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The Lib Dems and lobbying, an undeclared interest

As another corruption and illegal lobbying scandal hits Westminster it turns out the Lib Dems may have a vested interest in not reforming the system.

Anthony Barnett
2 June 2013

When the Conservative MP Patrick Mercer was approached undercover by the Telegraph and the BBC to lobby for returning Fiji to the Commonwealth he told them his fee was £1,000 a day, took some of their money and failed to declare it, meanwhile asking questions in the House of Commons. Had he declared the money and persuaded another MP to raise the matter, it would have been legal. In the clips that I have seen what is most striking is the normal way he says what his going rate is. It was like a re-run of the Labour MP Stephen Byers in 2010 being recorded by the Telegraph and Channel 4 Distpatches, telling them, "I'm a bit like a cab for hire". 

That was in the wake of the MPs expenses scandal which created a major crisis of legitimacy at the heart of Britian's Westminster system. This was in turn a reason for the rise of the Lib Dems as the clean-hands party and hence the Coalition, which pledged to return integrity to politics. Before the 2010 election David Cameron argued that lobbying had to be cleaned up, otherwise,

“It is the next big scandal waiting to happen. It’s an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money".

 The committmenmt was for a clear register of lobbyists and transparency in a £2 billion industry.

It hasn't happened, now the scandal has.

On this issue Unlock Democracy tried to make a difference, calling for a compulsory register of lobbyists to be included in the recent Queens Speech that set out the Coalition's legislative programme. Thier campaign continues with added vindication. But there is something odd happening. Why is politics carrying on as usual? You might expect Cameron not to mean his sweet words. But surely Nick Clegg and his party would genuinly want reform? Why have they done nothing to clean up lobbying? With every other democratic reform they have attempted failing, they might at least have set out to implement this one, with the best chance of success.

So I asked a friend who supports the Lib Dems (or did) and has some inside knowledge of lobbying what was going on.

He reported that the Lib Dems sat idly by whilst the Conservatives in the last Cabinet reshuffle installed what he termed "the useless Chloe Smith MP". She, far from doing anything, did not manage for many months even to meet key people in the lobbying industry and non-profit lobbying reform groups to consult. Even to the point where the lobbyists were publically criticising the minister for inaction in their own trade magazine!

I asked why Clegg did nothing with more scandals waiting to happen could these impact on his reputation and his party, once squeaky clean? I was told:

"Some of the Lib Dem connections are transparent, others are less so. Nick Clegg's wife is a lawyer at DLA Piper which is effectively a lobbyist – DLA as a global law firm advises hundreds of clients on inter-Government relations, from the Ethiopian regime to private healthcare interests. She is joined by such prominent Lib Dems as Lord Tim Clement Jones, a managing partner at DLA Piper who was responsible for marshalling support in the Lords for the NHS bill (the lack of rules in the Lords on conflicts of interests meant he was able to do as he pleased). Oh, and DLA Piper has for years refused to sign up to a lobbying transparency register.

 

It doesn’t stop there. Several of Clegg’s closest special advisors are from the lobbying world; his chief advisor is formerly of Bell Pottinger, the firm that specialised in advising human rights abusing foreign governments. And another key special advisor formerly worked for Cicero, the financial consulting group with the likes of Barclay’s and HSBC on its books. Unlike DLA Piper they at least disclose their clients.

 

Lesser known is the fact that KPMG regularly seconds staff to the Liberal Democrat policy unit (much as it does the other two parties) helping to shape election manifestos. The knowledge it gleans from these secondments means it is well placed to advise its clients on minimising corporation tax. KPMG client’s such as Google for example. Now that really is effective lobbying – if not so good for the public finances!

 

None of this is unusual of course – it is merely in keeping with the ways of the political establishment Clegg once claimed he would tear down. Nick promised us deep changes if the Liberal Democrats entered Government… instead we got Comrade Napoleon’s Animal Farm."

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