Should Prince Charles be on the Lobbying Register?
The short answer to this intentionally provocative question is probably ‘no’. It is right that the Prince of Wales, as heir to the throne, is kept informed about the business of government.
But this does raise questions about whether the Prince utilises the information he receives for the financial benefits of his business interests. As the Prince is not being paid by a third party to influence Government policy he would not trigger registration as defined by the Lobbying Act 2014, so how is the public to know the level of influence the Prince of Wales has on Government?
This demonstrates the fundamental flaw at the heart of the Statutory Register of Consultant Lobbyists, namely that it does not capture the vast majority of those who lobby in a professional capacity. This is not news to a lobbying industry, which has consistently and collectively made this precise point to the Cabinet Office, and is in stark contrast to proposals contained in the Lobbying Bill in Scotland that makes no distinction between commercial and in-house lobbyists.
Whilst the Prince of Wales may not trigger registration as defined by the Act, the activities of former Prime Minister Tony Blair surely would, particularly as he demonstrably has oral and written communication with Ministers of State on issues related to his paying clients. Moreover what about former MPs, particularly those who since standing down from Parliament have set up their own political consultancies but do not appear to have undertaken activities that would trigger registration thus far?
It was not a surprise to hear that the fees charged by the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists (ORCL) will increase in 2016. The Government has always insisted that the Statutory Register will be cost neutral to the taxpayer yet only 113 organisations have registered, significantly below the Cabinet Office estimate of 700. The register cost £264,000 to run in 2015 so even with the increase, taxpayers will be left facing a bill of well over £100,000 even factoring in the initial set up costs of the register. This begs the question: what will happen to the fee level if the number of registrants does not increase? Taxpayers are already paying for a register that does not shine the light of transparency on where it is needed, yet further increases in the cost to industry will have significant impact on small business and especially sole traders and freelancers.
The lobbying industry has successfully operated voluntary registers for many years that capture far more information about the activities of professional lobbyists than the statutory register ever will. At Connect, we declare some 40 clients on the APPC register for whom we undertake lobbying and public affairs activities, whereas our entry on the statutory register includes barely one fifth of that total. Indeed, many consultancies on the register declare no clients at all in some quarters, so one has to wonder at what point the Government will decide that this model of operating a register is simply not sustainable and does nothing to improve transparency?
The lobbying industry has pursued a policy of engagement ever since the Coalition Agreement of 2010 and has sought to be as helpful as possible to the Government during the passage of the Bill. Equally, industry bodies like the CIPR, PRCA and the APPC have sought to assist ORCL in launching the statutory register and making it more robust and effective. Unfortunately, as the register is based on legislation that is limited in scope and detail, it may be time for the industry to start being more assertive and challenging in our tone and approach. The industry has always welcomed greater transparency and the statutory register will simply never deliver that.
Paul Beckford is an Account Director at Connect, and is Chair of the CIPR Public Affairs Group.