POLITICS
15/03/2012 07:57 GMT | Updated 15/03/2012 08:52 GMT

Lobbyist Register Planned By Government 'A Waste Of Time', Say Industry Chiefs

Government plans to regulate lobbyists have been attacked as "fundamentally flawed" by leading players in the industry.

This attack came as representatives from the lobbying profession spoke to MPs on the Constitutional Reform Committee about their concerns. Ministers are in the middle of a consultation on who should, and should not, be made to sign the register.

Francis Ingham, from the Public Relations Consultants' Association, argued that the register failed to go far enough. The government's planned register, he said, only covered third-party operatives who represented many clients as part of a lobbying agency. It left out dedicated staff who worked in one company.

"It has a very narrow definition. It will cover only a small part of the industry. It will exclude anyone who works in an in-house team. It will exclude lawyers who lobby, management consultants who lobby, it won't cover many people. It is unfair to the people covered."

Ingham also mocked how effective the government's register would be as, he claimed, existing voluntary registers require more information than the statutory one being envisaged. As a result, he was sceptical "how you can make a greater call for transparency, by reducing the quantity of information that’s required and the amount of people who are required to give it".

He called for the government to "broaden the scope of the register and get on with implementing it, rather than waste more time".

After recent scandals over lobbying involving the firm Bell Pottinger and former defence secretary Liam Fox, Ingham declared the public were prone to "unwarranted [and] disingenuous" concern about meetings between politicians and lobbyists.

This session by the Political and Constitutional Reform committee came as they consider the government's plans for a register. The government recently announced it would impose one in a move to "bring transparency to the process". David Cameron declared in February 2010 that lobbying was "the next big scandal waiting to happen".

In-house lobbyists work for a single organisation, and lobby ministers and MPs for that organisation only. Third party lobbyists work for agencies, and have a variety of clients.

Jane Wilson, from the CIPR, told MPs that the register was "fundamentally flawed" as it effectively exempted 80% of the lobbying profession. She insisted that lobbying was an "essential part of the democratic process".

The register was dismissed as "flawed and pretty pointless" by the APPC's Helen Johnson. She said she was disappointed by the government's "starting premise that it need only extend to lobbyists acting on behalf of a third party".

"It is at best a deprecation, at worst an unnecessary regulatory burden.... the net result is that you end up not with a register of lobbyists, but a sub-set, a minority of lobbyists" she added.

All three lobbyists agreed that trade unions, in their activities with politicians, should be included on the register.

"If organisations are making representations to politicians, they should do it in an open and transparent way", Johnson told MPs.

Committee member Paul Flynn poured scorn on the lobbyists' argument. He claimed the three professionals were fighting like "cats in a sack" over their main message and needed "someone to bang their heads together from the outside".

He attacked their call for a wider register as "trying to take the proposition of corporate lobbying and spreading it so that it applies to everyone and becomes meaningless".