FOCUS: UK LOBBYING; Under fire from all sides

The poor public perception of lobbying following the ‘cash-for- questions’ row has raised calls for state regulation of the industry.

The poor public perception of lobbying following the ‘cash-for-

questions’ row has raised calls for state regulation of the industry.



An ICM/Guardian poll (8 October) asked voters: ‘Do lobby companies help,

harm or make little difference to the working of democracy?’.



The replies are demoralising but hardly surprising for lobbyists, in the

wake of the Greer affair. Forty-two per cent said they did harm, 42 per

cent said they made no difference and eight percent said they helped.

Clearly, this is an industry in dire need of positive PR.



‘Following Nolan we made tremendous strides to educate people about what

we do. Now it’s as if someone pressed the erase button,’ says Charles

Miller, secretary of the Association of Professional Political

Consultants (APPC) the regulatory body to which most lobbying companies

belong. ‘People want to believe we’re sleazy,’ he says. Yet Miller, who

describes lobbying as ‘the reverse of publicity’ can hardly blame the

public and media if they are suspicious of lobbyists’ subtle ways.



He concedes that the fallout from the Greer affair has precipitated

action. Next week the APPC is calling a meeting of members to ratify

proposals on professional standards, ‘so that they are seen, yes, seen,

to be the highest,’ he says.



In the short term, Miller has put the emphasis on being accessible to

the 60 or so journalists who contact the association each week with

Greer-related enquiries. ‘The priority is to ram home the ethical

message, that since Nolan, the work of lobbyists has become far more

transparent, with members now required to produce a client list,’ he

says. In addition, the APPC’s code of conduct states that no money may

be passed to MPs, and no MPs should sit on clients’ boards,’ he adds.



It is significant, claims Michael Burrell, managing director of

Westminster Strategy, that the Greer allegations predate the

establishment of the APPC. ‘We have already changed the climate,’ he

says. In pitches, blue-chip clients are now careful to accept proposals

only from APPC members.



‘Nevertheless,’ says Burrell, ‘Parliament must regulate MPs’

relationships with lobbyists and set up a legislative system of its

own.’



Michael Craven, managing director of Market Access International,

agrees. ‘If a Greer incident surfaced today,’ he says, ‘the APPC

wouldn’t have the resources to investigate, so the only answer is to

have some form of state regulations, as they do in the USA, regulated by

the House.’



His firm’s work for the US defence industry means the US government can

investigate Craven’s books at any time, access which the House does not

have.



‘Nolan rejected that because he was concerned it would simply be a badge

of respectability which was hard to police. That’s a small price to

pay,’ says Craven. ‘We desperately need good PR and the way to get it is

by being as transparent as possible about the job we do.’



But what are the parameters of that job? Until the nature of the lobby

industry and its boundaries are codified, then all lobbyists have a

serious problem, claims Sir Bernard Ingham. ‘Even when they have a bunch

of rules which they all subscribe to, they’ve still the problem of

persuading people of the legitimacy of what they do. If APPC fails to

take the initiative, defining and prescribing rules, legislation will

fill the vacuum and that has to be regrettable,’ says Ingham.



Meanwhile, the Greer affair will do little to dent the burgeoning volume

of lobbying which goes on. Among MPs at this month’s party conferences,

Michael Burrell encountered only positive feedback. ‘They [MPs] much

prefer to receive a brief, cogent paper, than piles of documents from

people who don’t know how to present a case.’



According to the Guardian’s ICM poll however, the case for lobbying

itself has a long way to go.



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