David Singleton: No carrot, no stick for lobbyists

The Government's decision not to impose heavy-handed regulations on lobbyists is, at first glance, good news for the public affairs industry.

David Singleton
David Singleton

But on closer inspection, the Government's stance on lobbying presents something of a headache.

After months of unfathomable delays, the Government has finally responded to the Commons public administration select committee, which earlier this year called for a mandatory register of lobbying activity.

The Government has shown little interest in forcing all agencies to reveal their clients on such a register. This will be especially welcome at consultancies such as Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, which has repeatedly insisted that full disclosure of its clients would fly in the face of confidentiality agreements.

But the industry has not been given a get-out-of-jail-free card. Ministers want to see 'a system of voluntary self-regulation' and warn: 'The Government will keep the issue under review to ensure that progress is made.'

How the industry is expected to arrive at such a juncture is not clear. Attempts to persuade all lobbying agencies to voluntarily reveal their clients have so far failed to make significant progress, largely owing to a minority of consultancies digging in their heels and refusing to play ball.

Yet ministers have failed spectacularly to come up with any clear plan to persuade agencies such as Bell Pottinger and Luther Pendragon to get on board. Many lobbyists will be relieved there is no suggestion that the public sector should only offer contracts to and deal with lobbyists who declare all their clients.

But the Government has not even given its backing to the tamer 'kitemark' scheme mooted by industry bodies to denote excellence in public affairs. In short, there is no carrot and no stick.

The industry must still make a good fist of self-regulation to appease critics and avoid more draconian measures from a likely Conservative government. But the Government has just made this task more difficult by failing to nail its colours to the mast.

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