MPs demand reform of secretive lobbying system


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Indy Politics

The Government faced calls today  from both Tory and Labour MPs to reform Britain’s secretive lobbying system in the wake of revelations in The Independent.

This morning we published details of how Bell Pottinger boasted about its access to the heart of Government to journalists posing as potential clients.

The revelations have increased pressure for the Government to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists.

Conservative backbencher Jesse Norman said that the latest disclosures reaffirmed his view that lobbying was a “canker on the body politic”.

"There is a huge need for greater transparency and integrity and honesty in the relationships between different business organisations and politicians. This casts both sides in rather a bad light," he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One.

Labour MP John Cryer, who is tabling a backbench bill on lobbyists, said the system should be opened up and made properly transparent.

"You have got the panzer divisions, as one Tory MP once described them, of big business bringing the heavy artillery to bear on government. It is not open, it is not transparent, people don't know what's going on," he told The World at One.

"It is a cosy club at the centre of government seemingly being influenced in making decisions without any sort of accountability."

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said companies would do better to go through the official channels to speak to ministers and civil servants about their concerns.

"It simply isn't true to say that Bell Pottinger or any other lobbying company has influenced Government policy," said the spokesman.

"Clearly it is in their interests to tell their clients that they can provide them with a service and that is what they appear to be doing."

The spokesman said that Downing Street, the Treasury and the Department for Business were happy to speak to companies about their business concerns in response to direct contacts.

"In my experience in the civil service, the official process is the best one to pursue," he said. "If companies want to spend money on lobbyists, that is a matter for them."

Lord Bell, chairman of Bell Pottinger's parent company Chime Communications, told the Press Association the firm would be making a formal complaint to the Press Complaints Commission about the "sting".

"There is no public interest in this story," said Lord Bell. "There is absolutely no suggestion of any impropriety either. If there was, I would sue them.

"I am a great supporter of the freedom of the press and a great believer in self-regulation. This story does nothing to enhance either argument."

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett accused the Government of being "too close to corporate interests".

"These are very serious allegations involving a former member of the Conservative front bench as well as some of David Cameron's closest confidants inside Downing Street and his cheerleaders in the media," said the Labour frontbencher.

"We have been calling on the Government to implement a statutory register of lobbyists. We need reform to ensure that there is no question of the rich and powerful buying access to the Prime Minister and his advisers."

But Mr Cameron's spokesman said: "I simply do not accept that there was undue access."

He added: "It is wholly unsurprising that, in a conversation with the Chinese, we might talk to them about intellectual property rights. I think you would be surprised if we did not.

"In conversation with foreign governments, we often talk about business issues."

He added: "If companies have issues, then they can come and talk to the Government. We have a Department for Business which speaks to companies all the time. People in the Treasury speak to business and people in business speak to Downing Street. If James Dyson phoned Downing Street, somebody would take his call."

Government proposals for a statutory register of lobbyists, which were due to be published last month, are not now expected until after Christmas.

Asked when they will appear, Mr Cameron's spokesman said only: "Pretty soon."

The coalition agreement committed ministers to regulating the industry by introducing the register "and ensuring greater transparency".

New laws are not likely to be introduced before the next session of Parliament.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "The Government has repeatedly emphasised the commitment made in the coalition agreement to bring greater transparency to lobbying by establishing a statutory register.

"We plan to bring forward proposals in the coming weeks."

* Caught on camera: top lobbyists boasting how they influence the PM
* The Sting: The fake 'Asimov Group' meets Bell Pottinger
* The Transcript: 'David Cameron raised it with the Chinese Prime Minister'
* We wrote Sri Lankan President's civil war speech, say lobbyists
* Vicious dictatorship which Bell Pottinger was prepared to do business with
* Oliver Wright: Vested interests are entitled to argue their case, but it must be in the open
* Andrew Grice: Plenty of talk about cracking down on lobbying – but still there's no action
* Leading article: Evidence of a lobbying industry out of control