Public Affairs: Concern over register plan

Government backs away from compulsory lobbying register.

The Government is veering away from introducing a mandatory register of lobbyists as called for by the public administration select committee.

Newly installed Cabinet Office minister Angela Smith expressed concern about a mandatory register last week as she appeared before the select committee for a one-off session on lobbying.

She told the MPs: 'I entirely agree that ethical regulation has to be looked at ... (but) I am not entirely persuaded of the case for a mandatory register.'

The committee called for both ethical regulation and a mandatory register of lobbyists in an 81-page report seven months ago (PRWeek, 9 January). The Government's response was due in March - but it has still not emerged.

Smith, who has replaced Tom Watson on the lobbying brief, said the Government planned to respond 'before the summer recess', which begins on 21 July. She revealed a draft response had been worked out and that she had held discussions with civil servants. 'There's a lot of work done already,' she said.

Smith said she was concerned a mandatory register might 'give the impression that we were excluding some people from lobbying government'. She was also sceptical about the committee's call for all meetings between MPs and lobbyists to be made public.

Also giving evidence at last week's committee hearing were representatives of the CIPR, PRCA and Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC).

APPC board member Mark Adams said he was happy the industry had made 'consistent progress' towards greater transparency. Adams focused on the industry's plans for a single umbrella group for all lobbyists, provisionally called the 'public affairs council'.

But committee chair Tony Wright, a Labour MP, said this would not achieve total transparency because it would be voluntary. Wright accused the industry bodies of confusing the committee's call for a mandatory register with its separate call for a new independent body to uphold ethical standards. He said: 'You're confusing two things we recommended ... You seem to have wrapped them up together.'

Labour MP Paul Flynn was similarly critical. He said: 'You decided what was the minimum you could get away with and you came up with this.'

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