was some invisible string: Cummings and goings in No10

The ‘bombshell’ news this week that the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications was quitting caused a social media storm – at least in the Westminster bubble. Political journalists got excited about reporting on something other than Covid or Trump and started tweeting about all the other Downing Street team members about to walk out of the door. Brexit supremo David Frost and/or the ultimate Svengali, Dominic Cummings, were said to be packing their bags. Carrie was waving them off. It was all terribly dramatic.

At first this all seemed fanciful. After all, Frost and Cummings would never again be at the centre of things if they left No10. But then “friends of Dominic Cummings” told Laura Kuenssberg that he might leave by Christmas, and now he seems to have been pushed out already. There is some speculation about whether this is the result of a Johnsonian knifing or Govian manoeuvring; we shall see. But in any case, the events of this week have proved two things. First, this Government is so bad at communications that it can’t even manage the messaging around the departure of its own comms chief. Second, although everyone may have thought the Downing Street machine is the tail wagging the dog, when push comes to shove it is heartening to discover that Boris Johnson is actually in charge of his special advisers, not the other way round.

This is good news, because this simple fact seems to have been forgotten in recent months. Dominic Cummings in particular has been blown up by commentators, supporters and opponents alike as an omnipotent and omniscient figure pulling every string in Government. He has been widely reported to be following his own policy agenda, including a plan radically to reshape Whitehall. As a result, Ministers reportedly have done very little without his say so and it is claimed that Permanent Secretaries have been ready to fall on their swords if he even so much as looks in their directions. His admirers have stoked this hype and it may even be that he believed it himself – although given this administration’s track record that would be unfortunate, as Marina Hyde has memorably pointed out. Yet this latest episode is a timely corrective, showing that the politicians are the ones with the power; after all we voted for them, not for shadowy and unaccountable advisers.

In a sensible world advisers are there to support their Ministers (or the Prime Minister), coming up with ideas, helping make things happen, and explaining decisions to the world. They might even spin for their boss, or at least carry their bags. This, of course, would give them significant influence, not least as gatekeepers. But they should not be decision-makers. They should not have their own agenda – or certainly we should not know about it. Such things should always be reserved for the people we have elected.

So in that spirit it might be worth all government advisers retreating a little; they can start by reining in their public profiles. As a number of people have commented on Twitter this week, special advisers are like poisoners, either good at their jobs or well known, but not both. As politicians hopefully start to reassert control in the ‘post-Cain’ era and ‘post-Cummings’ world it is time for the unaccountable, unelected, and often unwanted puppet-masters to take a step back into the shadows.

Park Street Partners adds Sally Costerton to its roster

Firm also announces an Autumn special offer for its ‘coronavirus-adapted’ leadership communications offer covering media and presentation skills

5 October 2020

Park Street Partners, the communications and business consultancy set up in 2018 by former MHP Chief Executive Gavin Devine, today announced the appointment of high-profile corporate communications expert Sally Costerton as a new Partner.

Sally is the former UK and EMEA CEO of H&K Strategies and is an ex-Chair of the PRCA.  Over the years she has led and mentored numerous teams running communications agencies.  In addition, she is widely regarded as one of the most experienced and capable client advisers in the business, providing senior strategic insight and support to major global clients particularly in the technology sector.

Gavin Devine said: “Today marks another big step forward for Park Street Partners with the addition of Sally to our existing line up of expert partners.  Sally and I have known each other for years and everyone who knows her understands the depth of experience, good sense and expertise she brings to the team.”

Sally commented: “I am delighted to be joining Park Street Partners and looking forward to workings alongside Gavin again. I’ve been following the progress of the partnership since Gavin first shared the idea with me and I’m delighted its original concept is working so well.”

Park Street Partners has also announced special Autumn rates for its leadership communications products delivered primarily by specialist partners Chris Roberts and Adam Batstone.  Both offer bespoke presentation skills training courses for executives due to appear in the media, making external speeches or addressing their own staff.  All of these courses have been adapted for the pandemic so that they can be delivered remotely over video and to equip leaders to tell their stories effectively using systems such as Zoom or Teams.

With clients increasingly recognising the need to ensure their management teams communicate effectively using new online channels the price of these courses will be reduced by 20% during Q4 of 2020, meaning that there has never been a better time to book in some expert training.

Gavin added: “I’m also delighted to announce special rates for our wide range of leadership communications services.  During the pandemic it has never been more important for corporate leaders to engage effectively with internal and external audiences, and this Autumn is a great time for clients to take advantage of the training and other services offered by Adam and Chris at really competitive prices.”

More details of the leadership communications offer can be found on the Park Street Partners website.

For more information:

Gavin Devine

+44 7535 750505

Indebted and Ungrateful: How the elderly stole the future (again)

Anyone unlucky enough to read my tweets will know that I have one or two issues with the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.  People giving thanks to ‘Dishy Rishi’ really get my hackles up: it is not his money, it is ours.  And visiting local restaurants and pubs in Surrey over recent weeks and finding them full (only on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays) of affluent pensioners on fat final salary pensions really does get my goat.  Every single one of them could afford to be there unsubsidised, and therefore not adding to the debt their grandchildren will be repaying in many decades’ time.  But yet there they are, enjoying a jolly good feed and chortling contentedly when they get twenty quid off the bill.

My point is not that we shouldn’t support the hospitality sector.  We absolutely should, and the intentions of the Eat Out scheme are good (although giving consistent advice about how to avoid infection would surely have built up confidence amongst customers just as effectively as bunging them a tenner).  What I object to is people who don’t need to do so taking handouts from the Government.  Because those handouts are effectively subsidies from younger people to older folk, from grandchildren to grandparents.  And that is simply unfair.

Earlier on in the year there was a contretemps about the end of free television licences for everyone aged over 75.  Even now some “furious pensioners” are saying they would rather go to jail than pay up.  But for pensioners who are well-off – which is an awful lot of them – £157.50 is a drop in the bucket, and there is simply no logical reason why they shouldn’t pay if they can.  After all, free TV licences are yet another direct financial support from young to old – which is particularly outrageous when it is the elderly who really like to watch ‘Auntie’ while youngsters consume Netflix and YouTube.

More broadly, the Economist recently published an article noting that the reliance of the Conservative Party on older voters means that choices are made that hold back economic growth and harm the prospects of future generations.  Taken as a whole (of course there are individual exceptions), people over 60 are likely to oppose house building in areas that need houses, immigration in sectors that need brains and brawn, globalisation and trade, deregulation, new infrastructure projects and a host of other things that drive growth.  They favour spending on the NHS over spending on schools.  They don’t much like social change.  As the Economist puts it: “increasingly, Britain is governed in the interests of voters with an insatiable demand for healthcare and pensions, while a sluggish economy struggles to fund them”.

The article features quotes from a focus group of older ‘affluent eurosceptics’ who seem particularly sour about the attitudes of younger generations.  Kathleen observes that “the generation under me just seems to expect everything to be given to them… Everything I’ve got I earned”.  Really, Kathleen?  It is a bit of a stretch to claim that anyone really ‘earned’ the greatest part of the wealth of most middle-class people, namely the gargantuan rise in the value of houses over several decades.  And it’s not really fair to be sniffy about younger people when you are happily cushioned by a final salary pension puffed up by years of strong performance by bonds and stocks; I’m sure your children, let alone your grandchildren, would love to have the chance to ‘earn’ one of those.  But they can’t.

Obviously not all pensioners are the same.  Many would reject Kathleen’s perspective, and of course there are plenty who do not live comfortable lives in retirement.  But those who can afford it should think hard about accepting a subsidised meal or a free TV licence.  They should perhaps reflect too on whether voting for their own short-term interests, for hospitals over schools, for the Green Belt over development, and for Brexit over Remain, is fair on the generations that will come after them.  I’ve speculated before (tongue in cheek) about whether pensioners should be allowed to vote if they persist in doing so selfishly: they definitely shouldn’t accept a national-debt-funded reduction in their bill when they’re in their favourite restaurant.

Be bold but be cautious, simultaneously: How the PR industry can recover fast from the pandemic

Covid-19 has shaken the PR industry much like the rest of the economy.  In some ways we got off lightly; for large parts of the industry pivoting to working from home has been relatively easy, and some service areas, such as public affairs and employee engagement, have been busier than ever before.  But there has been real pain too, for example for anyone focused on hospitality or travel, or for businesses dependent on events or marketing spend. It has been a difficult period.

And the medium-term looks gloomy: as economies struggle to recover from the hammering they have taken in 2020 it is inevitable that communications budgets will come under pressure.  Expect the usual pressure from procurement and questioning of agency spend that always comes during a downturn.  But upheaval like this always brings opportunities as well as challenges.  Bold players can definitely take advantage of the coming months.

One obvious area for PR companies to focus is on consolidation and non-organic growth.  Inevitably some weaker companies will become available for purchase.  Likewise, experienced and high-quality people will be available for hire as they are laid off by agencies and from in-house roles alike.  If they are able to pick out the diamonds from the dross, ambitious businesses with sound finances could find ways to grow rapidly and add new skillsets, putting themselves in a much stronger position in a year to 18 months’ time.

Another opportunity may come as in-house teams are slimmed down and, in some cases, more senior and expensive communications leaders are let go.  This could mean that clients lean ever more heavily on their agencies – but only if they give the best and most trusted advice that makes a real difference to commercial operations, not just to comms.  Bold companies will find ways to be indispensable and add real value in the next few months.

But I think there are real risks if companies think they can be bold in other areas of their businesses, particularly when it comes to staff and office space. What might look like smart, decisive, steps taken now could prove to be anything but when the dust eventually settles.

Most obviously, dispensing with staff in order to make short-term cost savings could cause huge distortions in the future. For a few years after the last financial crisis the whole industry faced a dearth of good mid-level staff because so many companies had decided to pause recruitment in 2008 and afterwards. Some companies did better than others if they managed to hold onto their teams. It would be smart to proceed with caution when it comes to this, every agency’s most precious asset.

This time around we face a unique pressure to reduce the size of offices and change their configuration to allow for social distancing and/or a better work-life balance for those people able to base themselves at home. All of this makes sense, on the face of it, but smart companies will recognise that it comes with trade-offs, particularly when it comes to building affinity between staff and company and providing ways in which people can learn from one another. There are actually reasons that humans, and perhaps particularly those in the knowledge economy like PR folk, crowd together in offices within cities. We shouldn’t get rid of those advantages lightly.

The best companies will move slowly and understand that they will have to invest in maintaining links between their staff and in allowing colleagues to learn from one another. New forms of training and better means of communication will be needed. And firms should also realise that in six to 12 months we may have discovered ways to live with Covid, or even have a vaccine, and returning to office work even just for three days a week might look to be a very good idea. The new normal is not the new normal just yet, and making decisions that can be changed later has to be a good idea.

In short, to emerge quickly from the pandemic PR firms must be bold and cautious all at the same time. Moving rapidly and decisively in everything outward-facing is smart; being thoughtful and more deliberate when it comes to internal matters is smarter still.  We all need to hold our nerve, and fight the good fight with the slash and burn bean counters.  This too shall pass.