Opinion: The lobbying scandal is nothing of the sort

Big Ben - ParliamentIn recent days the rhetoric regarding lobbyists has notched up a few gears.  These attacks have come from a surprising range of critics.  Yesterday morning Lorraine Kelly on Daybreak suggested to Tom Brake MP that we should ban lobbying altogether and shortly afterwards Lord Oakeshott likened lobbyists to mosquitoes.

I am a lobbyist.  My job requires me to talk and debate issues with politicians, civil servants and others on a daily basis.  There is a great deal of twaddle talked about lobbying.  Some of the nonsense is puff peddled by practitioners keen to myth-make about their Machiavellian abilities.  However, much is promulgated by journalists who know little about the day-to-day activities of lobbying.

To underline this point, I would point to the types of activities that journalists masquerading as lobbyists say they have elicited from our elected representatives. Setting up All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) and asking Parliamentary Questions in return for financial reward is clearly wrong, but as a lobbyist I have a couple of quick reflections on these two political activities.  Firstly, these activities are largely benign – an APPG is merely an opportunity to bring together interested parliamentarians; questions are valuable commodities in the House, but not likely to change a political decision or influence a commercial outcome.  Secondly, these activities are perfectly achievable without the aid of cash.  To have legitimate questions tabled by a parliamentarian or an APPG initiated, simply requires the interest by a parliamentarian which can be achieved through dialogue and advocacy.

Why do I make these points?  Not to belittle the allegations that have been made against many political figures, but rather to underline the point that those journalists pretending to be lobbyists are so far from the reality of what is practiced that they cannot see that even the most corrupt lobbyist would never pay for such ineffectual and easily accessed outcomes.  These are not lobbying scandals, because even the most debased of lobbyists would never be so naïve as to seek these ends in return for money.

I have never acted in a way that is anyway close to those characterised under these so-called ‘lobbying scandals’.  Indeed, everyone I have ever worked with has the utmost respect towards the democratic institutions and individuals with which we ply our trade. The real perpetrators of the ‘lobbying’ stories – are any elected officials that seek to profit from decisions or actions that they make in their capacity as our representatives.

The Liberal Democrat Constitution states that it “exist(s) to build… a…society…in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”  I would argue that shackling the very lobbyists who make the arguments and scrutinise the actions of the Government is an express ticket to the enslavement of ignorance for our own political class.  Whether Trade Unions, charities, individuals, businesses or membership bodies – government decisions are improved by external input.  Politicians are already critiscised for the homogeneity of their backgrounds and therefore a limited breadth of experience.

The registration of lobbyists is just a license to practice by other another name.  The Government’s own consultation acknowledged that those wishing to lobby would have to pay for the system. If there are charges it logically follows that fewer organisations will engage in advocacy and those that do so for their organisations will also be rationalised in number.  Handing the keys of our political system to a small cabal of registered lobbyists does nothing for the plurality and expertise of views that is essential to good policy-making.

* Alexander Ehmann is a Liberal Democrat Councillor and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. In the past, Alexander has been the Campaign Manager for a number of Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidates, including Duncan Hames, Paul Fox and Theo Butt-Philip. Alexander has worked in communications and public policy for a number of employers over the past 15 years, including the British Army, Institute of Directors and Tata.

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  • Good article. I would say that the concern is that lobbying buys a certain privileged access and privileged input that others do not have. Plus, and I would think this obvious, your lobbying, while external, has a bias in favour of your clients. While it is helpful to have external input into parliamentary legislative processes, I don’t think we want those processes skewed by those with the deepest pockets having, in effect, the loudest voices.

    I would argue that the best solution is complete and utter transparency, and any breach of this be severely punished. It is time that the electorate saw how the sausages are made 😉

  • mike cobley 4th Jun '13 - 10:31am

    “I would argue that shackling the very lobbyists who make the arguments and scrutinise the actions of the Government is an express ticket to the enslavement of ignorance for our own political class.” – (takes out onion, sobs uncontrollably)

    Looking back over the last couple of decades I would say that the most influential lobbyists have undoubtedly come from business sectors, mostly the financial sector. Worse than that, though, is the existence of financial sector personnel seconded into Whitehall to work within government, which is a very insidious form of lobbying and should be stopped.

  • I’m not sympathetic to lobbyists but concede the point that it covers a spectrum of people doing a range of activities. I do however believe there is a neccessary case to be made for the registration of all people whose main business is the influence of public policy (particularly the work of civil servants) and political discourse (eg meeting with MPs and Lords).

    There is no confidence in the cottage industry of apparatchiks and the measure put forward has been long proposed as part of the solution. Where individuals are in a position of influence or responsibility due to some sort of privilege placed upon them, then it is appropriate that checks are in place to govern their conduct. This principle isn’t alien, its similar to one used by professionals working in health, teaching and financial services. The principle benefit being that the majority of professionals with good conduct are protected from the minority with poor conduct.

    Your article seems to suggest lobbyists which offer cash or pecuniary advantages is not common practice, I’d question that. More importantly, I’d question what’s to stop it, after all, civil servants and hopefully elected officials have their own code of conduct to not accept enticements which implies such behaviour clearly does exist on the other side. These are only the positive inducements, there are also negative ones like smearing, blackmail and false petitions set up. I would ask over the past ten years whether the author can categorically conclude such conduct has not happened targetting elected officials or civil servants. If not, then this measure isn’t just the right one but the first and neccessary step to cleaning up what has become a murky state of affairs.

  • “Secondly, these activities are perfectly achievable without the aid of cash. To have legitimate questions tabled by a parliamentarian or an APPG initiated, simply requires the interest by a parliamentarian which can be achieved through dialogue and advocacy.”

    In which case this has been achieved through the force of argument, not wallet size.

  • Is that the sound of the world’s smallest violin? MPs are elected by constituents, not companies, foreign states, unions, even charities. How about you lobbyists can meet MPs so long as you come visit them at their surgeries. Some MPs rarely do surgeries, maybe they’d have to start. No, not all the interests you represent are bad, but as a breed you aren’t exactly the golden fairy on the Christmas tree of democracy.

  • “Firstly, these activities are largely benign ”

    You lost the debate at this line; no matter how benign something is, if it is wrong, it is wrong. You are writing to suggest that these are isolated and extreme cases, but to have this as part of your intro instantly undermines that whole premise because it smacks of self-preservation.

    In fact, if you are a lobbyist and this is the most persuasive piece you can write when defending your entire career, then I am truly worried because whatever you are using to liaise with politicians, it is not your persuasive skills.

  • George Crozier 5th Jun '13 - 8:05pm

    Excellent article Alex. Agree with every word of it.

    I’m struggling to work out what ‘lobbying problem’ a register would solve. It seems to be based on an idea that consultants are meeting politicians and hiding the identity of their paymasters, yet I’ve never heard any evidence of such a thing happening and to do so would be an entirely counter-productive way to operate.

    The only effect a register of lobbyists would have had on the latest scandal is to enable the MPs and peers to see that the firm contacting them was not a real lobbying firm!

    Part of the problem is that the word ‘lobbyist’ conjures up particular ideas of what the person is and does that are mostly inaccurate. My employer – a professional body with an educational remit – would never describe me as a lobbyist and the amount of time I spend doing things an independent observer would characterise as lobbying is small to vanishing. But I am on the existing register of lobbyists set up by the CIPR/APPC/PRCA (ie the industry bodies) because, as part of my job, I facilitate and help write briefings for MPs and others in an effort to assist them with their job scrutinising legislation and spotting possible flaws in it. They contact us as often as we contact them, because they want to hear the views/concerns of experts in the field. Sometimes they raise the issues we highlight, sometimes they don’t.

    Similarly, my colleagues in our technical department spend large amounts of time working with our leading members drafting responses to detailed government consultations – which the Government are really keen for our input on – and attending meetings to help the authorities iron out the problems and potential problems in the area our members work in. If a register of lobbyists came in and was extended (as CIPR/APPC/PRCA want) to bodies such as ours that would potentially mean we would be employing up to a dozen ‘lobbyists’ (which would no doubt raise a few eyebrows among our members, despite being technically accurate by the generally understood criteria!)

    I have no problem with being on a register of lobbyists (although as Alex says the cost might be an issue for some organisations), but fundamentally I just can’t see the problem it is the solution to. If we want greater transparency that is not solved by knowing that four people at consultancy X did lobbying-related work (which could include parliamentary monitoring and may well involve no actual contact with any policy-makers) for company or campaign group Y. More disclosure around ministerial / civil servant / parliamentarian contact with external groups of all kinds – that might help (though potentially at huge bureaucratic cost). So would more journalistic stings like the latest one. But a list of names? I can’t see what it will achieve beyond the impression of action.


  • Simon Banks 5th Jun '13 - 8:41pm

    Hmm…so, Alistair, the parliamentary lobbyist for Friends of the Earth, sensibly based in London, should travel to the north-west Highlands to see Charles Kennedy and to the Lake District to see Tim Farron? No, lobbyists would instead stalk MPs and try to get a word in unofficially, with or without the MPs’ connivance, and this would be harder to monitor.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Jun '13 - 10:11pm

    Whether Trade Unions, charities, individuals, businesses or membership bodies – government decisions are improved by external input.

    Yes, but wouldn’t it be better if external input were equally available to everyone? As you say “My job requires me to talk and debate issues with politicians, civil servants and others on a daily basis”. That means the people who pay you to do this job have hugely more access to politicians and civil servants than people who have points to make but can’t afford to pay someone else to do it “on a daily basis”.

  • chris redmond 17th Jul '13 - 4:53pm

    So we are to accept that MPs who achieve their office through the ballot box, after having to appeal to a wide cross section of their constituents, can then have the interests of a small sub-section lobbied for by professionals employed to influence these MPs?
    An important point to repeat is lobbyists are attempting to influence MPs, and ultimately policy, on behalf of their clients, and in the case of tobacco companies they would pay more to gain more influence; if they did not expect to have any influence by funding lobbyists, they would not pay for lobbyists – it really is that simple.
    Basically then, the more an outside interest is prepared to pay, the more influence they’d expect to have.
    Is this democracy at work? Is this ‘of the people, for the people’ as the US would put it?
    If MPs want to know about any subject they should get off their arses and earn their salaries, rather than meet with biased lobbyists who could not be expected to provide objective facts and figures.
    Yes this would make being an MP a full time job, shock horror, although they do have their own researchers so maybe not, and of course we have the internet so virtually all the facts are a click of the mouse away.
    Seems to me that lobbying ensures it’s the most well heeled who have the ears of MPs, which will always happen in the real world despite any measures we try to put in place to prevent this, but where lobbying is concerned we can at least send the signal out it should never be condoned or accepted as part of the democratic process of government.

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