The register of lobbyists set up by David Cameron to increase transparency in the sector has no full-time boss and does so little work that it produces a cash surplus from its activities.
The Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists was founded in 2014 following a series of lobbying scandals in the early part of Cameron’s time as prime minister, with a pledge to increase transparency around lobbying activities. However, its activities have been severely limited by the narrow powers and resources granted to it by the government compared with equivalent registers in countries such as the US.
The culture of lobbying the UK government has come under severe scrutiny following the revelations that Cameron privately lobbied leading government ministers on behalf of the collapsed financial firm Greensill Capital. However, he has been cleared of any unlicensed lobbying activity because the register he helped to create while prime minister does not require lobbyists directly employed by companies to register their activities.
Until recently the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists had no permanent staff and relied on civil servants seconded from other government departments to carry out the work of investigating potential unlicensed lobbying activities. During the last financial year it had an equivalent of 1.8 full-time employees.
The organisation is led by the part-time registrar Harry Rich, who is employed to work between 30 and 40 days a year. Rich, who also runs a business coaching executives, has a background in the arts rather than politics and was previously chief executive of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
He has said that “transparent, ethical lobbying can be an important part of effective public policy formation” and it was his duty to put the activities of consultant lobbyists – defined as any third parties “communicating with ministers and some other senior officials on behalf of a paying client” – in the public domain.
However, enforcement activity has been limited. The organisation has ordered just six statutory requests for information on potential unlicensed lobbying activity in the UK since the law came into operation in 2015, none of which have resulted in any enforcement action being taken. Many of its other investigations have been in response to media articles, while some lobbying organisations have also faced small civil fines for unregistered activity, often relating to their failure to file a quarterly update of their client lists.
Last year the lobbying register failed to spend its entire budget and produced a cash surplus from its core activities of £34,658. Because ministers required the organisation to be cost-neutral and paid for through the registration fees charged to lobbyists, the money is being used to pay off the historical cost of setting up the organisation rather than being reinvested in enforcement action.
Even when the salaries of seconded staff are taken into account, the total amount spent by the government on maintaining the lobbying register is £66,000 a year.
The Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists has been approached for comment.
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