Added: 21 December 2011
We have sought advice from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and their recommendations have been incorporated.
The PCS’s rules change from time to time and we cannot guarantee to keep this guide entirely up-to-date so your first port of call should always be their website.
Central Lobby is the place in Parliament where members of the public can come, without an appointment, to harangue their MP on the issues that are causing them concern. Hence the term “lobbyist” to describe those who undertake such activities on a professional basis; perhaps for a firm that specialises in political persuasion for paying clients, or perhaps an individual employed to look after his or her company’s interest with respect to a policy debate or piece of legislation.
What are lobbyists for?
Although the profession has been in receipt of some bad press in recent months, it is important to note that the term “lobbyist” is but a broad definition of a trade that can encompass everything from the voluntary group from Brighton who want to improve composting policy, to the moustache-twirling archetype – so beloved of investigative journalists – hell bent on flogging the wares of Baby Killing Evildoers Plc to the British government. Whilst both of these two are on the extremes of the lobbyist spectrum, it is worth acknowledging that there is a spectrum. However, all “Public Affairs Professionals”, as they prefer to be called, see your Member as a vehicle via which their interests, or the interests of their clients, can be moved forward, legislatively speaking.
However, all lobbyists are ultimately loyal to the person who pays them for their services. It is, therefore, always best to be prepared and be on your guard.
How can they help your Member?
There a several ways in which lobbyists can assist your office. Some of the more common ones are listed below:
- Providing assistance to All Party Groups: Upon their election, most MPs will sign up to at least half a dozen APPGs in their first flush of enthusiasm for all things Parliamentary. Sadly, if he or she is elected an officer of the Group, it will be left to you to do all the administration: mail-outs, checking everything’s up to date with the registration, organising events, and writing briefings. This is a job in itself, and a lobbying firm with an interest in the subject matter of the Group may offer to provide a secretariat to take some of the work off your hands, or to provide other materials to the membership;
- Assistance with PQs and amendments: Lobbyists can also help with framing amendments and drafting Parliamentary Questions. Remember that although your boss may have developed a sudden interest in “green issues, and “stuff”, this level of specialism may benefit from supplementary advice from someone who actually knows what they are talking about;
- Providing background briefings and other material: If the lobbyist is any good – and this is by no means always a given – they should be able to help you out with specialist questions you may have on a policy area.
Dangers and pitfalls
Gone are the days when a lobbyist simply had to hand over a brown envelope of crisp fifties in order to get an MP to fall into legislative line, and I think we can all agree that, for the sake of representative democracy and open government, this is a good thing – not least because it is a very foolish Member indeed who would accept a bribe from a lobbyist to lay so much as an Early Day Motion, let alone an amendment. The days when bag-carriers would fearfully read headlines of MPs caught bang-to-rights in a sting whilst praying that their boss wasn’t involved are, thankfully, behind us.
That does not mean that working with any kind of interest group is not a minefield. Here are some things to bear in mind when working with lobbyists:
- It shouldn’t need saying, but: There will be occasions when it is wrong/improper/against the rules to accept assistance from a lobbyist. Members are not allowed to lobby for reward or consideration (see Guide to the Rules paras 89-102. Link provided at the end of this article);
- Register and declare: Prevention is the best cure: if in doubt, seek advice from the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards before accepting any benefit – monetary, staffing, or in kind –that is provided to either your MP or to any All Party Group. Members are prohibited from lobbying for reward or consideration. The rule is explained in the Guide to the Rules paragraphs 80 to 101. If a lobbying company is providing secretarial assistance to the Group, this service is likely to require registration as APPGs must register gifts and payments with a value of over £1,500 that are received from the same donor over the course of a calendar year. As a rule of thumb, if the lobbyist has provided a service that you believe materially benefited yourself, or your Member or a Group, it will need to be registered and possibly declared, for example in proceedings of the House. All such registrable interests must be registered within 28 days of receipt. For guidance about the rules on APPGs please see the online Guide to the Rules on APPGs; for guidance about your own registration please see the introduction in the Register of Interests of Members’ Secretaries and Research Assistants. For advice on APPGs in general and the rules governing them please contact the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7219 0401.
- Lobbyists and APPGs: Lobbying firms who provide secretariats to APPGs have to be prepared to provide a list of their clients. If a lobbying company has offered to provide your Group with assistance, it is worth flagging this up with them in the early stages of your discussions;
- Beware lobbyists bearing gifts: Known by 19th century anthropologists as “gift theory”, the contemporary manifestation of this is the saying that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Basically, if you think that you’re being wined, dined, and presented with expensive gifts because the lobbyist admires your good looks, charm, and intellect – think again. Gift theory holds that the receiver of the gift is implicitly obliged to return it in kind and Members should ALWAYS declare any benefit they have received: as a member of staff, you have to register certain employment and gifts with a value of £410 or over per calendar year. The same applies to Members, but is dependent on which category the interest falls into; for example directorships, overseas visits and gifts. Furthermore, you should never find yourself feeling obliged to undertake a course of action you are unhappy with because the lobbyist has bought you a nice pen as a Christmas present. Essentially, never do anything for a lobbyist who has gifted you, that you wouldn’t do for one that hadn’t.
- The facilities of the House: The facilities of the House cannot be used to further the work of a lobby group or any other private interest. This refers to dining rooms, IT facilities, and stationery.
- Retain ownership: Although All Party Parliamentary Groups are time consuming to manage and you might welcome some of the more mundane admin being outsourced, it is important to always retain ownership over your MP’s campaigns. Remember, lobbyists are ultimately responsible to their clients’ brief, not to your Member of Parliament’s wishes, and these might not always neatly dovetail. Similarly, when seeking assistance in drafting amendments and providing briefings, lobbyists are often a mine of information. They also have their own agenda, so be careful.
Advice to lobbyists seeking to influence Members of Parliament
- Target your mailings: Very few MPs in landlocked constituencies are going to be interested in your client’s view on the Marine Conservation Zones. In addition, MPs receive many hundreds of emails and letters a day and a “pro-forma mail-out” will probably just be binned by a member of staff who simply doesn’t have the time to read it;
- Don’t extract the Michael: Appreciate that, when you are working with an MP or a group of MPs on a campaign, that their interests and desired outcomes are not going to be the same as yours. Work with them on the aspects that you agree with, but do not attempt to manipulate them to your point of view if it is one that they do not hold. You will simply poison the relationship.
For another view on this issue have a look at Working with lobbyists – Don’t be afraid we are here to help. It was written by a former researcher now working as a public affairs professional.