Government proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists met criticism from all sides when the Hansard Society provided a platform for the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, Mark Harper. Lobbyists, charities and campaigners rounded on the defects and inadequacies of what they predicted would become nothing more than a meaningless list of names.
Harper did his best to defend what he said would be an “ongoing register” of “who is lobbying for whom” which would provide a public record of lobbyists, consultancies, law firms, charities etc and would catch “anyone who does anything which could be described as lobbying.”
There would be sanctions (perhaps civil or criminal) for lobbyists who did not comply by signing up to the register but the government was determined to keep its proposals – currently open for consultation until 30 April – proportionate to the problem; there was no intention of creating a statutory code of conduct for lobbyists or establishing a regulator to oversee the industry.
Harper made a swift exit before the Hansard Society opened up the issue for debate (29.2.2012) but if he had remained he would have heard his proposals being roundly derided.
Jane Wilson, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, predicted the register would catch only a minority of lobbyists because it did not require registration by in-house lobbyists embedded in large corporations. “It will be nothing more than a meaningless list of multi-client lobbying firms...A register which is not universal will just create loopholes because it ignores the sheer scale of in-house lobbying.”
Helen Johnson, chair of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, agreed that the failure to include in-house lobbyists was a major flaw and she urged the government to reconsider its proposals and include “anyone who lobbies in a professional capacity or on a professional basis.”
She said sixty eight firms had signed up to her association’s register and code of conduct and that included a ban on any financial relationships between members firms and staff and any serving regulator, MP or official.
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, explained why he believed charities should be excluded from a register. By taking the path of hardly any regulation – rather than a much stronger regulatory structure – the government had come up with a register which would place a mild burden on charities but without any benefit; it was self-evident what Shelter or Oxfam were trying to achieve by lobbying MPs and ministers.
Tamasin Cave of Spinwatch added her voice to the industry’s prediction that three quarters of all lobbyists – those employed in-house – would escape scrutiny. Lobbying was an industry worth two billion pounds a year and most of the money was spent in-house by large corporations, which explained why the public thought lobbyists had too much influence.
“We know of the problem in Washington where over 5.1 billion dollars was spent in the last decade lobbying for deregulation in the financial sector but we have no idea how much the City of London is currently spending in lobbying against reform of the banks.
“Private health companies spent one million dollars a day to fight President Obama’s health reforms but again we do not know how much is being spent here competing for contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds in the NHS. If we did, it would change the nature of the debate about health reform.”
She called on the government to establish a register that would rebuild trust. That would be achieved not be compiling “a meaningless list of names” but by a establishing a register which covered the industry in its entirety and in which all paid lobbyists were required to declare who they were, what they lobbying about and who for, and how much they were spending.