WORKING away in the background unnoticed by press and public alike, the work of cross-party groups at both Westminster and Holyrood is significant, and their influence can be felt.
At Westminster, it emerged last week that organisations had pumped in more than £1 million last year to fund dozens of all-party parliamentary groups there. For example, it was reported that the group on the Internet, Communications and Technology had received £130,000 from BT, Google and Microsoft, among others, with the group going on to lobby the relevant minister to oppose a crackdown on web operators.
There are also stories of how the all-party group on greyhounds regularly meets up, not at parliament, but at the local dog track, and how meetings of the group on wine are often over-subscribed.
At Holyrood, the money involved appears to be nowhere near as large, with only four-figure sums having been published on the Scottish Parliament website – such as a £2,655 sum paid for by the Scotch Whisky Association for a reception at the parliament, at a time when it was opposing SNP plans for a minimum unit price on alcohol. However, the groups have shown themselves to be no less active, and the full extent of funding is unknown due to the failure of most groups to publish an annual report, as required by parliamentary rules.
In total, more than 1,000 organisations and 1,000 individuals engage with members of the Scottish Parliament through the work of cross-party groups. And while some groups appear to be near-moribund, others are far more active, and make a difference. For example, the National Association of Funeral Directors – which supplies a secretary for the cross party group on bereavement (for work valued at £5,400) – was rewarded for its efforts by getting civil servants from the Scottish Government to attend a meeting of the group and discuss their call to change regulations on the retention of unclaimed ashes.
The question is whether it is all being done with propriety. At Holyrood, MSPs argue that the system is entirely transparent – right down to the very glass-panelled meeting rooms of the parliamentary building, which enable everyone to see who is talking to whom. On the contrary, they say, the system is highly beneficial to the conduct of debate.
During the Standards Committee inquiry into cross-party groups last year, the advantages were spelled out.
Professor Chris Carman, who interviewed MSPs about the cross-party groups at Holyrood, notes: “They create a way for MSPs to learn from experts on important issues and to learn about issues that might be important but which are not necessarily on their radar screen. They also create a mechanism for MSPs to interact with one another on a cross-partisan, less formal basis than that of, say, committee meetings, and an informal way for MSPs to connect with external groups, actors and individuals at the coal face, as it were, on various issues.”
The SNP’s Paul Wheelhouse added: “As an MSP, I find it reassuring to have that kind of forum, in which we can engage with stakeholders about policy issues without the press saying that there is something not quite right about that engagement. If we were engaging on a one-to-one basis or if we had some not subversive but informal group outside Parliament – one that met off-campus – the degree of honesty and transparency we have about what works in the Scottish Parliament would be diluted.”
However, parliamentary watchers with long memories can still recall the “Lobbygate” affair in 1999, when a newspaper secretly recorded Kevin Reid, the lobbyist son of the then Scottish Secretary John Reid, allegedly boasting of his closeness to ministers, focusing attention on the too-cosy relationships between well-connected organisations and politicians. And while there is no evidence of any dubious activity taking place within the cross-party groups at the Scottish Parliament, the inquiry held by the Standards Committee last year did attract some concerns about the need for more transparency.
NHS Health Scotland warned of the dangers of “back-door lobbying”, saying that a lobby company or an interest group could give money to a voluntary organisation or community group to then support a group’s work. Other concerned parties said that any charity which funded a group should be required to list donations it receives from commercial groups of more than £5,000.
The Standards Committee has made several recommendations. Those organisations should now provide that information if requested. It also called for groups to provide much clearer minutes of their meetings, ending the current “inconsistent” arrangement which places no requirement on groups to do so. Groups will also be told to be more specific about the reports and papers they publish in their annual returns. At present, there is no obligation on groups to do so either.
The fact that, as we report today, only a few groups have actually provided annual returns to the Parliamentary authorities as the rules require them to do perhaps owes more to administrative oversight rather than any wrong-doing. With so many groups having cropped up at the Parliament, MSPs complain that they do not have the space in their diaries to devote to the groups, and often end up missing meetings. Officials suggest that, therefore, many groups may have failed to file returns due to a lack of time – and there are now calls from some quarters to cut back on the number of groups at the parliament to ensure that those that remain can be better regulated and attended.
But Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick – who sat on the Standards Committee’s inquiry into the Lobbygate affair in 1999 – is unlikely to show much patience with a system which, while apparently clean, currently falls short of being seen to be clean. 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.” Marwick can now be expected to get her broom out to ensure this corner of Holyrood is crystal clean.