The Lobbying (Scotland) Bill was introduced into the Scottish Parliament by the Scottish Government on 29 October last year. The stated objective of the Bill is to increase public transparency of contacts between lobbying organisations and elected MSPs, by introducing a register of lobbyists to include those who engage directly with MSPs and with Scottish Ministers. The new rules will capture everyone from professional lobbyists to charities who have regular contact with elected representatives, with some in the third sector raising concerns that the Bill may discourage legitimate engagement with decision-makers.
The Bill is the product of an inquiry into lobbying, conducted by the Scottish Parliament’s Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee just over two years ago. While the Committee concluded that there was no evidence of inappropriate lobbying in Scotland, it recommended a lobbying register as a deterrent from any future unseemly activity. However, the Committee also recognised the need to ensure that regulation of lobbying should not have an inhibiting effect on engagement with the Parliament or the Government.
The Bill seeks to strike the right balance between the principles of openness and accessibility in public governance with the need to enhance transparency of contacts between elected members and lobbying organisations. It seeks to introduce a register requiring those engaged in paid lobbying activities to register. There is voluntary registration for those not engaged in regulated (i.e. paid) lobbying.
However, the Bill has attracted criticism from both angles. Transparency campaigners say it fell short of the goal of full transparency, as it does not catch lobbying of senior civil servants, special advisers and senior officials of government agencies. This is in contrast to the equivalent UK legislation, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, which applies to “consultant lobbying” activities undertaken with UK Government Ministers and senior civil servants.
The Bill also restricts the scope of regulated lobbying activities to face to face communications with elected members; other forms of communication between lobbyists and members are not struck at by the new rules. This narrow approach is at odds with prevailing public opinion; a YouGov survey conducted at the start of January suggested that up to two thirds of voters believe that meetings, emails and telephone calls between politicians and lobbyists should be catalogued.
By contrast, there are concerns in the third sector that the Bill may be too far-reaching in practice, affecting not only professional lobbyist groups but potentially also charitable organisations. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations has expressed dissatisfaction with some elements of the Bill as failing to deliver the “light touch” approach envisaged by the Committee, and so creating an undue bureaucratic burden for third sector organisations. The SCVO also called for the responsibility of transparency to be shared by elected members and civil servants, rather than it falling on the shoulders of lobbyists alone. Some charities have also complained that restricting the Bill to paid lobbying services will create inconsistent registration requirements for consultants / employees when compared to volunteers.
The Scottish Parliament agreed the general principles of the Bill at the stage 1 debate on 7 January meaning the Bill will now be reviewed in detail by the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee.
The Scottish Government has recently responded to the Committee’s stage 1 recommendations by announcing plans to amend the Bill, including to make the legislation subject to a two-year review, extend the registration requirement to cover lobbying of special advisers as well as ministers, and widen the definition of lobbying to include video conferencing as well as direct face-to-face communication. These amendments may go at least some way to addressing campaigners’ concerns about the Bill’s scope, while the hope will be that the review period will give an opportunity to assess whether charities’ fears of a chilling effect on campaigning are borne out in practice.