Pat Murtagh: We should say no to tyrants' cash

Good lobbying is not all about contacts. It is about building a solid case

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We all have the right to lobby our lawmakers in a democracy. And there is nothing intrinsically improper in asking a professional to prepare arguments and help you navigate the legislative or government process. There are benefits for both sides and indeed sometimes, for the taxpayer. Politicians are not experts, after all, and often need to be alerted to pitfalls and flaws in draft policy. Busy MPs and civil servants generally prefer information in short pithy form, delivered at a time when it can be most useful to their deliberations on a particular issue.

Not all lobbyists are greedy and unscrupulous, but the good ones are now, unfortunately, tarnished by the kind of alleged conduct exposed by the "Uzbekgate tapes". Lobbying can and should be done perfectly ethically but it relies on both the sound judgement of the practitioner – refusing to represent torturers, tyrants or those who justify child labour would seem elementary – and on the integrity of those who occupy positions of power. Crucially, MPs and ministers have a duty to evaluate the information they receive and to apply caution about giving privileged or fast-track access to favoured individuals.

Effective lobbying does not, in any case – contrary to what the Bell Pottinger transcripts would suggest – require tawdry bragging about who you know. The belief that it does is why so many firms hire ex-government staffers and former MPs. But this is naive. Rather, it is about building a case on solid evidence that stands on its own merits, and conveying that case to the right people (who are not necessarily the most senior) at the right time. In the past two years, I have for example, advised expert clinicians seeking to promote in parliament the unfashionable but important case for improved services for continence sufferers. I can tell you that exorbitant sums do not change hands in this kind of small-scale legitimate business.

Good lobbysists should welcome more transparency. A mandatory register would help shine light in dark recesses and might make people think twice about offering or accepting excessive hospitality. But would this alone dissuade those offered obscene amounts to burnish the brands of rogue regimes? My fear is it could also create a bureaucracy impeding or even excluding smaller practitioners or one-off interest groups, while doing little to curtail the big abuses.

Meanwhile, is it right that former cabinet ministers, senior civil servants or special advisers can legally emerge through the revolving door into jobs in the private sector in the very policy areas they influenced in government? Tighter controls, such as a minimum five-year gap between public office and a role in selling advice, where a conflict of interest is obvious, might be an even more effective reform.

The writer is director of PM Political Ltd

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