Lord Houghton was chief of defence staff, the UK’s most senior military officer, from 2013 until 2016. He joined the House of Lords as a crossbencher on 20 November 2017.
Earlier that year, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) recommended the former chief of defence staff shouldn’t work with a particular tech start-up company.
Nevertheless, as I exclusively revealed on 25 February 2019,General Houghton was one of two individuals who controlled the firm at the date of the advice letter. The advice letter makes no reference to the fact that he was co-owner. The advice letter is of interest for another reason: it contains a non-trivial error. As I showed, the ex-chief of defence staff failed to inform ACOBA of the error.
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.
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)
Mr Gimson is a contributing editor to ConservativeHome, and biographer of Boris Johnson, the ex-foreign secretary. So why is Lodestone employingthejournalist? The agency’s entry on the then latest static PRCAregister, that for March-May 2018, showed him as having “conducted public affairsservices” on its behalf in the last quarter. (PublicAffairsRegister March 2018 April 2018 May 2018) Another Lodestoneemployee 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 agencyreported that two high-profile journalists carried outlobbying on its behalf.
I emailed Lodestone,askingfor which clients it disclosed on the register did Mr Gimson and Ms Sodha act. The agency didn’t respond to emails.
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.”
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.
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.”
In the next update of the static PRCA register, that for June-August 2018, Lodestone doesn’t list Mr Gimson or Ms Sodha.
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)’”.
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.”
Nevertheless I heard nothing more from PRCA – even after sending a reminder four weeks later (26 October 2018).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Today (14 April 2018) the rest of the national press have followed up yesterday’s Daily Telegraph front-page exclusive on health secretary Jeremy Hunt for which I was source (see previous post).
Here I highlight two reports, where the journalists quoted me, after bothering to speak to me and ask questions. Proper journalism, then.
I told the Daily Mail I was disappointed Mr Hunt simply blamed his accountant for the failures I identified (Daily Mail 14 April 2018).
The Guardian, meanwhile, reported my commentsaboutthe lack of scrutiny at Companies House. It seems Companies House is open to potential abuse. Why didn’t it pick up the glaring errors in the details for Mr Hunt’s company? (Guardian 14 April 2018).
On 7 August 2015, I had a letter published in The Guardian on the closure of the charity Keeping Kids Company (registered charity number: 1068298), known as Kids Company, and the role of the Charity Commission.