What is lobbying in politics? Meaning, rules for MPs - and Owen Paterson row explained

Boris Johnson’s Government has been battling sleaze allegations ever since Tory MP Owen Paterson was found to have broken Parliamentary rules - but what is lobbying?

The former Northern Ireland Secretary was found by the independent Parliamentary Standards Commissioner to have lobbied the Government on behalf of two companies who were paying him for consultancy work - Lynn’s Country Foods and Randox Laboratories.

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Many other MPs are also being paid for work beyond their public duties, although there is no suggestion that they have broken any rules.

As part of NationalWorld’s ‘Part-Time Parliament’ investigation, we have revealed MPs spent a combined 56,000 days during the pandemic working in second jobs.

The national conversation spawned by these revelations has led to a renewed focus on political lobbying.

So what is it - and are MPs and ministers allowed to do it?

Here’s everything you need to know.

The Owen Paterson scandal has raised questions about lobbying in the UK political system (image: Shutterstock)

What is lobbying?

Lobbying is when someone seeks to persuade someone else to follow a particular course of action.

So, if someone is ‘lobbying’ the Government, they’re trying to get the Government to change its policies.

The practice can be carried out by individuals, organisations, campaign groups, charities or businesses, and typically involves contacting MPs or other politicians to persuade them to alter or bring in a policy.

This can be done via letter, email, phone or in-person.

Some firms employ professional lobbyists to persuade the Government on their behalf, with former civil servants, officials, MPs and ministers often hired to perform this role.

These people tend to be chosen because of their expertise of the inner workings of Government and how policy is formed.

Lobbying rules are in place to maintain the public’s trust in MPs and the work they do (image: AFP/Getty Images)

Is lobbying legal?

Lobbying is legal, but those who do it must follow certain rules.

MPs can be persuaded to discuss issues with fellow MPs or ministers, so long as they have not been paid to do so.

For example, they can raise issues brought to them by their constituents in a bid to change laws or alter Government policy.

If the MP is paid as a consultant, they are forbidden from lobbying ministers directly on behalf of the organisations they are being paid to work for.

But the current rules don’t stop MPs from going to ministers about issues "where they themselves may have a financial interest".

However, if an MP does so, they must record it in the register of financial interests and consider whether there is a potential conflict of interest in what they are doing.

These rules are in place to ensure that no unelected people or organisations can have undue influence over the UK’s lawmakers and thus undermine the general public’s trust in the work of Parliament.

David Cameron was found to have lobbied Government contacts on behalf of a company he was working for - Greensill Capital (image: Getty Images)

There are also rules former ministers have to follow.

They cannot lobby the Government until at least two years after leaving their job.

They must also join a register before they begin lobbying.

But questions have been raised about whether these rules need to be tightened after it was revealed that former Prime Minister David Cameron had lobbied his high-level contacts in Government using private channels on behalf of Australian financier Lex Greensill.

As the head of state, the Queen and senior royals are meant to remain politically neutral.

But in the past, they too have been accused of lobbying the government.

What did Owen Paterson do wrong?

MPs are not allowed to lobby ministers on a matter which would exclusively benefit a party they have a financial interest in - as Mr Paterson was found to have done.

A standards committee report found the Tory MP had committed “egregious” acts of paid lobbying in breach of parliamentary rules.

He was accused of sending a number of emails to the Food Standards Agency, meeting officials there and also meeting relevant ministers on behalf of two companies - Lynn’s Country Foods and Randox Laboratories - which paid him more than £100k annually between them.

After a two-year investigation, the independent commissioner ruled that on several occasions during these contacts he acted in a way which constituted paid advocacy on behalf of these companies, which is outlawed in the MPs code of conduct.

Paterson denied wrongdoing and has since resigned his seat as MP for North Shropshire.

Have there been lobbying scandals before?

Mr Paterson and Mr Cameron are not the first people to have fallen foul of lobbying rules or allegations of sleaze.

In the cash for questions scandal in the 1990s, Conservative MPs were accused of accepting cash to ask particular questions in parliament.

Under New Labour, a law banning the advertising of tobacco carried an exemption for motorsport Formula 1.

It was a move that appeared to coincide with the sport’s supremo Bernie Ecclestone donating £1m to the party, although this was denied by Labour.

The money was later returned to Mr Ecclestone.

In 2009, Labour peers Peter Truscott and Thomas Taylor became the first members of the House of Lords to be suspended in more than 350 years after they were recorded by undercover reporters saying they would help to amend a bill going through parliament in return for cash.

Both denied wrongdoing but were barred from the Lords for six months.

And in 2012, the then co-treasurer of the Conservative Party, Peter Cruddas, resigned after undercover journalists found he had told would-be Tory donors that a fee of more than £200k would get them direct access to social events attended by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor.

Mr Cruddas has since been made a peer by Boris Johnson in defiance of advice from the Lords Appointments Commission.

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