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Monday, July 6, 1998 Published at 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK

UK Politics

Huge increase in lobbying firms

Ian Greer: became embroiled in "cash for questions"

By BBC News online's Nick Assinder.

If politics is the world's second oldest profession then lobbying is most definitely the third.

Wherever a nation's leaders gather together, the lobbyists will follow, trying to gain inside information, make contacts and simply swim in the same water as the decision makers.

It has been going on in one form or another for as long as there have been politicians to feed off and people who want to influence the political process.

A growth industry

But in the last couple of decades there has been a massive increase in the number of lobbying firms operating either at the heart of the political establishment, or on the fringes.

It seems that as soon as an adviser leaves his post with an MP, minister or political party, he or she sets up yet another firm offering specialist advice to virtually anyone willing to pay.

It is a perfectly legitimate enterprise - as long as the politicians are not paid to influence policy and the lobbyists don't use their contacts to offer their clients privileged information.

One of the biggest firms, Ian Greer Associates, collapsed last year after it became embroiled in the "cash-for-questions" row.

Discreet meetings

The lobby firms all carry out their business in much the same way. They arrange discreet lunches or dinners with MPs and ministers, they hang around the Commons bars and they prowl the party conferences.

And they come into their own in the summer as they try to outdo each other with the best champagne bash of the season.

The aim is to gain information that could be useful to their clients - such as the current government thinking on any particular issue - and to persuade MPs of the rightness of their clients' objectives - such as for or against fox hunting.

Widely used by many groups

All the big interest groups like the tobacco firms, road haulage associations and private health companies use lobbyists.

And pressure groups like the Child Poverty Action Group and Shelter also lobby politicians to back their causes.

Political journalists are also regularly approached in attempts to get clients' messages across through the media.

Many of the lobbyists have close relations with MPs and ministers and some even have access to the House of Commons.

Once inside the Commons, they can get hold of embargoed reports by select committees and - until fairly recently - advances on Green and White Papers.

And there is no doubt that some will have privileged access to ministers' thoughts on policy development.

Their biggest selling point to potential clients is their contacts and their access to information.

It is highly likely that, in this competitive world, individuals might sometimes make claims they cannot deliver on. They are in the business of hype and they often fall victim to their own over-enthusiasm.

But what is worrying many MPs in the post cash-for-questions world is that some of those contacts and some of that privileged information may be being used improperly.

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