The Transparency of Lobbying Bill was made law last month. I’m aware that not everyone who reads PRWeek is a lobbyist, but the wider issue over the troubled handling of this bill reveals some very worrying truths.
It reveals how politicians, who should well understand lobbying, can gravely misconstrue our business to the point of creating shoddy legislation to ‘regulate’ it – legislation that I predict will have to be ripped apart and rewritten within years. If this can happen to lobbying, it could happen to PR next.
In May 2013, the BBC’s Panorama broadcast an exposé on the activities of Tory MP Patrick Mercer. It revealed the MP talking to a fake lobbying firm – actually an undercover journalist – about a consultancy. Mercer resigned the whip and will not stand at the 2015 general election, but the story spurred the Government to relaunch its plans for a statutory register of lobbyists, something that had disappeared without trace after it formed part of the coalition agreement in 2010.
Panorama and all the other lobbying scandals failed to include a single real lobbyist – just undercover reporters posing as them. So why the sudden urge to create a lobbying register? In my opinion, it was a knee-jerk response to a very public embarrassment; a buck-passing move.
The Transparency of Lobbying Bill drew derision from many circles, and I myself called it a "bastard of a bill". They have failed to achieve anything that will help increase transparency and the Lobbying Act will not prevent the next Patrick Mercer.
What most disappoints is that the Government failed to listen to industry bodies. We argued ceaselessly for universality, provided a better definition of lobbying and warned that the bill was too restrictive. Neither did they listen to charities, United Nations officials or religious leaders who said the other sections of the bill would impair civil society’s rights to express its views.
This act will not stand the test of time. It will not solve the problem. Political sleaze needs to be stamped out, but change will only be capable when Parliament gets its own house in order.
This is a bastard of an act; but it has also been a bastard of a process. If there is a message for the PR industry, it is that regardless of our talents for comms, we might have to work harder to explain what we do to the Government.
Francis Ingham is the PRCA director-general and ICCO executive director