Lobbying is an essential part of democracy
By Peter Duncan
Netflix, Sky and others carrying excellent US TV content have offered the people of Scotland a clear and racy perception of lobbyists. Sharp suits, sunglasses, shady deals on the steps of Capitol Hill. But an insight into the life of a lobbyist in Scotland will not be gained by watching House of Cards, Scandal or re-runs of The West Wing.
In fact, most are to be found, glued to a desk, surrounded by post-it notes and more likely to be working for charities, trade associations and think ranks than they are to be part of consultancies. They are doing what lobbyists do – helping organisations communicate with policymakers and civil servants looking to make the case for a particular course of action.
Today, the Scottish Parliament starts to consider the Government’s draft legislation on lobbying. It is founded on the Government’s fundamental belief that lobbying is a good thing, and that principle has been reinforced by a similar statement from the Holyrood committee that undertook the early work on the issue.
However, we cannot be in denial on scandal relating to access to politicians. But let us remember that those scandals were almost all Westminster – not Holyrood-related. And let us also remember that they usually had nothing to do with lobbyists – they were almost exclusively sting operations involving journalists and politicians.
We should all agree that more open communication between politicians and the world outside the Parliament is always a good thing, and should be encouraged. It creates more informed parliamentarians, and better laws. The task now, given the Government’s determination to legislate in this area, is to ensure that we continue to encourage that dialogue.
As Chairman of the Association of Professional Political Consultants in Scotland, I’ve always been clear that the lobbying industry has little to fear and much to gain from greater transparency – and much to gain from increasing recognition that lobbying is an industry that serves parliament well. APPC was at the forefront of lobbying transparency at its foundation and in the 21 years since. We represent the gold standard in ethical conduct for those working in communications who engage with government and elected representatives, and welcome any challenge to those who do not live up to our high standards.
From that perspective, we understand the desire at Holyrood for greater transparency on relationships between MSPs and those who lobby them. APPC members already declare publicly who our clients are, adhere to a strictly enforced voluntary code of conduct, and train our staff to ensure the highest standards but we accept that a case has been made over the past couple of years for statutory rather than voluntary regulation in Scotland.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let’s ensure that any register of lobbying activity is proportionate and straightforward to comply with. Let’s ensure that the scope of the legislation ensures that, for example, lobbying a minister’s special adviser is just as deserving of public transparency as is lobbying the minister themselves. And crucially, let’s ensure that legislation agreed in Scotland treats the entirety of the lobbying industry equally – whether they are working as consultants, in-house, or working for legal firms or management consultancies.
We know what to avoid. The Lobbying Act at Westminster is an object lesson in how not to proceed, fundamentally undermined as it is with uneven treatment across the industry. Lobbying happens in a range of ways. MSPs lobby each other, they are lobbied in and by the media and by volunteer campaigners and party members at conferences and party meetings.
The Parliament will have a challenge to define the lobbying process in a way that strikes the right balance between openness and meaningless detail. At APPC, we’ll aim to work co-operatively to help get that balance right, but won’t hesitate to say when the detail becomes unworkable or counter-productive.
Lobbying is an essential part of democracy, not a threat to it. As this legislation makes its way through Parliament, I hope we remain focussed on the vital role that lobbying plays, and ensure that the registration regime introduced ensures that Holyrood remains accessible and open to outside views and opinions. For it not to be so, would mean we have all fallen short of the ambitious vision for our Parliament set out at its foundation.
Lobbying in Scotland is vital work, but it would make a terrible TV show.
Peter Duncan is Chairman of the Association of Professional Political Consultants in Scotland
This article was first published in The Herald, 13th November 2015