MPs of all parties have called for rapid action to regulate the activities of lobbyists following yesterday's revelations in The Independent.
Labour MPs backed demands for the establishment of a register of parliamentary lobbyists detailing their contracts and spending. Leading the calls, John Cryer told the Commons: "Britain has a £2bn lobbying industry and there is a very strong mood among the public to make lobbying more transparent and accountable."
He said: "Bell Pottinger, a firm that has been close to the heart of the Conservative Party since its founding 30 years ago, did not even hesitate signing a contract that would include lobbying on behalf of the Uzbek government that we are told boiled two opponents alive in water."
The Leyton and Wanstead MP ridiculed No 10 's denial that such companies could influence Government policies. He said: "The idea is pretty difficult to stomach that large corporations, multinational companies and big banks hire big lobbying firms in order to exercise influence at the heart of Government and yet it has absolutely no consequence whatsoever. The reality is this Government is very, very close to vested interests in the City, big corporate interests and big business."
He said lobbying was taking place on a bigger scale than ever in Britain, notably on behalf of major health companies – often based in North America – angling for contracts.
Jesse Norman, a Tory MP, described lobbying as "a serious problem" and a "canker on the body politic". He described The Independent's disclosures as "rather depressing".
The Prime Minister's official spokesman promised that plans for a statutory register, originally promised for last month, would be announced "shortly" but stopped short of saying it would happen before Christmas.
He insisted: "It simply isn't true to say Bell Pottinger or any other lobbying company has influenced Government policy. 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."
One member of Britain's lobbying industry has lodged a formal complaint with the trade body that represents Bell Pottinger. Mark Adams, head of public affairs at Lanson Communications, told The Independent: "These allegations are extremely serious."
He said he had informed the chief executive of the Public Relations Consultants Association, Francis Ingham, that he believed Bell Pottinger had broken the industry's self-regulatory code. He called for an immediate investigation, adding: "It is important that the issue is investigated. Effective self regulation is in the best interests of the lobbying profession."
Bell Pottinger belongs to the PRCA, but is not a member of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, which requires its members to reveal who their clients are.
The pragmatic wing of the industry is dominated by Sir Martin Sorrell, the CEO of WPP, which owns 15 per cent of Bell Pottinger. Speaking from New York, he said the claims made by Bell Pottinger underlined the importance of "not exaggerating your possible influence". He said lobbying, by definition, meant presenting a case effectively and avoiding the use of influence unduly.
The effect of Sir Martin criticising a company he holds influence over will be noted by the entire UK industry. His strongest words were for Bell Pottinger's executives on what they said they could deliver: "I doubt whether the claims by the firm's CEO are accurate."
Graham McMillan, CEO of the communications consultancy Open Road, said: "This sort of incident simply should not be happening. It is very disappointing, but it is not typical of the industry at all."
Iain Anderson, director of the Cicero Group, said The Independent's story showed "the clear need to provide transparency". Edelman, whose clients include News International, also said it was committed to transparency.
Demands for action: The lobby industry
"This sort of incident should not be happening. The industry's contributions usually benefit public policy as politicians need external expertise and influence."
Graham McMillan, Open Road
"These allegations are extremely serious. It is important that the issue is investigated. Effective self-regulation is in the best interests of the lobbying profession."
Mark Adams, Lansons Communications
"It underlines the importance of not exaggerating your possible influence. I doubt whether the claims made by the firm's CEO are accurate."
Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP
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The Bureau of Investigative Journalism