Statutory regulation is needed to keep lobbying respectable

This is the week to write about the PR of war, except that there isn’t much to say. The majority favour war - at least against the ’psychopath’ Milosevic - provided victory can be accomplished by a technical fix from the skies without British casualties. Otherwise, who wants to know about ethnic cleansing, genocide and Balkan brutalities? Modern war is governed by the body-bag count, so PR demands big bangs without corpses.

This is the week to write about the PR of war, except that there

isn’t much to say. The majority favour war - at least against the

’psychopath’ Milosevic - provided victory can be accomplished by a

technical fix from the skies without British casualties. Otherwise, who

wants to know about ethnic cleansing, genocide and Balkan brutalities?

Modern war is governed by the body-bag count, so PR demands big bangs

without corpses.



It is therefore more profitable to respond to Lord Neill’s call for

evidence for his inquiry into lobbyists’ standards. Should their conduct

be governed by statutory regulation and should the existing rules on

contacts between lobbyists and the Government’s special advisers be

tightened up? It is, of course, decent of Lord Neill to invite comments,

but I can’t help thinking that he is going through the motions.



In the dim and distant past when everybody was being beastly to John

Major, you will recall that Number 10 was panicked into appointing a

commission into standards in public life. That august body - largely the

result of the media’s penchant for discovering far more Tory MPs in the

wrong bed than in receipt of brown envelopes, promptly recommended a

commissioner to police MPs’ conduct, which since seems to have gone from

bad to worse.



This then produced a situation in 1997 when general election candidates

asked us to place our confidence in them to regulate our affairs as they

were tacitly admitting they were unfit to regulate their own.



That killed the case for self-regulation stone dead in Britain. Only

institutions such as the Fourth Estate, which many feel is abusing its

power as blatantly as did the unions in the 1970s, continue to ignore

the obvious. So I hope lobbyists don’t waste everybody’s time pompously

demanding a right which MPs have themselves humiliatingly conceded.



I accept that this drive for external regulation may merely serve to

further undermine confidence in our institutions by converting the age

of accountability into the age of suspicion. But self-regulation is not

the flavour of the millennium and lobbyists should not join the press in

its monumental hypocrisy by demanding it. Instead, they should recognise

two things. First, not so long ago it was politically fashionable to

decry lobbying. Statutory regulation would cement lobbyists into the

fabric of public life.



Second, there is a need for statutory regulation after the ’Dolly

Drapergate’ lobbyists’ affair with political advisers which demonstrated

the different standards applying in public life post-Major. That need is

all the greater because of the mushrooming of both the political adviser

and lobbying industries, especially as Celtic devolution approaches. If

lobbying is a respectable trade - as I believe it is - we had better,

Lord Neill, try to keep it respectable.



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