Why politicians shouldn’t shy away from the Lobbying Register
As the new Lobbying Act comes into force, CIH Scotland's deputy director Callum Chomczuk explains what it all means and outlines some of the potential impacts on political engagement.
Originally passed by Parliament in March 2016, the Lobbying Act finally crawled across the finish line and was enacted this week. Despite its quiet launch, I can think of few other pieces of legislation that will have such a profound influence on the relationship between decision makers and lobbyists. The Act, as intended, will impact how charities, businesses and trade organisations engage with policy and decision makers and in turn, may affect how informed MSPs are when considering new laws.
The Act is designed to increase transparency around the lobbying of certain public figures (MSPs, ministers and special advisors). Creating a Lobbying Register will allow everyone to view information submitted by organisations and individuals who carry out face to face lobbying. Whether this is a formal face to face meeting, a quick ad hoc chat following a committee session, or chance meeting at a bus stop. Should you discuss parliamentary business, this will now count as registerable engagement.
The strengths and weaknesses of the Act have been debated extensively over recent years; however with the law enacted it is worthwhile understanding the views and attitudes of the organisations that will be impacted by the legislation.
A survey from the Association for Scottish Public Affairs (ASPA) found that only 20% of their member felt the legislation would have a positive impact; while 90% were concerned that parliamentarians didn’t have enough awareness about the applicability of the law. It was a small sample, but the data aligns with the discussions we’ve had with our members.
As we pass the March 12th enactment date we have seen awareness increase, but the underlying truth is that organisations are concerned about how the Act will impact their engagement with Parliament. Keeping a note of every interaction between staff and MSPs at parliamentary receptions, party conferences and events presents a sizeable challenge. Personally, I question the value of having all of these interactions recorded; but our members’ biggest concern is that parliamentarians may start to become circumspect about who they meet because they know it will be recorded in the register.
Limiting engagement and discussion was never the intention of the Act, but it is an inevitability of the law. Parliamentarians are going to be mindful about how their meetings are reported by journalists and the negative perception of meeting with certain groups. The likelihood is that all parties will run their own internal register to make sure they are seen to meeting with ‘good lobbyists’ more than ‘bad’ lobbyists.
The Act is subject to a review after 2 years; but this must not be an excuse to simply extend its remit to cover phone, email and digital communication. Instead it must be a full evaluation of the benefits to both politicians and public confidence of keeping such a register. Of course, there may be a case for an extension of the Act and we will be open to those arguments. However, in turn we hope that supporters of the legislation will consider whether there are other approaches that can provide transparency and oversight as well as improve the democratic process.
Over the last 19 years CIH Scotland and its members have played a key role contributing to Scotland’s democratic vitality, improving both the decision making process and the laws of the land. We should all be proud that informing policy change with our Parliament is judged upon the the strength of the argument, rather than the size of the organisation. As the new legislation takes effect, we must ensure that we are not putting up barriers to engagement and undermining one of the real strengths of Scotland’s democratic process.
Callum Chomczuk is deputy director of CIH Scotland.