5 Myths About the Scottish Lobbying Bill

25 Jan 2016

This is a guest post by Pete Mills from Unlock Democracy

In the first week back after Christmas, MSPs debated a Bill to introduce a lobbying register designed to let ordinary people know who is trying to influence our politicians. During the debate, we heard powerful calls from MSPs - including the influential Standards Committee - to expand the register so that it gives a clear picture of lobbying activity. But we also heard some pretty wild statements about the impact of a lobbying register. To set the record straight we’ve busted five myths about the proposed lobbying register.  

Myth 1: Lobbyists would have to register tweets and Facebook posts

Tweets and Facebook posts are already public, so there would be little transparency gained by requiring lobbyists to register them. We believe that lobbyists should register direct communications with politicians, advisors and senior civil servants, such as letters, emails or phone calls if they relate to legislation, regulation or policy. At the moment, the Bill only covers face-to-face meetings, leaving a huge loophole for lobbyists.

It would be pretty unusual to contact a minister about government policy via private Facebook or Twitter messages, but lobbyists shouldn’t be able to escape registration by using a different method of communication. Lobbyists would not need to record every single email in order to provide meaningful information; giving a list of who has been contacted on which topics in a registration period would be quite enough.

Myth 2: The lobbying register would discourage small organisations from contacting MSPs

Registering lobbying activities every six months should not mean lots of extra paperwork - when we recorded all of our contact with politicians, it only took 20 minutes to complete.  A smaller organisation which only occasionally contacts politicians wouldn't have to submit much information about their activities, while a full-scale lobbying organisation with a public affairs department would have to report much more. The burden of compliance is proportionate to the size of the organisation lobbying.

We believe small organisations who have less than the equivalent of one person working one day a week on lobbying should be exempt from registering entirely. The government should also consider a dry run of registration before the register comes into force to familiarise organisations with registration requirements.

A comprehensive academic review of lobbying disclosure systems concluded:

‘We find no evidence...that having a register of lobbyists results in decreasing citizen participation in the political process’ (Chari & Murphy 2007 pp. 9-10)

Myth 3: Scottish voluntary organisations are united in opposition to the lobbying register

Some MSPs gave the impression that the voluntary sector as a whole opposed a lobbying register. In fact, a growing number of charities and campaign groups like Ash, Alcohol Focus and Children in Scotland welcome the greater transparency a lobbying register would bring. The majority of voluntary organisations have not expressed a view.

Myth 4: “Lobbyists would be required to register if they sent an MSP a Christmas card”

MSPs’ Christmas cards are safe. The Lobbying Bill defines regulated lobbying as contact relating to specific parliamentary or government functions. That means that if lobbyists contact MSPs about matters unrelated to specific parliamentary activities - to wish them a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah or Eid Mubarak - they would not need to register the contact. The only conceivable reason lobbyists might need to register their Christmas cards would be in the unlikely event they sneaked a policy briefing inside the card next to the “Season’s Greetings”.

Myth 5: “MSPs and ministers are decision makers and legislators, whereas advisers are just that.”  - Joe Fitzpatrick MSP, Minister for Parliamentary Business

Special advisers and civil servants are important targets of lobbying who can be very influential in decision-making. At the moment, the draft Bill only covers contact with ministers and MSPs. The register must cover special advisers and senior civil servants to give the public a clear picture of lobbying activity.

Special advisers are a key route for lobbyists to access and influence politicians. In many cases, persuading a spad is the first step to persuading a minister. In 2012, the special adviser of then-Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was forced to resign after it was revealed that he was in constant contact with News Corporation’s chief lobbyist - up to four times a day - throughout the approval process for News Corp’s bid for BSkyB.

The civil servants who are responsible for implementing policy can have as much influence over the final output of a policy as the ministers who lead their department. As the head of a lobbying industry group pointed out, “ignoring the great deal of [lobbying] work done with civil servants...would be a fundamental misinterpretation of our industry”.

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