What we think

Speak Now: Why the Government will fairly quickly be forced off the fence over vaccine passports

In recent weeks, as the Government has very impressively rolled out its vaccination programme, there has been increasing discussion of ‘vaccine passports’. It is said that such documents might open the way for Summer holidays, and that they might be used to allow some lucky people to return to the pub, or to go to mass participation events. This enthusiasm has spilled over into the world of work, with care homes suggesting that they might require new employees to have been vaccinated, and a chain of plumbers saying the same.

The Government, though, has been less keen; a charitable description of Ministerial statements is that they have been very cautious, although others might say they have been confused. They seem to back vaccine passports for international travel, which is fair enough given that many countries have for years asked for proof of inoculations against other diseases. But back at home it has been less sure-footed. The Prime Minister has ruled out passports for a trip to the pub, and from time to time other Ministers have poured cold water on the idea that the Government is preparing for their introduction domestically. But having once argued that “mandating vaccinations is discriminatory and completely wrong”, the Vaccines Minister has more recently said that the use of passports will be up to individual businesses, whilst the Foreign Secretary has agreed that shops and bars might well demand their use.

When it comes to employment contracts the Government also seems to want to sit on the fence. The Health Secretary has acknowledged that carers might be required by their employers to be vaccinated, and ‘sources’ have briefed the Times that “Ministers … have no plans to forbid others from setting up their own schemes, meaning that passports could become reality for many regardless”; the same newspaper has previously reported that care homes, schools and other businesses are drawing up plans to force staff to show they have been vaccinated. And the Lord Chancellor has apparently given a green light for companies to demand that new staff show a vaccine passport in order to obtain work.

So the Government seems desperate to stay out of this issue, allowing foreign governments and private businesses to decide the way ahead. This instinct is understandable but it is also unsustainable. And by failing to be clear about the way forward the Government is in danger of squandering some of the political capital it has accrued thanks to the success of its vaccination policy.

The reason the Government wants to stay out of this is obvious: it is difficult. If it intervenes to allow venues legally to prevent the unvaccinated from visiting, or to permit businesses to stop employees going to work without fearing a tribunal, the backlash will be severe. The backbenchers of the Covid Recovery Group have already made their position clear; to them, vaccine passports are discriminatory, undemocratic and frankly un-British. But it won’t just be hardliners who will be up in arms. What about the young, who will be vaccinated last? Or people who can’t have the vaccine? What happens if mutations mean we have to have another round of jabs next year? How will it all work?

But despite the risks the Government simply cannot remain aloof. Businesses are already demanding answers to some really knotty questions. For example, who is liable if an unvaccinated carer infects a patient? What if vaccinated staff refuse to work with unvaccinated ones? What happens if a homeowner refuses to allow a plumber into the house without knowing if they’ve been jabbed? Businesses and the public will increasingly look to the Government for clarification of these and a host of other issues. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Government is, directly and indirectly, a major employer and provider of services itself, and before too long its own staff will want to know what’s going on.

It is worth noting too that many of these same concerns also apply to mass testing. Can a company force an employee to have a test? Can it make the individual stay at home if they refuse? Does it have to pay them? What about schools and pupils, pub-goers and hostelries, accommodation providers and guests? What, in short, are our rights and responsibilities as individuals and as organisations in all of this?

There are no easy answers. But silence is not a viable option. As we begin to follow the roadmap out of lockdown starting from next week the clamour for answers will inevitably become overwhelming. If the Government doesn’t want to muff up it will need to adopt a clear position of leadership; and it seems obvious to me that it will end up having to say that discrimination on grounds of vaccine status and willingness or otherwise to take a test is legal, at least in some circumstances and with plenty of room for exemptions. It may even have to take the lead in creating a widely accepted ‘passport’. (At last! Some use for the NHS Test and Trace app!) Ministers will be roasted for doing so. But they really do have to speak now.

Why caring about legacy is a vital part of democracy

Over the years it has become a standard part of political commentary to castigate politicians for caring too much about their legacy. The argument goes that being so self-obsessed as to worry excessively about how history will judge them leads political leaders to make selfish, mistaken or vainglorious decisions in the here and now. If only they were less focused on themselves and thought less about their future image the world would apparently be a much better and safer place.

If you doubt this is true just trying Googling “Tony Blair obsessed legacy”. Somewhere near the top of the pile will be media coverage of Clare Short telling the Iraq inquiry that Gordon Brown believed Mr Blair went to war in Iraq because he was “obsessed with his legacy”. Later on the Daily Mail claimed that the former PM’s fixation on his legacy led him to “cut and run”, leaving the job in Iraq (in its view) half-completed. The Catholic Herald argued he was “self-obsessed”, whilst his successor reportedly spent time dumping on his legacy once he took up the reins of power. All in all, Mr Blair’s concern about how history would judge him has been reported as A Very Bad Thing Indeed.

Other politicians have also faced criticism on exactly the same grounds. For example, it is claimed that David Cameron’s desire to have as his legacy an end to Conservative infighting over Europe led to the Brexit referendum and everything after. Margaret Thatcher’s worries about her legacy may have led her to hang around for too long when she should have packed up and gone. In fact, name almost any major politician and you will find someone, somewhere, who has criticised them for thinking too much about how the students of the future will write them up.

But those people who have claimed the same about Donald Trump are massively missing the point. In fact, it seems to me that the real danger with someone like Trump is that he doesn’t care enough about how history will judge him. As yesterday’s events reveal, he is prepared to be remembered as a man who incited violence, undermined democracy, and ultimately weakened his own country. If he was at all interested in how he would be written up 50 years from now he would surely have behaved in a very different way in the past couple of months and for the past four years.

This is why being ‘legacy obsessed’ actually matters. No matter what constitutional checks and balances exist, if a leader is prepared to ignore, belittle, damage and destroy institutions around them they are likely to be able to do so, at least to an extent. History will not judge them favourably for it but if they don’t care it doesn’t matter. So worrying about your legacy should be regarded as a vital part of the way democracies operate. It is what keeps everyone playing by the same rules of the game. And we should never mock our leaders for having the vanity to want to be remembered as great, because otherwise they won’t try.

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:

www.parkstreetpartners.co.uk

Gavin Devine

grd@parkstreetpartners.co.uk

+44 7535 750505