God on their side?

GOD’S lobbyists move in mysterious ways. John Knox still looks down at MSPs on a daily basis as they pass his glowering statue in the courtyard of Scotland’s parliament, but today the greatest religious pressure on politicians comes not from pulpit-thumping preachers but from keyboard-tapping activists bathed in the cathode glow of computers wired into the worldwide web.

A network of highly-organised evangelical Christians who spread briefing papers to fellow travellers via the internet and meet discretely with government ministers is rivalling the power of many of Scotland’s elected representatives.

Devolution has brought Scotland’s churches closer to the centre of power than ever, allowing figures such as the late Cardinal Winning to be credited with diluting Executive plans to repeal Section 28 - but Labour insiders say much was down to the lesser known group Christian Action Research and Education (Care).

Emulating the Christian right in the US, Care has spent large sums on lobbyists to circumvent the electoral process and put morality firmly on the agenda in all the UK’s parliaments and assemblies: in Edinburgh, London, Cardiff and Belfast.

With an annual income of 2.4m, 60 staff based in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland and around 40,000 supporters "to promote Christian standards in society", Care has the ear of some of Britain’s most senior MPs and MSPs - meeting Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace and deputy justice minister Richard Simpson, to name but two Executive members, in recent months.

Since 1999 it has also relieved the financial burden on at least six MSPs by paying 3,000 a year to researchers, or "interns", to work in their private offices. At the height of the battle over Section 28, when millionaire Brian Souter spent around 1m fighting its repeal, one such intern worked for the then schools minister Peter Peacock. While Peacock firmly rejected any suggestion that this relationship benefited Care, the Christian charity which opposed repeal boasts on its website that its efforts ensured the law was replaced with strict guidelines on how homosexuality should be discussed in schools.

The register of MPs’ staff in the Commons shows that 14 elected members have authorised passes for individuals with direct links to Christian groups. One such individual works in the office of Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative leader.

Care has a Westminster "public policy officer" and six interns, including one in the office of Stephen Timms, the minister in charge of the controversial Faith Schools initiative - a move to create more religious schools, which is backed by Care. Another Care intern is listed as working for Bill Tynan, chairman of the Scottish group of Westminster MPs.

Scottish parliamentary records show Care interns have also been working over the past year in the offices of SNP MSPs Michael Matheson and Gil Paterson, and of Tory MSPs Alex Fergusson and Murray Tosh. Care says another has been working for the deputy Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie and that its intern system is expanding - while denying that its interns lobby their employers.

The charity’s holy war against the "permissive society" goes much further than just opposing Section 28’s repeal. It has also claimed the credit for ensuring Scotland’s Adults With Incapacity Bill did not allow back-door euthanasia and has been resisting Executive plans to cut unwanted pregnancies by ensuring the morning after pill is made more widely available to schoolchildren.

Like other campaigning groups including the Evangelical Alliance Scotland, which has a Holyrood lobbyist in Jeremy Balfour and 20,000 members from 130 congregations of different denominations, Care has also resisted the lowering of the age of homosexual consent, regarding gay sex as a sin, and is fighting Executive plans for quicky divorces and new rights for cohabiting couples.

But while the organisation claims God is on its side, some critics claim the Christian Right poses a serious risk to the parliamentary process. Sociologist David Miller, of Stirling University’s media research institute, recently voiced concerns about such lobbyists before a Holyrood standards inquiry. He says it is no longer enough that the parliament regulates only commercial lobbyists and that Care and other outside organisations at the heart of Holyrood must be subjected to much greater scrutiny.

"We need to regulate the whole lot - groups like Care and in-house corporate staff. The system is open to abuse," he said. Groups who can afford it can gain undue influence in the parliamentary process. It’s basically the buying of the parliament."

But Scotland on Sunday has learned that far from receding, the Christian Right’s lobbying for the Lord is becoming ever more ambitious. Care’s next and most controversial step is to infiltrate the Scottish Labour party, the SNP, the Scottish Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to influence their internal candidate selection procedures ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections.

In a message to activists, spread on the internet, Care is urging its estimated 3,500 Scottish supporters to "consider joining a political party" to help "give a strong moral lead in the Scottish parliament". Adam Atkinson, head of communications at Care, denies trying to subvert democracy, and says getting involved with political parties is preferable to the "regrettable" stand-off sparked by the Section 28 row.

But the latest move has alarmed gay rights campaigners. Scotland may not yet face a challenge on the scale of America’s ‘Moral Majority’, but some fear falling membership has left political parties vulnerable to entryism. Tim Hopkins, a spokesman for Scotland’s Equality Network, who smarts at religious attacks on "sub-standard gay people", said: "People are usually selected as candidates by relatively small numbers of members.

"My main concern is that if an organisation makes a point of trying to join small party branches there is a danger their voice will have a disproportionate effect."

A Scotland on Sunday investigation has uncovered the fact that Care is just one of many outside groups, from oil giants to anti-bloodsports bodies, operating at the heart of Westminster and Holyrood, more than two years after Scotland’s Lobbygate affair and eight years after Tory MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith were accused of asking parliamentary questions in return for cash payments through a lobbying firm.

Records at Westminster reveal that around 100 MPs, including ministers and party leaders, have staff with direct connections to a series of pressure groups, big business, unions and think tanks who enjoy the sort of everyday access to parliament, to politicians and civil servants of which most constituents can only dream.

The key to the doors of the palace of the Westminster and Holyrood is the parliamentary pass or swipecard with photograph and signature verification which allows entry to the more private parts of the buildings. Technically the passes are only available to those on bona fide business. Supplies are limited, and officials insist MPs should only apply for passes for people who work for them.But the Commons Pass Office does not check. After reasoning that it would be impossible to register all lobbyists, the Neil Committee set up to review parliamentary standards after the "cash for question" affair settled on a requirement for all contact they had with politicians and civil servants to be recorded.

As a result many lobbyists continued to gain access to parliament by taking up passes set aside for MPs’ staff. One example is Albert Poggio, Gibraltar’s flamboyant official representative in the UK, who is listed as Clydesdale Labour MP Jimmy Hood’s researcher. He is no such thing. In February he drew on his 1m lobbying budget to send up to a dozen parliamentarians to enjoy a four-day trip to The Rock which included "dolphin safaris" and tax-free shopping.

Within the Scottish Executive, three ministers have been employing staff representing outside organisations with vested interests in Executive policy. Peter Peacock no longer has a Care employee on his staff but employs a professional lobbyist who has been getting paid tens of thousands of pounds to campaign for Executive policy u-turns on farming and the environment.

Since 1999 Hugh Raven has worked as a researcher for Peacock and fellow Highland Labour MSPs Maureen MacMillan and Rhoda Grant - yet until last month he was also paid up to 20,000 as a project director for Organic Scotland, which campaigned for more Executive action to encourage organic farming.

Within the last few weeks, Raven has been taken on as an adviser, paid up to 5,000, to the Organic Targets Bill campaign, which is lobbying MSPs to back Robin Harper’s bill which would require the Executive to develop an action plan to encourage 20% of Scotland’s farmland to be organic within 10 years.

There is no suggestion that Raven has broken any rules. He has registered his interests in official parliamentary records. But Scottish Tories believe the direct access he has to a member of the Executive is unhealthy.

Nicol Stephen, the Lib Dem deputy education minister, has been employing Vicki Harris, who is also secretary and company director of Charter 88 Scotland, which campaigns for proportional representation for council elections and freedom of information.

Health minister Malcolm Chisholm, meanwhile, has been employing Kim Hartley, who is also paid up to 10,000 as Scottish officer of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. Both bodies have direct access to ministers not available to other good causes.

Tricia Marwick, the vice convener of Holyrood’s standards committee, suggested her committee was now likely to examine Scotland on Sunday’s disclosures and consider the need for regulation of non-commercial lobbyists.

The SNP MSP, who claims lobbyists are also trying to infiltrate Holyrood’s cross-party interest groups, said: "I am not convinced that the guidelines in place are adequate to protect the parliament."

The former Independent MP Martin Bell supports identical action at Westminster. Bell, a ferocious critic of parliamentary standards during his four years as MP for Tatton, says lobbying companies must no longer be allowed to "get around the rules" and into parliament. "It is a serious issue, the use of parliamentary office space, telephones and other equipment, to carry out work on behalf of private lobby organisations," he says.

The question is whether enough MPs - and MSPs who have contracted London’s disease - are ready to agree. Britain’s silver-tongued lobbyists are doubtless adjusting their hospitality budgets and arguments to mount a case for the defence.