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Cross-party awkward squad go for the lobbyists

Andrew Blick Stuart Weir
23 May 2008

Andrew Blick and Stuart Weir (Democratic Audit): Four MPs of the House of Commons awkward squad are leading a demand for more transparency and regulation in the activities of the corporate and other lobbyists who infest the Palace of Westminster and the Whitehall village. Former Environment Minister, Michael Meacher MP has tabled a new Early Day Motion, with cross-party support from among others Conservative MP Peter Bottomley, Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker and Plaid Cymru's Adam Price, demanding a mandatory register of individuals and organisations that are involved in lobbying MPs and the civil service and the introduction of an enforceable code of ethics for lobbyists.

At the same time, the Public Administration Select Committee's ongoing inquiry into lobbying is also debating the issue of transparency. So far its evidence sessions have however done more to show how hard it is to pin lobbyists down. John Sauven, director of Greenpeace, gave evidence to PASC about the privileged access BAA has to the Department of Transport and the way the airports operator and the department colluded over the public consultation on Heathrow expansion. Asked about his access to government, Tom Kelly, BAA group director of corporate and public affairs and former spokesman for Tony Blair, said that MPs on the committee were overstating his influence, and went on to stretch the credulity of the committee by saying his contacts book extended mainly to government press officers.

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are both members of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (ALT) which has published a summary of the committee's sessions, ‘Tesco and BAA coy over lobbying in the face of evidence’ on the Alliance website . This coalition of NGOs and trade unions is also campaigning for a simple mandatory system that requires disclosure of all lobbyists’ activities (above a minimum threshold) including financial disclosure, enforceable ethics rules for all lobbyists and stronger rules on ethics for politicians and public officials on the so-called "revolving-door" syndrome between lobbyists and public bodies; and to halt privileged access to decision-makers.

But lobbyists are perhaps more the icing on the cake, or the flies around the cake. Most of the time, the business elite do not even have to resort to 'lobbying' because their interests are protected not only by their power and influence, but by the 'common sense' of the time. There are more profound problems - the penetration of the public sphere by corporate and commercial interests and the grossly unequal distribution of power in society and the world outside. When Democratic Audit carried out a study of power and participation in Britain last year, we uncovered a wealth of evidence showing how corporate business and the City had an undesirable degree of influence upon government thinking and policy, even without lobbyists, and that the middle and professional classes and their networks dominated the processes of public policy-making at lower levels. While imbalances of material resources persist, so too will the uneven distribution of political influence and policy outcomes. With or without more regulation of the lobbying industry - right though it is in principle - this reality will remain.

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