APPC Gives Evidence to Standards of Conduct Committee (Wales)

A summary of the APPC's evidence to the Standards of Conduct Committee (June 13th):

Inquiry into lobbying – evidence session 6

The committee was joined by Mark Glover – Chair of the APPC; and Cathy Owens – Welsh Member of the APPC Management Committee.

Jayne Bryant (Newport West)(Lab) asked the witnesses to outline their views on a statutory register. Mark Glover said the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) is very much in favour of transparency around all activities to do with lobbying. But he questioned whether a statutory register is needed, arguing that the case has yet to be made. Mr Glover said the publication of ministerial diaries goes a long way to providing transparency around key decisions. He stressed that if the Assembly introduces any kind of register, it must create a level playing field. Cathy Owens, who is also a director of Deryn Consulting Ltd, said there is a thriving – but very small and very niche – industry of public affairs consultants in Wales. She told the committee that Deryn has chosen to be a member of the APPC because it has a very strong code of conduct. Ms Owens said that one of the strengths of the APPC is that there is a very strong independent assessment process that goes along with the code of conduct. She stressed that Deryn is already a member of a voluntary register.

Ms Bryant then asked for an outline of how many members lobby ministers and AMs. Mr Glover said the APPC covers 75-80 organisations, covering about 80% of the practising political consultants in the UK. He said that all members must publish on a quarterly basis who within their organisation has carried out any public affairs activity and which clients they have engaged with. Mr Glover said there is a relatively broad definition of any activity that could be construed as lobbying. He said that it is very different with the UK’s statutory register and it is much more in line with the planned register in Scotland. Ms Owens said that in terms of Wales some of the 75-80 organisations will be operating on a UK-wide basis. She said there are also around 6-7 members who operate in Wales in the main and, equally, another 6-7 registered companies are not members of the APPC.

Asked about Public Affairs Cymru’s proposal for a voluntary register, Mr Glover said he believes that the APPC’s register and code of conduct is the gold standard. He said that any complaint is independently investigated by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution and the results are published on the APPC’s website. Ms Glover, who is also Chief Executive of Newington Communications, said APPC members have not been involved in any lobbying scandal since around the turn of the century. He said good self-regulation and independent adjudication is the key to ensuring that public affairs professionals know the rules and abide by them.

Ms Bryant then asked about the sanctions involved for any breaches of the code of conduct, and how many sanctions have occurred. Mr Glover said he would be happy to write to the committee to provide the precise numbers. However, he said that during his year in office one serious complaint has been investigated and the sanction was the full publication of its findings. Mr Glover said the sanctions range from having to pay for the costs of an investigation to losing membership. He told the committee that most public affairs companies are very concerned about their reputation, so being kicked out of the APPC is a very big issue. Mr Glover said that the APPC has introduced rules to prevent members employing anyone who has a parliamentary pass. He said a number of members were ennobled, so were sitting as a legislator while employed by a public affairs company as a lobbyist. He told AMs: “We said that wasn’t acceptable and all the organisations […] challenged their members of staff to give up their pass or did not retain them in a public affairs capacity – I think that’s the strength of having an effective, independent self-regulatory organisation.”

Asked about the evidence from SpinWatch and Unlock Democracy, which suggested that voluntary registers are ineffective, Mr Glover said that the two organisations are “at the top of the game as far as lobbyists go”. He said the APPC has had its code of conduct for 20 years and its membership has increased over that time. Mr Glover said the APPC is well regarded and its quarterly register is regularly used by journalists as a source of information. He said the fact that none of its members has been caught up in a lobbying scandal since 2000 shows the effectiveness of self-regulation.

Llyr Gruffydd (North Wales)(PC) asked if MPs have asked whether members are on the voluntary register before accepting an invitation to meet. Mr Glover said there has been a small number but politicians are aware that APPC members are not allowed to have parliamentary passes and that has been welcomed. He said the APCC wants to see clear blue water between the lobbyists and the legislators. Mr Glover said the APPC wrote to all AMs earlier this year to outline its role and encourage AMs to challenge people they are meeting to see if they are signed to any code of conduct.

Picking Mr Glover up on his comments that the case for a statutory register has not been made, Mr Gruffydd asked whether the Standards Committee has a duty to guard against any future lobbying scandal. Mr Glover said the case has not been made because self-regulation has worked to effectively to date. He said the APPC is not opposed to a statutory register but it does not feel that there is a need for it. Mr Glover suggested that AMs should wait to see what happens with the new Scottish register first. He urged the committee not to start from scratch if it does decide to introduce a statutory register, pointing out the danger of duplicity. Ms Owens said the outcomes could be tested. She told the committee that AMs’ diaries could be taken as a sample over the next three months to compare with what would happen had there been a statutory register, for example. She said that 90% of people in AMs’ diaries would not necessarily be captured by a statutory register.

Asked about the Westminster and Scottish models, Mr Glover said the UK statutory register was set up in response to the publication of ministerial diaries to make it clear who third-party lobbyists are representing. He said it was expected that 600 or 700 people would sign up but the reality is that it has only been about 128. Mr Glover said it is an ineffective system because it does not capture any of the in-house lobbyists who make up about 90%-plus of lobbyists. He warned that its effectiveness has not been tested to date, saying he is unaware of any fines being levied other than for very minor administrative changes. Mr Glover said public affairs and lobbying is critical to the political process and a statutory register may put some people off. He said that the Lobbying Act as a whole has created a lot of uncertainty about what is allowed. Mr Glover argued that the publication of ministerial diaries and freedom of information requests provides enough transparency.

Asked whether lobbying should be defined by activity rather than by organisation, Ms Owens agreed but she said it will be quite tricky to do. Ms Owens warned: “You don’t want to be spending a million pounds’ worth of public money on a bill to find out that Anne and the WWF is lobbying on environmental matters and that I might be meeting the odd Assembly Member now and again.” She asked what proportion of all of meetings of an AM, for example, would be covered by the statutory register. Ms Owens said that a relatively simple statutory register would include herself and members of Public Affairs Cymru (PAC) but it probably wouldn’t go much further. Mr Glover agreed that lobbying should be defined by the process, not organisation, otherwise you end up with a situation like the UK statutory register which only targets consultants. On the question of exemptions to the statutory register, Mr Glover said he would like to see it as broad and level as possible. He said his nervousness about a statutory register is that it would weaken the effect of the APPC’s voluntary register.

David Rowland (South Wales East)(UKIP) asked who should oversee the development of a statutory register, if it was to be introduced. Ms Owens told the committee: “Firstly, I think it’s a matter for you to decide whether you are recommending to the Welsh Government that they legislate in a way that affects Welsh ministers in the way that the register is in Westminster. You also have a choice whether you deliver a register that affects Assembly Members. You then have a choice about whether it only includes consultant lobbyists, which I would say is a very small number of people for whom to generate a specific piece of legislation here in Wales, then you are talking about in-house lobbyists as well – so there are some big decisions to be made.”

Ms Owens said Deryn signed up to the APPC because the company is perfectly happy to be as open as it can about what it does. She said the business would be happy to sign up to a statutory register but it needs to be proportionate and actually does what it is designed to deliver.

Mr Glover said that whatever course the Assembly decides to take, it needs to liaise very closely with the people who are already running self-regulatory registers. He warned that there is a danger of having different registers in all four corners of the UK because most lobbying campaigns are UK-wide.

Ms Owens said the independence of the process is also important. She said the APPC’s adjudication process is independent and people can be charged substantial sums for failing to comply with the code of conduct.

Asked if a fee should be charged for joining the register, Mr Glover said he could not see why lobbyists should be paying an additional level of tax. Ms Owens warned that the fees could effectively charge people for meeting Assembly Members. She said that if a west Wales charity wanted to talk to an AM about stroke services, for example, they would have to join the register.

Mr Rowland then asked about the composition of some lobbying groups with some individuals having close contact with ministers in the past. Mr Glover said APPC members cannot have a pass to the Assembly. He pointed out that in Westminster if you are an ex-minister or ex-special adviser then there is period in which you are not allowed to participate in direct lobbying. Ms Owens, a former special adviser, said that in the previous session another former special adviser appeared before AMs, asking: “Do you say to the WCVA ‘you cannot employ anybody who has any knowledge of having worked for the government’?” Ms Owens said there must be rules around recent ex-ministers and ex-special advisers but she said it must be proportionate.

Asked if contextual information needs to be published on the register, Mr Glover said that asking for too much information could be overly burdensome for people who should be engaging with politicians.