Political and constitutional reform minister Chloe Smith broke her silence on the bill, but offered little hope she would change her mind over how it defines lobbying or its application to in-house lobbyists.
Smith spoke to PRWeek before joining with her Liberal Democrat legislative partner Tom Brake to meet public affairs industry bodies and critics of lobbying, such as the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency.
The draft bill published last week dismayed the public affairs agency world, with widespread criticism of its focus only on communication with ministers and permanent secretaries, and complaints that the industry’s input into the process had been ignored.
But Smith said arguments for a universal register had not convinced her, and defended the bill as ‘helping citizens to hold people to account’.
‘Including in-house people is not necessary,’ she said. ‘If they meet with a minister, it’s clear to the public whose interests are being represented or promoted. But that is not clear for a consultant lobbying firm.
‘The register will work in conjunction with the publication of the meetings of ministers and permanent secretaries, so citizens can use both sources to see what is going on.’
The register will include consultant lobbying activity outside the realm of pure-play public affairs agencies, added Smith.
‘Any organisation undertaking substantial lobbying activity will be required to register. That could include a multidisciplinary firm that, alongside other activities, whether it’s law or accountancy or other things, has an active consultant lobbying [offer].’
Rather than define ‘substantial’, she said: ‘We want the registrar to judge cases on their merits. There is an infinite number of business models and it would be extremely difficult for the Government to define in primary legislation all the possible eventualities.’
Smith said she did not want the industry to have a veto over the choice of candidates for registrar, who the draft bill stipulates cannot have served as a consultant lobbyist or a minister of the Crown within the previous five years.
Defending her lack of contact with the industry since taking the brief last September, Smith said her predecessor had carried out an ‘extensive consultation’ and that she had been spending her time studying the responses.
Cabinet Office and sector at odds over agency estimate
Chloe Smith has defended the lobbying register plan from accusations that it overestimates the number of agencies over which the cost of the regulatory system can be spread.
Among those questioning the accuracy of the Cabinet Office’s estimate that 700 lobbying agencies would sign up to the register is UKPAC acting chair George Kidd, who suggested it would be closer to 100.
‘I think its calculations are significantly out,’ he said. ‘We think the figure is going to be way below 700, and if you apply the direct comms discount factor, you’re going to get a much lower figure.’
The PRCA also released a survey showing that 77 per cent of 32 agencies surveyed did not believe they would be required to go on the proposed statutory register.
However, Smith said she did not expect the Cabinet Office’s figures to be inaccurate.
She said the figure of 700 was derived from an analysis of the levels of registration in Canada and Australia, which have comparable registers.
Pressed on whether she accepted that fees could be unfairly high if it transpired that the register would cover only 100 agencies, she said: ‘I would be happy to look at that as a scenario, but I believe we will be in a position to work together using accurate figures to get this right.’
How I see it
Francis Ingham, director-general, PRCA
A very small sample of law firms will be required to be included – only those that directly lobby ministers and permanent secretaries. Until we get further guidance, our view continues to be that this is a disappointing bill that has failed two of the PRCA’s crucial tests – on universality and cost.
Colin Byrne, CEO, Weber Shandwick Europe
As with other agencies, we have a long history in public affairs. But it is one of a group of businesses, rather than our sole business. That is where the proposal is sloppily drafted. I am sure the language can be tightened up – and we will happily sign up.