Top public affairs professionals pride themselves on their ability to influence Westminster's movers and shakers. But according to the much anticipated Hansard Society report, ‘Friend or Foe - Lobbying in British Democracy', lobbyists' clout in Parliament seems to depend largely on who they represent - charity or big business.
The report, published last month, polled 160 MPs, 31 lobbyists and 25 political journalists, and indicated that charities hold far more sway in the lobbying process. Indeed, 91 per cent of MPs believe charities are ‘effective' at communicating with them. Only 57 per cent said the same about lobbyists representing corporate clients.
What's more, just one in five MPs agreed with the statement ‘private companies are generally more adept at lobbying than charities'.
Of the MPs questioned, 81 were Labour, 55 were Conservative and 19 were Liberal Democrat (with five being ‘others'). Report author Phillip Parvin says: ‘On the face of it, the research suggests lobbyists working in the corporate sector are not as good at communicating with MPs as they think they are. MPs are less willing to listen to private sector lobbyists than many might initially think.'
So, do MPs have an institutional bias towards charities, or are the lobbying efforts of big business really not up to scratch?
The experience of lobbyists in the charity sector appears to mirror the report's findings. Brian Lamb, director of comms at the Royal National Institute of the Deaf, says charities ‘often get an easier ride', both from MPs and the media.
Charlotte Smith, parliamentary adviser at children's charity NSPCC, also feels charities have the upper hand when it comes to lobbying.
‘From a children's charity perspective, lobbying concerns are easier to pull off,' she says. ‘That's because every MP has children in their constituency. So it's relatively easy for us to get MPs engaged.'
‘We never have a problem'
Smith adds: ‘MPs are very willing to listen to the NSPCC. We never have a problem contacting MPs or getting information to them, and we find that their offices are incredibly helpful in the work they do.'
She gives the example a recently launched petition urging more therapeutic services for young victims of abuse: ‘We've lobbied many MPs on that and have had considerable success in terms of people signed up. We've also had MPs sign an Early Day Motion and agree to an adjournment debate.'
But Smith believes the NSPCC's success with MPs is not only down to the nature of the issue. She says it is also a result of effective lobbying by herself and colleagues, not to mention the dedication of many MPs. ‘They are professional people these days with able staff in their offices who are capable of taking issues forward,' she says.
Meanwhile, many MPs acknowledge that they give businesses a rougher ride. What's more, most are unapologetic about it.
One MP, who does not want to be named, says it is simply more politically risky to get into bed with business. ‘If a cancer charity approaches you and wants to make your constituents more aware of prostate or bowel cancer, where is the political downside in that?' he asks. ‘The worst that can happen is that you have your picture taken and the local paper doesn't publish it. If, on the other hand, British Aerospace calls a meeting to tell you how many jobs it has created - well, that isn't quite the same.'
Another MP, who also wants to remain anonymous, says his readiness to listen is dependent on the motives of the lobbyist who approaches him. He explains: ‘Charities' motives make it easier for politicians to engage with them. Why do businesses want support from politicians? Probably so they don't get persecuted.'
He adds: ‘They don't want their tax to go up, or they want less regulation, or they want to show that they are being socially responsible. It's about "don't hit us, we're good people", rather than "come on board, we're trying to save people's lives".'
Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Great Grimsby, points out that charities and interest groups tend to pursue ‘issues that need raising', while businesses only approach MPs when ‘something goes seriously wrong'.
But he says this is not the only reason why charities are more successful at communicating with MPs. He believes they have greater clout than business because they tend to have a ‘wider impact on public opinion'.
It is not just Labour MPs who believe charities are better at getting across their message.
Bill Wiggin, Conservative MP for Leominster and shadow minister for agriculture and fisheries, says charities are ‘much more in tune' with what MPs want and how they can help. He adds: ‘I want to help business but it's very difficult to do so because they rarely come to me with a raft of things that I can easily do. And when they do come to me, they tend to come very late in the day.'
Lobbyists, of course, feel they play a legitimate part in the political process, but are nonetheless insecure about outside perceptions of the industry. Of the 31 lobbyists polled by The Hansard Society, 23 agreed ‘the public do not trust lobbyists', while only 14 believed that ‘MPs have faith in lobbyists'.
Furthermore, 18 of the 25 journalists polled in the report said lobbyists were not trusted by MPs. All of which paints a rather negative picture for those lobbying on behalf of business - including public affairs consultancies.
Rod Cartwright, director of PA at Hill & Knowlton and chairman of the PRCA's public affairs committee, says it is not surprising that charities and special interest groups are better able to reach MPs.
He says they are ‘undeniably able to construct a more "hearts and minds" case around emotive issues, and often have formidable fundraising machines'. Cartwright suggests other lobbyists should learn from this.
‘In some cases, the charitable sector is now marrying its track record in creative campaigning with ever more professional approaches to lobbying and not inconsiderable budgets,' he says. ‘Coupled with the emotive advantage that charities often enjoy, this can be a potent mix and may go some way to explaining the impression that the not-for-profit sector is more effective in its lobbying efforts.'
Pete Digger, deputy managing director at Global Government Relations, says MPs are probably ‘more susceptible or amenable to charities', but insists he does not have a problem with this. Rather, he believes it is a good thing that MPs are not in the pockets of business. He says: ‘It's right that MPs are questioning and analysing in quite a lot of detail what lobbyists have to say.'
Others in the public affairs community are sceptical about whether the cosy relationship between MPs and charities results in real action. Robbie MacDuff, director of Precise Public Affairs - and a former senior aide to Labour MP Alan Roberts - says: ‘Having worked for an MP for nearly seven years, the reality is that the third sector usually has a much better reception from MPs because they naturally empathise with a lot of the issues being raised. But this doesn't mean MPs necessarily agree with the messages being imparted, or that MPs are going to act on them.'
He adds: ‘The point is, how do MPs react to receiving those messages? I know from my time with Alan Roberts MP that we were very sympathetic to many of the messages but we weren't mobilised to do anything. You can sign an Early Day Motion - but that's often a waste of time. We weren't even agitated to the point of putting down a Parliamentary Question.'
Rory Scanlan, partner at The Policy Partnership, agrees that engagement is the point. He also doubts that simply getting on well with a backbench MP will lead to successful lobbying. Rather, he suggests that real change is better achieved by targeting senior civil servants and special advisers. And he accuses the Hansard Society's Parvin of neglecting this aspect of PA.
He says: ‘It's a shame Parvin did not find a way to seek the views of others, such as officials and special advisers. These are the people who are likely to receive more focused lobbying from directly interested parties.'
THE LABOUR MP
Austin Mitchell Labour MP for Great Grimsby
‘Special interest groups have an easier time partly because they have a wider impact on public opinion.
It is sensible that these groups, including those concerned with social and health issues, should mobilise because MPs need the information – they need to be aware of the strength of feeling in their area.
‘If something goes seriously wrong, that’s when business needs help, unlike the continuous concern of charity.’
THE CONSERVATIVE MP
Bill Wiggin, Conservative MP for Leominster
‘The charity sector is much more in tune with how an MP’s life works, what an MP wants and what he or she can give back to the charitable organisation. I’m a patron of quite a large number of charities in my own constituency.
I work hard to try and promote the work they do and try to make sure that government policy does not act against their needs.
‘MPs are supportive of business, but don’t see the same opportunities to connect as maybe there were in the past.’
THE PUBLIC AFFAIRS AGENCY BOSS
Ralph Jackson, director, Lansons Public Affairs
‘Whether charities are more successful than business depends on the issue and the audience.
There is a whole world of difference between a children’s charity talking to MPs in general about children’s matters, and financial services companies talking to the Treasury select committee.
‘That dialogue is an essential part of democracy. It is about politicians being informed of what is happening in the commercial world. But it can be harder for business to get its messages across if the MP holds a different point of view.’
THE CORPORATE VIEW
Jonathan French, press officer, Association of British Insurers
‘Different types of organisations face different challenges in getting their messages across to government, and ultimately achieving legislative change.
Charity campaigns often receive support from backbenchers because the issues concerned are powerful and of particular relevance to constituents.