Mark Cummings, founder and director of Invicta Public Affairs and leading business advisor in Scotland has welcomed the decision by MSP’s in March to unanimously support the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill.
Against a backdrop of increased devolution of powers through the Scotland Bill Mr Cummings believes the time was right to revisit the issue of lobbying and bring Scotland in line with the rest of the UK in terms of regulation. Speaking about the new bill Mr Cummings commented:
“As the Scottish Parliament gains more powers to govern its own affairs, so too the lobbying industry must step up and ensure it is held to the highest professional and ethical standards. As a business we very much welcome Parliament’s timely decision. We have long supported the creation of a statutory register of lobbyists in Scotland, as we support the existing UK Register of Lobbyists.”
Looking at the detail of the bill, Mr Cummings welcomed the Government’s suggestion that the definition of lobbying should not include electronic communication such as email. Electronic communications are often unsolicited and until they have been responded to or acted upon, could not in themselves constitute as lobbying activity. Commenting Mr Cummings explained:
“It would be very difficult and no doubt expensive to assess which electronic communication had or had not been acted upon. However, over regulating to ensure all communications are covered by the legislation would only damage the legitimacy of the register.”
While welcoming the broad agreement, Mr Cummings remains critical of a some aspects of the deal, citing the need to strike a balance between transparency and proportionality. Although the bill stops short of classifying all contact with an MSP as lobbying, anyone engaging on behalf of a third party or about matters not relating to the interests of the individual’s constituency will still have to declare their activities.
This, Mr Cummings argues, is far too broad and risks putting an unreasonable regulatory burden on small to medium sized businesses and employers wishing to legitimately engage with MSPs outside their own constituency.
Further to this, the terms of the bill may actually make it harder for the wider industry to be transparent. Ministers in Westminster publish their diaries and these are cross referenced by journalists and campaign groups with the declared public affairs activity of registered lobbyists.
In order that the same level of oversight take place in Scotland the diary of each and every single MSP will have to be interrogated alongside the declarations from registered lobbyists. Far from improving transparency, this will muddy the waters further still with far too much data to effectively analyse.
It is an important time for the Scottish Parliament and ensuring access to the decision makers is appropriately regulated will be key to protecting the reputation of the institution. Increasingly, these arguments will also apply to the Welsh Assembly and this may be something they choose to examine during the next Parliament. Reflecting on the bill Mr Cummings comments:
“While the bill does not perhaps fully address every aspect of lobbying activity in Scotland it is important Parliament was able to unanimously agree that a Lobbying register is a necessary addition to existing checks and balances within a functioning democracy.”