When I was involved in the process to create the UK Public Affairs Council, we were heavily criticised by some for the slow pace with which the process moved. Personally, I always believed that we acted with rather impressive haste.
Mark Harper, the Cabinet Office Minister responsible for the government’s plans for a statutory register of lobbyists, is himself discovering now that it is not as easy as it might first appear. After all, what could be simpler than a provision to force all lobbyists to sign a public register. It’s hardly splitting the atom, is it?
Except the government quickly realised they were trying to answer questions that seem simple but are, in reality, spectacularly difficult. Who exactly is a lobbyist? And what activity are they undertaking that requires them to register?
The sharp focus of the problem in my mind was the realisation that, under the government’s initial plans, the register might actually have no-one on it. If only multi-client “lobbyists” had to register when they lobby government, and if, as is indeed is usually the case, such lobbyists get their clients to do the lobbying, will anyone actually be required to be on the statutory register? Hmmm, interesting.
So today’s PR Week story, Comms bosses accuse the Government of dragging its feet on register, reports what all of us in the profession know. The government is struggling over this policy.
I am sure we will still get government proposals for a register, not least to fulfil the coalition agreement commitment. But I’m not convinced they will ever make it to the statute books. And I hope the PRCA and the APPC, who have welcomed the plans for the register, will then go back to what they should be doing; the self-regulation of our profession.
I fundamentally disagree with Michael Gove’s views on education. I view his politics as firmly on the right of the spectrum with little other than superficial concern for “hard working families”.
However I have found something to agree with him on. His instincts are against regulation of the media. I agree that it would be a perilous step that should be taken with great caution. A free press is a fundamental part of a democratic society.
I trust that Michael Gove will be arguing equally hard against regulation of lobbying. Lobbying is also a fundamental part of a democratic society. It is about time that senior Conservatives stood up against this grossly illiberal policy proposed originally by the “Liberal” Democrats. Come on Michael – let’s make it two things we agree on.
That if the Tories intend to pander to their right wing by dropping “gay marriage” and House of Lords reform, they might also drop their rubbish plans for a statutory register of lobbyists?
Ok. I suppose it is too much to ask.
I think I am finally beginning to get through on one of my key arguments. When scandals erupt in politics, far too many are keen to pin the blame on so-called “lobbyists” and far too few to target the real culprits, namely politicians.
It is no surprise that politicians try to find scapegoats. After all, very few of them are capable of admitting their mistakes. However when people who really should know better do it, such as the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, it is very disappointing.
The message that political figures are really to blame came across pretty well in the Broadcasting House piece that I contributed to last Sunday. Asked whether Fred Michel, Rupert Murdoch’s UK lobbyist-in-chief, had done anything wrong, former Cabinet Secretary, Robert Armstrong, said that he had “pushed it a bit”. That was all.
I agree. As I said in my contribution, he did nothing technically wrong. The wrongdoing was clearly on the side of those who handed over the information to BSkyB when they shouldn’t have done so, mainly Jeremy Hunt’s Special Adviser, Adam Smith. He admitted he was wrong. He resigned.
Even when a political figure like Adam Smith admits his mistake and resigns, politicians still try to pin the blame on lobbyists. It’s time that politicians faced the facts and took responsibility for their wrongdoings.
So the next time you hear on the news that there is a new “lobbying scandal”, please tell all your friends what this really means. It is in fact a “political scandal”. Politicians, not lobbyists, are the problem.