The sudden keenness to ‘do something’ about lobbying in the wake of recent stories about Liam Fox is as predictable as it is misplaced.
Predictable, because when the spotlight turns on the actions of politicians and their friends and contacts their interest in ‘lobbying’ always increases exponentially. But misplaced because the standard roll call of lobbying reforms – such as a statutory register – would not have stopped Werritty’s activities. Indeed the cabinet secretary has said that Werritty was “not himself a lobbyist”.
But public affairs professionals should take heart. What is proposed presents many more opportunities than risks. It gives us a chance to make the case that lobbying, the process by which the fullest range of information, evidence and viewpoints is brought into the political decision-making process, is a good thing.
Better informed decisions are generally better decisions. And it gives an opportunity to raise standards amongst ‘lobbyists’, setting apart those who endorse the professional, reputable and high quality approach from the ‘amateurs’ who are almost always the cause of lobbying scandals.
Companies like MHP, which have for many years been part of the APPC (Association of Professional Political Consultants) and so subject to its registration process, have little to fear from a statutory regime.
We are well used to the idea of publishing a full list of our clients and our staff. And smart political consultants have anyway been preparing for a statutory register since it was promised in the coalition agreement last year.
But a statutory register is only as good as its remit. The vast majority of public affairs consultancies are professional, honest and transparent. Most in-house public affairs teams live up to similarly high standards. But there are far too many small firms and freelancers, as well as individuals in charities and the commercial sector, who let everyone down.
And then there are law firms, management consultancies and others who dabble (usually badly) in lobbying. Allowing some organisations, individuals and professions to lobby unfettered whilst subjecting others to registration and potentially regulation would not simply be unjust. It will also be ineffective.
Any proposals that do emerge from the government should have to pass a Werritty test: would his activities have been caught by the new registration scheme? The reach of a statutory register – or other reforms – needs to be broad to ensure that it covers such individuals.
A scheme that promotes transparency around the activities of all those who seek to inform the political process, whether they describe themselves as ‘lobbyists’ or not, is to be welcomed. Our job now is to work together to make sure the scheme we put in place lives up to those principles.
Cross-posted from the Total Politics blog.