Category Archives: Communications

Were you up for Portillo (on lobbying)?

Last week, on the BBC’s This Week programme, former MP and memorable victim of the electorate’s wrath, Michael Portillo, spoke about the recent so-called lobbying scandal.

Since seeing it live – it’s on at about 11.30pm, putting off most viewers – I’ve watched it on BBC iPlayer many times. In about 90 seconds, he beautifully sums up the churlishness of portraying the recent stings on politicians as a scandal about lobbyists, even though none were involved. This is a point being made by many decent, integrity-driven public affairs practitioners, and one which is roundly ignored by the media.  [If anyone reading can tell me when the last lobbying scandal worthy of national media hysteria that actually did involve lobbyists was, please do let me know.]

But Portillo goes a step further even than that, expounding the crucial role that lobbying plays in politics. He goes so far to say that without lobbying, politics would not function. You can watch it here, 25 minutes into the show:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b02w2wxt/This_Week_06_06_2013/

Or, if you can’t be bothered to click on it, or are simply unwilling to catch a glimpse of Andrew Neil in the presenter’s chair, here’s a transcript of what Portillo said:

“It’s perfectly clear that the things of which these people are accused would be offences. They would be against the rules and they would certainly lead to their expulsion from their parties and possibly suspension from Parliament, and so on. So it’s perfectly clear that the rules are already in place.

Secondly, it’s pretty clear that these people were all caught by a sting; in other words, there wasn’t a real lobbyist involved at all… So actually, creating a register has nothing to do with what’s just happened… If you create the register, you simply allow people to find our more easily, the people that are genuine lobbyists and those that are journalists.

But let me make a fundamental point: all politics rests upon lobbying. The principle rooms in Parliament are called lobbies. And the reason they exist is to allow the public to come into Parliament and visit their Members of Parliament, and they meet them in a place called a lobby, which is the origin of the term, and the interchange between the people who have interests, which need to be considered or even protected by Parliament and the people in Parliament, is fundamental to the democratic process. And since time immemorial, to smooth the interface between the public and the different vest interests, and the Members of Parliament, there have been people who undertake lobbying, and lobbying can be a very respectful thing, and without lobbying, politics wouldn’t function.”

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Do me a favour, don’t do me a favour

Just days before the latest lobbying scandal that didn’t involve lobbyists broke, the Financial Times, expressed concern about the so-called revolving door through which civil servants and ministers pass to join companies as lobbyists. The drift of it’s columnist, John Gapper, was that we should be worried that decisions could thus, be made on the basis of favours.

We should certainly concern ourselves with how government decisions are made, but as I argued in a letter to the FT earlier this week; if you want to influence government effectively, there is no substitute for having a credible, well-argued and factually-based proposal.

In case you missed it, here is the text of my letter:

Sir, I dont doubt that former civil servants, ex-ministers, or even the occasional former prime minister can help businesses to influence government policy (We should worry about the revolving door for jobs, Comment, May 30). However, regardless of the status of such advisers, government policy is not decided on the basis of special favours. If government policy or procurement decisions cannot be justified on policy or financial grounds, or for meeting stated political objectives, then the dispensers of these favours would very quickly be found out.

John Gappers lobbyist informant is perfectly correct; large businesses do not need favours, as they will be listened to anyway. I was a special adviser for seven years, and I would never have risked my position by giving out favours to anyone.

Any business, large or small, that wants to influence government decisions will find that there is no substitute for having a credible, well-argued and factually-based proposal. There is no mystery or black arts involved. Advisers add value by helping businesses to articulate their case clearly and effectively. If they do that, then there is no need for favours.

In other words: “Do me a favour; don’t do me a favour”.

Political scandal? Time to kick the dog again…

Last year I blogged about lobbying, pointing out how the poor old lobbyist seems to be the end of the easy target in a political crisis, the dog that politicians and media go home and kick at the end of a bad day.

It seems that history is repeating itself and, once again, a lazy shortcut down the path to an unpopular but misunderstood cohort of practitioners of the supposedly ‘dark arts’ of lobbying is once again being beaten.

The scandal of Liam Fox’s friend Adam Werrity has predictably resulted in a call for tighter restrictions and regulations on lobbyists. This case is very similar to last year’s case on which I blogged – insofar as it hasn’t actually involved a bona fide lobbyist!

Proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists have long been supported within the public affairs industry, mainly because the industry has nothing to hide. In the recent case, it was Adam Werritty, who must surely have had no doubt that what he was doing was not wholly ethical or above board. In other words, he did have something to hide.

Being neither a lobbyist or in a position where he would have wanted to publicise his dubious activities, how on earth would a register of lobbyists have made a difference? Werritty would not have been required to be on the register – he’s not a lobbyist, he’s just a chancer of a businessman who abused the position of a friend. And even if he were a lobbyist it is unlikely that he would (a) register himself and put himself up for scrutiny or (b) given his clear lack of moral or ethical compunction, be swayed by any statutory requirement to register.

But once again, the whole saga provides two of the most abhorred sections of society – politicians and journalists – to take the moral high ground and kick the lobbying dog. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh?

Filling in potholes

In the 2010 Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, promised £100 million to fill the nation’s potholes. But in case you think that this is the limit of his ambitions for investing in our economic infrastructure, he also published a strategy for securing as much as £1 trillion of investment in other holes in the fabric of the nation’s economy.

In the little-noticed Strategy for National Infrastructure, the Government outlined how it will attempt to secure the £40-£50 billion annual infrastructure investment needed over the next 20 years. There is a significant risk of a gap emerging in the funding of large infrastructure projects and, as I discussed in an earlier blog, the Government has established Infrastructure UK to address this.

If the £1 trillion is to be found and deployed effectively, it is important that businesses engage with the Government as it fleshes out its strategy.

The Government wants to stimulate investment, primarily from the private sector across five sectors that contribute directly to economic growth; energy, transport, water, waste and communications. This will cover assets such as waste treatment centres, rail, ports, roads, gas storage, recycling facilities, electricity generation and distribution, and telephone, TV and radio networks.

So far, the strategy is all about process rather than substance.

Infrastructure UK will manage the establishment of the proposed Green Investment Bank with public and private funding of £2 billion to invest in the low carbon sector with a particular focus on energy and transport projects. A consultation on this will be published in the summer.

And there’s more. There will also be a National Infrastructure Framework by the end of 2010 with departmental supply chain analyses; a report on the costs of large-scale civil engineering works by the end of 2010; an action plan on public-private interdependencies by 2011; and an Infrastructure Technology Strategy by 2011. Zzzzz…

The people drawing up this strategy clearly haven’t read my colleague Steve’s blog on why we take so much longer than the French to complete large infrastructure projects. And rather worryingly, the strategy document says that the Government will consider whether, not just how, to give longer-term certainty to public spending on infrastructure.

But at least it’s a start. The Government may be long on process but businesses involved in infrastructure provision should nevertheless engage with the policy makers drawing up these strategies and frameworks. Decisions will be made on investment priorities, changes to the regulatory environment and project financing. If nothing else, these initiatives give business the opportunity to put forward their views on what changes should be made across a whole swathe of policy to facilitate this investment.

A change of government won’t make any difference to this imperative as the need for investment in our infrastructure won’t end on 6 May. The holes need filling and that will require pots of money.

Lobbying on behalf of the lobbyist

As the green shoots of spring and recovery are appearing, so are the traditional signs of an impending election: the Conservatives are avoiding talking about Europe, Labour is defending its financial links with the unions and the party leaders’ wives are competing with their spouses for media column inches.

A more subtle sign is that politicians are diverting criticisms from the political arena onto soft targets. Bankers are number one on the list, but lobbyists are also in their sights. David Cameron has promised a crackdown on lobbyists if he becomes Prime Minister and it is rumoured that Alistair Darling’s budget will propose a ban to stop publicly-funded bodies from hiring them.

This bothers me on many levels, principally because the term “lobbying” just doesn’t apply to what our industry actually does. In more than a decade of working in public affairs in the UK, I have not been asked, either by a client or an employer, to undertake any sort of duty that would breach the spirit or principles of ethical lobbying. This is in stark contrast to my experience of working on Capitol Hill, where I saw the sort of real hard-nosed, direct lobbying that the public is being told is tainting British politics.

What we “lobbyists” do is to help our clients to identify, define, hone and articulate their messages, and to advise them who their target audiences are and how best to engage with them. Our clients might sometimes be multinational corporations, but so too might they be charities, trades unions or local government, or operating in highly-specialised industries or policy climates.

Sensible, robust governance depends upon clear, informed communications between the Government and those stakeholders which its policy, regulation and legislation will affect. And that communication is more crucial now than in the past, as career politicians with little experience outside the Westminster bubble are increasingly replacing MPs with real world experience, whether it was from commerce, the public sector, education or the armed forces.

Calling for transparency in public affairs is a no-brainer and our industry knows that its future depends upon maintaining a reputation for probity and professionalism.

My hope is that the fuss about lobbyists is simply diversionary pre-election politics. In my years in public affairs there has been one “scandal” that I can recall and that involved Derek Draper saying something a little silly, but ultimately harmless, about who he knew in Government. Hardly on the same level of deceit as, say, deliberately fiddling your expenses, is it?

Government for sale

Watch out: the Government is on the scrounge. Ministers are looking for about £500 billion to invest in the UK’s infrastructure over the next ten years in areas like energy, water, transport and communications.

Given the constraints on public finances, the Government is looking to the private sector to fund this investment. The increased capital requirements on banks largely rule them out. This means that pension funds and insurance companies are seen as the more likely candidates to be approached with the ministerial begging bowl.

In his Pre-Budget Report last year, the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, established Infrastructure UK to identify and attract new sources of private sector investment in infrastructure. It will develop a strategy and list of investment priorities for the next five to 50 years to be announced in Budget 2010.  And now that various ministers have “gaffed” by stating the obvious that the general election will be on 6 May, this will definitely be Alistair Darling’s Budget and not George Osborne’s.

Infrastructure UK will be a heavyweight body. It will be chaired by former Rio Tinto chairman, Paul Skinner. But crucially it will be the focal point for the Government’s infrastructure strategy and advice. It will swallow up the Treasury’s PPP policy team and Infrastructure Finance Unit and those functions of Partnerships UK that support the delivery of major projects and programmes.

Ministers have already approached the pensions industry. But rather than expect to have their tummies tickled as they are asked to stump up for the Government, funds and insurance companies need to be clear about what they need in return. For instance, how will risk be shared, particularly during early construction phases? What can Ministers do to raise credit ratings that are often graded at BBB? And will insurers enter into negotiations only to find themselves hammered by new Solvency II rules from the European Commission that restrict their freedom to invest in large-scale infrastructure projects?

Ministers are also looking to sell £16 billion of Government assets by 2013-14, possibly by establishing new companies in which the public as well as pension funds would be offered shares. These disposals will be handled by the Shareholder Executive, which was set up by the Government in 2003 to carry out its role as shareholder. The Executive manages a portfolio of 29 businesses with a collective turnover of about £21 billion. These include esoteric parts of the public sector such as the QEII Conference Centre (currently staging the Iraq war inquiry), the Covent Garden Market Authority and the UK Hydrographic Office.

Early candidates for disposal include the Tote (again), the high-speed rail line to the Channel Tunnel, student loans and the Dartford crossing.

Any investor thinking about taking these off the Government’s hands will need to consider more than just the financial aspects. There are some potentially tricky stakeholder and industrial relations issues which new owners will need to address, particularly if the Government tries again to sell a stake in the Post Office or when it comes round to disposing of Northern Rock.

Investors will need to think through their messages and what they offer for customers/users, politicians, public sector unions and regulators. Failure to do so could lead to costly reputational damage. They may end up paying a lot more than they bargained for.