OPINION: News Analysis - The battle to stop Ken from locking the door. Ken Livingstone’s proposed ban on lobbyists from the GLA has created solidarity across a PR industry in which public affairs plays an integral part

London Mayoral favourite Ken Livingstone published his manifesto last week, and among pledges on public transport and cutting crime was a vow to ban lobbyists from the Greater London Authority. It is a proposal which goes further than the recommendations made by the Neill Committee in its latest report on standards in public life.

London Mayoral favourite Ken Livingstone published his manifesto

last week, and among pledges on public transport and cutting crime was a

vow to ban lobbyists from the Greater London Authority. It is a proposal

which goes further than the recommendations made by the Neill Committee

in its latest report on standards in public life.



Neill recommended that lobbyists would not be allowed passes to

Parliament, and that meetings between lobbyists and officials had to be

recorded.



But Livingstone wants lobbyists not only to be banned from the GLA, but

also to be prevented from meeting GLA staff.



Industry bodies are unsurprisingly not pleased by this news. The PRCA

and APPC accept without demur the proposal that lobbyists should not be

granted passes giving access to GLA headquarters, and points out that

their codes of conduct already forbid members or their staff from

holding passes giving them access to Westminster and to the Scottish

Parliament.



However, in response to Livingstone’s threat to ban lobbyists from

meeting with GLA staff, the PRCA’s public affairs unit and the APPC have

sent a joint letter saying, in essence, that his ban would be both

unworkable and undemocratic.



The difficulty in defining who is and is not a lobbyist would render the

ban impossible to enforce, they say - a point made by the Neill

Committee in its report. Defining a lobbyist would be difficult, the

report says, given the number of professions now engaged in such work -

including lawyers, accountants and management consultants, as well as

those lobbying in-house for single issue pressure groups and NGOs.



Further, the proposal is deemed to be undemocratic, as it excludes from

representation a section of Londoners, lobbyists, when Livingstone has

pledged to listen to all Londoners. What if a lobbyist is a Londoner,

asks APPC chairman Michael Burrell, ’It’s a populist soundbite that

hasn’t been thought through. If you ask Londoners what they are

concerned about they’ll say public transport or crime, they won’t say

lobbyists,’ he maintains.



This response to Livingstone’s threat is the first significant

initiative on which the PRCA and the APPC have worked together. As

Government has devolved, the boundaries between straight PR and public

affairs specialists have become less defined.



’We don’t share the same views on everything, but where we have a

similar view it makes sense to work together. We’re not interested in

sabre-rattling, we just want greater clarity to be brought to this

issue, which is such a significant one for the industry,’ says PRCA

public affairs committee chairman Simon Nayyar.



The aim of the PRCA/APPC letter is to get Livingstone to meet with them

to thrash out the issues, says Burrell. He is convinced that Livingstone

based his proposal on a misunderstanding of what lobbyists do, and on a

lack of information about how wide the range of people involved in

lobbying actually is.



Some of the interests apparently closest to Livingstone’s heart,

including a wide range of charities, are skilled at using lobbyists to

get their interests aired and their needs met, Lord Newby of Flagship

Group says.



’It’s extraordinary. He may not like being lobbied by some commercial

interests, but will he ban a Shelter lobbyist from talking to his

staff?’



Parliament spent a lot of time examining the role of lobbyists and

concluded that not only was it impractical to ban them, it would also be

next to impossible to register them. Essentially, anyone writing a

letter to an MP on an issue which concerns a public body is lobbying.

Lobbyists say that they would be interested to see how Livingstone would

be able to make these distinctions when Parliament has not.



The Neill Committee decided that the important thing was not so much

identifying the lobbyist, but recording the fact that contact was made,

be it by a lobbyist or by anyone else. ’We looked at the Canadian and US

systems, which both attempt to define lobbyists, and the situation there

is very complex. Legislation is constantly being altered to attempt to

clarify the matter,’ says Neill Committee press secretary Philip

Aylett.



The Livingstone manifesto pledge is not accorded equal significance

across the entire PR industry, however. While acknowledging its

importance, IPR chairman Colin Farrington believes the issue is not

worth getting agitated about and could be best dealt with after the

mayoral election on 4 May.



He admits the ban is ill-conceived, but points out that politicians do

have concerns about some forms of lobbying activity. The IPR is in

favour of a register of lobbyists, and would be willing to help work out

a system involving such registration with the GLA after the election,

Farrington says.



On the thorny question of the definition of lobbyists, Farrington claims

that this is possible, but not sensible for Livingstone to ban those who

work for consultancies while allowing access to those who work

in-house.



’Charities often have both in-house lobbyists and employ consultancies,

and sometimes politicians forget this. It just wouldn’t make sense to

ban those employed by the charity but who work outside it, while giving

access to those that work within it,’ he concludes.



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