Two years after the Scottish government agreed to shed some light on the activities of lobbyists in Scotland, in October 2015 it published its proposals.
Unfortunately, the register of lobbyists the government wants to introduce falls far short of the goal of real transparency.
Scotland’s lobbyists will be breathing a sigh of relief reading this bill (you can read the proposed legislation here).
The register is full of handy loopholes for lobbyists:
• it doesn’t cover lobbying of special advisers or civil servants
• it only deals with face-to-face meetings, which is clearly out of date in the age of digital communication
• and it won’t tell us anything about how much companies are spending on lobbying campaigns
This is only marginally better than the sham register introduced earlier in the year by the UK government in Westminster.
Scotland’s leaders do not think that lobbying is an issue of concern. ‘We do not need to take remedial action to address any problems with lobbying in Scotland’, Joe FitzPatrick, minister for parliamentary business, has written. The government merely thinks that ‘the time is right to consider whether there is a need to increase the transparency of lobbying activity’.
But, as the Scottish Parliament gets more powers, so commercial lobbying will increase.
Scottish politics at the moment has been called a ‘lobbyists’ dream’.
“This is an incredibly exciting time for Scottish politics and public affairs [aka lobbying],’ says one lobbying agency. It promises its clients to ‘be here on the ground and ready to make the most of it’. Another commercial lobbyist describes the ‘bottom line implications’ to business from recent shifts in British politics, citing Scotland’s rise as an ‘unprecedented opportunity’ and ‘good news for all of us’.
The public should have the right to know who is lobbying Scotland's politicians and what they are lobbying for.
As a start, we have produced a Guide to Lobbying in Scotland. Launched at the 2015 SNP conference, it takes you on a walking tour of some of Edinburgh's commercial lobbying agencies; corporate in-house lobbying teams; industry bodies, think tanks; law firms; management consultants and charities, all of whom are trying to influence government decisions.
An alliance of organisations has also come together to push for a robust, comprehensive lobbying register. Now the Bill has been published, we’ll be taking the campaign to the Scottish Parliament. There will be plenty to do as the Bill passes through Holyrood.
Scotland could be a beacon of transparency for the rest of the UK, if we can close the loopholes in the lobbying register. Otherwise it will be business as usual for the lobbying industry.