Oliver Wright: Vested interests are entitled to argue their case, but it must be in the open

Asked why he had not declared the dinner, Mr Pickles said it was a private engagement

Share
Related Topics

Lobbyists will lobby, so the argument goes, but it's all above board and we the public don't need to worry about it. Today's investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism with The Independent shows why that's not true.

It is healthy in a democracy for elected politicians to make decisions based on evidence and argument – and if some of that evidence and argument comes from vested interests that is not, in itself, a bad thing.

But the problem comes when the role of those vested interests in formulating policy is kept secret both from the public and even sometimes the politicians who are being lobbied.

This is laid bare by the Bureau's investigation with The Independent. It shows the inner workings of lobbying firms like Bell Pottinger who use former politicians to get access to their old colleagues – often at unrecorded "social events" without civil servants present – to push their clients' agenda.

As Tim Collins, the managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs and former Tory MP put it in his pitch: It is about "inviting them [clients] into political circles, to dinners, to social events, to opportunities to engage with a lot of the key decision makers."

One could argue that this might be fanciful boasting. But separate research by the Bureau has uncovered evidence of an unrecorded dinner between Eric Pickles and key Bell Pottinger clients at a five-star hotel, organised by the firm. When asked why he had not declared the dinner Mr Pickles claimed it was a "private" engagement.

We don't know how many other dinners there have been, and how many other politicians have been involved. But we now know there is an intent and a precedent – and that should concern the public – because it is in the public interest.

The other area of concern highlighted by the investigation is the way in which lobbying firms are now using the internet to manipulate and enhance their clients' interests.

Before now, not many people knew of the "dark arts" of changing Google rankings, or of setting up apparently independent blogs to promote their clients' interests, or of altering Wikipedia pages. But now we do – and it should concern us all.

Finally the investigation exposes the type of clients that lobbying firms, such as Bell Pottinger, are prepared to take on.

Uzbekistan may have a truly awful human rights record but – unlike some lobbying firms we contacted – that did not put off senior executives from pitching hard for the business.

They made clear that in order to be effective they would need to be able to show change happening – but it didn't need to be rapid. And Bell Pottinger's previous work for Belarus, Bahrain and Sri Lanka proves it is not opposed to doing business with states with dubious records.

These problems could be addressed in three reasonably simple ways.

The first is a register of lobbyists – so the public and the politicians know who is representing who.

This would include who the lobbyist is, who they work for, the area of policy they are hoping to influence and which government department or agency they are trying to influence.

The second is a statutory code of conduct for lobbyists that addresses what is and what is not acceptable behaviour.

Last, but not least, politicians must be obliged to register their meetings with lobbyists – be they in an office, a restaurant or a reception – when clients' interests are raised.

This is not without precedent. The hacking scandal has rightly resulted in ministers detailing their dealings with senior media executives and this should now be extended to lobbyists.

As David Cameron rightly predicted, lobbying could become the next great scandal to engulf the political system.

It is within his power to stop the scandal in its tracks. Will he?

* 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
 

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£30,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a perso...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Payable Clerk

£21,000 - £24,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a new opportunit...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Manager

£55,000 - £65,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accountant with ...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Analyst

£45,000 - £55,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified accountant...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: opening round in the election contest of the YouTube videos

John Rentoul
Anthony Burgess, the author of 'A Clockwork Orange' and 'Earthly Powers,' died 17 years ago  

If Anthony Burgess doesn’t merit a blue plaque, then few do

John Walsh
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor