Negative headlines surrounding the lobbying industry continue as the government drags its feet on the issue of a statutory register of lobbyists.
From Eric Pickles failing to declare his Savoy dinners to Labour MP Paul Flynn calling lobbyists ‘professional deceivers‘ and the Guardian’s outrage at lobbyists posing as Parliamentary staff, the story is unlikely to leave the news agenda anytime soon.
And, in a new poll of its members, pressure group 38 Degrees has asked campaigners if it should increase activity ‘to ban secret lobbying‘.
Part of the cure 38 Degrees proposes is the much vaunted compulsory register of lobbyists – as opposed to the voluntary one which is in place at the moment.
And their suggested cure could end up being worse than the disease.
If a statutory register is developed, the whole industry takes a step closer to becoming a restricted, registered profession – similar to accountancy, law or medicine.
Every public affairs practitioner will need to be regulated and monitored. And every conversation with an MP recorded. In fact, to ensure there is no way of getting around the rules, every conversation between an MP and individuals should also be noted and published. The risk then is that only those who have registered – or constituents – will be able to freely discuss matters with politicians.
And if a person, even a constituent, is contacting an MP on behalf of an NGO this should be registered and flagged as a ‘lobbying’ contact. It would be impossible to force for-profit companies to register all contacts with politicians and not those with charities.
If all those Lords passes revealed by the Guardian were taken away, because the individuals were not registered as lobbyists, then several excellent charities would risk losing some influence – such as: Action to Regenerate Trust, Chatham House, Citizens Advice, CTC (cyclists organisation), Diabetes UK, Disability Alliance, Helena Kennedy Foundation, Howard League for Penal Reform, Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, Living & Dying Well, Mencap, MS Trust, National Autistic Society, National Secular Society, One World Trust, RNIB, Save the Children, Stonewall, VSO and the Youth Sport Trust.
The Guardian didn’t mention this in its main news reports. Would the ‘lobby-ban lobby’ be happy seeing all these organisations lose their access to Parliament overnight? I doubt it. But their lobbying activity must be seen in the same light as that undertaken by BP, Conservative Christian Fellowship, Countryside Alliance and the TaxPayers Alliance (etc, etc).
And restricting who can lobby MPs and Lords could just be the thin end of the wedge.
As Trevor Morris argued at a recent University of Westminster debate on public relations (albeit without referencing lobbying by name), any attempt to move the PR industry down the road of becoming a restricted profession should be opposed. It is fundamentally undemocratic.
Morris argued that it is fine to debate the need for the PR industry to become more professional and transparent, but it should never become a profession. If you restrict the ability of people to ‘communicate’ with any group – especially the media and politicians – it starts becoming “anti competitive, anti democratic” and getting close to state-regulated censorship.
So before anyone considers supporting a campaign to regulate lobbyists too tightly, think about the wider implications. Yes, the voluntary register is vital and more meetings need to be openly declared so we know who is doing what, but bans, state sponsored regulations and restrictions on who can talk to who are not the way forward.