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Cameron Penny: Why this isn't the lobbying bill we need

Cameron Penny is a financial services lobbyist. Follow Cameron on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-08-03 at 11.05.14Last month, the Government published the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, finally making good on a three-year-old promise. Reactions to the Bill came quickly. The Association of Professional Political Consultants (@APPC_UK), of which I am a member, rightly pointed out that the Bill would lead to less transparency than under the current voluntary code that it polices. The Guido Fawkes blog (@GuidoFawkes) noted that the Bill would only capture one per cent of lobbyists.

I tweeted Guido – or rather ‘the blog’, as they’re keen to point out Paul Staines isn’t the sole author – to thank them for supporting the APPC’s call for a stricter Bill. They got in touch to let me know they didn’t support us, and that “lobbyists are a hindrance to democracy”.

You can at least see that the blog is reflecting a commonly held public sentiment. It’s a sentiment that some people want to nurture; that all lobbyists are greasy, envelope-swapping, toffy little schoolboys in suits running between champagne lunch and expensive dinners where they manipulate the democratically elected representatives of the people.

It’s a caricature. I work for an agency and my time is spent analysing the political landscape, translating that into meaningful advice for businesses and then coming up with issues-driven strategies and fact-based arguments which we present to policymakers and officials. There are no secret meetings, privileged access points into Government or payments made to ‘help things along’. Those who either think that’s what lobbying is, or still behave that way, are part of a dying although still dangerous and disreputable breed.

Whilst in the past few years ‘lobbying’ scandals have more often than not been about corrupt politicians than about corruption aided by lobbyists, there are clearly bad apples in any industry. That’s why we need a lobbying bill that increases transparency by recording everyone who lobbies policymakers and officials and giving statutory backing to a universal code of conduct. 

That is not what the Bill before Parliament does. In a ludicrous reduction in the level of transparency to which I currently submit, the Bill wouldn’t mean I’d have to register as a lobbyist. As an employee who lobbies on behalf of an employer whose business is lobbying; they would have to register, I wouldn’t.

There are also massive loopholes for law firms and PR agencies; they can avoid registration by arguing that lobbying is only a small part of their overall revenue. Oh, and you only need to register if you have contact with Ministers or Permanent Secretaries. So the lobbying Bill whose publication was helped along by the behaviour of MPs has no provision to record any lobbying of MPs carried out by registered ‘consultant lobbyists’. 

This is not the lobbying Bill that the public deserves, and that the new generation of lobbyists in my industry have been demanding. It’s not good enough for the Cabinet Office to push through a Bill with such a narrow definition of who a lobbyist is and what lobbying constitutes. The public – and despite Guido’s worldview, I’m a member of that group too – should have access to a universal register where they can easily see who is registered as a lobbyist, which agency or company they work for, and what clients they represent. This should be an inclusive register: it should include law firms, NGOs, corporate in-house teams, journalists and PR and Public Affairs agencies. 

The definition should be simple – if you write or speak to policymakers and officials, advertise or otherwise campaign to influence legislation in the UK and you do this in any capacity other than as a private citizen you should be required to register your details. We all need this Bill to work. This is why when it comes to lobbying on it I’ll be turning to the Labour Party, amongst others, as we build a coalition of support for universal transparency and high standards that will mean lobbying will never again be the “next big scandal waiting to happen.”


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