Francis Ingham is Director General of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA). He is a former Conservative Councillor on the London Borough of Enfield.
The recent media coverage of David Cameron lobbying Ministers on behalf of Greensill show us one thing: that the Lobbying Act he introduced is unfit for purpose and needs fundamental reform.
Let’s be clear: Cameron did nothing illegal or indeed improper. He was perfectly compliant with the Lobbying Act – as a part-time, in-house lobbyist, he was under no obligation to register with the Office of the Registrar of Consultants Lobbyists (ORCL) that he created when Prime Minister.
In fact, he was legally barred from registering with them. And that’s the whole point: the Lobbying Act is so narrow in scope that it legally excludes the majority of the lobbying industry.
If you work for a public affairs consultancy, you must declare those clients for whom you have lobbied Ministers directly every quarter. But if you lobby and are on the payroll of a multinational, a charity, a trade union, or a business group, you are excluded from the Lobbying Register. By law, you cannot join it.
There is a real irony here: the lobbying industry, represented by the PRCA, favours greater legally binding transparency than the Government is willing to introduce.
For years, we argued in favour of a broad-based, detailed Lobbying Act, and we commend ORCL, the body which enforces it, for the good work that it is doing. But its scope clearly should be widened to include all of those who lobby rather than just third-party advocates. And we’ve said so from the beginning, for example here on ConservativeHome, almost a decade ago:
All of our members declare all of their clients and all of their staff every quarter. They declare if those staff hold constituency-level political office, for example as an officer of an Association. They declare if they are councillors. If the industry’s voluntary register requires this level of disclosure, why shouldn’t the Government one? The contrast is stark.
Lobbying is a vital part of democracy because it helps Ministers to base their decisions on evidence – to understand the viewpoints, opinions, and livelihoods of the people and the industries whom they regulate. But in order for the public to have confidence in the political system, lobbying must be transparent.
So while the Lobbying Act was a step forward, it could most certainly be improved. Here are three simple and easy changes:
- Its scope should be widened to include all of those who are paid to lobby at any point during that quarter, rather than just third-party advocates. How can it be right that if the TUC or the CBI hire a public affairs agency, that must be disclosed. But if they lobby the Government directly, that can remain a secret?
- Its scope should also be deepened to cover interactions with Special Advisers and senior civil servants. If you can escape the provisions of the Act by texting a Minister’s SPAD instead of sending the Minister a letter in the post, then the Act is patently flawed.
- Those who lobby should be held accountable to an externally-enforced Code of Conduct than compels them to publish their full list of public affairs clients. They shouldn’t be allowed to say ‘We have our own Code. We police ourselves’ as too many ORCL registrants do right now.
And here’s the rub -the lobbying industry will welcome being subject to greater scrutiny. It won’t push back or fight the proposals. It will welcome them.
When Cameron stood up in 2010 in the St Stephen’s Club in Westminster (whose Chairman was, ironically, a lobbyist) and said that “Lobbying is the next big scandal waiting to happen,” my industry disagreed. It had embraced effective self-regulation already. Every lobbying scandal involved no lobbyists: just ex-Cabinet Ministers who wanted to become part-time lobbyists. And by way of evidence I’d cite Messrs Hoon, Byers, and Rifkind.
But the industry welcomed the Lobbying Act, while asking the Cameron Government to go further and to be more ambitious. The time to be more ambitious is most definitely now.
When a former Prime Minister lobbying Ministers who are his former colleagues is not covered by the Lobbying Act that he himself introduced in order to uphold public confidence in the democratic process, then it is surely obvious that the Act is not fit for purpose.
The patent absurdity of a Lobbying Act which excludes the majority of lobbyists means that it simply will not last. It will be changed by some Government, at some point, because it needs to be. So why not make that change now? A Conservative Government introduced the Act. A Conservative Government should improve it.