13th April 2021
Let us start with one proposition, so as to see if it is sound or not.
The proposition is: that in a liberal democracy there should be no closed class of those who can seek to influence public policy.
Just as – in theory – any person can go to the lobby of the house of commons or write a letter to a member of parliament, any person can also attempt to speak to a minister or protest outside a ministerial office.
If this proposition is sound, then there is nothing, in principle, wrong with any person seeking to lobby any parliamentarian or minister.
And if that is a correct statement of principle, then it follows that the principle can be asserted by persons one disagrees with or disapproves of – including finance companies and former prime ministers.
Framed in this way there is a certain superficial plausibility to the contention that the former prime minister did nothing wrong in seeking to influence ministers about a company in which he had a personal interest.
Any wrongdoing would, it can be contended, be at the ‘supply-side’ of ministers and officials who wrongly were influenced by such lobbying, not the ‘demand side’ of the person seeking to obtain influence.
Let us now look at rules.
As the estimable Dr Hannah White explains in this informative and helpful article, it would appear that the issue of Cameron’s lobbying is not about whether rules have been broken but that there appear to be no rules to be broken.
And so we have a gap.
This by @DrHannahWhite is fascinating and informative on how the Cameron lobbying does not actually engage, still less breach, any regulatory regimes – and that's the problem— davidallengreen (@davidallengreen) April 12, 2021
Falls straight through the gapshttps://t.co/SaTK1u42qT
There is something wrong.
It may be that there are no rules that have been engaged, still less broken.
And it may well be that one can (just about) aver that the general principle of openness means that any person from you to Cameron can seek to lobby a minister.
But it still seems wrong.
Yet a general sense of wrongness is not the same as effective regulation.
What can be done, if anything can be done?
Part of the problem is indeed with the ‘supply side’ – any approaches by any person, former prime ministers or otherwise, should be reported and logged, and those approaches must be spurned unless there is absolute transparency.
It is not enough that we have the ‘good chaps’ theory that, of course, no minister or official would be (wrongly) influenced.
The general principle that any person in a liberal democracy should be able to seek to influence a minister does not mean such approaches should be cloaked – the quality of openness that attends the former carries over to the latter.
Switching to the ‘demand side’ of seeking political or policy influence, the general principle that any person in a liberal democracy should be able to seek to influence a minister does not mean that there has to be an ‘anything goes’ approach.
Just as everyone has the ‘right’ to dine at the Ritz – but it an empty right when one cannot afford it – a right to lobby those with power is an empty right if one does not have connections or the know-how about making such access effective.
Unless lobbying is regulated then there will be a natural tendency for those with money – such as a finance company – and those with the best connections – such as a former prime minister – to have far more effective access and influence than others.
This then undermines if not negates the rights of others, as influencing decision-making, rule-making and policy-making becomes the preserve of those with better connections.
It is the right of the privileged, but one masquerading as a a general right of openness.
Any company should have the right to make representations to the government – but only on the same terms as as any other company.
This would mean that it is the merits of the representation that makes a difference, rather than the extent of the access.
And any lobbyist – of whatever background – should not have a greater right of access than any other lobbyist.
This means by implication that there are certain individuals – such as former ministers and former senior officials – who if they are to be permitted to approach their former colleagues, should only do so under the full glare provided by absolute openness and transparency, and in accordance with published procedures.
And if such absolute openness and transparency and procedural certainty is not feasible, then they should not be able to directly approach ministers and officials at all – even if it is in respect of their personal interest (as opposed to on behalf of a paying client, which is a gap Cameron was able to exploit).
They can write a letter to a member of parliament, or wave a placard on Whitehall, like anyone else.
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