Comment: Political lobbying should face intense scrutiny

By Dr Matthew Ashton

The news that Patrick Mercer has resigned the Conservative whip in response to allegations made by the BBC programme Panorama about his relationship with lobbyists looks likely to dominate the weekend headlines. By acting so swiftly, he and the Conservative party are clearly hoping to limit the damage from the story as much as possible. The Liam Fox and Andrew Mitchell scandals demonstrate what can happen if the press decide to keep the pressure up. The Andrew Mitchell affair also provides a useful lesson in not rushing to judgement before all the facts are in.

Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, this scandal will undoubtedly lead to further debate and hand-wringing about the role of lobbying in British public life, and old wounds that will damage the reputation of our elected representatives will be re-opened.

The reason for this is that the problem remains the same. Parliament has been plagued by lobbying scandals over the last two decades, and the response is depressingly predictable; a long investigation followed by a half-hearted attempt to introduce new rules to regulate lobbying. The reality, though, is that lobbying in the UK is still far less transparent and accountable than it should be. While some lobbyists can perform a useful function in bringing issues to light or making sure that interests are articulated, there is a more shadowy side to their activities.

It seems self-evident that as long as powerful groups and organisations want to shape government policy to their benefit, they will attempt to cultivate influence in one way or another. The sums of money can be huge, with some estimates suggesting that the UK lobbying industry generates hundreds of millions of pounds per year. David Cameron has already admitted that there is a problem with lobbying, but is either unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

Something better than the current self-regulatory system is needed. For instance, if lobbyists meet with MPs they should do so in government offices with the exact date and time of every encounter noted. There should also be a public official present to record who was there and the minutes of what was said. Whether these minutes should then be made widely available is a debatable point, but in most cases I'm not sure it would do significant damage for people to know what lobbyists are saying to our MPs.

I'm sure MPs and lobbyists would object to this on the grounds that it would prevent either of them from doing their job properly. As elected representatives of the people, though, MPs shouldn't be saying anything that they wouldn't be comfortable with the public hearing. Equally if lobbyists are saying or asking for anything then I think we have a right to know what. The coalition's proposed statutory register of lobbyists, currently under consideration but disappointingly not featuring in the Queen's Speech, could be the answer we're looking for.

There are obviously practical issues to take into consideration, but bearing in mind that we can put a man on the moon I don't think any of them are insurmountable. If business information or state secrets are involved then I'm sure a way could be found to protect them. The penalties for breaking these rules should also be made tougher.

For those who want to find a way round this system I'm sure the means and opportunity will present itself. But it should make MPs and lobbyists think very carefully before speaking to each other. MPs would doubtless complain that they run into lobbyists all the time at public events or informal get-togethers. After all, many lobbyists are ex-MPs, ex-party workers or ex-civil servants and as a result are part of an MP's social circle. Informal chit-chat is fine; however any discussions involving state business, or MPs using the powers gifted to them by the public, must be transparent enough to stand up to the toughest scrutiny.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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