Public bodies stick with lobbying firms despite coalition crackdown

More than 100 publicly funded bodies are still employing public affairs firms despite Communities Secretary Eric Pickles' attempts to crack down on the practice.

Cracking down: Eric Pickles
Cracking down: Eric Pickles

Pickles has repeatedly criticised quangos and councils for hiring lobbying firms, but the latest records from the Ass­ociation of Professional Political Consultants suggest many of these organisations are doggedly refusing to take notice of the Communities Secretary.

The latest quarterly APPC register details public affairs agency clients between 1 September and 1 December 2010. It features more than 100 organisations in receipt of public funding.

Those on the latest register include quangos such as British Waterways and The Met Office, both listed as using Cavendish Communications, the Financial Services Authority, using Connect Communications, and the Gambling Commission, using Grayling.

Many of the quangos listed have been threatened with abolition by the Government.
 
In addition to scores of quangos, eight councils and 15 housing associations show up in the latest APPC records, which cover the majority of – though not all – public affairs firms.
 
The new findings will irritate Pickles, who has previously attacked councils for hiring lobbying firms and ins­tructed quangos under his department to cancel such contracts.
 
Responding to the news, a source close to the Communities Secretary insisted that the revised and tightened Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity, due at the end of January, would make it tougher for councils and police authorities to employ lobbyists.  
 
The source also revealed that the Government is drawing up new measures ‘to make housing associations more transparent’.
 
In a statement, Local Government Minister Grant Shapps said: ‘The practice of government lobbying government is indefensible. Councils should not be spending taxpayers cash on bankrolling elaborate lobbying campaigns. If a council wants to lobby the Government then they need only pick up the phone or send an email. That's likely to be more effective than expensive lobbyists anyway.

‘This is exactly the kind of waste that local authorities must root out so they can protect frontline services. Good luck to councils trying to justify this kind of spending.’

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: ‘This Government is absolutely committed to improving transparency in politics and has already stated that it intends to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists.

‘In addition, the Coalition is doing everything it can to increase accountability in public life and that is why as part of the Government’s reforms to the quango landscape, it will be introducing new restrictions on lobbying and marketing.'

But senior industry figures insisted that, in most cases, agencies were not being hired to directly lobby Government. ‘Agencies provide a wide range of expertise and support in-house teams in managing their media relations, public consultations, marketing activities and community relations,’ said PRCA chief executive Francis Ingham.
 
APPC member agencies are required to list public affairs clients on a quarterly basis. The lists are then displayed publicly on the APPC register.

As reported on prweek.com/uk (11 January), TLG is the latest major agency to apply to become a member of the APPC, after Luther Pendragon and Quiller Consultants. Bell Pottinger Public Affairs still declines to join the APPC.

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