People crossing in Central London, near the Big Ben.

The Government’s approach to foreign lobbyists suggests wider reform is needed

By Max Sugarman.

Earlier this week, the Queen’s Speech saw a raft of legislation announced for the coming Parliamentary term, including proposals for a new National Security Bill. According to the Times, the new Bill could include “a foreign influence registration scheme, giving the Government the power to deport spies and lobbyists who fail to declare their presence in the UK”.

Given the war in Ukraine and concerns over the influence of the Russian Government in the UK’s political system, a new Bill to register foreign lobbyists should be welcomed. After all, the public have a right to know when and how foreign governments seek to influence policy, particularly when it comes to matters of national security. Plus, more transparency and understanding of how decisions are made in Parliament can only be a good thing for democracy.

A foreign lobbying register is not a new idea, with the US having required companies representing foreign governments to register their work through the Foreign Agents Registration Act since 1938. Australia, similarly, has the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme which was established in 2018.

Yet, whilst a new foreign lobbying register is a positive step, it highlights a rather haphazard approach by the Government to lobbying in the UK. Currently, if you’re a consultant lobbyist, you are legally required to sign up to the UK Register of Consultant Lobbyists, yet there is no such requirement for inhouse lobbyists. Many Public Affairs professionals work within businesses, charities and trade unions, making up a significant part of the industry. Whilst many sign up to voluntary registers run by the CIPR and PRCA, there are many that don’t.

Getting this right is important, as without proper transparency over lobbying, we leave the Public Affairs sector open to more scandals and attack. We only have to look at the recent Greensill saga involving former Prime Minister David Cameron – who claimed he did not need to be on the Government’s lobbying register as he was working inhouse – to see how the current rules aren’t fit for purpose. If we want to have a thriving and growing Public Affairs industry, which contributes to a democratic policy-making process, it needs to be fully transparent and open.

The details of the foreign lobbying register are yet to be published, and the CIPR will certainly be keeping an eye on what the new legislation means, as and when it is produced. However, new rules for foreign lobbyists clearly begs the question of why we aren’t capturing all lobbying activity in the UK too, whether inhouse or agency. Surely now is the time for greater reform.

Max Sugarman is Chair of the CIPR’s Public Affairs Group.

Image by LeoPatrizi on iStock

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