What can we learn from the lobbying register?

After years of debate, the Lobbying Act came into force in March this year. And with the law firmly in place, we have an opportunity to review all registerable activity to see what trends, if any, exist.

To be honest, there are few surprises in the lobbying contacts published for that first month.  Of the 237 entries, 42% were conducted by charities or non profits, 8% by unions, 18% by communication agencies, 18% by trade association and handful of religious organisations and a single think tank.

Indeed  while the public may think of big business when they think of lobbying, in Scotland the third sector is among the most impactful lobbying sector in the country. For example, it was Friends of the Earth Scotland that led the call for world leading climate legislation; it was NUS Scotland that campaigned for the abolition of tuition fees and it was HIV Scotland that has spent years campaigning for PrEP to be available as an extra part of a comprehensive HIV prevention package.

When you think of the policy changes that have occurred in Scotland over the last 19 years, it has often been the third sector leading it.

Despite this, initial media reporting on the register has explored  ‘special access’ for commercial or corporate lobbyists, rather than celebrating the openness of Scotland’s politics. However, in order to avoid bad publicity, we are finding some organisations are already avoiding meeting with Parliamentarians where possible. Limiting engagement and discussion was never the intention of the Act, but it is the reality of the law.

What is more, the Act is subject to a review after 2 years; we are seeing the first steps of the campaign calling for an extension of legislation to cover constituency, phone, email and digital communication.

As the new legislation takes affect we all must be mindful to ensure that in the strive to increase transparency that we are not putting up barriers to engagement and undermining one of the real strengths of Scotland democratic process: people talking. All politicians accept that lobbying is a crucial part of the policy process and the laws we pass are improved through this process

We should applaud those that have the confidence to represent themselves in public debate instead of attacking the concept of engagement. Attack the ideas, challenge the conclusions, present your own and make your case. But let’s not use the availability of data to quieten political discussion. Better policy and law is not made by removing the opposition from the debate, but instead through the persuasiveness of the argument.

We are all proud that when engaging with our Parliament it is the strength of the argument, rather than the size of the organisation, that informs policy change. Let’s not lose sight of what makes decision making in Scotland truly democratic as we take stock of the new lobbying register.

Callum Chomczuk

Convenor of ASPA

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