A HOST of cross-party groups at the Scottish Parliament have broken strict rules by failing to declare if they receive financial backing from companies and pressure groups eager to lobby MSPs.
Out of more than 70 cross-party groups listed at Holyrood – which exist to give MSPs a chance to engage with experts in a particular field – 63 have not filed an annual return setting out donations received or support given.
They include groups covering industries with major financial interests at stake in legislation at the parliament, including aviation, the brewing industry, construction, oil and gas, and life sciences, prompting fresh calls for a more transparent regime.
As critics of the system raised fears about “back-door lobbying”, parliamentary authorities last night issued a pointed reminder that all the groups must show publicly any connections they have with trade, industry or charitable bodies.
This follows a Standards Committee report last month which called for more robust regulation and transparency in the way the cross-party system operates.
Last week, it emerged that cross-party groups at Westminster had received hundreds of thousands of pounds from lobbyist groups including those representing arms manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and foreign governments.
The Westminster groups have produced reports that, in some cases, echo the views of industry backers which can then be used to influence ministers on policy issues.
However, the scale of funding by lobbyists and special interest groups at Holyrood remains unclear, with only nine groups so far having laid out donations received. Of those publicly available, the organisations offering funding for secretarial work or catering include public affairs companies, trade bodies and charities.
Many MSPs believe the cross-party group system operates well and gives them the opportunity, in a formal setting, to liaise with experts in a particular field, helping to boost their own expertise on issues that interest them.
They range from groups on health issues such as epilepsy and dyslexia, to groups focusing on China, Cuba, the Caribbean and Malawi, and industry-related groups such as the one on Scotch whisky.
But the MSPs’ Code of Conduct states that “cross-party groups must hold an annual general meeting and submit an annual return form. The annual return must include… a financial statement, including details of all donations or assistance of a value which exceeds £500.” They must also report on changes to the group’s membership, which can include non-MSPs. The Parliamentary authorities issued a stern reminder last night to MSPs on the groups to ensure they complied and said a recent inquiry by the Standards Committee had already called for a tightening of the rules.
A Scottish Parliament spokeswoman said last night: “All cross-party groups are required to submit to parliament an annual return form which sets out information on its membership, meetings held and financial assistance or donations exceeding £500.
“The Standards Committee’s recent report on cross party groups proposed changes to the Code of Conduct to achieve more robust regulation and enhanced openness and transparency for the CPG [cross-party group] system. If these changes are approved by the parliament, cross-party groups will be required to publish their minutes as well as their annual returns on the parliament’s website.
“The committee has also agreed to consider a monitoring report twice a year on cross-party groups’ operation within the new rules.”
MSPs say there is no evidence at Holyrood of the scale of financial assistance being contributed at Westminster. Members’ concerns have instead focused on the proliferation of groups now set up at Holyrood.
However, outside bodies have warned about the laxity of the system in Scotland. During the Standards Committee inquiry, a submission by NHS Scotland warned there was a danger of “back-door lobbying”.
It declared: “One danger is that a commercial lobby company or interest group might fund a Cross-Party Group, perhaps through a voluntary organisation or community enterprise. Hence the need for complete transparency and openness around funding and support for Cross-Party Groups”.
Another submission raised concerns over the practice under which the secretary of a cross party group is someone outwith parliament. For example, records show that the secretary of the cross-party group on funerals and bereavement is the director of a public affairs firm paid by the National Association of Funeral Directors. The association is currently trying to ensure MSPs take up new measures to support the sector.
A submission by one charity, Psoriasis Scotland, declared: “The code should include the requirement of any organisation or individual who is not an MSP who is serving on a cross-party group as its secretary, to state their reasons for supporting the group and declare any and all pecuniary interests of both the organisation for which they are offering the services as secretary and any other associated business interests that they may have.”
However, MSPs say the connections formed through the groups ensures they are better informed.
Tory MSP Margaret Mitchell told the inquiry: “The crux of a really good cross-party group is the people who form it outwith the MSP group – the MSPs are almost facilitators.
“Those people come forward with the issues and the MSPs can then speak to a colleague about them or suggest whether there is something coming up on the agenda that they may be particularly interested in.”
Independent MSP Margo MacDonald, convenor of the cross-party group on sport, said: “They are a great forum and a great information exchange. The best ones can also be very influential.”