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You can't stamp out lobbying (because we're all lobbyists)

Harriet Harman suggests that the answer to the Stephen Byers rent-me-like-a-cab scandal is to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists - a proposal that for some reason she appears not to have supported previously.

The implication therefore is that had such a register been in place the scandal wouldn't have happened.

This is simply wrong.

  • Byers claimed to the fictitious lobbying firm which stung him that he had lobbied effectively on behalf of National Express and Tesco.  When he realised he was rumbled, he changed his story.  Unsurprisingly, Ministers back the latter version.  But whichever one is true, neither National Express nor Tesco, when I last looked, were lobbying firms.  National Express runs vehicles and Tesco sells food.  Ms Harman's register would therefore have made no difference to whatever happened.
  • Harman could instead compel MPs to register money they receive from companies.  However, she'll find if the idea occurs to her that this requirement is already in place.  If Byers received money from either firm, he was obliged to declare both the time he spent working for one, the other, or both, and how much he was paid for his labour in the Register of Members' Interests.
  • Harman could therefore take a step further, and compel all MPs to list in the Register details of any meetings, phone conversations, e-mail or text messages they have or exchange with any company with which they have a commercial arrangement.  But such a measure wouldn't have caught Byers, since the fictitious company never actually paid him.
  • So Harman could therefore take yet another step further, and require all MPs to list in the Register details of all meetings, phone conversations, e-mail or text messages held or exchanged with anyone at all.  Better still, they could fill in timesheets, broken down into appropriate categories such as "Chamber", "casework", "surgeries", "Select Committees" and so on (including a special category: "filling in timesheets".)
  • It would be difficult to run such a system were MPs deemed to have private time, so ultimately it would be necessary for MPs to be held to have none. They'd therefore be required to provide details of how they spend each hour of every day - including, presumably, time spent walking, talking, reading, eating, drinking, visiting the bathroom, sleeping and (when appropriate) making love.

I'm writing less in a spirit of satire than to show the potential endpoint and possible pitfalls of believing that lobbying can be stopped in its tracks by rules, regulations, monitoring, inspection and statute.  After all, any constituent who asks his MP to sign an early day motion is, well, lobbying.  When Joanna Lumley pressed the Commons on behalf of the Gurkhas, she was lobbying. When Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth e-mail MPs, they are lobbying no less and no more than Mammon Holdings or Greed Incorporated.  When Edmund Burke told the electors of Bristol to get lost, he was responding to lobbying (not that it did his re-election prospects much good).  If the Commons is to represent the clash of interests, then MPs must be lobbied. And if it isn't to represent the clash of interests, what's the Commons for?

This isn't to say that there should be no rules, regulations, monitoring, etc at all. There should be - and I'm reasonably hopeful that a think-tank will shortly allow me to spell out what they could be (and, more importantly, what MPs should be). For example, George Young was right yesterday to say that the revolving door which conveys Ministers from their Whitehall offices to lobbying firms should be halted.  And David Cameron was shrewd to say that lobbying is the next big scandal waiting to happen.  My point is simply this: in the long run, as Keynes nearly put it, we're all lobbyists.  And the Byers' of this world won't be stopped by others - as T.S.Eliot really did put it - "dreaming of systems so perfect that no-one will need to be good." Indeed, such schemes have a way of proving the law of unexpected consequences.

Paul Goodman

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