Clause 26 in the DCLG Code on Publicity needs more debate.
This is the clause that reads ‘Local authorities should not incur any expenditure in retaining the services of lobbyists for the purpose of the publication of any material designed to influence public officials, Members of Parliament, political parties or the Government to take a particular view on any issue’.
The Commons Communities and Local Government Committee discussed the draft Code and questioned the scope of the term ‘lobbyist’.
DCLG has responded by claiming that the “plain English” definition is that of a “‘professional retained to gain political advantage for the local authority”.
I don’t know what dictionaries are being used by DCLG, but mine comes up with the simpler definition of “someone trying to influence politicians”. There are many people who work as independent advisers and consultants with councils, and with various local government bodies, in researching and drafting material designed to influence politicians. I am one of them.
Such work includes responses to government consultations, evidence to select committees, and briefings on Parliamentary Bills, as well as articles or more explicit lobbying documents designed to shape future public service reforms. Are all external advisers now to be defined as ‘lobbyists’?
This sort of activity has the express purpose of trying to influence MPs and the government, either to think again on a specific proposal, or to adopt a different stance on an issue. The cause of localism and strengthened local autonomy, lobbied for over the past decade by councils and others, is but one example.
There are a myriad of issues on which local government may wish to argue the case for alternative solutions to those promoted by central government, and rightly so. Much of the material provided by such external advisers is made available, in one form or another, on local authority websites and hence would be deemed by DCLG as ‘publicity’ under this latest draft of a statutory code.
‘Lobbying’ is surely inherent to representative democracy. For one layer of democratically elected government to be barred from using outside help and expertise in trying to influence the views of another seems a strange new principle, particularly from a government committed to the ‘radical devolution of power’.
As with several recent instances of top-down diktat from DCLG, it not a principle that Whitehall would dream of applying to itself. Clause 26 of the Code needs another look.
Henry Peterson, local government consultant