For more information, quotes or to arrange an interview, contact Willie Sullivan, ERS Scotland Director, on 07940523842 or Willie.Sullivan@electoral-reform.org.uk. Alternatively, contact Katie Gallogly-Swan ERS Scotland Campaigns Organiser, on 07930862497 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Yesterday (Thursday 7 January) the Scottish Government disappointed transparency campaigners by showing reluctance to close the loopholes in the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill at the Stage 1 Debate, despite recommendations from the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and overwhelming public support.
Minister Joe FitzPatrick quoted SALT’s YouGov polling showing that 88% of Scottish people consider lobbying a threat to the policy-making process in Scotland, and said it was clear that the people of Scotland cared about transparency. However, he added that any Bill should be “proportionate”, and that the Government wanted to maintain accessibility for constituents, small businesses, and voluntary organisations at Parliament, so were “cautious but open” to changes to the Bill.
The Convener of the Committee, Stewart Stevenson, agreed about maintaining accessibility in Parliament but added that the evidence given to the Committee strongly suggested that they needed to do more to strengthen to Bill, specifically to include more modes of communication, to extend lobbying to more than just MSPs and Ministers, and to have some degree of financial disclosure in lobbying budgets. He added that it was crucial to get the legislation right now, in line with the founding principles of the Parliament, and that there would be further space to consider these options in Stage 2 and Stage 3 of the Bill.
Neil Findlay MSP further urged the that the Government consider strengthening the Bill, specifically questioning why a floor ‘threshold’ for disclosure of lobbying budget hadn’t been considered to further protect the activities of smaller organisations. Findlay commented that “Powerful interests enjoy disproportionate access to decision-makers that ordinary people don't have”, adding that “it would only take one or two scandals to damage the standing of the Parliament”. Findlay explained that the radical improvement of the Bill could avoid this, but that having no discussion of a threshold has led to fear and burden in smaller organisations.
Many MSPs added that they had been overwhelmed by the public response, having been “bombarded” with emails from constituents who were asking them to take action to strengthen the Bill.
In the past week, more than 3000 emails landed in MSPs inboxes from SALT followers, who ccommissioned a YouGov poll on the Bill in December. The poll showed overwhelming public support for all three of SALT’s recommendations to:
- Expand the definition of lobbying so multiple modes of communication trigger registration
- Expand the definition so lobbying of civil servants and special advisers triggers registration
- Expand the information that should be disclosed by lobbyists to include spending on lobbying
Of those polled, 88% believed that lobbying posed a big or significant risk to the policy-making process, compared to only 12% who said there was not much or no risk. Only 9% said it was enough to have face-to-face meetings between politicians and lobbyists in any lobbying register, whereas 91% believed that the register should include lobbying communications with Special Advisers and Civil Servants. While 13% agreed with the initial Bill that lobbying should include only face-to-face meetings, 87% agreed with the SALT recommendation to include more modes of communication like telephone calls and emails. Most significantly, 92% of those polled supported financial disclosure of lobbying expenditure, with only 8% saying this was not important.
Willie Sullivan, Director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland said:
“The government is standing on a raised platform shoulder to shoulder with those that already have access to parliament and power. They seem unable to look down at the growing number of citizens who don’t even trust the political process enough to vote. A ‘proportionate’ lobbying bill would acknowledge the scale of that problem. Instead ‘proportionate’ means not causing a little bit of extra admin. One bill will not solve political withdrawal or halt rising and at times ugly populism, but it could at least signal that they understand that hidden, privileged influence and big money has something to do with people turning their back on mainstream politics.”
Robin McAlpine, Director of Common Weal said:
“It’s all very well saying that everything is fine with lobbying in Scotland but when the public hear about wealthy businessmen getting privileged access at secret dinners, that’s not how it feels to them. That’s why nine out of ten Scots think that lobbying poses a real risk to democracy. The Scottish Government is making a mistake by not promoting a stronger Lobbying Bill and making it clear that they are setting high standards. But there is still time to fix this.”
Alexandra Runswick, Director, Unlock Democracy:
"This debate shows that there is a real demand to open up lobbying. The vast majority of the Scottish public back more transparency, but this Bill must go further to bring lobbying out of the shadows. The government must deliver with a stronger lobbying register.
As the Bill reaches its next stage, the government needs to listen to the committee's recommendations to extend the register. It is transparency in name only if lobbyists can dodge registration by picking up the phone to politicians rather than meeting them face to
Letting the public know who is trying to influence decisions is worth a bit of extra paperwork for lobbyists. A system of thresholds would reassure small organisations that one-off lobbying wouldn't require registration. A robust register doesn't mean lobbyists declaring their Christmas card lists!"
Steve Goodrich, Senior Research Officer at Transparency International UK:
“Given how much potential there is to improve the lobbying Bill, it is encouraging to hear that the Scottish Government is keeping an open mind. Citizens, campaigners and the Parliament’s Standards Committee all agree that there are some key changes that still need to be made to improve transparency at Holyrood. It’s time the government listened to this consensus.
“New rules will always raise concerns about red tape, but many of the examples cited during yesterday’s debates were at best red herrings and at worst fearmongering. The bill would certainly not prevent MSPs receiving Christmas cards, and it would not prevent constituents from engaging with their MSPs because unpaid lobbying is exempt. Where there are genuine concerns about the potential impact on participation, these can be addressed through the introduction of thresholds, so only those who have the ability to comply are caught by the rules.”
“Ultimately, improving the Bill to cover a wider range of communications, interactions with civil servants and information on lobbyists’ spending would strengthen the Parliament’s principles of openness, accessibility and accountability. Citizens, campaigners and businesses from across Scotland will be able to know who’s had what access to which public official on what issue. This kind of openness has been welcomed and embraced in places like Ireland and Canada. Scotland should not shy away from embracing this enlightened and forward-thinking way of doing politics.”
The Scottish Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (SALT) is an alliance of civil society groups who are concerned about the growing influence of lobbying on decision-making in Scotland. We believe only increased transparency can begin to restore trust in policy making and make ministers, elected representatives, and officials more accountable to the public.