August 3, 2017 : Martin Sime
A bad act to follow
It’s only as the Guidance is being drafted that the full horror of what has been passed into law is being revealed. The Scottish Lobbying Act is a pretty toxic mix of thoughtless good intention and bungling incompetence. It will undermine participation in our democracy.
The Act makes no distinction between charities lobbying for public benefit and the kind of for profit lobbying which oil, tobacco and fracking companies and their PR companies seem very good at. But it does exclude local government, quango and arms-length public bodies from any regulation whatsoever. So we will never find out how some of the really big decision about funding public services are made, but if you want to know which cancer charities said what to which health Minister then wading through a mountain of returns will give you the (highly predictable) answer.
Let’s take one example. Every night the Garden Lobby and other parts of the Holyrood campus are brought to life by receptions, launches and meetings which bring thousands of citizens from all over Scotland in to meet with MSPs and officials. This under-appreciated aspect of the Parliament is a priceless asset; it helps to make our democracy accessible in a way that Westminster can only envy. But this Act requires that every single interaction a charity worker has with every single MSP needs to be remembered, recorded and reported. On a good (?) night this might amount to hundreds of reportable contacts. Multiply this out to all the other events where MSPs engage with voluntary groups and the absurdity is clear. How on earth recording all of this will make our Parliament more open and transparent is beyond me.
There’s worse though. Cack-handed attempts to address some of these issues during debates on the Bill have come up with some unworkable provisions – organisations with fewer than 10 staff are exempt, unless you are “a representative body” in which case the exemption does not apply. Yet almost all charities represent some broader membership or are acting on behalf of a wider constituency so the exemption will have a perverse impact, allowing small business exemption but capturing most good causes.
“Curiously the Act excludes volunteers and charity Trustees from having to record their conversations with our law-makers – a good thing, you might conclude, but the rationale is confusing. Is the Act trying to regulate access or just professional access? Is it the contact with MSPs that needs to be transparent or the status of the individual making contact? We did suggest that, instead of the Act, Ministers and MSPs might like to publish their diaries but, for reasons which were never clear, this was not enough for the Bill’s supporters.”
The many foreign visitors to SCVO are amazed at how open, accessible and engaged our politicians and politics are to the work and ambitions of the third sector. We are proud to have played a significant role in the renaissance of Scotland’s democracy and have worked with MSPs of all parties to address inequality, injustice and poverty in partnership with public bodies and the new Parliament.
Of course it is only personal contact which is being regulated. Phone, email, text and other connections do not count – which is a rather odd thing in this digital age. But it does reveal some rather simplistic or sloppy thinking when the Bill was first introduced. Where is the evidence that face-to-face lobbying is more effective than other methods? Will the Act cause MSP in-boxes to fill up as displacement?
This Act will have a chilling effect on our sector because it will make lobbying for public good a regulated activity and thus something to be wary of. Swathes of our sector are risk averse so won’t take a chance in such muddy waters. That is bad enough, but it will also tie up hundreds of voluntary organisations into making thousands of pointless returns every time they bump into a politician. I wouldn’t blame them if they crossed the street.