A parliamentary investigation is to be launched into lobbying firms, including Bell Pottinger, and their links with ministers. Senior staff at Bell Pottinger, including its head of public affairs, Tim Collins – who was caught on tape boasting of his links to David Cameron and the Foreign Secretary William Hague, among many others – and Lord Bell, who chairs its parent company Chime, are likely to be summoned by an influential House of Commons committee.
Almost two-thirds of MPs said they backed the immediate introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists recording all their dealings with government members. But support for the move is far lower among Tory MPs. The inquiry by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee will follow the publication, expected next month, of the Government's proposals for increasing scrutiny of Britain's £2bn-a-year lobbying industry.
Members said last night they would ask for Bell Pottinger executives to give evidence to Parliament. The Labour MP Paul Flynn said: "Bell Pottinger will be key witnesses. I'm living for the day when we can ask them some searching questions."
The committee chairman, Graham Allen, said: "There is a lot of concern about lobbying operations. We want to examine the problem and come up with proposals that hopefully will give us the way forward."
Tristram Hunt, a committee member, added: "Transparency is the key. Lobbyists can play a useful and effective role in the legislative process, but everyone should know where the ideas are coming from and who is paying for them."
A poll of 150 MPs by ComRes revealed overall support for greater scrutiny of lobbyists, but far less enthusiasm for the move among Conservatives. Sixty-four per cent of MPs said they backed a statutory register, against 20 per cent who opposed its introduction. The move was backed by 94 per cent of Liberal Democrats and 86 per cent of Labour MPs. Among Tories, 44 per cent were in favour and 35 per cent against.
Almost two-thirds of the MPs (66 per cent) polled in October thought all contact between ministers and lobbyists should be logged and 58 per cent believed lobbyists should disclose all the fees they earn. But there was clear consensus across the parties that most lobbying was bona fide and that most of its practitioners behaved honourably.
Eighty-one per cent believed lobbying was a "legitimate activity that improves the democratic process" and 77 per cent said most lobbyists they encountered were "highly professional".
Andrew Hawkins, the ComRes chairman, said: "Two things are glaringly obvious. Lobbying is seen as a necessary and legitimate practice. There is also consensus among MPs that the status quo is not sustainable, even if there is no agreement on the alternatives."
The Government committed itself in the Coalition Agreement to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists, but the timetable for producing its proposals is slipping. The problem is complicated by the large numbers of current MPs who once worked in the industry. In a recent Commons debate on the issue, a series of MPs stressed the practical problems involved in forcing through such a measure – notably defining what constituted a meeting.
According to the campaign group Spinwatch, about 15 per cent of last year's new Tory and Labour MPs came from lobbying backgrounds. In the Tory party they include George Eustice and Charlotte Leslie, who both worked at Portland; Priti Patel, who was at Weber Shandwick; Tracey Crouch, formerly of Westminster Strategy; Damian Collins, who was at Lexington Communications; and Penny Mordaunt, who worked at Hanover. On the Labour benches, Emma Reynolds was at Cogitamus and Thomas Docherty was at PPS Group.
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The Bureau of Investigative Journalism