Lobbying laws risk narrowing public debate

Friday July 24th 2015

Plans to create a ‘lobbyist’ register risk discouraging business from taking part in public policy debate, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has warned. In a submission to Ministers, the small business group says the plans break the government’s own rules on better regulation.

The FSB has urged Scottish politicians to adopt ‘open source’ policy making by publishing a list of their meetings at which they were lobbied.

The Scottish Government is consulting on planned new laws to force those who regularly meet with MSPs, and who are paid to do so, to fill in regular returns and submit them to officials. Individuals would have to be pre-registered ahead of a meeting with an MSP, and it is suggested that charities and trade unions could be exempt from the legislation.

The FSB’s submission says these proposals pose particular problems for member-led campaigning groups and the resultant confusion could deter their members from raising concerns with their local MSPs – precisely the result the government has pledged to avoid. The business group also condemns any suggestion that the motives of all charities and trade unions are automatically benign while those of the private sector are suspect.

Colin Borland, the FSB’s head of external affairs in Scotland, said: “We are told that Scottish democracy has never been healthier, so we’re not sure what problem the government is trying to solve. What we do know is that this will mean more red tape for small consultancies and an administrative nightmare for membership organisations.

“There is a particular problem for small business owners, who may belong to a local business group and regularly meet their local MSPs. However the law tries to define lobbying or a lobbyist, some will some won’t be caught. We know that, where ambiguity exists, people err on the side of caution. We can’t have businesses withdrawing from public debate for fear of breaching the rules or because the bureaucratic burden is too great. We need to develop better links between politicians and the country’s private sector, not put extra barriers in the way.

“In our experience, our MSPs are one hundred percent honest. If we really want open source policy-making, the easy, cost-effective answer would be for them simply to declare all meetings at which, in their judgement, they were lobbied.”

On the need for a register, the FSB submission states:

“The FSB believes that an additional regulatory burden should only be placed on an industry to solve a problem which it has not been possible to address through other means. Not only has none of the less burdensome options, such as publishing MSPs’ diaries, been tested, the FSB is not aware of any evidence that inappropriate lobbying has been a problem at Holyrood.”

On exempting particular sectors from the bill, it argues:

“Excluding certain sorts of campaign groups from regulation (such as trade unions or charities) while including others – presumably private sector operators – risks permanently reducing the range of voices in the public policy debate. It would also send a troubling signal that the Scottish Government views the aims and objectives of the charitable sector and trade unions as automatically benign and selfless, but regards those of the private sector as suspect.”


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