July 17, 2007
Pass, friend: how a peer is able to smoothe the way for lobbyists
Sam Coates, Political Correspondent
For most businesses, lobbyists and pressure groups, a visit to the Houses of Parliament means long queues and highly restricted access. Even a trip to the lavatory requires a chaperone.
(chaperon(e) 指跟隨的參觀職員A guide or companion whose purpose is to ensure propriety or restrict activity: “to see and feel the rough edges of the society . . . without the filter of official chaperones” (Philip Taubman).)
But for a small band of lobbyists and industry organisations lucky enough to have become acquainted with a member of the House of Lords, life is much easier. After a one-off background check, passholders can enter Parliament through one of several private entrances, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, can show guests and clients around and use the canteen and the gym.
(one-off (wŭn'ôf', -ŏf') Chiefly British.
adj. Happening, done, or made only once.)
Unlike MPs, peers are not bound by rules determining to whom they can give passes, and there is no register of their outside interests.
One lobbyist, who does not have a pass, said: “Having access to Parliament would make life so much easier. You could spend more time there, phone up people on behalf of the peer and show off to clients. It would be very useful.”
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* Labour peers named in Parliament access row
In particular, he said, it gives them access to Parliament’s taxpayer-funded resources, including its library, where academics and experts will carry out detailed reports if they think the request is on behalf of an MP or Lord. Parliamentary papers are available free of charge.
Lord McNally, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, believes that the situation cannot continue. He said: “My own view is that the issuing of passes has to be tightened up considerably. There are far too many out there. This is not necessarily a sinister thing, but it needs reviewing. It’s become out of control.”
He is a member of the House of Lords privileges committee, which has taken the first steps to tighten up the system after MPs suggested that peers were allowing abuses of the pass system to take place. While MPs have had to declare the outside interests of their staff since 1985, peers escaped the requirement. They argued that less onerous transparency rules should apply because, unlike MPs, they do not get a salary.
But last month the privileges committee, chaired by Lord Brabazon of Tara, decided that a register of Lords’ researchers and secretaries should come into force early next year, listing outside interests. Rules governing who can receive a pass are also likely to be introduced, Lord McNally says. The delay in its introduction would have given Lords the chance to “clean up” the list, removing passes from those who may prove embarrassing. However, the requirement to fulfil a freedom of information request by The Times means that the “pre-vetted” list had to be released.
According to the report, released last month, MPs complained that “research assistants are using access to the Palace [of Westminster] to further other occupations that they hold or to promote interests not genuinely associated with research for Members”.
They suggest that it is an “abuse” if the holders of research passes primarily work in lobbying and public relations.
The sub-committee on Lords’ Interests does not detail the individual allegations or say who made them, concluding: “It is, at present, impossible to prove or disprove these allegations.”
Lord Brabazon intends to put the issue of a register before the House of Lords on the last day before it rises.
A voluntary code of practice for political consultancies bans lobbyists from holding parliamentary passes. The Association of Professional Political Consultants says: “Political consultants must not hold, or permit any staff member to hold, any pass conferring entitlement to access the Palace of Westminster . . . or any department or agency of government.”
The charity sector has long been able to obtain passes from MPs and peers. A source in the charity sector said: “Basically you have to befriend MPs, who have a quota – that’s why it’s difficult to get them. The Lords often have some left, so that’s where people tend to head. I’ve been told to recommend that you hang around in Bellamy’s Bar [within parliamentary offices at 1 Parliament Street].”