Sep 03, 2012 16:58 BST Curtin&Co LibDem consultant, Chris Oughton, shares his thoughts ahead of the Coalition's first full reshuffle
The next big scandal waiting to happenSep 13, 2012 18:45 BST
Many consider the work of lobbyists to be a political dark art, synonymous with back-room dealing and paying to influence policy. The waters continue to be muddied when stories of cash-for-access rightly cause outrage, but eye-brows are also raised when minister’s legitimately meet with representatives of business, or the Prime Minister raises millions for his party by attending private lunches.
Despite its negative public image, lobbying remains a vital part of the decision making and democratic process. As the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee noted in their 2009 report 'Lobbying: Access and Influence in Whitehall':
“The practice of lobbying in order to influence political decisions is a legitimate and necessary part of the democratic process. Individuals and organisations reasonably want to influence decisions that may affect them, those around them, and their environment. Government in turn needs access to the knowledge and views that lobbying can bring.”
The UK lobbying sector has been self-regulated by the UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC) since July 2009. Originally this consisted of representatives of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Yet, less than 18 months later, the PRCA resigned from the UKPAC citing concerns about the accuracy and completeness of the UKPAC's register of individual lobbyists.
In January this year, the government set out new plans to register lobbyists but restricted their scope to those "who undertake lobby activities on behalf of a third party client." In effect, this would shield government dealings with in-house lobbyists, the CBI, trade unions and charities.
The Government plans were succinctly derided by the PRCA and politicians alike who criticised the limitations as a half-hearted way of fulfilling their pledge to the public post-cash-for-access. If the aim of legislating lobbyists is to encourage transparency in Governmental decision making, it seems nonsensical to restrict the regulations to such a small group.
In July, The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee published a report based on a consultation with a range of parties including campaign groups, PR and Public Affairs firms, civil societies, trade unions, think tanks/research groups and any individuals with an interest in lobbying.
The committee report refuted the Government’s plans stating: “there is no evidence to suggest that third party lobbyists are a particular problem within the lobbying community - indeed the Government's own records of ministerial meetings suggest that third party lobbyists make up less than 1% of all meetings with ministers."
The PRCA response was to recommend that the statutory register of lobbyists should be scrapped based on the report. However this misinterprets the findings. The Committee rightly recommended that the Government plans shouldn’t be “scrapped” but extended “to cover all those who lobby professionally, in a paid role, including those who lobby on behalf of charities, trade unions, and think tanks.”
If the Government’s proposals were broadened into more comprehensive legislation, which covered all those engaged in lobbying practices, it would go further in achieving the aims of proposals and creating transparency in the democratic system.
In the recent Cabinet reshuffle, Chloe Smith replaced Mark Harper as immigration minister at the Home Office but in addition is now responsible for overseeing the preparation of the lobbying register and delivering on Harper’s promise, that it would be introduced as legislation by 2015.
Smith herself is fully aware of the power of public trust. After all, she was elected as a result of Labour MP Ian Gibson’s resignation in the wake of the expenses scandal.
The Government’s response to the PCRC report has been to promise a revised policy proposal with a view to drafting a bill during this session of Parliament. If the Government’s proposals are broadened, it may go some way in restoring public faith. If it fails to do so, the Prime Minister will have failed to address what he identified as the next big scandal, and prove to the already sceptical public that the influence of the lobbyist has become more valuable than any.