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Political and Constitutional Reform CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Political Lobbying and Media Relations (PLMR)

1. Please find below the written submission of Political Lobbying and Media Relations (“PLMR”) in relation to the above. PLMR is a public affairs and media communications agency. We work with organisations across the private, public and voluntary sectors, from SMEs, to large FTSE and NYSE listed firms and major institutions. We specialise in a wide range of sectors, from retail to construction, from the life sciences to IT and green energy, from education to health and social care.

2. We are also unique in having been recognised nationally for giving 5% of net profits to charity. We believe the breadth of our experience makes PLMR well qualified to offer our expertise and assistance to this inquiry.

3. I am the relevant PLMR contact for this matter. I am currently Britain’s top lobbyist (UK Public Affairs Consultant of the Year 2011), was a Lambeth Councillor for nine years 1997 to 2006, and a Parliamentary Candidate in 2005.

4. As requested the main body of PLMR’s submission is less than 3,000 words with numbered paragraphs. Lobbying companies are incredibly misunderstood in this country. Not all are the same. Some think there is nothing to fear from transparency and are proud of what they do. A Statutory Register that is practical and effective and which delivers the aspirations of government and opposition is now urgent. PLMR would be happy to give oral evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in due course.

5. PLMR would also be happy to provide any further information and/or clarification on the issues raised in this letter and/or its written submission.

Political Lobbying and Media Relations Submission

Executive Summary

(i)A simple statutory register that lists clearly the activities of organisations engaging in lobbying activities is now urgent.

(ii)Political Lobbying and Media Relations (“PLMR”) already meets these requirements and transparency remains at the core of our organisation. There are no longer any excuses for similar measures not to be incarnated across the Public Affairs industry.

(iii)It is pivotal that government acknowledges that large swathes of the lobbying industry are not confined to third party agencies. Subsequently any upcoming regulation must not only strive to best define with a lobbyist is, but also that it ensures government seeks to avert a situation in which lobbyists are driven to practice their trade through other professional outfits not subjected to the same regulatory impositions. Examples of this include law firms, management consultancies and in-house organisations. If this does not happen, the whole process will lose any credibility, despite the cries of anguish that may be forthcoming from some quarters.

(iv)The commercial sensitivities of clients must remain protected. The confidentiality between client and lobbyists does not represent a smokescreen to underhanded lobbying practices. It serves to protect commercial interests. Financial disclosure would only serve to drive the lobbying industry underground.

(v)Registration must be legally enforced. The statutory register represents a new dawn for the lobbying industry and we must discard the “same old” approach of multiple registers. Bodies such as the APPC, UKPAC, CIPR and PRCA do some great work. But the punishment for contravening the ethical codes of these bodies is losing their respective accreditation. This is not enough. PLMR calls for a simple body, regulated by Parliament, which has set penalties and guidelines.

(vi)The funding of this register should come from within the Public Affairs industry and at no cost to the taxpayer. Simplicity must be at the heart of this process and bureaucracy has to stay at a bare minimum. It is not unreasonable to ask organisations that lobby to dedicate a set amount calculated via formula to the administration of the Register. This information for Private Companies is readily available for public consumption through Companies House.

(vii)It is not realistic to record every interaction between lobbyists’ and politicians. This must be placed into context. Politics is an industry like any other, and by the very nature of our work, we come into contact with political figures via political, personal, social, and charitable contexts to name but a few. PLMR’s consultants come from backgrounds in the House of Commons and the Civil Service and have many such contacts with politicians. It would be unworkable and almost farcical to expect every meeting to be logged. In the vernacular what should be achieved is that one “knows where a person is coming from” and by whom an individual is paid for advocacy. It really is simple.

(viii)Lobbying is a noble profession and it does not deserve the opprobrium currently attached to it. There are a large number of companies working in the sector carrying out work that makes a real difference to people’s lives, fighting tobacco, improving health, pushing charitable objectives (within all proper Charity Commission boundaries), supporting educational institutions, and philanthropic ventures, and conveying their messages to government. Alongside the purely commercial lobbying, which is equally valid this cannot be allowed to stop. A key framework must be put in place that allows this fundamentally important work to continue. Lobbying in Britain is a key part of a strong creative industries sector.

(ix)PLMR draws its staff from a number of backgrounds and we conclude that in our experiences the lobbying industry operates more often than not with the utmost ethical intent. The activities of the more questionable bodies and individuals that lobby, currently operating outside of any form of professional code, should not be used to disgrace the wider industry. A well-considered, all inclusive, and transparent, statutory register that requires universal membership would be a considerable step forward to restoring the confidence of the general public in the Public Affairs industry, and allow us to showcase our work and the positive outcomes it has. Also we urge further consideration of the role of Members of the House of Lords and lobbying, an area that needs further review.

(x)PLMR has extensive experience in the sector and this qualifies us to say that compliance is not difficult. An effective consultation process that harnesses the experiences of respected consultancies should reveal the merits of a fully-inclusive lobbyists’ register.

Introduction

6. Political Lobbying and Media Relations (“PLMR”) was set-up in 2005 and provides consultancy services to clients across political lobbying, media relations, crisis management, political and media monitoring, select committee preparation, community consultation and media training.

7. PLMR currently employs 23 staff and is located in Lambeth, London. We work across the UK, including Scotland and Wales, and the European Union, with a further global network of like-minded companies. 

8. PLMR is a member of UKPAC (UK Public Affairs Council), the APPC (The Association of Professional Political Consultants), CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations) and PRCA (Public Relations Consultants Association). We apply the UKPAC, APPC, CIPR and PRCA codes to all aspects of our work. PLMR is pleased to respond to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee’s inquiry into “Introducing a statutory register for lobbyists”. We recognise that lobbying is crucial to the democratic process and welcome this investigation as an important step forwards towards finding a solution that restores both public faith and wider credibility in the Public Affairs industry.

The Government’s proposals for a statutory register

9. PLMR recognises that there is a need to regulate the Public Affairs industry and that the Government’s proposals are a step forwards towards creating a legally-binding register. However, we feel that the register must be inclusive of all lobbying activities, regardless of whether these are conducted by an agency, charity, trade union or through other in-house operations. Accordingly we feel it is appropriate for government to broaden their definition of a lobbyist.

10. According to UKPAC statistics, currently only 36.3% of all lobbying activity is conducting by a third-party consultancy, and if the register is to be fully inclusive of all lobbying activity, all parties that form an engagement programme with government must adhere to the proposed regulations. An inherent danger remains in only enforcing a register upon Public Affairs Consultancies with this creating an opportunity for organisations to move their lobbying operations in-house, which in-turn creates further complications towards enforcing efficient and effective regulation.

11. We are in agreement with the Government that detailed financial information should not be included on the register. To include this would be to over-simplify the nature of the lobbying industry. Different clients across different sectors require different services, and these vary markedly in delivery when comparing the approaches of various Public Affairs Consultancies.

12. It is paramount that the commercial sensitivities of clients are protected. The system of banding the value of the work carried out in our view undermines confidentiality between lobbyists and their clients. Transparency must remain at the heart of any statutory register and financial disclosure threatens to undermine this by creating a vacuum in which unregistered lobbying practices can flourish.

13. The Government is correct to identify that the issue of transparency has to be addressed. It is important that government goes onto clarify how it intends to enforce registration as to make all lobbying activities compliant to new regulations.

14. We also believe that no current international system offers a “best practice” model and as a consequence government must heed caution when considering the relative merits of these and ensure this consultation considers the implications of any lobbyists’ register. Canada provides an excellent example of this. In 2008, the Lobbying Act was rushed through the Canadian Parliament upon Stephen Harper’s election. One huge implication of this has been disbarring organisations that receive money from government from lobbying activities. In the case of a charity, this fundamentally underpins their ability to best represent and promote the interests of their members.

15. Further clarification must be sought on the interaction between ministers and lobbying firms. It is suggested by organisations keen to restrict the activities of lobbying firms that explicit information on the details of meetings between lobbyists and ministers should be published. This is a breach of confidentiality, and removes the right of privacy to individual organisations who often have sensitive information that should not be available in the public domain.

16. This is not to state that PLMR disagrees that the main purpose of the register should not be transparent. The public has the right to see a list of who is lobbying, and what organisation employs their services. Flexibility should lie at the heart of the register. Clients rarely lobby on “single issues” and consultations are across different ministries, and at regional, as well as national, level. As the Rt Hon David Heath MP recently stated in the House of Commons:

“Some people would take an all-encompassing definition, which would require every one of our constituents who comes to see us in an advice surgery to register as a lobbyist before attending. I think that that would be an over-extensive definition.”

17. It is important to focus on how the Government intends to regulate any register. Currently, PLMR are required under the APPC code to list its clients. Any statutory register should follow a similar approach. The Government must consider what sanctions it will enforce for lack of compliance. To again cite the Canadian example, there is little deterrent to lobbying activities which are deemed illegal. PLMR takes issue that if this remains the case, there is little reason for companies that currently do not adhere to the APPC code to continuing unsolicited, illegal lobbying practices.

18. Furthermore, we need to stress the importance of this being a fully inclusive register. As previously stated from UKPAC statistics, currently in the United Kingdom, 63.7% of all current lobbying activity is not conducted by a Public Affairs Consultancy. It is our view that if regulation is enforced onto Lobbying companies exclusively, this will merely steer practices in-house and encourage law firms and management consultancies to create unregulated practices that serve the same function.

19. It is also difficult to exact a definition of what constitutes an in-house lobbyist. PLMR urges government to look more closely at this definition. The current proposals will create a two-tier system that to some degree would mirror the current system employed in the United States and fuel unsavoury lobbying practices.

20. Fundamentally, government has approached its consultation in a balanced way by asking lobbyists, and concerned opposition, questions that will hopefully lead to consensus in how to best regulate the industry.

21. We believe that government must be careful of turning the statutory register into a list of “approved lobbyists”. This would create a negative view that certain individuals have privileged access to policy makers, a move the industry can ill-afford in the face of growing public cynicism.

22. There should be some consideration as to the relationship between former office holders and their employment in Public Affairs consultancies. The Canadian Lobbying Act of 1998 stipulates that there should be a three year period between former elected officials entering lobbying work. Although this idea is fine in principle, it again is poorly enforced. A period of prohibition, with the appropriate sanctions, should be given consideration.

Conclusion

23. PLMR welcomes the Government’s consultation on a statutory register for lobbyists and appreciates that at this early stage its proposals are broad. To restore the credibility of the industry it is vital that efficient regulation around the lobbying industry is created, and we welcome the consultative process.

24. It is pivotal to remember that lobbying is a complicit part of the democratic process and a fundamental part of informing government decisions. It is in the public interest to be aware broadly of these meetings.

25. The Government must define what a lobbyist is. This definition should reflect anyone who seeks to influence government on behalf of a third party organisation, and as such should include in-house, trade union and charity operations in addition to bespoke Public Affairs Consultancies.

26. The Government should also clarify what sanctions it imposes, and how it intends to fund the register.

February 2012

Prepared 12th July 2012