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Who's got the ear of our MPs?

A corruption scandal in the US has revealed serious flaws in the lobbying system of Congress. But are things over here any better?

A corruption scandal in the US has revealed serious flaws in the lobbying system of Congress. But are things over here any better?

What is lobbying?

The phrase comes from the fact that people wishing to influence MPs have long frequented the lobbies' of Parliament in the hope of getting the chance to do so.

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Today, the term tends to refer more specifically to professional persuaders, or lobbyists', employed by organisations to represent their views to Parliament by providing briefings and organising meetings or protests. There are around 35,000 in Washington, working on behalf of everyone from multinationals to environmentalists.

The most well-known name in the Washington community is Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist recently caught taking his business far beyond the basics of offering persuasive advice to politicians. As well as classic acts of bribery offering gifts, trips and election support to politicians it seems he fleeced Native American tribes who came to him for help in furthering their casino interests.

Abramoff recommended a lobbying firm run by his partner, Michael Scanlon, to help them navigate Congress's choppy waters. Scanlon charged the tribes some $53m in fees, of which $20m apparently went to Abramoff.

What's it like over here?

Although there have been no such cases of out-and-out corruption, there are plenty of grey areas in the UK, particularly where lobbyists collide with all-party groups (APGs) of MPs and peers. APGs don't have formal powers, but they do have muscle: they can ask ministers to appear before them, make policy recommendations and formulate media campaigns.

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So the fact that a recent investigation by The Times found that almost two-thirds of them are now being assisted by special interest' groups is a cause for some concern. According to The Times, organisations including the nuclear, pharmaceutical and drinks industries are funding, and even writing, policy reports in the name of APGs.

The All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group received over £40,000 from pub companies as well as secretarial help to draft its report on pub closures. All in all, 36 APGs get financial and administrative help directly from lobbyists. Six of these lobbyists, says The Times, do not list their clients' names, which is "a clear breach of parliamentary rules".

Is this so bad?

Sometimes. In APGs, says The Times, "funding is usually at arms length, but the drafting of reports by lobbyists and commercial organisations inevitably raises potential conflicts of interest".

Take the All-Party Pharmacy Group, for example. Funded by four pharmacy associations, some of its reports have been written by lobbyists working for the industry, yet the group does not list the source of support in the Register of APGs. In February 2000 it released a report recommending emergency contraception be made available over the counter, a key demand from the pharmacy lobby. The rules were changed within months.

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Then consider the All-Party Group on Identity Fraud: it recommended Britons shred Christmas cards to protect themselves, but funding for the group comes from Fellowes, which makes shredding machines.

Is it the same in Europe?

Yes. The European Parliament has 732 MEPs, but well over 4,400 officially registered lobbyists. Several MEPs have complained that they are overexposed to lobbyists who "bombard them with information", particularly on highly technical issues such as software patenting, says the FT. Indeed, one "insidious effect" of such lobbying is the increase in amendments to technical legislation, as MEPs are anxious to be seen to be playing an active role, urged perhaps by various lobbies and armed with information from them.

What can be done?

In the US, Jack Abramoff's case has resulted in a set of proposals that includes a ban on privately funded travel and tighter limits on gifts. Access to the House floor and the House gym for former members of Congress who are lobbyists would be banned, and former lawmakers would not be allowed to turn to lobbying for two years after leaving office.

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In the UK,the Committee on Standards in Public Life is due to discuss the power of lobbyists, and the matter also falls within the remit of the MPs' own watchdog and Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Philip Mawer. The first call critics are quite rightly making is for transparency in the sources of financial and secretarial support for APGs.

Are lobbyists a good thing?

YES

1 Professional lobbyists do serve a purpose in that they can help groups demanding change find out who to talk to to get it. 2 Lobbyists can help busy decision-makers understand complex arguments.3 Lobbyists can also help businesses understand the constraints faced by Government, and what it can realistically deliver.

NO

1 The borderline between exertion of influence (which is legal) and trading in influence (which is illegal in many countries) is too difficult to distinguish reliably. 2 Lobbying is done on behalf of those who already have power, and who can afford it. This prices private citizens out of democracy.3 Too much information from lobbyists makes politicians lazy.

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