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Calls for lobbyists to declare their dealings with MSPs

A PLANNED law to compel lobbyists to declare their fees and meetings with ministers has been overwhelmingly endorsed in a public consultation.

Nearly 90% of respondents signalled their support for proposals by Labour MSP Neil Findlay to introduce a statutory register for lobbyists. However, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), which represents charities, said the plans could be "undemocratic and immoral".

Campaigners have called for greater regulation on lobbyists on both sides of the Border, following well-publicised controversies.

In 2011, former Tory MP Tim Collins was caught on tape boasting about his access to senior Conservative figures.

Although the UK Government has pledged to introduce a register of lobbyists, such a policy would not apply to the Scottish Parliament.

This gap prompted Findlay, a Lothians MSP, to launch a consultation earlier this year in preparation for a private member's bill.

His proposal would force lobbyists to declare their meetings with MSPs and ministers and impose sanctions on organisations that failed to comply.

Findlay's definition of lobbying is not restricted to commercial organisations and would also apply to trades unions and charities.

Under the plan, client fees above a certain level would also be part of the declaration process.

According to an analysis of the consultation findings, 514 responses were submitted. Of these, 442 came through the website of Unlock Democracy – an all-party campaign for constitutional reform – and 72 were sent to Findlay's office.

Analysis found 87.3% supported the general aims of a bill, with 9.3% being marked as undecided and 3.4% opposed. Just over half of organisations which participated supported the plan, 14% were undecided, and 34% voiced opposition.

A final proposal is expected to be tabled early next year. However, the consultation responses show the move towards a Holyrood register will be resisted. In its submission, the SCVO said its "primary concern" was that third sector organisations would be treated in the same fashion as corporate outfits.

The SCVO described the Findlay plan as "unnecessary and unworkable", adding: "The register will almost definitely lead to a two-tier culture in political communication; with those registered being granted access at will and those who are not registered being viewed with suspicion."

The body also stated: "It is undemocratic and immoral to require individuals to pay for access to elected members and officials. If lobbyists were to be charged for this it would lead to access for those who have resources and no access for those who have not."

However, Spinwatch, a group that monitors the public relations industry, backed the move. Its submission argued that "lobbying disclosure should, in principle, apply to all those who seek to influence public policy".

Spinwatch stated charities should be included on the register, on the grounds that the voluntary sector is responsible for delivering public services, adding: "Some of the larger non-profit organisations, like the SCVO, enjoy insider status with Government, though there is a realisation that their representative or peak role can never fully or easily speak for the sector."

Findlay said: "I am very pleased and encouraged with the response. I have listened particularly carefully to what charities and third sector organisations have said and will ensure that any proposed system will not overburden these and other organisations with bureaucracy.

"However, as the Spinwatch submission identifies, third sector organisations are increasingly becoming involved in the provision of publicly funded services. Therefore it is right they are subjected to the same level of scrutiny and transparency as others."

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "The Government is aware of Neil Findlay's proposal and, as with any Members Bill proposal, is currently considering its position on the policy proposals.

"That position will also be informed by the formal responses to Mr Findlay's consultation once those responses are made public."

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