How Holyrood can close the lobbying loopholes – and stand up for transparency

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 9th November 2020

Scotland’s lax transparency rules are leaving voters in the dark about the scale and nature of political lobbying, a coalition of campaigners has told MSPs.

The argument was made by the Scottish Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (SALT) – which includes groups like Transparency International and the Electoral Reform Society, at a hearing in Holyrood on Thursday.

The civil society groups are calling for the legislation to be strengthened to protect the interests of voters, after a number of loopholes emerged in Scotland’s lobbying rules.

SALT representative and ERS Scotland Director Willie Sullivan spoke a review of the Lobbying (Scotland) Act 2016, by Holyrood’s Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, two years since the introduction of the lobbying register.

Restoring confidence and maintaining trust in the system is more important than ever, particularly given the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Scottish citizens and businesses. But this becomes more difficult if decisions are being influenced in secret.

Unlike Westminster’s lobbying register, Scotland’s is enshrined in law. But one of the major loopholes is that lobbyists do not have to report written and oral forms of communication as lobbying.

So, a Zoom meeting with a politician with the camera on is currently classed as lobbying…but as soon as the camera goes off, it might evade the transparency rules. SALT have described the current definition of lobbying as ‘so narrow as to be almost meaningless, particularly in an era of social distancing’ – as meetings move overwhelmingly online.

Scotland is notably out of step with other major democracies on this. The registers in Westminster, the US, Ireland and Canada cover oral and written forms of lobbying.

Moreover, lobbyists aren’t required to reveal how much they’ve spent on lobbying – meaning voters have little information about the scale of the persuasion machine. The lobbying with senior civil servants is also largely excluded at the moment – despite them feeding back views from businesses and campaigners back to ministers. This loophole makes senior civil servants potentially even more key targets of lobbying activity.

Finally, lobbyists only have to report their activity every six months – making the information less useful for understanding the context of decision-making. That’s a big issue during a fast-moving pandemic.

Speaking at the hearing, Willie Sullivan said: “Democracy is a process built on trust, both in the ballot and that public opinion holds governments to account. The interests of everyone – not just special interests – must be paramount. While the Lobbying Register was a step forward, it falls behind in key ways, with a number of major loopholes that need closing soon. As lobbying moves increasingly online, excluding audio calls and written or email communications does not make sense.

“Lobbying is an important part of good governance, providing policy expertise and representing interests across Scotland. But when it comes to lobbying we must be able to answer the question “in whose interest is this being done?”.

“The influencing process must be clear for everyone to see. We must be able to see who is pumping money into influencing powerful figures, and why. A system played out in the shadows and behind the scenes means trust in the process becomes impossible. But with this review, we have a chance to learn from the past two years and providing voters the gold standard in transparency.”

An effective and robust lobbying register is essential for ensuring we respect the founding principles of the Scottish Parliament – openness, accountability, accessibility, and the need to treat all people fairly. Thankfully, through this review, those changes can be made to stand up for voters’ right to know.

The Scottish Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (SALT) is an alliance of civil society groups who are concerned about the growing influence of lobbying on decision-making in Scotland.

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