Lobby register plans face legal challenge by industry bodies

The Government is facing the prospect of a legal battle with the PR industry amid anger that its proposed lobbyist register 'rides roughshod' over expert advice.

Exposure: The media have run several stings on parliamentarians
Exposure: The media have run several stings on parliamentarians

Backed by the APPC and CIPR, the PRCA has sought legal advice and is mooting a legal challenge to the Government’s attempts to push through a statutory register of lobbyists that does not include in-house public affairs teams.

The Government has accelerated plans to create the register in the wake of a series of media stings involving parliamentarians allegedly offering improper influence in exchange for money.

Francis Ingham, director-general of the PRCA, said excluding in-house staff could break European laws on equality: ‘We think the Government has come up with a proposal that is the worst of all possible worlds.
‘This is potentially illegal in that it is discriminatory and says two people doing the same job are treated differently from one another.’

This could ‘reduce transparency’ and reduce the work available for public affairs agencies, warned Michael Burrell, chairman of the APPC and senior counsel, Public Affairs, APCO.

He argued that organisations could scale back their use of third-party consultancies to effectively avoid the register.

Details have yet to be announced, but at the least the statutory register is expected to require public affairs agencies to disclose current clients.

PR industry bodies campaigned for the planned register to cover all lobbyists during a consultation launched in January 2012, a call backed by Parliament’s political and constitutional reform committee.

Phil Morgan, CIPR director of policy and comms, said the new plans were ‘riding roughshod over responses from the industry and beyond’.

‘They have to explain themselves. Why are they ignoring so many people’s advice?’

The rapid reawakening of the Government’s lobbying plans follows two media stings published last weekend that have to date implicated one MP and three Lords.

Despite media stings centring on the behaviour of politicians and peers themselves, PRWeek understands that the relationship between peers and lobbyists will not be specifically scrutinised.

A government source said recent media reports ‘may have accelerated’ plans to tackle lobbying and admitted issues raised over the conduct of peers were not being looked at ‘in a legislative sense.’

Conservative MP Patrick Mercer resigned the party whip on Friday following a sting by The Telegraph and Panorama.

He is now taking legal advice about the allegations and has referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

Lord Cunningham and Lord Mackenzie were suspended from the Labour party on Sunday, while Ulster Unionist Lord Laird has resigned his party whip pending an investigation by parliamentary authorities.

All three peers deny breaching the rules and have referred themselves to the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards.

They were targeted by a Sunday Times sting identified by PRWeek two weeks ago after the paper’s undercover journalists approached at least four public affairs agencies on behalf of a fictional South Korean solar energy firm.

Steve Howell, MD of Freshwater, one of the agencies approached by the paper, said that the register proposal in its current form was only dealing with a ‘small part of the broad spectrum of lobbying’ and warned that the tying in other proposals with the lobbying bill could complicate matters.

The Government has revealed that the planned bill on the register will also include election campaign funding reforms and efforts to make it harder for trade unions to take strike action.

‘You need a clear debate around the question of lobbying. The issues are unrelated and risk muddying the waters when it comes to discussing the register,’ Howell added.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said the aim of any reform would be ‘to ensure the activities of outside organisations who seek to influence the political process are transparent, accountable and regulated’.

Lobbying timeline

3 June The PM’s office reveals legislation for a lobbying register will be announced this summer. 

2 June The Sunday Times runs a sting on Lords Cunningham, Mackenzie and Laird, who deny breaching rules. Two are suspended and Laird resigns his party whip.

31 May Patrick Mercer resigns Tory whip over Panorama/Telegraph allegations he broke parliamentary rules.

23 May PRWeek reveals undercover reporters are investigating public affairs firms’ role in funding APPGs.

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