Row raises worries in UK over ministers' contacts

AP News
Posted: Oct 19, 2011 12:42 PM
Row raises worries in UK over ministers' contacts

Swapping contact cards over canapes, cozy chats at lavish lunches _ in the wake of a scandal over a defense minister who offered his friend access to overseas visits and meetings, Britain is tightening rules on those who seek to win influence over lawmakers.

Liam Fox stepped down as defense secretary on Friday amid scrutiny of the role of Adam Werritty, a close friend who had posed as an aide, arranged private meetings and held talks with foreign dignitaries on at least 18 trips overseas.

Werritty, a former defense lobbyist and the best man at Fox's 2005 wedding, had no official government position but was a constant presence at the minister's side _ leaving some overseas governments convinced he was an aide.

The fact he was funded by a circle of businessmen, some of whom had ties to Sri Lanka or promoted links between Israel and Britain, has raised questions over what the public should know about those who mingle with ministers.

A government inquiry published Monday found Werritty was not employed as a lobbyist, and said that both he and Fox had insisted he had not used his access to advance his clients' interests.

But it also urged the government to press ahead with a planned register of lobbyists and said ministry aides must do more to keep a check on those seeking to influence ministers over contracts or policy.

George Young, a senior Conservative Party lawmaker and leader of the House of Commons, said Wednesday that action was needed to clear the whiff of scandal _ particularly after the 2009 lawmakers' expense check furor, when scores of legislators were exposed over their outrageous attempts to bill the public for a variety of personal goods.

"At the end of the last Parliament, public trust in Parliament was at an unprecedented low," Young told lawmakers. "This government is committed to working to rebuild confidence in our political and democratic institutions."

Prime Minister David Cameron said earlier that those working for think tanks or labor unions _ which have strong funding ties to the main opposition Labour Party _ should also be included on Britain's first legally binding register of lobbyists.

Supporters say the register would detail exactly who was seeking to influence government and what interests they represent. Advocates also say it would help uncover the scale of efforts by leading businesses to ensure laws are drafted in their favor.

In a major speech in February 2010, before he became U.K. leader, Cameron claimed that the influence of lobbyists on was the "next big scandal waiting to happen."

"We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way," Cameron said.

Unlike the United States, Britain does not currently have a mandatory register for lobbyists. However, the size of the influence peddling industry is worth an estimated 2 billion pounds ($3.2 billion) _ much smaller in scale than in the U.S.

Former British ministers are obliged to wait 12 months after leaving office before taking up a lobbying role in their specialist field, and must have all paid work approved by a standards committee for the first two years after they leave their posts.

Ex-defense secretary Geoff Hoon and two other former ministers were suspended from the Labour Party last year after they were filmed by a documentary crew apparently boasting of their influence to a fictional U.S. lobbying firm.

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, an advocacy group comprised of charities, labor unions and some special interest groups, said politicians must support reforms to the sector.

However, Cameron's office has acknowledged this week that a law creating the lobbyist register won't be passed until at least 2013, even if it wins the speedy backing of Parliament.

"Now is the time that our politicians need to prove that their relationship with the people of this country counts more than their friendships with lobbyists," the group said in a statement.

The campaigners warn that influence peddlers are already seeking to delay and dilute the proposals to expose who has access to power.

"This must not be allowed to happen. We need to see who is influencing whom, and we need to see the money that they're spending," the transparency group said.