Parliamentary transparency under threat

By Emmeline Saunders

Plans to increase parliamentary transparency came under threat today as the government dismissed proposals to force lobbyists to operate visibly.

The government this morning refused to put into action a recommendation made by the public administration select committee (Pasc) to establish a compulsory register of lobbyists.

Instead the government has decided to continue with the existing system of voluntary self-regulation, which it describes as “a more proportionate and effective means of promoting transparency and standards of conduct”.

David Miller of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (ALT) said: “The government has shown it is not serious about political reform by allowing lobbyists to continue to self-regulate.

“In June, Gordon Brown said that the future was about ‘opening up areas of public life that have been too secretive’. This must include the massive and growing influence commercial lobbying has on public life.

“Asking the public to trust lobbyists to operate transparently is like asking us to trust MPs on expenses. Self-regulation is no regulation.”

The move raises concerns that the government is moving away from promises of political reform, and highlights questions about the integrity of lobbyists who refuse to operate out in the open.

Self-regulation has been in place for 15 years, but was described by Pasc as “little better than the Emperor’s new clothes”.

The lobbying industry is worth £2 billion, but some public affairs staff have been accused of operating opaquely by not disclosing their clients or employers as they are required to under self-regulation.

Francis Ingham, director-general of the Public Relations Consultation Association, dismissed the ALT’s assessment as “just plain wrong”.

“Whatever the industry does, and whatever the government does, it will never be enough for the ALT. They are the permanently dissatisfied,” he said.

Mr Ingham claimed much of what the Pasc has asked for already exists. PRCA members already identify their clients and public affairs staff.

“And as an industry, we are working steadily to reduce the number of agencies that do not embrace self-regulation -a process that is being successful,” he added.

He conceded the industry had a “last chance” to make self-regulation work, pledging to make a unified Public Affairs Council “a reality”.