FOCUS: UK LOBBYING - Fighting to rebuild a tattered image. The public affairs industry has taken a battering in the media but it appears to be learning lessons and trying to put its own house in order Robert Gray reports.

Often stories which are presented as scandalous at the height of summer appear trivial or are largely forgotten as the year draws to its close. That, however, is not the case with the ’cash for access’ affair.

Often stories which are presented as scandalous at the height of

summer appear trivial or are largely forgotten as the year draws to its

close. That, however, is not the case with the ’cash for access’

affair.



Readers will recall that the controversy was engendered by an article in

the Observer that highlighted boasts made by lobbyists of their close

connections with the key figures in Government and advance access to

inside information. The three lobbyists involved were Derek Draper, who

subsequently resigned as a director of GPC, GJW’s Karl Milner and Ben

Lucas of Lawson Lucas Mendelsohn.



To its credit, the public affairs consultancies trade body, the

Association of Professional Political Consultants, acted swiftly,

suspending GPC and GJW (LLM was not a member, so the APPC had no power

over it) and launching an enquiry by former civil service head Lord

Armstrong and barrister Nicholas Purnell. The enquiry found that there

were admitted weaknesses in management systems which both firms have now

remedied.



Yet although the Drapergate affair was at heart about braggadocio rather

than profound malfeasance, it is an issue that has refused to go

away.



The Blair Government, which had enjoyed such a long honeymoon period, is

now finding charges of cronyism harder to deflect than it would

like.



And the image of public affairs consultancies, which had taken a mighty

pummelling with the ’cash for questions’ affair involving Ian Greer

Associates a few years ago, has taken a further knock.



’There was a feeling among some of these people who had left Labour to

move into lobbying in recent years that they were Masters of the

Universe, on the inside feeling themselves to be untouchable,’ says one

senior lobbyist.



’When new people enter the industry all they bring with them is who they

know. They don’t have a lot of experience of putting together public

affairs campaigns. It makes it seem as an industry that we are dominated

by people who are selling what they once were.’



There is then a very real perception problem for the industry to

address.



Professional lobbyists have come to be regarded with suspicion, not just

by the media and the broader public but often by civil servants and

politicians as well. APPC secretary Charles Miller admits: ’At the

Labour party conference it was noticeable that professional lobbyists

were finding it harder to talk to people.’



It was also apparent that consultancies were distinctly more prudent in

their activities during conference season than in the recent past.



The general sentiment among consultancies was that they should be very

careful to avoid doing anything that could be misinterpreted as an

attempt to buy their way into political favour.



’Cash for access did dent the image of the industry,’ says Westminster

Strategy deputy managing director Mike Lee. ’And while those who were

caught in the Observer were not typical of the industry as a whole, they

did reflect some of the arrogance and over-stated claims that, at its

worst, the industry is guilty of.’



AS Biss and Company chairman Adele Biss adds: ’There’s an extra

sensitivity about now concerning what may or may not be interpreted as

reasonable behaviour. It’s worth remembering that there’s always a

newspaper diarist out there who’s happy to look at something through the

opposite of rose-tinted spectacles.’



The actions of lobbyists are continually subject to scrutiny. Yet unlike

so many other professions that are frequently called to account, it is

an unregulated one. Consultancies do not have to belong to the APPC, or

indeed the PRCA. And even in the case of those that do, it is not as

though the trade bodies have statutory powers. Naming and shaming,

although a useful tactic, hardly has the deterrent clout of being able

to ban a consultant or his agency from plying their trade.



’I’ve always believed that self-regulation is no regulation,’ says

Ludgate head of public affairs Stephen Lock. Fishburn Hedges director

Graham McMillan adds: ’It’s not very responsible for the long-term

future of the industry for serious players not to be regulated.’



Many other industry figures are of the same view. Even so, a proper

regulatory system, including perhaps a register of lobbyists, would not

be the easiest thing to administer and enforce. For a start, it should

be borne in mind that the majority of lobbyists do not work at public

affairs consultancies at all: they are to be found either in-house at

corporations or special interest groups, or indeed working for firms of

solicitors and accountants.



The European Parliament, following several reports on lobbying authored

by Labour MEP Glyn Ford, has introduced a system of registration for

lobbyists.



Under this system, lobbyists are given a long-term pass granting them

access to the parliament buildings in return for which they agree to

abide by the code of conduct drawn up by the European Parliament.



There is also a registration system in place in the US. But while this

is a good thing in principle, says APCO UK deputy managing director Nick

DeLuca, it is no panacea. ’It’s a huge list with so much information

that it loses its utility,’ he argues.



The British Government has hitherto been unwilling to pursue a course of

statutory regulation because of its complexity. But if further

allegations of cronyism are levelled it could very easily change its

stance. Should it do so, the system it brings in could be of a nature

that lobbyists find far more unpalatable than one of their own

devising.



’The Government is not keen on statutory regulation - it will cost,’

says Simon Nayyar, chairman of the PRCA’s public affairs committee and a

director of Citigate Westminster. ’It would prefer the industry to put

its own house in order. But I have no reason to doubt that if we fail to

do so another view may well be taken.’



IPR president Peter Walker believes that the recent revision of the

Civil Service Code with its guidance on contacts with lobbyists sends a

’clear signal’ to public affairs consultancies that they need to act

soon. ’If we miss this opportunity we won’t be forgiven,’ says

Walker.



The APPC, PRCA and IPR are working more closely than ever before. Their

co-operation is nothing less than essential because an industry-wide

solution is required. But not everyone is happy with the trade bodies’

performance, with the APPC in particular singled out for criticism. Its

recent redrafting of its code is described by Lock as ’mediocre at

best’.



The industry as a whole specifically needs to stress that while

face-to-face access to ministers and their advisers can be important -

and indeed has a certain glamour - it is not central to public affairs.

What really matters is knowledge of political processes and expertise in

drawing up and implementing strategy.



A way has to be found to abolish the perception of public affairs as a

business that is in some way sleazy or underhand. And for many in the

industry that means zero tolerance of any lobbyist whose actions call

into question the legitimacy of an activity that is a fundamental part

of the democratic process.



NORTHERN IRELAND: New roles on both sides of the border



The devolution wheels have well and truly been set in motion in Northern

Ireland. It is the first area of the UK in which elections to a

newly-created parliament have already taken place.



The vote was held on 25 June 1998, a little over a month after a

referendum gave a mandate to the New Northern Ireland Assembly,

following the Good Friday Peace Agreement. The 108 seats in the

Stormont-housed Assembly were shared between nine parties. Of these,

four took a significant share of the seats: the Ulster Unionist Party

won 28, Social Democratic and Labour Party 24, Democratic Unionist 20

and Sinn Fein 18.



At present a ’shadow commission’ is in place to prepare the ground for

the effective functioning of the Assembly. Deals and processes are being

hammered out by the main parties before the Assembly takes on its full

executive powers.



Clearly, future progress to a great degree depends on progress with the

decommissioning of terrorist weapons and the avoidance of civil

unrest.



But the signs are fairly promising - especially following the joint

award of the Nobel Peace Prize to SDLP leader, John Hume and Northern

Ireland First Minsiter, David Trimble on 16 October.



’We are putting in place a lobbying facility for all our clients,’ says

Burnside-Citigate Communications managing director Alan Burnside. ’The

fact that there’s a locally accountable administration gives us a real

chance to put across arguments.’ John Laird PR director Jane Wells, who

is also chair of the IPR’s Northern Ireland branch, adds: ’There are

significant opportunities for local consultancies to operate in a public

affairs environment - which they may not have operated in before. PR

consultancies should be preparing general information about their

clients for Members and civil servants and looking at issues where they

might be able to help prepare policy.’ The Assembly has decided that it

would be inappropriate for lobbying groups to make presentations in the

debating chamber. However, Assembly Members will be free to sponsor such

groups and meet with them in committee rooms within parliament

buildings. Other Members would also be free to attend these

meetings.



Given that many companies have interests both sides of the Irish border,

the Assembly will have an impact on organisations based in the Republic

too. Some agencies, such as Fleishman-Hillard Saunders, are already

talking to the Assemblyon issues.



LONDON: Prepare now to speak to the GLA



In a referendum on 7 May this year Londoners voted in favour of a new

strategic authority for the capital, the Greater London Authority (GLA).

At its heart will be a directly elected mayor and a separately elected

Assembly of 25 members, supported by a small staff.



The thinking behind the GLA is to provide the strategic direction and

leadership that London has lacked since the highly controversial

abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986. The mayor, who will

have a mandate of up to five million voters, will clearly be an

extremely powerful figure - in the way that mayors of cities such as New

York and Paris already are.



London’s mayor, whoever he or she is - and there are already a lot of

prospective candidates limbering up in the wings, from Lord Archer to

Ken Livingstone - will have sweeping executive powers.



There will be new organisations with co-ordinating powers on transport

and economic development: Transport for London (TfL) and the London

Development Agency (LDA). There will also be new authorities responsible

for the police and emergency services. And the mayor will have powers to

organise London-wide action to improve the environment.



In his foreword to the document on the GLA published by the Government

in March, Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the

Regions, John Prescott wrote: ’We are equipping the mayor and Assembly

with the powers and resources they will need to do the job and we are

creating a framework within which they can work with partners in the

public, private and voluntary sectors.



’We hope to create a new style of politics for our capital city - more

inclusive, less confrontational and focusing on the issues that matter

with the powers and resources to bring about change.’ There is no set

date for the GLA to be formed, but subject to the passage of legislation

through Parliament next year elections could be in autumn 1999 or spring

2000.



’Business is beginning to realise that this new body will shape a lot of

policy for the capital, so there will be big business implications,’

says London First communications director Patrick Kerr.



’Arguably there will be opportunities under the bill for private sector

people to become involved in taskforces. Any organisation that would

claim to be forward-looking should be thinking now about how it will

have a dialogue with the new body in a couple of years’ time.’ APCO UK

deputy managing director Nick DeLuca concludes: ’Inevitably when you put

in place new institutions that are part of the political process it

means work for lobbyists. It has to.’



e-commerce: Working for the dollar in Europe



On 6 October, the Government published Net Benefit: The Electronic

Commerce Agenda for the UK. This position paper examined ways of

stimulating e-commerce - buying and selling goods and services on the

internet.



According to the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG), a

London-based body with 260 members (drawn from 20 countries) that are

involved in selling through the internet, worldwide revenue from

e-commerce will reach US dollars 30-40 million by the end of 1998 and is

projected to reach US dollars 12.5 billion by the end of 2002.



The UK Government has announced its own targets. Among them is procuring

90 per cent (by volume) of routine goods electronically by 2001.

Telecoms Minister Barbara Roche recently said: ’The Government’s vision

is of a Britain which is a leading digital economy and is recognised

globally as providing a first-class environment for business to trade

electronically.’ However lobbyists, such as Grant Butler Coomber head of

public affairs Carl Gibson believe there is sure to be lobbying work for

clients based outside the European Union who are concerned that data

protection legislation applied to e-commerce will put them at an unfair

disadvantage to those companies operating within the EU.



’There will be some companies who are affected, especially US companies

who don’t have a European base,’ says Gibson. ’This will be one of the

priority areas that clients will want to put at the top of their list

for discussion.’ IMRG joint managing director James Roper is in regular

contact with EC officials and UK civil servants involved in the

formulation of e-commerce policy.



’There’s an urgent need for the industry to educate government,’ says

Roper. ’They need to be told to keep well away from interfering too much

at this stage.’



The issues covered by the Government’s position paper include consumer

and data protection, ’potentially objectionable material’ (ie

pornography) and authentication such as the use of electronic signatures

(cryptography).



In the case of the latter, the UK Government is proposing to introduce

legislation to license -on a voluntary basis - organisations providing

cryptography keys. This will set standards and guarantee legal

recognition of electronic transactions.



Clearly, with e-commerce set to grow, ensuring a favourable legislative

framework to operate in is a vital consideration for the retail and

technology companies involved and lobbying will undoubtedly play its

part.



Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus

Latest Articles

John Lewis to tell brand story with "tasteful" 150th anniversary celebrations

John Lewis to tell brand story with "tasteful" 150th anniversary celebrations

Department store John Lewis is to use its 150th anniversary this year to talk about its history, which "not enough people know about", according to director of communications Peter Cross.

Labour hires Obama election strategist David Axelrod to fight General Election

Labour hires Obama election strategist David Axelrod to fight General Election

The man who helped Barack Obama win the 2008 and 2012 US presidential elections is to work for Labour along with members of his team.

Sky adds Fever PR to its roster after splitting with Cake

Sky adds Fever PR to its roster after splitting with Cake

Pay-TV giant Sky has added Fever PR to its agency line-up for a wide-ranging brief covering products and services.

Max Clifford trial jury to continue deliberations after Easter break

Max Clifford trial jury to continue deliberations after Easter break

The jury in the trial of celebrity publicist Max Clifford has been sent home for Easter and will reconvene on Tuesday for further deliberations about its verdicts on 11 charges of indecent assault.

Home Office brings in Munro & Forster to campaign against FGM

Home Office brings in Munro & Forster to campaign against FGM

The Home Office has tasked Munro & Forster (M&F) with supporting its campaign to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) as part of a wider retained brief.