Public Affairs: Industry hits out at Pickles ..

Public sector lobbying Senior figures respond to onslaught by Tory heavyweight.

Public affairs chiefs have accused Eric Pickles of 'misunderstanding' lobbying, after the Communities Secretary outlined plans to stop councils hiring public affairs firms.

Pickles grabbed headlines last week after hitting out at councils' use of lobbying consultancies. He said: 'Lobbyists are being used to sidestep transparency laws and shadowy figures are peddling more regulation and special favours.'

Pickles also said he had instructed quangos under his department to cancel contracts with lobbying firms.

PRWeek revealed last month that Pickles was preparing to broach the subject (PRWeek, 30 July). Nevertheless, many lobbyists were taken aback by the ferocity of his onslaught last Thursday.

Weber Shandwick public affairs chairman Jon McLeod said: 'The secretary of state misunderstands what lobbying is about. You don't just talk to the person you want to get to. Instead, you mobilise a raft of advocates to create pressure for the right result.'

PRCA director Francis Ingham said: 'The implication that all these fees are used by public bodies to hire agencies who lobby Government is simply false and shows a blatant lack of understanding of how the public sector uses them.'

Other lobbyists suggested that taking the axe to council lobbying contacts would result in councils creating new 'government affairs director' posts - at greater expense to the taxpayer.

Pickles' office also produced a list of 74 councils and police authorities that have hired national public affairs firms for lobbying. Some had used lobbyists to campaign for or against unitary restructuring, said Pickles, despite the fact it is a matter for Parliament.

McLeod defended councils' use of lobbyists, saying: 'Councils have campaigned to change the grant allocation formula. Using agencies has given them a multi-million-pound return on investment. The formula is not always rational and often unfair.'

Ingham said: 'Agencies provide a wide range of expertise and support in-house teams in managing their media relations, public consultations, marketing activities and community relations. Almost all appointments are made through a competitive tendering processes and this is no different from using specialist skills in other areas.'

But not every lobbying firm or PR body was so critical of Pickles. Portcullis Public Affairs executive director Stephen Day defended the crackdown on public sector lobbying, saying: 'Morally, and in this time of austerity, this is the right thing to do.'

Meanwhile, the CIPR Local Public Services Group advised: 'Councils should seek to build up their in-house expertise or take advice from other more experienced authorities.'

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