David Cameron was wrong when he said, three years ago, that after MPs’ expenses, “the next big scandal waiting to happen” was lobbying.
Since then we have had phone hacking, Leveson and a convulsion in the newspaper industry that is still playing out. But the Prime Minister was perhaps wrong only in his chronology. There can be no doubt that lobbying – or, at least, some aspects of it – are, indeed, scandalous. And gradually, inexorably, the iniquities of the largely unseen mechanisms by which the private sector seeks to influence government policy are being exposed.
In December 2011, The Independent revealed how the communications firm Bell Pottinger was willing to represent countries with appalling human rights records. Then the Public Relations Consultants Association, which represents hundreds of PR agencies and individuals, pulled out of the body formed to “promote and uphold effective self-regulation” of the industry on the grounds that it was incapable of producing an effective register. Now, we have the resignation of the Tory MP and parliamentary whip Patrick Mercer, amid allegations that he broke Westminster’s rules on lobbying.
Once again, as with our sting on Bell Pottinger, it has taken undercover reporting to reveal the flaws in the system. Mr Mercer is understood to have been covertly recorded by reporters from the BBC’s Panorama posing as lobbyists who allegedly paid him to put the case on behalf of Fiji, which faces accusations of human rights abuses.
In April, Mr Mercer organised an Early Day Motion which appeared to back the Fijian regime, despite its being accused of subverting the rule of law, rounding up and arresting political opponents and disregarding the constitution. It is claimed that he failed to declare to parliamentary authorities part of the fee he was paid (although he has apparently subsequently done so).
The full extent of the allegations against Mr Mercer and his defence is not yet clear. But what is certain is that self-regulation is not enough. Only a statutory register of lobbyists will do. For all his warm words, Mr Cameron has so far refused to back the plan. He must do so now.