24th Sep 2015

An Opportunity for Scotland?

Robert Barrington

Executive Director (former)

Robert served as Executive Director of Transparency International UK from 2013 until July 2019. He is now Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at Sussex University’s Centre for the Study of Corruption.

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Following the launch of Accountable Influence: Bringing Lobbying out of the Shadows Robert Barrington notes that a forthcoming Bill in Scotland has the opportunity to make the Scottish Government the UK’s leaders in lobbying transparency.

This week in Edinburgh, we launched our report on Accountable Influence: Bringing Lobbying out of the Shadows which looks at the regulation of lobbying and the revolving door across the UK.  Now that we have five assemblies and houses of parliament (Commons, Lords, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), it is possible to draw comparisons between them.  In a weak field, the Scottish Parliament comes off reasonably well: far from perfect, but it has the potential to do a good deal better than the House of Commons.  For example, under its current and proposed new rules, Messrs Straw and Rifkind could actually have been found guilty had they been Scottish MPs (MSPs).  Under Commons rules they were not only acquitted: as our research shows they were vying to be part of a consultancy industry which saw £3.4 million paid to MPs in the last year.

MSPs are often critical of the Westminster parliament, and they now have a chance to show their true mettle.  The Scottish Government is preparing a Bill to make lobbying more transparent north of the border, and there is therefore an opportunity to set itself as the leader of the pack. Stewart Stevenson, Convenor of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, spoke at the launch about his aspirations to set high standards.  But there are also voices calling for the system to continue relying on the integrity of individual MSPs, as being more likely to work than bureaucratic rules and procedures.  In effect, to do nothing.

Of course, nobody wants unnecessary bureaucracy.  Neither does anyone want the kind of scandals in Scotland that have dogged the Westminster parliament ever since the Prime Minister presciently warned that lobbying was ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen‘. Scotland needs a system that is fit for purpose.  While minimising bureaucracy it needs to close some of the thirty-nine loopholes found across the UK in our report from February of this year.  As Juliet Swann of the Electoral Reform Society mentioned at our launch it is better for Scotland to act now before there have been scandals, rather than legislate in haste when it is already too late.  As Scotland’s powers and budget grow through further devolution, it will be more of a target for abusive practices.

What does this mean in practice? A good starting point is taking the best of what already exists in the other parliaments and assemblies.  It also means:

  • regulating the revolving door between the private and public sector as well as lobbying
  • producing information in a form the public can use and understand (known as open data in the current jargon)
  • ensuring there are robust penalties to deter non-compliance with the rules on conduct and reporting

This needs to be backed up by commitments to training in ethics and integrity – the kind of thing that is standard in a large company but to which most politicians are very resistant (you can guess the standard arguments they put forward: ‘are you questioning my integrity?’ etc).

At the heart of our politics there needs to be transparency about the system and integrity among those who participate in the system.  One is insufficient without the other.  This is an opportunity for Scotland to take a leadership role in setting ethical standards within the United Kingdom.  Will it rise to the challenge or will the forthcoming Bill be a fudge?  We watch with interest.


Transparency International UK has launched an online campaign about the importance of transparency in the fight against corruption and the impact it has on our everyday lives – transparencymatters.transparency.org.uk. Starting with lobbying #TransparencyMatters will make the link between activities at the top and the issues that affect us all.

The campaign is calling on members of the public campaigners and journalists to send us stories about why #TransparencyMatters to them. Please see the call for submissions below and send your stories to [email protected].