Disclosure failings on the PRCA public affairs and lobbying register

  1. Each quarter, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) publishes online a publicly accessible public affairs and lobbying register. There companies that are members of the PR and communications trade body disclose employees involved in political lobbying, as well as all clients. Or at least that’s what’s supposed to happen. Here I show that disclosures made by a prominent member organisation call into question the accuracy and usefulness of the PRCA public affairs and lobbying register. Of equal concern is PRCA’s response to disclosure failings by members.
  2. Parliament’s latest (at 13 November 2018) register of journalists’ interests – and previous versions thereof – reveal an interesting declaration by Andrew Gimson of the influential ConservativeHome website: “consultancy” for leading political lobbying firm Lodestone Communications. (register at 13 November 2018)
  3. Journalists on the register possess a parliamentary pass. Mr Gimson hasn’t just become a parliamentary passholder: he appears on the register of journalists’ interests at 2 February 2017, for example, for the same sponsor, ConservativeHome. (https://web.archive.org/web/20170217224008/https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmjournl/journalists.htm)
  4. Mr Gimson is a contributing editor to ConservativeHome, and biographer of Boris Johnson, the ex-foreign secretary. So why is Lodestone employing the journalist? The agency’s entry on the then latest static PRCA register, that for March-May 2018, showed him as having “conducted public affairs services” on its behalf in the last quarter. (PublicAffairsRegister March 2018 April 2018 May 2018) Another Lodestone employee allegedly involved in lobbying caught my eye there: Sonia Sodha. Ms Sodha is chief leader writer at Sunday newspaper The Observer, as well as deputy opinion editor at stablemate The Guardian. Thus the agency reported that two high-profile journalists carried out lobbying on its behalf.
  5. I emailed Lodestone, asking for which clients it disclosed on the register did Mr Gimson and Ms Sodha act. The agency didn’t respond to emails.
  6. I also separately contacted Mr Gimson and Ms Sodha about their alleged lobbying activities for Lodestone. Mr Gimson at ConservativeHome failed to reply to messages. Ms Sodha, meanwhile, wrote in an email: “I didn’t do any work, paid or otherwise, for Lodestone or its clients in that period.”
  7. Which obviously contradicts what’s on the register. So I then asked Ms Sodha in an email why she was named there. I received nothing, despite sending a reminder.
  8. Nicholas Dunn-Mcafee, head of public affairs, policy and research at PRCA, is contact for the register. Lodestone told him, he said in his email, that both Mr Gimson and Ms Sodha “don’t work on clients/provide lobbying – ‘for example, they speak at our events’ and in the past were added to the register for transparency”. Mr Dunn-Mcafee continued: “They understand that this is over-disclosure and will correct their future reporting accordingly.”
  9. In the next update of the static PRCA register, that for June-August 2018, Lodestone doesn’t list Mr Gimson or Ms Sodha.
  10. Then there’s another problem with the agency’s disclosures – one that means Lodestone, it appears, has breached the PRCA public affairs and lobbying code of conduct. (PRCA Code of Conduct – updated following review in September 2016) The relevant para is 11, which includes the requirement for PRCA members to report on the register “passholders and the relevant institution by placing ‘(Passholder – Institution)’”.
  11. On 25 September 2018, I therefore emailed Mr Dunn-Mcafee again to point out Lodestone doesn’t show Mr Gimson holding a parliamentary pass on the then latest static PRCA register, that for March-May 2018. In his response three days later, Mr Dunn-Mcafee said: “I appreciate you noting the parliamentary pass detail, and we obviously require members to declare employees with passes when those employees are required to appear on the register. I’ll pick up this point with Lodestone, but given his inclusion is a mistake.”
  12. Nevertheless I heard nothing more from PRCA – even after sending a reminder four weeks later (26 October 2018).
  13. As I say, Lodestone told Mr Dunn-Mcafee that neither Mr Gimson nor Ms Sodha actually provide lobbying services for any of its clients, despite the firm’s original disclosures on the PRCA register. Here Mr Gimson warrants particular scrutiny because of his access to parliament as a journalist. (Ms Sodha doesn’t hold a parliamentary pass.) The potential concern about anyone with a pass, journalist or not, is whether access to parliament is being abused for the purposes of lobbying.
  14. Lodestone’s disclosure failings risk undermining public trust and confidence in the PRCA public affairs and lobbying register. How many other political lobbying firms are misreporting their activities? Earlier this year, I revealed that PRCA secretly updated its latest supposedly static register after my discovery PLMR, another political lobbying firm, omitted to declare a client (see 13 February 2018 post). So this isn’t the first time PRCA’s actions, or lack thereof, in response to disclosure failings by a member call into question the credibility of the trade body.
  15. ADDENDUM: On 1 November 2018, PRCA announced on its website that it had merged with the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC), a hitherto independent membership body. APPC had maintained its own publicly accessible register of political lobbyists, where again members were required to list relevant staff and all clients.

Not quite the full story on Boris Johnson’s re-employment by the Telegraph

  1. In July 2018, Boris Johnson was re-employed by the Daily Telegraph newspaper on a salary of £275k a year for his weekly column, according to parliament’s latest (at 1 October 2018) register of MPs’ financial interests.
  2. There’s something interesting in the ex-foreign secretary’s disclosures on the register about the job. There he states: “I consulted ACOBA [Advisory Committee on Business Appointments] about this appointment.”
  3. That’s not quite the full story, though. True, Mr Johnson consulted the committee – but after his appointment had been announced. ACOBA duly rebuked him in August 2018 for failing to follow the ministerial code: he should have sought its advice prior to acceptance of a new role. Thus the committee refused to give retrospective advice.
  4. On 4 October 2018, The Guardian, among other newspapers, reported Mr Johnson’s newly revealed Telegraph salary – here’s the online report: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/oct/03/daily-telegraph-rehires-boris-johnson-on-275000-salary. What a pity, though, it omitted to mention why the former foreign secretary’s disclosures on the register about the role were incomplete.

Extradition on the dance floor

  1. Extradition could be coming to a dance floor near you, thanks to a new firm set up by Lord Carlile and ex-MI6 chief Sir John Scarlett.
  2. Practising barrister (QC) Lord Carlile doesn’t say much about what Manet Solutions Limited (registered company number: 11351325) actually does on the latest House of Lords register of interests. There he only states providing advice in relation to extradition”.
  3. The firm has three directors: Lord Carlile, Sir John and Rowley Sword, according to Companies House records. The first two, both born in 1948, already work together as SC Strategy Limited (registered company number: 08248586). Mr Sword, meanwhile, is considerably younger: his year of birth is 1992. Manet Solutions is the first UK company where he’s been a director.
  4. Mr Sword and Oswald Miller are the founders of “Meatz & Beatz”, a music (live DJs) and catering entertainment service. The pair own the UK trade mark “Meatz and Beatz”.
  5. An unusual mash-up: extradition and partying. I asked Lord Carlile in an email whether Manet Solutions Limited will be working with Meatz & Beatz” in any way. He hasn’t replied.

Addendum: Fifth reason for astonishment at Tom Watson MP over Sky Bet

  1. Here’s a fifth reason why I’m astonished Tom Watson MP accepted the gift of four tickets for a football match from Sky Bet (see previous post). On 28 March 2018, gambling regulator the Gambling Commission fined Sky Bet £1m for “failing to protect vulnerable consumers” (http://www.gamblingcommission.gov.uk/news-action-and-statistics/news/2018/SkyBet-to-pay-1m-penalty.aspx).
  2. As I say, Mr Watson didn’t respond to requests for comment. I emailed him twice at parliament: 23 June 2018 and 27 June 2018. On both occasions, I immediately received an automated acknowledgement.

Tom Watson MP accepts gift of four tickets for football match from Sky Bet

  1. The latest (at 18 June 2018) register of MPs’ financial interests shows that Tom Watson MP accepted a gift of four tickets for the Sky Bet Championship play-off final, a football match that took place on 26 May 2018. The total value was £392. Sky Betting and Gaming (Sky Bet), the gambling company, was the donor. As well as being deputy leader of Labour, Mr Watson is shadow culture secretary.
  2. I‘m astonished at his decision for at least four reasons.
  3. First, as shadow culture secretary, Mr Watson surely shouldn’t be compromised or appear to be compromised by accepting gifts from the gambling industry. Gambling is within his remit – and, as everyone knows, there are many controversies around the industry and its regulation.
  4. Second, the shadow culture secretary regularly lambasts the gambling industry. On 15 June 2018, for example, The Times newspaper revealed that the government wouldn’t be introducing its £2 maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) until April 2020 after the Treasury struck a backroom deal with bookmakers. The Guardian newspaper followed up the story the next day, where Mr Watson blasted the government for its two-year delay: “Capitulating to a two-year delay is a pathetic move from a fundamentally weak government. Those who praised the government when the announcement was made will feel badly let down. They are already rolling back on their promises and allowing these machines to ruin more lives.” Last weekend, meanwhile, Mr Watson turned his fire on online gambling, telling the Financial Times newspaper: “Britain is in the throes of a hidden epidemic of gambling addiction, with the rise in online and smartphone gambling a central part of the problem. There has been an explosion of new digital products since the last law was passed to regulate gambling. The current laws aren’t fit for the purpose of regulating these new products. If we are to get a grip on the rise of problem gambling we need a new Gambling Act fit for the digital age.”
  5. Third, Sky Betting and Gaming is a leading online gambling firm – and so one of the companies fuelling Mr Watson’s “hidden epidemic of gambling addiction”. (Sky Bet is its sports betting brand.)
  6. Fourth, Sky Betting and Gaming, as its name suggests, has a longstanding association with satellite broadcaster Sky PLC. Indeed, Sky held a controlling stake until 2015, when it sold an 80 percent stake to private equity firm CVC Capital Partners. Sky continued as partner, retaining a 20% stake and consenting to a long-term licence of the Sky brand. In April 2018, CVC and Sky in turn sold the firm to Canadian betting behemoth The Stars Group for £3.4 billion. Nevertheless Sky retains an interest with a small stake in Stars, and the Sky trademarks are still used under licence. Sky, of course, was founded by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who owns 39.14% of the firm. Mr Murdoch’s company News International was seriously damaged by the 2011 phone-hacking scandal at the now-closed News of the World newspaper. And Mr Watson was one of the leading campaigners who helped expose wrongdoing at the infamous tabloid. In 2012, he published a well-known book with journalist Martin Hickman on the alleged abuses of power by Mr Murdoch’s UK newspapers not only the News of the World, “Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and The Corruption of Britain”. Mr Watson remains a vocal critic of Mr Murdoch as the mogul continues his protracted stop-start battle for full control of Sky.
  7. Four reasons, then, why I’m astonished Mr Watson accepted the gift of four tickets for a football match from Sky Bet.
  8. Mr Watson didn’t respond to requests for comment.

GambleAware trustee works for secretive political lobbyist – and fails to disclose role on trustee register of interests

  1. A trustee of key charity GambleAware (GA; registered charity number: 1093910) is working for a secretive political lobbyist – and has failed to disclose the role on the trustee register of interests.
  2. Former MP and government minister Chris Pond was appointed as a trustee of GA, the UK’s leading problem-gambling charity, on 9 March 2017, Companies House filings show. Mr Pond “was until recently head of UK public affairs with Kreab Gavin Anderson”, says his biography on the charity website (screen shot in Figure 1). As you can see, no dates are given. His Who’s Who 2018 entry, however, states Mr Pond worked for the political lobbyist 2013-2016. Before becoming a GA trustee, then.

    Figure 1. Trustee Chris Pond biography on GambleAware website at 26 May 2018

  3. In 2017, though, Mr Pond became an “adviser” to another political lobbyist, Centaurus Communications Ltd (registered company number: 08335964), according to its recently re-designed website (screen shot in Figure 2). Nevertheless Mr Pond hasn’t disclosed the role on the GA trustee register of interests (screen shot in Figure 3).

    Figure 2. “Chris Pond joined Centaurus as an adviser in 2017” – Centaurus Communications Ltd website at 30 May 2018

    Figure 3. Chris Pond’s entry on GambleAware trustee register of interests at 26 May 2018

  4. At 17 February 2017 Mr Pond was on the Centaurus website as an “adviser” – that is, prior to joining the charity as a trustee (https://web.archive.org/web/20170217211513/http://centauruscommunications.com/#team). There’s nothing special about 17 February 2017: it happens to be the earliest date last year when the Centaurus website was captured on online archive the Wayback Machine.
  5. It’s bad enough a GA trustee is working for a political lobbyist. What’s more, Centaurus is a secretive company: it doesn’t routinely disclose the clients for whom it provides political lobbying services. Thus there’s no client list on its website.
  6. Further, Centaurus Communications isn’t a member of the Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC), where members report their political lobbying clients on a public register. The firm isn’t a member of the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) either, where again members disclose their political lobbying clients on a public register.
  7. As I say, Centaurus keeps its clients secret. In addition, Jonathan Horsman, the company’s owner and sole director, didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment about the lack of transparency on clients.
  8. Incidentally, the hidden clients – and non-responsiveness – surely call into question Centaurus’ involvement with the alternative lending all-party parliamentary group (APPG). Mr Horsman at the firm is listed as “public enquiry point” (!) for the APPG on parliament’s latest (at 6 June 2018) register of APPGs. For the avoidance of doubt, I only became aware of Centaurus’ role there because of the information on the register of APPGs.
  9. I first wrote about GA on 27 February 2017, revealing several problems with the charity that undermined its independence and credibility. One of these was that the then new independent chair, Kate Lampard, was – and is – paid proportionately more than the prime minister (almost all charity trustees are unpaid, remember). Another was that half of the then trustees, five of the ten, held senior positions in the UK gambling industry! So it’s important to acknowledge the improvements Ms Lampard has instigated at GA. The most significant is the shake-up in the board of trustees: of the now eleven trustees, only one works for a gambling company (Henry Birch, who is chief executive of The Rank Group PLC).
  10. Astonishingly, though, there’s still nothing on the GA website about working with the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA), the trade body for UK advertisers. At date of publication searching the charity website for “Incorporated Society of British Advertisers” or “ISBA” produces no results. On 11 March 2018, I exclusively described four problems with the tie-up. Given the many controversies around gambling advertising (see 11 March 2018 post), the continuing opacity and unaccountability at the charity on its relationship with ISBA only damage public trust and confidence in GA.
  11. Back to Mr Pond and his role at Centaurus Communications. That he was already an “adviser” to the political lobbyist when appointed as a GA trustee is surely unacceptable. No trustee of the UK’s leading charity for problem gambling should be working for a political lobbyist – even if it routinely lists its clients, which Centaurus doesn’t. Equally as serious is Mr Pond’s failure to disclose the role on the trustee register of interests.
  12. I put my findings to GA in an email. In its response, a spokesperson, who withheld his/her name, wrote: “He [Mr Pond] has confirmed that Centaurus Communications Ltd recently asked him to do some paid advisory work on financial service issues going forward, which he appreciates he would need to declare, but he has not begun this work, nor has he received any payment in the past from this company.”
  13. The anonymous spokesperson continued: “May I reassure you that the register of interests is updated at least annually, and when any material changes occur – new paid employment does constitute a material change so we have now added reference to this connection in the published register of interests in advance of the work beginning. While not required to do so unless a specific conflict has arisen, Chris also brought this interest to the attention of other trustees verbally at the start of our most recent board meeting.”
  14. He/she finished: “Finally, given your concerns about the non-disclosure of the company’s client list, Chris has checked and been assured that Centaurus has never undertaken any work related to gambling. His own work with them is in financial services.”
  15. As you can see, GA didn’t explain why “adviser” Mr Pond has been on the Centaurus website from before the date of his appointment as a trustee of the charity (9 March 2017). Oh, and withholding the name of its spokesperson only undermines GA’s credibility. So much for transparency and accountability.

Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards opens inquiry into Jeremy Hunt

  1. On 18 April 2018, Kathryn Stone, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, announced on her website that she has opened an inquiry into health secretary Jeremy Hunt, after he admitted breaching money laundering rules when buying seven luxury flats in Southampton.
  2. The revelations about Mr Hunt that led to the opening of the inquiry were reported in the front-page lead story in the Daily Telegraph newspaper on 13 April 2018 (see 13 April 2018 post). I was named as source of the story in the Telegraph exclusive.
  3. Mr Hunt received a “bulk discount” on the seven flats from a property firm owned and chaired by a Conservative donor, Nicolas James Roach, according to the Guardian newspaper on 19 April 2018.