Richard Ritchie: In-house, employee lobbyists are different

19 Apr

Richard Ritchie is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.

When I looked after BP’s UK Government Affairs team – and I did the job throughout the Blair, Brown and Cameron years – I never liked the word ‘lobbyist’. Though I realise that, to many people, that’s what we were. But while it was our job to advance BP’s interests within Whitehall, we performed this role entirely differently from a paid lobbyist acting for various clients ‘for hire’. Amidst the current controversy, it is a great mistake to assume that by requiring in-house employee lobbyists to register, anything beneficial would be achieved. In-house lobbyists are a different breed.

I always thought we were more akin to civil servants than lobbyists. Often, our most important advice was offered internally, and our main role was to understand the political dimensions of any commercial decision and advise our managers accordingly. Although most businessmen think they understand politics, those at the top very seldom do. They tend to resemble disgruntled and angry members of a golf club who are convinced that, if only they were running the country, all would be well. Such people never liked to be warned that a commercial decision might attract political criticism. Their conviction that the action was rational, and in the shareholders’ interests, was sufficient justification. But the internal lobbyist’s job was to advise senior management that this wasn’t necessarily the case, and this required someone with political rather than commercial instincts.

This could mean telling senior managers they were mistaken, rather like an external lobbyist informing a client that he is wrong and wasting his money. If that means losing the client, an external lobbyist might think twice before giving such advice. Maybe that happens sometimes. But it’s more likely that a lobbyist will go along with what the client wants, even though it may be unrealistic and politically naïve. Proffering such advice could be difficult for the in-house lobbyist too, especially when the budget of the Government Affairs department is seen as an additional cost by those engaged in profit-making activities. Occasionally, one heard of the concept of ‘lobbying-for-profit’ as a means of justifying the commercial existence of a government affairs department to those who were sceptical of its role. But I always felt that the greatest service I might have performed for BP was to help avoid (or mitigate) costly political mistakes, rather than add directly to shareholders’ dividends.

That is why sometimes our best advice was to “do nothing.” Because we weren’t client-driven, it was much easier for us to give internal advice which might be unpopular with our bosses but which was politically realistic. Our jobs did not depend on ‘winning business’ from outside, but rather on retaining the respect of those whom we advised internally. Like civil servants, we were there to point out the dangers, but also to offer suggestions on how best to steer through commercial decisions which might be politically sensitive.

Sometimes, we were required to fulfil an advocacy role. There are always instances when amending legislation or reducing a tax will benefit a company or industry. But when this was required, the manager or director concerned normally had greater credibility with the Government than any lobbyist. Or rather, the director became the lobbyist, which raises another flaw in the requirement for employee lobbyists to be registered. In the case of a company like BP, would the CEO have to sign up to the lobbyist register? Invariably he or she is the person who will convey the important messages, not the ‘lobbyist’ who advises and frames them.

Moreover, it’s a two-way exchange. For example, when I was at BP, North Sea taxation was a contentious issue for any Chancellor and the subject of numerous reviews and consultations. My impression was that the Treasury wanted to speak to oil companies as much as oil companies wished to speak to the Treasury. However much our interests may have diverged, it was never in the Government’s interest to devise complicated legislation without a technical understanding of the effect it would have on commercial decisions to develop, or not to develop, the North Sea. The Treasury and other Government departments were just as likely to seek out BP’s views, as BP was likely to wish to communicate them. My experience was that it was best to acknowledge when our interests didn’t coincide, and simply to explain how a piece of proposed legislation would affect us.

For the oil industry, perhaps the area where most suspicion existed was over climate change and the need for ‘green’ policies. Companies differed in their approach. In those days, Exxon was the most sceptical of the need to curtail fossil fuel development, while BP under John Browne was championing ‘Beyond Petroleum’. This was as much about strategic direction as image, and clearly it had an impact upon how the respective companies advanced their positions to government. But neither company was secretive about its position. And I know that both positions were fully debated within their own companies in which the respective Government Affairs Departments were engaged. But ultimately it was the CEO who decided and advanced the case to government – and no register of interests would have made any difference as it was already public knowledge where the companies stood.

When David Cameron spoke of lobbying as the next big scandal to happen, he was referring rightly to the lack of transparency prevailing at the time. It is easy for the issue of lobbying to become confused with freedom of information, and the extent to which private conversations between the Chairman of a large company and government have a right to be kept confidential. If David Cameron had been required to register as an in-house’ lobbyist, it’s unclear what practical difference this would have made. If a company hires a senior politician or civil servant once they leave the public sector, there is no secret why it does so. It wishes to benefit from that person’s experience both of issues and people. It will probably be more effective if the person in question is simply paid directly for his services, rather than as the recipient of future share options. That, again, is a different issue.

But for the lobbying industry as a whole, away from the famous personalities, there is a distinction between those who do the work openly as an employee of a private company and those who work for a range of clients, sometimes beneath the radar. If it is to become a requirement for any employee of a company who speaks to the Government to register as a lobbyist, it will be hard to escape the reality that “we are all lobbyists now.”

Francis Ingham: It simply won’t do that Cameron wasn’t covered by lobbying rules that he himself introduced

9 Apr

Francis Ingham is Director General of the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA). He is a former Conservative Councillor on the London Borough of Enfield.

The recent media coverage of David Cameron lobbying Ministers on behalf of Greensill show us one thing: that the Lobbying Act he introduced is unfit for purpose and needs fundamental reform.

Let’s be clear: Cameron did nothing illegal or indeed improper. He was perfectly compliant with the Lobbying Act – as a part-time, in-house lobbyist, he was under no obligation to register with the Office of the Registrar of Consultants Lobbyists (ORCL) that he created when Prime Minister.

In fact, he was legally barred from registering with them. And that’s the whole point: the Lobbying Act is so narrow in scope that it legally excludes the majority of the lobbying industry.

If you work for a public affairs consultancy, you must declare those clients for whom you have lobbied Ministers directly every quarter. But if you lobby and are on the payroll of a multinational, a charity, a trade union, or a business group, you are excluded from the Lobbying Register. By law, you cannot join it.

There is a real irony here: the lobbying industry, represented by the PRCA, favours greater legally binding transparency than the Government is willing to introduce.

For years, we argued in favour of a broad-based, detailed Lobbying Act, and we commend ORCL, the body which enforces it, for the good work that it is doing. But its scope clearly should be widened to include all of those who lobby rather than just third-party advocates. And we’ve said so from the beginning, for example here on ConservativeHome, almost a decade ago:

All of our members declare all of their clients and all of their staff every quarter. They declare if those staff hold constituency-level political office, for example as an officer of an Association. They declare if they are councillors. If the industry’s voluntary register requires this level of disclosure, why shouldn’t the Government one? The contrast is stark.

Lobbying is a vital part of democracy because it helps Ministers to base their decisions on evidence – to understand the viewpoints, opinions, and livelihoods of the people and the industries whom they regulate. But in order for the public to have confidence in the political system, lobbying must be transparent.

So while the Lobbying Act was a step forward, it could most certainly be improved. Here are three simple and easy changes:

  • Its scope should be widened to include all of those who are paid to lobby at any point during that quarter, rather than just third-party advocates. How can it be right that if the TUC or the CBI hire a public affairs agency, that must be disclosed. But if they lobby the Government directly, that can remain a secret?
  • Its scope should also be deepened to cover interactions with Special Advisers and senior civil servants. If you can escape the provisions of the Act by texting a Minister’s SPAD instead of sending the Minister a letter in the post, then the Act is patently flawed.
  • Those who lobby should be held accountable to an externally-enforced Code of Conduct than compels them to publish their full list of public affairs clients. They shouldn’t be allowed to say ‘We have our own Code. We police ourselves’ as too many ORCL registrants do right now.

And here’s the rub -the lobbying industry will welcome being subject to greater scrutiny. It won’t push back or fight the proposals. It will welcome them.

When Cameron stood up in 2010 in the St Stephen’s Club in Westminster (whose Chairman was, ironically, a lobbyist) and said that “Lobbying is the next big scandal waiting to happen,” my industry disagreed. It had embraced effective self-regulation already. Every lobbying scandal involved no lobbyists: just ex-Cabinet Ministers who wanted to become part-time lobbyists. And by way of evidence I’d cite Messrs Hoon, Byers, and Rifkind.

But the industry welcomed the Lobbying Act, while asking the Cameron Government to go further and to be more ambitious. The time to be more ambitious is most definitely now.

When a former Prime Minister lobbying Ministers who are his former colleagues is not covered by the Lobbying Act that he himself introduced in order to uphold public confidence in the democratic process, then it is surely obvious that the Act is not for for purpose.

The patent absurdity of a Lobbying Act which excludes the majority of lobbyists means that it simply will not last. It will be changed by some Government, at some point, because it needs to be. So why not make that change now? A Conservative Government introduced the Act. A Conservative Government should improve it.

Gareth Lyon: We need a Public Sector Neutrality Act to rein in politicisation

8 Jan

Gareth Lyon is a former councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.

The institutions which we fund through our taxes, and the people who work in them, should be politically neutral. No one should be required to provide financial support to political causes with which they disagree. No one employed in a public body should be able to use that body or their position to advance their own political agenda. Taxpayer funded bodies should use their funds to carry out the work they were commissioned to do – not to lobby for further taxpayer funding.

Four statements which should be utterly uncontroversial, and to which the vast majority of the population would be likely to agree, and yet which are roundly ignored at all tiers of Government in the UK.

From the BBC to the police, from the NHS to teachers, from local government to quangos, and throughout central government and those charities which are largely dependent on taxpayer funding, there is not just an acceptance that certain political agendas can and should be pursued both by individuals and by the institutions themselves – but also a blindness that there could possibly be anything wrong with such behaviour.

As well as wasting time and money, and putting many capable people off working in the public sector, there is also a deep and worrying injustice in our own institutions being politicised in such a way to advance causes which often do not command the democratic support of the majority in this country. This is damaging to trust and the integrity of our state as a whole and undermines the fundamental belief in institutional impartiality without which no modern democracy can function.

That is why we need a Public Sector Neutrality Act to reign in the politicisation we are seeing and to help restore trust in our Government. Some of this Act would codify the requirements for neutrality which do already exist in a piecemeal fashion around our institutions or which have remained unwritten until now; in the way that much of our constitution was before the actions of misguided reformers made this necessary. Other provisions will deal with fresh challenges which emerged in recent years and which have not yet received sufficient attention.

As a starting point I would suggest that four elements would be:

  • A ban on the use of positions within publicly funded organisations to promote political viewpoints. This is something which the new BBC regime has started to indicate an understanding of. There is a particularly nauseating form of caveating which goes on in Twitter biographies and elsewhere, where a person states their employer and their position in a respected publicly funded organisation then seeks to weasel out of professional accountability by stating “all views my own” or something similar. These transparent attempts to borrow the credibility of their employer and the position they are entrusted with is a very visible form of politicisation and is particularly dangerous because it chips at the margins of professional neutrality. It is, however, the margins which are best served by clear lines. Such behaviour needs to be banned.
  • A ban on taxpayer funded lobbying. The TaxPayers’ Alliance estimates that between 2017 and 2019 the UK Government funded lobbying organisations opposed to Government policy to the tune of nearly £40 million. This is however the tip of the iceberg. We also need to take into account the funding provided by organisations which themselves are largely government funded to lobbying organisations, think tanks or campaign groups and to funding provided by local government. We then need to look at the funding which these bodies spend on professional lobbyists – either directly employed under a variety of titles, or through public affairs agencies and the amount of senior leadership time which is spent in such lobbying. It is fundamentally wrong for the taxpayer to bankroll one body they are forced to fund, to lobby another body they are forced to fund, in favour of its own institutional agenda. This has a distorting effect on Government policy, is incredibly wasteful of taxpayer funding, and has a significant drag effect on Government energy and decision-making as it is forced to in effect, spend precious time and energy talking to itself.
  • A ban on publicly funded organisations supporting political organisations or campaigns. A tighter definition of political organisations and campaigns is needed to ensure that publicly funded organisations do not contribute funding, or signal their support for organisations which have political aims. Recent examples of where public sector organisations have clearly overstepped the line include police forces becoming supporters of Stonewall, and local authorities and numerous senior officials in central Government signalling their support for Black Lives Matter. These are both clearly organisations with political aims and positions and should be regarded as just as much of an issue as one of these organisations or figures declaring their support for a political party would be – with obvious implications for the level of trust people with different political views can have in such bodies.
  • A more extensive set of restrictions on public sector employees holding positions in political parties. This may be the most contentious of these proposals but is surely a logical extension of restrictions which are already widely accepted. There are whole arms of the British state – such as the Armed Forces, where those employed are barred from holding political office or office in political parties. There are others, such as local Government and the civil service, where employees below a certain level of seniority are permitted to do so. The logic seems to be that such people are not in senior enough positions for any political bias to be either visible or concerning. If this has ever been the case it is surely not now.

An IT technician, a media officer, a lawyer or even a policy officer will potentially find themselves in positions where they have access to politically sensitive materials. As people can hold these roles at relatively junior levels it is only right that the restrictions should apply. At a time when it is becoming easier than ever to leak politically sensitive matters, and when the political leanings of staff may be more apparent than ever through social media, such a move would certainly increase confidence amongst the elected politicians they work with and for.

This is not an exhaustive list – clearly many others will have ideas for areas where the causes of trust, transparency, and fairness in public life need urgent protection.