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

At least 20 politicians, political advisers and civil servants from across the spectrum in Scotland have left to work as professional lobbyists trying to influence their former colleagues, prompting criticisms of the “revolving door” in Scottish politics.

An investigation by The Ferret has found six Liberal Democrats, four Conservatives, two SNP, two Labour, one Green, two people whose party allegiance has not been identified and three civil servants who got jobs with specialist lobbying companies or as lobbyists for companies or campaigns.

Anti-corruption campaigners warned that revolving doors between politics and lobbying risked “abuse” if people in power used their positions to help win themselves jobs outside government and parliament. Others argued that lobbyists were hired for their contacts and that UK regulations needed to be reformed.

There is no evidence that any rules have been broken and lobbying associations argue that lobbying helps improve democracy.

People who have moved from Scottish politics to lobbying

NamePartyPolitical roleLobbied forAgency
Alex BruceLib DemsMEP's assistantBritish LandOrbit
Polly JonesLib DemsHead of policyASDAn/a
Graeme LittlejohnLib DemsHead of communicationsScotch Whisky Associationn/a
Euan RobsonLib DemsMSPScottish electrical trade association (Select)Caledonia Public Affairs
Margaret SmithLib DemsMSPScottish Wholesale AssociationCaledonia Public Affairs
John WaddellLib DemsAssistant to MSPsLaw Society of Scotlandn/a
Peter DuncanConservativesMP and Shadow Scotland SecretaryDignity in DyingMessage Matters
Iain GibsonConservativesPress officerScotland's Rural CollegeCharlotte Street Partners
Andy MaciverConservativesCommunications directorPattersons ArranMessage Matters
Raymond RobertsonConservativesMP and Scottish Office ministerNestléHalogen Communications
Alex AndersonSNPSpecial adviser to Nicola SturgeonCentrican/a
Kevin PringleSNPCommunications directorPeoples' Vote campaignCharlotte Street Partners
Kirsty LeiperLabourPress officer for MEPBrookfield Renewable UKMessage Matters
Tony McElroyLabourMedia relations directorTescon/a
James MackenzieGreenHead of media for MSPsSustainable Inshore Fisheries TrustFreelance
Gareth BrownCivil servantCabinet Office campaign manager for ScotlandScottish Alliance for People and PlacesMessage Matters
Greg MaxwellCivil servantScottish government media managerEdinburgh Airportn/a
David ThomsonCivil servantHead of Scottish government food, drink and rural communities divisionFood and Drink Federation Scotlandn/a
David MartinNot knownScottish parliament researcherLloyds Banking Groupn/a
Alastair StewartNot knownScottish parliament press officer and aideOsborne + CoOrbit
sources: Scottish Lobbying Register, LinkedIn and elsewhere.

One of those who has gone through the revolving door is Raymond Robertson. He was a minister in the Scotland Office under John Major between 1995 and 1997.

After losing his Aberdeen South seat in 1997, he became the chair of the Scottish Conservative Party. After failing to return to parliament in Eastwood in 2001, he set up an Edinburgh-based lobbying agency called Halogen Communications.

The firm’s clients now include the world’s seventh biggest arms company, Airbus, tobacco firm, Philip Morris, the short-term letting agency, Airbnb, and food and drink giant, Nestlé.

On Nestlé’s behalf, Robertson had meetings in July with Scottish Government political advisers, Leanne Dobson and Davie Hutchison, to give the company’s views on recycling and healthy food.

Another Edinburgh-based lobbying agency led by former senior Scottish Tories is Message Matters. Its directors are Peter Duncan, who was MP for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale between 2001 and 2005, and Andy Maciver, a former Scottish Conservative head of communications who worked on MSP Murdo Fraser’s bid to be Scottish Tory leader.

Until July 2018, Duncan was also a trustee of a ‘dark money’ trust funding the Scottish Conservatives. After The Ferret revealed his role in the trust, he resigned his position.

Former Tory MP quits ‘dark money’ trust

Other Edinburgh-based lobbying agencies who have hired former political insiders include Caledonia Public Affairs, Charlotte Street Partners and Orbit Communications.

As well as hiring lobbying agencies, companies employ their own in-house lobbyists. Alex Anderson, a former adviser to First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, now lobbies for the Centrica energy company, which owns British Gas.

Former Scottish Government media manager, Greg Maxwell, now works for Edinburgh Airport, where he lobbies for tax cuts on flights.

Similarly, former Scottish Liberal Democrat head of policy, Polly Jones, now works for the supermarket giant, ASDA, where she has lobbied against recycling measures.

According to Dr Will Dinan, a Stirling University lecturer in culture, media and communications, there was “a lack of transparency around the revolving door in Scottish politics”.

He said: “If the Scottish Parliament wishes to be seen as a bastion of probity and transparency it might consider introducing a cooling off period for key representatives and officials, and a meaningful public register of post-public employment.”

As there is no official revolving door register, there are likely to be more former politicians and officials working in lobbying than the 20 The Ferret has identified through the Scottish lobbying register, Linkedin and other sources.

Campaign group, Transparency International, said that there there was nothing “inherently wrong” with individuals moving jobs between public office and the private sector.

“But this comes with the risk that officials will abuse the power entrusted to them to secure future employment or other personal benefit,” said the group’s research manager, Steve Goodrich.

He added: “In the UK, where our systems for overseeing the revolving door are toothless and unfit for purpose, this risk is particularly stark. The whole system must be overhauled and the regulator granted effective enforcement powers to prevent questionable lobbying practices, or worse, corruption.”

Campaign Against Arms Trade echoed the call for tougher regulation. “One of the main reasons that big businesses hire former parliamentarians to lobby for them is because they want to use their connections to gain access and influence policy,” said the group’s spokesperson, Andrew Smith.

“Companies like Airbus aren’t focused on the public good, the main thing that they are interested in is boosting their profits. There should be more regulation and far greater transparency in the process.”

For two years after leaving government, former Scottish and UK ministers, and senior civil servants, are supposed to apply to the London-based Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) for approval when they get a new job.

The Cabinet Office says the purpose of this is to avoid any suspicion that an appointment might be a reward for past favours or that the former public servant’s inside information and contacts might give their new employer an unfair advantage.

However, ACOBA has been called “ineffectual” by Westminster’s committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs.

The committee said ACOBA was weakened by the fact it was not a statutory regulator. As a result ACOBA can only give advice, cannot enforce its advice and has no powers or resources to investigate whether its advice has been followed.

Transparency International has called for ACOBA to be “replaced with a new statutory body with sufficient resources and powers to regulate the post-public employment of ministers and sanction misconduct”.

Many of those in politics and the civil service are outwith ACOBA’s remit. It doesn’t cover MPs, MSPs and most civil servants, including most senior officials.

Most senior civil servants apply to their own department for advice on a job outside government rather than to ACOBA. Oxford University professor and expert in public ethics, David Hine, said this system was also flawed.

“There can be little confidence in the scrutiny given to applications to take up post-employment offers by departments because the process is not transparent,” he told The Ferret.

“There is no proper mechanism for ensuring that advice or conditionality is similar across all departments, and there are few resources available to ensure that any conditions imposed on individuals regarding lobbying are complied with.”

Airbnb lobbying revealed as SNP and Tories water down regulation

While revolving door regulation is UK-wide, Scotland has its own lobbying register. This details who is meeting with ministers, MSPs, special advisers and top civil servants and what they are discussing.

The Scottish register has been criticised by campaigners for only recording face-to-face meetings. It does not include lobbying by phone, email or other means.

In contrast, the Westminster lobbying register just lists the clients of lobbying firms over three months. It does not say who they met and why.

Westminster’s lobbying register also only includes specialist lobbying agencies, and omits in-house company lobbyists.

A report by Transparency International estimated that the Westminster lobbying register misses more than 95 per cent of lobbyists.

The Green MSP, John Finnie, said: “I’m pleased that now we have a register in place there is greater transparency around who is lobbying MSPs and ministers.”

Peter Duncan from Message Matters said: “With respect, what complete tripe. We won’t dignify by commenting.”

Edinburgh Airport also declined to comment. The Cabinet Office, Centrica, ASDA, the Association for Scottish Public Affairs and Halogen Communications have not responded to requests for comment.

Photo thanks to the Scottish Parliament, via the parliament’s open licence. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

  1. While I suspect most high flyers will get high flying jobs after political life, this is exactly the area where transparency is vital to prevent corruption. Of course if I was an unscrupulous firm offering delayed bribes to a politician I would swap favours with another unscrupulous firm and get them to give the ex politician a cushy job. But then I’m just naturally, if hypothetically, devious.

  2. I’ve no argument with the calls for greater transparency but the research in this article is pretty thin.. I can think of a many more former Special Advisers, Ministers, MSPs, MPs, MEPs who are now working in public affairs/lobbying for public, private and third sector organisations just from the last ten years alone. Come on Ferret, you can do better than this.

  3. The ‘revolving door’ is one reason why public trust in Government and Public Sector institutions has fallen to a new low. This is because the twin evils of lobbying and corruption rear their ugly heads every time taxpayers’ money crosses the boundary between the Public Sector and the Private Sector.

    Whereas media focus is more often on the small number of high-profile political elite who shamelessly exploit their previous contacts and know-how they have accumulated whilst in the pay of the State to line their own pockets and unwittingly skew the market in favour of their new paymasters in the Private Sector, the journey made by thousands of ordinary public servants underneath them, who are also looking to follow the example set by their political masters and cash-in on this bonanza, has escaped scrutiny.

    Of course, everyone has a right to sell their labour in the free market to whomsoever they wish, for whatever price they can command. However, the brazen way the newly-retired political elite have gone about exercising this freedom without any checks and controls on the way they go about disseminating privileged information about inner workings of Government is scandalous, and always to the detriment of taxpayers – which is what they promised they would protect whilst in the pay of the State!

    The military-political-industrial complex has been the original model for lobbying and corruption from the earliest of times – indeed, the career prospects of people in the pay of the State are inextricably linked to those with the means to produce weapons systems, facilitated by the ‘revolving door’ and intense lobbying behind the scenes where it matters most, in the corridors of power inhabited by the same, self-serving political elite.

    At a time when the headcount at UK MoD’s defence equipment acquisition organisation at Abbey Wood, Bristol is being forcibly slashed as part of the 2015 Spending Review settlement with the Treasury, there exists an extremely high risk that departing procurement officials, including those who have not previously taken part in the assessment of invitation to tender responses, will be persuaded to pocket corresponding memory sticks (or CDs) and offer them in return for employment, to competitors of owners of these same CDs – thereby transferring innovative design solutions and Intellectual Property Rights which can then be used by unscrupulous recipients, to grab a larger share of the defence market.

    Such behaviour only reinforces the view that lower-level defence procurement officials have nothing to offer potential employers in the Private Sector (unlike the political elite), except someone else’s (stolen) property! And when these people arrive on Contractors’ premises, they promptly become a burden on fellow co-workers and the payroll because they do not have the necessary skills (due to being selected for reasons other than merit) as task performers to add value to the business, only costs.

    What’s more, because many Defence Contractors do not have a ‘Code on Ethical Behaviour in Business’ in place, they will not only happily accept such proprietary information without any qualms, but also encourage its unauthorised removal from MoD Abbey Wood – yet they would not want their own CDs to fall into the hands of their Competitors.

    Such is their twisted sense of morality!

    There is something very disturbing about people who have previously, as public servants sworn undying allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, only to then engage in defrauding Her Majesty’s Government of taxpayers’ money on behalf of vested interests, whilst pursuing a second career in the Private Sector.

    Remember the much-vaunted principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership in public life which were supposed to guide the conduct of public servants? Well, there is pitifully little sign of them right now. It seems that these values have been left behind in the public sector for others to cherish!

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