Submission to the Scottish Standards Committee: Inquiry into lobbying

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Unlock Democracy is the UK’s leading campaigning organisation for democracy, rights and freedoms. A grassroots movement, we are owned and run by our members. In particular, we campaign for fair, open and honest elections, a stronger Parliament and accountable government, and a written constitution. 

1.    Have there been significant changes over the last decade to the way that lobbying is carried out?
The size of the UK lobbying industry - now worth £2bn - has steadily increased over the last decade. There are good reasons to believe that Scotland has attracted more than its fair share of that growth. As devolution has matured, the Scottish Government and Parliament have become more assertive, and therefore a more important arena for lobbying. This trend is only likely to continue with the prospect of further changes in the future. The lobbying industry has also diversified, with lobbying increasingly done by think tanks, in-house teams, and law and accountancy firms as well as more traditional public affairs agencies.

2.    Is there a problem or perceived problem with lobbying in Scotland? If so, how can this best be addressed? If not, do steps still need to be taken to address any problem arising in future?
Although Scotland has not seen lobbying scandals on the same scale as Westminster, this should not be seen as an indication that Holyrood is immune. Many of the same issues apply in Scotland: for example, around the funding of cross-party parliamentary groups,  or lobbyists with parliamentary passes. 

Lobbying is an important part of the democratic process which often improves public policy, but it needs to be transparent. A comprehensive register of lobbyists would be the best way to create a culture of transparency and probity in lobbying. Scotland has a chance to make sure that the scandals that have undermined trust in Westminster are not repeated here. However, transparency in lobbying should not be seen simply as a preventative measure; it should be a goal in itself. The more information that is available to the public on who is involved in politicians’ decision-making processes, the better they will be able to hold them to account.  

3.    To what extent will the introduction of a register of lobbyists address any problem or perceived problem with lobbying?
A comprehensive register of lobbyists would bring information about who is lobbying, about what, and how much money they are spending on it into the public domain. This would allow the public to make judgements on whether there has been undue influence on the decisions of politicians and government. Transparency would motivate politicians and lobbyists alike to act, and be seen to act, properly. 

4.    To whom should such a register apply? Should it be voluntary or compulsory? How should it be maintained and who should maintain it? What level of information should be on it? Should thresholds be set for registration? If so, what should they be? What are the likely cost implications of registration for groups that lobby?
We believe that to ensure transparency, the lobbying register should be as comprehensive as possible. Lobbying is a legitimate activity conducted by a wide variety of organisations, from private companies to campaign groups and charities. The register should be aimed at all those who are paid to influence legislation, regulation, policy or government contracts, rather than targeting certain types of organisation that lobby.  

Without a statutory register, coverage will not be comprehensive, nor will there be a significant advance in transparency. Self-regulation by the lobbying industry has repeatedly failed; existing registers have patchy coverage, and contain little information - typically only the names of lobbyists and their clients. Voluntary registers have also failed to ensure information on the register is accurate and up to date.  Despite numerous relaunches, even the chair of the UKPAC lobbying register admits that its latest iteration remains underfunded and lacks coverage.  These failures cannot be remedied outside a statutory register.
We recommend that the lobbying register be overseen by a body independent of both government and the lobbying industry. This is the only way to ensure public confidence in the register and avoid any conflict of interest when investigating breaches.

A lobbying register must offer the public enough information to draw conclusions about how decisions are being made in government. The essential components of any register include:
•    The organisation lobbying and the names of individual lobbyists
•    Information on public offices held by lobbyists in the past 5 years (“revolving door”)
•    The public body being lobbied and the names of the officials lobbied
•    A summary of what is being lobbied on – legislation, policy, contract &c
•    An estimate of the amount of money spent on lobbying