This is a guest blog - the opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Electoral Reform Society.
MSc student Megan Elliot, who is conducting research on lobbying disclosure and its impact on small organisations, responds to fears that changes in lobbying transparency could cause a 'democratic chill' for small groups. This is reposted from CommonSpace.Scot
The Scottish Parliament is about to enter the final stage of debate on legislation intending to establish a national lobbying register and lobbying code of conduct.
A lobbying register could allow citizens to better understand who is meeting with politicians in an attempt to influence legislation, regulation or policy.
Since the Bill was introduced in October of last year, concerns have been expressed regarding its potential impact on certain groups – particularly small organisations in the charitable and voluntary sectors.
It has been suggested that requiring these small organisations to register their lobbying activity would result in a "democratic chill". In other words, it is assumed that registration will be perceived as a barrier to political participation and, as a result, these small organisations will be less likely to reach out to politicians and rightfully participate in the democratic process.
Research suggests these concerns are unfounded and overstated. A survey of individuals running lobbying registers and of umbrella groups representing voluntary and non-profit groups in Austria, Canada, Ireland and the United States found little evidence that lobbying disclosure deters small organisations and community groups from lobbying.
The few survey respondents who did feel lobbying registers present barriers for small organisations often attributed this to lobbying registration fees. Scotland’s proposed lobbying register is not set to include any fee.
Several of the survey’s respondents pointed out that lobbying registers in their jurisdictions make allowances for small organisations in the form of various thresholds. In many cases, organisations whose employees spend under a specified amount of time or money on lobbying activity are not required to register.
Scotland’s proposed lobbying register does not currently allow for such flexibility; all paid lobbyists would be required to register, regardless of time or money spent on lobbying activity.
Though more detailed research in this area is needed, the survey results indicate this lack of flexibility and failure to establish a reasonable threshold could in fact deter democratic participation for some small groups.
The Scottish Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (Salt) has suggested amendments to the Lobbying (Scotland) 2016 Bill which would mean any organisation spending less than ₤2,000 on lobbying activity in a single year would not be required to register.
Overall, survey respondents enthusiastically emphasised the benefits of lobbying registers in their jurisdictions, for small organisations and otherwise. Some respondents mentioned that small organisations not meeting the required threshold were keen to register anyway as they recognised the associated public and organisational benefits.
Respondents similarly noted how regulation has contributed significantly to knowledge of lobbying activity among the public and the media, and stressed the importance of awareness and education surrounding successful lobbying disclosure.
The Lobbying (Scotland) Bill is expected to move into Stage 3 and be debated for a final time over the next few weeks. For up to date information on the Bill, please visit the Scottish Parliamentary website.
To read the full report on the comparative study of lobbying registers, including to read select quotes from survey respondents, click here.