SCOTLAND'S "lax" transparency rules are leaving voters in the dark about the scale and nature of lobbying of ministers by powerful interests, a coalition of campaigners is warning.

The civil society groups are calling for legislation to be strengthened in Scotland to protect the interests of voters and prevent corruption amid concerns over ‘glaring gaps’ which mean that unlike many other countries phone calls and written communications do not count as lobbying.

They say there is even a loophole over whether online video-calls count.

Scotland’s lobbying law agreed by Holyrood in 2016 before coming into force two years later, requires organisations which hold face-to-face meetings – including online – with MSPs, ministers and their special advisers to record whom they lobbied and why.

The law doesn’t cover lobbying by phone or email, by organisations with less than ten full time staff or by people who are unpaid. Meetings also don’t have to be registered if “factual information or views on a topic” were requested by ministers or MSPs.

Members of the Scottish Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (SALT) which includes groups like Transparency International and the Electoral Reform Society – have made their concerns known to policy makers to mark two years since the Scottish Lobbying Register was introduced.

So far this year the number of reported regulated lobbying engagements has slumped by a quarter from 3043 last year to just 776 this year.

With the numbers slumping in particular during the lockdown, the campaigners fear this is simply because lobbyists are moving from in-person meetings to "undeclared phone calls and written materials" in the run up to next year’s elections.

In February alone, before the coronavirus lockdown, the number of reported regulated lobbying engagements dropped by half from 412 last year to just 213 in 2020.

An analysis of the lobbying register between March, last year and July, this year found that most lobbying of Scottish ministers has been carried out by big businesses and farmers.

Ten of the top 14 lobbyists over the last two years represented private vested interests. They included major companies, salmon farming multinationals, supermarkets, the whisky industry and landowners.

The most frequent ministerial lobbyist by far was the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in Scotland, which says it speaks for 190,000 UK businesses. The second biggest was the National Farmers Union in Scotland (NFUS), which represents over 8,500 farmers.

Campaigners say Scotland is "noticeably out of step with other major Western democracies" such as the Republic of Ireland, Canada and even Westminster, which record oral and written communications as lobbying.

And unlike lobbying transparency registers in the EU and US, Scotland’s does not provide any information about the amount spent on relevant activities by those seeking to influence key decisions.

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The campaigners say that gives the impression that there is equal opportunity for organisations and groups to present their views to ministers and MSPs when there might be a substantial disparity in their resources.

That comes against a background of growing concerns over the scale of oil and gas industry lobbying as Scotland tries to move towards a zero-carbon economy, SALT said.

Steve Goodrich, senior research managerwith Transparency International UK said: "Far too much remains unknown about access and potential influence at Holyrood.

"Although the current law as drafted is a welcome step, there is still a long way to go. This provides a critical opportunity to bring greater transparency to lobbying in Scotland and bring it closer to better practice elsewhere, like in Ireland.

“The current rules fall well short of international standards, and provide an obvious loophole for those seeking to avoid transparency. The definition of lobbying should include all forms of communication with decision makers, not just face-to-face meetings."

SALT is also concerned over what they have described as the ‘Zoom lobbying loophole’.

Under the current rules, video-calls from lobbyists would have to be declared as lobbying. But if they turn the camera off, it suddenly becomes unreportable, and "entirely hidden from voters view".

With such a significant information gap, it becomes difficult to identify if there has been any wrongdoing in controversial situations,” SALT says.

“A major and concerning loophole in the current rules is that only face-to-face or video call meetings count as regulated lobbying. Counter to good practice standards, this means all other forms of written and oral communication (including emails, letters, messages, and phone calls) are withheld from public view.

"Bizarrely, as drafted, the law means that at the click of button in a Zoom call a meeting with a minister, MSP or senior civil servant can avoid regulation and the details withheld from public view.” While democracy campaigners welcomed the introduction of the lobbying register, they are warning it does not go far enough in a digital age.

SALT is calling for written and oral forms of communication to be covered by regulated lobbying and says that commercial lobbyists should disclose or estimate spending on campaigns.

It maintains there should be an increase in the frequency of reporting to provide more timely information on lobbying activities. At present lobbying activities only have to be reported twice a year.

Willie Sullivan, director of Electoral Reform Society Scotland, which is a leading member of the SALT coalition, said: “There are major gaps in the lobbying laws which are leaving voters in the dark. The Zoom lobbying loophole is so glaringly obvious that it should be closed as a matter of urgency. Ordinary voters – who don’t have millions to splash out on corporate campaigning - need to know who is targeting their representatives, and how much they’re spending.

“Scotland can lead the way in democratic transparency, but as things stands our rules are in some ways more lax than Westminster’s, and need tightening to create a level playing field. We know first-hand that it would not be burdensome to regularly report how much resources are put into lobbying. Let’s close the loopholes and give voters the transparency they deserve.”

Only four of the 14 top lobbyists in the last register analysis could be said to represent the public interest. They were the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) and charities for the blind and cancer research.

Analysis also revealed that the four most lobbied ministers since March 2018 were the former finance secretary, Derek Mackay; the energy minister, Paul Wheelhouse; the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon; and the rural economy minister, Fergus Ewing.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The operation and review of the statutory framework for lobbying is a matter for the Scottish Parliament.

“It is the responsibility of those who lobby to consider whether any engagement they have with lobbyees should be registered.  If there is any uncertainty concerning the need to register, definitive guidance should be sought directly from the Scottish Parliament Lobbying Register Team.”