The report which is co-authored by Spinwatch, Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society looks at ‘the business interests and their lobbyists that are influencing your politicians in Holyrood’. It focusses on the ‘revolving door’ aspect of lobbying – where former MSPs, Councillors and advisors go on to work for lobbying firms in Scotland, taking their important contacts and relationships with them.
I’m inclined to agree with the report that this is an issue worth investigating. There may well be bad practice in lobbying occurring at Holyrood and we should know who our politicians are meeting with.
However, I’m just not convinced that a register of lobbyists would capture the most dubious lobbying activity and address the revolving door issue that is the focus of the report. Wouldn’t these interactions take place informally, off the record and in social settings rather than official meetings – well outside the scope of any register?
The report uses the examples of alcohol, tobacco and fossil fuel lobbying to argue why we need more transparency in lobbying, but just how useful would the information captured by a register be?
We already know that the Scotch Whisky Association is lobbying hard against minimum pricing and that Philip Morris will argue against any restrictions on tobacco use. We also know that they will throw a lot of money at it. Even if a lobbying register revealed that they spent £10 million and had 30 meetings with MSPs in a month, I’m not clear what that knowledge would change?
I have every confidence that the third sector can hold its own and win the arguments that matter
We should also remember how successful the third sector has been in lobbying against those powerful interests at Holyrood. Third sector organisations have been at the forefront of successful campaigns to protect people’s health and the environment. In fact, if I was Diageo or Philip Morris I might be tempted to ask the lobbying firms for my money back!
It’s also really disappointing that SCVO’s views have been misrepresented in the report. The report claims that ‘SCVO has expressed opposition to the Scottish government’s plans to inject some transparency into lobbying’. This is simply wrong. Yes, we suggested that it would be better if MSPs bear the burden for transparency, but we didn’t oppose the government’s plans. We merely suggested a more proportionate and fair approach, which didn’t cause unnecessary bureaucracy for third sector organisations.
In fact, if you read our response to the consultation, it’s clear that we largely agreed with what had been proposed by the government. We argued against the exclusion of charities from the register and went further than the government proposals by suggesting that special advisors and senior civil servants’ interactions with lobbyists should be covered – provided they assume responsibility for doing so.
We shouldn’t be complacent when it comes to transparency, but the Scottish Parliament is generally an open and participative institution. What’s most important is that MSPs hear all views when making decisions and that is usually the case. I also have every confidence that the third sector can hold its own and win the arguments that matter. So, let’s have more transparency in lobbying, but not when it involves unnecessary bureaucracy or when it’s at the expense of diverse democratic engagement.