So the government’s long-awaited consultation on a statutory register of lobbyists is now underway. Reactions so far have been entirely predictable: from the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency’s claim that the consultation has “lobbyists' fingerprints all over it”, to the cries from the usual diehards for ‘universality’ that it is grossly unfair that in-house teams are not covered, to the cautious (though presumably rather contented) response from business groups like the CBI.
Here’s a contrary opinion: I think the government’s proposals are pretty much spot on. They meet the main objective of most of us in consultancy who believe in transparency – and are already happily inside the APPC, for example – by creating a level playing field with the minority who so far have preferred opacity. They offer the prospect that those other third parties who purport to offer lobbying services, the law firms and management consultancies and others, will also be covered by the register; it is vital that they are. They propose a light touch register that should be straightforward and cheap to administer. And the definition of lobbying proposed is clear, meaning that the identity of all clients for whom lobbying is carried out will be recorded publicly.
All in all the government has held out the prospect of greater transparency without standing in the way of effective lobbying which, as most politicians agree (when they are not trying to blame ‘lobbyists’ for the misbehaviour of their own class), helps to inform and greatly to improve policy-making.
Some will not be happy with the government’s proposed approach. They will try to drag the debate into a sterile cul de sac in which we try to define the word ‘lobbyist’. So we will be asked whether a chief executive who spends 10% of his time meeting politicians is a lobbyist, but one who does so for 5% of the time is not? If you meet an official or an adviser for a few seconds at an event does that make you a lobbyist? What if you genuinely know an MP personally and run into them on the golf course or in the gym? Why would a businessman be covered but a trade unionist not? Are certain types of charities acceptable but others, the more campaigning sort, not? And so on, and on, and on.
This is an utterly pointless discussion. There is no way of defining ‘lobbyist’ in black and white terms: what the government has proposed is as good as any alternative. But the proposals are certainly not perfect – in fact there is one big flaw. As it stands the government proposes just a register; 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. And if the consultation proposals are taken forward unamended there will be no guarantee that a lobbyist will say who he is acting for when he is making his case in person. It is also not clear that registered lobbyists won’t be able to hold a parliamentary pass, allowing them to sidle up to politicians in the bars of the Palace of Westminster and whisper their arguments privately and behind closed doors. There are no standards proposed at all. In future, the proposals say, you can wear the badge of an officially registered lobbyist, but you can still be dodgy.
In this way the statutory register risks making the situation worse, not better. It is clear that we desperately need statutory regulation of lobbyists alongside a statutory register. This need not be complicated, overly onerous or unduly expensive, but it must set out some basic requirements: above all that registered lobbyists declare who they are working for whenever they lobby; that they are not allowed any preferential access to decision-makers; and that they can have no financial relationship at all with politicians. So we should forget about the endless pontificating about who should and should not be covered by a register, and instead argue collectively and strongly that a register alone is a mistake, and that statutory regulation of lobbyists is now essential for the health of our industry.
Gavin Devine is Chief Operating Officer of MHP Communications