Lobbying is back in the headlines again, and this time the story is about whether the company of Tory election strategist-in-chief Lynton Crosby might have brought about a U-turn in Government policy on tobacco packaging by lobbying on behalf of clients in the tobacco industry. The timing could not be much more unfortunate for the Prime Minister, who this week will finally unveil plans for a register of lobbyists and now faces calls to sack Mr Crosby and questions about his influence on the Government’s eleventh-hour change of heart.
This is the latest in a long line of bad headlines for lobbying, although there is something of an irony in that this latest one actually involves lobbyists rather than undercover journalists. That said, for all the bad press these stories – most of which have actually focused on standards of behaviour in Parliament – have generated for the public affairs industry, if they ensure that a register of lobbyists is finally introduced then they will have served a purpose. The danger now is that the Government’s proposals do not go far enough, particularly if it only covers public affairs and lobbying companies (rather than the professionals working in-house) and is not accompanied by a statutory code of conduct.
There should, and in fact has to be, transparency in the democratic political process. Lobbying and public affairs has an important role to play in ensuring that decision makers are aware of all points of view and are informed of the potential problems and solutions for what they are doing as part of a constructive dialogue with the groups affected by those decisions. But there are admittedly opportunities for less than honourable behaviour. A register could and should ensure the necessary transparency, but only if it applies to all public affairs and lobbying professionals – and is underpinned by a statutory code of conduct that sets and enforces clear rules. Anything less won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on.