During my first term as an MEP, I was working on a complex piece of environmental legislation – I think it was the use of phthalates as plasticisers in polythene products (pardon the alliteration). I remember a journalist asking me about an amendment I'd tabled, which included a rather arcane chemical formula. "How did you do that?", he asked. "Have you got a degree in chemistry?". No, said I, I have a degree in mathematics, but I worked with an industry representative to draft the amendment. His face was a picture. "You mean, a lobbyist?". The shock was palpable. It was as if I'd said I worked with a poltergeist. Then shock gave way to grudging respect. "Well, at least you're honest enough to admit it".
As a parliamentarian, I frequently deal with complex and technical issues on which I need to be briefed. It is absolutely a key part of my job to listen to the groups who will be most affected by proposed legislation. That may be industry lobbyists. It may be trade unions, or employers' groups like the CBI, the FTA, the EEF (Engineering Employers) or the FSB. It may be other interest groups, like charities, or the NFU, or animal welfare groups (I've just been working with World Horse Welfare on transportation issues, for example), even religious groups. Whoever it is, it's my job to listen, and to engage with them.
That does not necessarily mean, of course, agreeing with them. I may ask challenging questions. I frequently hear from different groups on opposite sides of a question – like the car industry versus environmental groups. Indeed, when two normally opposing sides agree with each other, it can be disconcerting. I remember when I had both industry and animal rights groups lobbying against the EU Chemicals Directive (REACH) – industry because of costs and massive bureaucracy, animal rights people because it would have involved a huge increase in animal testing.
Last night in Strasbourg I attended a dinner-debate organised by our own EEF, the European Energy Forum, chaired by my good friend and colleague Giles Chichester MEP (South West England). I have attended many of their events, including a visit to the nuclear power plant at Olkiluoto in Finland, and I have learned an enormous amount about energy issues – a key interest of mine. The dinner was sponsored by EUROPIA, the European Petroleum Industry Association, which includes the majors like Shell and Total, plus other less well-known refiners. We were addressed by EUROPIA's Secretary General Isabelle Muller, who fielded some lively questions. The EEF brings together MEPs, members of the European Commission, and industry representatives, to discuss vital energy issues. Yet in demonising lobbyists, we presumably condemn this extremely useful and constructive dialogue.
One of the biggest remaining UK manufacturers, and research and development companies, is Rolls Royce – a company with a global reach, and with a large UK workforce. It is headquartered on my patch, in Nottingham, and I am happy and proud to have it there. I have visited Rolls Royce in Nottingham several times, most recently to be briefed on their green energy initiative – underwater tidal turbines. A demonstration unit is scheduled for installation in Scotland later this year (sounds like a much better idea than wind turbines, by the way). And perhaps a couple of times in ten years, I have been a guest of Rolls Royce at a dinner in Brussels, along with other MEPs, when they wanted to draw attention to legislative proposals that affect them. Again, I make no apology for listening to their concerns. That's my job.
One other example, before you're bored to death. I used to work in the Scotch Whisky business, in Korea and Singapore, so naturally I have an interest in the industry. And it's an important industry: whisky is a vital export for Scotland, brandy for France and other EU countries. Many of my constituents work in the industry, at the distribution end. Many more of them enjoy the products. So most years I attend the annual reception of CEPS, the European Spirits Organisation. It's a chance to network, to catch up with old friends, and to listen to the current issues and concerns facing spirits manufacturers.
Now the critics and the kill-joys may say "OK, so you need to talk to these people. But why not in your office, in a proper business environment, not in restaurants and spirits receptions?". The truth is that our office hours in Brussels & Strasbourg are fully committed, in all kinds of meetings (including more formal meetings with industry representatives). Yesterday I was in the building from 7.00 am until 10.00 pm. If we want to find time to talk in a more relaxed way, then dinner is the obvious opportunity. I don't think I'd be serving the interests of my constituents any better if I were sitting by myself in the corner of a restaurant, doing the Telegraph crossword.
We talk about life-long learning. Learning from, and debating with, all kinds of people has been at the heart of my ten years in the parliament. It has been a pleasure; it has been a privilege; and I have learned a huge amount about a great range of industries and issues. In all that time, no one has ever offered me a brown envelope stuffed with cash. I rather wish they had. At least it would give me the self-righteous satisfaction of refusing it. Listening to lobbyists is a fundamental part of my work, and I make no apology for it. Let's stop demonising them.