THE BLOG

Unfettered Access to Parliament for Lobbyists Is Chipping Away at Public Confidence in Our Industry

16/04/2013 11:49 BST | Updated 15/06/2013 10:12 BST

We recently learned that more than 100 lobbying professionals hold passes giving them access to the whole of the Parliamentary estate. Members of the House of Lords - who do not enjoy the same taxpayer-funded support for administrative staff as their colleagues in the Commons - can issue passes to individuals who provide research or administrative support, even when those same people have a vested interest in influencing the policy-making process.

There's no formal rule-breaking going on here, but that's precisely the problem: that the rules of the House of Lords freely allow it. True, the numbers are relatively small - there are estimated to be thousands of UK lobbyists just a tiny fraction of whom have passes - and the details of who holds a pass are made public, bringing at least some accountability. But as someone who seeks to defend and promote the image of our industry and persuade the 99.9% of the population who don't work in or around SW1 that lobbying is a useful and productive enterprise it's extremely frustrating that a select few risk bringing reputational damage to an entire industry, the vast majority of whose personnel adhere to strict rules of engagement in how they deal with the executive and wider policy-making community. If you don't believe me then you can read the APPC's own stringent Code of Conduct here.

The Secretary of State for Local Government has long championed scrutiny by citizen journalists, microbloggers and armchair auditors - who he's labelled his 'citizen samizdat' - an attempt to bring transparency to local government finance. I'd like to see a similar principle embraced when it comes to the interaction between the lobbyists and the lobbied. That's why in the upcoming Queen's Speech I'll be looking out for the long-awaited lobbying registration bill.

In its Coalition Agreement and latterly in the Mid-Term Review the Government pledged to introduce legislation for a statutory lobbying register. It's a year now since its consultation closed so plenty of time for the Cabinet Office to produce a draft bill. Most lobbyists - and we've polled them - support the idea of a universal register: in its simplest guise a publicly available list of every individual who is classed as a professional lobbyist. Combined with regular Departmental publication (some are better than others) of ministerial meetings, it should provide for the first time a publicly accessible list of all those who are lobbying on a professional basis.

But a register risks being toothless unless it's backed by codes of conduct to which all lobbyists are encouraged to adhere. Many public affairs professionals belong to existing trade bodies and it would make sense that those on a Government-backed register should be encouraged to sign up to one of these codes. The APPC's stipulates clearly that no lobbyist can hold a parliamentary pass. In my view it is high time that the rules of the House of Lords should be changed to include the same provision.

Poor practice inevitably has a wider reputational damage on lobbying. In the same way that a single scandal or episode leads to hyperbolic headlines of an industry in disrepute (we still haven't fully shaken off the images of brown envelopes and shady backroom deals) a few lobbying pass-holders cast a shadow over an industry that has been working to demonstrate exactly the opposite: that it doesn't operate in the shadows.

If the price that members of the Lords have to pay is enjoying less outside secretariat support then that's a price worth paying to achieve a full and proper separation between the lobbyists and the legislators that they lobby. Let's get a statutory lobbying register in place and at the same time prohibit all professional lobbyists from having privileged pass-holder access to the Parliamentary estate.