Nearly a week has passed since the latest 'lobbying scandal' broke; and it's taken that long for my bile to subside. Not that I'm feeling particularly bilious about the alleged miscreants. No, what made me most nauseous was the cynical response of our political masters, with the lazy connivance of the media, so transparently seeking to divert attention from the real issues at play. That's passed, and has left me with a feeling more of amusement than anger.
It is transparently daft that the Government's response to an incident involving journalists and politicians is to legislate to register lobbyists. It is more than ironic to think that the only role a register could have played in these cases would have been to alert the politicians to the sting. It is absurd that we are introducing new rules when all the rules we need are there already (and this from a Government that believes in deregulation), and just need to be properly enforced. It is what it is: if politicians, the vast majority of whom by the way are not in any way venal or rule-breaking, think that throwing 'lobbyists' over the side will keep their ship afloat I'm happy to let them do it. But please let's just do it right.
Many of us in the lobbying industry see merit in a statutory register. Anything that shines a light on some of those who dabble in lobbying - the amateurs and one-man-bands, the management consultants, and particularly the lawyers - is long overdue. Those of us who are already part of the PRCA or APPC, and particularly those who already declare on the latter's register (yes, there is already a quarterly register, published online, which lists all public affairs clients and all relevant staff for most consultancies), would welcome a level playing field. It would make our sector more transparent and competition more fair. Bring it on. However, a register is not enough.
Simply setting up a register does nothing to change behaviours. It will do nothing to stop the 'scandals' of last weekend. It will not stop the unregistered from operating. Two other changes are desperately needed.
First, membership of the register has to bring with it an obligation to meet established minimum standards, for example, not paying elected officials, not holding a Parliamentary pass, and so on. Whether the Government wants it to or not, being on the register will be a kitemark. People will start trading as 'registered lobbyists'. It will imply that they are in some way recognised and endorsed. So this should mean something. This change is vital.
Second, there should be some sort of obligation on the 'lobbied' not to engage with unregistered lobbyists. This need not be a requirement laid down in law. Some sort of edict to the civil service, a change to the Ministerial code, a recommendation to MPs - these would all be enough to bring anyone purporting to be a lobbyist into line, make them worry about not being able to operate their businesses and get them to sign up to the register. This change is also absolutely vital. After all, if you can just carry on as before, why bother?
In passing I just want to comment on the call by some in our sector to include in-house lobbyists on the register. Of itself this call is daft and distracting: why do you need a register to tell you that John Smith works for Fred Bloggs Inc when they are presenting themselves at a meeting and discussing Fred Bloggs' concerns? The point of a register, if anything, is to stop third party lobbyists acting for clients without declaring who they are. But if the register brings with it minimum standards and some degree of recognition - in other words, if it has real value - there will be a reason for everyone involved in public affairs to sign up.
So there it is. I back a statutory register. Bring it on; the sooner the better. But if it is going to be more than just a piece of chaff thrown up cynically to distract us all from the latest scandal, it needs to have some meaning. The Government needs to take the lead.