Lobbying industry faces biggest test yet for self-regulation

The context within which we now sit is a flow of stories from mainstream newspapers that portray the industry in a negative light, with close scrutiny on how we operate.

We must get our house on order or face misguided legislation, warns Tom Frackowiak
We must get our house on order or face misguided legislation, warns Tom Frackowiak

The reputational hit has been bad. The public understands little about how lobbying works and recent headlines will have added to the perception that it is not what you know, but solely based on who you know.

This weekend’s Sunday Times article, ‘Political lobbying explained: power and influence are a just handshake away’, indicates how damaging this episode has been.

Even more concerning for the industry should be the political voices that now question whether further legislation is required to provide an effective deterrent to some of the worst practices that are being exposed.

I have always believed that the self-regulatory model, with a strong PRCA Public Affairs Board code of practice, is in the interests of everybody involved in a dynamic industry that contributes to better policymaking, and makes a significant economic contribution.

However, this self-regulatory model only works through industry leaders ensuring the core principles of ethics and transparency are at the heart of how we all operate.

As I have previously commented, it has long been the contention of those that defend the public affairs industry that lobbying scandals never actually involve registered consultant lobbyists.

This defence no longer stands up to proper scrutiny, given questions that are now being raised about the use of Parliamentary passes, Government contracts, sitting politicians being hired by agencies and public affairs consultants working as Government advisers.

The Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists (ORCL) has done an excellent job since it was established under the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014.

However, its narrow remit of “ensuring there is transparency in the work of consultant lobbyists and their engagement with Ministers and Permanent Secretaries on behalf of clients” has never properly captured a holistic view of lobbying conducted by consultant, or in-house, lobbyists and think tanks in Westminster and Whitehall.

It is certainly not within the remit of the Registrar to deal with the questions over alleged consultant practices that have been raised in recent weeks.

The danger is that the industry will be subject to more misguided legislation when the political reaction bites.

What does the industry need to do in response?

The PRCA’s Public Affairs Board, of which I am member, is determined to continue to make the case for ethical public affairs and drive up standards in the industry.

However, we need to go further.

This includes reviewing the code to be more explicit about the role of lobbyists working as Government advisers; being more prescriptive about the use of ‘privileged information’; ensuring proper safeguards are in place for interaction with the House of Lords; and imposing tougher sanctions for those who fail to follow the rules.

Ultimately, this is about leadership.

Many of us who work in the industry are proud of the role we play and our contribution to the democratic process.

As an industry, we need to be more engaged in the debate on lobbying and make a better case for the value of what we do.

The first step is to get our own house in order.

Tom Frackowiak is managing director, UK Public Affairs at Cicero/AMO

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