Senior lobbyists have failed to agree on the how public affairs industry should respond to mounting political scrutiny and the looming threat of statutory regulation.
Bell Pottinger Public Affairs chairman Peter Bingle and Foresight Consulting MD Mark Adams faced each other on Monday in a public debate hosted by the CIPR.
The two agency bosses went head-to-head within hours of Conservative Party leader David Cameron launching a surprisingly bold attack on lobbying. In a major speech on cleaning up politics, Cameron said: 'I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people's worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works.'
Bingle's agency is one of a minority that refuses to reveal its clients on a public register, while Adams is spearheading efforts to unite the industry under a UK-wide Public Affairs Council. A key purpose of the council would be to promote transparency through a public register.
Bingle called for the public affairs industry to unite. He said: 'We must go out and proclaim the good news about what we're doing.'
But Bingle stuck to his guns when it came to the thorny issue of client disclosure. He insisted: 'We cannot disclose clients with whom we have a non-disclosure agreement ... Only Parliament can change that.'
Adams expressed scepticism over Bingle's explanation for failing to disclose his clients: 'As if these clients just come to him and say "You have no choice".'
Adams said he had persuaded numerous clients that a non-disclosure agreement was unnecessary and urged Bingle to take the same approach. 'I'll even help you draw up the lines to take,' he said. Adams later told the audience: 'I am concerned about Peter's approach to openness and transparency.'
The two men also disagreed over the likelihood of Cameron legislating on lobbying, after Bingle said it was 'slightly naive' to think the Tories would make this a priority were they to win power. After the debate, a show of hands revealed the vast majority of the audience supported client disclosure.