Another lobbying scandal: how much longer before the government acts?


Here we go again. My heart sank as the news started breaking at the end of last week of another lobbying scandal and by the time the Sunday newspapers had topped it up with a generous helping of hapless Peers I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Why has this been allowed to happen?

Buying access to Parliament and government has, as David Cameron himself observed three years ago, been the next scandal waiting to engulf politics and lower politicians further in the public esteem – almost impossible you might think. So, why hasn't anything been done to prevent it?

The answer to this seemingly simple question is that it isn't as easy as people might think and has been made unnecessarily complicated by chucking into the mix daft, almost unworkable ideas such as the recall of MPs. This sounds superficially appealing but it is hard to see how it might work in practice. The definition of the grounds on which a petition to recall an MP might be triggered will be very hard to draw up, especially as the public expectations – such as they are – are that they will be quite wide and include supporting policies that weren't in their party's manifesto or changing parties once elected. Most MPs who offer a view on the recall proposal believe that it should be triggered only by significant breaches of Parliamentary rules or successful criminal prosecution.

Once you have agreed the trigger there is then the process of recall: how easy should it be to force a by-election? What percentage of the electorate needs to sign a recall petition? Can it be challenged? If, for instance, you set the threshold at 50% of the electorate (surely not unreasonable in principle) that would mean 30,000 to 40,000 people would have to sign a petition. I'm not sure this is what the supporters of recall have in mind but how would a lower threshold be fair?

And then this would only apply to elected MPs, not unelected members of the House of Lords, three of whom are already in the frame on the latest scandals.

Personally, I would drop the recall idea and concentrate instead on some things that can be done fairly quickly, such as setting up a register of lobbyists and, just as important, a set of rules governing how those people on the register can operate.

A register is not enough – a cultural shift is urgently required
Alongside the register broader rules on lobbying need to be carefully drawn up with the emphasis on fair and equal access, as I have said on many occasions. Lobbying had already become a dirty word before the latest revelations but it is a necessary - call it a necessary evil if you like - activity in a modern democracy. If specialist interest groups – including business – do not have access to politicians we will end up with a less well informed Parliament which will eventually lead to much poorer legislation.

Ensuring equality of access is a tough one and clearly no-one has yet grasped this nettle. It is still too easy to buy access and limiting reform to a register of lobbyists is not an adequate response to the problem. The City has money, aviation has money, the travel industry has money, oil has money. All these sectors can resource their lobbying and will find a way of living with a list of the people working for them being made public. It needs a radical change in the culture of politics and government – and that includes the civil servants who still retain a tight grip on who has access to ministers.

Solar feed-in tariff protestsConsumer groups don’t have money, residents’ associations don’t have money, small businesses don’t have money so they don't get the same level of access, yet their views are often just as important in ensuring a balanced debate. I believe MPs have to work abit harder to get these people in front of Select Committees and create less intimidating consultative processes that get them involved so that lobbying isn’t about buying influence but is about ensuring that the democratic process is better informed. It isn’t enough for MPs to say they see many of these people in their constituency surgeries as that is arm’s length from the centre of power. They need to find a way of ensuring everyone can get to the centre when they need to without always having to stand in the street while the decisions are made behind doors that are closed to them. This may even mean providing public funds to help those without huge financial resources to become properly involved.

I'll give you one personal example of what I mean. When I was a councillor I opposed a private bill (don't worry about this arcane procedure) promoted by the City of London to move Spitalfields Market into the ward I represented in Leyton. The City had a QC and a junior barrister representing them before a House of Lords committee that eventually sat for three to for days a week for six weeks considering this Bill. I, and my two fellow councillors, had to take that six weeks off work between us to ensure our residents were represented. That scenario is replicated time and time again, usually without the proverbial "little person" having any proper say.

Start with reform of All Party Groups
As I went through the emotions of despair, anger and frustration when reading about Patrick Mercer's transgressions the bit that really made my blood pressure rise was when he promised to set up and All Party Group.

These groups have had a pretty bad press in recent years because so many abuses have been allowed to creep in. Despite this, I still maintain that well-run, properly constituted All Party Groups still have an important role to play in ensuring Parliament, especially backbench MPs, are well informed.

I wrote at length in April 2012 about what I thought should be done to clean up All Party Groups and how the All Party Parliamentary Group on Insurance & Financial Services, which Post and Incisive Media have supported for over 20 years, has done its best not to fall into any of the obvious traps so I won't repeat all of those points here.

However, just two months after I wrote that piece, a Speakers' Working Group produced a Report on All Party Groups which echoed almost everything I said. Implementing the recommendations of that report in full in time for the start of the autumn session of Parliament would be an excellent way of kicking of serious reform of the access to Parliament.

That could be quickly followed by the creation of a register and lobbyists and some proper rules on how they can operate which should be in place sometime next year. Get these two things done and then have a debate around the more controversial and difficult topic of recall.

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