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Under the influence: The rules governing lobbying are still too opaque

Efforts to regulate the flow of both people and influence between major corporations and the Government are proving all too ineffectual

Despite periodic spasms of public outrage, and intermittent attempts to fix the problem, efforts to regulate the flow of both people and influence between major corporations and the Government are proving all too ineffectual. Indeed, just this week this newspaper has uncovered two separate examples – one touching on the role of lobbyists, the other on the well-greased “revolving door” between Whitehall and industry – each of which, alone, would be cause for concern.

The first instance centres on the NHS, where a lobbying company working for some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies was engaged to write a draft report which will feed into future policy. Not only is the Specialised Healthcare Alliance entirely funded by its commercial members, but its director also runs his own lobbying company, which counts a string of major drug and medical device suppliers among its clients.

NHS England denies that the report represents a conflict of interest; it was a “scoping exercise” only, the quango says. John Murray, who runs the SHA, is also unequivocal that there are no links between his two roles. But the fact remains that even the appearance of undue corporate influence can be damaging.

Nor are such uncertainties restricted to the NHS. As The Independent revealed yesterday, two lieutenant generals who left the Army less than 18 months ago are now working for companies in the running for a £400m defence deal. That both appointments were approved by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, with only minor caveats, is not enough to allay worries. Indeed, it only raises questions as to the parameters governing the rulings of the committee – as the subsequent calls for its abolition exemplify.

None of which is to say that corporations should have no voice in government, or that there should be no mobility of staff between the private and public sectors. But we need greater clarity about where the lines are drawn and closer scrutiny to ensure they are enforced. The new laws on lobbying now coming on to the statute books do no such thing.