SMEs may need to register as lobbyists

If you thought the new Lobbying Register was just for professional lobbyists or representative bodies, then think again. Many Irish businesses, including SMEs, are required to register, to disclose details on contacts with politicians and public servants and also to submit returns three times a year. Others will be named in the returns made by professionals who they retain to lobby on their behalf.

From September 1, 2015, a new law requires all lobbying activity in Ireland to be registered with the first returns due in January 2016. The aim of the Regulation of Lobbying Act is to ensure greater openness and transparency about lobbying activities. The Lobbying Register, which is maintained by the Standards in Public Office (SIPO), will show who is lobbying, about what and which politicians and public servants are the subjects of this lobbying.

From early 2016, the Lobbying Register could become a treasure trove of data about the contacts made with the Irish political system. Business owners may have to submit some of this data themselves or else third parties acting on their behalf may have to do so. This means that information that until now was rarely disclosed could become publicly available.

Businesses and lobbying

SIPO identifies different types of individuals who need to register. One such group are individuals who carry out lobbying on behalf of themselves or their businesses. If you own or run a business, then according to SIPO you need to register if:

  • You “make, manage or direct the making of a relevant communication”;
  • If your business has more than ten full-time employees; and
  • “The relevant communications are made on your behalf.”

Professionals such as lobbyists or PR people who act on behalf of businesses that employ more than ten people, representative bodies or advocacy groups must register. Those who are carrying out lobbying activity about development land also need to register.

A “relevant communication” is defined as anything that could be written or oral, is made personally, either directly or indirectly, and is made to a designated public official on a “relevant matter”. This is further defined as:

  • The initiation, development or modification of any public policy or any public programme.
  • The preparation or amendment of any law (including secondary legislation such as statutory instruments and bye-laws).
  • The award of any grant, loan or other financial support, contract or other agreement, or of any licence or other authorisation involving public funds.

Potentially, this means that a lot of relatively routine contact and communications between business owners and politicians or public servants will have to be disclosed. This includes formal or even casual meetings with politicians or public servants on particular policy issues or representations that may be made in advance of the Budget or about existing or upcoming legislation. There are some exemptions, though, such as factual queries about grant schemes.

Registering and disclosing

So what’s involved in registering and submitting returns? The registration process is simple, requiring some basic details about the individual, business or association to be logged on the Register, which is accessible on www.Lobbying.ie. The first registration period runs from 1 September to 31 December. If you are registered in that period, you are obliged to complete and submit a return by 21 January next. Subsequent returns will then need to be made in May and September for next year.

The returns will provide considerable detail on who you were in contact with, what the subject matter was and what the intended results were. If you are carrying out lobbying activity on behalf of a client, you will be obliged to submit details of the client.

This means that if a lobbyist or another professional is acting on your behalf, and your business employs more than 10 people, then potential details of contacts and interacts made on your behalf could be publicly disclosed on the Register.

Once it receives the submissions, SIPO has the right to ask for further information, and if you get such a request, you must return the information within a 21 day period.

Even if no lobbying activity is carried out, an individual who has registered must submit a nil return. It is possible to request that SIPO delays publication on certain grounds such as causing material financial loss or prejudicing the competitive position of that person.

Sanctions

While the legislation provides for penalties for not registering or making returns, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin has said that these will not come into effect until the first review of the Act. That will not take place until after September 2016.

Action points

  1. Check if you should register. Take the Lobbying Register’s three step test. 
  2. If you need to register, get a more detailed understanding of the Lobbying Register and your compliance requirements. 
  3. Discuss the Register and its implications with your PR or other professional adviser and with your representative body.

August 2015