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Friday, February 25, 2011

Action needed on lobbyists

Ths morning's Guardian highlights growing concerns about the growing strength and influence of lobbyists at Westminster.

The paper says that corporations and interest groups have channelled more than £1.6m to MPs and lords in the past year through sponsorship of parliamentary groups:

Westminster has more than 450 all-party political groups, semi-official entities around particular subjects or countries, ranging from groups on asthma and autism, to the parliamentary choir and rowing team.

The Guardian has found 283 of these groups receive financial support from outside interests, including:

• £60,000 support for the parliamentary choir from BT

• £52,000 from drink and pub companies for the beer group

• £16,000 for the parliamentary boat race from Siemens

Other benefits are less quantifiable: the members of the all-party wine and spirits group, co-chaired by former Tory shadow minister Geoffrey Clifton-Brown and new Labour MP Ian Mearns, receive corkage, refreshment and wine tasting thanks to the largesse of the Wine and Spirits Trade Association. Some sporting groups, such as the athletics or rugby league groups, receive free tickets to matches.

Benefits of a less indulgent nature are offered to the parliamentary slimming group, whose members include Ed Vaizey and David Amess: they are entitled to receive free Slimming World membership, worth £290 a year.

It is possible of course that much of this is legitimate but what is clear is that all-party groups offer a useful way in for lobbyists to secure influence and that if this is not regulated properly then the transparency and accountability we would expect of such activity will not be there.

One example of this is that the Guardian has found that last year 70 groups declared issuing passes to individuals "advantaged by the privileged access to parliament afforded by their pass": One recipient is Robin Ashby, the director-general of the UK Defence Forum, who has been stripped of a parliamentary pass on two previous locations, although he denies ever having used a pass improperly.

Other passes have gone to Aviva's public affairs consultant, the parliamentary officer of the council for Arab-British understanding, the political officer of the Unite union and the public policy officer of the Catholic Bishops' Conference.

There is a fairly murky grey area here that needs to be cleared up. In particular, when are these groups form legitimate cross-party areas of interest and when are they fronts for those seeking to buy influence? I do not envy those trying to make that distinction but it does need to be made and the rules reviewed to ensure that it remains in place.
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