As the fallout from the ‘cash for questions’ saga continues, BAA’s
corporate affairs director Des Wilson calls for a new contract for MPs
Here’s a thought: lobbying is good. Lobbying is an age-old right.
Lobbying is essential to the health of our democracy.
Such is the power of the state to affect our lives that Whitehall and
Westminster are increasingly the only places where wrongs can be
righted, resources mobilised, interests promoted, or real changes
achieved. Of course we must have the right to influence the process, to
fight our corner. And that, in a nutshell, is what lobbying is all
But why professional lobbyists? Because while some people are able to
represent themselves, many more don’t have the confidence, the know-how,
the time or opportunity. Lobbyists, like barristers in a court of law,
know the way the place works, the language, the precedents. Just as the
barrister ensures that right of proper defence in court, so does the
lobbyist ensure the right of proper representation in the corridors of
Now lobbying and lobbyists are rapidly becoming dirty words. We
shouldn’t allow that. We can’t afford that. If society acts to restrict
lobbying it protects not itself, but ministers and MPs and civil
servants. They’ll more easily be able to avoid the legitimate pressure
we as citizens and companies and institutions can apply to ensure that
every argument and cause is properly heard before decisions are made.
Undermining our right to lobby won’t end the abuse of power, it will
make it easier.
I had to think about these matters when I came to BAA. We employed an MP
as an adviser. While advice was all we sought (Jack Aspinwall had been
associated with the industry for many years and knew more about it than
most who worked in it full-time), we nevertheless decided to end the
practice by not replacing him when he retires at the general election.
Even so, Jack and I signed a contract, the key points being: ‘we will
always conform to any rules or regulations the House may lay down; we
will not ask [you] to take up Parliamentary time by tabling questions or
initiating debates; there will be only a basic fee - no extra reward for
any activity undertaken on our behalf.’
Despite the satisfactory nature of our relationship with Jack, I
believed then and even more so now, that the abuse of the system by
others meant the time has come for radical change. The starting point to
real reform could be to introduce a legally-binding contract of
employment for MPs. Almost everyone else has one. I have one: it tells
me what I will be paid and what is expected in return. It records in
what circumstances I can undertake any other work and what other
earnings (if any) are permissible. It spells out my rights, but also my
responsibilities. If anybody seeks to induce me with payment of money or
gifts to break my contract, they are guilty of a criminal offence -
MPs have no such contract. Yet they are not just our representatives,
they are effectively our employees, paid a salary. At present if an MP
accepts money to ask a question or seeks to influence a Governmental
decision, he doesn’t break a legally-binding contract. Thus the
corrupter doesn’t break the law. All that has happened as matters stand
is that a commercial company (the lobbyist) pays a freelance, free-
wheeling operator (for that is what the MP has effectively become) for
services rendered in what has become a market place.
MPs should have an employment committee, administered by civil servants
responsible to the House. It should issue the contracts and adjudicate
on any issues that arise. While I personally think that MPs should be
full-time MPs, if additional employment is to be allowed, they should
have a clause in the contract on these lines: ‘You may, with clearance
from the Employment Committee, earn money additional to your
Parliamentary salary and expenses only by providing services that are in
no way related to, nor rely on your position, or the advantages that
arise from you being a Member of Parliament. No payment should be
accepted for use of Parliamentary procedures or time, for introductions,
or for representation or assistance to anyone to represent their case to
Government. Any transgression will lead to criminal proceedings in
respect to both parties’.
I do not pretend there are not difficulties with this idea (nothing is
easy) but it could be made to work, and it has the benefit of forcing
everyone who decides to act improperly to take a conscious decision to
break the law of the land - the one to do with corruption. It is the
most efficient way of reducing abuse of the right to lobby.
This is not to say that the public affairs industry should not be
ruthless in cleaning up its act. Of course it should.
There are activities that take place in our business that we all know
about. Yet the overwhelming majority of us don’t and never would engage
in them. So we should not tolerate them. I - and I suspect most others
in the industry - want to be able to say with pride: ‘I work in public
affairs - I lobby’, and not be forced into shifty defensiveness by the
greed of a few. If we are to do that, we must propose real and practical
ways to keep our business clean. I have suggested ways we could do
this. I hope it encourages others to come up with (probably better)
ideas of their own.
We could shortly find ourselves dealing with a new Government, one that
could last for ten years or more. Let’s get the relationship right from