TOBACCO and nuclear energy giants and controversial IT firm Atos are among a raft of multinational companies that have tried to influence MSPs over the last three months.
Over 700 entries have been logged so far in a new lobbying register and reveal corporate interests have attempted to persuade government ministers about policy and tax changes.
Examples include Edinburgh Airport lobbying Finance Secretary Derek Mackay for an industry tax cut and the world’s largest tobacco firm, Philip Morris, meeting an SNP MSP about the creation of a cross-party group on vaping.
Mackay and Labour MSP Anas Sarwar were also lobbied by IT giant Atos, which attracted criticism over the work capability assessments it used to carry out with benefit claimants.
The register shows how organisations gain special access to Holyrood politicians by staging roundtable discussions and attending industry dinners. However, the entries only cover a fraction of the lobbying that takes place at the Scottish Parliament as the register is restricted to face-to-face communications.
Labour MSP Neil Findlay, whose campaign for lobbying controls led to the creation of the register, said: “When I introduced my member’s bill to create a lobbying register I was told that lobbying was not a big issue in the Scottish Parliament. The entries from the first few months going live blow that argument to smithereens. Here we see over 700 instances of face-to-face lobbying in a very short space of time, and the involvement of big, influential companies with interests in tobacco, fast food, energy and financial services.”
In a bid to enhance transparency, legislation was passed which required the lobbying of MSPs, ministers, special advisers and the Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government to be declared.
The register, which became operational in March, lists who has carried out the lobbying, which politician or civil servant was contacted, as well as the location, date and subject matter.
In a crucial part of the new system, the onus of declaration falls on those who conduct the lobbying, rather than the MSPs or ministers who are being button-holed.
In the 12 weeks since the new system was launched, 721 entries have been entered online. An overwhelming majority of the activity relates to MSPs, but 91 entries refer to ministers.
Much of the lobbying took place at Holyrood. Non-governmental organisations and charities feature prominently, but an increasing number of companies are also showing up on the system.
In March, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was invited to the Scottish Exports Awards at the Hilton in Glasgow, where she was seated next to Alison McGregor, who is the Scotland CEO of banking giant HSBC. The register states that McGregor provided the First Minister with “updates” on the growing HSBC business within Scotland, how the business was operating in general, as well as on the bank’s work on financial crime.
Energy firm EDF Energy Holdings also registered an introductory meeting between new CEO Simone Rossi and Sturgeon at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Edinburgh. Areas covered included current nuclear operations and onshore wind. The company has also declared meetings with leaders Ruth Davidson and Richard Leonard.
Atos registered a meeting with Sarwar on “driving the digital transformation of the NHS in Scotland”. The same company also lobbied Mackay at an industry dinner in March. Atos was one of a number of firms at the event and the entry stated: “As part of this Atos explained how outside suppliers can help meet Scottish Government policy ambitions through earlier engagement and more interactive procurement processes.”
A division of the firm was criticised for the way it carried out work capability tests for the Department for Work and Pensions. However, the firm stopped providing the service in 2014.
Mackay was also lobbied by Edinburgh Airport chief executive Gordon Dewar at a “private meeting” at Holyrood. Dewar sought an update on developments relating to Air Departure Tax and reiterated the airport’s “wish” to see the “cut delivered to aid the aviation industry”.
Tesco PLC filed an entry after figures at Tesco Bank lobbied Tory MSP Murdo Fraser at a roundtable dinner on the financial services sector in March.
The activity took place at the headquarters of communications firm Charlotte Street Partners (CSP), one of whose leading figures is SNP Growth Commission chair Andrew Wilson. Tesco/Tesco Bank is a client of CSP.
In April, tobacco multinational Philip Morris and their public affairs consultancy firm, Halogen Communications, met SNP MSP Richard Lyle. The session was to brief the veteran Nationalist on e-cigarettes, smoking harm reduction, and to discuss the possible formation of a cross-party group on vaping.
According to the register, Imperial Brands PLC – a UK tobacco firm – met Green MSP Mark Ruskell in May to provide him with a “company overview” and a “policy positions” briefing on electronic vapour products. Weeks later, the same company separately met Lyle and Tory MSP Maurice Corry about the company’s position regarding electronic vaping.
Invicta Public Affairs, whose managing director is Mark Cummings, has seven entries on the register, covering meetings across the political spectrum. The lobbying was carried out on behalf of supermarket Lidl, Miller Homes and renewable energy firms.
BP, one of the world’s leading oil and gas companies, lobbied Labour MSP Claudia Beamish at a wider “discussion dinner” at which she was present, touching on subjects including energy storage and electric vehicles.
Bristol-Myers Squibb, a pharmaceutical giant, lobbied three MSPs at a Holyrood roundtable to discuss various issues, including head and neck cancer and whether the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination should include boys.
The register also includes entries from Coca-Cola European Partners, which provided SNP MSPs Graeme Dey and Kate Forbes, as well as Ruskell, with an update on the issue of a deposit return system (DRS).
Similarly, Nestle Waters Ltd lobbied Lyle and Beamish on the company’s position on the introduction of a DRS scheme north of the border. Other companies on the register include Airbnb and Amazon UK Services Ltd.
Alexandra Runswick, director of campaign group Unlock Democracy, said: “Scotland is spearheading political transparency by forcing lobbyists out of the shadows. The comprehensive register in Holyrood shows not only that change for the better is possible, but that transparency for the public good can be made a priority when the political will is there. The register is by no means perfect, for example we still don’t know how much lobbyists are spending in Holyrood. However it has gone a long way to opening up an industry that previously operated largely behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny.
She added: “Lobbying is an important part of democracy – it’s entirely fair that organisations may want to put forward ideas to elected representatives. But to hold politicians to account there must be transparency. Citizens have a right to know how political decisions are being made, and who is exerting influence on policy-making processes.
“If Scotland can take action on lobbying, then so too can Westminster. We know there’s an estimated £2 billion lobbying industry in the UK and yet still much of it remains in the shadows. If a multinational corporation lobbies your MSP that will show up in the in the Holyrood register – but if they lobby your MP that will be without a trace. It’s time for Westminster to follow Holyrood’s lead and bring lobbying out of the shadows. In light of the changes made in Scotland, the exemption for lobbyists in Westminster needs to end.”
A Scottish Parliament spokesperson said: “The Act seeks to increase public transparency on certain types of lobbying. Already, the register is starting to build up a picture of regulated lobbying activity in Scotland.”
ANALYSIS: The lobbying register: progress, but far from perfect
THE Scottish Parliament has a tighter regulatory system for lobbyists than Westminster, but the new scheme is still full of loopholes and can easily be avoided.
In 2015, when the Scottish Government introduced a Bill to create a register, the parliamentary scrutiny process was marked by two conflicting demands.
Ministers, while recognising the need for greater accountability, wanted a “light touch” regulation that did not act as a burden. At the other end of the spectrum, campaigners who pointed to lobbying scandals south of the Border as a reason for greater checks wanted
a full-blooded system.
The eventual compromise did not please anyone. Under the Lobbying (Scotland) Act 2016, only face-to-face communication has to be declared. Everything else falls outwith the scope of regulation.
Imagine an energy company wanted an expansion of nuclear power across Scotland and embarked on a lobbying spree with MSPs and Scottish ministers to advance the firm’s case.
Under the current system, details of any face-to-face meetings the company held with parliamentarians would have to be registered on the online system.
If the same arguments were made through a letter-writing campaign to MSPs, or via email, the pro-nuclear firm would not have to declare the activity.
Similarly, if a lobbyist followed up an initial meeting with an MSP by means of texts or WhatsApp messages, such contact would fall outwith the scheme.
And while a lobbyist would have to declare a meeting with an MSP, a phone call that relayed the same message would be exempt. Another loophole ensures that any public authority covered by Scottish freedom of information legislation is not covered by the Act. If a university, for instance, lobbied ministers face-to-face, for extra funding, no entry would have to be made.
Labour MSP Neil Findlay, whose pressure on the Government led to the introduction of the lobbying register, said: “This raises further questions about the anomalies and limitations of the register – as it stands it is only face-to-face lobbying that counts, therefore all phone calls, email and written correspondence are omitted. It appears the register is stuck in a 19th-century view of the world.”