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
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
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
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.