Opinion: Lobbying scandals strengthen Lib Dem calls for reform

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.






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  • James Graham 7th Dec '11 - 1:59pm

    That’s great, but progress on this has been frustratingly slow.

    In October, the government announced it would publish the long delayed white paper on lobbying at the end of November. That deadline has now passed.

    We need to stop hearing excuses and start seeing some specific proposals.

  • George Potter Caron Lindsay 7th Dec '11 - 5:44pm

    James, you’re right – but it looks as if things are finally going to happen. The Tories who are resistant to the idea have their case weakened by disclosures such as this.

    Guido, like I said, lobbying in itself is mostly ok as an activity, but we need to know who is doing what and paid for by whom.

  • One of the things about lobbying is it’s not going to go away. Most people here would probably support the right of, say, a human rights organisation to lobby the Government when a minister is visiting China, and if they want to use a Bell Pottinger to do so then, to me, fair enough. The reason they’re doing it is to influence government policy.

    But at the same time, companies would also use Bell Pottinger to lobby the government on legislation – for example, the Banks and Building Societies Association on and changes to financial services regulation. Again, the reason they’re doing it is to influence government policy – but is it who is doing it here rather than what they are doing that we have the problem with?

    The real problem is companies like Bell Pottinger boasting about links which may or may not exist – overinflating their importance and then bringing all of politics down.

  • If I want to meet my Tory MP – he does 4 local meetings a year. He probably has more meetings with lobbyists in a typical week. Can someone tell me how that is democracy, because I’m struggling to see it?

  • A public relations firm whose senior management have close links to the Liberal Democrats said it had created an internet ‘attack site’ for the government of Rwanda to counter accusations that it had been involved in genocide.

    Mark Pursey, head of BTP Advisers, was secretly recorded as part of the Bureau’s investigation into lobbying and PR, saying that the site was targeted at those who ‘over-criticised’ over ‘who did what in the genocide’.

    A 2009 report from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative said Rwanda’s ‘excellent public relations machinery’ had succeeded in hiding ‘the exclusionary and repressive nature of the regime’.

    Mr Pursey, who was head of the Lib Dems’ National Media Intelligence Unit during the 2010 election, suggested his firm could create a similar site for the government of Uzbekistan.

    Such a site, he added, could be ‘aggressive in terms of putting across facts and figures showing that things were moving in the right direction’.

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