At the start of February SCVO met representatives from the new Lobbying Registrar. Robust questions were asked and it was clear that the third sector feels strongly about this issue.
I can’t blame them, because the register is going to fail.
There is a clear public interest for greater transparency around lobbying. I would be in favour of a system of recording that is applied universally and not burdensome. The problem is that the register fails to meet either condition.
One might argue that we will never have a completely comprehensive system and that gaining a partial insight is better than complete ignorance.
But with the register it’s a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. This is because the mechanisms for recording are reliant on organisations themselves being forthcoming about their lobby activities.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this principle doesn’t lend itself well to private firms seeking to bend the ear of a government minister out of the public limelight.
Charities, on the other-hand, are transparent about their aims and policy positions. Everybody knows Shelter wants the Government to prioritise homelessness and Energy Action Scotland wants to end fuel poverty. They have nothing to hide.
It’s frankly daft that charities will have to register all face-to-face conversations
Private lobbying firms, however, may not want their activities made public, especially in connection with contentious pieces of legislation.
Another problem is that public bodies will be exempt. Freedom of Information will offer some redress, but nothing like the detailed picture that charities are being asked to provide.
In light of the Scottish Government recently signing up to the Open Government Partnership – which is designed to increase transparency, accountability and citizen participation – this is disappointing.
Surely though, you might ask, charities have nothing to hide? This is true. But the question misses the point.
The register will disproportionately represent charity lobbying – a situation that could skew public perceptions about the influence of charities on government policy. The results could be very serious, such as feeding the anti-charity agenda that thrives in certain sections of the media.
Furthermore, recording is likely to be burdensome, especially for smaller charities. All face to face conversations with MSPs must be noted. This sounds straight forward, but when you include parliamentary receptions and other large gatherings, it presents a serious administrative burden.
We need to remember the goldfish bowl in which Scottish politicians, charities, public bodies and lobbying firms operate. Largely focused in Edinburgh and Glasgow, informal meetings with politicians on trains and at public events are common.
It’s perfectly normal for a charity worker in such a situation to discuss how they’re getting on with a particular campaign. That the register requires all face-to-face conversations ‘instigated’ by the charity worker to be recorded is frankly daft. It’ll be impossible to police, and as a result further skew the influence of more compliant charities.
Our concerns were heard by the lobbying registrar and hopefully they will be taken on board. If not, their register will fail.