Last week saw the second reading of the Government's Lobbying Bill. Amid much outrage from unions and campaigning charities about Part Two of the Bill, the debate about consultant lobbyists and Part One received less attention than usual. But last week was nevertheless an important moment in the life of this Part of the legislation.
On Thursday the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, led by Graham Allen MP, published its report on the Bill. It castigated all Parts of the legislation, and said rightly that it should be withdrawn and redrawn. In other words, back to the drawing board.
In particular, the Committee argued, the definition of those required to declare as consultant lobbyists under Part One is seriously defective. The Committee is of course right about this, as I've commented before and as I said in my evidence. But what it recommends instead is also pretty defective too.
In simple terms the Committee has made two significant proposals: first, that 'lobbyists' should include those who work in-house; and second, that the definition should be extended to cover all those who offer advice about how to lobby, as well as those who directly lobby Government. In this respect it has swallowed and followed the advice of many in our industry and elsewhere who have called for exactly this. These ideas seem reasonable, right? But they are not.
At this point we need to take a step back. What is the register of lobbyists intended to achieve? In fact, what is the most that it can achieve? At the moment the register is simply there to promote transparency - to ensure that at the moment that lobbying takes place the person being lobbied knows on whose behalf he or she is being lobbied. The register is not there to record every meeting, the agenda of every meeting, or anything like that. If you want that, simply extend the Ministerial meetings register (and publish it regularly and on time). The register is a very limited proposal, and the Committee doesn't propose any change in that regard. This is crucial.
Therefore, there is no point in forcing in-house lobbyists to register, because it will achieve nothing. It is self-evident who in-house lobbyists work for because, er, they work in-house. What would appear on the register? That in-house lobbyist at Company A works for Company A? What is the point of that?
And what about covering advice on lobbying. There is a practical concern here: where does this stop? What if one person casually says to another in the course of a meeting: "That's terrible. You should write to your MP" - is that 'lobbying advice'? What's the threshold? And even if you overcome the practical problem there is a point of principle. The concern, if there is a concern at all, is about the allegedly malign influence of lobbying on politics and political decision-making. It is all about contact - not advice given 'upstream'. Lots of people give advice. Let's not sweep them into a register - we should stay focused on what the issues really are.
Much better to focus on that point of contact. There is a good argument to be made that every contact - however innocuous - with elected politicians, public officials, special advisers and so on should count as 'lobbying', because there may be a perception that something might be said or done at that moment of contact . And so everyone who makes those contacts on behalf of others should be required to declare their clients. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. Consultancies, lawyers, management consultants, think tanks, trade bodies. Everyone. That would be simple. It would be fair. It would be easy to achieve. So let's do it.
And once we've done that, let's apply some minimum standards. No commercial relationship with the people being lobbied. And no holding Parliamentary or other official passes, even if you are a former MP. In other words, no preferential access. Again, easy to achieve.
If the Government brings forward amendments to make these changes it can still create a worthwhile lobbying register. It'll be quite limited, but at least it will be better than what we have now, rather than worse. It may be too late to improve the rest of the Bill, but Part 1 is not beyond redemption. Now's the time to act.