The Government’s consultation on a statutory register for lobbyists was launched on 20 January. I have drafted a response on behalf of MHP to the consultation; this blog sets out our response in full.
1. MHP Communications is one of the largest PR companies in the United Kingdom. We have more than 150 employees and an annual turnover of £19 million, and operate from offices in London, Brussels, Edinburgh and Washington DC.
2. Our public affairs practice is long-established, having begun its life as AS Biss & Co in 1996. Over the years since then, as AS Biss, then Mandate and now as MHP, we have grown to become one of the most well-respected and largest teams in UK and now EU public affairs.
3. MHP has always been committed to ethical behaviour and transparency. We have been members of the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) for more than 15 years. We abide by the APPC Code of Conduct, by our own written standards, and by the rules and regulations laid down by the FSA and others. Our Chief Operating Officer is the current Deputy Chair of the APPC. Our position as a company has always been that as an industry we must not simply act to the highest ethical standards, we must be seen to do so.
4. In that spirit we welcome the Government’s consultation. It is important that our industry continues to be seen to be conducting itself appropriately. For too long some consultancies and other third parties, including law firms, think tanks and management consultancies, have offered services which amount to lobbying without being open about whose views they represent and on what basis. That has contributed to the widespread misperception that lobbying is somehow inherently secretive and disreputable. That is damaging to our industry, but more importantly to democracy itself.
5. Our belief is that lobbying is a critical part of the democratic process. MPs, MSPs, peers, assembly members, councillors, advisers, officials and others have to make very difficult decisions every day which impact on communities, companies, employees and individuals. They do so on the basis of imperfect information; very often they may have very limited experience of the issues they are considering and the industries they are affecting.
6. It is only through engagement with those affected – in other words through lobbying – that decision-makers can be informed about, and therefore properly consider, the arguments and evidence for and against. At the core of lobbying is the fact that better-informed decisions are usually better decisions. Thus a properly functioning lobbying sector is a vital part of any effective democratic system. But lobbying often leads to allegations of improper influence: to avoid those claims it is obviously vital that lobbying is transparent and ‘above board’.
7. The Government’s proposals make a significant contribution to securing that objective. They should form part of a wider range of measures to improve standards in public life, including the current trend towards greater transparency on the part of ministers and officials about who they are meeting and why. These proposals on lobbying will increase transparency and promote public confidence in lobbying, and do so proportionately and cost effectively. But the proposals could be improved. This paper deals with two specific issues of concern.
Who should be covered?
8. Defining ‘lobbying’ is relatively straightforward: as the Government says, it is “seeking to influence public policy, government decisions or legislation”. But defining ‘a lobbyist’ is hard. After all, the Government’s definition would incorporate just about every sort of contact with a public body, whether an individual writing to a councillor about a local planning issue, a company manager talking to his local MP about a specific regulatory challenge, a charity seeking a change in the law – and even a newspaper campaigning on a particular subject. As the consultation paper demonstrates, there is no perfect way to define the word ‘lobbyist’.
9. The Government has chosen to focus its attention on third parties who lobby on behalf of others. This is as good a definition as any. Once an attempt is made to cover in-house lobbyists the definition becomes messy: is a chief executive who spends 10 percent of his time meeting officials and ministers a lobbyist, but one who spends 5 percent of his time doing so not? Is a company operating in a regulated sector which meets almost daily with its regulator and with officials really trying to lobby them? Is a visit to a local factory by an MP an instance of lobbying or not? Is a campaigner who meets MPs in pursuit of the objectives of a charity lobbying or not? This very quickly becomes a sterile, pointless and endless debate, which distracts attention from the need to make progress and improve transparency.
10. However, what is important is that all third party lobbyists are covered. That means all political and public affairs consultancies who lobby on behalf of clients, and also all law firms, management consultancies and others who purport to lobby for others. It also means those charities which seem to exist with the sole purpose of advancing a political agenda on behalf of individual large donors – and those individuals who lobby their personal political contacts, almost as amateurs. There can be no loopholes.
11. However, the main flaw in the proposals is that, as it stands, the Government proposes a register alone. As long as lobbyists are accurate about who they include on it they will not face any sanction. This is a halfway house at best, since transparency matters most at the point of interaction with ministers, officials and politicians. The consultation proposals offer no guarantee that a lobbyist will say who he is acting for when he is making his case in person, which is clearly not good enough.
12. It is also not clear that registered lobbyists won’t be able to hold a parliamentary and other official passes, allowing them to access Westminster and other institutions to make their case. Lobbyists should not have that sort of preferential access. Similarly they should not be allowed to make any payment to MPs, MSPs, assembly members and peers, for any reason.
13. Without any requirement to meet certain standards a statutory register risks making the situation worse, not better. Registration will imply legitimacy: as the proposals stand, in future even the ‘dodgiest’ lobbyist would be able to wear the badge of being officially registered. To avoid that, statutory regulation of lobbyists has to sit alongside a statutory register, or the credibility of the register itself will be undermined.
14. Statutory regulation need not be complicated, overly onerous or unduly expensive, but it must set out some basic requirements: registered lobbyists declare who they are working for whenever they lobby; lobbyists are not allowed any preferential access to decision-makers; and they can have no financial relationship at all with parliamentarians.
15. In short, we welcome the Government’s proposals. But to add to transparency and address some of the fears expressed about lobbying the proposals must cover every individual or company which, as a third party, lobbies on behalf of others; and they must be accompanied by statutory regulation which enforces minimum ethical standards across our industry.
See also my article for Total Politics about lobbying reform.