Adam Lang: In defence of lobbying (and good policy making)
Charities and voluntary groups should not be deterred from engaging in the political process.
Over the past few days there have been a couple of notable articles and reports published about the impact of two different bits of legislation, now both fully enacted, seeking to regulate or restrict campaigning and lobbying activity directed at elected officials in either Holyrood or Westminster. Both have given me cause for concern.
Firstly, here in Scotland the Sunday Herald ran a front-page story (3rd June) looking at the first 12 week wave of over 700 official returns to the Scottish Parliament’s newly established Lobbying Register. Under new regulations introduced in the Lobbying (Scotland) Act 2016, organisations in Scotland seeking to engage with elected officials and select key senior officials in government now need to record and submit details of this engagement to a publicly available lobbying register managed by the Scottish Parliament.
The article is headlined “How lobbying has become big business at Scottish Parliament”. It documents legitimate and routine policy meetings as “securing special access” and makes frequent reference to the Scottish Lobbying Act bringing lobbying “out of the shadows” at Holyrood. This interpretation and rhetoric around engagement with MSPs and the public policy making process should be worrying, particularly if it results in deterring individuals or organisations from engagement on policy issues they care about or have valuable insight on.
Following on from – and notable in the context of - this story is a report from the respected Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK), which seeks to assess the impact on charitable campaigning work as a result of the UK “Lobbying Act” (introduced in 2014). This separate legislation restricts the activity and public commentary of charities and campaigning organisations during “regulated periods” in the run up to national Westminster elections. Among a range of worrying conclusions, this report found that:
- The administrative burden of the Act reduces the capacity of organisations to represent issues affecting their beneficiaries
- The Act makes it harder for charities to pursue their mission
- It reduces the ability of charities and voluntary organisations to support local democratic engagement
- The Act alters the tone and assertiveness of charity campaigning
- It diverts significant time and money away from charity’s core work and towards compliance with the Act
Personally, I am entirely unsurprised (albeit saddened) by these findings. They are exactly the sort of concerns that a range of charities, campaigners and other organisations raised during the consultation period on this controversial legislation.
Similarly, it was the potential for misconstruing and sensationalising in the Scottish media of routine and legitimate policy engagement that a wide range of individuals and organisations warned against in the consultation phase in advance of the Scottish legislation on lobbying coming into effect.
So why does all this matter?
Well, firstly I believe it is important to make one thing very clear: lobbying is not a bad thing. It worries me that the drip, drip nature of this kind of press coverage, alongside the emerging evidence at a UK level of the operational impact of regulation to restrict campaigning, will increasingly deter campaigners, particularly charities and voluntary groups (as per the SMK Foundation report findings), from engaging in our political process and policy making.
Whether you call it lobbying, influencing or campaigning, these are all words to describe a vital part of our modern democratic process. They are genuinely essential elements to effective evidence gathering and good policy making. They ensure that all sides of an issue are heard in policy formation and that big social and public policy issues are not developed in a vacuum.
I have worked across the public, private and voluntary sectors in Scotland in a range of roles (my full employment history is on my LinkedIn profile) that have all sought to positively, constructively and openly engage and influence the policy making process. Nearly all organisations or individuals working in this area (be they corporate, private or voluntary) do so professionally and usually in line with their own sector or membership body codes of guidance and registers of activity. Yes, there are some bad eggs in the sector and some incidences of unethical or poor practice, but in my experience, these truly are the exception, not the rule. The overly Machiavellian world of the super-slick House of Cards style lobbyist simply does not exist anywhere even close to the vicinity of St Andrews House or Holyrood. They’d be too busy trying to get the free WIFI to connect to be able to plot lucrative self-advancement.
Despite this, we now have a highly regulated operating environment for engaging with our members of parliament. I can’t help but feel that this legislation to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist may well carry real and negative consequences. Certainly, this is the concern surfaced in the SMK Foundation report, albeit it is looking at the distinct and more restrictive legislation at a UK level. This is all the more worrying when coupled with an emerging media narrative here in Scotland seeking to portray legitimate political engagement as something shadowy and elite.
The founding principles of the Scottish Parliament were about openness and access, seeking a deliberate cultural and tonal shift away from the “behind closed doors” approach that dominates the more archaic Westminster operating practices. This was such a deliberate part of Holyrood’s founding that it even translated through into the transparent glass-dominated architecture of the parliament’s interior design. It is deliberately, and wonderfully, open.
What a shame it would be if less than 20 years after its founding, the Scottish Parliament started to row back on its noble founding principles and saw a closing of the ranks in the creation of a culture that deterred voluntary and community organisations from engaging constructively with its elected officials. Campaigning and lobbying should be open to all, fair and balanced on all issues.
Overly restrict or deter legitimate campaigning and access to our public policy making and I fear we will all pay the price with poorer and less balanced legislation.
Adam Lang is head of communcations & policy at Shelter Scotland. This article was written in a personal capacity as a campaigns and public affairs professional and does not represent the views of his employer.