The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill enters the final stages of committee scrutiny in the House of Lords this week and will almost certainly receive royal assent shortly afterwards. It is true to say that the debate – as much as there has been one – that surrounds this bill has concluded that it won’t achieve its stated aim of "cleaning up lobbying". Off the record, some politicians will even admit the bill is not meant to solve the problem, but rather to pay lip service to a complicated issue that needs resolving before the election.
Everyone in our industry knows public affairs agencies rarely represent their clients’ interests because it is largely ineffective. The statutory register is, therefore, likely to be bereft of entries from its inception and will inevitably lead immediately to calls for greater regulation. The received wisdom of our trade bodies seems to be that extending the register to in-house lobbyists will somehow provide the panacea we need to reassure people about how we operate. But in reality, all it will do is provide enterprising journalists with a continual merry-go-round of stories based on inference about undue influence.
When you compare the lobbying bill debate with that of media regulation – an industry with a far worse record of transgressions – there is a startling contrast. Journalists are fiercely resisting ever-greater regulation as they recognise the proposals will be the thin end of the wedge. I am not opposed to the register, but I refuse to believe it will make the slightest bit of difference to how any of us operate or improve our reputations.
Transparency is not a goal in itself but a means to an end. Preventing undue influence of the legislative process is a worthwhile objective, but I don’t see how a list of names, clients or fees accomplishes that. If people are comforted by being able to see a list of our clients, then fine. But in the modern age, lobbying is much more effective through campaigns and the public does not get to see how that relationship operates or who is involved. The question of who is influencing our legislative process and how is far more complex than a list of meetings could ever answer.
The industry’s collective failure to articulate what we do and what our clients pay us for means the media are inherently suspicious that we must be getting paid for something unethical. Some politicians, on the other hand, use us as a handy scapegoat for their own corruption. My concern is that unless we are clear about the problem we are trying to fix, then we will quickly end up with an onerous form of regulation that is costly and ineffective. The way to win this debate is by behaving ethically and transparently, rather than seeking answers from a political class that hardly seems capable of regulating itself.
The real lobbying scandals involve politicians and money. The onus should be on them to create a system where people know who is influencing them, rather than focusing on an industry where no one can adequately define who we are or what we do.
Stephen Lotinga is managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs