Four in ten registered lobbying firms not signed up to industry ethical codes

More than four in ten lobbying firms listed on the UK government's official register, including major consultancies Finsbury and Brunswick, have not signed up to official industry ethical codes, PRWeek has learned.

A large proportion of lobby firms on the official register do not operate under the watch of industry bodies
A large proportion of lobby firms on the official register do not operate under the watch of industry bodies

In an analysis of the 137 organisations that are listed in the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists (ORCL), 37 lobbying firms do not adhere to any code of conduct, and 13 use their own internal codes.

Eight consultancies follow professional codes in accounting and law (predominantly firms that specialise in law and accounting), and four use the now defunct APPC code, which no longer exists and has since been replaced by the PRCA’s Public Affairs Board code (see infographic below).

There is no suggestion these firms that aren't signed up operate in an unethical way. But it does mean the industry's self-regulating authorities – the PRCA's Public Affairs Board and CIPR – are unable to investigate any complaints of wrongdoing against consultancies that fall outside of their ethical codes.

Industry codes of conduct ensure lobbyists practise according to standards set by the public affairs industry. To become members of the PRCA or CIPR involves fees that may deter some lobbying firms and individuals.

The revelation that 42 per cent of lobbying firms do not adhere to industry codes and monitoring regimes raises questions about the transparency and accountability of certain segments of the public affairs sector. It also calls into question the accuracy of the registry, and whether the information filed with ORCL is being properly checked.

There have been recent cases where lobbying ethics have been called into question by firms that do not conform to industry codes, including alleged cases of astroturfing by Lynton Crosby's consultancy CTF Patners and Sans Frontières Associates.

ORCL is carrying out a consultation on how it can improve the government's register of lobbying firms, including information about professional codes of conduct.

In a submission to the consultation, the PRCA described the current situation as "misleading" and, in some cases, firms are able to "mark their own homework".

The two official industry ethical codes that are relevant to lobbying are the PRCA’s Public Affairs Code and the CIPR Code of Conduct, which focuses on individuals.

A breakdown of the ethical codes that consultancies list with ORCL finds 68 consultancies are signed up the Public Affairs Code, including well-known firms Edelman, FTI Consulting, FHF, BCW, Hill+Knowlton, Hanover, APCO Worldwide, Maitland and others.

Ten agencies adhere to the CIPR Code of Conduct, which requires all professionals that work in public affairs to be signed up.

'No ethical code'

The consultancies that indicated they have no code of conduct include Brunswick, Tulchan, Ernst & Young and Sans Frontières Associates, a lobbying firm set up by former Bell Pottinger boss Lord Bell in 2017 that was behind a 'shady' and 'fake' lobbying campaign to stop an entertainment venue from being built in East London.

Citigate Dewe Rogerson said it adheres to the defunct APPC’s code, but has not signed up as a member of the Public Affairs Board, which replaced the APPC after it merged with the PRCA.

Consultancies that adhere to their own code of conduct include Finsbury, KPMG, Camargue Group and Global Counsel, the lobbying firm set up by Labour peer Lord Mandelson.

PwC and Deloitte, which are historically auditors, both cite the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) code of ethics, which sets out good professional behaviour, but is not specific to the lobbying industry.

There is no suggestion of impropriety on behalf of consultancies that do not adhere to industry codes, however the PRCA "strongly" believes that a code should be specific to lobbying regulation to be relevant, and that codes of good professional behaviour do not go far enough.

The news comes almost two years after Bell Pottinger was thrown out of the PRCA after the agency was found to have breached the PRCA Code for its activities in South Africa, which ultimately led to Bell Pottinger's collapse. 

In a submission to the ORCL Codes of Conduct consultation, the PRCA said it was concerned about the accuracy of the register and enforceability of organisations that are not bound by industry codes.

"Marking one’s own homework through having one’s own code surely is irrelevant. And claiming to adhere to the code of conduct of an organisation you do not belong to again surely makes that irrelevant," the PRCA consultation stated. "If a business references a code, it must be an enforceable one...instead of referencing their own internal codes, companies should declare that they adhere to ‘no’ relevant code.

"There are quite frankly too many registrants giving the illusion of adhering to an enforceable, relevant code when they are not. Put simply, the public is being misled."

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