Call me maybe – why the Scottish Lobbying Bill gets it wrong on digital comms

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 15th February 2016

This is a guest blog, originally published by the Scottish Alliance for Lobbying Transparency. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Electoral Reform Society. 

By Pete Mills, Unlock Democracy

Is there a big difference between a Skype call and a phone call? Not really, you might think.  One can use video, the other can’t; one uses your data, the other uses your minutes; but you can do both of them with a smartphone and both of them fulfil the same basic function.

According to the Scottish Government, you are dead wrong. There is a fundamental difference between the two. That’s because according to the new Lobbying Bill, when you’re talking to a politician, a Skype call with video is lobbying but a phone call isn’t. A lobbyist from a fracking company talking to the energy minister about the ban on fracking on a video call would have to register the contact and give details of what they talked about. Those details would then be available to the public. However, that same lobbyist, having the same conversation with the same minister on the phone would be invisible to the lobbying register. They could even Skype with the video turned off and the public would be kept out of the loop.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out what lobbyists will do if they don’t want the public to know about a particular conversation. This is a major loophole in the proposed transparency rules.

Lobbyists use any number of ways to get in touch with politicians: face-to-face meetings, phone calls, emails, even texts. It shouldn’t matter how they get in touch. If there is lobbying going on, the public should know about it. Of course, we don’t think that lobbyists should have to record the details of every single phone call. They could simply register who they have contacted and the purpose of the discussion.

This need not involve extra paperwork. Most larger organisations that lobby politicians will have some kind of internal contact management system to keep track of their contact with politicians. We have argued that small organisations should be exempt from registering altogether, and constituents contacting their MSPs would not be covered by these rules. Our evidence from around the world shows this would ensure these rules have no negative impact on people wanting to participate in the democratic process.

The government have seriously misunderstood how lobbying working in the modern age. The inclusion of video calls is barely a step away from the original version of the Bill, where only face-to-face meetings were included in the register. Joe FitzPatrick, the minister responsible, was labelled a Luddite by MSPs for his refusal to consider telephones, email and all the other kinds of digital communication available.

Since the last debate on this issue in parliament, there have been several positive changes to the Bill. It now includes contact with special advisers and the government is also considering including top civil servants. But nothing the Minister has done to the Bill shows that he understands how lobbying works in the 21st century.

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