The murky world of lobbying

Despite recent reforms, there are still concerns that the activities of lobbyists lack transparency and are insufficiently regulated

Wyn GrantLast month the London public relations firm Bell Pottinger appointed administrators following its expulsion from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) after a complaint by South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance. Bell Pottinger had represented the Gupta family who had been accused of the ‘capture’ of South African state institutions to benefit their companies through a friendship with President Jacob Zuma. The family and President Zuma have always emphatically denied these allegations.

The PRCA censured Bell Pottinger for fomenting ‘racial discord’ in its work representing the Guptas. The PR firm sought to divert criticism of the Guptas’ ties to Mr Zuma with a campaign that highlighted ‘economic apartheid’ and ‘white monopoly capital’ in the country. The investigation carried out by the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills stated:  ‘Members of Bell Pottinger’s senior management should have known that the campaign was at risk of causing offence, including on grounds of race. Bell Pottinger ought to have exercised extreme care and should have closely scrutinised the creation of content for the campaign. This does not appear to have happened.’

Following the expulsion, key clients left the firm including HSBC, TalkTalk, Ascential, luxury brands group Richemont and Investec. Key executives also resigned and it was clear that the UK business was no longer sustainable.

There have been concerns about Bell Pottinger’s conduct over a number of years. In 2011, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism secretly recorded some of the firm’s executives boasting of its connections at the top of UK government to journalists posting as agents for the government of Uzbekistan. Last year the Sunday Times revealed that the company’s conflict resolution division had been hired by the US military between 2007 and 2011 to orchestrate a $540m covert propaganda campaign in Iraq.

It is evident that there were internal conflicts at Bell Pottinger which affected the company’s culture and its conduct. However, the more general issue that arises is the intersection between the worlds of public relations, ‘political communications’ and outright lobbying. A ‘political communications’ firm may be hired simply to improve the image of a country or company with decision-makers, but that could feed in to policy decisions.

Commercial or contract lobbyists attract particular concern.  They are particularly used by big businesses, who can afford their substantial fees, given such businesses another advantage in the lobbying game. There are also concerns that their activities lack transparency and are insufficiently regulated. Some of them have been formed, at least in part, by former politicians or political advisers or they employ relatives of politicians. In the UK there have been a number of scandals where peers and MPs have been caught accepting money in ‘sting’ operations or lobbyists have been recorded boasting of the extent to which they can affect decision-making. For their part, lobbyists would argue that they seek to adhere to professional practices and codes of conduct, which they are prepared to enforce as in the Bell Pottinger case, and one should not generalise from particular instances of unethical conduct.

The UK’s Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 introduced a new registration system for consultant lobbyists which came into operation in March 2015. The post of Registrar was created on a part-time basis. Criticisms of the register focus on which lobbyists are included; the range of interactions that is covered; and the impact of the legislation on existing activities by public interest organizations. The register only applies to lobbyists who are available for hire. Admittedly, their activities have been the subject of particular concern. However, there are far more lobbyists who work ‘in house’, not least for firms and business organisations, as well as those representing NGOs and trade unions.

As for the range of interactions covered, lobbyists only have to name clients if they contact a minister on their behalf, even though lobbyists rarely meet with politicians on behalf of clients. Special advisors are not covered, even though they can be key persons of influence, particularly in terms of bringing an issue to the attention of ministers. Moreover, the rules do not cover interactions between lobbyists and mid-level civil servants, although these are some of the most frequent interactions in practice.

The post of Registrar is not completely toothless, however. Alison White, who has held the post since 2014, has initiated an investigation into the provision of support services to All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) of which there are over 550. The parliamentary groups have attracted criticism because of the large amounts spent on reports that often support the views of industry and which grant access to parliament for companies and lobbyists. There are concerns that lobbyists may offer secretarial facilities to the groups to gain back-door access to parliamentarians. They are clearly very popular with parliamentarians, so reforming them may not be easy. However, people may be misled into thinking that their pronouncements and reports are as objective and authoritative as those of select committees when in fact they have close links with particular interests whose claims they advance.

The Registrar met Policy Connect, a company that is the secretariat for nine all-party groups covering issues such as health, manufacturing and skills and employment. Businesses who pay to become Policy Connect’s members may attend events in Parliament which have been attended by ministers.   Private companies are asked to pay Policy Connect between £175 and £20,000 to become members of APPGs.

Policy Connect insisted that it was a social enterprise providing a service for industry experts and ministers and the antidote to lobbying, but the Registrar found that Policy Connect should be defined as a lobbying company because it was paid money by clients who are then given the opportunity to meet ministers. Subsequently, the chairman of Policy Connect, Barry Sheerman, the MP for Huddersfield, had to reluctantly register as a lobbyist.

Lobbying is seen as something that reinforces the tensile strength  and exclusivity of the Westminster bubble and widens the distance between it and the everyday lives of the majority of citizens (or ‘ordinary people’ as they are sometimes patronisingly referred to). Even despite the growing strength of campaigning and public interest lobbies, there is a concern that lobbying serves the interests of the haves at the expense of the have nots

Wyn Grant is the author of a forthcoming Manchester University Press Pocket Politics book on Lobbying: the dark side of politics.