Political and Constitutional Reform CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Tamasin Cave, SpinWatch


1. SpinWatch has been engaged in a programme of research into the public relations and lobbying industry in the UK and Europe since 1996. In September 2007, we established the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (ALT), a coalition of NGOs and unions—many of whom are lobby groups, including Unlock Democracy, Friends of the Earth and ActionAid—who are concerned about the growing influence of lobbying on policy-making in the UK. We were greatly encouraged by the Public Administration Select Committee’s recommendation in 2009 for a statutory register of lobbyists.

2. We therefore welcomed the commitment in the Coalition Agreement to introduce a statutory register. However, we have since been concerned by the lengthy delays in bringing forward plans, and the lack of senior ministerial ownership of the proposals. We are also increasingly concerned that the Government’s proposals have been unduly influenced by the lobbying industry, and that the Cabinet Office has sought to keep its discussions with lobbyists secret. This could lead to the conclusion it has not approached the policy with an open mind.

The Government’s Proposals for a Statutory Register

3. The Committee asks: Does the Government’s consultation paper represent a balanced approach to the idea of a statutory register? Does it contain the right questions? And which lobbying contacts are of greatest legitimate public interest?

4. We are extremely disappointed by the Government’s proposals as set out in its consultation paper Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists. We do not think that it represents a balanced approach, and have serious concerns about the very narrow framing of the issues. Partly as a consequence, there are a number of key questions that have not been raised in the consultation. We also believe that the paper contains serious errors, including in its evidence base, and is in parts misleading. Our key concerns are outlined below.

5. Two are fundamental: first, the minimal information that lobbyists would be required to declare and second, that it would only apply to a minority of lobbyists, those working for agencies.

6. First, the Government is proposing that the register should only reveal minimal details, namely who is lobbying for whom. Lobbying agencies would only be required to list the names of an agency’s individual lobbyists and the names of their clients.1

7. The reason for this approach of very minimal disclosure by a small section of the industry is justified by minister Mark Harper as follows:

Ministers already have to say who we meet. If we’ve met with outside organisations, we say we’ve met with them. So that’s very transparent… The gap is that if you meet with a lobbying company you know you’ve met with them, but if people don’t know who their clients are, they don’t know who they’re representing, then there’s a gap there, and that’s what we’ve sought to address in our proposals.(i)

8. In essence, the problem that the Government is seeking to address is one of lack of transparency in who agencies represent. The key benefit for both the lobbying industry and the Government in taking this narrow approach is that the solution mirrors the current voluntary system of registration operated by the industry, while forcing lobbying agencies that have so far stood outside the system, to join.

9. It is the register model that has long been pushed by the lobbying industry. In July 2010 it was reported that Mark Harper had given the “thumbs up” to a blueprint for a lobbying register drawn up by the industry. “It would essentially look very similar to the current APPC and PRCA registers,” one senior industry source told PR Week.(ii)

10. In January 2011, Elizabeth France, Chair of the UK Public Affairs Council, which was created by the three lobbyists’ trade bodies, described the industry’s approach as: “persuading government that what they need to do is embrace [UKPAC’s register] with a statutory hug rather than invent something else”.(iii)

11. The Government appears to have been persuaded. However, in defining the problem as simply one of a lack of transparency over agency clients in respect of ministerial meetings, the Government is both showing a gross misunderstanding of public concerns over lobbying, and misrepresenting the facts.

12. The consultation paper states in setting out the “Purpose of a Statutory Register”:

“The government already publishes quarterly information about Ministers’ meetings… But under the current system, when ministers meet lobbying firms it is not transparent on whose behalf they are lobbying.”

13. According to the website whoslobbying.com, which collates government logs of ministerial meetings, of the 5,144 meetings logged since May 2010 only about 10 were with lobbying agencies. The Government is therefore suggesting setting up a register that would address a lack of transparency relating to just a handful of ministerial meetings. The records of five of these meetings also name the agencies’ clients, along with the agency.

14. The data underlines something that lobbyists giving evidence to the PASC inquiry in 2008–09 were at pains to point out: that they do not advocate a view to a minister on a client’s behalf: “a client is their own best advocate”. In other words, it is seldom the case that ministers will meet with lobbyists without the client being present, and therefore declared.

15. The problem, narrowly defined by the Government, appears then not to exist, or could be solved much more easily: ministers should be required to log the names of specific clients represented on the occasions that they meet lobbying agencies.

16. In setting the parameters thus, the Government could be accused of willfully misrepresenting the problem in order to justify a system of absolute minimal disclosure, and one that is broadly in line with the industry’s wishes.

17. In so doing, the Government has completely misrepresented the actual purpose of a statutory register, which is ultimately to increase government accountability by allowing a degree of public scrutiny of its interactions with lobbyists. The consultation’s Impact Assessment describes the benefits to government from a register as: “greater transparency in their interactions with lobbyists, leading to greater public confidence in decision-making process”.

18. Essential to this, therefore, is information on government’s interaction with lobbyists: whom is being lobbied in government, and which policies, legislation, regulation and government contracts are being lobbied on. Without these key pieces of information the register would be a relatively meaningless list of names.

19. Under the Government’s proposals the register would include no information on lobbyists’ interaction with decision-makers. However, there is an explicit acknowledgment of this need to see what lobbyists are lobbying for in the consultation’s Impact Assessment:

The purpose of the UK register is to increase transparency by making available to the public, to decision-makers and to other interested parties authoritative and easily-accessible information about who is lobbying and on what issues. This will help ensure that those seeking to influence decisions do so in a way that is open to scrutiny, improving knowledge about the process and the accountability of those involved in it.

20. However, this critical piece of information has been deliberately taken out of the consultation paper’s description of the register’s purpose:

The purpose of the UK register is to increase transparency by making available to the public, to decision-makers and to other interested parties authoritative and easily-accessible information about who is lobbying and for whom. This will help ensure that those seeking to influence decisions do so in a way that is open to scrutiny, improving knowledge about the process and the accountability of those involved in it.

21. The consultation paper itself makes no reference to the possibility of lobbyists being required to disclose whom they are lobbying, or what they are trying to influence (other than in passing in the Annex describing disclosure systems in other countries).

22. The Alliance agrees with the Government that registration should not create an undue burden on lobbyists. However, it would be no more trouble for lobbyists (who will be in full possession of the details) to add information on issues lobbied on, than it would be to list lobbyists names, clients and whether they’ve previously held senior public office.

23. Imagine the case of outsourcing company X: It hires lobbying agency Y. This much would be recorded on a public register under the Government’s plans. How is the public to know if a firm that operates across local and central government, education, transport, health, pensions, insurance, and other sectors such as financial services, is meeting government officials to discuss government contracts (future or existing), employment, planning or tax issues, or a specific problem it is having with a regulator, such as the FSA?

24. It is not true to say, as Mark Harper did on the World at One: “If [a minister’s] meeting someone from a company, you pretty much know what that’s about.” The register must reveal who is lobbying whom in government and on what issues.

25. This leads to the second key concern we have with the Government’s proposals: its decision to exclude in-house lobbyists from the register.

26. “Should in-house lobbyists be covered?” the consultation asks before concluding: “Given that it is clear whose interests they represent, it is not evident that an extension of the register to in-house lobbyists would provide any additional transparency”.

27. In the context of a register whose purpose is limited to “providing information about who is lobbying and for whom”, this makes a degree of sense. However, in the context of a system designed to “make sure that lobbying is out in the open, it’s transparent, so that everyone knows what’s going on”, as Mark Harper described it in interview, it is a glaring omission.

28. Here, the Government appears to have distorted the figures on the number of in-house lobbyists in the UK in order to support its case for excluding them.

29. In the consultation’s Impact Assessment “Evidence Base”, the Government puts the total number of lobbyists at 1,500. It states: “Based on their definition of lobbying, UKPAC have estimated the possible coverage of a statutory register. That data suggests the register would cover… around 1,500 people engaged in lobbying.”

30. It provides a summary of UKPAC’s calculations to reach this figure:

Type of organisation

Number of organisations

Employees engaged in lobbying (total)

Public affairs specialists



Companies with in-house staff



Charities/voluntary sector






Trade associations



Law practices








According to these figures, the number of in-house lobbyists, which includes company, charity/voluntary sector, union, trade association (and possibly “others”), is between 320 and 450, fewer than half the number of agency lobbyists (“Public affairs specialists”).

31. However, these figures are significantly different from earlier calculations done by the three lobbyists’ trade bodies, which went on to form UKPAC. In May 2009 they published a paper, Towards a Public Affairs Council, which puts the total number of registered agency lobbyists on the main voluntary register at 825, broadly similar to the table above. However, it goes on to note:

A far larger contingent of lobbyists work “in-house”… That is they work directly for representative bodies, corporates, charities, NGOs and other campaigning groups.

32. Citing academic research, the industry estimates a ratio of 4:1 in-house to agency lobbyists. The figures in the consultation give a ratio of fewer than one in-house lobbyist to every two agency lobbyists.

33. The industry’s 2009 figures also put the total number of dedicated lobbyists working in the UK at between 3,500 and 4,000. This is 2,000–2,500 more than the figure in the Cabinet Office’s Evidence Base.

34. It is difficult to work out how the Government has arrived at these figures. For example, it calculates that there are 100 in-house company lobbyists working in the UK. Given that a quick search reveals that Tesco alone employs at least six in-house lobbyists (including a former member of the Downing Street Policy Unit, former private secretary to Blair, another of Blair’s closest aides, and an ex-press officer at CCHQ), this seems a gross underestimation.

35. In conclusion, according to the industry’s original figures, the Government has chosen to exclude roughly three quarters of the lobbying industry from its proposals.

36. The obvious, illogical consequence of this would be that the lobbying activity of, for example, Tesco’s well-connected in-house team would not be open to public scrutiny. But if the supermarket took on an agency to give it additional capacity, perhaps on a particular issue, the agency’s limited activity would be registered.

37. The consultation appears to justify the exclusion of in-house lobbyists by claiming that information on their lobbying is already in the public domain, through the disclosure of ministerial meetings. The consultation states:

The Government already publishes quarterly information about Ministers’ meetings. Information about which stakeholders are meeting Ministers to put forward their views on policies is therefore already in the public domain. But under the current system, when Ministers meet lobbying firms it is not transparent on whose behalf they are lobbying.

38. Disclosure of ministerial meetings provides very little transparency and cannot be used as justification for limiting the scope of the register.

39. First, it is far from clear from the descriptions given in the ministerial meeting logs what issues are being discussed: of the 5,144 ministerial meetings recorded, Over 1,100 of these meetings are reported simply as “introductory meeting/introduction”, general “catch-up” or “discussion”.

40. Second, while the consultation underlines the requirement in the ministerial code to publish, at least quarterly, details of external meetings, disclosure is often delayed. For example, the last ministerial meetings logged by the Treasury, BIS, and Mark Harper’s own department, Cabinet Office, are April-June 2011.

41. Third, it is not the case that all meetings between ministers and agencies are recorded. For example, it was recently revealed that Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles had accepted a dinner with lobbying group Bell Pottinger. Pickles said he was not required to register the dinner because he had attended in a “private” and not a “ministerial” capacity.(iv)

42. Finally, the focus on face-to-face meetings with ministers shows a misunderstanding of the nature of lobbying. It excludes approaches made to countless other public officials, such as regulators, special advisors and civil servants. Disclosure of ministerial meetings does nothing to address the lack of transparency in lobbying of other public officials.

43. The Committee asks: How should the Government deal in policy and practice with how it might be lobbied on the issue of a statutory register of lobbyists? Are you confident that the issues covered are ones on which the Government has an open mind?

44. Lobbying by the lobbying industry on the issue of a statutory register, and the way the Cabinet Office has conducted itself in regard to its discussions with lobbyists, provide compelling evidence of why a robust system of disclosure in lobbying is urgently needed, and why the Government’s proposals are inadequate. It also shows the Cabinet Office’s opposition to transparency in lobbying up to this point.

45. It’s understood that Mark Harper made the decision not to meet with outside interests to discuss the Government’s plans until the Cabinet Office had published its consultation. The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency received a letter to this effect from the minister in October 2010 in response to a request for a meeting.

I do not think at this stage in the process a meeting would be appropriate, but I look forward to receiving your contribution to our consultation, which we hope to launch in the coming months… I think it is helpful to be clear that the government intends to consult fully on proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists. We will take note of the voluntary register run by UKPAC, and no doubt UKPAC will wish to respond to the consultation paper and provide the benefit of their experience in this area.

46. However, according to minutes of an UKPAC board meeting in September 2010, Mark Harper had already given the go-ahead for regular discussions to be held between his officials in the Cabinet Office and the industry. Minutes from the meeting state:

A letter from Mark Harper to the Chairman had been received acknowledging receipt of the UKPAC’s progress and plans to date. He agreed his officials meet monthly with the [UKPAC] Secretary.(v)

47. As reported in last week’s Sunday Times,(vi) UKPAC had four meetings with Eirian Walsh Atkins, who until last week, was responsible for drafting the Government’s proposals for a statutory register. UKPAC describes its discussions with her as “productive and positive”. According to minutes from one UKPAC meeting:

Ms Walsh Atkins outlined the timetable for the introduction of legislation for a statutory register… She made clear that the Cabinet Office would be working closely with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to draft the consultation and legislative framework, including discussions on the possible sanctions for non-compliance. Ms Walsh Atkins and the Secretary will have close contact to discuss progress, meeting at least once a month.

48. It is clear from this that the Cabinet Office, and the minister specifically, have granted industry lobbyists privileged access to influence the drafting of the register, while denying access to others, including those pushing for greater transparency, until the consultation had been published.

49. However, as the Sunday Times also reported, the Cabinet Office has sought to keep its discussions with the lobbying industry secret. Walsh Atkins herself led the Cabinet Office’s rejection of a Freedom of Information request to disclose details of its contact with the industry.

50. SpinWatch has submitted a series of Freedom of Information requests to the Cabinet Office for this information. The way in which the Cabinet Office has handled the requests does not point to a department in favour of lobbying transparency.

51. It was not without irony that the Cabinet Office initially refused to disclose information on its dealings with lobbyists. In December 2011, the Information Commissioner ruled in favour of disclosure, some 17 months after the request was first submitted. In the year and a half that the Cabinet Office fought to block the release of information, it broke ICO guidance on the time it took to process the request (its internal review process took five months instead of 20 working days), it was threatened with contempt of court proceedings by the ICO (for not providing the commissioner with the information necessary to make a judgement), and was found in breach of the Act (for withdrawing its original exemptions and applying a second set of late exemptions without informing the requestor).

52. Despite the ICO’s ruling, the Cabinet Office is blocking disclosure of a further three requests concerning its discussions with lobbyists.

53. Further evidence of the Cabinet Office’s opposition to the idea of transparency in lobbying was also published last weekend. Walsh Atkins, in charge of drafting the Government’s plans, tweeted on 22 December 2011: “I wish Unlock Democracy would die. I am prepared to help it along.”

54. Unlock Democracy is a member of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, which had encouraged its members to write to the Cabinet Office with their concerns about the lengthy delays in publishing its plans for a register.

55. Walsh Atkins has since apologised, but faces an internal investigation for possible breaches of the civil service code of conduct. She resigned as Head of Constitutional Policy at the Cabinet Office last Friday.


56. The Government’s proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists are fundamentally flawed, and will deliver little more than the system of voluntary self-regulation that currently exists. While we believe that the plans have been unduly influenced by an industry long opposed to statutory regulation, it is clear that the Cabinet Office has not approached the register with an open mind.

57. More concerning, however, is the fact that the Cabinet Office has failed to behave transparently over its interaction with the industry, which is both suggestive of a culture of secrecy and a complete failure to understand the nature of the problem that the register is designed to address.

58. We believe the consultation paper must be amended, without delay, to properly reflect public concerns over lobbying, with accurate information on the industry, and a fuller and more balanced account of the options for, and potential benefits of, a register of lobbyists. Submissions must be sought from as wide a range of people as possible, and their views must be given proper weight. Otherwise, the danger is that a policy designed to restore public trust in politics will have the direct opposite effect.

January 2012


(i) Interview with Mark Harper on BBC’s World at One, 20 Jan 2012.

(ii) Public Affairs: Register blueprint developed, PR Week, 16 July 2010.

(iii) Interview with Elizabeth France, CIPR TV, 16 Jan 2011.

(iv) Gaping hole in rules lets Eric Pickles keep five-star business dinner “private”, TBIJ, 22 October 2011.

(v) UKPAC board meeting 2, minutes, 16 Sep 2010.

(vi) “Abusive” lobbying reform chief quits over tweets, Sunday Times, 29 January 2012.

1 We agree with the Government’s proposal that information should be supplied on previously held public office, but think it should be widened to include any public office, not just senior. Financial information should also be provided (based on a good faith estimate of lobbying spend). However, for the purposes of this paper, these are not central concerns.

Prepared 12th July 2012