Westminster Lobbying Bill

central lobby credit parliamentary copyright Owen McQuade looks at the UK Government’s Lobbying Bill which has been branded as ineffective and unworkable.

As the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill gets its second reading in the House of Commons there is much debate amongst public affairs professionals on its effectiveness.

The Bill focuses on agency lobbyists which it calls “consultant lobbyists” which is consistent with the proposals outlined in the Cabinet Office consultation document in January 2012. The Bill does not cover in-house lobbyists from either the corporate or third sectors. However, the Bill is limited to “oral or written communications made personally to a Minister of the Crown or permanent secretary” and therefore a person will only be considered a consultant lobbyist if their lobbying is targeted at this level. This excludes the lobbying of backbenchers, committee chairs and members, peers and mid-ranking officials, which makes up much of lobbying activity at Westminster.

Exemptions

Tucked away in the back of the Bill’s schedules is a list of exemptions, including the concept of the “non-lobbying business” if the person’s company “carries on a business which is mainly non-lobbying.” This has been the most surprising part of the Bill and will give many lobbying companies who are part of large communications entities a get-out clause for avoiding registration. A poll of lobbying agencies and in-house lobbyists in the Public Relations Consultants Association’s (PRCA) Public Affairs Group in the wake of the Bill found that only 23 per cent believed that they would be included in the proposed register.

PRCA Director-General Francis Ingham said: “This is a deeply disappointing Bill that is both unfair and unfit for purpose. It is unfair because it singles out a tiny group of consultancies, most of whom are already on existing voluntary registers, and who have had nothing to do with recent parliamentary scandals – they already embrace transparency and ethical practice. It is unfit for purpose as it will not cover the vast majority of the industry who lobby. The Government will not meet its own objective of increasing transparency. Instead, it is likely to cover fewer organisations than on existing voluntary registers whilst adding an exorbitant regulatory burden on those that do register.”

Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform Chloe Smith has defended the Bill. “You could take this ad infinitum, and what we are seeking to do is be proportionate and solve a problem that has been clearly identified,” she told MPs. Smith said that there was a small group of consultant lobbyists and it was not clear for whom they were working.

“We need to have some focus on that, and that is what this Bill tries to do,” she added. Ministers and permanent secretaries are obvious decision makers, and we are seeking to make influence upon decision makers transparent.”

Jon Trickett MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, said: “David Cameron has … revealed that he is not up to the challenge of restoring trust in our politics.

“If David Cameron won’t clean up politics, Labour will. We would introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, a code of conduct backed by sanctions and measures to ensure that anyone doing a senior job for the government of the day who is a professional lobbyist must be declared.”

Labour’s Lobbying Bill amendments were detailed in a press statement under the banner ‘Get Crosby’, which refers to the recent controversy about the Prime Minister’s advisor Lynton Crosby. The amendments are as follows:

1. all professional lobbyists working in the UK will be required to declare their full list of clients on a statutory register and also declare the approximate value of their lobbying activity;

2. anyone doing a senior job for the government of the day – whether in-house or a contractor, formally for the party or directly by the government – who is a professional lobbyist must be declared;

3. senior officials or ministers leaving government to take up posts in related areas have their appointment scrutinised by a committee, and potentially have conditions put on their activities.

The same should apply to people coming into senior roles in government, with the potential to ensure they are not involved in discussions that they retain an interest in, such as Lynton Crosby on tobacco packaging.

Unintended consequences

The Bill also covers non-party campaigning and will make it a criminal offence to spend more than £390,000 on campaigns (including staff and office costs) that affect European, national and local elections. It also includes a proposal than anyone spending more than £5,000 on campaigning activity should register with the Electoral Commission. The National Council for Voluntary organisations which is the main umbrella organisation for the third sector in England has warned that the Bill could restrict charity campaigning during election time and could even make it difficult to fundraise.

The Bill has also upset the trade unions with the TUC claiming that it will make organising its 2014 annual Congress, or organising a demonstration in the 12 months before the 2015 general election, criminal offences.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “It’s an open secret at Westminster that this rushed Bill has nothing to do with cleaning up lobbying or getting big money out of politics. Instead, it is a crude and politically partisan attack on trade unions, particularly those who affiliate to the Labour Party.

“Of course not everyone agrees with TUC views and policies but I expect there to be wide revulsion at this attack on free speech worthy of an authoritarian dictatorship. This will not just gag unions, but any group or organisation that disagrees with government – or opposition – policies.”

The Bill received its first Commons reading on 17 July and the second reading is due to take place on 3 September.

Who should register?

Part 1

REGISTRATION OF CONSULTANT LOBBYISTS

Requirement to register

1 Prohibition on consultant lobbying unless registered

(1) A person must not carry on the business of consultant lobbying unless —

(a) the person, or

(b) if the person is an employee, the person’s employer, is entered in the register of consultant lobbyists.

2 Meaning of consultant lobbying

(1) For the purposes of this Part, a person carries on the business of consultant

lobbying if —

(a) in the course of a business and in return for payment, the person makes

communications within subsection (3) on behalf of another person or

persons, and

(b) none of the exceptions in Part 1 of Schedule 1 applies.

(2) Part 2 of that Schedule makes provision about the meaning, for the purposes of

this Part of this Act, of terms used in subsection (1).

(3) The communications within this subsection are oral or written

communications made personally to a Minister of the Crown or permanent

secretary relating to —

(a) the development, adoption or modification of any proposal of the

government to make or amend primary or subordinate legislation;

(b) the development, adoption or modification of any other policy of the

government;

(c) the making, giving or issuing by the government of, or the taking of any

other steps by the government in relation to, —

(i) any contract or other agreement,

(ii) any grant or other financial assistance, or

(iii) any licence or other authorisation; or

(d) the exercise of any other function of the government.

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