Don't blame lobbyists for using APGs

The Times correspondent Sam Coates must have been eyeing the Sunday papers with anticipation this week. Once upon a time a national newspaper investigation involving lobbying was guaranteed at least a two-week run, perhaps even a book deal.

But The Times' story last Friday – that a third of All-Party Groups (APGs) have received funding and assistance in drafting reports from lobbyists – generated surprisingly few column inches elsewhere. With the exception of a BBC item, it also caused very little fuss in broadcast media.

The paper found that 36 APGs were funded directly by lobbyists, and six of these had – while registering their consultants – failed to cough up the more significant details of the ultimate clients represented: a breach of parliamentary rules. The lack of transparency invites suspicion that business is trying to hide its influence. But the most interesting thing about the story is what it says about the relative rehabilitation of lobbying, as well as the grey area occupied by APGs and the unwillingness of MPs to bite the hand that feeds.

Yes, there are firms whose overt CSR positioning and more covert lobbying are hard to marry, but as The Times political editor Peter Riddell points out, there is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying –'it is a necessary, even desirable, part of a pluralist democracy for outside groups to argue their case'. And the paper's leader pointed the finger firmly at complacent politicians.

Can one blame lobbyists for grasping the opportunity to influence – even set up – an APG? They provide a remarkable opening to shape the agenda, even if Westminster does treat some of the results with scepticism. Asking lobbyists not to take advantage of such an opportunity is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. It isn't going to happen. 

As CIPR D-G Colin Farrington has pointed out APG's independence would be enhanced with government funding, but funding is only part of the story. The reason APGs have allowed lobbyists to draft
reports is that they are in a better position to do so. Keeping oneself fully informed of the fluctuating interests of the business environment is a full-time job – and as far as most MPs are concerned, they already have one of those. A tame lobbyist can provide invaluable background briefings whose benefits can go beyond the remit of the specific APG agenda.

The most that any legislation can do now is to ensure that MPs tow the line in terms of registering interests. Because the reality is that navigating the complexity of the business arena would be too much hard work without the help of lobbyists.

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