Ask Graham Allen and he will say that the snappily titled ‘Transparency of lobbying, non-Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration Bill’ is a “dog’s breakfast”. If you ask Douglas Carswell, such an assessment is unfair – far more thought has been put into pet nutrition. Today the BBC News website has reported the concerns of TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady that the Bill is an “attack on free speech worthy of an authoritarian dictatorship”, an attack on Labour Party supporters, and could outlaw the TUC’s conference in 2014 – a suggestion the Government has been quick to deny.
The latest furore over the lobbying bill was begun by Graham Allen, who has quite rightly recalled the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee he chairs to scrutinise the legislation. What the comments of Mr Allen, Ms O’Grady and Mr Carswell all have in common is the tacit acknowledgement – albeit coming from very different perspectives – that the Bill will not succeed in addressing the problems it has been written to solve.
The problems with this piece of legislation are numerous. It is so narrow to its approach as to be blinkered, and it should be thoroughly unsurprising that law firm, public relations agencies, in-house staff whose role is lobbying, and even some agencies with public affairs capacity have fallen over themselves to explain that they will not be covered by the Bill. It applies only to discussions at the highest levels – i.e. those with Ministers and very senior civil servants. And, perhaps most revealingly of all, it would do nothing to prevent future scandals similar to those the Bill was written to prevent – scandals that did not actually involve any ‘lobbyists’.
The scrutiny of Mr Allen’s committee should be welcomed and really should ensure the brakes are applied to a Bill that is being pushed through at breakneck speed despite its many flaws. There is nothing wrong with requiring anyone whose job involves ‘lobbying’ to be subject to a professional register, but it has to apply across the board. It also needs to be backed by an enforceable code of conduct and a requirement for Ministers and civil servants beyond the upper echelons to declare their meetings with such professionals. These steps will help ensure transparency and that where businesses, representative groups and charities lobby government, it is being done in a conscientious and transparent way.
To view the Whitehouse Consultancy’s submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, please click here.