21 July 2015
St Andrew’s House
PROPOSALS FOR A LOBBYING TRANSPARENCY BILL
Scottish Engineering is the major support organisation for the manufacturing engineering industry in Scotland. We have been in existence in one form or another since 1865. Present membership includes upwards of 350 member sites throughout Scotland, covering all sectors of manufacturing industry. Membership ranges from the country’s largest and best known manufacturers to the many successful and innovative smaller ones.
Core Principles and Need for a Register
It would be hard to disagree that openness and transparency are important ingredients of any parliamentary engagement process although it is not entirely clear that the proposals in detail are in proportion to the issues being addressed. The consultation itself acknowledges that there are no identifiable concerns about the probity of lobbying activity in the context of Scotland’s legislature and it therefore has to be questioned whether the inevitable bureaucracy would be justified.
Who Should Register, Definition of ‘Lobbyists’ and Types of Communication
Noting that there is a momentum towards a Bill and a supporting code of practice, it is suggested that it might be preferable to follow the English example by not placing an onus on individuals to register. It will be very rare for individuals, even consultant or in-house lobbyists, to be acting in their own cause and it will be the organisation that they represent which will be seeking to bear influence.
We are particularly concerned that an in-house lobbyist is described as an individual within an organisation who lobbies MSPs or Ministers as part of their work. This is very broadly defined and could readily capture employees within a company or organisation who happen to have face-to-face contact with their MSP, perhaps at a meeting organised by someone else, and however informal the dialogue.
Strangely, ‘lobbying’ as such does not appear to be defined other than that which ‘engages’ a Minister or MSP at a pre-arranged meeting or event, nor is it clear what is meant by meeting ‘in any other circumstance’ [reference – paragraph 28 of the consultation]. This on the face of it would seem to be all embracing and could even extend to a social event where the prime purpose was other than seeking to influence the business of government.
Moreover, it will often be the case that an individual attends a meeting with a Minister as part of a wider audience and may not even make a vocal contribution, but the fact of attending would appear to require registration.
To take an example, an executive could be explaining to an MSP what the function of his or her organisation is and to witness at first-hand how it operates without necessarily attempting to persuade the MSP to a particular course of action. If imparting information in that fashion took place at a pre-arranged meeting, it would seem to require that executive to register beforehand. If so, that would be excessive and out of all proportion. If it were the MSP who initiated the meeting that could also be interpreted as placing an onus on an individual to register before such a meeting with the MSP could take place. The Scottish Government appears to have ruled out an approach triggered by the frequency of contact with Ministers or MSPs, bringing minor and infrequent lobbying within scope. Furthermore in the nature of social interaction it can frequently happen that unintended topics of conversation can occur which are quite separate from the original purpose of the meeting or event.
Although we would strongly agree that there should be no need to register ahead of correspondence or telephone conversations with a Minister or MSP, there could be an unintended consequence that lobbyists will convey their views and objectives by telephone to circumvent the registration process.
What Information to Register and Frequency of Reporting
Details of the issues discussed are admittedly very difficult to set into legislation but any regulation should not expose an individual or organisation to a sanction for allegedly failing to provide sufficient detail. Sometimes information disclosed may be confidential in nature, commercially sensitive or might reveal tentative proposals at an exploratory or formative stage. Even if 6 monthly intervals for disclosure are adopted, the subjects of discussion should be broadly descriptive or in headline form only. In other words it should be sufficient for someone accessing the register to know what the meeting or event was about, but any more elaborate approach based on Minutes for example would be overly burdensome, likely to inhibit discussion and defeat the principle of ease of access.
The foregoing aims to narrate our views on what we see as the thrust of the proposal for a Bill rather than an individual answer to each question posed. Bearing in mind that the core principles of openness and ease of access are recognised in the Ministerial Code and the MSPs’ Code of Conduct, coupled with Freedom of Information legislation, we are not persuaded of a compelling need for a Lobbying Transparency Bill.
However, given the apparent impetus towards a Bill, we believe that some of the proposed requirements are too broadly described and would benefit from more precise definitions, particularly around ‘in-house lobbyists’ and the type of communications intended to be covered. If not, and as indicated earlier, there is a risk that merely imparting information with no intention to ‘lobby’, or attendance at a meeting or event at which an MSP ‘communicates’ with an audience ‘face-to-face’ would ostensibly be captured and would require registration in circumstances which the proposers of the Bill could not have intended.
E J P Smith
Head of Finance and Business Support