In January the Government began a consultation on plans to set up a register of lobbyists and public affairs professionals in the UK. The document, Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists, was unsurprisingly met with criticism from both sides. The Independent called it a green light for business as usual. On the other side, people in the industry were critical of the proposals for adding an unnecessary and unfair administrative burden on the industry. This has continued and for a consultation process (where people’s responses are usually fairly predictable) it’s been really interesting and sometimes surprising seeing what people have to say.
Before we get started it should be pointed out that the answer to what the lobbyist register might mean for charities is potentially nothing. It may mean nothing because there’s a question in the consultation asking whether or not charities should be included in the register at all. If the Cabinet Office decides that charities are best left out of the register then this blog will lose all of its little value and I’ll swiftly disown it.
If we are included (and that’s a big if) then our inclusion will be fairly limited. The consultation itself points out the Australian register for lobbyists has a range of exclusions for charities but still includes them. The big ‘if’ around charity inclusion is getting bigger as the consolation continues, with NCVO changing their position this week at a the Hansard Society. NCVO had originally welcomed charity inclusion saying that they think charities ‘should be subject to the same rules as…multi-client lobbying agencies’. On Wednesday night Sir Stuart Etherington, NCVO’s chief executive, said that, because the Government’s final proposal had been watered down in the face of feedback from the private-sector, “there is no rationale for charities to be part of it.”
But what might inclusion, even limited, mean for those of us working in public affairs? After all a consultation’s proposals aren’t written in stone. Well, at the most basic level we’ll have to put out name and job title on a list somewhere. While agencies might be forced to declare their clients, as a charity that engages in lobbying your organisation might be made to declare your sources of funding.
Importantly, the register will not force people to register meetings between individual ministers and lobbyists as the government feel ‘details of meetings between ministers and third parties are already published regularly’ enough. There will not be a statutory code of conduct and the reporting/monitoring responsibilities this would bring, not that this would give us any cause for concern in the charity sector!
We’ll have to wait and see what comes out of the consultation and what responsibilities they might bring with them. But the sector shouldn’t be too worried about the register, especially with inclusion looking less likely by the day, and in any case it will be up to the, very capable, larger charities to help the smaller ones understand what they’ll have to do (if anything).
For more on NCVO’s position and to hear the range of other views, then you can listen to a recording of Wednesday’s great Hansard Society event here: vimeo.com/HansardLobbyingEvent