06 November 2014

Inquiry into Lobbying: Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee

Video of entire debate
The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee debate on its inquiry into lobbying. We have a little time in hand, so if members wish to take interventions, the Presiding Officers will ensure that they are compensated for that in their speech.


Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP): Thank you very much indeed, Presiding Officer.

I am very much obliged to the Parliamentary Bureau and the Conveners Group for making time available for this committee debate. Presiding Officer, I might indulge your indication of a little bit of slack in the debate by occasionally stopping to restart my voice, and I have a glass of water beside me should that prove to be necessary. I apologise to anyone who feels inconvenienced by the tone of my voice—it is entirely to do with something that is not under my control.

The word “lobbying” can have negative connotations of deals being done behind closed doors. However, the starting point for the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee’s inquiry was that lobbying is a legitimate, valuable and necessary part of informing a healthy democracy. The more voices that feed into the Parliament, the more informed we will be in scrutinising, legislating and developing new policy. On that basis, lobbying should be actively encouraged. We are founded on principles that include openness and accessibility, and the committee is clear that nothing that the Parliament does in response to proposals for change should inhibit our engagement with civic Scotland. However, it needs to be clear what and who has influenced decision making; what matters in lobbying is the who, the what, the who knows and the who is affected.

The committee’s work was initiated in the context of the introduction of a bill at Westminster and of Neil Findlay’s proposal to establish a statutory register of lobbyists. At that time, Helen Eadie was the committee’s acting convener and, as ever, we are grateful for her contribution as a parliamentarian to our committees and to the subject before us today.

The committee has taken a great deal of evidence, and we are extremely grateful to all our witnesses and those who have submitted written views. I see that many of the people who have been involved in that process are in the public gallery this afternoon, and I am delighted that they are continuing to engage with the committee’s activities. They are not for the committee or for Parliament alone—

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab): Will the convener take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: The convener will do so.

Neil Findlay: Why did the committee undertake its investigation? Who prompted it?

Stewart Stevenson: As I have said, at that point, Helen Eadie was the committee’s acting convener because Dave Thompson was unwell. The decision was made by the committee; the investigation was requested by a range of people, but the committee is master of its work and under Helen Eadie’s leadership it decided to undertake the inquiry. It might be a weakness of mine to think the best of people but I have always thought that as MSPs we must defend ourselves against the worst, and I hope that today’s debate contributes to our getting to that point.

Neil Findlay: Was either Mr Stevenson as convener or the previous convener of the committee asked by the Government to have an inquiry into the issue?

Stewart Stevenson: The Government was very keen for us to do the inquiry, but it was not the only one taking an interest in the subject. The important thing to be aware of is that the committee itself could decide what it would do and that the inquiry was what the committee, on a cross-party basis, agreed to do.

I want to make some progress now, but I will welcome further interventions on the substance of what I am going to say.

The matter is of huge relevance to us all, and we have come to Parliament today because we think it important to take the temperature of members and those beyond the Parliament before we reach and publish our conclusions.

Our inquiry set out to investigate whether there was an issue with undue influence or access to politicians in Scotland. The good news for MSPs is that we received no evidence of a scandal on the horizon with regard to lobbying in Scotland; the evidence that we heard from a diverse range of people painted a broadly positive picture. But—and it is an important “but”—even if everything is fine, are we providing enough information to others to enable them to decide whether that is the case? With additional powers coming to the Parliament, additional safeguards might be needed. In any event, we have to revisit our rules and ensure that they are prepared for any future challenges.

Many witnesses were critical of recent Westminster changes in particular. I am sure that that issue will feature in the debate. The UK legislation on lobbying was not held in high regard by a good number of our witnesses. It was described as a “sham” by one, and another said that they hoped that it would be repealed.

We have an opportunity to think calmly and collectively about whether, and how, to change the lobbying regime in Scotland, and also about what the pros and cons of tightening the rules on lobbying would be.

We found that a good question to get the debate started in committee was: who should the onus be on in making details of lobbying activity public? Should the onus be on the lobbyist, the person being lobbied—which would include most or all of us—or both?

Plenty of people considered that politicians and senior officials should make their diaries public, which, in practice, would mean publishing details of contact with lobbyists.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP): I have not been involved in the inquiry but, although I would be happy to publish my diaries, I think that some individuals and groups who come to me confidentially would be quite nervous about their details being in the public domain.

Stewart Stevenson: The member makes a perfectly proper point, which I will develop later in my speech.

Others who came to the committee suggested that publishing diaries was no substitute for a register of lobbyists, which could simply be a complementary measure to the publishing of diaries.

However one captures lobbying activity, the first question has to be: what counts as lobbying? That sounds like a simple question, but the answer is one of the most contested in political science. The temptation is to go for a very simple wording—something like “lobbying is contact with a person in public office in an attempt to influence”. That sounds straightforward enough, but we have to ask what form of contact should be included. Does that definition not make just about everyone we come across in our working lives as politicians a lobbyist? If, on my train journey home tonight, I end up talking about public policy to someone sitting in an adjacent seat, would I, under that definition, have to register that conversation? Politicians come into contact with people in many ways. We are emailed briefings for chamber debates; we are phoned, tweeted and Facebook messaged; we meet people in cross-party groups and at events inside this building and in our constituencies; and we meet people by absolute happenstance. To get more complicated, we read in the media about research and grass-roots campaigns, some of which are begun by third parties whose names, sometimes deliberately, receive no coverage at all.

Which elements of all those types of contact could be captured on a lobbying register, and who should be required to register? In some other countries, only consultant lobbyists are required to register, but the evidence that we received suggested that a lot of modern lobbying activity is done in-house, which means that registering only consultant lobbyists would not capture enough. I think that there is agreement about that.

Other witnesses suggested that in-house lobbying was hard to capture, as lobbying is incorporated into communications strategies and into the day jobs of people with multifaceted roles.

It should be noted that, among our witnesses and those who responded to our consultation, there was not a lack of willingness to make activities public. Lots of organisations made clear that they already publicise information, not least to demonstrate to the outside world, their customers and stakeholders the value of their work. Charities and others are under regulatory requirements to publish information. Unions want to highlight the fruits of their labours to their members and others. A number of public affairs organisations publish voluntary registers and have relevant codes of conduct.

Some concern focused on the logistics of how a registration system would work. Some suggested that systems that exempt groups based on size, purpose, amount of lobbying activity or income, or which placed thresholds on when to register lobbying activity, could be problematic as exemptions can create unforeseen loopholes and unintended consequences.

Another approach would be a sliding scale of information required, proportionate to the size of the organisation. For example, it could require some organisations such as full-time consultant lobbyists to register in full regularly and small charities with more limited resources to register activity less regularly and in less detail. However, the proportionate approach would require us to give a lot of careful consideration to how we would set the rules for such a sliding scale. For instance, should a large charity that lobbies for big Government contracts—as many do—register as much as consultant lobbyists or should it register as much as smaller charities?

The idea of charging a fee to register was almost entirely rejected in evidence on the basis that it would create a barrier or, at worst, a deterrent to people seeking to engage with the Parliament and with Government. Any additional costs of creating a modern register, such as the costs of a registrar or of software, would need to be met from the public purse. As ever, when there are financial considerations members will need to consider whether the funds required are justified and will achieve the objectives of increased transparency, accountability and—the intention of some witnesses—an improvement in trust in the political process and politicians.

We also looked at sanctions. Some argued that naming and shaming lobbyists who act inappropriately would, in and of itself, have a powerful effect, curbing their ability to engage in the future. Others suggested that, for the bigger lobbying firms, nothing short of big financial penalties could curb their behaviour. That raises the question: in what circumstances should sanctions be imposed and by whom?

We heard from some witnesses that there are issues with the existing voluntary register being too weak because it lacks the ability to oblige the provision of information or to sanction effectively. Others suggested that a full statutory register in Scotland would be a disproportionate approach to cracking the nut. In response to the suggestion that a register would never provide the full picture of lobbying activity, those who are pushing for increased transparency suggested that a fuller, if still incomplete, picture would nonetheless be beneficial. Interesting developments elsewhere also informed us. The National Assembly for Wales inquiry decided that Wales should stop short of a register and look at other measures.

I turn to the point that Mr Mason raised. I have tested the water and have reviewed my diary and established a published copy of those diary entries that I consider to be lobbying. It proved simple to do that and to publish those parts of my diary. Members can see the results—if they are interested—at I tweeted about that this morning and we have already had more than 200 views of the information that I provided. People are interested in me—I do not know whether they would be interested in anybody else in the chamber, but at least they are interested in me. I ask members to have a look at what I have done—it is just a personal venture and nothing to do with the Parliament or the committee—and give me feedback. That will inform the committee and help it to see what effort is needed from the generality of members rather than from one of the more technologically literate members—I perhaps refer to myself. If any members want to do the same for themselves in the short term, I am happy to sit down with them and talk about how it is done.

I warn members that, if they do that, quite a lot of judgment calls will need to be made about what is or is not lobbying. I presume that, if a member meets a group with a small campaign in their constituency, that can be considered to be constituency casework and need not feature in a published record of lobbying contact. However, if the member meets them again and they have a local business representative or even a professional lobbyist with them, that will tip the balance towards the meeting having to be published. That is the view that I would take.

Members will note that committee members’ speeches will consist largely of snippets of the views of stakeholders, as they will read out 100-word statements from them. Those are not necessarily the views of the committee members; we are trying to bring the outside into the debate on the floor of the chamber.

This matters to folk out there; it is not just internal navel-gazing. While we debate—I know this because I have looked—live interchanges and debates are already happening on Facebook and Twitter. The committee will look at those after the debate to see whether they help our understanding.

That almost completes the whistle-stop tour of the issues that we have been tussling with. It is a complex area, where passions can run high. We had one very spirited debate between panelists—fortunately, there was a neutral person sitting between them. Members can look at the video of that if they want to see it.

Now it is over to our colleagues in the Parliament and people watching to help us understand the correct balance between regulation and ensuring that the Parliament remains open and accessible, as it currently is. The committee is not set on its findings; we have not yet attempted to reach consensus on most, or many, of the issues, so today’s debate is a genuine chance to influence what we will put in the report and the recommendations that we will make in due course.

Thank you very much indeed for the extra time, Presiding Officer. I found it useful; I hope that everyone else did, too.


Stewart Stevenson
does not gather, use or
retain any cookie data.

However Google who publish for us, may do.
fios ZS is a name registered in Scotland for Stewart Stevenson

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP