FRIDAY 16 JUN 2023 3:06 PM


Jon Gerlis, head of public relations and policy at The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), explains why he believes bringing greater transparency to Parliamentary lobbying practices is a matter of urgency, amid the PR body's 'Lobbying for Good Lobbying' campaign.

When Conservative MP Scott Benton was filmed undercover offering to break lobbying rules for what turned out to be a fictitious company, he did so by suggesting he could offer something that a PR firm could not. He could, in his words, offer “the direct ear of a minister”, something he claimed to have done many times before for other – presumably actual – businesses. In questioning the value of PR firms and attempting to talk down the value of a whole industry, he largely succeeded in damaging his own reputation.

As tempting as it is to point out that this is yet another lobbying scandal that doesn’t involve a lobbyist, the fact is that for every MP that offers advocacy services for payment, there is a business at the other end of the line asking for it. The public do not distinguish between professional lobbyists and others who seek to influence our politics and, as long as there are questions about the relationship between them and parliamentarians, the PR industry will suffer for it.

The CIPR has long been calling for a change in laws governing lobbying because, while the public may not distinguish between types of lobbyists, the law does.

Not fit for purpose

Lobbying is an important, valuable, and necessary part of our democracy and it should be conducted with a degree of transparency and accountability. The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Act 2014 (‘the Lobbying Act’) saw the establishment of a lobbying register that, by only requiring consultancy or third-party lobbyists to be registered, succeeds in capturing about 4% of lobbying activity. A Committee on Standards in Public Life report concluded "it is too difficult to find out who is lobbying government”. Or as Sara Bristow, head of healthcomms wrote, “the legislation lets people look through the keyhole when they need to see the whole room”.

The Westminster register is an outlier when compared to other international registers – registers in the EU, US, Canada, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Romania, Peru, Mexico, Ireland, Chile and many others all capture more information than the Westminster register. This, together with recent scandals, has led to Britain slumping to its lowest-ever score in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Their report concluded;

"In recent years, lobbying scandals in Parliament and revelations of the extent of potential ministerial misconduct have further highlighted the woeful inadequacy of the systems that are supposed to protect integrity and standards in public life." 

Lobbying for good lobbying

The CIPR’s Lobbying for Good Lobbying campaign is not in response to scandals involving current or former parliamentarians – we have long been critical of the proposals in the Lobbying Bill as it was passing through Parliament, predicting at the time that it “will fail to meet the government’s own aim of increasing transparency”. We launched the campaign for two reasons. Firstly, because the PR industry understands, better than most, the importance and value of trust, accountability, and reputation. Secondly, because despite a number of recommendations to do so, the government has been silent about reforming lobbying laws.

These recommendations have come from several reports and inquiries including the government’s commissioned review by Nigel Boardman into the Greensill Capital affair where former Prime Minister David Cameron had been lobbying his former colleagues on behalf of his new ones. The government also charged the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) to investigate the effectiveness of the Lobbying Act.

But the scandals continue, and little has changed. That is why the CIPR published a new report – ‘The Never-Ending Scandal’. Partnering with Policy Mogul, the report explored Parliament’s appetite for lobbying reform by using web-scraping technology to see how often it has been raised in both Houses.

It found that one in eight MPs has raised the issue of reforming lobbying laws since the last election in December 2019. However, mentions appear to rocket in the wake of front-page scandals and then quickly drop again after. There is also a disproportionate amount of attention from parliamentarians about lobbying from foreign bodies compared to those lobbying from within our own borders.

The report includes exclusive public polling of over 2,000 members of the public commissioned by the CIPR. Its findings make for stark reading for MPs and, ahead of an election, prospective MPs. It revealed that 62% of the public is familiar with the string of lobbying scandals with 75% saying scandals make them less confident in the political system.

Urgent reform is needed

Given the mounting public concern, high-profile scandals, and the number of reports and inquiries published in recent years on this matter, it is simply not good enough that so few MPs are actively addressing the issue of lobbying. Instead, we have legislation that works for no one whilst reform is just being endlessly kicked down the road. 

Parliamentarians understand the importance of building trust with the public and their constituents but appear unwilling to do anything to about it. Rebuilding public trust and should be right up there with public services, education, and the economy.