Back-handers, bribes, favours of a dubious nature - it's not what you know, but who; the world of Scottish public affairs, lobbying, call it what you will, is a shady one, wreathed in a Celtic mist that obscures the view of openness and truth.
A bit of an exaggeration maybe, but with the shenanigans surrounding the Scottish Executive's investigation into the world of lobbyists you might just believe it.
Stirling University has just released details of a report that seems to confirm this misleading perception. On 14 January The Sunday Herald published an article, paranoia-inducingly headlined 'Mound more secretive than Westminster', that arguably exacerbates the report's findings.
But there is a lot of activity in trying to persuade people otherwise - and to eradicate the stench of mistrust and misapprehension. The Scottish Parliament's Standards Committee published an interim report this month, summarising the responses from its consultation process.
In a virtual replica of Westminster's 'Lobbygate' scandal (involving Derek Draper in July 1998) north of the border had its own 'Lobbygate' incident a year later. The Scottish National Party's business manager Mike Russell reacted at the time, saying 'Scottish Parliament needs to introduce a statutory code on lobbying, which should include a ban on all lobbying companies entering the precincts of Parliament or ministerial buildings'.
The saga began when Beattie Media was accused of peddling access to MSPs when pitching for business. Ben Laurance, an Observer journalist, posed as a businessman and secretly recorded a meeting with two employees of Beattie Media, Alex Barr and Kevin Reid. They made claims that they could gain Laurance access to MSPs. Reid, the son of former Scottish Secretary John Reid, was taped saying: 'I know the Secretary of State very, very well, because he's my father'. He later stated that the transcript of the conversation shows that he continued '... but I'm not going to promise you access to people because of who I am and who I know'.
Barr was also recorded, saying 'we speak to Jack regularly' referring to finance minister Jack McConnell, but later added in a grilling by MSPs that 'it was a sales pitch'. However, the APPC for one forbids its members from making claims of access in the process of a pitch.
The concept of lobbyists armed with address books has long been the bane of those in public affairs, who maintain that it's not who you know or who you can get access to, but understanding issues and communicating them clearly.
The Association of Scottish Public Affairs (ASPA) subsequently severed affiliation with Beattie Media, which closed down its public affairs division less than a year after it opened.
In November 1999, ASPA appointed a treasurer and four new members to its ruling committee on the day the organisation unveiled a quality 'kite- mark' to increase respect for Scotland's lobbying industry.
In the fall-out, the entire public affairs industry fell under the scrutiny of the Scottish Executive's Standards Committee. It conducted an enquiry into the use of PR agencies by public bodies. Finally, in January 2000, the executive gave the Scottish lobbying industry a clean bill of health.
As part of its investigation into the lobbying sector, the Standards Committee sent a questionnaire to MSPs in spring 2000 asking how often they were lobbied and by whom. Of the 36 per cent of MSPs who responded, most felt that lobbying was worthwhile. The majority also believed the knowledge and experience organisations can bring to the democratic process was beneficial.
Subsequently, firms were sent a questionnaire to unearth any discrepancies with what MSPs had reported. Angela Casey, ASPA convenor and Countrywide Porter Novelli managing director in Scotland, says: 'They didn't get much back. Parliament failed to understand the issue and asked things like 'how many times do you write to or e-mail Parliament?'. These are rather pointless questions.'
On 26 September last year, the Standards Committee held a meeting at which it agreed to conduct a consultation exercise on lobbying in the Scottish Parliament. The idea of statutory regulation was contested by all four trade bodies.
'If Parliament creates a register of lobbyists then there is the danger that it'll imply parliamentary sanction to anything we do,' says Casey.
'Any Scottish citizen should have the right to approach their MSP.'
The PRCA, the IPR, the APPC and ASPA make this point. They call for self-regulation, with any of their members who breach their codes of conduct to be 'named and shamed'.
The IPR also says that if lobbyists are required to adopt a code of practice, this will disadvantage those who do not often engage in lobbying, such as community organisations.
One of the major concerns of the public affairs industry is the rather arbitary definition that the Standards Committee has applied to 'lobbying'. For example, ASPA said in the consultation paper that, 'the definition of 'lobbying' is too narrow.'
'Lobbying is more than the professional representation of interests and it takes many different forms. For instance, a constituent writing to his/her MSP is lobbying; so too is a trade association responding to a consultation document.'
A great deal of public affairs does not consist of interplay between an MSP and a lobbying or client firm. Sometimes a PA firm will advise its client based upon its own understanding of a situation, or might attempt to influence an MSP through indirect means, such as advertising. This tallies with the response of MSPs, most of whom said they had not been approached by a lobbying firm.
Further stirring up the debate, Stirling University publishes its 'Open Scotland' report in March. It argues that lobbyists should be subject to full and statutory regulation and wants companies and their clients to reveal how much they spend trying to influence Parliament.
Ian Coldwell, chairman of the IPR Scotland and managing director of Edinburgh-based PS Communications, says it is imperative that a dialogue between Scottish businesses and Parliament is encouraged.
This need is highlighted by by Scottish Business Insider magazine. In a survey of 152 directors and managers, the view of Scottish Parliament by Scottish business was not encouraging.
When questioned about the impact of Scottish Parliament on their businesses, only six per cent saw it as beneficial. Nearly nine out of ten considered the impact as 'none' and four per cent as 'adverse'. The performance of the Scottish executive received a 27 per cent 'quite dissatisfied',and a 19 per cent 'very dissatisfied' response.
One of the report's researchers, David Miller, told The Sunday Herald: 'Lobbyists are subterranean. People don't know about them. They're extremely shy of the media and always have been. This is a key part of our political scene, where business interests tend to dominate in the world where policy is made.'
Coldwell retorts: 'In all honesty, the last thing we're being is subterranean,' and says the media give the impression that companies are queuing up to lobby Parliament when this is far from the case.
'The real challenge is to explain to businesses in Scotland why it is important to have a dialogue with the Scottish Parliament,' Coldwell says. 'There is the danger that if you take a draconian approach then you won't open up the channels of discourse. Businesses won't bother.
It'll undermine the spirit of openness that parliament was founded upon'.
The Scottish Parliament is a body of extreme complexity. Companies not well-versed in the labyrinthine legislature of politics will inevitably be confused about how to get their opinions across, and so there will always be the need for consultancy or in-house professionals to provide advice.
'Lobbygate' did not help the reputation of the public affairs industry in Scotland. As Coldwell says: 'Some of the events surrounding 'lobbygate' gave a distorted impression of what we do. It's not just about getting an MSP into a corner. The media give the impression that lobbyists are queuing up, which is not the case, though I wish it were. Those of us who represent large companies have to persuade businesses that the Scottish Parliament is a stakeholder that they need to engage.'
A full version of the Standards Committee report was published this week.
After that, representatives of lobbying interests may be called to give oral evidence, though Case thinks this is unlikely: 'The committee have had a good cross-section of responses.'
Lobbyists are confident that statutory regulation will not be introduced, but voluntary codes of conduct and the possibility of converging these for professional lobbyists the likely outcome. With these in place, the image of the public affairs industry in Scotland will be on its way to a healthy recovery.
STANDARDS COMMITTEE INTERIM REPORT JAN 2001
The Scottish Parliament's Standards Committee issued a paper on 17 January out-lining the main themes in the responses to its consultation paper on lobbying.
It received 29 responses which included the four public affairs umbrella organisations, three public affairs agencies, two public bodies, two trade unions, one charity and one private sector company.
Below are some of the main points covered by the paper:
Definition of lobbying
The committee may reconsider the working definition it adopted and acknowledges the following points:
- whether the definition of lobbying is too tightly drawn
- whether the range of activity that can be considered lobbying requires further consideration
- whether there are difficulties in defining a lobbyist
Openness and transparency
A difference in emphasis was noted between the responses of commercial and non-commercial organisations. The former argued that many organisations and companies focus on their core business and are therefore insufficiently cognisant of democratic processes and institutions to contribute to the development of public policy.
Some of the main concerns about the openness and transparency of Parliament are that:
- there is an increased incidence of committee meetings in private
- minutes are brief and sometimes little more than the agenda
- sometimes the publication of a the official report of a meeting can be delayed
Disclosure of client lists
The committee may consider whether all those involved in lobbying on behalf of a third party should be encouraged to disclose this information.
When to lobby
Some of the respondents expressed concern in establishing the best time to lobby Parliament and requested that an 'idiot's guide' to the stages of legislation be issued.
Statutory code of conduct
The majority of respondents remain opposed to statutory regulation. Consideration may be given to
- statutory regulation
- statutory registration
- statutory registration for all commercial lobbyists in Scotland - voluntary registration of commercial lobbyists
Voluntary code of conduct
The committee may consider recommending a universal voluntary code for all lobbyists, 'whether the committee should take a view on the elements that should form part of a voluntary code'
- encourage interest groups and voluntary organisations to join umbrella groups representing lobbyists
- whether voluntary codes are being monitored in a systematic way
- whether voluntary codes are enforceable
Lobbying ministers and civil servants
The committee may consider the recommendations of the Neill Committee that ministers should record the basic facts of official meetings with external interests in their diaries
The committee may also consider that whether further guidance for MSPs and their staff on what lobbying practice is considered appropriate or inappropriate.