Yesterday, the Government announced the fruits of three years of hard labour - its Transparency of Lobbying Bill. To say that it was received with rapturous applause would be a downright lie.
It was received instead with a significant degree of disappointment from a surprisingly wide range of people and organisations.
For those to whom lobbying is not an obsession (i.e. almost everybody), let me summarise the myths and the reality.
Myth: lobbying is mainly done by multi-nationals. Reality: actually, charities do a great deal. As do trade unions. Business groups. And even the public sector.
Myth: lobbyists pay MPs. Reality: lobbyists are banned under existing self-regulatory codes from paying, employing or otherwise 'corrupting' MPs.
Myth: the lobbying industry opposes transparency - consultancies hide their clients. Reality: the lobbying industry actually welcomes transparency. They're sick of this absurd reputation they have. And agencies boast about - not cover up - their clients. It's one of the ways they attract new business.
The PRCA is the representative body for lobbyists - and PR people more broadly. We compel our members to sign up to and abide by a code of conduct. To declare the identities of their clients every quarter. They all do so willingly -our agency members have been doing so for at least a decade. So when anybody says to you 'lobbyists love secrecy', you can tell them that they are flatly wrong.
We have some serious doubts about this Bill. Let me specify them:
The Register will cover only an incredibly narrow number of consultancies. All in-house practitioners, trade bodies, charities and trade unions are excluded. Equally, the majority of consultancies will be excluded, because....
You have to register only if you lobby directly Ministers or Permanent Secretaries. Very very few agencies do that. This is going to be a *tiny* register, much smaller than our existing one.
It will, though, be an expansive register -half a million to establish. £300,000 a year to run. For a register that will be smaller and contain less detail than the one that exists already (and will continue to exist), that is quite an achievement.
Here's what we suggest instead, and what we've been suggesting for several years now:
Adopt the watertight and comprehensive definition of lobbying we gave to the Government over a year ago. It would work and have credibility.
Create a register that includes all lobbyists rather than, say, a dozen.
Reform the culture of Parliament - don't forget that not one of the lobbying 'scandals' in the press over the past few years have involved any actual lobbyists. Politicians, yes. Journalists pretending to be lobbyists, no. Real lobbyists? Absolutely not.
Now that would be a lobbying bill worthy of the paper it was written on.