Live blog: Commons Committee hears evidence on lobbying bill

The PR industry and its critics yesterday got the chance to express their frustrations over the Government's lobbying bill to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee - recap who said what on our live blog.

Houses of Parliament: debating lobbying bill
Houses of Parliament: debating lobbying bill

The committee, which has been critical of the Government’s plans for regulating lobbyists, heard first from the PRCA’s Francis Ingham, the CIPR’s Jane Wilson, the APPC’s Iain Anderson and UKPAC's George Kidd.

It then called the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency's Tamasin Cave and Spinwatch's Alexandra Runswick.

A final afternoon session dealt more with the non-lobbying register aspects of the bill, which focus on political campaigning and trade union regulation.

The morning's proceedings can be heard via Parliament's archived feed

10.04 Graham Allen, Labour chair of the committee, introduces the session as a 'belated effort to try and do some serious legislative scrutiny on the lobbying bill'

10.05 Answering the question 'Were you consulted about the bill before it was published?', Anderson says 'No, we weren't'.

10.06 Ingham describes the bill as 'expensive and pointless'.

10.07 Wilson says 52 per cent of CIPR members surveyed hadn't met a minister or permanent secretary in the past year.

10.08 Kidd describes the bill as 'a sledgehammer to crack a nut' and 'the wrong nut' at that.

10.11 Anderson discusses the joint CIPR/PRCA/APPC definition of lobbying and how the APPC wants to see all professional lobbying governed by a statutory lobbying register. 'This bill is miles away from that - it's maybe five per cent there.'

10.13 Kidd says there's a need to address the lobbied as well as the lobbying.

10.14 The committee asks what will happen to the voluntary registers if the statutory register comes in? Anderson says the APPC would maintain its register with the caveat that the burden of the cost of the government's plans will fall on its members and especially its SME members. 'There may be real concern from our SME members as to whether they want to fund both registers,' he said.

10.15 Wilson points out people join industry registers because they think professional development and qualifications are important.

10.16 Ingham says the PRCA will maintain its register and even enhance it, adding the idea that the statutory register would enhance transparency is 'farcical and absurd'.

10.17 Asked how much the statutory register would cost, Kidd says the Cabinet Office are the people to ask, but judging from the Cabinet Office's impact assessment the cost per capita will be 'substantial'. He puts forward the idea of a hybrid register - a statutory register working in tandem with an industry register for those who want to volunteer to register.

10.18 Ingham stresses that as the bill is there will be nobody on the Govt's register not on the industry's voluntary register.

10.20 The chair asks 'If we had another six months on this do you think we could produce a better bill?'

10.21 Anderson responds at length, saying the bill needs to be revisited and criticising the lack of consultation. 'The industry is getting heartily tired waiting for a solution from Government.' Wilson agrees.

10.22 Ingham claims a better bill could be produced in six days.

10.23 The chair presses the industry on whether it is willing to help produce a good bill. Ingham says yes but this bill should either be dropped or fundamentally reformed. Anderson points out the industry wouldn't have put its own definition on the table if it didn't want to help.

10.25 The chair says 'we are trying to help govt produce an effective lobbying bill'.

10.26 Kidd says the bill strikes the right note on addressing transparency, but it is about coming up with a definition that works.

10.27 Wilson says 'We're being treated like prisoners on remand. We want to clear the name of the industry.'

10.28 Chair says he is convinced the industry wants to make a constructive contribution.

10.29 Anderson says the amount of his time spent talking to ministers and permanent secretaries is two to three per cent.

10.31 Committee member Chris Chope asks how many third party lobbying firms undertake these communications as part of their business?

10.32 Anderson points out the multidiscliplinary subtleties of running a public affairs campaign, which can involve the use of media relations and involving the public without directly engaging government.

10.33 Chope presses the panel on how many of their members would have to register on the statutory register. Ingham says 'a very small number'. Wilson says we have 10,000 members of which 8 per cent would say they are in public affairs, or which maybe 200 would say they should be on the register.

10.36 Asked whether in-house people should be on the register, Wilson, Ingham and Anderson say yes. Wilson says: 'As it stands this is an invitation to avoidance. It would be easy for a big corporate organisation to arrange for an agency person to come in-house [to avoid being on the register].'

10.38 We are on to the question of what is a 'substantial lobbying business'.

10.39 Anderson expresses concern about this 'grey area'. 'I'm quite attracted to the 20 per cent income test in the US,' he says.

10.41 The committee asks if the industry would oppose a lobbying bill whatever it said. Kidd denies this.

10.42 The committee asks what information should be disclosed on the statutory register. Anderson says it is 'a deep flaw' in the bill that it only requires agency principals to register. 'It's important to have consultancy staff on the register because you want to know who is doing the lobbying.'

10.45 Anderson says the APPC is in favour of including the purpose of lobbying activity and subject matter on a register, but this could be better recorded in ministerial declarations.

10.47 Asked whether a shorter period than quarterly updates might be necessary to close off the route of companies avoiding being registered by doing lobbying in very brief stints, Wilson answers 'very little gets done quickly ... I've not seen any evidence that that is a problem. I think quarterly is right.' Ingham clarifies to the committee how the registers work, that they capture any activity during a quarter, not solely activity that lasts for an entire quarter.

10.51 One committe member observes: 'Often bills are cobbled together in haste. This one must be a record-breaker.'

10.52 On the question of what the registrar should look like, Ingham breaks ranks with Kidd, who hopes for a role for a self-regulatory body (such as UKPAC) along the lines of the Advertising Standards Authority. Ingham says: 'The body ought to be a statutory body independent of the industry.'

10.52 Committee member Paul Flynn says 'We've seen a series of bodies set up cosmetically by the industry to present themselves as being legitimate and people of integrity and clearly those are not accepted as being entirely independent.'

10.54 Ingham gets a smidgeon riled by Flynn's line of questioning and returns to the point that none of the lobbying scandals have involved any real lobbyists. Flynn asks Ingham why he thinks that is. Ingham answers: 'Because our members don't go to Parliamentarians and say "If we give you £100,000 can you get Fiji back into the Commonwealth?" because that's simply not how the world works and under our codes they would be explicitly banned from doing so.'

Flynn interrupts Ingham to observe 'Your business is to sell advantages to those who are already advantaged. You sell privilege and access to those who will fill your pockets with fifty pound notes. That's your business and by that you seem to be perverting the democratic process by giving greater advantages to the rich and well-heeled.'

Ingham counters: 'My pockets are curiously empty of fifty pound notes at the moment. And I think our in-house members for example the NSPCC would probably take offence at what you just said.'

Flynn: 'Yes but there are other people. Some of the worst dictators in the world employ lobbyists.'

10.56 Just when things start to get heated the chair intervenes to calm proceedings down, allowing Ingham to make the point that if PRCA members want to work 'for some dodgy dictator' they declare it and take the reputational hit.

10.57 We are back to who is going to be covered by the register, in the light of how much it will cost.

11.01 MHP chief executive Gavin Devine's stance that his agency would not be covered by the bill crops up. Committee member Eleanor Laing is interested, asking whether this could mean that small lobbying firms would face the cost of having to go on the register while large firms could avoid it. Anderson confirms that is the worry of some APPC members.

11.05 The committee is hearing from Anderson about the potential problem of people needing to go on and off the register in the course of long-term projects, for example HS2. Anderson points out that if a firm does not communicate with ministers or permanent secretaries on behalf of a client during a quarter it has to come off the register for that quarter.

11.09 Kidd describes the bill as full of sticks and no carrots.

11.10 Asked by Laing what carrot he would suggest, Kidd answers 'access'. Anderson picks up the point, saying that the ultimate sanction for not being on the register would be to not be able to interact with government and institutions. Wilson and Ingham agree.

11.13 Ingham observes the statutory register will capture anyone who is not currently on the industry's voluntary registers. 'This register will not bring anyone in from the cold,' he says.

11.15 Wilson says guidance could be given to ministers that they should only meet with companies which are on the register.

11.16 Flynn asks whether the panel would like to see the bill's scope widened to include law firms, think tanks and Prince Charles.

11.17 'We want to see law firms, management consultancies, and accountancy firms on the register,' answers Anderson. He suggests tongue in cheek that a '20 per cent' threshold test should apply to Prince Charles.

11.20 The chair thanks the quartet for coming in and representing the lobbying industry 'so expertly'.

11.23 It's time for the 'other side' to have their say. Tamasin Cave from Spinwatch/Alliance for LobbyingTransparency and Alexandra Runswick from Unlock Democracy are on.

11.26 Cave is critical of the transparency of the statutory register, saying the Government is selling 'a dud'.  

11.28 Cave says the register should be universal and should show the discussions the Government are having with lobbyists.

11.29 Runswick agress with Cave, adding the register should be run independently of the Government (not the case with the draft legislation) and the industry.

11.30 Cave says if I was concerned about HS2 and wanted to know who was a voice for it I would need the information that said somebody in BIS is having a conversation about HS2 with for example construction companies.

11.31 Committee member Andrew Crisp is surprised Cave and Runswick aren't supporting the bill and wonders if this has produced any response from government. Runswick says Chloe Smith has written a letter in response to criticism 38 Degrees but she has not personally had a response.

11.32 Committee member Chris Chope wants to ask about thresholds governing whether a firm should be on the register. Cave says her understanding of the 20 per cent rule in the US is it is designed to capture lawyers who lobby and exclude those who don't. Cave says the ALT's definition has no threshold for consultants but a financial threshold for in-house, which is £5,000 over a quarter. 'If you've got a full-time lobbyist [in-house] you should be on this register,' she says.

11.37 Cave says it is very significant that third-party funding was added to the bill. Trade unions and NGOs are frothing over this bill and have been backed into a corner. They agree with the lobbying part of the bill but oppose the third-party funding part. She implies an attempt by government 'to derail' the bill.

11.39 Cave is scathing of the previous guests. 'It was interesting seeing them here, the picture of innocence,' she says, before bringing up Peter Bingle's appearance in front of a previous committee in 2008 when he said the public have no right to know who Bell Pottinger's clients are. She also claims there is no oversight by UKPAC of its register, citing defence lobbying firm Terrington Manning as being on UKPAC but without disclosing its clients. 'Every time there is a new inquiry they create a new trade body,' she observes of the lobbying industry.

11.44 Cave speculates this is a 'divide and rule campaign' by the Tories with signs of the influence of Lynton Crosby.

11.47 Flynn again brings up think tanks as a problem. Runswick says the problem is secrecy and lack of transparency, not with lobbying per se. She worries the register would move lobbying into other organisations that don't have to register.

11.49 Cave says the practice of 'laundering a message through a think tank' is widespread and calls for think tanks to be on the register. Like Flynn, she opts not to name the particular think tank she believes is a culprit.

11.51 On sanctions Cave disagrees with the industry's suggestion breaches of the register should be linked to withdrawal of access, as this would be undemocratic. She supports a naming and shaming punishment.

11.52 However, Runswick suggests access should be one of a range of sanctions, including naming and shaming and fines.

11.54 Committee chair Graham Allen invites Cave and Runswick to contribute in a positive constructive manner. They agree and he thanks them for coming in.

13.30 The committee reconvenes to hear evidence from the Trades Union Congress, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and the chairman of the Commons Committe on Standards Kevin Barron MP. The session is set to focus less on the lobbying register part of the bill (part one) than parts two and three, which concern non-party campaigning and trade union registers of members.

13.40 The TUC's head of campaigns and communications calls the bill 'badly drafted' and recommends it is rethought.

13.44 The NCVO's director of public policy Karl Wilding says that the lobbying register part of the bill is too narrow.

13.52 Wilding describes the non-party campaigning section of the bill as 'very damaging' to charities' ability to campaign.

14.05 Wilding claims that 200 organisations have now signed the NCVO's letter to Chloe Smith to express its concerns about the bill.

14.06 The chairman of the Commons Committe on Standards Kevin Barron MP starts to give evidence.

14.09 Asked if the lobbying bill would enhance public confidence in Parliament, Barron claims the public 'is reasonably happy with where we are at now'.

14.10 The committee asks if an MP taking a stand about a hospital just outside his or her constituency is ok according to the provisions of the bill. Barron is unsure.

14.12 Barron says neither his committee nor the Parliamentary standards commissioner has been consulted on the bill and his committee hasn't been given adequate time to study it. 'It's all done in haste,' he says.

14.15 As he has done with other witnesses Allen asks whether Barron would be willing to get involved in a standing committee that he suggests could be set up to look at the lobbying bill over a period of months - 'not to delay but to inform', Allen says. Barron agrees.

14.19 Although a couple of committee members express the view that the bill is clear that MPs are not covered by the lobbying regulations, Barron expresses some concern about how the registrar would interpret their activity and claims the issue needs clarification.

14.23 A committee member cites correspondence from a Joe Edgerton, who 'has put together a rather frightening list of things MPs could fall foul of, for example, an MP writing to communities secretary Eric Pickles to recommend he takes a permissive approach to fracking.'

14.26 Allen wraps up for the day, promising to get the committee's report to every MP next Wednesday night or Thursday morning.

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