Harper's headache

Harper has recently addressed meetings convened by both the CIPR Public Affairs Group and the UK Public Affairs Council. At both events he was repeatedly told in no uncertain terms by industry figures that the Government’s plans were wrong-headed. As Public Affairs Newswent to press, the minister was due to appear at a Hansard Society debate to face yet more abuse from the APPC, CIPR and Spinwatch. To put it mildly, Harper has something of a headache. His proposal that “only those lobbying on behalf of a third party” should be on the register has been widely panned by the lobbying industry and transparency campaigners alike. All sides agree that it makes no sense to focus on a handful of agency employees and ignore lobbyists from Tesco and BAE Systems. The answer, he is told, is universality. And (some say) details of lobbyists’ meetings. But this is not the direction of travel that the Cabinet Office had in mind. David Cameron wants the project delivered with minimal fuss and Harper is keen to keep the lobbying register as simple as possible – to avoid a “monster bureaucracy that has a large bill attached to it”. The consultation period is not yet over, but if anything is going to change Harper’s mind, then it is most likely to be the looming PR disaster that awaits if the Government continues down the same road. One potential news story looks something like this: 'Senior officials at the Ministry of Defence have held a series of clandestine meetings with lobbyists from major arms firms, it has emerged. At least 17 meetings between officials and defence lobbyists took place in secret last year, despite the Government’s claim to have made lobbying more transparent with a new register. Not only does the new register contain no details of any such meetings, the defence lobbyists themselves do not even feature on the register. Labour leader Ed Miliband said: "This makes a mockery of David Cameron’s claims to have cleaned up politics…”' So what will he do? Pleasant and polite, Harper is said to have a natural instinct for playing it safe. To date, he has avoided making enemies and becoming too closely associated with one faction of the Conservative Party. Few Tory ministers would want to risk political capital on a project inserted into the Coalition Agreement to please the Liberal Democrats. Harper is no exception. At first glance the safe, hassle-free, option for the lobbying register is the bog standard agency-only model proposed in the consultation paper. Harper could stick with that for an easy life. But he may yet conclude it is the more sophisticated, universal approach that will limit the damage in the long term.

2nd March 2012 by

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