Government plans to exempt in-house lobbyists from register 'could be illegal'

The Government has been warned that its proposals on the lobbying industry could contravene European law.

Power: the Central Lobby at Westminster
Power: the Central Lobby at Westminster

Launched last Friday, the 12-week consultation on lobbying will seek views on issues including the definition of a lobbyist, what information should be collected about them, and how the register of lobbyists should be funded.

But the plans, which suggest in-house lobbyists will not have to register, have been labelled ‘fundamentally flawed’ and potentially unlawful.

An investigation carried out by lawyers in 2001 suggested a government register that excluded in-house staff could break European laws on equality, following a similar attempt to regulate the Scottish public affairs industry in that year.

The advice, which was given to the PRCA by legal firm Maclay Murray & Spens, reads: ‘The legislation should treat cases alike and should not grant exemptions to some class of lobbyists but continue to regulate others,’ pointing to Article 14 in the European Convention on Human Rights.

PRCA chief executive Francis Ingham told PRWeek: ‘The Scottish Parliament suggested it wanted big consultancies but not in-house lobbyists in a register. We took legal advice that it would be a breach of fair trading to make that kind of distinction. It was clear it would be illegal.’

Ingham added that it would be a ‘very weird world’ in which BAE or Tesco could lobby ministers without being on a register, but agencies could not.

A Cabinet Office spokesman responded: ‘The Government does not agree that the proposals are discriminatory or that they breach any part of the European Convention on Human Rights. We have made clear that transparency is the primary objective of these proposals, and it is important that people can see who is represented by the people whom Ministers meet.’

One senior public affairs professional suggested if the in-house exemption stood, people would leave agencies to join in-house departments.

Standup4lobbying campaigner Mark Adams – who until recently worked at Lansons – writes that the consultation has been ‘condemned on all sides’ in this week’s public affairs Soap Box.

However, CIPR CEO Jane Wilson commended the consultation’s ‘sensible proposals on the level of disclosure put forward by the Government’. Lord Bell, chairman of Chime, told PRWeek that he had ‘no problem’ with the register.

A number of agency figures also suggested that a statutory register would make the UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC) surplus to requirements. But Elizabeth France, chairman of UKPAC, said it would relaunch its own register ‘within weeks’.

Also read: Mark Adam's Soap Box

Key points

  • The consultation, launched by minister Mark Harper, wants anyone who seeks to influence the Government for a third party to register, but not in-house staff.
  • The Government is seeking views on whether to give an idea of client fees.
  • Penalties could be enforced for non-compliance.
  • The Government believes it should be enforced by an independent body.
  • The consultation closes on 13 April.

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