Politics, commerce and the “revolving door”

Cash for ‘promises’, ‘questions’ or access matters, because of its implications for commercial influence over both Parliament and government. This influence can manifest itself through political lobbying or the transfer of staff between government and business, a process commonly referred to as the parliamentary ‘revolving door’. This door can provide commercial organisations with access to, and influence over, key political figures that serves to undermine the democratic process. This is particularly evident with the development of public-private partnerships (PPP), an industry with a capital value of around £64 billion. PPPs transfer public sector business into the private sector. The opaque nature of this process, alongside the recurrence of the same big corporate names, raises concerns about transparency in procurement and the private benefits for those involved.
The political-commercial nexus has grown in importance due to the willingness of governments since the 1980s to privatise parts of the public sector such as education, health, defence, transport, energy and criminal justice through PPPs. This sub-contracting process means that greater value is placed on individuals with specialist knowledge in these areas; meanwhile, insufficient transparency of the influence of commerce has eroded public trust in the processes of governance. This was acknowledged in the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) report that was published on 5 January 2009. The report concluded that
Measures are needed… to make it harder for politicians and public servants to use the information and contacts they have built up in office as an inducement to other potential employers… We are strongly concerned that, with the rules as loosely and as variously interpreted as they currently are, former Ministers in particular appear to be able to use with impunity the contacts they build up as public servants to further a private interest.
The committee pointed to two main concerns related to transparency: the trading of insider information, where an individual leaving government provides a bidding company with an unfair advantage, and undue influence from an individual who provides illicit lobbying services.
Despite their high profile in 2009, these concerns were not new. The Select Committee on Members’ Interests had issued a similar warning about a lack of public transparency in 1983:
The House has nothing to gain and a good deal to lose by allowing the present obscurity to continue.
The 1991 Select Committee on Members’ Interests discussed the introduction of self-regulation for lobbyists but acknowledged the difficulties of doing this in a voluntary manner. The issue was raised again in 1994 by the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was convened by John Major in response to the first ‘cash for questions’ scandal, in order to address unethical conduct amongst MPs. But throughout the cycle of accusations, calls for reform and debate, political inertia reigned.
The 2009 PASC report returned to these issues, calling for a mandatory register of lobbyists and a review of the business appointment rules that related to ‘the revolving door’. These recommendations, coupled with additional concern about the public procurement process, could spur on significant reform. The Coalition has already pledged to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, but no reform of business appointments for political figures has been discussed – even tentatively.
At present, transparency activists wait to see whether promises will be put into practice. This paper outlines the key areas of influence that the political-commercial nexus has over public policy. This will be done through the use of a case study from the private security industry on the development of the electronic monitoring of offenders.