IN THE wake of the Liam Fox affair, the UK government has said it will bring forward rules to regulate lobbyists.
Many will welcome this, viewing lobbying as a distinctly dodgy business. However, lobbying – done ethically – is both a fundamental right in a democratic society and makes for better government.
We assume our lawmakers are well-intentioned and want to pass legislation to make society better, but that does not mean that they are infallible or omniscient. That’s why governments consult on both the principle and detail of proposed policies – this is what lobbying is for.
Interest groups should not seek to oppose the democratic mandate of politicians. But often politicians make no mention of these when seeking election. Indeed, they sometimes do the exact opposite in office of what they promised on the hustings. And even if law is being put forward in pursuit of a manifesto pledge, it may run to 100 pages or more, with the devil being in the detail.
It is true lobbyists represent vested interests. However, everybody has an interest in something. And why, for example, should a charity that has an interest in issues affecting older people not be able to lobby about them?
For some, the problem is lobbying carried out by firms motivated by profit. But why, when it comes to business regulation, should the organisations most directly affected be prevented from commenting on it?
And if a regulation is going to add to costs, there is nothing inherently wrong in pointing this out, especially if it means less money available for investment, fewer jobs, firms going bust, or higher costs passed on to consumers.
Any regulation of lobbying should promote transparency. If a register prevents a widget-maker from talking to the relevant civil servant or politician that will be undemocratic.
There are plenty of examples of dodgy lobbyists, just as there are dodgy politicians, journalists and priests. But just as not every GP is Harold Shipman, not every lobbyist is a charlatan.
This post was first published in The Scotsman on 6 November 2011