Public Affairs: Lobbyists get serious about new standards - With Scotland and Wales preparing for devolution, PR and public affairs bodies are revising their rules and looking to the new assemblies to help regulate the lobbying industry

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.

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

books.’



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’

clients.



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

members.



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

Government.



The IPR code now puts a greater onus on members to act

transparently.



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

aviation.



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.



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