MPs and lobbyists yesterday concurred with a description of tactics used by lobbyists to influence the Commons committees that consider legislation, revealed in the Independent.
Stephen Byers MP, a Labour whip, said the system was vulnerable because in deciding who to put on standing committees which amend proposed legislation, whips looked at who had spoken on a Bill's second reading. An MP's chances of being selected for the committee, "increase by a factor of 10", said Mr Byers, if he or she had shown an interest in the Bill by speaking on the floor of the House.
At a private conference on Monday, Michael Burrell, managing director of Westminster Strategy, Britain's largest lobbying consultancy, guided members of his profession and executives from major companies and organisations through tactics which can be used.
These included, Mr Burrell said, ensuring friendly MPs disguise their support of a client's position during the second reading of a Bill in the Commons. Speaking at that stage brings MPs to the attention of the whips, who select them for the committee. Once selected, they were more able to support the client's interests. Mr Burrell acknowledged this was a "Machiavellian" practice.
Insiders did not doubt this occurred. Typically, said a senior lobbyist who is also a Tory activist, the whips will be faced with six committee seats to fill from their party. "They will choose four who are straight up and down behind the party line and will do what they are told, one whose mind is in another direction and another in the opposite direction."
The whips are not averse to Machiavellian behaviour themselves. On the Government side, said the Tory lobbyist, they "will want people on the committee to raise peripheral subjects to mask the real issues, so they will make sure they choose one or two people guaranteed to put up a smokescreen."
Mr Byers said that from his own experience he knew lobbyists concentrated on standing committees - even before their composition had been decided. When he spoke against the recent Gas Bill - not for any particular lobbying interest but because he had a research station in his constituency which was threatened and he feared low users might end up paying higher tariffs - he was surprised to find how he was approached by political lobbyists and also by the independent gas suppliers themselves on the basis that he would be selected for the standing committee.
A lobbyist from another firm said getting a supporter on to a standing committee was easier than many people might imagine because MPs were not always keen to serve on them and places can go begging.
On a Bill affecting its clients, his firm would encourage its MP contacts to speak. He did not draw the line at getting them to say one thing and then say another once in the committee room - the prize of a voice on the committee, he said, easily justified such a ruse.
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