PRWeek has learned that what appear to be undercover reporters have contacted a number of public affairs consultancies and met with at least one to investigate the role of lobbying firms in the establishment of all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs).
Insight Public Affairs MD John Lehal alerted PRWeek to what he described as a ‘clumsy attempt at investigative journalism’ following a meeting last week.
He met with two individuals purporting to be from an Swiss management consultancy working on behalf of an Indian energy investment fund.
Lehal said the pair’s chief line of enquiry was whether it was possible to pay consultants to facilitate the creation of all-party groups, something Lehal said was not a service an APPC-member consultancy would or could provide.
‘It became evident within five minutes that these undercover journalists had gone to great lengths to set up a front company, yet all they wanted was to portray impropriety about the work of agencies in supporting all-party groups.
‘I’m afraid they came to the wrong agency, as we pride ourselves on behaving ethically and with integrity.’
The management consultancy's website lists its contact address as a PO Box in Zurich. Calls to London and Swiss contact numbers were not returned.
The apparent sting operation follows a number of reports this year, including in The Guardian and The Times, highlighting perceived impropriety in the relationship between lobbyists and APPGs.
Lehal said: 'It is perfectly legitimate for a consultancy to provide secretariat services or a firm or trade body to fund APPGs as long as they are transparent and the MPs lead the activity.'
Rules on transparency regarding APPGs are already in place, as groups must register any funding received from non-parliamentary sources of more than £1,500 in a calendar year.
PRCA director-general Francis Ingham commented: 'The fundamental problem with APPGs is that parliamentary authorities do not give them the support they need, so inevitably they look outside for help.
What would be useful is for greater support to be given so APPGs do not have to rely on such help so much.'
Phil Morgan, director of policy and comms at the CIPR, added: 'If (investigations) uncover malpractice then it's good journalism, but journalists can pick up on an idea that there can be a corporate influence on democracy and they assume it's money buying influence.'
The news is just the latest example of journalists going undercover to investigate the lobbying industry.
The most high-profile was the Independent/Bureau of Investigative Journalism exposé of lobbying ethics at Bell Pottinger in December 2011, posing as executives from the fake Azimov Group.
Also targeted by undercover reporters last year was Staite Communications founder Ed Staite, when The Sunday Times’ insight team posed as donors who wanted to influence Chancellor George Osborne.
Earlier this year The Sunday Times secretly filmed former Ministry of Defence officials claiming to be able to exert influence on defence policy for corporations.
In 2010, Channel 4’s Dispatches programme targeted three Labour MPs Stephen Byers, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt, over a ‘cash for access' story.
John Lehal's email response to 'consultants'
Dear [names removed],
Thank you for coming in this afternoon to discuss the potential opportunity for your [deleted] client to enter policy discussions [deleted]. With further clarity on objectives and policy goals needed, I stressed some generic points, which I reinforce here.
The public affairs industry generally, and Insight in particular, takes its duty to operate in an ethical and transparent way very seriously. Behaving reputably is imperative to us and to our clients, and as you could tell from my robust stance in the meeting, is something about which we will not compromise.
To summarise the advice I gave you:
- Your client’s case will need to be robust and evidence-based;
- Clients have to advocate on their own behalf in meetings with MPs, Ministers and officials - we cannot do this on your behalf;
- Public affairs is no longer based on networks and contacts but on informed strategy and advice;
- The agency and the clients will need to work ethically and transparently (as we currently do on behalf of our clients in line with the APPC Code);
- You should appoint an agency that is a member of the Association of Professional Political Consultants. Failure to do so could impact your reputation and that of your clients.
You asked specifically about all-party groups. As explained, we do not set up all-party groups, as it is for MPs with an interest in a subject area to set one up if they feel there is a case for one. MPs may feel an all-party group presents the best way of debating a major policy area of interest with a large number of parliamentarians also interested in it, and we may in turn be asked to provide secretariat services.
If you were to proactively suggest to an MP that they should establish an all-party group then you would need to present a very strong argument, as there is a very long list of existing and largely ineffective groups already, and it will be for MPs to decide to set one up in line with the Standing Orders of the House. It may be that establishing a '[deleted] forum' led by an interested MP with a long-standing interest in the policy area could be of real value, albeit for a time-limited period. You would need to work with a parliamentarian who understands the policy need and they will require robust evidence on the merits of the case. We could identify who some of these MPs might be and you would need to meet them, to understand their interest and explain the rationale for a forum.
Any parliamentarian you work with will have their own viewpoint and agenda, and you will have to work in partnership with them to make your case and give due consideration to policy solutions to put on the table. It is important you understand that the parliamentarian would take full ownership of the content, direction, and outcomes of any prospective [deleted] forum. This is the exactly the case with clients we currently work with.
Our role as a public affairs agency is to offer our understanding of the relevant policy and politics, as well as the personalities and influencers involved in this policy area, but we do not offer our contact books and certainly do not call in 'favours from friends'. I hope this is clear, as we want to manage your expectations.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if there is anything other information I can provide.
Industry opinion divided on value APPGs provide
As media scrutiny continues to fall on the relationship between lobbyists and APPGs, industry opinion is split on the value such groups offer.
National newspapers have run pieces this year detailing the sources of funding of various APPGs.
But Insight Public Affairs MD John Lehal said he would be hesitant to advise a client to engage with policymakers through APPGs: 'There is a certain amount of fatigue now about all-party groups - it would not be a route I would particularly advise.'
Michael Burrell, senior counsellor for APCO Worldwide and APPC chairman, also said APPGs provide limited value to clients:
‘They can be worth resource, but you’re usually reaching is a relatively small number of backbench MPs, many of whom have firm views already.’
‘The rules are pretty clear, and the APPC had rules on APPGs too around declaring the work you are engaging in. In the House of Commons it is quite clear that an MP cannot act as a lobbyist, by contrast the rules in the House of Lords are a lot more opaque and less restrictive.’
However, Chris Rumfitt, MD public affairs, Edelman commented: ‘Though they have no policy making power, they vary hugely and some carry a degree of influence. A strength of APPGs is that members can talk issues and not party politics, and you can engage in political debate without the party politics.’
£1m The amount APPGs received from outside organisations during 2012*
£1,500 Sum above which APPGs must declare is received from outside Parliament**
60 Number of APPGs that have received sponsorship/donation***
80 Parliamentary passes issued by APPGs to staff with outside interests***
Source: *The Times; **reported generally; ***Guardian Online