LONDON: The UK PR industry has warned against a “knee-jerk” reaction by the country's government in the wake of media investigations alleging a member of Parliament and three members of the House of Lords offered to use their influence to pay clients.
Three trade bodies, which have been trying for months to engage the UK government on its plans to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, now fear that pressure to act in response to the scandals could lead to a rushed solution.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg wrote in The Daily Telegraph on Monday that he was “sadly not surprised by the revelations” and again promised the statutory register “will happen” and will create “better regulation of the lobbying industry.”
Phil Morgan, director of policy and communications at the UK Chartered Institute of Public Relations, welcomed a register in principle but warned that it would not affect the “private networks within politics” that led to the scandal.
“The danger of a knee-jerk reaction is that a register is created that impacts those who are not a part of the problem, which really is parliamentary standards,” he said.
Morgan added that he feared the UK government would introduce a code of conduct.
“The tendency could be to regulate activity by introducing a code of conduct, which would undermine professional self-regulation,” he explained. “We are all working hard to make sure standards are high, and a broad catch-all regulation would have lower standards than those currently in operation [within the CIPR and UK Association of Professional Political Consultants].”
A Cabinet Office spokesman declined to comment on whether it is considering a code of conduct as part of its plans for the statutory register.
Morgan also reiterated the CIPR's worry that the government will introduce a register that applied to public affairs agencies but not to all organizations and individuals who carry out paid lobbying.
“You have legitimate causes that need access to the democratic system, and if rules are brought in saying some can lobby and some cannot, you will have something questionable when it comes to the process of democracy,” he said.
APPC chairman Michael Burrell highlighted that neither investigation involved a real public affairs consultancy.
“To a certain extent, the public affairs industry is damned by association, which is kind of irritating because for the umpteenth time, we have a ‘lobbying scandal' in which there are no lobbyists,” he said. “There hasn't been a scandal involving a lobbying company for a long time. The penny is beginning to drop with some politicians that we're not the problem.”
Burrell, who also called for any register to be universal, said he believed the government intends to put forward its proposals this parliamentary session.
Francis Ingham, director general of the UK Public Relations Consultants Association, called the situation “a lobbying scandal without lobbyists.”
“If the government wants to sort this out, it needs to get tough on politicians. I am concerned about a knee-jerk reaction, and a statutory register must be proportionate. To bang one out that just covers agencies rather than those in-house would be wrong,” he said.
Ingham also rejected the idea of full financial disclosure by lobbyists that is being proposed by some as a key ingredient to lobbying reform.
“Financial disclosure is not something lawyers, management consultants, or others who advise clients on how to interact with politicians have to do,” he added. “Why should this industry be singled out for rougher treatment?”
“Lobbying has an important role in the policy-making process, ensuring that ministers and senior officials hear a full range of views from those who will be affected by government decisions. But it must be conducted in a transparent and open way,” said a Cabinet Office spokesman. “We need to combat the sometimes negative perception of the relationship between lobbyists and ministers to give people confidence that the process is transparent.”
The stings and the allegations
The Labour Party has suspended Lords Jack Cunningham and Brian Mackenzie, and Lord John Laird has resigned his position as party whip pending an investigation by parliamentary authorities.
The three were caught on film by Sunday Times reporters who posed as representatives of a fake South Korean solar energy company.
The newspaper claimed the members of the House of Lords said they could set up an all-party parliamentary group as a lobbying vehicle, and that Cunningham offered to write directly to the prime minister to push the company's agenda.
All three denied they had breached any parliamentary rules.
Conservative Member of Parliament Patrick Mercer resigned his party's whip position after a separate undercover investigation by TV program Panorama and The Daily Telegraph, which alleged he broke House of Commons lobbying rules. Reporters posed as lobbyists for a fake company representing business interests in Fiji.
Mercer said he was taking legal advice about the allegations and had referred himself to the parliamentary commissioner for standards.
The same investigation also claimed Laird discussed a retainer to ask parliamentary questions.
The revelations follow PRWeek UK learning two weeks ago that undercover reporters had contacted a number of public affairs consultancies and met with at least one to investigate the role of lobbying firms in the establishment of all-party parliamentary groups.
Insight Public Affairs MD John Lehal said the reporters' chief line of enquiry was whether it was possible to pay consultants to facilitate the creation of all-party groups, something Lehal said was not a service an APPC-member consultancy would or could provide.
This story originally appeared on the website of PRWeek UK, the sister publication of PRWeek at Haymarket Media.