British plans for a statutory lobbying register are 'half-baked' and ignore the evidence built up by the EU voluntary model – claims public affairs consultant
The half-baked proposals published by the British government calling for the introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists, their clients and their staff risk degenerating into farce. The plan could deliver a result that is precisely the opposite goal of that understandably being sought by transparency campaigners. The United Kingdom administration has published a consultation document asking for views upon its proposals. But the plans set out would restrict the requirement to register only to those lobbying commercially for third parties. This would leave 95 per cent of lobbying activity outside the registration requirement. The European transparency initiative green paper has shown that lobbying is mainly carried out by trade associations, campaign groups, in house lobbyists, trades unions and others. They would be exempt from the UK register.
The error is compounded by the establishment of a test for registration, which captures only those who indulge in lobbying for third parties rather than the provision of advice by agencies to their clients on how best to develop strategies and hone their message. In short, the proposals brought forward by the British government risk having the effect of reducing, by perhaps as much as 80 per cent, the number of clients currently listed in voluntary registers by multi-client agencies. The plans also fail to encompass the overwhelming majority of those involved in lobbying - to the anger of transparency campaigners and responsible, ethical agencies alike.
And the failure of the UK proposals to underpin a statutory register of lobbyists with even the most rudimentary code of practice is a glaring omission. This disregards the lessons from the voluntary register maintained by the European Commission and European Parliament. It risks a situation in which an otherwise ethical agency could be penalised and prosecuted for an administrative error or technical glitch - by which voluntary registers have been bedevilled - but another agency acting in a thoroughly unethical manner could continue to benefit without sanction from the implied kudos of inclusion in a statutory register. Surely, the public and the political community should be entitled to expect that any agency given the implied stamp of respectability - of inclusion in a statutory register - acts in an ethical manner.
The first time there is a scandal with an agency caught acting immorally in flagrante delicto, the public and media will demand a proportionate sanction be imposed. If the government, despite having regulated to create a statutory register, has no range of sanctions to impose then the whole situation will explode in the face of ministers. As we have been arguing for years and have made clear in our response to the UK government's consultation exercise, this is yet another occasion where the European Union has led the way and built up a body of evidence - which is systematically ignored by a member state that appears hell-bent on making its own mistakes; to the greater cost of the reputation of the conduct of politics in the EU. That the UK trade body, the Association of Professional Political Consultants is supporting this Kafkaesque charade brings shame upon it. The whole thing is an embarrassment to those of us among its members, who aspire to higher ethical standards.Chris Whitehouse is managing director of the Whitehouse Consultancy, a British public affairs firm