These past few weeks has seen lobbying hit the headlines once again, as MP Patrick Mercer was the first Tory MP to resign as the party’s whip, when a BBC investigation suggested he had been lobbying on behalf of business interests in Fiji. He was followed by Tim Yeo, who was filmed suggesting he knew “all the key players in the UK government.”
David Cameron has thus come under pressure to distance himself from lobbyists and the actions of Mercer and Yeo. Whilst he should absolutely condemn the acts of those individuals, the act of lobbying itself is something that should not be considered a misdemeanour.
Lobbying itself is nothing new. Groups and individuals have been lobbying governments for eons. Indeed, the recent scandals should not distract from the fact that lobbying does not distort, but inform and enhance Parliamentary debate.
In fact, lobbying is core to the work of MPs and that it has acquired its dirty image is nothing to do with ordinary MPs, but a few individuals who have put personal gain ahead of informed Parliamentary debate.
MPs are not simply lobbied by large multi-national businesses, no, they are lobbied by teachers, wildlife campaigners, and people campaigning against and for wind farms. Indeed they are lobbied by ordinary constituents who go to MP’s surgeries every so often.
There are rules for lobbying, and they are very simply understood. MPs must not accept payment for lobbying in parliament when they are already being paid to do so by taxpayers. They should also declare any financial conflicts of interest and register payments.
Whilst I am not exactly a fan of all members of the Houses of Parliament, to dismiss all MPs as corrupt, crooked and careless is frankly wrong. Nevertheless, the whole scandal has undermined democracy in this country, and David Cameron must act swiftly and effectively to put this right.
Whilst I do not advocate banning lobbying at the highest level, more must be done to improve transparency. This not only includes the highest echelons of the Conservative Party, but also the funding relationship between the Labour Party and the Trade Unions.
Select Committee Chairs are a case in point. They are rightly paid for the considerable amount of extra work entailed but there must be a change to ensure that these influential positions are free from conflicts of interest.
Do we therefore need a register or list of lobbyists? On the surface this seems a good idea, it would improve transparency, however, the problem comes in how we define a lobbyist. Should we include charities, a group of schools or youth clubs meeting their MPs, a representative of the motor industry or a group of underrepresented individuals campaigning for animal rights? As we can see, it is far easier to suggest who should definitely be considered a lobbyist, than who absolutely should not.
What is needed is a mechanism by which MPs and peers can record when they have received outside help in the drafting of parliamentary questions and early day motions and it should be absolutely clear not just whether they have any personal financial conflict of interest, but whether that extends to family members.
Should MPs break the rules, the public is well within its rights to demand why the likes of Patrick Mercer are allowed to remain as MPs on full pay, when in the real world, an act of similar indiscretion would result in the loss of a job.
It is worth remembering that lobbying is of many forms and from many people of differing ilks. The vast majority of it informs debate than distorting it for financial gain. It is this minority which needs be eliminated.