Is Euro-transparency in lobbying fit for purpose?

As the UK teeters on the brink of Brexit, it is perhaps fitting that last week I made my first journey to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

Is Euro-transparency fit for purpose, asks Mark Glover, chairman of the APPC
Is Euro-transparency fit for purpose, asks Mark Glover, chairman of the APPC

What had brought me was the opportunity to appear as an expert witness in front of the European Committee on Legal Co-operation (CDCJ), which was conducting a hearing on the Legal Regulation of Lobbying Activities, in order to provide guidance to member states.

Alongside public affairs colleagues from France, Germany, Spain and Romania the experts also consisted of the heads of the Standards in Public Office Commission in Ireland, the Danish CBI and three different NGOs, who were either Transparency International or partner bodies.

Having discussed the UK’s position with the PRCA and CIPR before attending I was glad that the draft guidance recognised the need to focus on the act of lobbying and the benefits it brought in helping to improve the democratic process and secure good legislation.

I welcomed the focus on transparency, in particular broadening the scope of those doing lobbying to include law firms, in-house teams and even NGOs, and the recognition of the steps already being taken within the UK towards achieving greater transparency.

There was considerable discussion about what lobbying actually entailed, particularly around whether this meant influencing, informing or persuading public officials.

There was much debate around the preferred word ‘influencing’, with the eloquent French expert calling upon Rousseau and Robespierre to support his arguments that the word would not be well received in France.

My interventions throughout the day certainly seemed briefer than those of my continental colleagues.

But there were a number of areas of concern.

First, repeated calls from the NGOs for ever-growing levels of bureaucratic detail, including the full publication of all comms with all public officials by those lobbying.

My fear is that this could lead to disproportionate demands on those lobbying while damaging transparency, because legitimate stakeholders might be dissuaded from communicating with legislators.

Second, there were calls for the publication of the financial costs of public affairs campaigns.

With many campaigns involving the use of multiple comms disciplines, of which lobbying is just one element, this could be difficult to accurately quantify, not to mention the important need to maintain commercial confidentiality.

My final concern was the focus on the way lobbying is conducted across the Atlantic.

The US was regularly cited as an exemplar and there was little recognition that in Europe public affairs may be carried out differently, with self-regulation already successfully in place in many member states.

It concerns me that a framework could be recommended to member states (which may still include the UK) that is not fit for purpose.

Public affairs practitioners will do well to keep an eye out for the publication of the final draft recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to member states, due to be published this autumn.

Mark Glover is chairman of the APPC

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