Corporate Watch : October 11, 2007 : LOBBYISTS ON THE DEFENSIVE

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Chris Grimshaw


The British lobbying industry is on the defensive as a government committee prepares to investigate its activities. The Public Administration Select Committee's inquiry is the first to probe lobbying in Westminster since 1991 and may result in recommendations for regulation of the industry.

Parliamentary scrutiny is unwelcome amongst industry insiders and seems to have triggered infighting. Bell Pottinger's Peter Bingle, writing in PR Week said, "there is no point rehearsing in public the view that we welcome the inquiry. We don't. I have yet to meet a member of the industry who does". He blames the inquiry on lobbying trade association, the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) which has been publicly attacking lobby firms which are not members. The APPC is supposed to police the industry and requires that its members sign up to a code of conduct, although membership of the group is voluntary.

The research group, Spinwatch has made a submission to the Inquiry and asked other groups, including Corporate Watch to sign on to it. Spinwatch is calling for the committee to recommend the following simple rules on all lobbying:

· A mandatory system of electronic registration and reporting for all lobbyists with a significant annual lobbying budget. This must include disclosure of resources expended in lobbying campaigns, which itemises expenditure by outside interests (clients and their agents) on each piece of legislation they have lobbied on. Reports must be made available in a fully searchable, sortable and downloadable online database.

· Enforceable ethics rules for lobbyists (for instance prohibiting employment of officials or their relatives for lobbying purposes).

· Enhanced ethical rules on members interests, on the role of All Party groups, and stricter regulation of outside interests.

· Recording of formal and informal meetings between elected members, officials and lobbyists and logging of correspondence (to be made available in a fully searchable online database).

· An extended 'cooling off' period – one year - before ministers, elected members and senior officials across the public sector can start working for lobby groups or lobbying consultancies.

Lobbying is an essential part of the way corporations exert power over society by influencing government. Without more information it is almost impossible to gauge the extent of that power, and it is the very secretive nature of the business that gives such cause for concern. We have nothing but a scandal-ridden industry's insistence that it has cleaned up its act. Enforced transparency for the lobbying industry, as suggested by Spinwatch's rules, is essential if Britain is to fulfil its claim to be a democracy.

Edelman's Timely Scandal

Just as the lobbyists were gearing up to present the tired old line that, in spite of previous mistakes, the industry has now cleaned up its act, another lobbying scandal has broken out.

This time public relations multinational, Edelman, is in the spotlight over its lobbying of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2006, on behalf of its client company Pelcombe. Pelcombe, an"employment solutions provider", subsequently picked up contracts from the DWP for retraining the unemployed. Edelman however had failed to disclose Pelcombe as a client: a breach of the lobbying code of conduct. According to the Sunday Times, Pelcombe's account was being handled by the Edelman director Heather Rogers, otherwise known as Heather Hutton, wife of John Hutton MP, then secretary of state at the DWP.

The Sunday Times was alone amongst the national press in considering the story newsworthy.