The groundbreaking investigative work done by The Herald and The Ferret exposes a malaise at the centre of Scottish government when it comes to lobbying: without the disinfectant of transparency we cannot know whether it also amounts to full-scale corruption.
This is no witch-hunt. Lobbying, though it gets a bad name, is part of the political process. Every vested interest lobbies: in their relationship with government, it is the raison d’être of trades unions, farmers, teachers, the NHS, manufacturers, universities and churches – at the most basic level, if you vote in what you perceive are your own interests, you are lobbying for them. It is making an argument for, or lending support to, policies you would like to see enacted.
It allows people with expertise in a particular sphere to present their frustrations and needs to the people who regulate or fund them. When we complain that government fails to understand the interests of some business or sector of the economy, we are, in effect, lamenting a lack of effective lobbying. It is, potentially, a valuable aspect of policy development, useful to all of us.
But that can be the case only when we are clear that politicians and civil servants are not behaving in a way that is underhand or – almost as important – could, even without malign intent, be interpreted as that.
The revelation that Scottish government ministers have conducted hundreds of meetings with corporations, individuals and organisations to discuss matters of significant public interest without registering them is thus a blow to confidence in how such business is conducted.
The Lobbying Act, which came into force in 2018, obliges elected officials and civil servants to detail their meetings. It was intended to encourage transparency and accountability in public affairs, and requires – on pain of a £1,000 fine – a record to be kept of the subject and purpose of meetings and those involved, and covers social events and zoom calls.
The act does not, however, specify that details need be entered in the register if meetings were instigated by ministers, if they concern constituency business, or if they were conducted over the telephone, by email, or on platforms such as WhatsApp. And the sheer number of such meetings – uncovered during this investigation by comparing the diaries of ministerial engagements, published each month, with the lobbying register – is bound to raise concerns that those loopholes are capable of exploitation, and may be used to evade public accountability.
No conscientious politician or official could possibly imagine that accountability ceases to matter if a meeting is conducted over the telephone, rather than face-to-face in an office. And they must know that any attempt to circumvent the act by relying on such technical manoeuvres is contrary to its spirit, and will be seen by the general public as a deliberate attempt to deceive, or at least conceal.
The important thing here is not only whether anything discreditable is actually being done; it is that the behaviour be open and accountable. When ministers meet with the representatives of companies or organisations that seek subsidies, or grants, or special consideration of some kind or another, it is the taxpayers’ money and interests that are at stake. There are plenty of instances where such support is arguably in the public interest, and would be welcomed by voters, but it is for them to make that assessment.
No clear-cut instances of wrongdoing were uncovered by this investigation, but that is not the point at issue; the purpose of recording such meetings is not only to protect against corruption, but any appearance of it. If we do not even know that the encounter has taken place, we cannot make that judgment, and the whole purpose of the legislation is fatally undermined. The government’s readiness actually to be held to account has never even approximated its rhetoric and self-righteous proclamations on the subject. If its ministers are routinely using technicalities to ignore legislation – which they themselves introduced – that was designed to improve transparency, it can do nothing but undermine confidence in their probity.