By Tamasin Cave of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency
A Sunday Times investigation (£) has caught them out again. This time the paper secretly filmed top-ranking retired generals boasting about their lobbying ability when it comes to helping arms firms secure multi-million-pound defence contracts.
It is an open secret commercial companies buy access and influence by hiring insiders - but in this instance the government will find it extremely difficult to spin the line, as it has repeatedly, that these particular lobbyists - all ex military chiefs - are deluded Walter Mitty types, claiming influence and access they don’t have.
This kind of secret deal-making between insiders is routine. In the MoD it’s endemic.
The already weak rules, which are designed to prevent ex-officials from flogging their public sector contacts and knowledge to the highest private sector bidder, are clearly bust and held in contempt.
We know this, they know this. Yet nothing is done.
David Cameron’s statement that lobbying was the “next big scandal waiting to happen” was prophetic. His government has been the source of such scandal again and again. We’ve had the Tory ex-defence secretary, Liam Fox and his secret aide-cum-lobbyist Adam Werrity; Tory peer Lord Bell’s firm boasting of the highest access and use of ‘dark arts’; Peter Cruddas, ex-Tory treasurer offering access to the PM for cash. And now generals secretly lobbying over arms contracts.
Lobbying is legitimate. But in secret, with no public scrutiny and no government accountability, it can result in crony capitalism. With the current state of the public finances, we need to know contracts are awarded on merit, and not because somebody went to school with the guy holding the purse.
The MoD has vowed to conduct an investigation into whether the ex-military chiefs were able to arrange preferential access to ministers to push for arms contracts. But this is the system, this is how it works.
Lord Stirrup, the former Air Chief Marshal, and one of those stung, told the undercover reporters:
“Other competitors in this market are doing exactly the sort of thing I’ve just been talking about. If you’re not doing it then, frankly, it’s going to be very, very difficult.”
If we are to begin to tackle secret, backdoor deal-making, we need the government as a first step to deliver on its promise of lobbying transparency, with a statutory register of lobbyists. We could then see which ex-officials had been hired to open doors for which companies, who they were meeting inside government, and what deals they were discussing.
The current voluntary register of lobbyists - like the rules on the revolving door - are a joke. Take the defence lobbying firm Terrington Management. It is run by Sir Geoffrey Pattie, a former defence minister. Pattie claims on his website that his “experience of knowing where to go and who to see… offers an unrivalled added value opportunity to clients”. The firm recently appeared on the voluntary register of lobbyists - but refuses to disclose its clients.
That the government has failed in two-and-a-half years to make any progress towards a statutory register of lobbyists says a lot about the extensive role lobbying plays in government decision-making. It also says a lot about the power of those opposed to transparency.
In the meantime, it won’t be long before another lobbying scandal hits the press. The government will issue its denials, and a little more public trust will be lost.