Lobbying ‘loophole’ will allow firms to avoid scrutiny, claim transparency campaigners
The Herald Scotland, by Peter Swindon
Transparency campaigners have slammed the Scottish Government for making a last-ditch change to new lobbying legislation which would allow dozens of organisations to avoid scrutiny.
Ministers have been accused of creating a “loophole” with an amendment which means bodies with 10 full-time employees or fewer need not report contact with politicians on a public register. The change come less than a week before the final reading of the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill, scheduled for parliamentary time on Thursday, March 10.
The Scottish Government asked for the amendment in a letter to the convenor of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, Stewart Stevenson, a former minister.
The purpose of the directive is to “reduce the impact on smaller organisations and businesses by providing a general exception of communications made by legal persons, on their own behalf, which have fewer than 10 FTE staff,” according to an internal Holyrood briefing paper seen by the Sunday Herald.
Research by the Scottish Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (SALT) found that 45 of 83 trade associations, unions, professional societies, NGOs and charities analysed may not be required to publicly declare when they met the government and why.
Among organisations which could be exempt are the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) Scotland, the General Teaching Council for Scotland, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, the Institute of Directors Scotland, the Law Society of Scotland, the Scottish Retail Consortium, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) Scotland and the Scottish Licensed Trade Association.
A survey carried out by YouGov at the end of last year found that two thirds of voters believe that meetings, emails and telephone calls between politicians and lobbyists should be catalogued.
Two thirds of those asked also said they fear the policy process could be corrupted unless a public register is set up.
The survey was commissioned by SALT, an alliance which includes the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, Alcohol Focus Scotland, the Common Weal, Unlock Democracy, Spinwatch and Transparency International.
Robert Barrington, Executive Director at Transparency International UK, said: “Research has shown that the public overwhelmingly want greater transparency in Holyrood, but they’re still waiting for MSPs to deliver, rather than give in to the lobbying industry.
“It would be farcical and ironic if the bill to regulate lobbying were to be neutered because MSPs have been lobbied by the lobbying industry. If Scotland really wants to lead the UK by doing politics in the open, these new loopholes need to be removed.”
Willie Sullivan, Scottish director of Electoral Reform Society, said: “The Scottish Government have caved in on a massive scale and taken some of the most prolific lobby organisations out of a requirement to show the public when they are meeting government to try and change policy.
“When asked by YouGov in December, 88 per cent of Scots said they believe that lobbying posed a big or significant risk to the policy-making process. The Scottish Government is blowing smoke in the public’s face with these changes.”
Robin Mcalpine, director of Common Weal, said: “It is simply not possible to see what has happened to this legislation in the last few weeks as anything other than a capitulation to the lobbying industry. New loopholes have been built in which will let a whole list of key lobbying organisations entirely avoid registering their lobbying activity.”
Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) deputy general secretary Dave Moxham added: “The Scottish Government is about to throw the baby out with the bath water. It makes absolutely no sense to exclude organisations of 10 full-time employees or fewer, when lobbying groups are so often smaller than that and can easily be constructed to evade the legislation.”
Minister for Parliamentary Business Joe FitzPatrick insisted the bill will deliver “a proportionate approach for the registration of lobbying activity”.
“Our aim is to secure transparency whilst respecting the openness and accessibility of the Scottish Parliament, something for which Scotland has a proud reputation,” he added. “The bill, as drafted, takes account of the views of a range of stakeholders and MSPs and protects legitimate engagement in a proportionate and simple way.”