News 05th Jan 2016

Lobbying transparency: MSPs have the chance to show Westminster how it’s done

Steve Goodrich

Senior Research Manager

Steve is Transparency International UK’s Senior Research Manager. He is responsible for managing TI-UK’s research unit and is our specialist on lobbying accountability, party funding and open governance. Before joining TI-UK in May 2015, Steve worked as a Senior Policy Adviser at the Electoral Commission. He has over five years’ experience working on political finance regulation, legislation and data.

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This is a big week for transparency campaigners in the UK. After three years of waiting, the Scottish Parliament is finally going to debate whether lobbying in Edinburgh should be open to greater scrutiny. However, the big risk now is that MSPs fail to realise the opportunity that lies in front of them.

For those new to the debate or confused about what is trying to be achieved, forget about talk of scandal – imminent or otherwise – it can be boiled down to a simple question: what kind of politics do you want to have?

The Scottish Parliament was founded with four underlying and interconnected principles:

  • Accountability
  • Openness and participation
  • Power sharing
  • Equal opportunities

Introducing greater transparency into our politics can help strengthen how these principles work in practice, not, as some have argued, weaken them.

Making lobbying activity transparent – the phone call to the Minister from an energy firm, the meeting with a senior MSP about an upcoming Bill on healthcare reform – can help citizens like you and I understand who is trying to influence public policy and decision-making. It can help us ask difficult questions of our representatives if they seemingly make decisions against the public interest, and help us understand who has a vested interest in an issue of public importance.

It also provides others, like charities and civil society organisations, with information on who’s been talking to officials and whether their voice isn’t being heard. This makes politics more open and equal by showing all – businesses, charities and unions alike – who is putting forward their views on what issue. If, say, a transport company has been meeting with Ministers in the run-up to a decision on fare regulation, then passenger groups could ask why they haven’t been invited to the table to share their views. It’s an equalizer, improving the already high level of openness in Scottish political debate.

After three years of debate, three consultations and two draft Bills there is broad agreement that opening up Scottish politics to greater scrutiny is a good thing. There is now also an emerging consensus on how this should be applied to Scotland’s distinct political system. The Parliament’s Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee recently published its views on the government’s draft Bill. This is based on evidence gathered since the Bill was published, plus the collective evidence it has gathered over the past three years, which includes its own inquiry into lobbying reform, Neil Findlay MSP’s own consultation on the issue and the Scottish Government’s recent consultation, too.

Although the Scottish Government’s Bill is an improvement on the UK’s flawed Lobbying Act, it needs to do the following to meet the new consensus established by the Standards Committee:

  • cover communication between lobbyists and civil servants, as well as MSPs and Ministers
  • cover all forms of communication between the public officials mentioned above, not just face to face meetings
  • cover communications initiated by both public officials and lobbyists, not just lobbyists
  • require lobbyists to report on a quarterly basis, not just once every six months
  • require lobbyists to include a good faith estimate of how much they spend on lobbying every quarter, so citizens can understand the role of big money in lobbying

If you live in Scotland and think transparency matters, The Scottish Alliance for Lobbying Transparency are asking people to contact their local MSP. Visit here for more information.