MPs clash at lobbying inquiry

MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee have heard conflicting acc­ounts of how the public aff­airs industry should be regulated.

The committee kicked off its long-awaited inquiry into lobbying last week by taking evidence from three MPs: Stephen Pound, John Grogan and Peter Luff.

Labour backbencher Grogan told the committee that all lobbying firms should be forced to declare the names of clients and publish them in a register – such as the one operated by the Ass­ociation of Professional Pol­itical Consultants (APPC).

But Luff, the Conservative chair of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Select Committee, disagreed, saying multi-client lobbyists should only be required to declare their clients when they are representing them in meetings.

Grogan singled out Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, which refuses to join the APPC. Referring to reports that the agency has represented Iraq, Syria and Afg­hanistan, he said: ‘Bell Pottinger is a firm that has representatives from all our political parties working for it, people who have worked for government in the past… and the idea that they should be working for foreign governments without declaring who they are working for is an affront to our democracy.’

But Luff argued that forcing agencies to declare clients in a public register could be bad for business – especially if an agency has clients on both side of an argument.

He said: ‘If there is a genuine conflict you cannot sustain it. The industry knows who you are working for, word gets around, it is very damaging to your reputation to be handling two conflicts that cannot be sustained.’ Luff also claimed: ‘There are circumstances where confidentiality really matters.’

However, Luff stressed that he did support some deg­ree of transparency. ‘When a client is representing someone, he or she should be completely open about those interests and any other interests that may be relevant,’ he said.

The committee will use a number of as-yet-unannou­nced sessions next year to help it decide what degree of regulation – if any – is needed to keep the industry in check.

Bell Pottinger and the APPC are both likely to be called to give evidence. A spokesman for the committee said there were no plans to hold another lobbying session during 2007.

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