Exposed: the businesses that most often lobby Scottish ministers

Most lobbying of Scottish ministers has been carried out by big businesses and farmers, according to an analysis of Holyrood’s lobbying register by The Ferret.

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.

Only four of the 14 top lobbyists 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.

The 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.

Experts and campaigners said that lobbying at Holyrood had been exposed as “deeply unrepresentative” and “imbalanced”. They highlighted “loopholes” in the lobbying rules, and called for public interest groups to have more access to ministers.

Companies, farmers, retailers and landowners stressed the importance of engaging with ministers on behalf of those they represent. They said they complied with requirements to register their lobbying.

The Scottish Parliament has launched a review of the “effectiveness” of the lobbying register. MSPs on the post-legislative scrutiny committee have asked for comments by 14 August.

Scotland’s lobbying law was agreed by Holyrood in 2016 and came into force on 12 March 2018. It 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.

The Ferret collated and analysed 2,417 records from 606 organisations lobbying Scottish ministers between March 2018 and 13 July 2020. We did not include thousands more occasions on which backbench or opposition MSPs were lobbied.

The top 14 lobbyists

OrganisationNumber of lobbying activities March 2018-July 2020
CBI Scotland52
NFU Scotland34
Scottish Council for Development and Industry25
Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations23
Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation22
Scottish Retail Consortium22
Royal Bank of Scotland22
Royal Blind21
Scotch Whisky Association20
Scottish Land and Estates19
Cancer Research UK19
Scottish Trade Union Congress19
Source: Scottish lobbying register

CBI Scotland recorded 52 occasions on which it lobbied 13 ministers at Holyrood, business offices and hotels over the two years. It met with Sturgeon seven times and Mackay 13 times.

Most of the meetings involved CBI Scotland’s director, Tracy Black. They often covered Brexit and also touched on taxation, business rates, regulation and productivity.

Ten chambers of commerce, which also represent businesses, lobbied ministers 42 times. They included the all-Scottish chambers 14 times, Aberdeen chamber seven times and Glasgow chamber six times.

In contrast, the STUC, which represents over half a million trade unionists, registered just 19 occasions lobbying 11 ministers, including Sturgeon four times. The topics included Brexit, jobs, pay, public services and the “just transition” to a more sustainable future.

NFUS, often led by its president, Andrew McCornick, lobbied 11 ministers on 34 occasions on behalf of farmers, including Sturgeon once and Ewing 17 times. The topics included Brexit, climate change, farm subsidies, food, pesticides and beavers.

The Scottish Retail Consortium, which represents supermarkets, lobbied seven ministers on 22 occasions about rates, taxes, recycling and other issues. In March 2019 its senior officials talked to finance minister, Kate Forbes, at a “roundtable dinner” at Contini’s restaurant in Edinburgh about rates, the budget and workplace parking.

The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, which represents salmon farming companies, lobbied seven ministers on 22 occasions, including Sturgeon once and Ewing 15 times. The topics included regulation, Holyrood fish farming inquiries and “environmental challenges”.

Scottish Land and Estates, which represents 1,800 landowners, lobbied nine ministers on 19 occasions, including Ewing six times. The topics included grouse moor management, mountain hares, rates and rents.

Other top business lobbyists were the Scotch Whisky Association, the Royal Bank of Scotland, ScottishPower and Openreach. The Scottish Council for Development and Industry, which has 1,200 private and public sector members, lobbied ten ministers on 25 occasions about strengthening the economy.

Many other big businesses recorded significant lobbying of ministers. They included the supermarket chain, Asda (16 meetings); the drinks company, Diageo (14); the nuclear power operator, EDF Energy (13); Edinburgh Airport (12) and BP (9).

Some 16 specialised lobbying companies representing a variety of clients registered 51 meetings with ministers. As well as the STUC, 11 trade unions recorded 126 meetings with ministers, including Prospect (18), the Public and Commercial Services Union (17) and the National Union of Rail Maritime and Transport Workers (16).

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, which represents over 2,000 charities and social enterprises, lobbied 17 ministers on 23 occasions, including Sturgeon twice. Topics included funding, social security and legal aid.

Environmental groups had less access than business, farmers, retailers and landowners. The umbrella group, Scottish Environment Link, met with ministers 12 times.

WWF Scotland recorded 14 meetings, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland 13, and the Scottish Wildlife Trust 10. None of them recorded any meetings with Sturgeon.

Only one group reported lobbying ministers with concerns about fish farms. That was Fisheries Management Scotland, which brings together local wild salmon boards and met ministers on six occasions.

The 14 most lobbied ministers

MinisterNumber of times lobbied March 2018-July 2020
Derek Mackay, finance secretary (until February 2020)188
Paul Wheelhouse, energy minister143
Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister137
Fergus Ewing, rural economy secretary129
Jamie Hepburn, business minister122
Jeane Freeman, health secretary114
Kate Forbes, finance minister then finance secretary102
Joe Fitzpatrick, public health minister95
Kevin Stewart, local government minister91
Ivan McKee, trade minister83
Michael Matheson, transport secretary83
Aileen Campbell, communities secretary83
John Swinney, Deputy First Minister80
Mairi Gougeon, rural affairs minister72
Source: Scottish lobbying register

James Mitchell, professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, described The Ferret’s research as “of vital importance”. Revising the rules on lobbying was “long overdue”, he argued.

“We still have some way to go to realise a more transparent, open and accountable politics that was promised with devolution,” Mitchell said.

“Lobbying requires resources that not all groups have and ensures that lobbying is deeply unrepresentative. Lobbying involves narrow and relatively exclusive groups access to power.”

The lobbying register was introduced at Holyrood as a result of a campaign led by the Labour MSP, Neil Findlay. “The register shows that powerful, wealthy big business interests dominate the lobbying scene in Scotland,” he told The Ferret.

“They use their financial muscle to influence the way that parliament and government operates. The register shows clearly the power imbalance that exists between big business and smaller, community or worker interests.”

James Mackenzie, a freelance lobbyist on environmental and social policy with six recorded meeting with ministers, thought the register was “full of loopholes”. He used to work as head of media for the Scottish Greens at Holyrood.

He said: “What this exercise shows is that those of us who lobby on behalf of charities and the voluntary sector remain massively outgunned by those who lobby for polluting industries and big business, on issues from fish farming and shooting to banking and retail.”

The campaign group, Global Justice Now, called for access to corporate lobbyists to be limited. “Representatives of big business have been getting the ear of Scottish ministers far more than anyone else, and in particular the ears of the finance and energy ministers, as well as the First Minister,” said the group’s Liz Murray.

Lobbying by commercial interests ‘persistent’

Friends of the Earth Scotland, which registered five meetings with ministers in the last two years, pointed out that Sturgeon recently declined to meet with representatives of 82 civil society groups. Instead the groups met in June with the economy and environment secretaries, Fiona Hyslop and Roseanna Cunningham, to discuss a “just and green recovery” from the coronavirus pandemic.

“These figures show how those with the most resources are able to gain much more access than those with less,” said Friends of the Earth Scotland’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.

“Sadly the most persistent guests are companies and industry associations pursuing their own commercial interests while those less likely to meet a minister are the organisations which are trying to do social or environmental good.”

Dr Will Dinan, a lobbying expert from the University of Stirling who advised Holyrood, pointed out that a lot of lobbying didn’t have to be registered. This included preparing and sending briefing papers to ministers.

“It is clear that commercial interests are routinely making direct representations to ministers. What is striking about the data is the prominence of trade and representative associations who engage in regulated lobbying activity.”

The STUC maintained that it lobbied “effectively” on behalf of its members. “There is a clear need for the voices of workers to be heard, through lobbying, to balance the influence of businesses which are far better resourced than we,” said STUC general secretary, Roz Foyer.

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations pointed out that it had been “reticent” about the creation of the Scottish lobbying register. “We understand concerns that big business can have an undue influence on our politics,” said the council’s chief executive, Anna Fowlie.

She highlighted the register’s 2019 annual report finding that 40 per cent of all entries had been from the voluntary sector, 29 per cent from companies and 25 per cent from representative bodies. But that included lobbying of backbench and opposition MSPs as well as ministers.

“This shows a wide range of charities and voluntary organisations of all sizes are directly engaging with MSPs to push for legislative and policy change to make Scotland a fairer and more inclusive country,” Fowlie said.

Revealed: the ‘revolving door’ between politics and lobbying in Scotland

CBI Scotland stressed the importance of collaboration between business and government. “That partnership – built by regular engagement – must remain rock-solid as we aim to protect jobs and the economy,” said director, Tracy Black.

The Scottish farmers union said it was aiming to keep rural issues on the political agenda. “NFU Scotland has worked hard to connect its members with their political representatives and is proud to have developed open and constructive working relationships with successive Scottish parliamentarians and ministers,” said president, Andrew McCornick.

“NFU Scotland exists to be accountable, visible, and active on behalf of its membership. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that NFU Scotland engages with the Scottish lobbying register fully and transparently.”

The Scottish Retail Consortium pointed out that there had been a series of government interventions in the retail business, including rates, the workplace parking levy and the container deposit return scheme.

A consortium spokesperson said: “We record our face to face meetings on the lobbying register and are transparent in our work representing the industry. If the parliament believes changes to the current regulatory and compliance regime are necessary then we will continue to comply fully.”

The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation argued that ministers appreciated having regular contact with salmon farmers, who generate “enormous value” for rural Scotland.

“It would be odd if ministers didn’t engage regularly with us given that our members are responsible for producing the UK’s biggest food export,” said the organisation’s director of strategic engagement, Hamish Macdonell.

Scottish Land and Estates said it was often asked by ministers for input. “We engage with the Scottish Government, local authorities and the UK government on a wide range of issues affecting the rural economy,” said chief executive, Sarah Jane Laing.

The Scottish Council for Development and Industry defended representing its members across the private, public and social economy sectors. “We have been diligent about fully complying with the letter and the spirit of the lobbying act,” said the council’s head of policy, Gareth Williams.

“This includes registering our regular discussions with ministers on how we can work together to support a strong economy for all of Scotland – which has never been more critical than now.”

The Scottish Government said the operation and review of the statutory framework for lobbying was a matter for the Scottish Parliament. “It is normal and proper for Scottish ministers to meet with a wide range of stakeholders,” added a spokesperson.

The Scottish Parliament encouraged people to make submissions before 14 August to the lobbying review being carried out by the post-legislative scrutiny committee. “We want to hear from as many voices as possible,” said the committee’s acting convener, Anas Sarwar MSP.

Download the ministerial lobbying data

Paying members or readers that have registered for Ferret Underground can download the data we used to inform this story.

Download “Ministerial lobbying data”

All-lobbying-of-ministers-to-13720.xlsx – Downloaded 40 times – 764.87 KB

Cover image thanks to Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

  1. Starkly missing from this analysis are the transgender organisations who have lobbied heavily on reform of the Gender Recognition Act. Equality Network have declared 80 occasions of lobbying activity from March 2018 to Sept 2019 (date of last declaration), which puts them well ahead of your top lobbyist CBI Scotland.
    Stonewall is not far behind with 42 occasions from March 2018 to their last declaration in Jan 2020.

    1. Please note that our analysis was limited to the lobbying of ministers, and did not include the lobbying of backbench or opposition MSPs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hi! To read more you need to login.
Not a member yet? Join our co-operative now to get unlimited access.
You can join using Direct Debit, payment card or Paypal. Cancel at any time. If you are on a low-income you may be eligible for a free sponsored membership. Having trouble logging in? Try here.
Hi! To read more you need to login.
Not a member yet?
Hi! You can login using the form below.
Not registered yet?
Having trouble logging in? Try here.
Back our next investigation
Can you help us find out who really runs Scotland?