"The public has no right to know" PDF Print E-mail

20 March 2008
We're now about halfway through the Parliamentary inquiry into lobbying, the first in the UK for 17 years.

When it was announced, Peter Bingle, head of lobbying firm Bell Pottinger Public Affairs made it known what he thought of the inquiry: "There is no point rehearsing in public the view that we welcome the inquiry. We don't," he said. "The real issue is that the industry needs a public voice with the ability to make a convincing case and to disarm the doubters."

Bingle got the opportunity to make his case during the latest inquiry session. He was called to give evidence alongside lobbyist Mike Granatt of Luther Pendragon, both as representatives of lobbying firms opposed to greater transparency and the disclosure of clients. In a separate session, MPs also heard from Eben Black, a lobbyist with law firm DLA Piper and Richard Schofield of the Law Society.

For lobbyists opposed to greater regulation, Bingle and Granatt made a good case for the introduction of transparency rules. 

Both alleged and were backed up later by Black, that the current system of self-regulation was not fit for purpose. The code of conduct operated by the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) - which, in a bid to increase transparency, requires members to disclose their clients on a register - was regularly being breached, they said. Granatt suggested that lobbying firms that didn't want to reveal certain clients merely set up separate companies which weren't members of the APPC. "It’s a slippery business," noted MP Gordon Prentice.

Much of the session was devoted to the ethical conduct of lobbyists. Reputation was everything in this business said Bingle, claiming that Lord Bell, chairman of Bell Pottinger, wouldn't allow them to do anything that might damage their reputation. He went as far as saying that it was because Bell Pottinger operated to the highest standards that they were the biggest lobbying firm in the UK.  Paul Flynn MP wasn't impressed: "You've worked for mass murders, racists, people who've oppressed their own people...Doesn't the public have a right to know who your clients are?" he asked. No, replied Bingle, "the public has no right to know."

In contrast, Eben Black advocated the introduction of a mandatory register of lobbyists and their clients held by Parliament, it being the only way to supersede the current rules for lawyers on client disclosure. This he said was superior to today's voluntary system, which isn't monitored and includes no sanctions.

Former lobbyist and member of the select committee Charles Walker MP then attacked Black's suggestion of transparency regulations with some now well-rehearsed arguments from the industry. 1) How can you have a register of lobbyists when it's so hard to define what constitutes lobbying? Black came back with a very neat definition of 'lobbying'. 2) The financial burden of regulation would squeeze out smaller operators in the industry. Black again: "What financial resources would we need to put our names and clients on a register?" 3) More openness and transparency would lead not to greater public trust but further scandal and public cynicism. Black, a former Sun journalist, disagreed: "If there was more openness, there would be fewer stories," he said.

Black obviously made an impression on Walker unlike Mike Granatt who he suggested had become "rather toxic in the private sector" since his resignation over the news that he had lied to journalists while spokesman for client Michael Martin, Speaker of the House of Commons. At the end of the session Walker approached Black and said: "If I was the Speaker, I would have hired you. Well done."

To hear Bingle, Granatt and Black in their own words and for a more complete summary of the latest session of the inquiry, listen to the latest Spinwatch podcast on YouTube.