Neil Findlay MSP has proposed a bill to regulate lobbying, and Better Nation is hosting the debate.

On one side, we have Willie Sullivan, director of the Electoral Reform Society, a former public affairs consultant (or lobbyist) who now campaigns for a fairer distribution of power. On the other, Alastair Ross, secretary of ASPA (the Association for Scottish Public Affairs – the trade body for the public affairs industry in Scotland). 

Let’s start with Willie’s case for.

For those of us who grew up in a house where the lobby was the bit you kept your wellies lobbying seems a strange verb. The provenance of the meaning is not straightforward. It may arise from loitering in the lobby of Parliament in order to convince members and government that a particular decision will be a good one, or it may have first been used to describe political wheelers and dealers who hung around in the lobby of the Willard Hotel in Washington in order to persuade then President Ulysses S Grant to make some decision or other, usually by buying him several drinks. Both of these origins probably assisted the arrival at the modern meaning, a meaning that is richer because of this.

The act of lobbying today still involves presenting arguments to those with power to try and ensure a policy, decision or legislation is made in a way that is beneficial to the agency (or its interests) making the argument.

So whether it’s bankers hoping to keep retail banking and investment banking closely linked, or if it’s Greenpeace asking for more taxes on carbon, they all want to have the opportunity to give the facts, figures, reasons and evidence to do something, or to point out the dangers and consequences of inaction, to those who have the power to make decisions and to those who advise them. This persuasion is not always a simple art. It involves all sorts of psychology and mythology, short term techniques, and long term strategies. Some companies spend millions of pounds paying experts to tell them how to go about it. There are global businesses that specialise in this work, some of whom have offices in Scotland. Many organisations have in-house ‘Public Affairs’ staff. Some focus on causes and campaigns, others stay strictly within the business sector. Often both personnel and companies will have had experience of working for good causes and for commercial interests. The divide is not as obvious as one might presume. The profession is the skills not the cause.

This is not to say that lobbying per se is wrong. It is in fact a fundamental part of our democracy. Interest groups and campaigns must have the opportunity to put forward their case and politicians need to know the arguments from as many perspectives as possible.  The problem is that some viewpoints can clearly dominate. Some of those voices can be many times louder than others. The resource that can be deployed, expertise purchased, the networks and relationships exploited, are very different for a multi-national than they are for a small community group or individual voter. Perhaps in the past we thought this was not something to worry about. If the legislative and regulatory conditions meant that banks could prosper, then surely we all benefitted? If Rupert Murdoch’s lobbyist could secretly text the Secretary of State’s advisor, might it be good for the freedom of the press?

Those times are long gone. People don’t trust politicians, they don’t trust big business, they don’t trust the media. We have a crisis of our democracy.

Neil Findlay MSP’s member’s bill on Lobbying Transparency won’t solve these big problems of inequality of power or the misbehaviour of feral elites. What it will do is quite simply allow us to know which organisation is lobbying who and why, and how much money they are spending on that particular campaign of persuasion, through a simple register and database. The big question is why would you not want the public to know that? The fact that some people don’t want us to know this is itself the best argument for why we should.

It’s certain we won’t hear anybody saying that providing this information is not in the public interest. As any good lobbyist will realise, this argument is just not going to ring true. Equally, as any good lobbyist knows, the arguments mustered against change will not be that this might make life more difficult for big business or corporate interests, but that it will place overly onerous burdens on community groups or worthwhile charities.

That is why the proposed bill should define thresholds for inclusion, will not require small voluntary groups or community organisations to register, and why the burden of time in completing the register is very small. Unlock Democracy, an organisation of 14 staff who spend a fair amount of their time lobbying Westminster have been trialling the proposed forms. It took them 20 mins to complete the registration form.

This register on its own won’t meet  the huge challenges that face politics described above. It is a very small step forward . However if we cant even take  this step then there seems little hope for progress.

The proposed Lobbying Transparency (Scotland) Bill will go through many changes before it can be enacted. If there are genuine problems, then let’s fix them, after all, why would you not do this?

And now for Alastair’s case against.

Do we honestly need lobbying regulation in Scotland?

I’m not being rhetorical – it’s a serious question to which I’ve yet to hear an answer that makes the argument for a new law.

“Lobbying needs to be regulated” – why? What has happened which shows there is a real problem here? One newspaper sting from 1999 simply isn’t enough justification for me.

“It’s undermining democracy” – how exactly? What’s the evidence that Ministers or MSPs have had their minds changed and passed bad laws as a result of “professional lobbying”?

“The potential for scandals will grow” – on what basis? Watch out for that terrible thing that could happen despite the lack of evidence that it actually will?

“Lobbying is done in secret” – actually I think in Scotland it’s done pretty publicly under a good level of scrutiny, although sometimes privately for good reasons.

Most importantly of all – what is passing a law to regulate lobbying going to achieve?

The lobbying that goes on in Scotland isn’t the £2bn per annum sharp-suited money-go-round as some people would have you believe. Go to Holyrood or St Andrew’s House and you’ll see “professional lobbyists” standing in line with everyone else, enjoying no special treatment, and engaging with politicians and public officials in exactly the same way everyone else does – by talking to them and telling them how things work. It’s that simple – there really is no mystique or secrecy about it.

Are we really saying Ministers, their officials and MSPs are so naïve and easily-persuaded that they cannot be trusted to talk to the real world beyond the insulated Holyrood building without swooning before every vested interest? Are they such delicate flowers in need of protection by law? Don’t think so.

Look at some of the landmark legislation passed since 1999 – the smoking ban, land reform, minimum alcohol pricing, the ban on hunting with dogs and the repeal of clause 2A – all delivered by a Scottish Parliament that did not bend in the face of “professional lobbying” from opponents of those Bills.

All were the results of campaigners, charities or good causes, and representative bodies making their case and working with Ministers and officials to change the law. Dare I say some of these democratic champions even invested in professional lobbying themselves and certainly influenced Government thinking, so where does that leave us?

The reason organisations – private, public or third sector – use lobbyists is because the people delivering services or managing them don’t have the time, resources or specialist knowledge to do it themselves on a day to day basis. What’s wrong with recognising you don’t have the right skillset for getting your message across to Government or Parliament and paying someone else to do it?

What would we gain from registration of lobbyists and disclosure of meetings? Like the publication of MSP expenses it could be good sport to go through it with the proverbial fine tooth comb to flush out nuggets of entertaining detail but to what end? The first few sets of MSPs published expenses showed us who was pound-foolish on taxis and who was penny-wise on staff essentials like milk and loo rolls. Now MSPs are astute enough not to claim public money for them or at least not to record them in detail, so who’s the winner in this particular transparency exercise?

What will a list of who met who and when they met usefully tell us? Neil Findlay’s Bill consultation doesn’t shed any light on that and while it might be fun to join the lobbying dots or add two and two to make five, that’s confusing the issue rather than clarifying it.

I don’t see how disclosing the amount of money spent will help measure lobbying activity either. Just because you spend a lot of money on something doesn’t make it bad, just as hardly spending a penny makes you a paragon of virtue.

I do agree Scottish Government business could be more open – ironically by looking to the Westminster system. UK Government departments publish (eventually) details of Ministerial meetings on a quarterly basis. No reason why Scottish Ministers and their senior officials shouldn’t follow suit, but that’s an administrative change that doesn’t need statute – just go ahead and do it.

No reason to stop at Ministers either – why not update the MSP code of conduct to publish MSPs diaries or work schedules? That will show who’s been meeting who and the level of lobbying by charities, good causes, and public bodies as well as those “professional lobbyists”. Again, you don’t need a law to do this, just a Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments committee.

I’ve tried to avoid the oft-used line that legislating on lobbying is a solution in search of a problem but I can’t any longer. Evidence of the real problems in Scottish life is all around, so let’s concentrate on tackling those instead of this.