Guest Post: Michael Burrell, Chair, Public Affairs Practice, Edelman, Europe

Sooner or later British public affairs practitioners may find themselves operating under a whole new system of statutory regulation.

It could happen this summer under the Labour Government or, if not, then next year under a new Conservative Government.

How did that happen? Was it the result of a scandal or scandals that proved that the business of lobbying in Britain was riddled with corruption and bribery? Not at all. How it happened, if it happens, is a case study of the globalised world in which we live today and of the new flavour of 2009, which is that regulation is the answer to many of society’s ills.

Speaking for myself, I think that such a system in the UK would be a solution in search of a problem at a time when I would have thought governments had a thousand more pressing things to worry about. But to think that there is not a serious chance that this will happen would be to bury one’s head in the sand.

When the Public Administration Select Committee first started looking at lobbying a year ago few would have predicted that it would propose statutory regulation. After all, the relevant Government Minister, Cabinet Office Minister, Tom Watson had said that he would only consider such a proposal if the committee could prove that there was a serious problem of misbehaviour and sleaze. By its own admission, the committee was unable to do that (in my view, at the risk of sounding complacent, because there isn’t), but it went ahead and recommended regulation anyway – not least, because by the time it came to report, the world had changed and “tough regulation” had become the easy populist order of the day.

The committee also seems to have been heavily influenced – the globalisation point – by what it had learned during its inquiry about how other countries and regions deal with lobbying. It seemed to like what it saw of the new European Commission register of EU lobbyists (In theory “voluntary”, in practice not really so), as well as the more established statutory systems in the United States, Canada and Australia.

So what happens now? That is hard to say. On the one hand it seems clear that the more Tom Watson has learned about how lobbying actually works in the UK (and, especially, the more he has learned about the self regulatory system of the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC)) the more he has become personally convinced that a new statutory system would be bureaucratic overkill. On the other hand, he is clearly under pressure from Government colleagues (including, it seems, Gordon Brown) who see a new system as an easy win, a way of showing that this Government is “tough on sleaze and tough on the causes of sleaze”.

Next week Tom Watson is off to Paris to pick the brains of the experts on this subject in the OECD. Maybe that will be enough to push him in the direction of statutory regulation, since that is what most of the OECD types know about. He may also go to Brussels, which could point in the same direction. Plus, he is aware that if he decides against action, he hands an easy card to the Conservatives, who are likely to include a lobbying regulation pledge in their General Election manifesto. There are no votes in being nice to lobbyists and David Cameron (once a lobbyist himself for a television channel) may feel that Barack Obama’s pledge to run the lobbyists out of Washington did the Democrats’ Presidential election campaign no harm at all.

So watch this space – whatever happens, again a personal view, I think a statutory system would have little or no real effect on how lobbying actually works in this country (and at least all the politicians agree that lobbying is a key democratic right), but at least it might make the politicians feel better and distract attention from the actions they could and should take to regulate the lobbied, rather than the lobbyists.

(Declaration of interest: Michael is a former Chairman of the APPC and a member of its management committee).