Law firms which fail to register as lobbyists could face criminal sanctions.

When MPs passed the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 (the Lobbying Act), they included the activities of law firms, accountants and management consultants, making them registrable under the Lobbying Act. However, judging from the entries so far on the statutory register of consultant lobbyists, few in the professional services community appear to have understood the full ramifications of the legislation.

The government’s statutory lobbying register is now in force and it is already filling up with a trickle of entries from professional services firms. It is worth looking at the current version of the register (Google ‘Register of Consultant Lobbyists’ for the latest iteration) to see who from within the legal sector is so far registered. At the time of writing, legal firms including Clifford Chance and accountants KPMG and PwC had signed up. The number of professional services firms is likely to grow significantly as the Lobbying Registrar, or so-called ‘Lobbying Tsar’ Alison White, changes gear to launch enforcement test cases.

The government’s new registration system, maintained by the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists (ORCL), was railroaded through in the twilight days of the coalition. In practical terms, it captures anyone from a firm discussing anything with a minister on behalf of a client. To be clear, it goes beyond discussing government policy and legislation to the awarding of contracts, grants, licences or similar benefits, or the exercise of any other government function. Under the terms of the Lobbying Act, those who fail to register as lobbyists are set to face criminal and civil liability.

Further obligations follow on naming clients.

While it is not yet clear exactly what this enforcement action will entail, its scope is likely to extend to organisations which have failed to register when their major competitors are already included in the list. Compliance teams from organisations listed on other, more comprehensive, registers should take note. Firms appearing on the EU Transparency Register, or named as providing the secretariat for all-party parliamentary groups, may have some explaining to do if they are not also included on the ORCL register.

The ORCL register is far from perfect. Here at the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC) we have consistently raised concerns since the bill was first proposed. A register that only covers third-party lobbyists is incapable of delivering the transparency envisaged by legislators. This is simply because third-party lobbyists make up a very small percentage of UK lobbyists.

It is also worth noting that the register will make clear which signatories also sign up to voluntary codes of practice, such as the APPC’s, in order to help showcase those firms which uphold the highest standards of ethical behaviour. After all, it is one thing to make a declaration of one’s clients but another matter entirely to comply with exacting standards of behaviour. The APPC’s own code of conduct demands compliance from our members over a wide range of issues, which include not employing sitting parliamentarians and only allowing admittance to firms whose staff do not hold parliamentary passes.

Many legal firms will be familiar with the requirements of registration, as they are already signatories of the EU Transparency Register, which demands detailed information from participants, including turnover. In comparison, the ORCL register will be relatively light-touch. However, the precedent has been set: if your firm is already included on the EU Transparency Register, or you are engaged in advising clients on their dealings with government, then it is time to find out whether you need to sign up to the UK register.

Havard Hughes is a member of the Association of Professional Political Consultants’ Management Committee