Industry fears 'knee-jerk' reaction after lobbying stings

The PR industry has warned against a 'knee-jerk' reaction by Government in the wake of media stings alleging an MP and three members of the House of Lords offered to use their influence in Parliament for paying clients.

Lobbying allegations: members of both Lords and Commons caught up
Lobbying allegations: members of both Lords and Commons caught up

The three trade bodies, which have been seeking for months to engage with the Government over its plans to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, now fear pressure to act after the fresh scandals could lead to a rushed solution.

Today Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, writing in The Daily Telegraph, said he was ‘sadly not surprised by the revelations’ and again promised the statutory register ‘will happen’ and would bring ‘better regulation of the lobbying industry’.

Phil Morgan, CIPR director of policy and comms, welcomed a register in principle, but warned that it would not impact on the ‘private networks within politics’ that had led to the scandal.

‘The danger of a knee-jerk reaction is that a register is created that impacts on those who are not a part of the problem, which really is parliamentary standards.'

Morgan said he feared the Government may introduce a code of conduct. ‘The tendency could be to regulate activity by introducing a code of conduct, which would undermine professional self-regulation. We are all working hard to make sure standards are high, and a broad catch-all regulation would have lower standards than those currently in operation [within the CIPR and APPC].'

A Cabinet Office spokesman declined to be drawn on whether it was considering a code of conduct as part of the plans it is working on for the statutory register.

Morgan also reiterated the CIPR’s worry that the Government would introduce a register that applied to public affairs agencies but not to all organisations and people who carry out paid lobbying.

‘You have legitimate causes that need access to the democratic system, and if rules are brought in saying some can lobby and some cannot you will have something questionable when it comes to the process of democracy.’

APPC chairman Michael Burrell highlighted that neither investigation involved a real public affairs consultancy. He said: ‘To a certain extent the public affairs industry is damned by association, which is kind of irritating because for the umpteenth time we have a "lobbying scandal" in which there are no lobbyists.

‘There hasn’t been a scandal involving a lobbying company for a long time. The penny is beginning to drop with some politicians that we’re not the problem.’

Burrell, who also called for any register to be universal, said he believed the Government now intended to come forward with its proposals in this parliamentary session.

PRCA director-general Francis Ingham called the situation ‘a lobbying scandal without lobbyists’.

‘If the Government wants to sort this out it needs to get tough on politicians. I am concerned about a knee-jerk reaction, and a statutory register must be proportionate, and to bang one out that just covers agencies rather than those in-house would be wrong.’

Ingham also rejected the idea of full financial disclosure by lobbyists being proposed by some as a key ingredient to lobbying reform.

‘Financial disclosure is not something lawyers, management consultants or others who advise clients on how to interact with politicians have to do. Why should this industry be singled out for rougher treatment?’

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: ‘Lobbying has an important role in the policy-making process, ensuring that ministers and senior officials hear a full range of views from those who will be affected by government decisions. But it must be conducted in a transparent and open way.

‘We need to combat the sometimes negative perception of the relationship between lobbyists and ministers to give people confidence that the process is transparent.

‘That is why we committed in the coalition agreement to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists that will increase transparency without placing disproportionate burdens on those who legitimately lobby the Government on behalf of business, charities or other causes.

‘As the response to the Government’s consultation showed, introducing a statutory register of lobbyists is a complex issue, and it is important we get it right. We are currently considering the way forward, and we will publish more detail on our proposals in due course.’

The stings and the allegations

Labour has suspended Lord Cunningham and Lord Mackenzie from the party and Ulster Unionist Lord Laird has resigned his party whip, pending an investigation by parliamentary authorities.

The three were caught on film by Sunday Times reporters who posed as representatives of a fake South Korean solar energy company.

The newspaper claimed the peers said they could set up an all party parliamentary group as a lobbying vehicle and that Cunningham offered to write directly to the Prime Minister to push the company’s agenda.

All three denied they had breached any parliamentary rules.

Conservative MP Patrick Mercer resigned his party’s whip after a separate undercover investigation by Panorama and The Daily Telegraph, which alleged he broke Commons lobbying rules. Reporters posed as lobbyists for a fake company representing business interests in Fiji.

Mercer said he was taking legal advice about the allegations and had referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

The same investigation also claimed Laird discussed a retainer to ask parliamentary questions.

The revelations follow PRWeek learning two weeks ago that undercover reporters had 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.

Insight Public Affairs MD John Lehal said the reporters' 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.

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