A necessary inquiry into lobbying

By Mark Glover

David Cameron once predicted lobbying was ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen’. He was correct – in a way –  though he probably never thought he would be at the centre of it. Although the former Prime Minister’s actions did not break the very narrow rules around consultant lobbying as defined by the statutory Register of Consultant Lobbyists, his failure to declare his activity fails the key test of transparency that any lobbyist should adhere to. It is therefore right for there to be an inquiry to look at the facts.

Yet the attention on David Cameron’s engagement with his former colleagues and officials is a stark reminder that the current rules of transparency fails to capture the activities of many lobbyists.

The only properly registered lobbyists are those that declare that they are lobbyists and meet the standards not only of the statutory register, but of the industry’s own register of interests and code of conduct, such as those stipulated by the PRCA or the CIPR. 

Two groups currently do not meet the narrow criteria set out in the legislation, and this inquiry may wish to look at these more closely. The first group is in-house lobbyists, as the statutory register does not capture their lobbying activities. Many do not self-declare as part of an industry code of conduct or enrol in a relevant professional organisation, which can lead to lower levels of awareness about best practice in transparent and ethical conduct.

The second group are advisory firms who do not declare their clients and operate below the lobbying radar. Some claim not to be lobbyists, even when some of their work is influencing government policy both nationally and internationally. Given the narrow nature of how the Register of Consultant Lobbyists defines declarable lobbying, several agencies, law firms and even individuals, conduct lobbying but do so in an opaque manner, without having to declare their activities or their clients.

Within the industry, these firms and individuals pitch themselves to clients by saying that they can do the job of lobbyists without having to declare their activities, with some clients mistakenly believing this is a more ethical or low risk approach. The reality is that if a paid professional is briefing a client, advising them on who to meet and what to say, drafting policy positions for their organisation or doing any of a number of activities that can be described as public affairs – then they are lobbying and should have to declare their activity in some manner. This inquiry should look at how these groups avoid meeting basic levels of transparency and address it because the big scandal will be when these activities are made public and questions are asked how it has been allowed to continue.  

Lobbying is vital to any democracy. It is critical that politicians understand how their policies will impact business, and business needs to understand the direction of policy and its implications for their activities. Engaging professional and transparent lobbyists, therefore, is the best solution because it is clear for all to see who they are working for and what the nature of that relationship is, thereby protecting against reputational risk on all sides.