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Tuesday 6th December 2011 | 07:30
The Liam Fox-Werritty case brought many issues to the centre of the public gaze, including the clash between personal and private lives. But the long-term aspect, I strongly suspect, will be the power of lobbyists in the world of Westminster.
The irony of course is that Werritty was not a lobbyist. Parliament is at the centre of a multi-billion pound lobbying industry. These issues of influence have been with us for centuries.
After a series of scandals in the seventeenth century, the House of Commons passed a resolution which declared that “the offer of any money, or other advantage, to a Member of Parliament for the promoting of any matter whatsoever depending or to be transacted in parliament, is a high crime and misdemeanour and tends to the subversion of the English Constitution”.
For 300 years, that resolution has not been implemented and perhaps it is now time that it should be.
The question is why is it legal to bribe an MP? If any of PoliticsHome’s readers decided to bribe a local councillor or officer, for instance, to influence a planning decision, that would be a criminal offence.
Or if you tried to pay a police officer to influence the local policing policy, the same would apply.
But that does not apply to MPs. Most Members of Parliament do not have outside financial interests but many do. Unbelievably, after a scandal more than 400 years ago parliament passed a resolution which condemned the payment of MPs by outside interests.
But it has never been enforced.
The Prime Minister’s weak-kneed pleas for a register of lobbyists will do very little. Trying to influence politics by argument and persuasion is fine. Trying to do it through money is just wrong – but big companies and banks are up to it all the time.
Tom Watson, who was a minister in the last Labour Government with responsibility for this area, was going to put registration of lobbying on a statutory basis. He recently said on Radio 5 Live
“We were persuaded by the industry that they would set up their own code and we'd put them on a final warning. I think they've probably missed it now and we need a statutory register ... as quickly as possible.”
My Bill proposes to:
• Register all organisations having as their primary or subsidiary aim the lobbying of Parliament. The Register would be placed in the Commons library.
• The Register would be reviewed and updated every quarter, and any alterations or amendments also placed in the library.
• Every organisation registered, would also be required to provide a list of meetings, arranged on behalf of their clients with MPs and Government ministers. Fees paid to parliamentarians by the organisations and a statement of such expenses paid on behalf of clients would also have to registered every quarter.
This isn’t anything new, as I’ve said the last Labour Government looked at registration, The Liberal Democrat manifesto stated that the improper influence of lobbyists should be curbed by “introducing a statutory register of lobbyists”.
The Conservative manifesto said: “We will regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency.”
The coalition agreement also has a commitment to a statutory register.
There is nothing wrong with lobbyists offering advice, and meeting MPs who are interested about a particular issue. But for too long, parliament has been too close to the industry, it is time to let some greater light and transparency into this area.
Since I wrote this article last night, things have moved on. The Independent has come forward with some serious allegations involving a well known lobbying company. These make the efforts to create a statutory Register of Lobbying interests all the more urgent.
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