Concern over Tory lobbying plan

Lobbyists are urging The Conservative Party to ditch a 'wrong-headed' plan to crack down on government bodies hiring public affairs firms.

Whitehall: Conservative plan on restriction is similar to the US
Whitehall: Conservative plan on restriction is similar to the US

The Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) is calling for an urgent meeting with the Tories after it emerged this week that the party plans to introduce res-trictions similar to those in the US (see details below).

Robbie MacDuff, chair of the APPC, confirmed that he was writing to Nick Hurd, shadow minister for the cabinet office. The APPC is seeking clarification of the plan and wants to know whether the Tories sought the views of the House of Commons public adm-inistration select committee before drawing up the plan.

The committee has spent the past six months investigating transparency in the lobbying industry and its final report is due in the next few weeks.

Individual lobbyists have also slated the plan, which is detailed below, arguing that it would actually result in more public cash being spent on lobbying.

Rory O’Neill, UK managing director at Sovereign Strategy, said: ‘A ban on government lobbying government is wrong-headed and would be counterproductive. Public affairs consultants provide a useful and, I would hope, expert resource that can be turned on and off.

‘Barring public sector bodies from hiring that expertise as and when they need it means they would be forced to provide that function in-house or call it something else – or both. That means more lobbyists and more public sector money being spent on lobbying, not less.’

Weber Shandwick public affairs chairman Jon McLeod said public sector bodies nee-ded to communicate with a wide range of audiences inc-luding politicians and officials.

He added: ‘This role can be performed either through an external agency or in-house. If government rules force it in-house, that will increase staff numbers, employment costs and liabilities for the state.
Using agencies on a referral basis is cheaper and more specialised – that is why the private sector does it.

‘If government rules stop it from even being done in-house, then we will be lumbered with the most unaccountable and uncommunicative state we have ever experienced. The public and press would soon become concerned.’

Meanwhile Vivien Hepworth, UK executive chairman of Grayling Global, said the Tories’ focus on her own agency was misleading.

She said: ‘It is entirely legitimate for a political party to question how much government money is spent on communications - but it needs to get its facts right. There is tremendous confusion in the Conservative Party’s report on the lobbying industry about the work Grayling has done.  For example, some work carried out by our events division is attributed to our political strategy division.’
Hepworth added that public sector bodies often turned to lobbyists because the process of government had become more complex in recent years.

‘Many public sector bodies are tasked with communicating with both a wide range of devolved structures – many of them new – as well as other legitimately interested groups such as the voluntary sector,’ she said. ‘We are often asked to provide expertise about the rapidly changing devolved environment as part of broader communication support.  As a result, we assist the transparency and accountability of the public sector. 
‘The report is therefore inaccurate in suggesting that most of this work relates to public bodies lobbying for their own future funding. That may occasionally be part of the remit – and it is a perfectly legitimate one – but it is relatively unusual in our experience. 
‘Those who are particularly interested in this area – be they politicians or journalists – should look specifically at these public sector contracts and inform themselves about the nature of the activity and talk to the commissioning organisations to establish the value and level of support that we can give.  They will find that most of these public sector organisations are making efficient use of their funding in the balance between in-house resource and external consultancy expertise.’


Report highlights

Fishburn Hedges has received £990,710 from Jobcentre Plus

Weber Shandwick has received £783,219 from the Meat and Livestock Commission

Mandate/AS Biss has received £704,054 from the Civil Aviation Authority

Hill & Knowlton has received £512, 490 from the National Lottery Commission

Grayling Political Strategy has received £435,166 from the UK Atomic Energy Authority

Figures based on information obtained by the Conservatives from Parliamentary Questions

£9.7m ‘Recent years’ spend by govt. bodies on public affairs firms

31 Public affairs agencies listed in the report

23 Mentions of Weber Shandwick in the report

14 Mentions of Fishburn Hedges in the report

50 Mentions of Grayling Political Strategy in the report

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