The programme set out in last week’s Queen’s Speech is, in several ways, more notable for what it left out than for what it included. One of the omissions was any reference to legislation to bring the lobbying industry under control.
In lobbying, as in newspapers, there is an old argument about whether self-regulation is better than government involvement. In 2010, three professional bodies came together to form the UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC) to “promote and uphold effective self-regulation for those professionally engaged in public affairs”. The idea was to persuade the Government that there was no need to legislate, because the industry could police itself. To that end, UKPAC launched a voluntary register of lobbyists and public relations professionals.
The attempt by the industry to keep its own house in order came to grief, however, with The Independent’s explosive report revealing executives at Bell Pottinger boasting about access to the Government and using the dark arts to bury bad coverage. One of UKPAC’s founding bodies, the Public Relations Consultants Association, which represents hundreds of PR agencies and individuals, pulled out on the grounds that UKPAC was incapable of producing an effective register. The PRCA’s view was that the Government would have to legislate.
There is nothing innately dishonourable about lobbying. When new legislation is being drafted or put through Parliament, there is no reason why the industries or interest groups affected should not hire professionals to argue their case – so long as it is done openly.
But three years ago, David Cameron warned that the lobbying industry is “the next big scandal waiting to happen” – not because of lobbyists operating out in the open, but because of the commercial lobbying that is carried on out of sight, sometimes done by people who do not even admit to being lobbyists, but pose as something else. For them, a voluntary register is not a deterrent. A statutory register that makes secret lobbying illegal would be.