– in the Scottish Parliament on 7th January 2016.
The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-15220, in the name of Joe FitzPatrick.
The Lobbying (Scotland) Bill is an unusual bill: it has been introduced by the Government, but is parliamentary in nature. For that reason, I have been keen from the outset to work closely with Parliament to ensure that its views are reflected in the proposed legislation.
We all agree that lobbying is a legitimate activity, and we recognise the valuable contribution that it makes to informing policy making in Scotland. However, it is right that we seek to improve transparency in lobbying activity in order to retain the public’s trust, particularly in the light of continuing constitutional change. The results of a recent poll that was commissioned by the Scottish alliance for lobbying transparency indicated that three quarters of public respondents were in favour of the creation of a register. Therefore, our shared objective is to ensure that Parliament puts in place a robust, workable and, above all, proportionate lobbying registration scheme. We must do so while listening to the views of a range of stakeholders. The Government’s Lobbying (Scotland) Bill is founded firmly on that basis of its being a shared endeavour.
When the Government announced its intention to legislate on lobbying, its rationale for doing so was made clear. The question whether Parliament should establish a lobbying register was and remains significant, and requires careful consideration. Therefore, the Government was persuaded that it should put its full weight and resources behind the proposal, but recognised from the outset the need to reflect Parliament’s wishes. I remain firmly of the view that the end product must be something that members across the chamber will be able to stand behind. The debate allows that process to continue.
Against that backdrop, we welcomed the late Helen Eadie’s suggestion that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee contribute to determining what measures would be appropriate in the Scottish context by holding a committee inquiry. I am grateful to Parliament and the committee for its close involvement in progression of the bill, the detail of which I will outline later.
For the Government’s part, throughout the development of the bill, ministers have been guided by three underpinning principles. First, there cannot be any erosion of Parliament’s principles of openness, ease of access and accountability. Civic engagement is something that Parliament does well and which people truly welcome. Many people have commented on the Scottish Parliament’s openness and hold that accessibility in high regard. The valuable relationships that Parliament has fashioned with all Scottish stakeholders have not only contributed to its many successes but have been integral to its swift development into a significant and trusted feature within Scottish society.
The second guiding principle is that the register of lobbyists must complement rather than duplicate current transparency measures. Many frameworks have been established within Parliament and the Government to deliver probity around lobbying. A lobbying register must be developed to fit within that landscape, as opposed to being viewed as a single catch-all solution.
The third principle is that the new arrangements need to be proportionate, to be simple in their operation and to command broad support both within and outwith Parliament; proportionality and simplicity are key considerations. We need to minimise the burden on those who will need to register and they will need to be clear about what is expected of them in order that they comply with the new scheme. On Parliament being the operator of the registration scheme, the parliamentary authorities also need arrangements that are as clear as possible for the public and which avoid capturing activity that would reasonably be viewed as trivial or as immaterial to the purpose.
Those three underpinning principles have been generally welcomed by stakeholders and are at the heart of the bill that I have presented to Parliament. They will continue to guide my thinking as the bill proceeds through its parliamentary stages, and to guide my thinking in respect of representations for change that are put to me.
Our policy objective is to ensure that we maintain the public’s trust in Parliament as an institution by bringing added transparency. Our aim is to shed light on lobbying activity that is designed to influence the actions of ministers and members for a particular purpose: the bill is not intended to interfere with the day-to-day relationships that each of us has with our constituents. Patricia Ferguson made a very important point during evidence at the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee on 19 November when she highlighted the importance of being clear that the register should be designed to capture lobbying, but not simple engagement. I agree fully with that: we must ensure that we do not unwittingly erode legitimate engagement between the public and their elected representatives. I will therefore continue to consider the bill carefully in relation to the discussions that elected members have with their constituents, and I will in due course consider any necessary changes to protect the relationship between members and their constituents.
I mentioned the key role that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee has played in helping to develop the policy in the bill. As I said, the Government welcomed the committee’s announcement in September 2013 that it would hold an inquiry into lobbying. That inquiry took evidence from a wide range of stakeholders including campaign groups, representatives of the consultant lobbying industry, the voluntary and business sectors and academics. The inquiry concluded in February of 2015 with the publication of the committee’s report.
That report reaffirmed what has become the universal conclusion, which is that lobbying is a “legitimate and valuable activity”. The committee invited the Government to adopt recommendations that were set out in the report as the basis for proposed legislation to establish a lobbying register. The report confirmed the committee’s view that a register based on its recommendations
“would constitute a substantial new body of information which would make a notable contribution to increasing transparency”.
The committee also invited the Government to work closely with the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body on any proposals that would impact on parliamentary resources.
The committee’s 2015 report was pivotal in helping to shape the bill that is now before Parliament. Indeed, of the 17 recommendations in the February 2015 report, 12 fall within the scope of the bill and all of those have been reflected in whole or in part.
The Government consulted on its proposals for legislation, as informed by the committee’s conclusions, and the feedback that was received has influenced the draft legislation.
I turn to the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s stage 1 report. We welcome the committee’s support for the bill’s general principles. Given that the proposals in the bill will impact on every single member, it is very important that we take the views of the chamber as a whole prior to finalising and publishing the Government’s formal response. That is consistent with the inclusive approach that has typified the development of the bill.
However, I wish to offer colleagues some initial thoughts on the content of the stage 1 report. The committee’s agreement to the bill’s core principle of focusing on lobbying involving payment is welcome. That principle underpins the nature of the lobbying activity that we understand to be relevant for capture, and it helps to distinguish such activity from engagement between a constituent and his or her elected representative.
Members will note that unpaid lobbying does not require to be registered, although the bill allows for voluntary registration of unpaid lobbying activity, but I note that the committee’s thinking has moved on in relation to two key areas of the model that it endorsed in February 2015. First, the committee has asked the Government to review whether the scope of the bill should be widened to include communications of any kind. The Government is willing to keep an open mind on that issue and to listen to whatever evidence is made available to support such a position, but it will not surprise members to hear that the Government is extremely cautious about the merits of that approach.
I would like to exemplify the point. If the minister has a problem with a product that he has bought or a bill that he gets and he has to contact a company that is based in, say, India or America, does he book a flight and turn up at the company’s door because he has to speak to the person face to face in order to resolve the problem, or does he pick up the phone and deal with it there and then?
As I said, the Government is keeping an open mind on the issue. Our starting point in attempting to provide a proportionate response has been to consider what is the most significant form of lobbying. We have written the bill on the basis that the most significant lobbying is face-to-face lobbying. However, I am not saying that other forms of interaction are not also lobbying.
Again, I ask a question: is most of our time taken up meeting people face to face or is most of our time taken up dealing with communications of another type?
We would all have to go and look at our diaries to work out how much time we spend meeting people. I am clear in my view that face-to-face lobbying is the most significant form of lobbying, but I am not for a second saying that other forms of communication are not significant, as well. That is why we continue to have an open mind on the matter.
Some respondents to the consultation made calls for written communications to trigger registration. They highlighted the point that Neil Findlay makes, which is that some such communications could, as a matter of fact, constitute lobbying. As I said, the Government acknowledges that point, but in response we must highlight that we are trying to introduce a proportionate approach to lobbying registration.
Our starting point is to question whether it is proportionate to extend registration to written correspondence that is directed to MSPs and ministers. Members across the chamber would, I hope, appreciate what a volume of such correspondence there is—for example, the number of representations that I received from stakeholders in advance of today’s debate. I am sure that other members also received a large volume of written evidence. I am sure, too, that members appreciate that that information—which will have come from across the spectrum—has helped them to prepare for today’s deliberations.
I thank the minister for taking another intervention. I will be very brief. Will the minister clarify in what form were the bulk of the communications that he received about the bill?
Okay. In terms of volume, I—like every other member—have probably received the greater volume in the form of emails, which is significant. However, in terms of time, I have spent more time this week engaging on the issue with—
I think that I, myself, have read every single email that has come in about the bill.
I will continue: I have had meetings with stakeholders on all sides of the debate, which is very significant. I appreciate the meetings that I had with SALT and other organisations this week.
Would the minister make a distinction between lobbying and organised lobbying? The majority of emails that I have had this week on the bill, and those on other issues with which I have been bombarded in the past couple of days, are from individuals who have taken up an issue based on their own concerns. There is a distinction between organised lobbying by paid lobbyists and communications from individuals who feel so strongly about an issue that they want to write to their elected members.
I am conscious that I should make some progress, but that is absolutely the case, and the bill as drafted makes that distinction, which is very important.
The response to the Government’s consultation demonstrated strong support for the registration of oral face-to-face communication, which is seen in the eyes of some people as striking an appropriate balance in the context of there being no evidence of wrongdoing. In the eyes of others, there is no case for a register at all.
Although it would be possible in principle to extend registration to all forms of communication, the question that we must answer is whether that would be a proportionate response and whether we could be sure that it would not deter people from engaging with Parliament. Any negative effect of that sort would be precisely what we are seeking to avoid. The Government believes that there is a risk that extension would have such an effect, which would be to the detriment of organisations engaging both with Parliament and elected representatives. That will have to be considered carefully, and I would be interested to hear members’ views on it. As I said, our ears are not closed to the arguments. [Interruption.]
I will try to make some progress. The committee’s stage 1 report referred to special advisers and civil servants, and it records my response to the proposal for extension. My point was that MSPs and ministers are decision makers and legislators, whereas advisers are just that. Again, it would be perfectly possible to extend the bill in that way, but we need to consider the evidence and any potential implications of such an extension. Again, our minds are not closed on that point, but equally we need to test any extension against the principle of proportionality. I invite colleagues’ views on whether senior civil servants and senior advisers to ministers and MSPs should be covered by the bill.
The committee’s report also included recommendations on certain practical aspects of the registration framework, such as collective pay bargaining and the appropriateness of the current exception for meetings that are initiated by elected members. I will deal with those issues in due course in the Government’s response.
I thank you for your indulgence, Presiding Officer; there were important points that we had to make. The bill seeks to balance the interests of a wide range of stakeholders and to avoid unwelcome imbalances that could work against Parliament’s interests. There is in the bill considerable flexibility available for Parliament in the light of experience to alter the operational aspects of the registration scheme. I hope members will agree that the bill represents a firm foundation for the establishment of an initial scheme to underpin a register of lobbying activity. I look forward to hearing the views that will be expressed during the debate.
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill.
The term “lobbying” can, for some people at least, conjure up images of dubious characters loitering in the corridors of power, attempting to gain unfair advantage over the ordinary citizen. Indeed, the origins of the term lie in the Willard hotel in Washington, where Ulysses S Grant, President of the United States, used to retire for his brandy and cigars in the evening and would be accosted in the hotel lobby by people who were seeking to influence public policy. Lobbying was originally face to face—there were no telephones in the 1820s.
The committee has, however, had a long-term view that modern lobbying is a positive and necessary part of any democracy that equips decision makers with valuable information and, more important, allows individuals, firms and organisations to engage with and influence policy makers, as they have every right to do.
The bill aims to bring a perfectly legitimate activity out into the open. If everyone can see who has contributed to the decision-making process, those decisions should have greater legitimacy and be more representative, and it ought to be easier to hold decision makers to account—outcomes that I think are broadly supported across the Parliament.
Equally, we are aware of the danger of creating barriers or the appearance of barriers for smaller organisations and for individuals whom we wish to see engage with Parliament. Vitally, MSPs and our constituents must still be able to interact with one another on matters of local interest.
The committee’s work in this area goes back some time, as the minister outlined. Following Neil Findlay MSP’s proposal for a member’s bill on lobbying transparency in 2012, the committee held an inquiry to look into the question whether there needed to be more information available to the public about who lobbies the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government. We produced a report in February 2015, which set out a series of proposals. Those proposals have, to a large extent, informed the Government’s approach to its bill.
Nevertheless, in light of the evidence that we heard during our stage 1 inquiry, we think that there are further issues to consider. The bill, as currently drafted, will only require lobbyists to register if they have face-to-face meetings with MSPs and ministers.
Warren Buffet once said that the contribution of people, particularly those in public service, requires integrity, intellect and energy, and without the first one, the other two are useless.
I think that the member would agree that we should seek to retain all those characteristics and my evidence today is that they are endemic in this Parliament. I am therefore concerned—even sure—that the consequence of the bill may be, in the long run, the very opposite of what is intended, in that those characteristics may well be damaged. Does the member accept that, should the bill go ahead, the committee must ensure that there will be no exceptions for different types of lobbyist?
The committee’s view is that we need to seek to differentiate between lobbyists who lobby as part of their paid activity and those individuals and organisations that are working in a voluntary context in which people receive no financial or similar reward. We think that that distinction is a good one.
The member referred to integrity, intellect and energy. I cannot speak for the committee because we did not discuss the issue in quite those terms but I suspect that the committee would view having a register of lobbyists and shining a light into what goes on in regard to lobbying as providing an excellent opportunity for us all to demonstrate those three attributes of integrity, intellect and energy.
The committee understands that the definition of registrable lobbying in the bill is designed to capture the most meaningful interactions and that a line was drawn in an effort to produce a light-touch regime. Nevertheless, in thinking about it since our original report, we feel that that approach may be too narrow and could create the impression of there being options open to organisations that wish to avoid scrutiny. We have therefore recommended that consideration be given to widening the definition of registrable lobbying to include all forms of communication.
We have not looked directly at the potential effects of that widening of the definition and hence ask the Government to do that. In practice, my personal experience—I stress that it is my personal experience—does not suggest that such an extension of the definition would significantly increase the number of registrants.
My personal reflection is that we must test to see whether such an extension would inhibit communication between MSPs and constituents. That is one of the essential tests. We must not overburden organisations, in particular small organisations that are pursuing legitimate campaigns, by creating an administrative headache for them—or for Parliament, although the former are the more important consideration.
During the bill’s progress we will not, of course, decide what the proposed register’s contents will be—Parliament will come to that matter after the bill’s passage. However, at this stage, it is worth saying that the committee is not suggesting that the details of every phone call and email should appear in the register; we suggest that it should contain merely the fact that there have been such communications and what their purpose has been. To include all the details would generate a great deal of repetitive information and possibly render the register less useful and accessible to citizens by burying the relevant information.
Having read the committee’s stage 1 report, I understand that it rejected thresholds for registration. That was an error. Having thresholds would have meant that incidental and small-scale lobbying would not be captured. Will the member elaborate on why the committee rejected thresholds?
There was an element of judgment; there is no absolute certainty in this. However, the test of including only people who receive reward for their lobbying is a simple and objective one, while the test of having a threshold, which the committee discussed at some length, is a more difficult one in terms of coming up with a watertight definition. As the bill progresses to stages 2 and 3, I am sure that we can return to that issue and debate it further. I think that I am correct in reporting the committee’s considerations in those terms and in saying that that is why we came to our conclusion. As I said, it was a judgment call.
The bottom line is that we have asked the Government to find a way, as the bill progresses, to demonstrate that any alteration of the definition of lobbying will leave acceptably modest administrative burdens for those lobbying while delivering a useful and accessible register.
I take it that I have a little flexibility in time, Presiding Officer?
You have nine minutes, Mr Stevenson, but there is a little flexibility.
Thank you—that is helpful.
We looked at the distinction that the bill makes between paid and unpaid lobbying. We basically endorsed the Government’s approach in that regard. It is right that any citizen can lend their voice to a cause or support an organisation in an unpaid capacity without having to register.
We also agreed that the distinction that has been made elsewhere between professional lobbyists—whatever they are—and in-house lobbyists is not one that we would want to see echoed here.
Under the bill as currently drafted, a person would not be required to register following a meeting with a minister or an MSP provided that the minister or MSP had initiated the meeting. We understand and accept the rationale behind the exception, which was designed to ensure that there were no restraints on MSPs and ministers entering into discourse with stakeholders, experts and representative groups that may have particular skills or knowledge that allow them to make a valuable contribution to policy or otherwise challenge proposals.
We share the view that MSPs and ministers should be able to have such interactions with specialists without those specialists then having to register. However, in practice, we have concerns. If matters are discussed during a chance meeting, a dinner or an event, who initiated the meeting and how can that be demonstrated? That could be difficult, and we therefore ask the Government to look at its approach and see whether there are ways of offering greater clarity and certainty.
When it comes to the subjects of lobbying, we were persuaded by those who gave evidence that restricting the bill to MSPs and ministers was too narrow. Although we accept the argument that ministers are responsible for decisions, other office-holders are clearly involved in their inception. Importantly, the lobbying organisations that we spoke to considered such interactions to be of equal value to meetings with ministers. Accordingly, we have asked the Government to consider introducing amendments to broaden the definition to include communications with other public officials, such as civil servants, special advisers and senior staff.
We heard arguments that expenditure on lobbying should be disclosed. I return to the point that that is a matter that Parliament can consider further when we look at the orders that we will make after the bill’s passage.
The Parliament was founded on the principles of openness, accessibility and participation. If we get it right, the bill will promote those values and allow everyone to participate on an equal footing.
We look forward to continuing to work with the Government on any changes that it introduces. I am happy to say that the committee endorses the view that the Parliament should adopt the bill’s general principles.
I am pleased to open the debate on behalf on the Labour Party. I am also pleased that the Government has got round to introducing the bill, because this debate has been a long time coming. I submitted my draft proposal for a lobbying transparency (Scotland) bill in July 2012, and the issue is only now coming before the Parliament. Nevertheless, we have got here; that is a good thing, and we will support the bill’s principles at decision time.
Like others, I believe that lobbying is a good thing. It informs debate and assists the democratic process. For example, the briefings that we have all received for this debate and which we receive for others are often invaluable in providing information, expertise and knowledge and giving different perspectives from a range of opinions. They enhance our democracy, and that, as I have said, is a good thing.
However, the workings of the Parliament and the ways in which legislation is made, contracts are awarded and so on, including any lobbying that might have occurred in the process, should all be open to scrutiny and be transparent. As we know, the general standing of politics and those who work in and around it, following the expenses scandals, cash for questions, taxis for hire—
Calm your jets, Mr Brodie.
After all those things and the current financial controversies of some MPs, that general standing is not high. Thankfully, the Parliament has been largely free of such scandals—and long may that continue. Indeed, the reason I wanted to introduce a bill was to ensure that we put in place systems to prevent such things from happening, thus protecting our democracy, this Parliament and those engage with it. It would take only one or two scandals to really damage the Parliament’s standing, and that would be a major setback for all of us and for this institution. In that respect, a good, robust and workable lobbying bill fits with the preventative agenda that the Government promotes and which I think all of us support.
However, it is hard to deny the view of many that, compared with ordinary people—the average man or woman in the street—powerful interests enjoy disproportionate access to Government, politicians and decision makers as well as disproportionate influence over policy and the legislative process. We could pick out a whole range of issues, but the fact is that organisations that are engaged in promoting renewable energy, fracking, cuts to air passenger duty, airport expansion and a whole range of other matters regularly spend very significant amounts of time, money and effort on getting what they want. There is nothing wrong at all with that—they are perfectly entitled to do so—but the public should have a right to know who they are speaking to, the reason for those communications and what, if any, was the outcome. That is not revolutionary stuff—it fits in with the Parliament’s founding principles.
The bill is therefore timely and absolutely appropriate. New powers are coming to this place and we know that, with new powers, lobbying follows. There was almost no Scottish lobbying industry of note before the Parliament existed but, as powers have come, lobbying activity has increased and now it goes on in this place every minute of every day. Again, I stress that that is not a bad thing, but it is right that we legislate now in an atmosphere of relative calm and not in the wake of a scandal, when party-political advantage would clearly and inevitably influence our discussions and decisions.
That said, if we are to legislate, it must be done properly. As it stands, the bill is, in my opinion, in need of radical amendment to make it fit for purpose, and I am pleased that colleagues from all parties on the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee recognise some of the major flaws in the Government’s proposals and the need for improvement.
One of those major flaws is the proposal to include only face-to-face meetings between the lobbyist and the lobbied. On first reading that proposal, I immediately wondered whether the Government thinks that we still live in the 19th century or a world where telecommunications and computers do not exist. I see that the minister has a fancy biro pen, so I assume that he does not write with a quill on parchment. I am sure that he does not send smoke signals or speak to people via two bean cans tied together with string.
The Government says that it wants to deliver an economy that is futureproofed and has world-class connectivity. With that come new-fangled gimmicks with strange names such as the telephone, the computer, email, conference calls, videoconferencing and—for heaven’s sake—Skype and FaceTime. I can hear the minister muttering, “It doesn’t matter. They will never catch on.”
It is not the case that the Government does not recognise those other forms of lobbying. Indeed, the bill allows for the Parliament to put in place guidance for them. What we are saying is that, in relation to regulated lobbying, a line needs to be drawn between what is a criminal offence and other lobbying, for which there is guidance. Nobody is suggesting that those other forms of lobbying do not exist or that we do not have email or telephones. It is just about where we draw the line in relation to regulation.
I thank the minister for confirming that he is not a Luddite and that he is a modern man in the modern age. I am sure that he will want to ensure that the bill is a modern bill for the modern age, and that the Government will come back at stage 2 with a new definition of regulated lobbying.
Professor Raj Chari said during a committee evidence session:
“I had never seen such wording before. It pains me to say that even the UK recognises that lobbying takes place by way of written communication.”—[Official Report, Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, 12 November 2015; c 21.]
I am sure that the minister does not want to be compared unfavourably with the dog’s breakfast that is the UK lobbying act—the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. We want a better proposal than what is in the bill. We must recognise its absurdity and fix it as soon as possible.
We also need to address the weaknesses in the provisions on who should be included in the register as having been lobbied. We all know how lobbyists target special advisers and civil servants, and they must be included in the proposals. Not to include them would leave a glaring loophole that could easily be exploited. The minister mentioned the SALT briefing that we have received, and in its polling, 91 per cent of the public believed that SPADs and civil servants must be included in the register. I hope that the minister will take that into account. There is no mention, either, of financial disclosure. If we want people to have faith in the system, it is surely vital that they know the scale of lobbying. Are people spending a fiver or five grand? That would tell us the scale of the lobbying that goes on, and 92 per cent of people support the inclusion of that information.
We also need thresholds to ensure that normal MSP contact is unaffected, that one-off or infrequent lobbying is not included and that only significant lobbying by those who invest significant amounts of money and time to influence policies or win contracts are included in any register. Failure to make that clear has led to the fear that all the activities of anyone who approaches parliamentarians will have to be registered. That was never the intention. I hope that it is not the Government’s intention—I am sure that it is not.
My original proposals also suggested that the working careers of lobbyists should be included in the register, because too often we see the revolving door in operation whereby ex-politicians, special advisers and civil servants move into new roles and, within a short period, open up their contact books to gain access to decision makers, using all the knowledge and relationships that they built up in their previous employment to influence policy or win contracts for their new clients or bosses. Again, that can lead to negative perceptions among the public, yet there is no mention of a revolving-door provision in the Government’s proposals. We need only look at what has happened with recent Governments of all persuasions at Westminster to see all that in action—for example, with the new recruits at Aberdeen Asset Management, Weber Shandwick and Charlotte Street Partners. As I said, that has happened at Westminster under Governments of all persuasions.
The bill has many flaws and some of it is a bit of a mess. At a seminar that I and the convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee attended recently to discuss the bill, an independent expert on lobbying said that, at best, he would give it two out of 10, but that he would give the US system six out of 10. That does not bode well for the bill’s claims of transparency. If the bill is to work and to enhance our democracy, it will need serious amendment, and we intend to lodge many of the necessary amendments at stage 2.
I, too, am glad that we have the chance to debate the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill and all of the possible routes to take. If we are to achieve the cross-party consensus that the Scottish Government seeks on the issue, we must examine each of the main points that were considered during the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s inquiry and raised in our report.
It is essential that we maintain a firm focus on the three principles that must underline the bill if it is to be fair, effective and worth while. The first principle, of course, is transparency; indeed, it would be right to say that the whole point of a lobbying register would be to increase transparency. It is vital that the lobbying process and the breadth of the bill itself are clear. In addition, we must ensure that any lobbying register upholds the principle of accessibility. That is essential so that those who wish to participate in the public decision-making process are not deterred from so doing. That is a fundamental point.
Further, any registration requirements must be proportionate if they are to be fair and worth while. That point has already been covered. The question of proportionality touches on a number of issues that the committee has raised, including the types of communication and which officials should be counted. I do not think that we should specify the types of communication, because all sorts of modern methods are being introduced.
Whatever form the final version of the bill takes, all the implications and requirements must be clearly understood by all. That means that any provisions must be examined in depth and publicly so that any indirect consequences are considered at length. A transparent approach to decisions on the bill is also required, so that the public can understand the direction that it is taking and be prepared for any new system. To help to achieve that, we must ensure that the key provisions of the bill are decided in the Parliament and are not left to secondary legislation. I realise that we are only at stage 1, but my point is that ease of understanding the bill must not be an afterthought or we will end up with a stifling bill and a lawyers’ paradise.
An example of an area that we need to clarify is the exemption when meetings are not initiated by a lobbyist. Part of the issue of public understanding concerns just how much preparation or adjustment would be needed, which touches on the two other principles that I want to mention—accessibility and proportionality. I think that we can all agree that the involvement of expert organisations, members of the public and affected parties in the policy process is a welcome and indeed necessary feature of our political system. Obviously, in order to make informed decisions, officials must be informed in the first place. We must therefore keep a focus on ensuring that accessibility for the public is made neither more difficult nor discouraged in the first place. That has been highlighted many times in committee and in evidence to the committee.
I say “the public” on purpose, because the issue of lobbying is not one of backroom deals between special interests and brokers of power, as it is sometimes portrayed—lobbying sometimes has a rather dirty name. Rather, lobbying is the much more fundamental matter of the chance for everyone to participate in policy making and the exchange of ideas. All manner of organisations and members of the public should feel welcome to discuss matters of interest with their representatives.
As for proportionality, I am quite clear that any potential system of lobbying regulation has to be light touch. That ties in with the importance of accessibility. It is worth raising a couple of more specific points in that regard. First, the committee has pointed out that is worth looking into the inclusion of all forms of communication in the bill, as well as contact with senior civil servants and special advisers. I see where those demands are coming from, but we should not lose sight of the need to strike a balance between increasing transparency where needed and ensuring that individuals and organisations are not deterred from participating in the political process due to undue regulation and overcomplication.
The committee has concerns about the inclusion in the register of contact with MSPs—we will probably deal with that at stage 2—because we need to ensure that MSPs’ ability to undertake their duties as public representatives is not restricted. Politics conducted on behalf of the public should, after all, be open to easy access for the public. Suggestions about using a targeted approach, based on the intensity of lobbying activity rather than its source, are a welcome idea that is worth exploring.
Secondly, proportionality should be measured relative to the benefit to be gained or the problem to be solved. That suggests the need to understand how undue influence may arise and, therefore, where requirements should be targeted. Thankfully, we have not been troubled by lobbying scandals in our political system, although that does not mean that we might not be. It also begs the question how much needs to be done.
I am saying not that we should not do anything, but that our measure of what is proportionate should be underpinned by an understanding that the bill will deal with a potential rather than a pressing problem. I believe that, if those principles are upheld, a fair, effective and worthwhile system for the regulation of lobbying can be found. To do that, we must continue to scrutinise each proposition in depth and ensure that we act on the principles rather than pay lip service to them. I will touch on that in more detail later. I look forward to discussing all aspects of the bill with colleagues across the chamber.
We turn to the open debate, with speeches of six minutes or so. At this stage, there is a bit of time in hand for interventions.
I was a member of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee during the original inquiry into lobbying and while most of the work on the issue was done. I left the committee recently but, for some reason, I keep getting drawn back—or is that dragged back?—into the debate. I will discuss my personal views, as I have had time to sit back from my work on the committee and look at some of the information.
I believe that all democracies should be transparent and open. I support the bill but, at the same time, I have a number of issues with it. As colleagues have mentioned, there are a number of practicalities to do with our day-to-day constituency and parliamentary life, which I feel the proposals could make more difficult.
I take members back to 1997, when many of us were together trying to ensure that this institution came into being. I remember trying to download the Scotland bill white paper from the web with my 14.4k modem. After 24 hours of waiting and a worried visit from my mother-in-law, who wanted to know why my phone had been engaged for 24 hours, I went down to the local bookshop and bought a hard copy.
Between that time and now, and throughout the lifetime of the Parliament, Scotland and the world have changed dramatically. We now have superfast broadband, but that bookstore in Paisley is no longer there. How could a third or fourth generation family business compete with the web when people can purchase a hard copy or an electronic copy at home and instantly get it or have it delivered to their door? Although advancement for the consumer is good, something has been lost. With progress, something important has been lost in life.
That is the point that I want to make about the bill. We need to be careful that we do not lose the many strengths of the Scottish Parliament because of a feeling that something has to be done about lobbying. Many look to Westminster and see that its legislation has not helped in any way and was a knee-jerk reaction to some of the strange workings of that Parliament. Should we not take note of that reaction? During the committee’s evidence taking, lobbying legislation was slated for being useless. We were told that Westminster and Washington are among the worst for transparency but both have already legislated on lobbying.
I get a hard time from colleagues regarding my great pride in being Paisley’s member of the Scottish Parliament, and I take that in good humour. However, the serious point for me is about how I deliver for my constituents and how I interact with their employers, the public sector and the third sector on their behalf.
Can I just get this point across, Mr Findlay?
The bill as it stands will make it difficult for local employers and small businesses to contact me. Some small and medium-sized enterprises might not even bother, because they will wonder whether it is worth the hassle to register to be able to have a meaningful dialogue with their elected member. It has been stated that the register should be targeted at organisations that have significant contact with their MSPs. One small engineering business recently came to me to discuss an expansion that would create jobs in the area. It wanted to know how it could take the next big step and to ask me to help it or point it in the right direction. That business might have looked for a different way of dealing with that and might not have approached an elected member if it had thought that there was an administrative barrier to doing so.
Would the bill mean that every single major employer in Renfrewshire would have to register and record every single meeting that it had with an elected member as we discuss the future of my constituents and their jobs? As the bill stands, it would put an added burden on the third sector to register, and one of the best things about the Scottish Parliament could be lost. This institution is Scotland’s Parliament and we all take great pride in the openness and accessibility of our members, ministers and Government, and that is worth preserving. I am aware that many of the original intake of members in 1999 looked at the workings of the Parliament and considered how to deal with lobbying. They knew that doing so could harm their vision for the Parliament.
Mr Adam is making a good argument for us to have thresholds that would mean that all those people who he talks about—or the vast majority of them—would not need to register at all.
I am making the argument that I can represent the people of Paisley and ensure that I can still have the interaction and the flexibility to do that.
Do not get me wrong. Openness and transparency in politics and our delivering for our constituencies are the most important things. However, an issue constantly came up in the inquiry, and that has happened in this debate, as well. How do we define lobbyists? The Scottish Parliament information centre paper that we received was quite interesting, as it confuses the issue even more. It says:
“Lobbying activity can be conducted through a number of direct or indirect communication methods including personal letters, telephone and emails; forms of social media, such as twitter and facebook; providing briefing material to Members and organising meetings and rallies.
Lobbyists come from various sectors, including:
That is just about everyone. We need to find out who we are calling a lobbyist at this stage.
How do we take that to the next stage? The funny thing was that there was the accusation that the definition in the UK Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 was too narrow, that not enough people were included, and that many of the lobbying firms were still getting the opportunity to work without getting caught up in the net.
As the bill is our direction of travel, I want two things from it. I want to be able to represent my constituents and to work with other organisations to try to make my constituency a better place to live in. I do not want an administrative straitjacket. Most important, I do not want to lose sight of the founding principles of the Parliament. If we lose them, we will not get them back, just as we will not get back the family-run bookstore.
I am pleased to have the chance to speak in this debate. I commend my Scottish Labour colleague Neil Findlay for proposing a bill back in 2012 and for his patience over the past few years as the bill has been considered by the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and finally taken on board by the Scottish Government.
I was a member of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee during the original inquiry and have taken a keen interest in the bill. It is good that we are finally seeing some progress in this important area.
The Electoral Reform Society has said that the debate
“could either place Scotland as a world leader in transparent politics or create legislation which leaves Parliament vulnerable to lobbying scandals”.
In that context, I have serious concerns that the bill as it stands is just too weak. Stewart Stevenson highlighted some of the concerns that the current Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee has expressed. I hope that, when we next discuss the bill in the chamber, it will have been strengthened considerably. I am pleased that the minister said that he has an open mind on that.
At Holyrood, we quite rightly pride ourselves on being different from Westminster. We are more open, more accountable and more accessible to all. Although Holyrood has been pretty much free of any lobbying scandals to date, that is not a reason not to act.
The bill is not about preventing lobbying. As Neil Findlay has said, lobbying is a good thing. It is an important part of our democratic process; indeed, it often improves public policy outcomes. It informs our debates, provides valuable information and expertise, and improves public engagement with the Parliament. However, it must be open, transparent and conducted to the highest possible standards, not conducted behind closed doors and in secret.
I suspect that this will be the first and last time that I will quote David Cameron, but he hit the nail on the head when he described lobbying as
“the next big scandal waiting to happen ... an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.”
With new powers on the way to Holyrood and the ability to raise and spend more finance, we will inevitably see more frequent and more intense lobbying.
At a time when the decisions that are being made by both the Scottish Parliament and Government are coming under increasing public scrutiny and our communities are paying the price of austerity in cuts to public services, job losses and pay freezes as the result of decisions that politicians are taking at all levels, we should be leading the way in ensuring that the decisions that we take here and the workings of our Parliament and our Government are as open and transparent as possible. We should use this opportunity to pass world-leading legislation not as a response to scandal, as has been the case elsewhere, but because we want to show the citizens of Scotland that the Scottish Parliament will always put people first, not commercial and other vested interests.
It is therefore disappointing that, rather than grasping that opportunity, the bill falls short of the change that we need to see. In its final report on the bill, the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee concluded that its narrow scope
“could leave a great deal of important information unrecorded and create a loophole for those wishing to conceal their activity.”
I am sure that I am not alone in having received many emails from constituents over the past week that have urged action to close that loophole and strengthen the bill. As Neil Findlay has said, we will seek to amend the bill at stage 2 to make it more robust and fit for purpose.
A recent poll by YouGov on behalf of the Scottish alliance for lobbying transparency found that 88 per cent of voters thought that a lack of transparency over lobbying was either a big or a significant risk to Scottish democracy. Calls for the current proposals to be strengthened could not be clearer, with 86 per cent wanting emails to be covered, 91 per cent wanting senior civil servants to be covered and 92 per cent wanting to know how much lobbyists are spending on their campaigns. That poll provides concrete evidence of the public desire to ensure that we have a robust and transparent lobbying register in Scotland, not the halfway house that is being proposed today. I hope that the Government will take into account the strength of public feeling on this issue, listen to the demand for transparency about how money and lobbying influence politics in Scotland, and agree to the changes that Scottish Labour, the committee and the majority of the public want to see.
Today’s debate is about strengthening our democracy. To coin a phrase from the Scottish National Party, it is about making our democracy stronger for Scotland. We have the honour to serve our constituents in the Parliament and in return we have a duty to ensure that the Parliament, the Government and their decisions are as open and transparent as possible. It is in all our interests to ensure that we get the bill right. Let us ensure that when it comes back to the chamber, the bill that we debate is stronger and more effective. The bill should be strengthened to include all lobbying, not just face-to-face contact; strengthened to include not just MSPs and ministers, but civil servants and special advisers; strengthened to require financial disclosure of lobbying, but with thresholds so that normal MSP contact is unaffected; and strengthened to recognise the revolving door in politics and give the public the right to know the work history of lobbyists.
We are rightly proud of our Parliament, but we cannot pretend that it is immune to corporate power or influence. The Scottish public have the right to know the full extent of lobbying on the issues that affect everybody. Scotland must lead the way on political transparency. I commend once again Neil Findlay for his tremendous work, to help ensure that Scotland’s democracy is truly fit for the 21st century.
When I come to look at the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill, my starting point is not just this Parliament’s founding principles but the reputation that we have garnered over the 17 years of its existence since 1999. The founding principles were about us being open and transparent. We wanted this to be Scotland’s Parliament, not the MSPs’ Parliament, and we wanted to work in partnership with the people of Scotland and civic Scotland. When I look around the chamber at the members taking part in the debate, I think that I, Elaine Murray and Gil Paterson will feel that most strongly, as we were here in the heady days of 1999, when we were so enthusiastic about what we were setting out to do.
Seventeen years on, this Parliament has a well-credited reputation as an open and transparent Parliament that works in partnership. That reputation is reflected in the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s two reports. In 2014, when I was a member of the committee, we took extensive evidence on lobbying after Neil Findlay proposed a member’s bill. More recently, when I was not a committee member—I have just come back to it—evidence was taken for stage 1 of this bill. Neither of those reports found any evidence of malpractice, which is an important point, and I am glad that everybody who has spoken in the debate made that point. However, we are not complacent. I do not want anybody to think that if people suggest that the bill does or does not go far enough, that is because of complacency. The issue is how we ensure that this Parliament maintains its high reputation. There is no complacency and the reports found no malpractice.
The process of moving from a member’s bill to a Government bill was very much influenced by the evidence in the standards committee’s first report. The minister talked about the clear principles that frame the bill: the bill should be proportionate and complementary and should not interfere with the engagement of which this Parliament is so proud.
When I looked at the bill I asked whether it matched those principles. In relation to the principles of proportionality and engagement, some of the evidence that we received has made me concerned that we should not go too far. As an example, I will quote from the evidence of the Epilepsy Consortium Scotland:
“any regulation of lobbyists in Scotland should be specifically formed to reflect the culture of political participation in Scotland, and the particular working practices of the Scottish Parliament. We believe it must not create a barrier to parliamentary engagement for organisations representing the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society.”
I then looked at the evidence from the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, and I will quote again:
“Transparency of lobbying in Scotland is a relevant and laudable goal, but protecting participation is absolutely vital and must take precedence, especially as it has been conceded on numerous occasions that there is no problem with undue influence of lobbying in Scotland. Sabotaging the high levels of participation in Scotland to achieve hypothetical increases in transparency would be a tragedy for democracy and must be avoided.”
The member raises an interesting point about the SCVO. During the consultation on my bill, the SCVO was the most vocal opponent for some bizarre reason—I have no idea why. When I scratched a little bit deeper, I found that many members of the SCVO were in favour of the bill and that the consultation response was from only 11 members of the SCVO, which represents thousands of organisations. Only 11 of them opposed the bill.
I well remember that day of evidence taking in the committee and I remember the member being rebuked by the convener at the time for his manner.
Since the SCVO submitted that evidence, in the past couple of weeks a lot of other organisations, including the SCVO, have been back in touch and all maintained their position. I go back to what I said when I started; it is not that we should not have the bill, but I am concerned that we should protect the Parliament’s founding principles of openness and transparency and the reputation for partnership working that we have built up, and make sure that we do not bring in a bill that prevents that reputation from continuing as it is.
When it was taking evidence during stage 1, the committee looked in greater detail at extending the provisions to all communications. That has already been discussed by a number of members today. Members will notice that the committee report was not unanimous on that, and I should just stand up and say that I was the one who did not agree that the provisions of the bill should be extended beyond face-to-face oral communications. That is again because of my concerns about it becoming a barrier to that great partnership that we have with civic society, our constituents and groups of ordinary citizens that come together and get passionate about something.
In the past few days, evidence has been submitted to us from the Federation of Small Businesses, Cancer Research UK and the Association for Scottish Public Affairs, which is a professional association for lobbyists. That is the panoply of everybody who is involved and they are saying that they have concerns about the bill’s provisions being extended to cover all communications.
In paragraph 107 of the committee’s first report, from when I was there to hear all the evidence, the committee says:
“The proposed register does not seek to capture all contact from organisations that are required to register. The Committee wants to increase transparency, but considers that a system that requires ‘a sensible amount of useful information’ from organisations can be established.”
I keep coming back to that phrase
“a sensible amount of useful information”.
That is what we are looking at.
When we started to discuss extending the bill beyond oral face-to-face communications, we thought about it and made jokes about being in the 21st century with telephones and emails. I then started to think about Twitter and Facebook. If we extend the bill to cover all communications, will we have to register tweets, posts and direct messages? I want us to think it all through.
On the complementary strand of the principles, I draw members’ attention to the fact that we have a code of conduct and the Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament Act 2006, and the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee works hard to produce rules and guidance on, for example, cross-party groups, to ensure that we maintain that openness and transparency.
To go back to the beginning, I point to the founding principles of this Parliament and our 17 years of positive engagement. At stage 1, we will agree the principles of the bill but, at stage 2, we must ensure that any amendments are about improvements and adjustments in response to the evidence and that they maintain the openness of this Parliament.
Unlike others who have taken part in the debate, I am not on the committee that considered the arguments on the bill, but I read the SPICe briefing and the committee’s stage 1 report with interest.
As others have said, lobbying is an acceptable activity; indeed, it is a necessary activity that contributes to parliamentary discussion and knowledge. It is carried out legitimately by a wide range of organisations and individuals. Unfortunately, the term “lobbying” now carries negative connotations because of disreputable activity by some organisations and some parliamentarians—although not, I hasten to add, by members of this Parliament. It is transparency over lobbying activity that is required, not the prevention of lobbying. Third sector organisations, trade unions, private businesses and public organisations must remain able to participate in discussion about matters that the Parliament is considering.
Credit should be given to my colleague Neil Findlay for initiating the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill by lodging proposals for his member’s bill in July 2012. His proposals would have required individuals and organisations that lobby MSPs, Scottish ministers and public officials to record and publish information on their activities. It has taken some time for his proposals to be progressed, but I am pleased that they are being progressed now.
The Scottish Government undertook to take over Neil Findlay’s member’s bill, which was welcome. However, there are significant questions about whether the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill, as it stands at stage 1, is sufficiently robust to ensure public confidence about who is influencing our decisions.
For example, the provisions on registering lobbying activity do not extend to senior civil servants and officials or to special advisers, although those individuals have significant influence over policy making and might draft legislation or advise ministers on how to present proposed action. It could well be more effective for a lobbyist to influence senior civil servants and advisers than to contact ministers or MSPs. That is a glaring omission from the bill and I was pleased that the committee recommended that the definition should be broadened to include public officials.
The bill is also deficient in that it covers only face-to-face oral communications, as others have mentioned. We all know that that is not the only way in which we are lobbied. We receive emails every day from organisations that wish to influence our views, legislation and other matters. I often receive letters that are sent by professional lobbyists on behalf of, for example, companies that wish to build wind farms in my constituency, and it has not been unknown for professional lobbyists to phone me on their clients’ behalf. Those alternative forms of communication can be just as effective as face-to-face meetings—indeed, written communication might be a preferable way to present the arguments for a proposal. It therefore seems peculiar that those forms of lobbying are not included in the scope of the bill.
Another key part of Neil Findlay’s proposed member’s bill was transparency over the amount of money that is spent on lobbying. As the financial aspects of lobbying are of particular public interest, that information should be publicly available. I appreciate that there are sensitivities in case such information reveals details of paid lobbyists’ salaries. Neil Findlay suggested to the committee that those sensitivities might be addressed, at least in part, by using a system of banding. However, MSPs’ salaries and any additional income that we receive have—correctly—to be declared, and the salaries and salary bands of public officials are published. I therefore find it difficult to be overly sympathetic to the view that the funding of lobbying activity should not be treated similarly.
There are other potential loopholes in the proposals. Large, well-funded non-governmental organisations could get round the requirement for registration by using volunteers rather than paid staff to undertake lobbying, while paid staff would prepare and organise the materials and events to support the volunteers’ activities. Pro bono lobbying by professional lobbyists would also not be required to be registered.
I support Neil Findlay’s suggestion that the public ought to know whether former politicians, advisers and civil servants are using the contacts that they established when they were in office to subsequently make money for themselves or their employers by lobbying. While in office, or while advising people in office, those people are paid from the public purse—taxpayers’ money is spent on their salaries. If they use the contacts that they made while being paid from the public purse to then make money for themselves or others or to influence their successor politicians or advisers, surely the public should know that that is happening and how much of that is happening. That is also a matter of public confidence.
Thresholds should be examined at stage 2, because small businesses that contact their local MSP, for example, should not necessarily fall within the scope of the bill. I can give a current example of that. During the recent floods in Dumfries, a lot of small businesses along White Sands and Friars Vennel were adversely affected and a number of people from small businesses spoke to me about flood defences, insurance, whether there might be assistance to help them to get back on their feet and so on. They should not have to register the fact that they bumped into me in the street and had a one-off conversation about something that was pertinent to their business. I would not want such businesses to be involved in the registration process for such activity.
There is still a lot of work to do to improve the bill, and I hope and believe that ministers are listening carefully to the committee’s suggestions as well as to the suggestions that have been made today. I am sure that the committee and the Parliament will have interesting and full discussions at stages 2 and 3.
I well remember that in 1999, in the first parliamentary session, the expectation and drive were for the Parliament to be an open and accessible institution that was different from what was being experienced at Westminster. Ordinary people were invited and encouraged to engage with the Scottish Parliament, whether as individuals or as part of an organisation. For me, one of the best aspects of that action for engagement—which was universally driven by members of all parties, the parties themselves, the Scottish Executive and even the parliamentary authorities—was how the third sector positively reacted to the invitation. I see no less encouragement from the present Parliament complement, including the Scottish Government, for the public and the third sector to positively engage with us.
For my part, early in the first parliamentary session—in fact, it was in its first year—I secured a members’ business debate on men’s violence against women and children, which attracted substantial numbers of women, other individuals and people from the third sector who were engaged in one way or another with the issue. Directly after the debate, we all met for a chat and it was quickly agreed that we would set up a cross-party group on men’s violence against women and children. The cross-party group met six or so weeks later, and I am pleased to say that it is still going strong and is thriving.
I would say that, between then and now, any person who has been engaged in that area of concern has been a lobbyist in some form. Under the definition that the SPPA Committee has suggested, all organisations such as Scottish Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland and Open Secret will be required to register simply because they have people who are paid.
As far as I am aware, none of those third sector organisations has a paid lobbyist, but I cannot in all honesty say that they do not lobby. What is the difference between lobbying and campaigning? If it were not for the persistent and dedicated campaigning—or is it lobbying?—by those organisations over decades, which has been carried out predominantly by women, we would still be in the dark ages on matters that significantly affect women and children. I asked Government officials whether someone who was a paid worker at, say, Rape Crisis Scotland would be regarded as a lobbyist and their answer was yes.
As a proposed recommendation from the committee was to ask the Scottish Government to consider making all communications of any kind constitute a requirement to register, I also asked whether an individual—say, from Rape Crisis—who was considered to be a lobbyist because they were paid would be required to register if they sent me a Christmas card. The answer was yes. [Laughter.] Members may laugh, but that is the advice that I was given, so we need to be really careful about how we describe things and how it will affect organisations.
I have seen shoals of red herrings being released in the debate, but that is the biggest. It is a blue whale of a red herring that sending a Christmas card will be lobbying—come on. I certainly hope that the incidental lobbying that Gil Paterson mentioned in the scenario that he painted will not be included in the bill when it is passed but, even if it were, that would mean someone taking two minutes to fill in a piece of paper. That is the burden that we are talking about. However, Gil Paterson makes a strong case for putting thresholds into the bill, which I agree with him on.
I note that Mr Findlay was laughing, but I tell him that the colleague who is sitting next to him, Mary Fee, did not laugh when I raised the question at the committee and was given that answer. I am not against addressing lobbyists and taking on the big guys; I am looking after the small women and small institutions. We need to be really careful about how we use the definition, and I will explain that further.
Many women’s organisations put enormous amounts of time—relatively speaking—into finding funds simply to keep going and are not in a position to have any slack, so adding a further burden on them would be detrimental. More important, why would we want to place them in the category of lobbyists in the first place? Surely we want to make it easy for us to engage with such organisations.
In the consultation, Scottish Women’s Aid supported my proposal for a lobbying bill.
I am not speaking for Scottish Women’s Aid or anybody else. These are my own words. I am talking about the impact that the bill will have on such organisations.
I have sponsored two members’ business debates for the Scottish Cot Death Trust, which is a tiny organisation that does some of the most difficult work that one could imagine. Does it lobby? Of course it does, but what does it lobby for? That is not about money or resources. The trust lobbies for awareness to inform the public, to assist families through some of the most harrowing times of their lives and to educate the public on preventative action. Why would we want to cause that organisation not to engage with the Parliament?
I ask the Government and the whole Parliament to consider the definitions extremely carefully. The bill must be for lobbyists—that is, people who are paid to lobby—and not for people in the third sector, who could be working for an organisation that has as little as one paid member of staff and which happens to seek our assistance to help others. The bill should not cover all communications of any kind—I happen to like getting Christmas cards.
Whatever we do on lobbying should take account of the slowest ship in the convoy. The part of the convoy that needs our protection most is the voluntary sector—for example, the women’s groups that I described. They and we need engagement.
I agree with the principles of the bill.
Many interesting points have been raised in this afternoon’s debate and I hope that that open, respectful discussion continues so that we can settle the issues surrounding the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill. Most of us disagree on the detail rather than on the substance of the bill.
There are a few more points that I wish to raise that we will be looking at as we continue to scrutinise the bill. Those include some of the finer details about ensuring that the burden of regulation is kept proportionate and that the requirements are realistic in practice. Some arguments have been made about forcing lobbyists to disclose financial expenditure on lobbying. Those arguments are worth airing but I think that they would fail the proportionality test.
On the other hand, there is scope to embed a more proportionate approach in the system by continually reviewing the proposed frequency of submissions to the register so that paperwork is kept to a strict minimum. It is also worth highlighting that there are many international comparators when it comes to lobbying registers and we would do well to study their lessons. We Conservatives will certainly do so as we scrutinise the bill, including examining the possibility of working with the UK register so that the overall burden on organisations is minimised.
Members will be aware of some of the arguments that have been made about forcing lobbyists to disclose their expenditure on lobbying activity. However, such a move would not be productive and would cause some problems without a proportionate benefit. Assigning all expenditure to certain activity could be very difficult for some organisations and efforts to comply may result in unintentionally misleading figures that are simply counterproductive—not to mention the implications for commercial sensitivity and confidentiality.
Those risks and the associated high costs of compliance point to negatives that outweigh the suggested gains of enforced financial disclosure. Since there have been, thankfully, no cash-for-lobbying scandals so far in our politics, such a move would be pandering to perceptions rather than responding to reality. Indeed, were such complex requirements to exist, small businesses might simply disengage from the political process rather than risk falling foul of guidance.
Another detail that will be debated as scrutiny of the bill continues is the requirement for information returns to the lobbying register, or more specifically their frequency. As the bill stands, such returns would be required every six months, which strikes an appropriate balance between information and proportionality. I certainly would not want to see organisations and individuals forced to make returns frequently.
That said, there could be scope to have a flexible system of information returns that varied according to factors such as lobbying intensity, size and form. I do not wish to advocate such a multitiered system today but merely suggest that it is worth looking at as our consideration of the bill continues. Such a system might be impractical, but there is no harm in discussing the ideas.
On a different note, for a bill with many points of contention and a wide range of options, it is important that we study international comparators such as Ireland’s register of lobbying and the European Union’s transparency register. In Ireland, for example, there was a trial run of the new register before it came into legal effect, in order to help organisations to adapt to the requirement. That approach might be worth considering here to reduce regulatory pressure.
In the EU, there is a series of incentives for lobbyists who register, such as increased access to premises and automatic mail notification of new consultations. Again, that is an idea worth exploring and we would do well to learn as much as we can from those examples so that if we choose to go our own way, we do so from an informed position.
Finally, I would like to leave colleagues with a thought on what the ultimate aim of any lobbying regulation is. It is not to create the most watertight lobbying register in the world—that is just a method. The ultimate and real aim is to ensure that our politics and Government are transparent, open, accountable and free from undue influence or corruption. There are many routes to take when it comes to lobbying regulation, but the ultimate responsibility lies with the politicians and officials. Compliance with codes of conduct, adherence to the standards expected in public office and outright refusal to indulge attempts at illegitimate influence are the strongest defence of a free political system. We would do well to remember that.
In closing the debate for Scottish Labour, I take the opportunity to summarise the two arguments made by my colleagues and to state clearly our position on the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill.
Scottish Labour supports the general principles of the bill in trying to promote greater transparency, accountability and openness among our parliamentarians. We agree that lobbying is a “legitimate and valuable activity”, we support the proposal to establish a lobbying register and we also support the proposal to include only paid lobbyists on the register.
However, as Neil Findlay highlighted in his opening remarks, the bill falls far short of his original proposal. Indeed, the bill as currently drafted is in danger of making the situation worse, not better. We need to ensure that the bill is fit for purpose and that it does what it is intended to do. As it is currently drafted, it will not.
Cara Hilton spoke about the weakness of the bill and mentioned the potential risk of vulnerability for those involved. Elaine Murray highlighted the fact that lobbying is a necessary and legitimate activity but needs to be robustly regulated. Other colleagues across the chamber spoke of the principle of openness and transparency and the need for robust legislation that is proportionate. In his thoughtful and thorough speeches, Cameron Buchanan adequately and fully reflected the evidence that we heard in committee.
The fact that the bill covers only face-to-face lobbying means that it does not cover a great deal of lobbying, as the majority of lobbying is conducted through emails and telephone calls. Therefore, as things stand, the right amount of information would not be collected. It is correct that the bill should cover face-to-face lobbying, but for it to have any impact on improving the transparency of Parliament, it should cover all forms of communication with MSPs, including emails and telephone calls.
The second key way in which my colleagues have highlighted that the bill could be improved is by broadening the definition of lobbying. At present, the bill does not include communications with public officials such as civil servants and special advisers, as Neil Findlay highlighted. We in Scottish Labour believe that the definition of lobbying should be broadened to include civil servants and special advisers. Special advisers hold a highly influential position in the decision making of Government ministers. To make the Scottish Parliament as transparent, accountable and open as possible, the remit of the bill should extend to those individuals who have influence over our Government. Broadening the remit of the bill to include civil servants and special advisers would be rational and fair and would strengthen our democracy.
In looking to broaden the scope of the lobbying activity that is covered by the bill, the Government may wish to pay close attention to the definition that is used by the Sunlight Foundation. It defines lobbying as:
“Oral and written communication, including electronic communication, with an elected official, their staff, or high and mid-ranking government employee who exercises public power or public authority, for the purposes of influencing the formulation, modification, adoption, or administration of legislation, rules, spending decisions, or any other government programme, policy, or position.”
The evidence that the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee collected from witnesses was conclusive. There was a clear consensus that the bill simply does not go far enough. The Law Society of Scotland stated that the policy aim of transparency might be only “partially met” if other forms of communication were not included in the definition of lobbying in the bill.
I urge the Government to look into amending the bill to ensure that it covers all forms of communication between lobbyists and MSPs, not just face-to-face-communication, as well as communications between civil servants or special advisers and MSPs. It is only by implementing those changes to the bill that we can start to rebuild public confidence in elected politicians, which we all know is probably at an all-time low, and make the Scottish Parliament an institution that is renowned the world over for its transparency, accountability and openness.
I confirm Labour’s in-principle support for the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer.
In response to Gil Paterson, I said that Scottish Women’s Aid supported my bill proposal. I want to correct the record. The comments were actually from Zero Tolerance Scotland, which made many positive comments about the bill but also, incidentally, raised many of the concerns that members have highlighted today.
Thank you, Mr Findlay. That is not a point of order, but your clarification is now on the record.
I call Joe FitzPatrick to wind up the debate. We have quite a bit of time in hand, minister—until 5 o’clock, if you wish to take that time. Otherwise, the Parliament will have to suspend briefly.
I welcome the contributions to the debate from members of all parties. As I said at the start, the Government recognises that the bill is very parliamentary in nature, which is why we have engaged as we have.
I understand Neil Findlay’s initial frustration because we were taking longer than he might have liked to bring the bill to Parliament, but it was absolutely appropriate that before we formulated our framework we listened to the deliberations of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, following its inquiry. The inquiry was instigated by the late Helen Eadie MSP who, as one of the founding members of the Scottish Parliament, felt it to be very important that Parliament had a large say in the introduction of any such bill.
That is why—as I said in my opening remarks—the committee’s report influenced the Government’s thinking very much in progressing the bill; some of the decisions that members have questioned were influenced by the evidence to and recommendations from the committee. However, as I also said at the start of the debate, this is not the end of the parliamentary process. We are just at the end of stage 1 and have still to go through stages 2 and 3. We will continue to listen to members; it has been helpful during the debate to hear various views from members in all parts of the chamber.
I will address some points that were made—I hope I can remember who raised them. The convener of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee raised the issue of the exemption for meetings that are initiated by MSPs or ministers, which I did not manage to get into in any great depth in my opening speech. As members and in Government, we all regularly invite people to provide us with factual or background information on policy. I hope we all agree that it is important that that continue. There is a question about whether it would be fair that people whom we, as members of Parliament or as ministers, invite to come in and give us information should have to register. There is a danger that people whom we might ask to do that would be deterred from engaging with us. That said, I note the concerns that the committee expressed in its stage 1 report—in particular, its questions on how we can ensure that there is as much clarity in that area as possible. We will look at that carefully in advance of providing a response to the stage 1 report.
Neil Findlay spoke about the importance of knowing about the previous employment and careers of lobbyists; I believe that he was thinking of former special advisers and ministers. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments considers applications under business appointment rules regarding new jobs for former ministers, senior civil servants and other Crown servants. Again, we will consider whether clarity can be improved in that regard.
I emphasise that although there might appear to be many different voices around the chamber, we are all clear that we want to come out of the process with a bill that improves transparency in Scotland. That is very much where we are going, and I hope that the process will help us to get to that point.
Elaine Murray raised a point regarding voluntary lobbying, which was an area that we considered. Our challenge was how we could cover that without catching grass-roots lobbying by communities and advocates, which we do not want to catch. That was why we had the “paid” or “unpaid” definition as our starting point. However, recognising that there is a potential gap there, the bill has provision to allow people who are not required to register to provide additional information voluntarily.
There was an interesting piece of evidence at stage 1 in respect of the Canadian experience: the register in Canada is now held in such regard that people want to ensure that their lobbying activity is on it. If we can get to a point at which our register is not seen as being onerous in any way, but instead is seen as something that people want to be on, we will be in a better place and we will have something very useful. We need to get to that point.
I will mention some of the contact with people that I have had this week. There are people out there who are concerned that the register and the regime could be a barrier.
On the point about people’s fears, and given Gil Paterson’s comment, is the minister quaking in his boots at the prospect of having to shred his Christmas card list, his letter to Santa or his note to the Easter bunny?
Obviously, I am not at all concerned. As the committee recommended, the bill does not place any onus on members. Ministers currently record their meetings and engagements; members could be required similarly to record their meetings and engagements, which would put the onus on members. The SPPA Committee considered that option; the convener piloted such a regime and showed that it is possible. That said, the committee as a whole concluded that it is not the best way forward. We have tried to respond to the committee’s deliberations.
As I said, that mechanism is already in place for ministers. Information on the meetings that I have had this week about the bill will be published, as well as information on meetings that I have had previously.
The minister quite correctly referred to my publishing what, in my opinion, were interactions with me that counted as lobbying. However, the committee took the view that placing the onus of deciding what is lobbying on the people who are being lobbied rather than on the people who initiate the lobbying could transfer responsibility to the wrong people. Although my experience shows that technically it is perfectly possible for members to follow that option, there are severe risks that we would miss things or over-report things because we are not the ones doing the lobbying.
The convener is better able than I am to articulate the reasoning behind the committee’s deliberations. As I said, our starting point was to look at the committee’s conclusions and to take them forward.
Elaine Murray and Neil Findlay both referred to the suggestion—again, there have been some communications on the matter—that financial details should be provided. Of course, the bill provides Parliament with the powers to require that information. As Parliament looks at the detailed operation of the bill, it can make that choice. I will come back to that when I talk about the powers that the bill will give Parliament.
A number of members referred to other forms of lobbying and to the question whether advisers and civil servants should be included. A large amount of discussion has taken place on those two areas, and I think that we have all been in receipt of a number of representations from both sides. On one side, we have people who are clear that such information is required; on the other side, we have groups and organisations that would consider that to be a barrier to their engagement with Parliament. It is important that, if we are going to make any changes to that area, we consider the matter carefully and do not bring in a regime that could be a barrier to engagement.
Fiona McLeod mentioned how engagement is one of Parliament’s founding principles and how, right from the start, civic Scotland’s ability to engage with Parliament has been so important. George Adam and Elaine Murray extended that theme when they spoke of the need to ensure that when the bill is passed at stage 3 we protect MSPs’ constituency work, and ensure that we have not inadvertently put in place measures that create a barrier. That chimes very much with—she is not in the chamber—Patricia Ferguson’s point in committee that we must require registration of lobbying but not registration of engagement, which we see as part of our day-to-day work. A lobbying regime must not inhibit legitimate engagement. I will continue to look carefully at the bill in that regard, and we will make any necessary changes to protect those relationships.
I am pleased that, across the chamber, members have acknowledged the positive and important part that lobbying plays in democracy and in policy development. I know that the people who engage with Parliament will be pleased to hear that we respect their role in that. The convener was absolutely right when he said that the bill’s aim is to put that legitimate activity into the public domain in a helpful way.
I mentioned in my opening remarks that I had received a number of representations from stakeholders, as I know other members have. I have also met various stakeholders throughout the bill’s development.
One moment, minister. There is an awful lot of noise from members who are coming into the chamber. It would be a courtesy to the minister and to members who have been taking part in the debate if they would sit quietly and listen.
Our approach typifies this Parliament’s reputation for engagement and is a clear indication that I am listening to different views in order to achieve broad support not only within but outwith Parliament. I will continue to be guided by that underpinning principle.
It is important to touch on some stakeholders’ points. First, and most important, most people agree that the establishment of a lobbying register is a positive step towards increasing transparency. We should hold on to that; it is important.
I acknowledge the alliance for lobbying transparency’s recent poll, which Cara Hilton mentioned. It not only highlighted the public’s support for a lobbying register, but contributed to the transparency group’s campaign. The vibrancy of such debate and that campaign are important to Parliament and to Scottish democracy.
I acknowledge the lobbying industry’s important points about ensuring that there is a level playing field. The Government has sought to introduce a bill that is simple to understand and simple in its operation. The voluntary sector has rightly highlighted the need to avoid unnecessary burdens being placed on small organisations—a point that Gil Paterson reflected when he discussed women’s organisations in his constituency.
The business community has made it clear that engagement with elected members is an important part of the process of policy development. I agree that engagement is important, whether it be with business or our constituents.
When I opened the debate, I said that the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill is unusual in that although it has been introduced by the Government it is very parliamentary in nature. I have therefore been keen from the outset to work closely with Parliament, and this debate has certainly contributed to that aim. I hope that that collaborative working will continue as the bill continues its parliamentary passage.