Lobbying has become a new swear word if you believe the hype about the Lobbying Bill which is going through Parliament.
Sometimes when all parties in Parliament agree on something you have to look a bit more closely to see if it really is common sense.
In the furore that has arisen since part 2 of the Lobbying Bill was introduced to restrict charities from campaigning we are in danger of losing sight of the pointlessness of this bill in the first place.
Before part 2 was suddenly added, presumably as part of the Government’s union bashing agenda, there was a wide consensus that lobbying was a problem.
All parties share some of the blame as they alighted on lobbying as what the Prime Minister calls “the next big scandal”. But is it really as bad as everyone seems to think?
Perhaps I’m courting unpopularity but I’m not that worried about formal lobbying – most of it is legitimate and straightforward. Lobby companies are not meeting most MPs in private, much is done by individuals, small organisations or local businesses. As an MP I expect to be lobbied, and as far as my constituency goes I particularly welcome it.
The stings that did take place were journalists pretending to be lobbyists rather than lobby companies themselves. What it threw up was vanity, greed and a tendency by some colleagues to oversell their expertise and contacts. And some stings have criticised MPs merely for meeting with someone. We act on good faith when constituents contact us. There will always be people trying to meet politicians for the wrong reasons, don’t blame us for that.
The real concern is the private influence lobbying – who the Prime Minister goes horseriding with is far more of a concern. It’s the lobbying we don’t know about that we should worry about.
We still see MPs and peers being paid to represent interest groups. It is amazing that these organisations consider they need to buy influence rather than just persuade MPs that their cause is worth taking up.
I represent one of the UK’s most diverse constituencies, which is also home to a large number of charity headquarters, small businesses, global businesses and trade bodies. In any week I could be taking up a concern of the British Plastics Federation, The Imperial Society for Teachers of Dance (both based in Shoreditch), the local community college, a personal case with wider implications, an international campaign or a small business issue. Most of these are because they have a local connection. As Tech City’s MP I want these businesses to lobby me so I can promote the future of British business.
In most cases I’ll deal directly with the organisation concerned and I prefer this. I understand why some small organisations employ support. But we have all been approached by lobby companies and campaign organisations that must be paid on the basis of the number of MPs they meet or the number of pointless early day motions they’ve managed to persuade an MP to table.
The real issues are more to do with why organisations feel they need to use lobbying companies in the first place.
We should look first at ourselves. The Westminster and Whitehall machines fuel this industry through lack of transparency and complicated processes. Government will never be simple, but there are some measures which could make it easier for the man or woman on the Hackney omnibus to understand their democratic Government.
Firstly we need a clearer way of imparting information about what’s going on. I represent Shoreditch and its tech business community. Let this lot loose on Parliamentary data and they’d find a way of making it more accessible.
Being clearer about timetables would help too. It’s a skill to learn to read the runes of when a bit of legislation will come before Parliament. Between the usual channels (aka the whips) and the civil servants sweating to meet impossible ministerial deadlines we sometimes only have a few days notice of a bill or other piece of legislation. This adrenaline fuelled macho approach to politics could be junked for 90 per cent of legislation. Certainty would help all round, allowing MPs to be better prepared too.
I have published my diary for nearly 20 years. I don’t include every single meeting (the list would be very long) but any constituent can look back and see which outside bodies I’ve met and when. We are asking lobbying companies to be transparent but what about MPs?
And finally, if we really want transparency why not sell passes to Parliament (with a discount for charities) and monitor the lobbyists as they swipe in and out? We’d make money for the tax payer and capture a high percentage of lobbying as it happens. Cash for questions? It would be transparent at least.