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Evidence on parliamentary lobbying, 1988

The following evidence was given to the House of Commons Select Committee on Members' Interests in May 1988 and printed with its Minutes of Evidence of Sessions 1987-88 and 1988-89, HC (1989-90) 283, Parliamentary Lobbying, pp 26-30. See also oral evidence of 14 June 1998 and a memorandum of May 1990. See copyright notice below.

Memorandum submitted by Dr Michael Rush, Professor Colin Seymour-Ure, Professor Philip Norton and Mr Malcolm Shaw(1)


1. There seems little doubt that pressure group activity lobbying has increased in recent years and that Parliament has had its share of that increase. Pressure politics is as old as politics itself, but there has undoubtedly been a widespread realisation over the last thirty or more years that it is possible to influence public policy, whether at the local, national or even international level and that in order to maximise the chances of success it is necessary to organise. This realisation is part of the product of a more prosperous, better educated and more assertive electorate more inclined than previously to make representations about their perceived interests. Table 1 provides evidence of the growth in the number of pressure groups this century:

Table 1: The growth in the number of pressure groups

Period formed % n
Pre-1900 17.3 109
1901-19 10.1 63
1920-39 12.3 77
1940-59 18.1 114
1960-79 42.2 265
Total 100.0 628

Source: Peter Shipley, Directory of Pressure Groups and Representative Organisations, Bowker, 2nd ed., 1979.

2. There are, of course, interests in society which seek fundamental change, but there are many more whose interests are limited and often specific. Thus some organisations are set up to promote or oppose a particular policy proposal, but others are more concerned with specific aspects in the realisation that it is possible to modify the details of a policy.

3. One factor which has probably caused groups or organisations to pay greater attention to Parliament is the perception that government is less responsive to outside representations than in the past. The accuracy of this perception may be less important in this context than its currency; widespread consultation over many policy proposals continues to be the norm, but instances of less sympathetic hearings or the rejection of representations tend to attract publicity.

4. The possibility of affecting particular policies or aspects of them has also been helped by parliamentary developments, notably the less ready acceptance of Members of Parliament of the party line on every policy or issue--a change well-documented by the work of Philip Norton; and the development of more extensive means of parliamentary scrutiny, especially changes in the select committee system.

5. Members of Parliament are now better paid and, more significantly, have much better services and facilities than their predecessors of thirty years ago. They are less willing to accept a passive parliamentary role and are considerably more active, as is evidenced by the number of parliamentary Questions and early day motions tabled and by the growth in committee activity. They are therefore more receptive to representations from individuals and organisations outside Parliament.

6. The development of the select committee system, going back to the establishment of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries in the 1950s and the 'Crossman committees' in the 1960s, has provided yet other opportunities for outside interests to make their views known. Moreover, select committee activity has grown not only quantitatively, but, much more importantly, in the range of government activities it covers with virtually every government department monitored by a select committee. Select committees also receive more publicity than in the past and the departmental select committees in particular use fairly extensive circulation lists to publicise forthcoming inquiries.

7. It is now thirty years since J. D. Stewart's British Pressure Groups: Their Role in Relation to the House of Commons (OUP 1958)--the last major study of pressure groups and Parliament--was published and members of the Study of Parliament Group are currently researching into the means by which organisations outside government seek to influence public policy through Parliament. A major part of this study is a survey of nearly 350 organisations drawn from a wide range of bodies.

The Survey

8. It is clear from our surveys(2) that outside organisations' contacts with Parliament are extensive: 74.7 per cent of our respondents said they had regular or frequent contact with MPs; 58.7 per cent said they had regular or frequent contact with members of the House of Lords; 49.0 per cent said they had presented oral evidence and 65.6 per cent written evidence to a select committee; 40.9 per cent said they had had contact with party subject committees and 47.6 per cent with all-party groups.

9. As many as 83.4 per cent of our respondents said that 'legislation before Parliament in recent years had caused concern' to their organisation and expressed that concern through Parliament in a variety of ways from the 65.6 per cent who circulated all or a large number of MPs to the 31.3 per cent who asked a Member to arrange a meeting with the Minister responsible for the bill.

10. Respondents were asked to rank the importance of various channels of parliamentary influence and 49.8 per cent placed backbench MPs first, followed by select committees (15.9 per cent), backbench peers (13.8 per cent), all-party groups (8.3 per cent), and party committees (5.2 per cent). Backbench MPs were thus regarded as by far the most important means of influence.

11. Personal contact with backbench MPs are also a major means by which outside organisations keep in touch with what is happening in Parliament (56.5 per cent), but the most important source for most organisations was the media (newspapers 88.7 per cent, radio 73.2 per cent and television 68.2 per cent) and, apart from Hansard (54.4 per cent), only a minority of organisations make use of official or semi-official sources (The House Magazine 23.8 per cent, The House of Commons Weekly Information Bulletin 22.2 per cent, and the House of Commons Public Information Office 21.3 per cent) and very few of computer-based systems (POLIS 2.5 per cent and PRESTEL 1.3 per cent).

12. A minority of organisations employ someone to monitor what is happening in Parliament (37.1 per cent), although in most cases such individuals deal with other matters as well, and a smaller proportion (20.2 per cent) use the services of a public relations consultant or firm. Of these about a third employ a parliamentary consultant only, as distinct from a general public relations firm.

13. It is also evident from our survey that organisations are generally well aware that a variety of the channels of influence exists and, more importantly, do not regard Parliament as the most important of these. Thus Ministers and civil servants or government departments are ranked first, almost equally, (31.6 and 28.5 per cent), with Parliament placed first by only 7.6 per cent. However, when a more sophisticated ranking measure is used Parliament is ranked fourth, after civil servants or government departments, Ministers, and the media, followed by particular sections of public opinion.

14. Our survey also asked a number of open-ended questions covering access to Parliament, abuses of the lobbying process, and whether the lobbying world was getting too crowded. The response rates to these questions was somewhat lower (ranging from 56.1 to 49.7 per cent), but, excluding non-respondents, 64.4 per cent regarded facilities for access to Parliament as adequate, 31.0 per cent said they were aware of abuses of the lobbying process in Parliament, and 47.7 per cent said they were worried about the lobbying world getting too crowded.

15. Responses to these questions were in part related to how familiar organisations were with Parliament and the parliamentary process--a number of respondents said there was no problem of access 'once you knew the ropes' and some voluntary organisations clearly felt at a disadvantage compared to organisations with greater resources and therefore the means to seek professional advice.

16. When asked to cite examples of 'abuses', the most common complaints concerned the employment or use of Members' research assistants by outside organisations, the use of parliamentary or other paid consultants, and too close a relationship, financial to otherwise, between individual Members and outside organisations. Allegations of more serious, possibly illegal abuses were either vague or anecdotal.

17. There was a conflict between those who felt it was increasingly difficult 'to penetrate the "noise"' of the amount of lobbying that takes place and those who regarded lobbying as part of the democratic process and that 'Parliament is there to be lobbied'.

18. Although respondents were not specifically asked whether they favoured a register of lobbyists, a number expressed support for such a register when asked what changes they would like to see. In some cases a register was seen as a means of curbing or controlling the activity of professional consultants, in others it was seen as a means of gaining access and preferential treatment.

19. Our survey would support the main conclusion drawn by J. D. Stewart thirty years ago that how much attention pressure groups pay to Parliament depends on their perception of Parliament as a means of influencing policy. However, the survey also suggests that the attention paid by outside organisations to Parliament has increased since Stewart's study and it is no longer the case that 'outside the process of legislation and the occasional Question, comparatively little is done through the formal processes of the House'. (Stewart, op. cit. p. 84) We believe our survey demonstrates two important features of lobbying activity: first, a significant proportion of organisations believe that the policy process can be influenced through Parliament, although in many instances it is on the details rather than the main thrust of a policy; and, second, that organisations hedge their bets in that they are well aware that Ministers and civil servants or government departments are generally far more important than Parliament in policy-making, but that making use of a multiplicity of channels of influence makes both tactical and strategic sense. In short, lobbying is not simply a matter of direct pressure or representations at the perceived point of decision, but a multifarious process of direct and indirect influence and persuasion.

Controlling Lobbying Activity

20. The problem of seeking to control lobbying activity through a system of registration needs to be considered in relation to different types or sources of lobbying activity:

21. There is no doubt that not only has there been a growth in the number of organisations that lobby Parliament but also in the number of professional lobbying consultants, a number of whom specialise in parliamentary lobbying. Developments in this area, justifiably or otherwise, have given cause for concern and, if for no other reason, further consideration should be given to establishing a register of professional lobbyists. At the same time, it should be noted that our data would not support the view that the growth in lobbying is a product of the growth in the number of consultants, in that lobbying has grown far more than has the number of consultants.

22. However, lobbying is not something that concerns Parliament alone and there may be a case for following the Australian practice of requiring professional lobbyists to register if they wish to lobby Ministers or civil servants. It is noteworthy that the Australian legislation does not require lobbyists to declare an intention to lobby MPs or Parliament. Legislation currently before the Canadian Parliament requires professional lobbyists to register and provide details of their clients and other outside organisations which seek to lobby holders of public office, including Senators and MPs, to register the names of their officials. The United States has had lobbying legislation since 1946, but considerable doubts have been expressed about its effectiveness. The crucial question remains, what, if any, are the consequences of registration or non-registration? Should preferential treatment be afforded to those who register? Should penalties be imposed on those who do not?

23. Requiring outside organisations who wish to lobby Parliament to register presents some difficulties, both in the compilation of a register and in its operation. Organisations are constantly being formed and disbanded and, more importantly, there are many organisations whose raison d'être is not that of lobbying, but who may find themselves in a situation in which they might wish to lobby Parliament, and a requirement to register might restrict their right to do so. Would organisations not registered be barred from lobbying? And, if so, how?

24. The Register of Members' Interests and the more recently-established registers relating to members' secretaries and research assistants, and to journalists are intended to cover only pecuniary interests and, in the context of lobbying, are therefore to that extent limited in the information they provide. Given the restricted access to the more recent registers, we are not in a position to express an opinion on their usefulness. Consideration should be given to widening access to these registers; alternatively, a short annual report summarising the information they contain could be published--the annual reports of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Health Service Commissioner might serve as models. It is clear that more extensive information could be made available, but any attempt to move beyond pecuniary interests is fraught with complications. This is illustrated in our survey, which found that the interests of no fewer than 50.3 per cent of our respondents' organisations were represented in Parliament by one or more MPs, but only 6.9 per cent admitted to paying a retainer or professional fee to any Member and only 10.6 per cent provided some form of secretarial or other assistance to MPs.

25. The purpose for which registers are maintained needs to be clearly established. Are they to provide information which would in many instances, not otherwise be available? Or are they to enable the House to exercise some degree of control over lobbying activity? If the latter, then consideration needs to be given to whether registration carries rights as well as duties and, more significantly, how and to what extent attempts to control lobbying affect the democratic process.

May 1988

A Note on Political Consultants by Professor Seymour-Ure

1. Our paper has dealt with lobbying in general. It is perhaps worth drawing attention to the growth of political consultants in particular. Their number is still small--around thirty. It is difficult to be precise because they form and reform, and their activities often resemble those of general public relations firms, of which some are a part. But they have certainly proliferated since 1979. Turnover varies from around 200,000 to 1 million or more per annum.

2. Their growth may be due to one or another of the following: change in the attitude of the Government to what had become a routine of consultation with well established groups; more independent-minded and better resourced backbenchers; the growth of select committees; increasing sophistication of lobbying techniques and technology; information overkill (not knowing the right levers to pull); bandwagon effect on potential clients; momentum (once retained, a consultant's services--for example monitoring parliamentary business--may need some special reason for termination); and, not to be underestimated, the availability of persons well qualified for the work (former political advisers, journalists and civil servants, as well as former MPs).

3. Consultants get their business by advertising, direct approach to potential clients, in-house referrals (for consultants belonging to a wider organisation) and personal recommendation. Clients have included companies threatened with takeover, charities trade associations, airlines, a football club, various pressure groups: there is no common pattern beyond a desire to get a point of view across to government--and accepted. To achieve this, consultants provide advice about whom to contact in Westminster or Whitehall, as decision-maker or indirect influence, and how to do it. They may present the issue or may leave the client to do it.

4. What are the problems? Many are problems for the client (how does he know whether he is wasting time or money?) not for Parliament or a wider public interest. For Parliament, the problems all echo the last line of Sammy Finer's classic essay of the 1960s on Pressure groups--'Light! More Light!' Thus:

5. In a wider context, one might consider whether the growth of consultants may be:

Colin Seymour-Ure, University of Kent, May 1988


1. The research on which this evidence is based is being conducted on behalf the Study of Parliament Group, which was founded in 1964 and consists of Officers of the two Houses of Parliament and academics interested in parliamentary studies. This evidence, however, is presented by the academics concerned in their individual capacities and not the Study of Parliament Group as such.

2. The response rate to the survey, conducted in 1986, was 73 per cent, which is high for an extensive postal questionnaire and the resulting sample was representative of the organisations contacted. The questionnaire asked organisations about their contacts with individual MPs, select committees, party subject committees, all-party groups, and with the House of Lords. It also asked whether they had sought to influence legislation and, if so, by what parliamentary means, how they kept in touch with what is happening in Parliament, and whether they used the services of professional consultants.

© 1988, Michael Rush, Colin Seymour-Ure, Philip Norton, Malcolm Shaw.

Prepared by Simon Patrick, 26 June 2001