Patrick Mercer's decision to resign the Conservative whip is another sad entry in the history of political scandals. In the months before the last General Election, David Cameron described lobbying as "the next big scandal waiting to happen". The Prime Minister appears to have been remarkably prescient, but let's be clear, whilst the full story has still to emerge no lobbying firm appears to have been near this, it is about the conduct of a Parliamentarian.
In fact, look closely at the famous lobbying scandals of recent years and one thing becomes clear. Whether it was 'Mercergate', the Liam Fox-Adam Werrity scandal, the controversy around former ministers such as Geoff Hoon and Stephen Byers, they were all about the actions of Parliamentarians. On none of these occasions was a lobbying firm involved.
As managing director of a lobbying agency, issues of integrity in our industry are at the forefront of my mind. I strongly support those who are calling for a statutory register of lobbyists, which would enable a level playing field for agencies, in-house lobbyists, law firms, management consultancies, accountancy firms, campaigning groups and trade unions. The tabling of Parliamentary Questions and Early Day Motions are legitimate for MPs who wish to advocate an issue. However, it would be totally unacceptable for an MP to be offered a financial incentive to do so, and Mercer will rightly face an investigation by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner. But, again, let's be clear, a statutory lobbying register would not have prevented the situation with Patrick Mercer arising. Parliamentarians must behave ethically too.
At Insight Public Affairs, we stress the importance of behaving with integrity to our consultants and to all our clients. We adhere to both our own Code of Conduct and that of the Association of Professional Political Consultants. Our own code is clear. We do not offer or encourage our clients to offer any form of financial incentive to Ministers or Parliamentarians or to any Government official or political party. None of our consultants hold Parliamentary passes or enjoy fast-tracked access to the Parliamentary Estate. We also strive to act transparently, making sure that anyone we deal with knows on whose behalf we are acting. The APPC Code covers the same ground in these areas.
We also go to great lengths to ensure that all our clients have realistic expectations of the kind of services a lobbying firm can offer and of what is achievable. No-one should expect a lobbyist to be able to provide them with inappropriate or unfettered access to the corridors of power. Increasing levels of Government transparency, the internet and the kind of investigative journalism that revealed the indiscretions of Patrick Mercer all rightly shine a bright light on anyone seeking to lobby the Executive. The "smoky rooms" where political decisions were once made no longer exists - and no lobbyist should suggest they do. When undercover journalists visited Insight recently, we were quickly able to expose them. Their clumsy approach rang alarm bells - perhaps saying more about their misconceptions of political consultancy than anything else - but we had nothing to hide, reinforcing the messages we always communicate to prospective clients about: the need to work ethically and transparently; that they have to advocate on their own behalf in meetings, not us; and, that public affairs is not based on networks and contacts as it may have been in the past, but on the delivery of solid strategy and sound advice.
Good lobbying can make a positive contribution towards advancing public policy. Good lobbying must also abide by the highest standards of professional conduct. Developments like a statutory register of lobbyists will help to build trust in the industry. But, to reiterate, as the Patrick Mercer scandal has shown, just like the Liam Fox, Stephen Byers and Geoff Hoon scandals did previously, the behaviour of our Parliamentarians must also be beyond reproach if the Westminster system is to work at all.Suggest a correction