News 23rd Nov 2020

Closing the loopholes – an opportunity to fix Scotland’s lobbying register

Susannah Fitzgerald

Network Co-ordinator

Susannah joined Transparency International UK in March 2020 as the UK Anti-Corruption Programme’s Network Co-ordinator. She works to coordinate the advocacy and campaign efforts of key civil society organisations, including the UK Anti-Corruption Coalition. Prior to joining TI-UK, she worked in advocacy and fundraising for a global NGO and completed an MA in International Relations from King’s College London.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world inside out – or, perhaps more accurately, outside in – and forced governments to take decisions which have significantly impacted both lives and livelihoods. Clarity about how and why these decisions are made is more important than ever, yet serious gaps in Scotland’s lobbying register have meant crucial information is not being collected.  

Two years since it went live, the register is being reviewed by Holyrood’s Public Audit and Post-Legislative Scrutiny Committee to assess what changes, if any, should be made. This review is itself an important win for transparency campaigners who, during the passage of the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill back in 2016, were concerned that concessions to those who were opposed to the register would limit its effectiveness – concerns that have since played out in practice.  

The Scottish Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (SALT) recently gave evidence on what should be done to upgrade the lobbying register. SALT are a group of civil society organisations – including Transparency International UK – who believe in the importance of openness for accountability and trust in politics.   

 

Why does the lobbying register matter? 

Knowing how elected officials arrive at decisions, and who influences them, is essential for maintaining public trust. However, questions are growing in Scotland over the links between lobbyists and policymakers and what this means for the influence of private interests on decisions of national importance. These concerns touch on issues like politicians’ second jobs, the ‘revolving door’, and questions about how lobbying firms operate

Encouragingly, the consensus now seems to have shifted irrevocably towards acceptance of the need for a lobbying register; an argument that has been long-fought and hard-won. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) noted that it had softened its position considerably, while representatives from business and the lobbying industry have also accepted that the register is here to stay. With all in agreement, the focus can now move to what should be done to improve the register.

  

What changes are needed to make Scotland’s lobbying register fit for purpose? 

One witness described the current register as a ‘rabbit hole of loopholes.’ Exemptions mean that switching your camera off on a Zoom call could mark the distinction between regulated and unregulated lobbying, regardless of the content of the conversation. Moreover, lobbyists can hold face-to-face meetings where no specific asks are made, follow up with these via email the next day, and no element of this interaction would be captured by the register in its current form. 

The crux of the problem is that the register fails to provide a meaningful understanding of how lobbying works in Scotland. To resolve this, Scotland should draw on the best elements of other countries’ approaches, creating a system that collects a wider range of information but which also eases the burden on those who supply this information.

These are the key changes the committee should make: 

  • Include written and oral forms of communication in the definition of regulated lobbying. In an era of social distancing, a definition focusing on face-to-face or video communications is so narrow as to be almost meaningless. Scotland’s limited definition is also notably out of step with other major democracies, including Ireland, Canada, the US and the UK
  • Require lobbyists to report their spending on lobbying activities It is claimed that unpaid lobbying can be the most successful but, if that were the case, a multi-million-pound lobbying industry wouldn’t exist. Using a banded, good-faith financial disclosure system like in the US could address concerns about extra burdens or the accuracy of information. 
  • Report every three months to ensure that the public fully understands the context in which decisions are made. Disclosing lobbying activity every six months means that big changes can happen before the public and the media have had a chance to fully assess how these decisions have been reached and who has influenced them. Even Westminster’s register of consultant lobbyists reports every three months
  • Ensure that all key decision-makers are covered by extending the coverage of the register. Civil servants topped a poll for the most frequently lobbied group who aren’t currently covered by regulations, beating out MSPs’ researchers, party political staff, and a range of Scottish Government posts. Again, there is good precedent for extending coverage, with Ireland’s register going all the way down to council level.  
  • Create a more user-friendly submission format and take steps to stop filings being unnecessarily returned. Underpinning all of these changes is the need to make the system of data collection more user-friendly. Switching to a campaign reporting system like Canada’s (see an example here) would allow more information to be collected but make each filing less time-consuming. Clarity that all meetings to influence government and parliamentary functions constitute lobbying would also prevent filings being unnecessarily returned. To avoid any further confusion, a catchall ‘any other government function’ clause could be added to the definition. 

  

What happens next? 

The committee will now review the evidence and publish a report outlining what, if any, changes they intend to make to the register. Holyrood’s four founding principles offer clear guidance for their decision. The Scottish Parliament was built upon a desire to ensure accountability, open participation, power sharing and equal opportunities for all – a manifesto for a modern and transparent way of doing politics. A comprehensive, robust and user-friendly lobbying register is no silver bullet, but it is an integral part of this vision. 

We encourage the committee to be ambitious, to build on the important first step taken in 2016 and create a register that embodies best practice and offers real transparency. This review should be seen as an opportunity to shine a light on decision-making and to reaffirm the Scottish Parliament’s commitment to the principles upon which it was based. 

 

Read SALT’s written submission to the committee here to learn more.