New rules for political lobbyists will improve transparency in decision-making

Opinion: ‘Legislation places all the emphasis on the person lobbying, but none on the person being lobbied. This is perverse’

‘With a diet of US political dramas such as House of Cards (above) and The West Wing, the lobbyist is a much-maligned character.’

‘With a diet of US political dramas such as House of Cards (above) and The West Wing, the lobbyist is a much-maligned character.’

 

Looking at Irish politics, it is easy to believe that nothing ever changes. The issues around State board appointments make it hard to argue with that. Yet there are reasons to be cheerful. Recently, amid all the hoopla surrounding the John McNulty affair, the Dáil quietly debated Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin’s Registration of Lobbying Bill.

This Bill will introduce a register of lobbying activities and marks a major step forward in improving transparency in governmental decision-making. It is a measure, along with others like improving Freedom of Information legislation, that will improve the quality of public life. This is why this legislation is worth getting right, not just for now but for the future.

As the representative body for communications professionals, the Public Relations Institute of Ireland supports this Bill. That we support this legislation, which is concerned with the registration and regulation of our members, possibly gives some people cause for alarm. In US political dramas such as House of Cards and The West Wing, the lobbyist is a much-maligned character; and based on the direction US politics has followed in recent years, the lobbying community there can be rightly maligned. If lobbyists support this legislation in Ireland, surely something is wrong? But let us not allow the US experience to cloud perceptions of lobbying here.

Unlike in Washington, there are very few working here who could be accurately called lobbyists. Certainly there are lots of people who, as part of their jobs, engage with politicians and government to influence policy and decision-making. But they are rarely employed just to lobby. Lobbying activities form part of a much wider array of duties that can involve corporate communications, media relations and strategic advice. Our members work in all aspects of communications; some for PR or communications consultancies and more “in-house” for State agencies, NGOs or businesses. Broadly speaking their role, irrespective of where they work, is to communicate a message clearly and effectively to stakeholders, including government. And that is a crucial part of good government: effective policymaking requires knowledge of all sides of the argument.

Right to know

As part of good policy-making, citizens are entitled to know who is lobbying whom and what about. Indeed, the public already has access to much of this through FOI. The register of lobbying will just bring more of this information into the public domain.

When enacted, nearly all communications made to senior civil servants, or elected politicians relating to “the initiation, development or modification of any public policy or of any public programme, the preparation of an enactment, or the award of any grant, loan or other financial support, contract or other agreement, or of any licence or other authorisation involving public funds” will have to be registered. This is the approach that the PR profession has argued for, as it ensures that all lobbying is registered. Those who seek exemptions from this requirement are engaged in special pleading which Government should resist.

On this, the big ticket item, Howlin has got it right. However, the Bill could be strengthened. An area that has excited plenty of interest is access to Leinster House. Currently to gain access to attend committee hearings and so on, you need to be signed in by a member of the Oireachtas. In other countries, registered lobbyists are provided with access to parliament as the “carrot” for registering. This should be replicated here.

Perverse

Separately, the legislation places all the emphasis on the person lobbying, but none on the person being lobbied. This is perverse. The person with all the power in lobbying is the person being lobbied; the minister, TD or senior civil servant. Yet there is no obligation on them to only deal with those on the register or even to oblige them to let the person know that they should be registered. This is a major weakness and will encourage unscrupulous operators to chance their arm and not declare their lobbying activities until officials refuse to engage with them.

Finally, there is the need to close off a few loopholes. One is the exemption from the need to register lobbying activities where a company has 10 or fewer employees. While this is well-intentioned, as drafted it will create confusion and could be abused by subsidiary companies and brass plate operations. For the avoidance of doubt, it is best removed.

The Mahon tribunal argued for this legislation and stated that a register of lobbying “is likely to decrease the corruption risks associated with that activity by increasing transparency and accountability in the policy making process. Such regulation would not however, adversely affect the positive role played by lobbyists in the political system.” This view is why we support this Bill and why we believe its weaknesses should be addressed. John Carroll is CEO of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland

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