Full transparency is the order of the day, so let me confess all before I start. I am a lobbyist. I run PPS, one of the companies named as having lobbying contracts with local authorities and I disagree with Mr Pickles’ decision to ban councils from employing firms like mine.
On the surface Mr Pickles’ decision seems wholly defensible. He says that “state-funded lobbying sidesteps transparency laws and distorts public decision making, creating a statist bias for more regulation, more spending and more taxes”. Worse than that, public money is being used to fund all this. What could possibly be sillier in a time of austerity when all that council leaders need to do is pick up the telephone and put their case to ministers?
But there are problems with his analysis. For a start, I suspect that this is a solution to a problem that barely exists. Amid the enormous budgets of our overgrown public bureaucracies, the cost of consultancies hired to help lobby Government is miniscule. My own firm’s experience is interesting. We have had all the local
authority contracts ascribed to us – we declare all our clients to the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) – but none of them involved us lobbying Westminster and Whitehall. If our experience is typical, the ‘problem’ is nowhere near as significant as is being alleged.
That is not to say that local authorities don’t lobby Government – many have their own in-house teams of people who do just that, including two Tory flagship London boroughs. And the reason they do is that Mr Pickles is wrong – it’s not just a question of picking up the ‘phone to ministers. We are good at what we do and know that to truly change hearts and minds you need to present a thought-through case and find like-minded advocates to create pressure in a co-ordinated campaign. Commercial lobbying companies can represent very good value for money when they help local authorities do this.
Worst still, banning the use of commercial lobbying consultancies will make the process less, not more, transparent. Consultancies that are members of the APPC already declare all their clients and it looks as though there will soon be a scheme of state regulation. But you would never know if Lower Snoring District council employs an in–house lobbyist. Such activity is entirely unregulated in the same way that lobbying by charities, trades unions, universities, think tanks and pressure groups goes unregulated.
For me, though, the worst thing about Mr Pickles’ intervention is that it is completely at odds with his own approach to deregulation and localism. If you are going to encourage local authorities to make their own decisions you need to accept that they will sometimes make decisions you disagree with. If a local council decides it is a good use of their money to hire a political consultancy, then surely in a brave new localist world they should be able to do so.