Transparency campaigners urge Scottish Government to close ‘Zoom lobbying loophole’

Posted on the 17th August 2020

  • Statement from the Scottish Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (SALT). For immediate release, 17th August 2020. Contact ERS on 07717211630 for all bids. 

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

Members of the Scottish Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (SALT) [1] – which includes groups like Transparency International and the Electoral Reform Society – have written to policy makers to mark two years since the Scottish Lobbying Register was introduced [2].

The civil society groups are calling for the legislation to be strengthened to protect the interests of voters, amid concerns over ‘glaring gaps’ in the legislation.

Campaigners are particularly concerned over what they’ve dubbed the ‘Zoom lobbying loophole’. Under the current rules, video-calls from lobbyists would have to be declared as lobbying. But if they turn the camera off, it suddenly becomes unreportable, and ‘entirely hidden from voters’ view’.

These ‘light touch’ rules are ripe for abuse, SALT says, and make Scotland ‘noticeably out of step with other major Western democracies’ such as the Republic of Ireland, Canada and even Westminster, which record oral and written communications as lobbying.

“With such a significant information gap, it becomes difficult to identify if there has been any wrongdoing in controversial situations,” SALT’s submission states.

There has been a substantial drop in the number of reported regulated lobbying engagements in Scotland during the pandemic, compared to the same period last year.

Lobbying campaigners fear this is simply lobbyists moving from in-person meetings to ‘undeclared phone calls and written materials’ in the run up to next year’s elections.

The authors note: “A major and concerning loophole in the current rules is that only face-to-face or video call meetings count as regulated lobbying. Counter to good practice standards, this means all other forms of written and oral communication (including emails, letters, messages, and phone calls) are withheld from public view. Bizarrely, as drafted, the law means that at the click of button in a Zoom call a meeting with a minister, MSP or senior civil servant can avoid regulation and the details withheld from public view.”

While democracy campaigners welcomed the introduction of the lobbying register, they are warning it does not go far enough in a digital age.

It comes following a spate of stories that appear to reveal a ‘revolving door’ between politicians and the lobbying industry [3] – at a time when trust in politics UK-wide is at rock-bottom.

SALT is making three key recommendations to the Scottish Government:

  1. Remove the exemption for written and oral forms of communication from the definition of regulated lobbying
  2. Require commercial lobbyists to disclose or estimate spending on campaigns
  3. Increase the frequency of reporting to provide more timely information on lobbying activities (at present lobbying activities only have to be reported twice a year)

Unlike lobbying transparency registers in the EU and US, Scotland’s does not provide any information about the amount spent on relevant activities by those seeking to influence key decisions. “This gives the impression that there is equal opportunity for organisations and groups to present their views to Ministers and MSPs when there might be a substantial disparity in their resources,” SALT note. There are growing concerns over the scale of oil and gas industry lobbying as Scotland tries to move towards a zero-carbon economy [4].

Steve Goodrich, Senior Research Manager, Transparency International UK:

“Far too much remains unknown about access and potential influence at Holyrood. Although the current law as drafted is a welcome step, there is still a long way to go. This review provides a critical opportunity to bring greater transparency to lobbying in Scotland and bring it closer to better practice elsewhere, like in Ireland.

“The current rules fall well short of international standards, and provide an obvious loophole for those seeking to avoid transparency. The definition of lobbying should include all forms of communication with decision makers, not just face-to-face meetings. That someone can lobby a minister during a video-conference and yet not have to report it because they haven’t turned their camera on is absurd, especially in the current context.”

Willie Sullivan, Director of Electoral Reform Society Scotland, which is a leading member of the SALT coalition, said:

“There are major gaps in the lobbying laws which are leaving voters in the dark. The Zoom lobbying loophole is so glaringly obvious that it should be closed as a matter of urgency. Ordinary voters – who don’t have millions to splash out on corporate campaigning – need to know who is targeting their representatives, and how much they’re spending.

“Scotland can lead the way in democratic transparency, but as things stands our rules are in some ways more lax than Westminster’s, and need tightening to create a level playing field. We know first-hand that it would not be burdensome to regularly report how much resources are put into lobbying. Let’s close the loopholes and give voters the transparency they deserve.”

Robin McAlpine, Director of the Common Weal think tank, said:

“Lobbying in Scotland is accelerating greatly because of the Covid crisis and with reduced opportunities for scrutiny the need for reform in lobbying transparency could not be greater.

“Unless politicians and decision-makers have proper information on just how much money is being used to try to persuade politicians to make decisions, no-one will be able to have confidence that decisions are the outcome of the best assessment of public interest and not only going to those who have the most money to spend on PR.”

ENDS

Notes to Editors

Contact Josiah Mortimer (Electoral Reform Society) on [email protected] / 07717211630 for further information, comment or to arrange an interview with a spokesperson

Submission to MSPs available here (embargoed): https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/SALT-submission-to-the-Lobbying-Scotland-Act-2016-statutory-review.pdf

[1] 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.

We believe only increased transparency can begin to restore trust in policy making and make ministers, elected representatives and officials more accountable to the public.
SALT includes (add list of names) Alcohol Focus Scotland, Common Weal, Electoral Reform Society Scotland, Spinwatch, Transparency International UK, and Unlock Democracy.

[2] The submission is part of 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.

Just 16 percent of the public believe politics is working well in the UK – and only 2 percent feel they have a significant influence over decision-making, according to BMG polling for the ERS last December. https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/media-centre/press-releases/bmg-poll-just-one-in-six-people-believe-westminster-is-working-well/

76 per cent of UK respondents to Transparency International’s 2016 Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) survey thought that wealthy individuals often use their influence on government for their own interests and there should be stricter rules to prevent this.

[3] E.g. https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/secret-lobbying-firm-run-snp-20470255 and https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-50222755

[4] https://corporateeurope.org/en/2019/10/big-oil-and-gas-spent-over-250-million-euros-lobbying-eu

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