Column: Has a convincing case been made for new legislation on lobbying?

Last debate of 2013 in Parliament

By Laura McMahon
Policy Executive, CBI Scotland

The UK Government is currently considering whether to introduce new legislation which will compel public affairs consultancies to adhere to a statutory register of lobbyists. The CBI believes that it is right that policymakers reflect on the ways in which policy is influenced and seek to ensure it is done in a transparent and proper way, and we responded to the recent consultation to this effect.

Here in Scotland the Lothians MSP, Neil Findlay, has published proposals for a Lobbying Transparency (Scotland) Bill. His Bill proposes going much further. In addition to a statutory registration scheme for those lobbying Scottish Ministers, civil servants and MSPs, there would also be a statutory code of conduct to adhere too as well.

Mr Findlay’s Bill, if enacted, wouldn’t just apply to public affairs consultancies though. Charities, trade unions, trade and professional associations, think tanks, as well as company in-house public affairs staff – and indeed any company or third sector organisation involved in the design or delivery of public services – would be caught up within the ambit of the Bill too. This may help explain why SCVO and others have voiced scepticism over Mr Findlay’s proposed legislation.

Let’s be clear, such an extensive scheme would not be cost free. The Bill would mean that companies and others caught up in the legislation would have to institute and maintain an organisation-wide system for tracking employee interactions with public officials, develop a process for aggregating organisation-wide data, and disclose the relevant information in a single report perhaps four or more times a year. This is a situation we are seeking to avoid in Scotland and indeed the UK.

Demands for legislation on lobbying often overlook a key point, namely that lobbying is crucial to the creation of effective, informed and pragmatic public policy decisions. Any regulatory proposals on lobbying must strike the right balance between improving transparency and upholding existing freedoms, enabling dialogue for external parties with Government and decision makers.

The CBI and its members engage with government and parliamentarians throughout the public policy development process, at times proactively and also at the invitation of government. Furthermore some of this interaction is actually required by government, e.g. through the planning system or through Business & Regulatory Impact Assessments. This reciprocal dialogue is in the mutual, long-term interest of optimal public policy. Moreover, with significant constraints on the public finances, this engagement can also provide a cost-effective way for the government to develop sound public policy.

The MSP behind the proposed Holyrood legislation has yet to clearly set out the problem that a statutory register would be intended to address, the causes of this problem, and how a statutory registration scheme would provide a resolution. We have not seen wider evidence of a fundamental problem with lobbying in Scotland necessitating this regulatory intervention. Clarification on these points must be provided before proposals are taken forward in Scotland. The legislative proposal on the table at the moment risks being seen as a solution in search of a problem.

It is also important to note that many recent so-called lobbying ‘scandals’ at Westminster, which have given rise to some calls for regulation at a UK level, in fact constitute examples of improper behaviour by elected representatives rather than being inherent problems with lobbying.

It is worth bearing in mind that Scottish Ministers’ meetings with external parties are already subject to Freedom of Information legislation, which include provisions for the release of appropriate information upon request. Furthermore, it is already within the power of MSPs to publish a record of their own meetings with lobbyists, as is set out in Section 5.1.5 of the MSPs’ Code of Conduct. This could be strengthened so there is a presumption in favour of publishing details of such meetings.

If parliamentarians insist on introducing legislation in this area then, first and foremost, any proposals must be judged against the Scottish Government’s principles for ‘better regulation’ and subject to a full Business & Regulatory Impact Assessment. This will mean possible alternative ways to deliver the same goal are looked at, and will help ensure the final policy outcomes do not have an overly burdensome regulatory impact and can be implemented effectively.

Secondly, let’s ensure some consistency between the approaches taken north and south of the border. A consistent approach would help to avoid unnecessary administrative complexity for businesses, charities and others trying to navigate different regimes at Holyrood and at Westminster.

Fundamentally, we do not believe that a convincing case has been made for new legislation in this area. This is even more so at a time when there are plenty of other more pressing issues that our parliamentarians ought to be focusing on.

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