Post-legislative scrutiny of the Lobbying Act remains underway and the committee has written its draft report and key recommendations. The sector has a real chance to make this legislation more effective and easier to work with.

Back in 2016 when the Lobbying (Scotland) Act was introduced, there were plenty within the voluntary sector who saw trouble ahead. While the sector has always been a strong advocate for transparency around decision making and influencing, SCVO and others felt legislation was being rushed through to tackle a problem that didn’t really exist and that the introduction of hoops and hurdles would have a chilling effect on a sector that needed to be heard.

As is so often the case, the sector took change in its stride and evidence from the Lobbying Registrar’s own annual report shows that the voluntary sector is (by some margin) the group most pro-active in taking ideas to the Scottish Parliament. So, thankfully, it seems our fears were unfounded.

Despite this, five years on, there are plenty of niggles and complaints about the operation and efficacy of the Lobbying Act. That’s why we were more than chuffed to see the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee open up a review in to the Act last summer.

Listening to the sector

In response, SCVO held a webinar with members of the Policy Network to hear, first hand, how the Lobbying Act affected voluntary organisations in Scotland. Subsequently, we carried out a survey (informed by this meeting) and used it to draft our own response to the committee’s consultation – before ultimately providing direct oral evidence.

Obviously different organisations held somewhat different views on key matters. To cite but one example: while many wanted to significantly boost transparency by making all forms of communications registerable, others felt this would be overly burdensome and put the brakes on their influencing work.

In the end, we feel our paper offered a pretty fair and rounded view of what the sector felt about the act, and even drafted some recommendations of our own, which we considered would make the act more effective and make it easier to actually undertake the work of registering activity. These included:

  • Introducing a process of bulk submissions for events, exhibitions and party conferences
  • Streamlining the lobbying registration form – removing the need for reiteration of specific detail
  • Accepting submissions that organisations themselves consider constitute lobbying activity
  • Ensuring the register provides ‘real time’ transparency of lobbying activity and not potentially outdated entries

The Draft Report

Having heard and received their evidence, the Committee has now published a Draft Report, which you can read here. The report provides a summary of evidence taken and you can see their draft conclusions and recommendations in bold lettering at the end of each section. Of particular interest were recommendations such as:

  • That the Scottish Government should commission a full impact assessment of the Act and provide this to the Scottish Parliament.
  • Ensuring that the usability and accessibility of the register is at an optimum.
  • Introducing practical improvements to the Lobbying Register as a route to reducing the administrative burden on organisations.
  • Providing clarity on exemptions relating to communications made to a constituency or regional MSP where an organisation’s activity is ‘ordinarily carried out’.
  • Reconsidering whether there should be an exemption excluding communications which are made on request.
  • Shortening the reporting timetable to a quarterly basis in line with international best practice.
  • Addressing frustrations around the frequency with which organisations are asked for further clarification of lobbying returns (including allowing voluntary submissions).

As you can see, there is some significant overlap with recommendations made by the sector (via SCVO). If we can push some of these recommendations over the line, I think it would be fair to say we will have scored a bit of a victory!

What next?

Having published this Draft Report, the committee is now seeking views on its contents. The consultation is only open until 16th February and you can find all you need in, in terms of what the committee is after, right here.

Based on the engagement we’ve already undertaken, SCVO will be offering further evidence and – as always – would be happy to factor in any views you might want to share with us. However, at this stage in the process, you may also wish to focus in on certain key areas you feel strongly about and respond directly.

The Lobbying Act is here to stay. Now, after five years of identifying flaws and teething problems, we have a chance to shape it in to something that both provides transparency and allows the sector to get on with its work in an easier and more sensible way. With that in mind, let’s make our thoughts known.