Law firms 'over-egging' their claims to offer public affairs, lobbying registrar says

Law firms are often "over-egging the pudding" with claims of providing public affairs and lobbying services - meaning they often do not need to submit to the statutory lobbying register, according to the head of the regulator.

Since the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists opened its register for business in March 2015, concerns have been raised that a number of law and professional services firms, management consultancies and other businesses that provide public affairs services have failed to register.

Addressing ORCL's annual stakeholder event in London yesterday, the registrar Alison White said that "quite a lot" of law firms, management consultancies, think-tanks and other organisations are among the 123 currently on the register.

However, she said she had looked in "quite some depth" at whether more ought to submit.

She said: "During the course of the year I've spent a lot of time looking to see whether or not those organisations should be registered. Quite often if I look at law firms as an example... we’re in a situation where those organisations have perhaps rather over-egged the pudding as far as their marketing departments are concerned."

White said she was satisfied that a lot of law firms' public affairs offering involved conversations that were not at ministerial or private secretary level - the activity that ORCL is concerned with - and that her investigations had resulted in a "very minimal amount of change" to the register itself, but had given her a "greater degree of confidence" that firms were compliant with the register.

While law firms and others appear to be compliant, White said she was worried about "over-declaration" among other registrants. She said many agencies decided they should "err on the side of caution because they assume I’ll like it better - I don’t like it better, because I want to get it right and I want you to get it right".

White told attendees to come back to the definitions used in the legislation in order to get it right. "I try very hard not to use the term lobbying in a loose kind of way, because the legislation doesn’t talk about lobbying, it talks about direct commuication with minsters and private secretaries," she said.

"The biggest message from us is if you’ve got a question for us or you think you might be in hot water, give us a call," she said.

The event also included an address from Billy McLaren, who is in the process of setting up a Scottish lobbying regulator, updating attendees on his progress, and a video message from Chris Skidmore, the minister for the constitution.

Skidmore, who had been scheduled to appear in person but was unable to thanks to parliamentary business, said that White had applied "real rigour" in her administration of ORCL, saying: "Alison’s work is achieving much greater transparency in the political consultant and lobbying industry."

He also said he wanted the UK government to be the "most open and transparent in the world".

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