LONDON: The UK 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.
Backed by the Association of Professional Political Consultants and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, the Public Relations Consultants Association has sought legal advice. It is considering 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 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,” he said. “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 decrease the work available for public affairs agencies, warned Michael Burrell, chairman of the APPC and senior counsel for public affairs at APCO Worldwide. He argued that organizations could scale back their use of third-party consultancies to effectively avoid the register.
Details have not been announced, but at the least the statutory register is expected to require public affairs agencies to disclose clients.
PR industry bodies campaigned for the planned register to cover all lobbyists during a consultation launched in January 2012, a call backed by the UK Parliament's political and constitutional reform committee.
Phil Morgan, CIPR director of policy and communications, said the new plans are “riding roughshod over responses from the industry and beyond.”
“They have to explain themselves,” he said. “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 implicated one member of Parliament and three members of the House of Lords.
Despite media stings focusing on the behavior of politicians and peers themselves, PRWeek UK understands that the relationship between peers and lobbyists will not be specifically scrutinized.
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 Member of Parliament Patrick Mercer resigned his party whip position on Friday following an investigation by The Telegraph and TV program Panorama. He is taking legal advice about the allegations and has referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
Lords Jack Cunningham and Brian Mackenzie were suspended from the Labour Party on Saturday, while Lord John Laird resigned his party whip position pending an investigation by parliamentary authorities. All three have denied breaching the rules and referred themselves to the House of Lords commissioner for standards.
They were targeted by a Sunday Times investigation identified by PRWeek UK 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 is only dealing with a “small part of the broad spectrum of lobbying” and warned that the tying other proposals to the lobbying bill could complicate matters.
The UK 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 strike.
“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 organizations that seek to influence the political process are transparent, accountable, and regulated.”
June 3: The prime minister's office reveals legislation for a lobbying register to be announced this summer.
June 2: The Sunday Times runs a sting on Cunningham, Mackenzie, and Laird, who deny breaching rules. Two are suspended and Laird resigns his party whip.
May 31: Mercer resigns Tory whip position over Panorama/Telegraph allegations he broke parliamentary rules.
May 23: PRWeek UK reveals undercover reporters are investigating public affairs firms' role in funding APPGs.
This story originally appeared on the website of PRWeek UK, the sister publication of PRWeek at Haymarket Media.