The Attack on Sleaze: Keyholders to the corridor of power: James Cusick reports on how the lobbying industry has come to be regarded as a necessary part of business life

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Decision Makers Ltd, the political consultancy that Dame Angela Rumbold resigned from on Thursday and which was involved in lobbying for a Channel tunnel rail station at Ebbsfleet, Kent, was paid pounds 24,000 by another borough aiming to bring the rail route nearer a multi-million building project under way at Ashford, Kent.

Ashford Borough Council paid Decision Makers pounds 3,000 a month for eight months from November 1993. According to one source, the council had become concerned that a newly announced route for the rail link 'inexplicably ignored the fact that Ashford was already building an international station'.

A separate rail link, joining the Ashford terminal to the main route, would have been needed. Ashford council felt that all the economic advantages of the new terminal would be lost.

It hired Decision Makers to lobby John MacGregor, the then transport minister, to rethink the route and bring it back through Ashford. The route was duly changed.

Ashford council still retains Decision Makers to 'ensure that as the rail Bill passes through Parliament, everything runs smoothly'. The Ashford connection indicates how lobby companies have come to be regarded as a necessary and effective tool.

In Decision Makers' entry in a consultancy directory, the company claims to 'bring together a unique blend of expertise and contacts in both Houses of Parliament, all political parties, EC institutions, the media, the City and industry'.

Political and parliamentary lobbying is a growth area. The specialist companies, just over 50, have an estimated annual turnover of pounds 10m.

Although the retention of MPs as hired consultants - according one leading company pounds 10-15,000 a year appears to be the going rate - is widespread, a small core of firms banded together to form the Association of Professional Consultants which has established a code of conduct stating that members should 'not place themselves in a position of potential conflict of interest by appointing any MP to their main or any subsidiary or associated board or by paying any retainer or commission to an MP'. The leading firms of Ian Greer Associates, GJW, Westminster Strategy, Market Access and PPU are founder members of the association.

The Rowland Company, a subsidiary of Saatchi and Saatchi, is run by John Maples who lost his seat at the last election. He is now a deputy chairman of the Conservative Party.

Philip Dewhurst of Rowland explained that the point of having MPs on board was 'to provide access to Westminster'. At its 'most basic' this means 'being able to bring an American client for a drink to the terrace in Westminster'. Beyond that, it means a line to 'government ministers and to their advisers'. Most lobby companies, he said, 'have more than one just one MP on their books'.

CSM Parliamentary Consultants had the Northern Ireland minister, Michael Ancram on board during the period he lost his Scottish seat and his return to Parliament. But CSM insists it has 'never paid for an MP in 20 years'.

The Communications Group retains Anthony Steen MP; Keene Public Affairs does not retain MPs because the company is co-owned by Sir Malcolm Thornton, MP for Crosby; Westminster Communications was co-founded by Sir Marcus Fox and Sir Keith Speed. The Labour MP Anne Taylor is also a consultant of Westminster Communications; Shandwick Consultants has David Mellor.

Mr Dewhurst said the Rowland Company's duty was to keep its clients - Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Campbells UK, Flymo, the government of Romania, Harley Davidson UK, IBM, Hewlett Packard, KP Foods, Nokia mobile phones, Mars, Procter and Gamble, Reckitt and Coleman, the Royal Mail, the Salvation Army, Thailand Tourism, and the Victoria and Albert Museum - informed of anything at Westminster and Whitehall that might affect them. A team of 12 scours Hansard every morning for anything of interest.

Daily faxes are sent out; recommended courses of action are prescribed; and clients are 'put in touch with relevant MPs and ministers'.