Chris Whitehouse heads The Whitehouse Consultancy and is Cabinet Secretary of the Isle of Wight Council.
One of the most tedious subjects in modern politics is how the lobbying industry is regulated. Tedious, that is, until the next time an undercover journalist manages to film a member of one House of Parliament or the other appearing to offer political services for cash payments. Then there is a media feeding frenzy; there are calls for lobbyists to be more tightly regulated, and foolish laws are passed.
At least, that’s what led to the statutory regulation of lobbyists through the Lobbying Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 – about which dogs’ dinner of flawed legislation I sounded warnings at the time it was introduced to Parliament and later implemented.
The fundamental flaw of it being that, nearly always, such cases of political scandal are created by the journalists, concerned because they cannot find an actual lobbying agency that behaves in such a way, and the unethical behaviour is not on the part of lobbyists, but on the part of the MP or Peer involved. But hey-ho, that’s how it goes.
As a former commercial lobbyist himself, David Cameron must have known that his legislation wasn’t fit for purpose but, having raised expectations, he had to be seen to “do something”, and for politicians that nearly always means more legislation, whether it’s necessary and effective, or not.
So it is that the lobbying industry is in turmoil about its own regulation once again. Civil war appears to have broken out between two extreme factions within the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) about whether or not it should merge with the much larger Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA).
The introduction, for all its many faults, of the statutory register of lobbyists has caused the APPC membership to question what value belonging to this somewhat tired self-regulatory body now affords, particularly for those agencies whose service offer includes public relations and media management. This in turn leads them also to be members of the PRCA, which includes within it a division focusing on public affairs (as we lobbyists like to aggrandise our profession), and which provides an opportunity for a public register of clients that is much more comprehensive than the inadequate statutory register, and polices adherence to a code of conduct.
Having two bodies to which to belong, in addition to the statutory register, creates unnecessary costs, causes confusion about who actually speaks for the profession, and muddies the water about which register of clients and staff should be considered the authoritative one.
So it comes about that the APPC membership will vote on October 8 on whether or not to merge with the PRCA. This has sparked some vituperative exchanges between members, with each side accusing the other of disloyalty, short-termism and selfishness. It’s really quite fun to watch as the two factions of self-proclaimed professional influencers paint themselves into ever tighter corners, polarise the debate, and alienate the middle ground which, frankly, couldn’t care less, and has better things to do than to engage in internecine squabbles.
It would have been great if this matter could have been decided by a sensible discussion and a vote within the APPC’s Management Committee – but, no, they were split on the proposal and, besides, the committee lacks credibility as it’s hardly a democratic decision-making body.
Indeed, for historic aberrations of logic, its 16 members include five who are not there as members of the APPC at all, but enjoy seats for life on the committee as former Chairs of the organisation, plus another three who “represent” Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The APPC’s website told an untruth about this point until a few days ago, when I pointed out that it was untrue to claim the members were elected annually – an untruth that had been peddled for many years. Unless there’s an outbreak of mortality among the grey-hairs on the committee ,we’ll find ourselves in the bizarre situation, when the current Chair steps down and takes his own seat for life, of having a majority on the Management Committee who are not elected by the membership. Kafka would love it.
The APPC’s “Young Consultants Committee” is also a bit hot under its youthful collar and is demanding meetings with the Chair because they don’t feel they have been adequately consulted about the merger proposal. Far be it from me to point out that they aren’t even members of the APPC at all: it’s businesses that are members, not individuals, but the young-uns do feel that their views should be taken more seriously by the great and the good of the industry who sit on the committee.
On balance, the APPC has been a “good thing” in seeking to determine and uphold ethical practice, but it’s always been far from perfect. There was a time when its rules forbade any lobbyist from holding a Parliamentary pass. When I pointed out that the rule was flagrantly being breached, they didn’t uphold the rule – they made such pass-holding permissible instead.
There was an occasion when its Chair – to be fair without any consultation with colleagues – wrote to MPs asking them to back a Commons Motion calling for public sector contracts to be allocated exclusively to APPC members, a ridiculous suggestion which, had it been implemented, would have created a cartel-like situation.
It’s one of those silly internal political arguments, mixed up with big personalities and delicate egos, that will ultimately be decided by the bloc that doesn’t really give a damn either way, and goes with the faction that seems most likely to get this distraction to go away once and for all. If you think Brexit has caused splits in our Party, you should see what Merger-Gate has done to relations between APPC members.
If you’re still awake after reading this riveting update, will you be able to stand the tension as we await the outcome of the poll, late in the evening on 8th October? Watch this space for the results as they come in!