Magazine article Public Finance

Touting for Business

Magazine article Public Finance

Touting for Business

Article excerpt

IN POLITICS, AS in the media, the public gets what it deserves.

In journalism, the public has rewarded the dumbed-down, celebrityobsessed, oversimplified, overblown and parochial. In politics... well let's consider that for a minute in the light of this week's shock revelations that former ministers are looking for ways to earn money after they leave office.

The instinctive response to the Sunday Times/Dispatches exposé of Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt, Geoff Hoon and others - after a moment's reflection on their idiocy - is to lament their venal readiness to turn themselves, in Byers' phrase, into 'cabs for hire' for any cause with the cash to pay a lobbyist.

However, lobbying is not illegal. There are, no doubt, elements of it that we might find distasteful. But there is nothing inherently wrong with the practice of businesses and interest groups hiring experts to make their ease to government.

There is nothing immoral in those firms using the expertise of former ministers or civil servants as long as they operate within the law. Many ofthe arguments deployed by lobbyists are in fact adopted by ministers. Much ofthe work they do is at a micro level, tweaking details of legislation or influencing policy. They are professionals who do this for a living and it is hardly surprising that they seek out people who can navigate Whitehall.

A vast amount of legislation is ill-considered, poorly drafted and amended in committee. As with maggots eating away at dead flesh, we might instinctively recoil from lobbyists - but they perform a function.

Nor is there anything necessarily wrong in ex-ministers allowing themselves to work for these hired guns. Indeed, in some respects, one can argue that it is potentially less pernicious than taking a directorship in a company with close ties to their former ministry.

What rankles, I suspect, is the assumption that Byers and others would use their contacts to win favours for causes they don't actually favour themselves - because they are being paid to do so. All of which makes them, well, like PRs, advertisers, corporate advisers, lawyers and... you see my point.

The real issue is not the ex-ministers who go into lobbying but the current ministers who succumb to their persuasion for reasons other than the merits ofthe argument. An ex-minister might get you through the door but nothing wrong has happened unless the policy is changed for the wrong reason. …

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