Negotiating the rules of parliamentary lobbying is becoming an
increasingly complicated task for public affairs agencies. In addition
to the European and Westminster parliaments, three new assemblies, in
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, are being created, with each
likely to develop its own set of rules for members, officers and those
wishing to lobby them.
There is no doubt that the public affairs industry has cleaned up its
act in recent years: most agencies have severed financial links with MPs
and even Peers.
But establishing the right rules to govern dealings between public
servants and lobbyists remains as important as ever, because three years
after the Nolan Report on Parliamentary ’sleaze’, the lobbying industry
continues to attract opprobrium. The Independent’s recent series of
articles on political parties using public affairs agencies to help
generate sponsorship money from their clients has not helped.
Even Charles Miller, secretary of the Association of Professional
Political Consultants (APPC), admits professional standards in lobbying
agencies can be amateur in comparison with law or accountancy firms.
’It’s still about looking good rather than doing good,’ he says.
One lobbyist goes further: ’The perception and the reality are totally
divorced. The perception is that public affairs practitioners hold
ethical, hard, one-on-one meetings. A ’we don’t lunch’ approach. But New
Labour lobbying involves a lot of lunching and use of address
It is in this context that the IPR, the PRCA and the APPC have revised
or are in the process of revising their codes of conduct. The codes were
created at a time of growing unease within the industry, when it was
feared that the activities of certain agencies would lead to scandal.
The PRCA and APPC provisions, introduced around 1994, are now considered
to have been an overreaction. The main thrust of the current revisions,
aside from clarifying the rules, is in most cases to make them less
draconian but more enforceable.
The PRCA has changed the rules on its public register of members’
Originally, PRCA members were supposed to declare new clients to the
association as soon as they won an account. Few did. Now members will
have to update their client list every six months, like APPC
The APPC intends to change its rules on party donations, again widely
ignored, so that public affairs consultants can be members of political
parties and contribute to party funds in small ways such as buying
manifestos and policy papers, for example. APPC members will be bound by
Parliamentary, Government and party rules on donations and sponsorship.
The amendment will not await a report on party funding currently being
prepared by the Neill committee, but APPC members will be expected to
follow Neill’s recommendations if they are taken up by the
The IPR code now puts a greater onus on members to act
Members holding public office, from MPs to local councillors, are asked
to declare all financial interests, and the financial interests of any
of their senior colleagues who may hold public office.
The PRCA has decided that it is not enough to declare potential
conflicts of interest. Its new draft code proposes that no member firms
should employ members of either the European, Westminster or Scottish
parliaments, or the Welsh assembly.
Although the IPR has no restrictions at the moment, it is looking at
barring its members from going into consultancy only after being elected
to Parliament. At the same time it wants to protect MPs with IPR
membership - such as Liberal Democrat chief whip Paul Tyler - who were
PR consultants before they entered the House of Commons. The IPR has
three members in the Commons, three in the Lords and one MEP.
The APPC forbids its members from employing peers as well as MPs. As the
Government’s plans for constitutional reform progress, including changes
to the House of Lords, the codes may have to be revised. Hereditary
peers may not be able to vote under the Government’s proposals, so may
not need to be barred from consultancy work.
PRCA public affairs committee chairman Simon Nayyar says his code must
be flexible. ’It is to be a living, organic thing that reflects changing
issues and constitutional structures.’
Among the issues which may force the PRCA to revise its code in future
are the introduction of the euro and cross border issues generated by
deregulation of European markets such as telecommunications and
These developments will see public affairs agencies involved in an
increasing number of cross-border campaigns.
IPR president Peter Walker has called for the Scottish Parliament and
Welsh assemblies to adopt a code based on the same model as the European
Parliament. This would make life simpler for lobbyists and give them a
legitimacy they are granted in Europe but not in Westminster. The
European Parliament gives lobbyists, in-house political staff, pressure
groups and and charities, passes to its buildings. If lobbyists break
its code, their passes can be withdrawn.
The associations believe this is unlikely to happen in Westminster,
because right of access to Parliament is constitutionally enshrined.
And although the public affairs industry has taken great strides in
improving standards since the early 1990s, Westminster is still keen to
keep it at arm’s length. In Cardiff and Edinburgh, however, public
affairs practitioners have the opportunity to gain legitimacy by being
included in their rule books.
’With the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, you are looking
at a clean sheet of paper,’ says Walker.