Secrets of the MPs who help lobbyists

Views disguised to gain places on committees
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The Independent Online
Lobbyists are encouraging MPs to disguise their true beliefs in the House of Commons in order to get on to powerful standing committees which amend proposed legislation.

Friendly MPs are urged to speak against the interests of lobbyists' clients to be chosen for the committees. Once on the committees the MPs are able to drop their opposition and argue in favour of clients, according to one of Westminster's leading lobbyists.

This was part of a strategy set out yesterday before a private gathering at a hotel in west London of lobbyists and executives of some of Britain's biggest companies and organisations. Unknown to the speakers, a journalist from the Independent was also present.

Michael Burrell, managing director of Westminster Strategy, the country's largest lobbying consultancy, gave them a run-down on the legislative process and key steps towards influencing the path of a Bill.

After advising them not to ignore Commons select committees - he singled out the Treasury and Civil Service Committee as a body with real power - Mr Burrell moved on to the way Bills reach the statute book.

It was vital, he said, to "supply information and arguments at the crucial moments", such as when a Bill went to a standing committee for further consideration. Membership of such committees is decided by party whips after hearing the Second Reading debate. Mr Burrell said one tactic was "to get your supporters to speak but not support you. Then they might get on to the standing committee. It's a bit machiavellian."

He said the House of Lords was "more satisfying than the House of Commons". It was not easy to get results in the Commons "because of the power of the whips, but in the House of Lords you can change things".

Mr Burrell named key policy-makers for lobbyists to target in an incoming Labour administration: Ed Balls, a senior adviser to Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor; David Milliband, head of Tony Blair's policy unit; and Frank Field, the influential chairman of the Commons Social Services Committee.

Asked by the Independent for examples of MPs who said one thing to get on a standing committee, where they then said another, Mr Burrell angrily refused. "It was a joke, it was off the record, the whole thing was subject to Chatham House Rules. [Private meetings whose remarks may not be attributed.] The basis I agreed to speak was that it was off the record. I did not speak as if I was speaking in public."

When MPs spoke at Second Reading debates, they were told to temper their true beliefs. Once chosen to serve on the committee they could discount their earlier view. "If your objective is to make sure your case is heard, you are bound to advise it is put in a moderated way. Then there is a good chance [the MP] will get on the standing committee.''

Mr Burrell has run Westminster Strategy since its foundation in 1986. His clients have included National Westminster Bank and the Corporation of London. Among those represented at yesterday's conference were British Aerospace and Cable & Wireless.

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