Holyrood lobbyist register ‘could stop biz debate’

MSPs stand in Parliament. A register for lobbyists could prevent businesses from debating policy, the FSB has warned. Picture: TSPL
MSPs stand in Parliament. A register for lobbyists could prevent businesses from debating policy, the FSB has warned. Picture: TSPL
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PLANS to set up a register of lobbyists at Holyrood could discourage businesses from taking part in public policy debate, the Scottish Government has been warned.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) said new rules on contacts with politicians would inevitably create confusion and claimed the proposals went against the government’s own policy of minimising red tape.

It argued a simpler approach would be to require the MSPs to declare when they had been 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.

Individual lobbyists would have to be pre-registered ahead of a meeting with an MSP, but charities and trade unions could be exempt from the legislation.

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.”

He said there was 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.”

Mr Borland said he believed MSPs were “100 per cent honest”. He added: “The easy, cost-effective answer would be for MSPs simply to declare all meetings at which, in their judgement, they were lobbied.”

The FSB also argued imposing registration requirements on private sector organisations while excluding trade unions or charities risked permanently reducing the range of voices in the public policy debate.

Its submission added: “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.”

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com