New Bill risks unintended consequences for local business owners

Friday August 7th 2015

Individually, small businesses have far too easily been ignored by government and institutions so it is nigh impossible for them to influence decisions directly affecting them. Pointing out that 98% of all businesses in Scotland are small doesn’t always change attitudes. However, the problem is not one-sided, for when politicians and policy makers do wish to consult small businesses they find a business community so fragmented that it is an impossible task. This is where business organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses come in.

The FSB is a member-led organisation that represents members’ views to politicians and policy makers in a bid to make the country a better place for businesses to start up, prosper and grow. We have had considerable success in ensuring that Scottish Government legislation is small business friendly, and a recent survey of MSPs found that the FSB is the most trusted business organisation in Scotland and the organisation that made the greatest positive contribution to the Referendum Debate.

Why mention this here? Because the Scottish Government has now introduced a new Lobbying Bill into the Scottish Parliament which, if passed, could have a profound impact on small businesses inclination or ability to engage with MSPs.

In his introduction to the Bill, the Minister for Parliamentary Business, Joe FitzPatrick MSP, says that “Lobbying is a vital part of a healthy democracy, and democracy has never been healthier in Scotland than now.” So what problem is being addressed here? The answer is that the Bill is intended to appease a suspicious general public by making MSPs’ activities more transparent, and to do so in a proportionate way.

It’s supposed to be a golden rule of business regulation that you don’t introduce new red tape on businesses unless you’re trying to solve a particular problem and you’ve tried everything else. Neither has been addressed. A looming problem for local business owners is that, if the business is a company, an unintended consequence of this new bill is business owners exercising their democratic right to speak to their MSP about a problem will be classified as lobbyists. Technically, these people are employed by their businesses, or perhaps they receive nominal remuneration from their business organisation. Does this really make them paid lobbyists?

If so, they will have to fill in forms to pre-register before they meet MSPs, an unwelcome added layer of bureaucracy and precisely what the Scottish Government pledged to avoid. We need to develop better links between politicians and the private sector, not put extra barriers in the way.

Moreover, the consultation document suggests that trades unions and charities might be exempt. Surely the Scottish Government is not insinuating that the motives of all charities and unions are automatically benign while those of small businesses are suspect?

We believe that our MSPs are one hundred percent honest, but if we really want open source policy-making, the easy, cost-effective answer is for them to declare all meetings at which, in their judgement, they were lobbied. Open their diaries to public scrutiny and have done with it!

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