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Buying and Selling Members of Parliament - Truth about Westminster: Chapter 2 - Page 4

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Lord Thompson asked what conclusions he had drawn at the end of the investigation.
'We drew two conclusions from it. First of all we did feel that, when MPs get involved in this sort of thing, at the very least their activities are likely to be misrepresented. It is possible, I suppose, that the people who have the greatest reason to complain about the activities of Decision Makers is Blue Circle who received the document called "The Campaign Update" which may be a load of "tosh". Maybe these meetings did not take place at all. Maybe this influence which Decision Makers tell the directors of Blue Circle they have, they do not have at all. That of course we do not know.... There is a subsidiary issue, which is whether we are sure that the government service is sufficiently immune to the activities of lobbyists or not.'

And later he added: 'The facts in this case are the document. This is a document, 20 May 1993, headed "Strictly Private and Confidential, Update on activities carried out by Decision Makers on behalf of Blue Circle Properties Ltd". Once we had proved that this was a genuine document, that it was not a forgery ... it seems to me that it would have been intolerable not to have printed it ... In retrospect, looking at the document and hearing Maureen Tomison say at this table today, "When this document says that we arranged a meeting with the Prime Minister, actually 400 people were present and we are not even sure whether our lobbyist actually managed to address the Prime Minister," all I can say is that didn't appear from the document.'

So what are we to make of all this? It is clear from Maureen Tomison's comments that she is utterly convinced that lobbying can succeed in 'overturning government thinking', indeed that Decision Makers had been able to do just that, providing no doubt an excellent return on the money spent on lobbying by Blue Circle.

Many senior politicians have told me that people are fools to think that lobbying plays a real part in altering ministerial decisions. They say that the effect is very marginal, if it exists at all. Indeed I have even heard that argument used by people involved in lobbying, particularly when they have been criticised for attempting to pervert the democratic process.

However, you can't have it both ways. Either aggressive commercial lobbying is a real threat to impartial decisions, with the most well-funded lobby able to 'buy' influence and the hope of a favourable decision, or the whole lobbying industry is a con-trick designed to deceive, selling nonexistent power. The very name 'Decision Makers' seems to me to imply what the company is trying to sell: a decision made or altered as a direct result of their action. The truth about the degree of actual influence may lie somewhere between the two extremes above, depending on the issue, the ,Minister, the civil servants involved, and the quality of government contacts.

Nevertheless, Blue Circle may have been delighted to know that the Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party was herself going to become personally involved as a result of their payments, providing them with expert support and advice. Decision Makers certainly delivered an effective campaign, if their own briefing document is to be believed. Members of the company and representatives of Dartford and Gravesham Borough Councils had personal meetings with a series of government Ministers, including John MacGregor who was then Secretary of State for Transport, and even with the Prime Minister. 49 These meetings were said to have happened informally over lunch, dinner, or at social events such as an evening with Ministers at Hampton Court. 50

This was a powerful operation with the highest possible access. Ministers are extremely busy people. Formal meetings can be very hard to arrange, and informal contacts are therefore of greater importance to those buying services from lobbying companies.

My view is that Dame Angela's involvement was fraught with danger from the start and liable to public misunderstanding, particularly in the current climate, following months of sleaze allegations against senior politicians. She kept to the rules and her involvement with Decision Makers was entirely legitimate, but one could argue that in the light of possible public reaction, her involvement in such a high-profile campaign was unwise.

Ronald Dworkin, Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University said recently: 'A conflict of interest is a situation, not a particular piece of wrong-doing. The difference is very important, because avoiding conflicts of interest means avoiding relationships and connections that might raise questions of improper motives.' 51

Sir George Young plays down the significance of lobbying. I asked him in that case whether MPs involved in lobbying were deliberately misrepresenting the access they had for commercial gain. Sir George pondered for a moment. 'When a Minister is confronted by an MP who is arguing something, if he knows he's paid to say it, it is just discounted. If the guy comes along and says something because he believes in it, he knows about it or it touches his constituency, you sit up and listen. 52

My own experience in the voluntary sector is that most MPs are delighted to help, advise or support any cause that they believe in, as part of their public service. On many occasions I have found their help invaluable, particularly in drawing the attention of a Minister to important issues. Lobbying is thus an essential part of any healthy democracy, and is clearly most effective when a case is presented passionately, with deep conviction, by an MP acting out of a sense of public duty, rather than as a job for a fee.

The controversy arises only over paid lobbying arrangements where one suspects an MP is doing more in support and advice than he or she would if no money were involved. Some MPs vigorously deny that they behave in this way. They say that they only do for a consultancy what they would have done anyway even if unpaid. But if that is the case, why do firms waste all this money paying them retainers?




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