Scotland needs a stronger Lobbying Bill

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 7th January 2016

Remember the phone-hacking scandal? It seems long ago, but we shouldn’t forget how much we learned about the ways big private interests try to influence policy.

The Leveson Inquiry dug up all sorts of stories about News International’s lobbying of senior cabinet ministers involved in Murdoch’s BSkyB bid. In their book on lobbying, Tamasin Cave and Andrew Rowell describe the relationship between News International lobbyist Fred Michel and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s special advisor Adam Smith:

In the course of the bid’s progress – just over a year – Michel and Smith exchanged nearly 800 texts…There were also over 150 emails and nearly 200 phone calls. As is often the case with lobbying, most of this contact was informal and beyond public scrutiny.

Of course, many big companies lobby this hard on the issues that matter to them. The main difference with the BSkyB affair was that we found out about it. Whether we like it or not, lobbying is a central part of how policy gets made. That’s why it’s so important that we know about it, and we shouldn’t have to wait until after it becomes a scandal to find out. Lobbying transparency is good for everyone: it benefits citizens by letting us see how the decisions that affect us get made, and it benefits politicians too; it’s much harder to get caught up in a lobbying scandal if all of your interactions with lobbyists are already public.

Transparent politics means a healthier democracy. There’s evidence that falling public trust in politics is related to the view that governments are too heavily influenced by powerful sectoral interests. If we can make the process of policy-making and the networks of influence more transparent, it can make anti-democratic politics and simple non-participation, less appealing.

Unfortunately, the UK Government missed their chance to change things. Their ‘Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act’ alienated important groups like charities, and defined lobbying too narrowly. It leaves most lobbying hidden behind closed doors, and has done little to restore trust in politics.

But in Scotland, we’ve got a chance to create something better. The Lobbying (Scotland) Bill will be debated by MSPs today. It proposes a register of paid lobbying activity which will be publicly available online, and this is a step forward for lobbying transparency – but it’s nowhere near enough.

The Scottish Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (SALT), a network of transparency organisations including ERS Scotland, was set up earlier this year to campaign for four improvements to the Scottish Government’s bill:

  • It should be expanded so that it includes all forms of communication, not just face-to-face.
  • It should be expanded from MSPs and Ministers to include senior civil servants and special advisors.
  • The amount of money spent on lobbying activity should be registered.
  • There should be a ‘floor threshold’ for registration based on lobbying spending.

Without these changes, communication like that between Fred Michels and Adam Smith, which we only know about thanks to Leveson, would remain hidden. Phone calls, emails, texts and letters wouldn’t be registered, and lobbyists would have an easy loophole to avoid transparency when they want to. Smith was a special advisor – as it stands the bill wouldn’t consider him a target of lobbying. It would take another scandal, and another inquiry, to expose that kind of influence.

Making the changes we’ve suggested is politically smart. It’s in parties’ interests to take bold action now rather than risk a damaging future scandal.

The parliamentary committee dealing with the bill listened to our advice and recommended that all forms of communication are registered, as well as communication with “other public officials” alongside MSPs and Ministers. The committee also recognised a public interest in how much is being spent on lobbying.

We also know that there’s overwhelming public support for improving the bill. Polling in December found that 88% of people in Scotland believe lobbying poses a big or significant risk to the policy-making process. And 87% agree with our recommendation to include more forms of communication than simply face-to-face meetings, while 91% believe that the register should cover special advisers and senior civil servants. Most significantly, 92% of those polled supported financial disclosure of lobbying expenditure.

It’s clear that there’s an emerging consensus across Scottish society that the public has a right to know about lobbying activity. We’re in the first stage of debate on the bill, and we hope to see MSPs speaking for the vast majority of people in Scotland who want to see a more transparent politics. It’s up to the Scottish Government to listen and act.

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