Minister promises government is ‘open’ to strengthening Bill at later stage but campaigners ‘disappointed’
A CAMPAIGN to beef up the Lobbying Bill saw MSPs receive thousands of emails from constituents but failed to get stronger measures inserted into the legislation when MSPs voted on the bill on Thursday.
MSPs voted to pass the Scottish Government’s Lobbying Bill at its first stage without amendments, despite over 3,000 emails being sent to MSPs as part of a campaign to strengthen the Bill.
Introducing the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill, Parliamentary Business Minister Joe Fitzpatrick said the legislation “seeks to balance interests of a wide range of stakeholders”, and insisted it was not necessary to widen the scope of the Bill.
But Labour MSP Neil Findlay, who first brought the issue up in a member’s bill in 2012, said: “Powerful interests enjoy disproportionate access to decision-makers that ordinary people don’t have. If we look at the organisations promoting renewable energy, fracking, airport expansion – they’re regularly spending significant amounts of time, money and effort to get what they want. They’re entitled to do so, but the public should have a right to know”.
The Lothian MSP was particularly critical of the restriction exemption of electronic communication from the Bill’s remit. Speaking in parliament, he said: “I wonder whether the government thinks we live in the 19th century where telecommunications don’t exist.”
In December 2015 the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee looking at the Bill said the legislation would “leave a great deal of information unregistered”. All email, text and other electronic communication would be missed from the register, as well as any meetings with civil servants or political advisers.
SNP MSP George Adam warned against widening the scope of lobbying and called it a potential “administrative straightjacket”.
But Labour MSP Cara Hilton, who sits on the Standards Committee which has scrutinised the Bill, said it did not go far enough. She promised amendements would be put foward at the next stage of the Bill to “make it more robust and more fit for purpose”.
“We are rightly proud of our parliament, but we can’t pretend it’s immune from corporate lobbyists,” said Hilton.
The debate came as new figures emerged showing significant support for stronger measures among members of the public. The YouGov survey , commissioned by the Scottish Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (Salt), found that 92 per cent respondents (excluding don’t knows) backed measures to make companies disclose how much they’ve spent on lobbying politicians.
The survey also found a majority in favour of widening the scope of the register which will be established, in order to cover electronic communication rather than only face-to-face meetings. The proposal to include meetings with senior civil servants and special advisors also met with public approval.
These measures were deemed unnecessary by the Scottish Government and will not be inserted into the legislation, though Fitzpatrick indicated he may be open to amendments at a later stage.
Think tank Common Weal sent an open letter to MSPs ahead of the debate urging stronger measures on lobbying and is part of the SALT campaign group . Director Robin McAlpine said: “It’s all very well saying that everything is fine with lobbying in Scotland but when the public hear about wealthy businessmen getting privileged access at secret dinners, that’s not how it feels to them. That’s why nine out of 10 Scots think that lobbying poses a real risk to democracy.
“The Scottish Government is making a mistake by not promoting a stronger Lobbying Bill and making it clear that they are setting high standards. But there is still time to fix this.”
During the parliamentary debate, the growing lobbying environment in and around Holyrood was discussed, with Findlay mentioning PR firms such as Charlotte Street Partners and Weber Shandwick, both of which have strong ties with the SNP . The influence of legal and PR firms on policy-making in the Scottish Parliament was documented in a 2015 report by Spinwatch, Electoral Reform Society, and Unlock Democracy.
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Image courtesy of Wotjek Gurak