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Downing Street changes its tone over lobbyists' influence on government

By Melanie Newman, Oliver Wright

Downing Street has now admitted that lobbyists do influence government policy "where we think they have legitimate concerns" - changing its response on the lobbying controversy, which ignited this week following undercover reporting by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published in The Independent.

When No 10 was contacted on Monday night, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister insisted that "it is simply not true that Bell Pottinger or indeed any other lobbying company has any influence on government policy" - leading to questions as to why large firms would spend hundreds of millions of pounds on lobbyists if they had no effect.

This line was repeated yesterday by the Prime Minister's spokesman.

But he later told reporters: "Of course, occasionally lobbyists talk to Government, the CBI often talks to the Department for Business or the Treasury and individual companies with interests talk to Government and raise concerns with us.

"We listen to their concerns and where we think they have legitimate concerns and we can help we try to do so."

He added: "That's what you would expect us to do. Most people would think if the Prime Minister is raising these issues with foreign governments with the intention of improving our trade relationships, that would be a good thing to do."

Recordings of senior executives speaking to undercover reporters from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – posing as Uzbek business representatives – reveal that Bell Pottinger:

  • Claimed they could arrange meetings with the special adviser to Vince Cable as the best way to get to the "cantankerous" Business Secretary;
  • Told the reporters that Bell Pottinger had close relations with a Foreign Office minister, Alistair Burt, a Business minister and the chairman of the Defence Select Committee;
  • Told clients not to give money to political parties because it was "becoming counter-productive".

The Independent newspaper also revealed how lobbyists working for another London public relations firm said they could create an internet "attack site" for the government of Rwanda over accusations it had been involved in genocide.

It will add to significant concerns that the absence of regulation has made London the global centre for "reputation laundering", where lobbyists work behind the scenes on behalf of the world's most controversial regimes.

Yesterday, in the wake of The Independent's revelations, the Government faced calls from Tory, Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs to reform the secretive lobbying system and create a register of lobbyist interests. In a poll of 115 MPs, almost two-thirds agreed that a statutory register would help the democratic process, while 13 per cent who said it would not.

The Conservative backbencher Jesse Norman said lobbying was a "canker on the body politic", adding: "There is a huge need for greater transparency and integrity and honesty."

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