As the chair of the APPC part of my remit is to defend the reputation of lobbying. Unfortunately, far too often myself and my predecessors have found ourselves having to intervene following revelations about the behaviour, not of lobbyists but the very people we seek to influence: parliamentarians. It seems that from time to time a small number of MPs – apparently not content with being ‘just’ legislators – decide to broaden their CVs, taking on paid lobbying work as well.
Two such cases of MPs deciding to try their hand at lobbying have emerged over the past couple of months. The first concerned veteran MP Barry Sheerman. A few weeks ago the Lobbying Registrar forced him to formally submit an entry as a lobbyist. Mr Sheerman had been receiving funds through Policy Connect. In his defence he was giving all the money he was paid straight to charity (and he declared that too) but the point is he was technically paid to do work that most of us would consider to be lobbying. There isn’t any ambiguity: he was acting as a third-party lobbyist.
Then there’s the Conservative MP James Duddridge, who has been in the headlines recently after accepting a lucrative contract with a communications firm whose work includes, yes, lobbying. Whilst I accept that Duddridge may well have done nothing technically wrong, the firm – Brand Communications – whose focus is working in Africa, did however declare on its website that the MP’s “appointment will greatly enhance our ability to advise our clients in real time on Brexit developments.” And what if Brand Communications picked up a client that wanted to influence UK lawmakers? I assume they would make sure Mr Duddridge was in no way involved in any of that work, but let’s face it, it quickly becomes a pretty murky territory. Surely it is better for every MP who wants to earn additional outside income to do anything but work as a third-party paid lobbyist?
All in all, it gives off that whiff of insider knowledge. The work of lobbying and legislating are of course deeply intertwined. Both are part of the same process of policy-making, but it’s vital that there’s a separation between the people involved on each side.
I know a lot of MPs – and without exception they have gone into politics for the right reasons. Their primary concern is their electors and their country. However, in the minds of some, MPs being paid to lobby would bring into question what I know in the vast majority of cases to be true for all parliamentarians. It dents confidence in our Parliamentary system, even if no wrong doing has taken place. Why take the risk? Lobbying plays a vital role in the creation of good legislation. Undermining it chips away at public perceptions about what lobbying and communications is about, which in turn risks creating serious long-term challenges to the credibility of our industry, and by association to good law-making.
The APPC will continue to bang the drum for ethical lobbying to remind anyone and everyone who will listen about what we do to ensure that our members comply with exacting standards when they lobby UK institutions. Just in case we haven’t got through: APPC member firms cannot hire a sitting MP or peer. Period. No member firm consultants can hold a parliamentary pass. Ever. All our member firms have to declare all their clients and any all party groups they support on a quarterly basis. By ensuring that our members uphold these – and many other – requirements it not only gives confidence to the general public that policy is not being made somehow by stealth but it means that policy-makers that we meet can be confident that our engagements and activities are transparent and clear. Of course not all third-party lobbyists are members of ours and we’d like that to change. If you’re a third-party lobbyist and you’re not a member of ours, email me at email@example.com and I’ll tell you what you need to do to be considered for membership.
Lobbying is a vital part of our democracy. When stories emerge about MPs being paid to lobby, the heart sinks. I can just sense where the conversation will turn in the pub on Friday evening.