07 January 2016

S4M-15220 Lobbying (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-15220, in the name of Joe FitzPatrick.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

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.

Chic Brodie (South Scotland) (SNP): 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?

Stewart Stevenson: 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.

Neil Findlay: 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?

Stewart Stevenson: 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?

The Deputy Presiding Officer: You have nine minutes, Mr Stevenson, but there is a little flexibility.

Stewart Stevenson: 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.


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