by James M. Butcher - Public Affairs Lead at Spink
Lobbyists connect experts, interest groups, campaigners, industry and indeed pretty much anyone who wants to create change with the policy makers who can make things happen. As an industry, we’re weak at shouting about the positive effect that lobbyists have on improving policies for people, areas and industries.
Stories about corruption and under-hand tactics to exert influence often make a big splash in the media and so they should. Outing bad and illegal practises will hopefully bring those who break the law to justice and prevent these actions from happening again.
Registering lobbyists on a publicly available list for all to access is seen around the world as one of the best ways of achieving transparency, but here in Britain, we’ve yet to perfect the art.
Yesterday (1 Aug 2017), the PRCA released a statement regarding the inclusion of Barry Sheerman MP, who chairs the not-for-profit organisation, ‘Policy Connect’, on the Statutory Register of Consultant Lobbyists. The PRCA rightly pointed out that you simply cannot be an MP and a lobbyist – it is against Parliamentary rules. To make matters more complicated, Mr Sheerman’s role is known to the Parliamentary authorities and they don’t consider him to be a lobbyist.
This sends all the wrong messages to the public. How can the Parliamentary authorities say that he isn’t a lobbyist but the Registrar of the Statutory Register say that he is? Both authorities were set up to instil confidence in democracy but in this case, neither are achieving it.
Of course, the Statutory Register is littered with problems and has been widely criticised across the industry – the definition it uses of lobbyists only relates to those who directly lobby senior Ministers and Private Secretaries, it does not apply to in-house teams, it is claimed to ignore around 80% of those working in lobbying and it is accused of providing no more information than what is already publicly and voluntarily available.
Perhaps the best summary of the success of the Statutory Register can be summed up by the Registrar herself. When asked whether the Register could be described as successful, she said:
“The Register does what the legislation requires – my job is to continue to make sure that all those who are required to register do so, and to operate the system cost effectively. I encourage anyone unsure about their responsibilities under the Act to contact me, so I can advise whether they need to be registered. It’s better to ask than guess!”.
Added to the issues faced by the Statutory Register, the industry has several registers on offer too.
While these voluntary registers are applauded, the fact there are so many does rather confuse the situation. The APPC has its own register, the CIPR operates ‘The UK Lobbying Register’, and the PRCA offers the ‘Public Affairs and Lobbying Register’.
If we are to strive for greater public confidence in what we do, we need to get it right. We need a register that includes the majority of those working in the industry. It needs to be the definitive authority on what is or is not lobbying, it needs to provide meaningful information and it needs to have the support of industry. Only then can we really say that we are achieving the transparency the public expect from us.