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Discussion > Lobbying scandal

The scandal being that I don't know where the lines should be drawn. Tim Yeo was well over the line, for me, way before the Sunday Times sting. But I would still have backed Peter Lilley to be an excellent chair of the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change select committee despite his own business interests.

I agree with Michael Portillo when he said on This Week on Thursday that lobbying is not an evil but a fundamental necessity in a democracy. So where should the lines been drawn?

See also: Andrew Neil at the end of the Sunday Politics on why questions weren't asked before about Tim Yeo's business interests as a chairman of a select committee dealing directly with areas concerned. And the Daily Mail on 11th June on the problems for Yeo, Lilley and new chair Robert Smith.

Jun 11, 2013 at 12:29 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

James Delingpole on Sunday compared Tim Yeo unfavourably with Patrick Mercer. In the process James argued that even ordinary backbench MPs should be paid far more than they currently are, so that they are not tempted by cash from lobbyists.

Such arguments always remind me of two people: Thomas Sowell and Enoch Powell. In an era when MPs were paid far less Powell argued that it was a privilege to have the job of representing constituents in the mother of parliaments and there should be no need to pay more. Sowell took a more pragmatic view of the US situation in October 2008, expressed with characteristic insight and wit:

No top-level doctor, lawyer, economist, engineer or CEO can become a member of Congress without taking a big pay cut, perhaps costing that person’s family millions of dollars over a lifetime.

On the other hand, if you paid every member of Congress a million dollars a year, it would cost less than the cost of even a small government boondoggle, much less a whole agency.

It is not that the turkeys in Congress today deserve a raise. They don’t even deserve their current pay. But that is the very reason for attracting different people. Cheap politicians are actually very expensive and the same principle applies to CEOs.

As Sowell intimates, even if one agrees with paying more, how does one get from A (turkeys) to B (excellence) within our current system and the wide distrust in which it is held? I don't know the answer - but do you side with Delingpole and Sowell or with Powell? It's a pretty defining question before we get on to lobbying itself.

Jun 11, 2013 at 1:32 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Did you ever go to your boss and ask for a raise on the grounds that if you didn't get it you would be dishonest? Do you believe that dishonest people have some threshold of 'enough money' above which they don't steal any more? Is anyone aware of perhaps more than a few congressfolks and MPs who seem to retire as millionaires even though the salary is not so high?

The very idea that we must pay more money to stop them cheating (for that is all 'attract a better candidate' really means) does not stand up to examination.

I am against all forms of lobbying as it is carried out today. It should be limited to a public forum. And governments should never pay anybody to lobby them.

Jun 11, 2013 at 1:51 PM | Registered Commenterrhoda

Rhoda: thanks. Your second question is a key one - and wittily expressed, as usual. I'm not sure I go all the way with you however. What about Sowell's point that "if you paid every member of Congress a million dollars a year, it would cost less than the cost of even a small government boondoggle, much less a whole agency" - suitably translated into the Queen's English of course. I genuinely I don't know.

Jun 11, 2013 at 2:01 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

Mike Jackson - your point is well made. But there are ways around this difficulty. In the US, for example, rich pollies often put their interests into "blind trusts" (ie they have no control over, or idea of, financial decisions).

Your point goes to the lack of diversity in legislatures more than to the pursuing of private interests. People from small to medium businesses and skilled workers are almost extinct in modern parliaments. They are mostly political apparatchiks, lawyers and ex public sector employees. Few genuinely rich people would give up their work and lifestyle to a round of dreary meetings for comparatively low pay.

Government is a honeypot - of course it is. But it is simplistic to say that rich people shouldn't be politicians, or indeed that less wealthy people are subject to temptation because of that.

Transparency and the requirement to declare interests is a good test. Stupid politicians over and over again have lied about this, and it tells us what we need to know about their integrity when they are found out.

I don't think that there should be a blanket ban on pollies engaging in outside work (as long as they are still doing their parliamentary jobs properly). Why should an architect, or an artist, or a plumber, not keep their hand in? It keeps them in touch with the real world.

But, the architect should not be making $$ decisions on public works, the artist should not be making $$ decisions on creative grants, and the plumber's pals should not get inside info on government contracts. That doesn't mean that their advice could not be used constructively at other points in the decision-making process.

Rhoda, politics is lobbying, and has been since the beginning of politics. It is like being against weather.

Paying people to lobby on your behalf out of public funds is also not new, but certainly seems to have become pernicious in the last few decades.

Jun 11, 2013 at 2:05 PM | Registered Commenterjohanna

"In the process James argued that even ordinary backbench MPs should be paid far more than they currently are, so that they are not tempted by cash from lobbyists."

Delingpole often talks a lot of sense but I don't agree with this argument of his: MPs already earn over £66,000 per year, plus they get their extraordinarily generous expenses. That's an awful lot of (public, btw) money for a job that doesn't require any specialist qualifications/abilities.

And the people who apparently have been tempted by lobbyists' cash are considerably better off than your average backbencher. How high would their salaries need to be to render them immune to temptation?

Jun 11, 2013 at 2:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterTurning Tide

My MP is supposed to be there to represent me, not Microsoft or Shell or big Green. We have seen plenty of examples here of what happens when a constituents writes to his MP about a concern. You get brushed aside, palmed off with some anodyne rubbish form letter straight from the government department you want to bring to account. THAT part of the system is broken, so why should I accept that same MP getting a non-ex directorship and looking after some interest group or other?

Now I know lobbying is inevitable. All I ask is that it not be conducted in secret or in private meetings. I recall Chiefio recently (if you don't know Chiefio's blog, you are missing something) proposing that congress critters be fitted with a wire to record all their dealing, 24/7. As a resposibility of office, if you like. Just to be kept, in case. After recent news revelations, I don't think that is unreasonable. Absent that, I want a low threshold of dishonesty, not something where some weasel can meet the letter of the rules and get away with it. And I want them fired if they break that threshold, inquiries to be completed in. say, three days, appeals to be done after dismissal.

I don't know if paying them a million would make any difference. Greed is greed. I also don't know how honest I would be faced with a big temptation and a low expectation of being caught or punished. Well, I probably do know..

Jun 11, 2013 at 3:00 PM | Registered Commenterrhoda

And Johanna, I AM against the weather. I have my heating on on the 11th of June. Ten days off midsummer.

Jun 11, 2013 at 3:02 PM | Registered Commenterrhoda

Rhoda, recording all of a representative's conversations would not only ensure that nobody in their right mind would stand for office, it would prevent attempts by citizens to use their representatives as a means of redress. Who is going to be in charge of all these recordings? God?

On the contrary, I think that the right to have a confidential conversation with your elected representative is essential. Or, is God also going to bug their phones, read their mail, and monitor their computers? Doesn't sound like democracy to me.

We have to be realistic and accept that some people will always do the wrong thing. The important thing is to reduce, as far as possible, the incentives and raise the penalties for breaches.

Sorry to hear that you are shivering. I am, too, but it is winter (and currently just above zero) here in the Southern Hemisphere. Not fair!

Jun 11, 2013 at 3:31 PM | Registered Commenterjohanna

The problem with Politicians is their motives, these are suspect as they say they wish to contribute to the common good but their naked ambition says the opposite. Its this naked ambition that makes a high threshold salary pointless. They are after power and lobbyists pander to this power obsession more than plain money can. I would instead make them more accountable to their direct electorate, local votes on each issue dictating the MP's vote not his party and the ability to sack your MP if he goes off the rails. The Swiss example looks to be a good one.

Jun 11, 2013 at 4:29 PM | Registered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

Back to my original argument about being governed by policy wonks.
An intelligent but socially inadequate nerd with little capacity for original thought but an innate instinct for working the system decides, on the basis of no information, that he is not cut out for the rough and tumble of life in the real world but is obviously (in his own mind) too good for the rather tedious and unrewarded (ie nobody will ever hear of him again) existence that is all local government has to offer.
So he toddles off to university to study the original Mickey Mouse degree, Politics, Philosophy and Economics with a view to becoming the next Prime Minister but three — or four, if he's unlucky.
(At this point I need to apologise to those who have a PPE degree and justify my comment on the grounds that it is the degree par excellence which educates the scholar but fits him for no known gainful occupation. Also, I'm envious!)
Having completed the course what next? He has assiduously courted likely politicians during his time at university so our scholar now duly riffles through his contact list and starts making calls, always assuming he hasn't already succeeded in booking a place with one of his patrons in some capacity or other. There is of course an apprenticeship to be undertaken before he is even allowed onto the greasy pole but he gets to rub shoulders with famous people, drink with them in fashionable bars, and even, if he is any good, gets his ego massaged now and again.
In due course the gate is opened and he is ushered through into the rarefied atmosphere of the political adviser and he starts to dream about the possibilities that are unfolding. There is the little matter of having to get elected but his patron(s) will sort that in the fulness of time and with any luck he won't need to spend too much time breathing the same air as the great unwashed ninety per cent of whom will probably have voted for someone else or not have voted at all.
(The story, possibly apocryphal, of Mandelson mistaking mushy peas for guacamole in a Durham chippie says much of what you need to know about our wannabee MP!)
There is another route to a cushy seat, of course. If you can mesmerise your Minister sufficiently he may let you draft your own Bill and then send you to the House of Lords as a reward. Saves a lot of fuss that way!
In due course our scholar takes his seat in the House of Commons, fully convinced in his own mind that he is the best representative the people of Wherewasitagain could have.
And this is when he really discovers his forte. Not only does he get paid £60+K, which is not a lot these days with all the networking he does, but he also gets generous and to an extent unchecked and uncheckable expenses and, best of all, people are knocking at his door asking him to use his influence as a MP on their behalf. Well, I mean! What's not to like?
And so it goes.

Jun 11, 2013 at 5:26 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

In case others haven't spotted it, shortly after I mentioned his Sunday post James Delingpole added Yeo: another scalp for Guido Fawkes. For me Dellers is on especially good form on the Yeo story. He's right to single out Guido and he's very good on what sets Yeo apart, including his interest in the €250m Eurotunnel interconnector exposed by Booker. I don't want to lose sight of that kind of detail here. With Bishop Hill critics like Doug Parr of Greenpeace having a go about inconsistency (retweeted by Doug, which is how I got to see that one) let's set out in the clearest terms how Yeo was over any conceivable 'line'. But we still I think should attend to our own consistency. For that we need to go back to what we expect of our MPs and how we might get close to achieving the ideals we have.

Jun 11, 2013 at 5:56 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

While a 66K base salary is not very generous, before anyone feels too sorry for these people, surely the real gravy is the allowances?

I don't know how it works in the UK, but our local MPs have voted themselves a bunch of tax-free allowances that effectively double or triple their salaries. They get top class hotel rates per night when Parliament sits (which none of them pay), meal allowances, free travel etc. Then there is the superannuation scheme, which means that unlike anyone else except judges and police officers, they get very generous pensions for life irrespective of their age on retirement.

Recently, they have been angling for another lump sum payment for defeated MPs on the grounds that they have a hard time readjusting to the real world and finding another job.

Poor petals.

Jun 11, 2013 at 6:44 PM | Unregistered Commenterjohanna