There is one thing to be said for the Private Members' Bill to create a register of lobbyists which will be heard in Parliament tomorrow: at least it is being debated by MPs. Which is more than can be said for the legislation that the Coalition Government has promised it will bring forward to create its own statutory register of lobbyists.
Whilst it is disappointing that more than a year since the Cabinet Office consulted on a statutory register we're still no closer to knowing when a draft bill might appear, today's Private Members Bill is actually worth reflecting on. Although it's almost certain to go no further after its second reading tomorrow morning there are some components of it that the Government could learn from.
A successful and credible register of lobbyists depends who is included on it: the creation of a one-stop-shop detailing every practicing lobbyist working in the UK is the fundamental component which will determine whether the public take it seriously or not. So its credibility lies in being truly comprehensive and accessible: there's absolutely no point in salami slicing off certain types of lobbyists whilst including others. We know, for example, that just 1% of meetings between policy-makers and lobbyists are actually undertaken by so-called agency lobbyists - political consultants employed to represent their clients - yet we know the Government is keen to ensure these agency lobbyists make it onto a register whilst others who work so-called 'in-house' do not.
So Thomas Docherty MP's bill, quite rightly in my view, suggests creating a wider definition of lobbying to include others who lobby, not just the 1% of agency lobbyists. It says, "For the purpose of this Act "lobbying" means any activity carried out in thecourse of a business or employment which are undertaken for financial gainand are designed to influence the Government of the United Kingdom". It will be interesting to see exactly how this is interpreted by others. I would strongly argue that lobbyists from charities - some of the most active of all lobbyists - should also be included. It's unclear if Mr Docherty would support this given that he stipulates that there must be 'financial gain'. Indeed, this raises it's own problems - for example many health charities work closely with pharmaceutical companies. This is perfectly legitimate but it does mean there could be a grey area as to whether a charity is lobbying for 'financial gain' if charities' activities have been paid for by the private healthcare sector. Even so, the bill's definition seems to go wider than the Government currently intends to - although this is hardly difficult. Indeed, Unlock Democracy have said that the Government's "initial proposals last year excluded three quarters of the lobbying industry from having to register whatsoever". My Docherty's bill is a step in the right direction in this respect. It will be interesting to see what level of support it enjoys from MPs across the House.
His bill also says that "organisations and individuals which are included on the register shall,at intervals of no more than three months, provide details for the register of thenames of clients for whom they have lobbied." This also seems perfectly sensible and the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) that already run our own register and code of conduct request updates from our members' on a quarterly basis - so this precedent has been established by some industry practitioners already. Similarly, his bill's requirement that "nobody may [act] undertake lobbying who holds a pass conferring access to the Houses of Parliament" is something that all our members must adhere to. Indeed, because we operate such a stringent code to ensure propriety in lobbying of Parliament by our members I would argue that a new Code of Conduct - something he recommends - would be superfluous. But perhaps I am picking at small flaws in what is an interesting attempt to create a register of UK lobbyists.
Indeed, the APPC supports the creation of a comprehensive statutory lobbying register and the more MPs who get behind our calls for a comprehensive register the better. By shining a light on the issue I hope tomorrow's debate gets more MPs interested in the issue and championing statutory registration. I just hope that also includes the ministers in the Cabinet Office.