The Independent’s expose of the tactics used by the lobbying firm Bell Pottinger to impress potential clients shines the spotlight again on the lobbying industry.
A team from Bell Pottinger was filmed pitching to journalists posing as representatives of the Uzbekistan Government, a regime which, as Amnesty’s 2011 report shows, has an atrocious human rights record. The lobbyists boasted of virtually instant access to the Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet.
If I were James Dyson, I would not be happy that my PR company were citing access to the Prime Minister on my behalf as part of a sales pitch to such a repressive regime at the same time as it was explaining that it could manipulate search engines to conceal human rights violations and child labour.
Lobbying itself is not a bad thing – charities do it all the time and, frankly, we’re better off if our MPs and ministers are well informed about Cancer care or the effects of the welfare reforms on vulnerable groups, for example. There are times when I hope it does work, so the Prime Minister’s spokesman’s robust statement that
“It is simply not true that Bell Pottinger or indeed any other lobbying company has any influence on government policy.”
is, frankly, a bit daft. Used well, lobbying can be a way of grabbing politicians by the ankles and dragging them from the Westminster bubble into the real world. Like everything else, though, if used badly, it can undermine the proper democratic process. What is needed is for goalposts to be properly set. We need to know who is doing what and being paid by whom. Openness and transparency is very important, as is a properly enforceable Code of Conduct.
The Bell Pottinger revelations show that this is still a very hot political issue which the Tories are sensitive on. Labour have had their moments too – the Hoon, Byers and Hewitt “cab for hire” scandal. The Liberal Democrats have long called for reform of the lobbying industry and it was good to hear Nick Clegg repeat that message robustly. The BBC reports him as saying new laws are imminent:
“There’s nothing wrong with lobbying in theory, as long as it’s done transparently in practice, and that is what we’ll be seeking to do and pass through legislation as soon as we can”
His hand will now be significantly strengthened in the internal coalition negotiations on the subject.
This is yet another issue of probity and honesty in which the Liberal Democrats have had a long record of calling for reform. We argued for MPs’ expenses to be published for many years prior to the scandal, we questioned the role and potential conflicts of interest of large media corporations way before the phone hacking scandal seriously broke this Summer and our calls for openness and transparency in the lobbying industry have been similarly long standing. Action is taking place on the first two and reform in the third now seems inevitable. Our presence within the Government should mean that there will be real substance to the measures taken.