The lobbying industry's attempts to demonstrate it can regulate itself was fatally undermined yesterday after a group representing more than 300 public relations firms – including Bell Pottinger – pulled out of a newly-formed voluntary register of interests.
The Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA), a third of whose members are involved in lobbying, said attempts by the industry to create a comprehensive register of all those who work in public affairs had proved a failure.
It called on ministers to quickly introduce legislation for a statutory register that could help regain public confidence.
However, its decision means there will effectively be no unified register of lobbyists in place for up to two years.
One source suggested that this could be a motivation behind the PRCA's move following a string of damaging revelations in The Independent.
An investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) discovered the lengths some lobbying firms were prepared to go to to win new business. They boasted of access to senior figures in Downing Street, ministers and MPs, and outlined the "dark arts" they used to improve interest in their clients on the internet. Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, at the centre of the controversy, is a member of the PRCA and is being investigated to see if it has broken the group's code of conduct.
Yesterday the PRCA said it was clear the UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC), an umbrella body set up 18 months ago to clean up the industry's reputation by creating it's own voluntary register, had failed. In a letter to ministers, Francis Ingham, PRCA chief executive, said: "We have come to the reluctant conclusion that UKPAC is simply not the right vehicle to deliver the statutory register which is the Government's aim. Its register has proved incomplete, inaccurate and unreliable. As a consequence, we have today withdrawn from UKPAC."
Sally Costerton, PRCA chairman, added: "Thanks to repeated delays and inaccuracies in its work, UKPAC simply lacks the credibility and competence to meet the Government's objectives."
UKPAC chairman, Elizabeth France, admitted the organisation had struggled to get the register off the ground, but pointed out that the member organisations had given it a budget of just £60,000. "I am very surprised by the PRCA's timing," she said. "They have been aware of the problems we have been facing for some time but just at the point when we have appointed a new IT contractor to finalise the register by the end of the year they have decided to withdraw. It is now likely to be two years before any statutory register comes into being."
A spokesman for Mark Harper, the minister responsible for creating the new framework for lobbyists, said: "We will be putting forward proposals for a new statutory register of lobbyists in the next few weeks which will then go out to public consultation."