Ensuring lobbying is open, transparent and legal
By James Boyd-Wallis
Both historic and more recent scandals have given lobbying a negative reputation.
But in 2014, the government introduced the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act to tackle such opaque behaviour. The act created the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists (ORCL), overseen by Registrar Harry Rich.
The CIPR Public Affairs Group co-chair David Boot sat down with Registrar Harry Rich for a fireside chat to discuss lobbying regulation and how to create a more transparent profession.
Rich explained that the government introduced the act in direct response to consultants lobbying ministers and failing to disclose for whom they were working.
As a result, Rich and his team of three have two aims as set out under the act.
The first is to ensure consultant lobbyists register before they engage with government ministers and permanent secretaries on behalf of their clients.
Second, ORCL requires those registered to submit details each quarter of the clients on whose behalf they have lobbied or been paid to lobby for in that period.
Anyone caught foul of the act is subject to a penalty of up to £7,500. Moreover, the most significant penalty is the impact on reputation, argues Rich.
Despite the ostensibly clear aims of the act, there remains some confusion as to why in-house lobbyists are exempt. There also remains debate on whether ORCL requires organisations such as lawyers, management consultants and accountants to register.
“If an employee from company x or charity y lobbies a government minister, it is clear they are doing that on behalf of company x or charity y. There is no transparency issue, as it exists with consultant lobbyists,” Rich clarifies.
About lawyers, management consultants and accounts, Rich is forthright.
“The nature of the business does not matter, it is the activity,” states Rich. If those professionals are lobbying ministers or permanent secretaries on behalf of a client, they must register.
Widening the scope of the act
Nevertheless, Rich believes more transparent lobbying is achievable by expanding the act.
“There are a few areas of the act that are imperfect and could be tweaked,” argues Rich.
First, as well as including government ministers and permanent secretaries, Rich believes ORCL should capture communication with special advisers.
“In my experience, your starting point is not a government minister or a permanent secretary. It is the special adviser.”
Second, from his four years in post, he is sure that the ‘incidental’ exception is unclear. This exemption means some people aren’t required to register if their role does not primarily involve lobbying.
However, Rich believes many people don’t know what this means. Parliament should improve the language.
Third, Rich recommends removing the VAT exemption, which means businesses under the £85,000 threshold do not need to register.
He highlights a couple of issues with this. One, foreign consultancy businesses may not be VAT registered but could be conducting a significant amount of lobbying. Two, consultant lobbyists “can do a lot of lobbying” for £85,000, so the VAT exemption is arbitrary.
Last, Rich suggests extending the information the act requires consultant lobbyists to disclose.
Consultant lobbyists must only list the clients on whose behalf they have lobbied. But Rich recommends including the minister’s or permanent secretary’s name, the date of the meeting and the subject of the discussion.
Supporting the lobbying industry
While Rich doesn’t get involved in the content of lobbying, he’s supportive of the industry and believes that it leads to better public policy.
The difficultly, he argues, is when it’s secret. On this, he and the CIPR agree.
By working together, we can ensure that lobbying is recognised as a force for good and the essential part of the democratic process that it is.
Check out the CIPR’s Lobbying for Good Lobbying campaign here