Fears lobbying transparency law is being ‘watered down’

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FEARS have been raised that the Scottish Government is trying to water down proposals for a new law designed to bring greater transparency to the controversial lobbying industry.

Labour’s Lothians MSP Neil Findlay drew up a member’s Bill early last year, which went further than the equivalent legislation at Westminster in requiring lobbyists to reveal which politicians they were meeting and what they were discussing.

The SNP Government announced in June it would take over the proposals and produce its own Bill to create a public register of lobbyists.

But Mr Findlay says a fresh consultation now being carried out – although he had already completed that exercise – raised questions about the government’s commitment.

Lobbying – where big companies and organisations seek to influence politicians – has been at the heart of numerous scandals to rock Westminster. Last year, three peers and an MP were accused of agreeing to do parliamentary work for payment after undercover reporters posed as lobbyists.

And in 2010, three former Labour Cabinet ministers were suspended from the party after a TV documentary claimed they were willing to help a lobbying firm in return for cash. One was filmed describing himself as “a cab for hire” who would work for up to £5000 a day.

When he launched his Lobbying Transparency (Scotland) Bill, Mr Findlay said he had no evidence of any wrongdoing at Holyrood, but insisted lobbying happened “every minute of every day on a fairly industrial scale” and it was difficult to know who was speaking to whom and about what.

He proposed measures to track which lobbyists were speaking to which politicians on what issue and for which client.

SNP minister Joe FitzPatrick, announcing the government’s plan to take over the Bill, said that recent scandals showed how important it was to “act now to put beyond doubt any question of lobbying impropriety 
in Scotland”. But Mr Findlay said he was “very disappointed” there had been no progress.

He said: “I fear they are looking at ways in which to water down my proposal. The consultation was completed before last year’s summer recess and I was ready to draft the Bill over the summer break. The government has no reason to stall. What are they waiting on?”

Robin McAlpine, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, said lobbying was a multi-billion pound industry. “Many clever people spend an awful lot of money on it. We must therefore assume that it works and that the corporations paying for it get something pretty substantial in return – which means it is absolutely essential that there is complete transparency.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said it remained committed to the development of a Lobbying Transparency Bill, but first had to hear the results of the inquiry into lobbying by the parliament’s procedures committee.

“This will be crucial in finding a way forward in this policy. This is a subject area in which we need to act collaboratively and take time to get it right.”

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com