This month, when the government announced a Bill to create a statutory register of lobbyists, it provided the opportunity for party unification over complex issues that damage the reputation of Ministers and compound public distrust. Yet following the close-fisted way that Westminster handled the Bill, we must be prepared for it to stall yet again unless Nick Clegg acts swiftly on his pledge for transparency.
The lobbying reform proposal came in the wake of further MP scandals involving Patrick Mercer, Tim Yeo, and three Lord peers; namely ex-cabinet minister Lord Cunningham, Lord Mackenzie and Lord Laird. Mr Mercer's resignation came immediately after the BBC's Panorama, posing as a lobbying organisation, persuaded him to set up a pro-Fijian cross-party committee, to put questions to Ministers and to table early day motions for £24,000. Mr Mercer denies the allegations on the grounds of entrapment and is currently under investigation. Lord Cunningham and Lord Mackenzie, both suspended by Labour, and Lord Laird, who has now resigned from the Ulster Unionists, were caught in an undercover sting by the Sunday Times who posed as lobbyists working for a fake energy firm. All three are currently under investigation. A week later, Conservative MP Tim Yeo was forced to stand down as chairman of the Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee after he was filmed by Sunday Times investigators posing as a fictional energy company. Mr Yeo, now also under investigation, appears to suggest that he told a businessman what to say to his committee before the businessman appeared before MPs.
In response to the allegations, Deputy PM Nick Clegg wrote in the Telegraph, 'It is the political equivalent of Groundhog Day'', and the occurrences were, ''indicative of a wider problem,'' clearly pertaining to the 'revolving door' relationship between business and politics. Number 10's reaction was a declaration to reinstate the shelved lobbying bill that will include a register of lobbyists. Under these plans, anybody who is paid to lobby on behalf of a third party will be required to put their name on the statutory register along with details of its client list. Financial penalties will be imposed on any lobbyists who refuse to take part in the scheme. Furthermore, the bill will include the right to recall elections where voters will be able to remove an MP ''found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing'' through a direct vote before their term is up. Lastly, the bill will introduce measures to end self-certification of union membership and include 3rd party donations as part of a political party's spending cap at national and constituency level in the year run up to local and national elections.
In a press conference, Frances O'Grady, general secretary for the Trade Union Congress dubbed the move ''naked opportunism.'' Ms. O'Grady accused the government of ''cynically trying to exploit a political sleaze scandal to crack down on unions... democratic and accountable organisations.'' Jack Straw, former Labour cabinet member once responsible for inter-party talks on party political funding disclosed to the Guardian, ''There was a good chance of party consensus on these matters, but the government has thrown a firecracker into this proposal.''
A cross party collaboration is the only resolution for new levels of lobbying transparency, and now Labour, heavily funded by the Unions, will reject the legislation and be accused by Conservative members of taking a weak stance towards reform. Meanwhile, the House of Commons and House of Lords will continue to be media lobby fodder, further exasperating the public's distrust towards politicians and the lobbying industry. These delays in reform serve no long term benefit for anybody. Our lobbying industry, integral to democracy will continually be sullied; public apologies from our parties will fall on deaf ears; action is needed before it is widely accepted that our democratic flag flies only at half-mast and the public continue to lose interest in it all.
A change in the status quo would require the Liberal Democrats to side with Labour, to seek to amend the bill so that public donations are uncapped, or, failing that, private donations are capped in the same vein as public donations. The parties should also seek to introduce an amendment to the bill where it becomes a criminal offence to pay a government official for influence - thus deterring businesses from foul play as well as Politicians. After Nick Clegg's promise for reform will he follow through on his pledge? Time will soon tell.