Proposal to regulate MSP-lobbyist contact debated

The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. Picture: Ian Georgeson
The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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A PROPOSAL to regulate contacts between MSPs and lobbyists is being debated.

The Lobbying Bill will create a register of contacts who are paid to lobby Holyrood members in face-to-face meetings, events and hospitality occasions.

Lobbyists will be required to register if they have met, or intend to meet, MSPs and will be required to submit six-monthly returns of lobbying activity.

The Parliament will be empowered to produce guidance on the operation of the regime and must publish a code of conduct for persons lobbying its members.

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The Scottish Government proposals have their origins in a Member’s Bill lodged by Labour MSP Neil Findlay, at outspoken critic of lobbying, in 2012 which received broad support from consulted organisations.

The Government used its powers to adopt the proposals for its own Bill, which departed in some respects from Mr Findlay’s plans and also some of the recommendations of the SNP-dominated Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee that scrutinised the Government Bill.

While the committee was broadly in favour of most of the Bill’s proposals, it called for registration to be based on frequency of contact, as well as paid lobbying.

The published Bill also eschews the committee’s call for a “light touch” approach, advocating criminal sanctions for breaches instead.

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Mr Findlay was critical of the requirement for face-to-face communication to be the trigger for registration, insisting it dated the Bill “in the 18th and 19th centuries” as it failed to recognise modern forms of communication such as the telephone, computer and conference calls.

Speaking ahead of the debate, he said: “The SNP Government’s Lobbying Bill is a weak and very pale imitation of the Bill I introduced to parliament.

“After taking over the Bill the SNP Government dragged its heels before eventually launching their proposals a few months ago. What has been produced is extremely disappointing and represents a serious dilution of my original proposals.”

Parliamentary Business Minster Joe Fitzpatrick said: “I am pleased the Bill received the committee’s endorsement of the general principles of the Bill in their stage one report published recently.

“I look forward to the debate today and hearing member’s views on the Bill at this stage.

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“We will continue to review recommendations with a view to ensuring that the proposed register remains proportionate, simple and does not place an undue burden on organisations.”

Holyrood researchers found “no accusations of inappropriate lobbying activities in Scotland”, but said there remains a question of public transparency in the dealings between lobbyists and elected members and their officials following a series of lobbying scandals at Westminster.

MPs have been filmed or recorded offering or agreeing to use their position to influence policy on behalf of third parties in return for payment or party donations.

The most recent incidents cited by researchers including Conservative Party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas’s offer of access to the Prime Minister for an annual £250,000 donation in 2012, former Tory MP Tim Collins’s boasts about his public affairs company’s access to ministers in 2011, and former defence secretary Liam Fox’s resignation over an advisory role being conducted by his former flatmate Adam Werritty the same year.

Researchers also cite older incidents of lobbying scandals involving UK Labour ministers and peers.