A blot on Parliament: the slack rules on peers and public affairs consultancies

The House of Lords rightly expects peers to register and declare any outside interest which a reasonable person might think capable of exercising an influence on their conduct in the House.

Beneath this general obligation, the House wishes peers to list any clients to whom they provide advice on public affairs, or other public affairs services. Again, rightly so. If one reads and takes seriously the beautiful language of the writ of summons one might think that peers should give public affairs advice only to their sovereign. Peers who take money to give public affairs advice to outside interests should take leave of absence from the House. (This might be one convenient way of reducing the present surplus of peers!)

But even if one rejects this purist view of a peer’s duties, it should be beyond challenge that peers should declare to the public any outside interest which benefits from any public affairs advice or services to which they are party. That is the clear and proper intention of the House.

In 2011 the House realized that nearly a hundred peers were evading
this responsibility by hiding their public affairs clients behind the façade of a consultancy. It tried to remedy this in the Guide to the Code of Conduct.

Unfortunately, the House decided to preserve an irrational and unworkable rule that peers were obliged to list only their “personal clients”. I call this the “touting exemption” since it was evidently intended to allow peers to enlist clients for a public affairs consultancy without being obliged to declare them even if they were directors or partners in the consultancy – and even if they were successful in their efforts.

This matter continued to cause difficulties and the House decided to amend the “touting exemption” again in 2015.

This is now paragraph 60 of the Guide to the Code of Conduct. This is a very poor provision in several respects.

60. The types of services covered here are those falling under the broad heading of public affairs advice and services. Where a member receives remuneration from an organisation engaged in such work, the member should list any of those clients with whom the member has a continuing relationship on behalf of the organisation which could not fairly be described as immaterial.

First, it is badly written, relying on a clumsy double negative.

Second, it is actually a step backward from the previous wording. This referred to “public affairs advice and services personally provided by the member”, which is a matter of fact. The current wording makes registration of public affairs clients a matter of judgment – by the peer concerned.

Third, the provision gives unscrupulous peers far too much scope to lie about their personal public affairs clients. A peer can choose to declare Save The Panda as a personal client but continue to hide The Landmine Manufacturers Association behind the veil of his consultancy. House officials have no means of challenging this. Nor have members of the public. Unless by chance evidence of the peer’s activity on behalf of the Landmine Association is publicly revealed, a complaint against the peer will not succeed and will be frustrated by his bare denial.

Fourth, and most important, the whole provision works wholly in favour of peers and wholly against the public. It makes a nonsense of the general obligation for peers to list all the interests which might influence them. To take my previous example, suppose a peer is a director or a partner in a public affairs consultancy. He knows that the Landmine Manufacturers are important clients. He is personally enriched by the profits they generate. Even if he does not directly serve them in the House, he is unlikely to make a fierce speech against landmines there or anywhere else. The public are entitled to know this.

Fifth, the great majority of reputable public affairs consultancies and individual practitioners are members of the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC), and as such, declare the bare name of all their clients on a public register every quarter. The APPC have told me that this provision has never caused any difficulty. Paragraph 60 has the bizarre effect of allowing peers who are not willing to meet a similar obligation to take a full part in the House. They can run public affairs consultancies and be enriched by all their clients, they can tout for clients successfully, and still withhold the name of clients at will from the public.

Although lobbyists can be peers, the APPC does not allow peers or MPs (or any public affairs consultancies to which they belong) to be members. It believes that peers’ duties are incompatible with public affairs activity for any paying clients. It is curious that lobbyists have higher standards for membership than the House.

I continue to believe that peers who are directors or partners in a public affairs consultancy should be required to declare all its clients on the Register of Interests. I would be glad to know why the House thinks otherwise and what merit it sees in maintaining the present position in paragraph 60 of the Guide to the Code of Conduct.

I also continue to believe that the House should adopt a comprehensive definition of “public affairs”, to include all of the services provided by members of the APPC.

From inspection of the Register, I tried to see how many current peers are involved in public affairs consultancies or something akin to them. My analysis is in the Appendix. I was surprised that the number is so low. It leads me to believe that there would be little objection to a tightening of the rules on public affairs and the removal of an obvious anomaly.

Richard Heller June 2018

Appendix

Under the present wording of paragraph 60 of the Guide to the Code of Conduct peers who are directors or partners in a public affairs consultancy are required to declare on the Register of Interests under category 3 any clients with whom they have a significant working relationship.

Among over 800 peers, I have found just seventeen who have made such a declaration. They are:
Allan of Hallam
Blencarthra
Carlile
Chadlington
Cooper of Windrush
Cormack
Finn
Flight
Gilbert
Harris of Haringey
Lansley
Lennie
McIntosh of Pickering
Maude
Rennard
Scriven
Taylor of Goss Moor

It appears to me that Lords Allan of Hallam, Cormack and Taylor of Goss Moor have been especially scrupulous in making such a declaration, since they do not work through a public affairs consultancy. They have declared public affairs advice given to an employer, or to an organization which the member chairs or for whom the member writes regularly.

A number of other peers declare under categories 1 or 2 personal clients of businesses which may not fall within the category of public affairs consultancies, namely

Arbuthnot
Boateng
Boyce
Coussins
Fox
Henig
Richards

This may reflect advice from the Registrar, or an especially scrupulous approach from the peers concerned.

I have identified another group of peers in leadership positions in businesses which seem to fall under the category of public affairs consultancies who declare no clients. These are

Adonis
Barker
Bell
Fall
Goddard
Goudie
Hain
Livermore
Mandelson
Myners
Suttie
Wyld

Finally, Lord Rogan lists no personal clients on the Register but has made a full list of clients of his consultancy, Stakeholder Communications, available for inspection through the Registrar.

It is possible that these thirteen peers have acted on advice from the Registrar. Without such advice, they are relying on their own bare assertion that they are not providing public affairs advice or services or that they have no significant relationship with a client.

My analysis suggests to me that the rules on the declaration of personal clients are not well understood by peers and would benefit from clarification. There is a risk of unfairness to conscientious peers.

Second, and more important, any tightening of the rules would affect only a handful of peers. Even if all of these were so enraged as to leave the House it should be able to stagger on without them.

Richard Heller June 2018

26. September 2018 by rkh
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