EXCL Lobbying watchdog set up by David Cameron 'barely functioning' amid staffing crisis
A lobbying watchdog set up by David Cameron has been described as “barely functioning” after it was forced to dump projects and needed emergency staff to keep it going.
The Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists, which the former Prime Minister said was needed to clean up politics, required extra personnel from the Cabinet Office last year despite previous warnings it was struggling with its workload.
Its former boss Alison White - who quietly stepped down during the summer after just four years in the job - said it had been “really difficult” to fulfil her role in a withering resignation statement.
The register was set up by Mr Cameron as part of efforts to “shine a light” on the murky world of government lobbying - but critics have argued its powers are too limited.
PR firms must sign up before they can lobby ministers, top advisors or civil servants and must declare whose interests they are pushing to avoid being fined.
Documents unearthed by PoliticsHome have laid bare the struggle the watchdog has undergone to continue working effectively, as well as the repeated cries for help from its boss.
In her resignation statement in June this year, Ms White said she had expected her work on the register to “form a smaller part” of her non-executive portfolio over time “but in the event this did not happen”.
She said: “It is no longer possible for me to continue to commit as much time as is needed to my role as registrar, and I have therefore decided not to seek a further term.”
She added: “There have been many challenges during this time, and it has been really difficult to maintain the register, assure the quality of its content, provide confidence to stakeholders and ensure that all the requirements of the registrar set out in the legislation have been achieved, and remain fresh in the minds of users.”
Meanwhile, annual reports show Ms White had to work extra days last year and the year before to keep the office running, while "interim staff" from the Cabinet Office had to be drafted in to help.
The body was forced to ditch social media plans and other business ideas due to personnel shortages, while problems were said to have emerged with the “technical resilience” of its website.
But Ms White said that despite the struggles there was "no evidence of risk that the register is not complete or that all appropriate revenues are not being collected".
Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Jon Trickett told PoliticsHome: “It’s an open secret that the rules governing lobbying in this country are weak and ineffective.
“But we now know that the register is barely functioning even by its own limited standards. A change of guard is unlikely to make much difference when the system is so flawed.”
He added: “Labour is committed to a complete overhaul of lobbying. We will ensure it is fully transparent and does not run counter to the public interest.”
Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, told PoliticsHome: “These revelations throw wide open the inadequacies of the UK’s official lobbying register.”
He added: “At best this suggests an indifference to greater openness and accountability, or at worst a deliberate attempt to undermine it...
“The UK Government should seek to replace the current arrangements with a system that enables the public to understand who’s trying to influence who, when, and why.”
Eventually, the register is expected to fund itself through the fees lobbyists pay to appear on it - but the Cabinet Office still made up a major part of its budget last year to the tune of £200,000.
It has a deficit built up over previous years of £130,000 - although due to Cabinet Office cash being written off it did make a surplus over the past two years so is slowly paying its debts off.
The register boasted 132 members by the end of 2017/18 - just nine more than it had at the end of the 2015/16 financial year.
It issued one penalty notice during 2017/18 to communications firm InHouse, for lobbying ministers before it was registered. The fine was £1,500 and was paid in July.
Critics have argued the register is ineffective since only third party lobbyists, and not those working within interested firms, are required to sign up. It has also been blasted for offering too little detail on lobbying activities.
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said: "The Government is confident that the statutory duties of the Registrar are being delivered effectively, that the register is properly maintained, and that the registrar is adequately resourced and funded to operate effectively."
Both the new registrar Harry Rich and his predecessor Ms White declined to comment when approached by PoliticsHome.