Lobbying bill is a noble idea but fiendishly complicated
WHAT price democracy? Or, to put it another way, what happens when money and politics mix, and how do we stop people with deep pockets buying influence and votes? It's a question that's probably as old as voting itself and, with all the focus on MPs expenses and the way political parties are funded, it's just as important today as ever.
There are all sorts of protections in place already, of course. Every MP has to declare their financial interests in a register, so everyone will see if they're putting their own personal profit ahead of what's best for the people they've been elected to represent. And the same goes for donations to political parties, to stop people trying to buy influence that way. The idea is that, if the public can see what's going on, it's pretty unlikely that anyone will be able to get away with anything for long. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant" as the saying goes.
But it isn't quite as simple as that anymore, because a whole group of professions and businesses have set up camp on the fringes of the political arena. They're the lobbyists, consultants and pressure groups, and many of them make a pretty good living out of persuading politicians to do what their clients want. Mostly, that's absolutely fine; politicians are used to people trying to persuade them of this or that, and the whole point of democratic free speech is that anyone and everyone can take part in any debate they want, after all. We shouldn't be worried when charities run national campaigns to help children, refugees or pensioners; or when community organisations meet their local Councillors or MP to discuss changes to parking or bin collections; or when business organisations make suggestions on how to get economic growth moving faster.
But, just occasionally, alarm bells ring when respectable democratic discussion crosses a line to become dodgy influence-peddling. The question is, where's the line? When does a lobbyist or a pressure group stop being a white knight championing an important issue, and become someone who's trying to buy an election instead?
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Enter the government's new lobbying bill, which is supposed to set the rules and make sure our democracy stays as clean and transparent as possible. And, to be fair, the respectable lobbyists agree it's needed
The bill is a noble idea, and certainly needed. But it's fiendishly complicated and difficult to get right. Some of the biggest concerns come from the charities and voluntary groups, who are understandably worried that perfectly normal, respectable organisations will suddenly find they can't promote good causes without jumping through all sorts of silly hoops. Government Ministers have promised this won't happen, and say they're simply strengthening the rules which already exist.
The good news is that both sides seem to want the same thing; a fair and transparent system which doesn't cramp legitimate democratic debate. They disagree about whether the precise wording of the bill will deliver what they both want, rather than anything more fundamental. So even though the fears and disagreements are real, my prediction is that they can and will be sorted out pretty quickly. And we'll have a democracy that's a little bit cleaner, and a little safer from the grubby mix of politics and money. We deserve nothing less.
John Penrose is MP for Weston-super-Mare