HOLYROOD is considering axing the £20,000 a year fee it gives to a controversial business network that was embroiled in a lobbying row.

A leaked email reveals the financial support given to the Scottish Parliament Business Exchange (SPBE) may be withdrawn amid claims the body is simply not needed.

Professor David Miller, a long-standing critic of the scheme, welcomed the development.

Set up in 2001, the SPBE is a charity created to foster a greater “understanding between business and the Scottish Parliament”. Businesses pay a fee to join and members are given a platform to deliver tailored educational programmes to MSPs and an opportunity to engage with Holyrood’s politicians.

The Exchange accounts show that in 2013/14 its activities included running 10 programmes with different member businesses and 11 briefings for MSPs.

SPBE chief executive Arthur McIvor has access to the Parliament and Holyrood boosts the body’s coffers annually with £20,000. Four MSPs sit on the board, as does Holyrood assistant chief executive Michelle Hegarty and representatives of the firms Serco, Brewin Dolphin and Brodies.

However, the Exchange has always had critics who believe the membership-based system inevitably gives some businesses privileged access to MSPs.

In the Parliament’s first term, Holyrood’s Standards Committee stated it was “unconvinced” there were “adequate safeguards in place” to ensure the Exchange’s commitment of being “non-lobbying”. The Exchange was also criticised in its early days after a Labour MSP who took part in one of the schemes was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement by a participating company.

In 2009, the Sunday Herald revealed that the Exchange was in deficit and received a £30,000 cash injection from Holyrood on top of other funding. However, although the Exchange has been reformed under McIvor’s leadership, the Parliament is now reviewing its funding.

In an email to fellow SPBE board members, John Moore at Brewin Dolphin flagged up that the Parliament’s governing Corporate Body was mulling over this option.

“It has been brought to my attention by Michelle Hegarty that the corporate body wishes to take stock of its approach to business engagement ahead of session 5.

“Michelle has noted that with further public sector budget pressure to come, and the development of more businesses engagement avenues in the Parliament, it is possible that the SPCB will no longer commit to membership.”

Moore wrote that such a decision would have “material implications” for how SPBE operates: “My first reaction to this is that I believe that there is a question mark over the sustainability of the exchange but at this stage I must stress that this my personal opinion.

“I say this on the basis of a loss of corporate body support – which has yet to be decided – and in particular the loss of access currently enjoyed by Arthur.”

He explained: “As I understand it this would change the approach that the exchange could adopt to events and would put a dependence on a sponsoring MSP and pass holder access; it seems to me that many businesses might simply conclude that it is easier gaining access to a sponsoring MSP directly or might look to other access companies....”

A Parliament source said it was "questionable" what value the SPBE added to Holyrood.

Miller, a Sociology professor at Bath University, said: “The SPBE was always marred by a lack of transparency. It claimed not to be about lobbying, but it systematically allowed corporate lobbyists privileged access to Parliament. It may be long overdue, but the potential closure of the SPBE is a welcome sign that issues such as transparency and privileged access for business are being taken seriously in the Scottish Parliament.”

A Scottish Parliament spokesman said: “The SPCB is taking stock of all its business engagement activities, including its annual membership of SPBE. The opportunities for business to engage and interact with Parliament have grown considerably in the 15 years since the Business Exchange was introduced.

“Against that backdrop, and increasing budget pressure, the SPCB will want to decide which activities to prioritise when the new 5 year parliamentary session gets underway in May.”

McIvor declined to comment.