ANALYSIS: LOBBYING; Ensuring a dignified future for lobbyists

Political consultants believe that the lobbying industry is a lot cleaner than its recently-gained sleazy image, but concede that Parliamentary regulation could soon be on the cards

Political consultants believe that the lobbying industry is a lot

cleaner than its recently-gained sleazy image, but concede that

Parliamentary regulation could soon be on the cards



The collapse of the Ian Greer/Neil Hamilton libel action against the

Guardian last week brought with it coverage in which the words lobbying

and sleaze were, at times, used in a way that was almost

interchangeable.



Amid the hubbub of allegations and denials one could forgive the public

for concluding that lobbying is a disreputable, underhand practice that

centres on intermediaries buying MPs’ support for the vested interests

of their clients.



Once again lobbying’s image has been tarnished. As the dust begins to

settle, several questions need to be answered. Did lobbyists do enough

in the run-up to the case to minimise its impact? Has the wave of

adverse media stories damaged the industry? And will the affair lead to

the imposition of regulation?



‘I would agree that the industry should have been more geared up for a

public reaction,’ says APCO managing director Simon Milton. ‘The message

has got lost that the industry has taken steps to outlaw payments to

MPs. And the climate is very different today.’



Indeed the industry’s contention is that it has already put its own

house in order. In particular by setting up the Association of

Professional Political Consultants in May 1994.



The APPC represents most of the UK’s leading lobbyists, Greer’s IGA

among them, and its rules stipulate that no member may pay an MP, and

that MPs cannot sit on the boards of member consultancies. Westminster

Strategy managing director Michael Burrell thinks this provides ample

proof of the seriousness with which lobbyists have set about trying to

improve their image.



‘There’s no doubt that the climate lobbyists operate in has improved and

we have helped do that,’ says Burrell. ‘The current hoo-ha relates to

what happened several years ago, not what’s going on now, and I think

lobbyists can take credit from the fact.’



APPC secretary Charles Miller, who is also managing director of lobbying

firm Public Policy Unit, agrees. He argues that no APPC-regulated

lobbyist today makes payments to MPs, and that most have never done so.



‘The row was about a single lobbying firm,’ he says. ‘People are not in

the main suggesting it is a dirty business that should be banned.’



Yet public and political disquiet remains. One only has to look at the

speed with which Labour moved at the end of last week to dismiss House

of Lords frontbencher Baroness Turner after she spoke out in support of

IGA. And there is a feeling among some political consultants that a

greater effort has to be made to improve the perception of lobbying. A

director of one leading firm says he would like to see IGA thrown out of

the APPC, although he concedes this would be difficult as its alleged

transgressions pre-date the setting up of the body. Indeed the APPC took

legal advice on this matter when cash-for-questions first broke.



‘We should ruthlessly drive out of our business those people who corrupt

it,’ says Des Wilson, director of public affairs for BAA, which retains

two APPC firms. ‘If, as this case develops, it becomes clear that Greer

did things damaging to this industry then he has no place in the

Association. It has to be damaging when the word ‘lobbying’ becomes

tainted.’



But it seems unlikely that this furore will undermine the business

prospects of most consultancies. There was a similar outcry after the

publication of the Nolan Report on Standards in Public Life in 1995, yet

the majority of lobbyists recorded a rise in turnover last year.



Lobbying lies at the heart of the democratic process, and is vital to

the interests of most significant corporations and representative

bodies. Therefore it is sure to continue. However, clients will become

more discriminating - a growing number are limiting their pitch lists to

APPC member companies.



But is it not the case that responsibility for ensuring MPs are not paid

to lobby rests as much, if not more, with Parliament as with the

lobbyists?



Burrell takes the view that politicians have ‘fudged’ the whole issue.

‘If there’s criticism to be levelled, attention ought to be focused on

Parliament,’ he says. ‘I do think it should revisit the issue and have a

clear and total ban on such financial links. They should set up a House

of Commons-policed register and a mechanism to investigate it.’



Tom McNally, Lib Dem peer and vice chairman of Shandwick Consultants,

goes further, arguing that the APPC is a ‘distraction’ about which he

has misgivings. ‘The industry is too young and immature to police itself

and the issues frankly are too big,’ he says.



He too calls for a statutory register of lobbyists and for Parliamentary

ombudsman Sir Gordon Downey to be given extra powers to police it. ‘The

present furore shows that Nolan identified the problem but missed the

solution,’ he says. ‘I remain convinced that Parliament should regulate

lobbyists - I’d like to see them issued with passes to give them access

to Parliament and if they abuse them they should be withdrawn’.



Market Access MD Mike Craven contends that ‘sooner or later’ the House

of Commons will reach the same decision as the European Parliament and

US Congress - that lobbyists need to be regulated. But if so, when?

Although lobbying is a live issue at the moment it will probably be less

so a few months from now. Parliamentary time is at a premium and that

will apply whoever triumphs at the next election.



For some time to come, at least, lobbyists will have to act as their own

watchdog. The standing of the profession depends on them making a good

job of it.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in