With the establishment of the Westminster statutory lobbying register and the Scottish register, the environment in which professional lobbyists operate is clearly changing. So in this post, based as before on the survey findings of the member survey undertaken by the APPC before its merger with the PRCA, I’d like to touch on the mechanics of how our consultants engage with policy-makers across the UK.
We asked respondents to share their view (using a ten-point scale) on the Westminster statutory lobbying register. The average grading awarded by the 80+ respondents was 4/10 – hardly a ringing endorsement. At the time of writing 166 organisations were registered with ORCL – well short of the many hundreds more envisaged the impact assessment. So, not only has the register failed to capture the volume of third-party lobbyists estimated, it is also viewed relatively dimly by registrants.
We found that a relatively low number of consultants are actually writing to ministers or permanent secretaries - one of the actions which triggers registration - on a regular basis. 35% say they never write emails or letters to them and a further 23% say they only write, on average, once per year. However, 40% say they write to them on a monthly basis. In terms of face-to-face meetings - as one would expect - the level of engagement is even lower. 39% say they never meet ministers or permanent secretaries, 44% say once per year, and 16% say monthly.
Perhaps the most interesting finding is how often consultants are engaging with MPs and peers generally (who, unless they are ministers, are not covered by Westminster’s statutory register). We found that 37% write to MPs and peers on a weekly basis, 38% write to them on a monthly basis, and 11% write once per year. Looking at face-to-face meetings with MPs and peers, 13% of consultants say they meet with them on a weekly basis, 57% on a monthly basis, and 19% once per year.
The rest of the UK
We also wanted to understand the extent to which lobbyists engaged directly with political audiences in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay, given these new requirements imposed by regulators in Scotland and Westminster and the ongoing conversation amongst Welsh legislators.
Engagement by consultants with legislators in Scotland is much lower. 79% say they never meet with Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), 15% say they do so monthly, while just 5% meet with them on a more frequent basis. Similarly, in terms of writing to MSPs, 67% say they never write to MSPs, 20% do so once per year, and only 13% do so on either a monthly or weekly basis. This obviously has to be framed by the fact three quarters of the consultants surveyed are based in London. Similarly, our survey was undertaken before the Autumn party conference season, when we can reasonably assume that consultants would be engaging in person with MSPs, and which would impact these findings (regulated lobbying in Scotland is only defined as taking place when it occurs face-to-face with Scottish policy-makers).
In the Welsh Assembly there has been a debate about the merits of introducing a statutory lobbying register for some years. In terms of the level of engagement by our consultants with Welsh legislators and policy-makers, it’s a similar story to the findings for Scotland. 79% say they never meet face-to-face with Assembly Members (AMs), 14% say it is just once per year, 6% say they meet monthly with AMs, and just 1% do so on a weekly basis. Our findings are also similar in terms of the proportion of consultants who write to AMs: 69% say they never write to them, 24% say they do so once per year, and a further 7% say they engage with them in this way on a monthly or weekly basis.
Given the current political impasse in Stormont we did not ask consultants about their levels of engagement (or otherwise) with MLAs.
Whilst this data provides a snapshot about the level of consultant engagement with policy-makers across the UK, what we could explore further is the impact of register compliance on consultants and member-firms. Consultants might hold a relatively poor view of Westminster’s Register of Consultant Lobbyists, but is the process of quarterly returns proving manageable? I’d like to understand whether companies - especially those with high head counts - find the process of compliance particularly burdensome and what systems they have adopted to ensure all consultants whose activity warrants a register entry is captured. Similarly, with Scotland’s Lobbying Register now up and running, how are firms managing the demands of dual register compliance? Obtaining this sort of qualitative feedback will require a slightly different approach to surveying; we may need to target compliance officers and undertake more detailed questioning of the people with responsibility for submitting accurate and timely register entries. This is something that the PRCA PAB will consider for the next survey.