Once again we are in danger of being caught up in proposals which could disrupt the vital flow of information, knowledge and ideas between parliament and the third sector. This interaction which is critical to the development of good policy would be obstructed by a lobbying register which would place unnecessary bureaucratic barriers between politicians and the people they represent.
The ‘lobbying’ for public benefit that is carried out by the third sector is fundamentally different from the lobbying for private interest which has led to these proposals.
This is frustrating because it is clear that the ‘lobbying’ for public benefit that is carried out by the third sector is fundamentally different from the lobbying for private interest which has led to these proposals. As the third sector is the means by which people act collectively in their community, it gives voice to minority interests and marginalised groups by representing people who might not otherwise be heard at parliament. A lot of people already regard the parliament as ‘not for them’ so we should be encouraging them to become more involved with the political process not placing artificial and unnecessary obstacles in their way.
Policy shifts such as the ban on smoking in public places, the introduction of climate change legislation and the shift of resources to preventative approaches were all influenced by third sector campaigns. From large organisations to small community groups the third sector has a good presence at the parliament and exerts a positive influence over policy. This is a fundamental part of what the third sector does and must be protected.
Imagine a situation where an MSP contacts a local third sector organisation: ‘I’ve heard about the fantastic work you are doing and would like to visit your organisation to see for myself… now if you wouldn’t mind registering as a lobbyist we can make the necessary arrangements’. Or imagine you are a community worker attending a local event and you spot your MSP, can you approach them to promote your cause? Would you have to register first or afterwards? And most crucially – are both of you more or less likely to engage in conversation if there is a lobbying register in place?
All this is not to say that transparency is not important and corporate lobbying is not a problem. I definitely want to know who is meeting with politicians. However, there is an easier way of achieving this without disruption – require politicians to publish their diaries online. This would provide as much information as a register but place the responsibility for transparency on those who have a duty to be transparent.
Nicola Sturgeon said last year ‘The Scottish Government is committed to operating its business transparently and proactively publishing information where possible.’ I suggest that approach should be applied to lobbying – proactive publication by those with the responsibility to be transparent.