The British government has opened a consultation to introduce the first statutory register of lobbyists in Westminster, drawing on the experience of a similar transparency register in Brussels, which went online last year.
The Cabinet Office released a long-awaited public consultation on the proposed register last week (20 January), describing the initiative as an "important step towards making politics more transparent."
Mark Harper, the Conservatives’ minister for political and constitutional reform, launched the 12-week consultation, inviting views on how the register should work.
The consultation, which ends on 13 April, seeks views on issues including the definition of a lobbyist; who should be required to register; what information should be collected about them and the companies for which they lobby; and how the register should be funded.
But groups including the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency have hit out at the published plans as lacking breadth and depth, and accused the government of wanting to leave the public "in the dark" over who is trying to influence policy.
The UK initiative comes after years of debate in Brussels over an EU transparency register, which went online last year.
As in Europe, one of the key issues under discussion in the UK consultation paper relates to financial disclosure.
The EU register requires lobbying organisations or individuals to declare sources of income in bands €50,000. But the UK consultation document suggests much smaller amounts, €6,000 (£5,000). The door remains open to changing the brackets though, with interested parties invited to comment on whether these amounts are appropriate or whether they would place "an undue burden" on applicants.
Britain’s Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government committed to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists in the wake of the general election in May 2010. In its Programme for Government, published in May 2010, it said it would "regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency".
In the run-up to the 2010 general election, Prime Minister David Cameron had also described lobbying as “the next big scandal waiting to happen.”
But various recent scandals have increased the pressure on the government to speed up the register’s implementation. Those scandals included the controversy over the access to high-level meetings granted by then-defence secretary Liam Fox to his friend and advisor Adam Werritty (October 2011), and one of Britain’s best-known lobbying companies - Bell Pottinger - being secretly recorded boasting about its access to the heart of government (December 2011).
The Cabinet Office’s publication of the consultation on the register was delayed during 2011 as officials repeatedly said that the document would see the light of day "within weeks".
At the moment the UK only has voluntary registers for lobbyists, for example, those operated by the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) and the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA).
Efforts by these organisations – and a third, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) – to combine their registers into a single one overseen by the country’s fledgling UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC) have hit problems.
The PRCA last December pulled out of UKPAC in what it said was its frustration at its failure to operate a functioning register.
The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) commended that the government's consultation document for making clear that it does not want "to overburden the industry with excessive regulation." CIPR CEO Jane Wilson said: "We have long held the view that the public affairs profession has nothing to fear from a statutory register as long as it is universal, has no 'good cause' exemptions and provides a level playing field in lobbying."
In comments release ahead of the Government's consultation, the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) said the register should refrain from singling out commercial interests as "more or less legitimate than other interests".
"So that means the planned statutory register of lobbyists must include charities, unions, lawyers, trade groups, consultancies, in-house practitioners and anybody else who seeks to put a case to government in a professional capacity."
The UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC), an independent body formed by industry to manage a single register of lobbyists in the UK, said it was "delighted to welcome the government's consultation". Like APPC, UKPAC insisted that the register should capture all those involved in lobbying activities, including "management consultancies, law firms, trade associations, trade unions and charities."
UKPAC insisted on the need to have a clear definition of lobbying in order for the register to be credible. "Without a workable definition there is potential for some to operate outside the statutory register on the basis that they are 'not lobbying or lobbyists'. I expect there to be considerable debate around this."
Responding to the consultation, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (ALT), an NGO, was critical, saying the proposed statutory register had "lobbyists' fingerprints all over it".
According to ALT, the key flaw in the proposal is that the register would only cover lobbying agencies. "This would exclude the thousands of people who work in-house for large corporations, trade bodies, charities and others. This is nonsensical when in-house lobbyists outnumber lobbyists-for-hire by at least 4-to-1. It would mean, for example, a supermarket with a team of 10 in-house, full-time lobbyists wouldn't have to register, but if it temporarily took on an agency to increase its lobbying firepower, only the agency would have to register its lobbyists."
In Brussels, Natacha Cingotti from Friends of the Earth Europe (FOEE), said: "The discussions over the introduction of a mantatory register for lobbyists in the UK provide for a unique opportunity to lead by example and to set the transparency standard higher than what the EU register currently offers."
"Both at the national and the European level, a mandatory register, with high-quality data and full financial disclosure is the only way to make full transparency about who is lobbying whom, on which topics, and which channels and resources are being used to that end. The UK should not miss this occasion to provide a positive example that can further promote a mandatory approach for the EU Transparency register."
- 13 April: Consultation on the UK register closes.