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FOCUS: UK LOBBYING - Getting ready for a flurry of activity. With the new Government keen to involve industry in its policy making process, the time is ripe for businesses to raise their voices in Parliament. By Poppy Brech

Labour’s use of policy reviews became the butt of jokes at Westminster last year when over 50 task forces were set up in the first 100 days of Government. Austin Mitchell MP quipped that Labour had ’hit the ground reviewing.’

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Labour’s use of policy reviews became the butt of jokes at

Westminster last year when over 50 task forces were set up in the first

100 days of Government. Austin Mitchell MP quipped that Labour had ’hit

the ground reviewing.’



For lobbyists and their clients however, reviews present an opportunity,

unequalled in recent years, to contribute directly to the development

and implementation of policy.



Jon McLeod, director of Shandwick Public Affairs, says that lobbyists

underestimate the importance of reviews at their peril. ’These groups

are a new and important channel of influence. They are the routes

through which Government expects to hear from industry.’



Ben Lucas, director of Lawson, Lucas and Mendelsohn worked on Tony

Blair’s campaign during the election and thinks that the reviews are a

recognition by Government of the limits of the state in delivering

policy. ’Blair sees the role of Government as one of leading and

marshalling the various forces within the country, which include the

private sector,’ he says.



The New Deal Task Force is a good example of how Government expects

businesses to develop and deliver policy. Chaired by Sir Peter Davis,

group chief executive of the Prudential Corporation, membership includes

Michael Wemms, operations director at Tesco. The New Deal policy has the

overall objective of getting the unemployed back to work and improving

their skills and employability. The task force’s remit is three-fold: to

advise on the design and delivery of the New Deal, to secure business

commitment and to monitor progress.



As task force members, companies such as Tesco are committed not just to

an advisory role, but also to meeting the task force objectives in

practice. In December, Tesco announced it would be offering 1,500 jobs

under the scheme, the biggest single company commitment so far to the

New Deal.



Given the diverse nature of the reviews, determining which ones are

important presents lobbyists with an important challenge. According to

Jon McLeod, there are three general reviews which affect every business

trading in the country: the advisory groups on competitiveness; the

group looking at competitiveness in Europe, and the better regulation

taskforce.



’These are the groups in which advice to ministers is being

formulated.



Everyone in public affairs should be tracking how these groups influence

the general thrust of Government policy,’ says McLeod.



Other lobbyists view specific sector reviews which directly affect their

clients’ business, as important. For the Waterfront Partnership, whose

clients include Associated British Ports and Eurotunnel, the

Government’s review of transport is key.



Executive director Steve Bramall sees transport as a particularly

difficult area for the Government and one in which his clients can make

a real contribution with policy analysis and strategic advice.



Most lobbyists would agree with Mike Lee, deputy managing director of

Westminster Strategy, that the current spate of reviews is creating more

work. Jeremy Fraser, director of GJW Government Relations estimates that

the company has added 25 per cent to its staff since the election. Peter

Robinson, director of GPC Market Access also says that his company is

experiencing significant growth.



Ben Lucas, whose company was the first new agency to be set up after the

election, agrees that the review culture has increased opportunities for

lobbyists to help companies play a role in a more open process. However,

he warns that companies must have a genuine contribution to make. ’It’s

not about getting someone to meet someone else in order to make the

right decision, it’s about creating a broader consensus on mutual areas

of work.’



His view, echoed by a number of lobbyists, is that the Government

expects more than ever before from business. According to Jon McLeod:

’Labour wants this magical thing called ’corporate social

responsibility’ which is about businesses putting back into the market

some of the benefits they reap.’



In terms of reviews, this has meant businesses becoming involved in

areas of policy which are unconnected to their commercial interests, in

order to contribute knowledge or expertise. Sainsbury’s, for example,

has taken part in reviews such as the disability rights task force, as

well as a variety of educational task forces.



The composition of policy review bodies provides few clues as to which

areas of the business establishment are ’in’ and which are ’out’ with

New Labour. According to Caroline Daniel writing in the New Statesman (1

August, 1997), some of the invitees suggest ’good old fashioned

patronage’ with appointments such as that of Northern Foods chairman

Christopher Haskins, a loyal Labour supporter, as chairman of the Better

Regulation task force.



Conversely, utility companies which were very much the target of Labour

criticism when in opposition, have been actively involved in the welfare

to work task force.



Lee says you can identify certain common themes in the selection of

invitees.



’Either they’ve got a known expertise, they’re a major player in their

field, or they’ve got a particular individual whose got a good

reputation for creative thinking,’ he says.



The lack of any official criteria for task force membership presents

lobbyists with potential difficulties when it comes to helping clients

to become part of the New Labour policy making process.



Bramall argues that in certain cases it is neither appropriate nor

helpful to lobby for clients to be included in reviews. ’Getting on a

panel can actually restrict your room for manoeuvre because you are

almost part of Government in that process,’ he says.



Others disagree. ’I can’t think of a reason why our clients wouldn’t

want to contribute to a process that would lead to policy formulation,’

says Robinson.



Lee believes that submitting interesting ideas and proposals and tuning

in to different new agendas is key to ensuring client’s involvement in

policy reviews. He says: ’We did a lot of work with the Design Council

ahead of the election in terms of positioning them as a vital voice in

the development of UK competitiveness. It has delivered results -

they’ve become a leading voice in terms of thinking through policies on

everything from millennium products to the rebranding of a Government

department.’



There is broad agreement among lobbyists that the political landscape

has changed under New Labour. In addition to more open relations with

business, and the involvement of businesses at a much earlier stage in

the policy making process, the size of the Government’s majority has

meant the political fulcrum has shifted from Westminster to

Whitehall.



This shift in power has in turn has impacted on lobbyists - whereas with

Major’s small majority the ’in’ or sought after lobbyists were those who

had excellent contacts with MPs, those who are most sought after under

New Labour are those who know how Whitehall works.



According to Sainsbury’s head of group public affairs Roger Saoul: ’What

is happened is that we have gone back to the days of Mrs Thatcher in

1983 where, because of a huge majority in Parliament, we’ve had to focus

our work on civil servants, on special advisers and on ministers.’



Bramall thinks clients have been quick to pick up on the change.

’Clients are much more suspicious of lobbyists who say, I’ll sort

something out for you. What they want to know is how do I best go about

influencing policy, what are civil servants saying to ministers, what is

the political agenda I need to be aware of?’



Saoul agrees. ’What I want to hear from lobbyists is: Government’s

thinking is proceeding along those lines, have you adjusted to that, and

given that, what do you have that would be useful to present?’



McLeod adds: ’Clients now expect a much more composite view of what the

Government is doing. The key for lobbyists is to track developments. The

Government has taken several jigsaw pieces out of the box, but the final

picture has yet to emerge.’



CASE STUDY: Hunt groups are baying for action



Whether or not hunting with hounds should be banned is one of the most

contentious isues this Parliamenthas had to face to date.



As Michael Foster’s private member’s bill reaches committee stage, both

sides of the debate are claiming victory. The anti-hunt lobby,

represented by the Campaign for the Protection for Hunted Animals

(CPHA), point at their 411 to 151 majority at the bill’s second reading

on 28th November.



The pro-hunt lobby, whose campaign is being spearheaded by the

Countryside Alliance, claim widespread media support.



As early as January 1997, the Countryside Alliance recognised that a

likely Labour victory meant a high chance of an anti-hunting bill in the

first round ofPrivate Members’ bills. In response, they began to plan a

large countryside rally to take place in Hyde Park on 10 July aimed at

highlighting the perceived indifference of urban politicians to country

issues. The Alliance claimed over 120,000 attended the rally.



The Countryside Alliance followed the rally with a mass lobby of

Parliament on 19 October for which over 850 supporters travelled to

Westminster to visit their MPs.



In the run-up to the Bill’s second reading, media relations support was

provided by The Public Policy Unit. In making its case, the team

emphasised the threat to rural jobs that a hunting ban would bring and

positioned hunting as a minority pursuit threatened by a tyrannical

majority. It claims support for the cause from titles such as the Times,

the Daily Telegraph and the Independent.



For anti-hunt campaigners, the Hyde Park rally acted as a call to

arms.



The International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Royal Society for the

Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the League Against Cruel Sports

formed a tripartite campaign under the banner of the Campaign for the

Protection for Hunted Animals (CPHA).



Assisted by Shandwick Public Affairs; Lawson, Lucas Mendelsohn and Clear

Communications, the CPHA team established a rapid rebuttal unit to

target and kill misinformation.



Another aspect of the anti-hunt campaign’s strategy was to convert

passive public opinion into active public support. The three

organisations funded a joint advertising campaign in support of the

Foster Bill, asking the public to write to their MPs. The CPHA claims it

resulted in one of the biggest post bags MPs have seen for years.



For both lobbies, the attitude of the Government is key. The anti-hunt

lobby are hoping that Blair’s affirmation of support for the aims of the

Foster Bill means the Government will either give it extra time, or bolt

on an amendment to an existing criminal justice bill. The pro-hunters

are counting on a statement from Home Office Minister George Howarth

that no special time will allowed for the Bill in this session of

Parliament.



CASE STUDY: ECB claim Broadcast Act is just not cricket



With the growth of cable and satellite television, the rights of sports

governing bodies to sell exclusive coverage of major sporting events has

been widely debated in the press.



To protect access by the general viewing public to certain key sporting

events, the 1996 Broadcasting Act prevented sports governing bodies from

selling the TV rights to either subscription or pay-per-view

broadcasters as exclusive deals. Key sporting events, also known as

listed events, include the FA Cup Final,Wimbledon Finals Weekend and the

whole of domestic test match cricket.



For some time, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has been

campaigning for cricket to be de-listed. Its argument is that by

restricting sale of test match cricket coverage to terrestrial channels,

the list suppresses the price it can command and limits the potential

for investing in the sport.



In July 1997, Labour announced a review of listed events, which included

issuing a consultation paper on the criteria for judging the list,

followed by the setting up of an advisory group to consider any possible

additions.



In August 1997, ECB appointed Westminster Strategy to help develop its

response to the review. A key element of the team’s approach was to

emphasise that if cricket were to be de-listed, the extra money

available could fund training of young players as well as improvements

to facilities.



It was also argued that the other events listed are single events of

short duration, compared to 180 hours of cricket.



The team has made clear that the ECB accepts that the Lords Test Match

will continue to be listed. Furthermore, should it be granted the right

to consider bids from subscription TV, ECB will consider all bids fairly

and as a minimum will ensure prime time highlights on terrestrial

TV.



In addition to making formal submissions at consultation and review

stages, ECB has made use of its contacts with the national media to

raise awareness of the issue. The team has also been working with county

cricket organisations, to generate activity at constituency level.



CASE STUDY: Price fixing could prove fatal to pharmacists



For the last two years, community pharmacists have been fighting the

threat of legal action by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and

supermarket chain Asda to abolish resale price maintenance (RPM) - a

fixed pricing policy which applies to all over the counter

medicines.



The OFT and Asda argue that the policy is anti-competitive; that retail

outlets should be able to determine pricing for these medicines, with

the likely outcome that prices will come down.



Community pharmacists, represented by the Community Pharmacists Action

Group (CPAG) argues that safeguarding consumer access to a local

pharmacy is more important than price. In their view, abolishing RPM

will put the existence of independent community pharmacists in

jeopardy.



With the Labour victory and the introduction of the Government’s

Competition Bill, the issue of RPM moved onto the political agenda. CPAG

hired Lawson Lucas Mendelsohn to help lobby for the continuence of

RPM.



Labour is known to be concerned to make health care services more

accessible to consumers. Lawson Lucas Mendelsohn has therefore

emphasised the range of services that community pharmacies can provide

in terms of health care and advice, thereby relieving pressure on

doctors and the NHS. This strategy has been successful in securing

support for the campaign from the Department of Health. The Health

Secretary Frank Dobson has written to President of the Board of Trade

Margaret Beckett asking that her department thinks very carefully before

changing existing policy on RPM.



Stage two of the campaign strategy included independent research

commissioned by economics consultancy NERA into the likely effect of the

abolition of RPM on community pharmacists. As a point of comparison, the

report looks at how out-of-town supermarkets have contributed to the

decline of local butchers and grocers. CPAG is keen to point out that

unlike these butchers and grocers, community pharmacies can save

lives.



With the Competition Bill scheduled to reach the Commons in February,

the campaign to save RPM is far from over. Lawson is convinced that if

his lobby is to win, it will do so on the basis of rational

argument.



’This is a very pragmatic Government. The more you base your argument on

coherent argument and fact, the more likely you are to get your message

across,’ he says.



This article was first published on PR Week UK

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