There is a transparency trend developing across many countries in Europe and beyond. Dozens of countries have introduced legislation around freedom of information and access to documents, and in some cases open-government data initiatives. We are also seeing numerous systems for disclosing lobbying, the latest of which is about to be passed into law by the Scottish parliament. But I’m afraid the Scots are not pushing the envelope. There’s reason to expect improvement, but the torch on offer will not shine a light as widely as one might like.
You can easily recognise many of the drivers of these global trends. We’re in an era where people don’t trust politicians or big business; where social media and other new communication platforms are making it easier to participate in politics; where there is a general desire for greater public accountability.
Lobbying disclosure systems are introduced for various political reasons. The long-established US system evolved from widespread concerns about corporate monopolies, though its current form only makes sense in relation to wider disquiet about the influence of money in politics and the role lobbyists play as conduits for campaign finance.
The EU’s experiment with lobbying transparency is connected to the shock to euro-elites of the Dutch and French rejecting the proposed new EU constitution in 2005. EU officials decided they needed to better communicate with European publics and be more open and transparent. Lobbying disclosure was part of the response, but with limited success: Transparency International claimed last year that half of the entries on the EU lobbying register were “inaccurate, incomplete or meaningless”. This may reflect deeper-seated problems with European democracy. Whether the current consultation on reforming this system will lead to meaningful reform is an open question.
Ireland recently introduced new rules around lobbying disclosure, including a register, partly as a check on the political influence on developers following a series of planning corruption scandals. Westminster’s very limited register of consultant lobbyists introduced last year was mainly about political opportunism, electioneering and spin. It is not a model that could be recommended from a transparency perspective, but it has arguably at least given the SNP administration a (very low) benchmark to exceed.
So how to understand Holyrood’s approach? Again, context is important. During and after the independence referendum the air was full of rhetoric about an energised public, awoken from democratic slumber, thirsty for opportunities to participate meaningfully in politics. This raised people’s expectations about a new style of politics, different and better than Westminster, just like when the Scottish parliament first opened in 1999.
With the Scottish parliament about to become more powerful, it looks a good time to rethink how relations are managed with outside interests. This is happening without the whiff of scandal, with public opinion overwhelmingly in favour of increased lobbying transparency.
That said, the legislation is unlikely to add much transparency. It looks very different to approaches in other countries. The SNP government initially framed the issue in terms of improving the public transparency of politicians’ activities, which is quite a different objective to lobbyist transparency.
The government then focused on capturing only face-to-face interactions between politicians and lobbyists, which suggested a limited appetite for lobbying disclosure. When it was criticised for proposing a register designed for the 19th century rather than the 21st, it moved to recognise technologies like Skype and Facetime by proposing to capture communications “made orally and in person, or … using equipment that is intended to allow both parties to see and hear each other”. Contrast this with the Irish approach, which is simply to capture relevant communications. In Scotland, it would appear that lobbying is not conducted via telephone calls or email.
After the Scottish government was also widely criticised for not including special advisers, civil servants or regulators as lobbying targets, it added special advisers. It has been strikingly reluctant to include civil servants, currently proposing to include only Scotland’s most senior civil servant, the permanent secretary.
You can read this in a number of ways. The inclusion will make virtually no practical contribution to lobbying transparency and looks like a political gesture. Equally it may be about limiting the costs of a disclosure system on the public purse, while there are also concerns about safeguarding the parliament’s founding principles and avoiding creating unnecessary barriers to participation.
In short, Scotland’s upcoming lobbying legislation looks disappointing. It improves on Wesminster in that it includes in-house lobbyists and not just hired agencies – this is significant. And the fact that it appears to have been drafted with good intentions makes me at least optimistic that officials will become less resistant to widening its scope after they get accustomed to the new system. Let’s hope I’m right.