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By MATT HONEYCOMBE-FOSTER
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— Influence reaches new levels of self-indulgence as we prepare to hand the baton to the next generation of transparency nerd.
— Single parents are feeling the cost-of-living crisis acutely — even after the budget.
— All the job moves you can eat. But don’t eat them, they’re job moves.
PARISH NEWS OVERLOAD: POLITICO’s London Influence gets a brand-new writer next week as the mighty John Johnston takes the helm.
Welcome to the party, pal: John joins us after a cracking stint at PoliticsHome, where — in between first-rate news copy as a budding lobby journalist — he spent years lifting the lid on money in politics, crunching Whitehall data to dig out stories beyond the headlines, and generally making a nuisance of himself (in the best possible way). John is a former political consultant and think tanker too, so is no stranger to influence-land on the other side of the fence.
Not only will he be writing the newsletter: But John will be beefing up POLITICO U.K.’s day-to-day coverage of the influence beat and adding clout on investigations — so there should be no escaping him. Bombard him with coffee requests and (high-quality) tips here — and he’ll see you next week!
AS ONE DOOR OPENS: Another closes, this time in your outgoing Influence author’s time-melted face. Please indulge us a few parting thoughts as we cap what we learned in two-and-a-half years doing this lark in a breezy 8,724 words.
First, what we got wrong: Our bold prediction early doors that meaningful lobbying transparency reform would happen any time soon.
Oh sweet, innocent 2020 Influence: Blessed with a full head of hair and washboard abs, we were daft enough at launch to interpret the government saying it would look again at the U.K.’s lobbying laws as a sign that the government would in fact look again at the U.K.’s lobbying laws in some meaningful way. More fool us.
895 days later: Corporates, think tanks, trade union barons and gazillionaire party donors can still effectively press for whatever they want from government ministers and officials without having to declare anything themselves on a transparency register — just as long as they don’t hire third-party consultancy lobbyists to do it for them.
That’s not just unfair on a big chunk of the industry … it’s lousy for democracy. And the oft-repeated refrain that Whitehall’s own data fills in the gaps falls down when you actually read this stuff — supposedly quarterly releases that remain comically vague, typo-laden (sorry, privileges committee) and a system that remains subject to SpAd meddling and meetings vaguely badged as “political” rather than policy-focused.
Oh look: The Home Office didn’t feel like disclosing its latest meetings data last quarter! Still, we’re sure last June’s releases are a cracking read.
Of course: There have been tentative signs of progress — and, even if Britain has taken an anti-corruption rankings tumble, it’s still got a solid global rep. The House of Commons did move to get its own house in order on MPs doing paid consultancy after the Paterson furor. A register of foreign influencers is on the way after some snags. And the rules around all-party parliamentary groups could be in line for tweaks after the revelation some of the groups are … being used for sex tourism.
But but but: It shouldn’t take this much scandal and arm-twisting to get ministers to commit to meaningful public oversight of who is feeding into the policy process — or to ensure effective policing of the revolving door for that matter. The government talked about handing MPs on the public administration committee ideas for change back in April 2021 — yet the group of MPs was only really able to get going late last year after much toing-and-froing.
And it isn’t just boring newsletter writers whining, honest: The lobbying industry itself is (still) calling for change through the PRCA and CIPR, both sick of members getting a kicking every time some ex-minister tries to coin it. The anti-corruption watchdog who quit and is still to be replaced reckons something must be done. Regulators who get periodic beatings for being toothless (and who are often just working in the straitjacket ministers set them) have called for tweaks that could be implement right now. The inquiry the government itself commissioned into Greensill mapped out a whole bunch of detailed ideas. Yet still Westminster waits for the next row to erupt and some more sage nodding to take place.
On a less ranty note: While your author will go to the grave griping about transparency (the last thing you see before you die is ORCL releases), this Influence stint has challenged plenty of our own assumptions too.
How so? We came in reckoning, frankly, that a lot of lobbyists were plummy chancers relying on boozing and schmoozing to undermine great, public-spirited Whitehall policies in the interests of Big Clusterbombs. Surprise surprise, it’s a lot more nuanced than that.
On the diversity point: We’ve talked to countless inspiring influence-types who have carved out time in their mad work schedules to set up staff networks and talk frankly about the challenges people in the industry still face when it comes to gender, race and class. Those challenges remain huge — but they are finally being openly acknowledged, and that’s a start.
And: There’s honestly a lot less winging it going on than we thought (apart from in this newsletter, obvz). Data is a bigger deal than we expected. Public opinion research is getting massive. Lobbyists now openly deride the who-you-know model of quiet words in official ears — and often walk the walk on evidence-based policymaking in a way that politicians themselves struggle to. Connections still matter, but they’re not the only game in town.
All of which is a very long way of saying: We’ve spent two-and-half years speaking to countless bright sparks in agencies, in-house, think tanks and campaign groups who really have spotted big holes in government thinking, put important issues on the radar, and flagged the unintended consequences of galaxy brain ideas on their industries. We’ve learned something from everyone who took the time to chat to us about what they do and why — and while we may have bored you to tears on occasion, hopefully we’ve given you some laughs and taught you some new stuff on the way too.
So: A genuinely massive thank you for reading this nonsense week-in, week-out and keeping my lovely daughter in socks, biscuits and barely-adequate parenting.
**On March 28 at 4:00 p.m. CEST, POLITICO Live is hosting an online event on “Protecting Europe: How the war in Ukraine changed Europe’s thinking on defense?”. Join CSIS Director Max Bergamnn, Ambassadors to NATO of France and United Kingdom Muriel Domenach and David Quarrey as they deep dive into Europe’s thinking on how to best arm itself and where allies should focus their defense priorities in the coming years. Register today.**
WISDOM IN 280
SINGLE PARENTS SQUEEZED: One in four households in the U.K. are led by a single parent — and they’re feeling the cost of living crisis acutely. Charity Gingerbread wants much more support from ministers to help them cope with mounting challenges — and an end to the “stigma and shame” that can too often frame political rhetoric about lone parents.
Fighting to be heard: Gingerbread was set up in the wake of World War I, when many women found themselves suddenly widowed and forced to support families alone. Fast forward more than a century, and single parents (predominantly women, although the latest figures show single fathers now make up 12 percent of the cohort) are still fighting to be heard.
Stereotypes, there must be more to life: Gingerbread chief executive Victoria Benson tells Influence that “really harmful stereotypes” about single parents still linger in Westminster, with some politicians making assumptions that single parenthood is some kind of moral failing that will automatically lead children to ruin. In fact, she stresses, it’s poverty driving bad outcomes, not the fact of single parenthood itself.
Shame is the name: “We hear all the time from single parents who feel stigmatized and feel shame,” she says. “You know, there’s a lot of shame if you’re on Universal Credit. There’s a lot of shame if your child has free school meals. People feel ashamed of relying on the state or being perceived to be relying on the state.”
But but but: Benson says this really doesn’t have to be the case — and that there’s “a lot of pride in being a single parent as well — the sense of what you’re achieving on your own, how you and your child are a strong unit achieving such a lot. But it’s tough to maintain that feeling of pride when you’re up against so many challenges all the time.”
And yet: Those challenges are mounting right now. Polling for Gingerbread by Savanta finds that the financial situation of two in three lone parents has worsened compared to 12 months ago. One in five say they are now using credit to pay for household essentials, with a similar proportion starting to use food banks. A grim 76 percent of single-parent families are now in debt, with half of those reporting debts of over two grand.
Not only that: But the mental toll of all this financial worry is real. Half of the single parents asked said their mental health had declined because of cost-of-living concerns. Self-esteem, sleep and physical health are all taking a hit, the polling shows — not exactly a great outcome for a group of people who went into the current crisis often struggling to cope.
Story so far: “The journey to where we are today hasn’t started with the cost of living crisis,” Benson says, pointing to more than a decade of financial pressure on services single parents rely on coupled with a pandemic that only made things harder. “Single parents are more likely to be in very low-paid jobs,” she says. “They are more likely to be in rented accommodation, more likely to have a disability or be disabled themselves. And if they’re out of work, that period of unemployment is likely to be longer. We’ve ended up in a situation where now they have no buffer.”
What’s to be done? Gingerbread’s report comes packed with recommendations, ranging from changes to Universal Credit — abolishing the benefit cap, restoring the pandemic-era GBP20 uplift and reviewing the wider generosity of the system — to a major review of childcare, with a view to ensuring costs come in at no more than 5 percent of a household’s income (more on that in a bit). There’s a call to expand access to free school meals and bring in a lower social tariff for energy — as well as recommendations for the Treasury to expand debt advice and consider more ways to provide no or low-interest loans to vulnerable households.
Help to work: Employment support is also a key part of the equation, with the new Department for Business and Trade urged to get a move on with its long-promised Employment Bill expanding the right to request flexible working.
Budget rating: Benson, who has just been giving evidence to the Commons education committee when we catch up, says there were “a couple of positives from the Budget announcements last week,” including changes to childcare that will mean those on Universal Credit get some of their childcare costs paid directly to nurseries rather than having to front up fees and then chase the government for reimbursement.
But but but: Benson has “mixed feelings” about the expansion of free childcare unveiled by the Treasury, pointing to Institute for Fiscal Studies research warning of continued pressure on providers and questions over eligibility for the low-paid. “There’s still an awful lot of concern about availability of childcare in many areas, both for preschool but also for wraparound and holiday care. And it doesn’t do anything about quality of childcare either. It could still be very patchy.”
Beyond the immediate crisis: Benson believes the conversation in Westminster needs to widen and that there is still too much focus on the idea that “single parents aren’t productive, and that their children aren’t going to be productive.” While last week’s Budget may ease some of the pressure, she fears “the biggest driver for supporting single parents or indeed any parents is getting them back to work so that they can then start becoming productive. But you know, that isn’t the whole picture or even the most important thing. The most important thing is the welfare of the family and the child.”
“Possessed of a keen intellect, a pugilist’s love of the headline fight and a provocative mastery of campaigning, Ingham’s passion and energy for the public relations profession ensured a leading role as the industry confronted a range of 21st century challenges. Along the way, his unique worldview — shaped, perhaps, by his earlier career in politics — meant that anyone he met could be friend, collaborator or enemy, sometimes all at the same time. By turns uproarious and insufferable, it is doubtful the PR world will ever see his like again.”
Provoke editor-in-chief Arun Sudham on Francis Ingham, director-general of the Public Relations and Communications Association, who died last week at the age of 47.
ON THE MOVE
Alex Boyd — formerly Liz Truss’ top energy expert in No. 10 — joined Strand Partners as director of policy.
Helen Barnard joined charity Trussell Trust as director of policy, research and impact after spells with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Pro Bono Economics.
Elliot Dunster is moving on from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) and joining the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) team in Geneva.
Natalie Ribeiro was promoted to head of press at lobby group UK Finance.
Bunch of hires and moves at Edinburgh-based consultancy Charlotte Street Partners. Fraser Paterson, formerly the PR and public affairs manager for the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, joins as a senior client manager. Nathalie Helene joins as a client manager from the Scottish Government, where she worked on internal comms and previously for Children’s Hearings Scotland. And Anna Dickens steps up to associate partner.
James Cowling joined Hawthorn Advisors as a senior consultant. He comes on board from Atlas, and is co-founder of the Next Gen Tories campaign.
Alison Stiby-Harris is stepping up as interim head of mental health policy at the Wellcome Trust.
Crop of promotions at APCO: Jula Konieczny, Chris Brent, Emma Kassim and Henry Lewis move up to project consultant; Daniel Wootton becomes associate consultant; Holly Muirhead steps up to consultant; Ella Robertson-Bonds shifts to research associate; Sedef Akademir and Karen Anciaux become senior consultants; and Richard de Pencier is promoted to associate director.
Liron Velleman is moving on after a three-year spell as political organizer at HOPE not hate — and the group’s after a campaigns and influencing lead.
Sam Julius is the new head of influence and communications at criminal justice body Clinks. He joins from Nacro.
Jobs jobs jobs: Share Action needs a digital communications manager … Senior campaigns officer gig going at the Department for Leveling Up, Housing and Communities … Energy regulator Ofgem is after a head of media … WaterAid is hunting for a global and U.K. comms director … External relations manager role up for grabs at Unions 21.
Thanks: To Paul Dallison for not just highlighting the top of the newsletter and pressing backspace every single week.
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