This morning brings news from Channel 4’s Dispatches and the Daily Telegraph of ‘cash for access’ allegations against senior MPs Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw, two of Westminster’s grandees. Another lobbying scandal that features a total of zero lobbyists, it’s worth noting that had it happened at the Scottish Parliament, the register proposed by the SPPA Committee would have been no help whatsoever.
Many people will remember when then-MP Neil Hamilton was caught up in what became known as the ‘cash for questions’ scandal, in which it was alleged that Hamilton took money from Mohammed al-Fayed to ask questions in Parliament; more recently, some will recall secretly filmed footage of Conservative treasurer Peter Cruddas seemingly offering access to the Prime Minister in exchange for a significant donation, or Stephen Byers, a former Labour Cabinet minister, describing himself as a ‘cab for hire’.
Despite the fact that many of us undertake lobbying of some sort — writing to our MSP, MP or Councillor about a local issue, joining a campaign to keep a school open, or even signing a 38 Degrees petition — few people think very much about lobbying beyond a raised eyebrow and a quick tut when stories like these break, if indeed they think about it all.
The Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments (SPPA) Committee of the Scottish Parliament, on the other hand, has been thinking about it a great deal since the Scottish Government, perceiving a problem, announced in 2013 that it was co-opting Neil Findlay MSP’s intention to introduce a Bill on lobbying and the regulation thereof. Following a period of evidence-gathering and several meetings on the matter, the Committee has now published a report detailing a number of recommendations on how to regulate lobbying of the Scottish Parliament.
Principal among these is the recommendation that a lobbying register should be established. The register, which would be online, would be aimed at “organisations that undertake significant lobbying” and would be free to join and to update. Information to be provided would include the names of lobbyists, details of events and meetings aimed at or with MSPs, hospitality provided to MSPs and the aims of the lobbying efforts. A new code of conduct should be introduced for lobbyists, and this code would mirror an updated code for MSPs.
So far, so good; because it’s really only the scandals that impinge on the public consciousness, lobbying is often both poorly perceived and poorly understood. But lobbying is just a tool (and, when done well, a skill) and like any tool or skill, it can be used for good or bad.
After all, as the recent US Senate report on torture by the CIA showed, even medical training can be ill-applied; and in Scotland, where we have a limited set of devolved powers, a very substantial proportion of the lobbying of Holyrood is actually undertaken by charitable and third sector organisations, although few might realise it.
A register, along with an accompanying awareness campaign, should therefore be a good thing for lobbying and lobbyists; although it has been argued by some that, in Scotland, it’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, a little more transparency — if the process of registering and updating isn’t too onerous — can’t do any harm and could well do some good.
The thing is, the proposals don’t go far enough, because they don’t include one of the essential elements of lobbying — the politicians. Without politicians, we have no lobbying, and, therefore, no problems with lobbying. If we accept that transparency is a good thing, which of course it is, then transparency on the part of both parties involved must surely be the logical conclusion; in fact, given that ultimately MSPs will make the decision on how to regulate lobbying themselves through the legislative process, choosing to make such an obvious omission could actually damage the public perception of our Parliament and politics. I’d also hazard a guess that voters will be interested in the actions and activities of the people they’ve chosen to represent them before they’re interested in what lobbyists are up to.
Stewart Stevenson MSP, the Chair of the SPPA Committee, does choose to publish many of his own meetings on his website, using a Google calendar widget; I’ve even seen him do it in real-time during a meeting, which tends to suggest it’s a fairly straightforward process. So why the reticence to hold his colleagues to the same standard? If the logic — transparency is a good thing and the public provision of information isn’t too much of a burden on the information-provider — works for lobbyists, who are only one half of the equation, then surely it also works for politicians, the other half of the equation. It takes two to tango.