Often stories which are presented as scandalous at the height of
summer appear trivial or are largely forgotten as the year draws to its
close. That, however, is not the case with the ’cash for access’
Readers will recall that the controversy was engendered by an article in
the Observer that highlighted boasts made by lobbyists of their close
connections with the key figures in Government and advance access to
inside information. The three lobbyists involved were Derek Draper, who
subsequently resigned as a director of GPC, GJW’s Karl Milner and Ben
Lucas of Lawson Lucas Mendelsohn.
To its credit, the public affairs consultancies trade body, the
Association of Professional Political Consultants, acted swiftly,
suspending GPC and GJW (LLM was not a member, so the APPC had no power
over it) and launching an enquiry by former civil service head Lord
Armstrong and barrister Nicholas Purnell. The enquiry found that there
were admitted weaknesses in management systems which both firms have now
Yet although the Drapergate affair was at heart about braggadocio rather
than profound malfeasance, it is an issue that has refused to go
The Blair Government, which had enjoyed such a long honeymoon period, is
now finding charges of cronyism harder to deflect than it would
And the image of public affairs consultancies, which had taken a mighty
pummelling with the ’cash for questions’ affair involving Ian Greer
Associates a few years ago, has taken a further knock.
’There was a feeling among some of these people who had left Labour to
move into lobbying in recent years that they were Masters of the
Universe, on the inside feeling themselves to be untouchable,’ says one
’When new people enter the industry all they bring with them is who they
know. They don’t have a lot of experience of putting together public
affairs campaigns. It makes it seem as an industry that we are dominated
by people who are selling what they once were.’
There is then a very real perception problem for the industry to
Professional lobbyists have come to be regarded with suspicion, not just
by the media and the broader public but often by civil servants and
politicians as well. APPC secretary Charles Miller admits: ’At the
Labour party conference it was noticeable that professional lobbyists
were finding it harder to talk to people.’
It was also apparent that consultancies were distinctly more prudent in
their activities during conference season than in the recent past.
The general sentiment among consultancies was that they should be very
careful to avoid doing anything that could be misinterpreted as an
attempt to buy their way into political favour.
’Cash for access did dent the image of the industry,’ says Westminster
Strategy deputy managing director Mike Lee. ’And while those who were
caught in the Observer were not typical of the industry as a whole, they
did reflect some of the arrogance and over-stated claims that, at its
worst, the industry is guilty of.’
AS Biss and Company chairman Adele Biss adds: ’There’s an extra
sensitivity about now concerning what may or may not be interpreted as
reasonable behaviour. It’s worth remembering that there’s always a
newspaper diarist out there who’s happy to look at something through the
opposite of rose-tinted spectacles.’
The actions of lobbyists are continually subject to scrutiny. Yet unlike
so many other professions that are frequently called to account, it is
an unregulated one. Consultancies do not have to belong to the APPC, or
indeed the PRCA. And even in the case of those that do, it is not as
though the trade bodies have statutory powers. Naming and shaming,
although a useful tactic, hardly has the deterrent clout of being able
to ban a consultant or his agency from plying their trade.
’I’ve always believed that self-regulation is no regulation,’ says
Ludgate head of public affairs Stephen Lock. Fishburn Hedges director
Graham McMillan adds: ’It’s not very responsible for the long-term
future of the industry for serious players not to be regulated.’
Many other industry figures are of the same view. Even so, a proper
regulatory system, including perhaps a register of lobbyists, would not
be the easiest thing to administer and enforce. For a start, it should
be borne in mind that the majority of lobbyists do not work at public
affairs consultancies at all: they are to be found either in-house at
corporations or special interest groups, or indeed working for firms of
solicitors and accountants.
The European Parliament, following several reports on lobbying authored
by Labour MEP Glyn Ford, has introduced a system of registration for
Under this system, lobbyists are given a long-term pass granting them
access to the parliament buildings in return for which they agree to
abide by the code of conduct drawn up by the European Parliament.
There is also a registration system in place in the US. But while this
is a good thing in principle, says APCO UK deputy managing director Nick
DeLuca, it is no panacea. ’It’s a huge list with so much information
that it loses its utility,’ he argues.
The British Government has hitherto been unwilling to pursue a course of
statutory regulation because of its complexity. But if further
allegations of cronyism are levelled it could very easily change its
stance. Should it do so, the system it brings in could be of a nature
that lobbyists find far more unpalatable than one of their own
’The Government is not keen on statutory regulation - it will cost,’
says Simon Nayyar, chairman of the PRCA’s public affairs committee and a
director of Citigate Westminster. ’It would prefer the industry to put
its own house in order. But I have no reason to doubt that if we fail to
do so another view may well be taken.’
IPR president Peter Walker believes that the recent revision of the
Civil Service Code with its guidance on contacts with lobbyists sends a
’clear signal’ to public affairs consultancies that they need to act
soon. ’If we miss this opportunity we won’t be forgiven,’ says
The APPC, PRCA and IPR are working more closely than ever before. Their
co-operation is nothing less than essential because an industry-wide
solution is required. But not everyone is happy with the trade bodies’
performance, with the APPC in particular singled out for criticism. Its
recent redrafting of its code is described by Lock as ’mediocre at
The industry as a whole specifically needs to stress that while
face-to-face access to ministers and their advisers can be important -
and indeed has a certain glamour - it is not central to public affairs.
What really matters is knowledge of political processes and expertise in
drawing up and implementing strategy.
A way has to be found to abolish the perception of public affairs as a
business that is in some way sleazy or underhand. And for many in the
industry that means zero tolerance of any lobbyist whose actions call
into question the legitimacy of an activity that is a fundamental part
of the democratic process.
NORTHERN IRELAND: New roles on both sides of the border
The devolution wheels have well and truly been set in motion in Northern
Ireland. It is the first area of the UK in which elections to a
newly-created parliament have already taken place.
The vote was held on 25 June 1998, a little over a month after a
referendum gave a mandate to the New Northern Ireland Assembly,
following the Good Friday Peace Agreement. The 108 seats in the
Stormont-housed Assembly were shared between nine parties. Of these,
four took a significant share of the seats: the Ulster Unionist Party
won 28, Social Democratic and Labour Party 24, Democratic Unionist 20
and Sinn Fein 18.
At present a ’shadow commission’ is in place to prepare the ground for
the effective functioning of the Assembly. Deals and processes are being
hammered out by the main parties before the Assembly takes on its full
Clearly, future progress to a great degree depends on progress with the
decommissioning of terrorist weapons and the avoidance of civil
But the signs are fairly promising - especially following the joint
award of the Nobel Peace Prize to SDLP leader, John Hume and Northern
Ireland First Minsiter, David Trimble on 16 October.
’We are putting in place a lobbying facility for all our clients,’ says
Burnside-Citigate Communications managing director Alan Burnside. ’The
fact that there’s a locally accountable administration gives us a real
chance to put across arguments.’ John Laird PR director Jane Wells, who
is also chair of the IPR’s Northern Ireland branch, adds: ’There are
significant opportunities for local consultancies to operate in a public
affairs environment - which they may not have operated in before. PR
consultancies should be preparing general information about their
clients for Members and civil servants and looking at issues where they
might be able to help prepare policy.’ The Assembly has decided that it
would be inappropriate for lobbying groups to make presentations in the
debating chamber. However, Assembly Members will be free to sponsor such
groups and meet with them in committee rooms within parliament
buildings. Other Members would also be free to attend these
Given that many companies have interests both sides of the Irish border,
the Assembly will have an impact on organisations based in the Republic
too. Some agencies, such as Fleishman-Hillard Saunders, are already
talking to the Assemblyon issues.
LONDON: Prepare now to speak to the GLA
In a referendum on 7 May this year Londoners voted in favour of a new
strategic authority for the capital, the Greater London Authority (GLA).
At its heart will be a directly elected mayor and a separately elected
Assembly of 25 members, supported by a small staff.
The thinking behind the GLA is to provide the strategic direction and
leadership that London has lacked since the highly controversial
abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986. The mayor, who will
have a mandate of up to five million voters, will clearly be an
extremely powerful figure - in the way that mayors of cities such as New
York and Paris already are.
London’s mayor, whoever he or she is - and there are already a lot of
prospective candidates limbering up in the wings, from Lord Archer to
Ken Livingstone - will have sweeping executive powers.
There will be new organisations with co-ordinating powers on transport
and economic development: Transport for London (TfL) and the London
Development Agency (LDA). There will also be new authorities responsible
for the police and emergency services. And the mayor will have powers to
organise London-wide action to improve the environment.
In his foreword to the document on the GLA published by the Government
in March, Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the
Regions, John Prescott wrote: ’We are equipping the mayor and Assembly
with the powers and resources they will need to do the job and we are
creating a framework within which they can work with partners in the
public, private and voluntary sectors.
’We hope to create a new style of politics for our capital city - more
inclusive, less confrontational and focusing on the issues that matter
with the powers and resources to bring about change.’ There is no set
date for the GLA to be formed, but subject to the passage of legislation
through Parliament next year elections could be in autumn 1999 or spring
’Business is beginning to realise that this new body will shape a lot of
policy for the capital, so there will be big business implications,’
says London First communications director Patrick Kerr.
’Arguably there will be opportunities under the bill for private sector
people to become involved in taskforces. Any organisation that would
claim to be forward-looking should be thinking now about how it will
have a dialogue with the new body in a couple of years’ time.’ APCO UK
deputy managing director Nick DeLuca concludes: ’Inevitably when you put
in place new institutions that are part of the political process it
means work for lobbyists. It has to.’
e-commerce: Working for the dollar in Europe
On 6 October, the Government published Net Benefit: The Electronic
Commerce Agenda for the UK. This position paper examined ways of
stimulating e-commerce - buying and selling goods and services on the
According to the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG), a
London-based body with 260 members (drawn from 20 countries) that are
involved in selling through the internet, worldwide revenue from
e-commerce will reach US dollars 30-40 million by the end of 1998 and is
projected to reach US dollars 12.5 billion by the end of 2002.
The UK Government has announced its own targets. Among them is procuring
90 per cent (by volume) of routine goods electronically by 2001.
Telecoms Minister Barbara Roche recently said: ’The Government’s vision
is of a Britain which is a leading digital economy and is recognised
globally as providing a first-class environment for business to trade
electronically.’ However lobbyists, such as Grant Butler Coomber head of
public affairs Carl Gibson believe there is sure to be lobbying work for
clients based outside the European Union who are concerned that data
protection legislation applied to e-commerce will put them at an unfair
disadvantage to those companies operating within the EU.
’There will be some companies who are affected, especially US companies
who don’t have a European base,’ says Gibson. ’This will be one of the
priority areas that clients will want to put at the top of their list
for discussion.’ IMRG joint managing director James Roper is in regular
contact with EC officials and UK civil servants involved in the
formulation of e-commerce policy.
’There’s an urgent need for the industry to educate government,’ says
Roper. ’They need to be told to keep well away from interfering too much
at this stage.’
The issues covered by the Government’s position paper include consumer
and data protection, ’potentially objectionable material’ (ie
pornography) and authentication such as the use of electronic signatures
In the case of the latter, the UK Government is proposing to introduce
legislation to license -on a voluntary basis - organisations providing
cryptography keys. This will set standards and guarantee legal
recognition of electronic transactions.
Clearly, with e-commerce set to grow, ensuring a favourable legislative
framework to operate in is a vital consideration for the retail and
technology companies involved and lobbying will undoubtedly play its