The influence industry: meet the lobbyists with most access to political power in Scotland

Professional lobbyists, including former politicians, advisors and a former minister have met with Scottish Government representatives on behalf of clients 179 times since March 2018, The Ferret can reveal.

Scotland is home to dozens of public relations companies, think-tanks and consultancy firms, including several formed by or employing people who served in the upper echelons of government.

Their lobbyists seek to influence Scotland’s lawmakers, some of whom are former colleagues, on behalf of clients like corporations, charities and industry bodies.

We analysed Holyrood lobbying register data to discover which professional lobbyists most frequently met with ministers and special advisers (Spads) between March 2018, when the register was established, and June 2021.

Professional lobbyists include former party insiders not because of their public policy expertise – few exhibit much of that – but they undoubtedly have contacts that allow easy access to decision makers

James Mitchell

James Mitchell, professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh said that while lobbying was an important part of the policy making process, it “generally tilts in the favour of the better off”.

He warned that the existence of lobbyists closely linked to senior members of political parties creates an “unhealthy situation”, particularly when that party is in power.

“Professional lobbyists include former party insiders not because of their public policy expertise – few exhibit much of that – but they undoubtedly have contacts that allow easy access to decision makers,” argued Mitchell.

Andy Maciver

Message Matters had 133 register entries – the most of any professional lobbying firm. This included 37 government meetings, 31 of which were held by the firm’s co-founder and director, Andy Maciver.

This makes Maciver – a regular political commentator and former Scottish Conservative press officer – the most recorded professional government lobbyist. He also met with opposition and backbench MSPs 52 times.

Maciver’s most common client at government meetings was US pharma giant, Pfizer, which developed a Covid-19 vaccine with BioNTech. He held seven meetings on its behalf throughout 2018.

He encouraged Spads to meet and continue conversations with the corporation’s UK managing director and told then-finance secretary Derek Mackay about Pfizer’s “potential investment” in Scotland.

Maciver lobbied the government four times each for an electric vehicle and a financial technology trade body, and three times for the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) charity, which is seeking to tighten the ban on fox hunting in Scotland.

Maciver’s colleague, Louise Robertson – LACS’ head of public affairs until 2012 – also lobbied government for the charity four times.

Message Matter’s other co-founder, Peter Duncan, a former Scottish Tory MP and shadow secretary of state, lobbied the government three times and other MSPs 21 times.

A former trustee of a ‘dark money’ trust funding the Scottish Tories until 2018, Duncan quit after The Ferret revealed his role. He is also convenor of the lobbying trade body, the Association for Scottish Public Affairs.

Message Matters’ “senior counsel” includes Alex Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein and the former Labour minister and director of the pro-brexit Scottish Vote Leave, Tom Harris.

It also includes Peter Wilding, a pro-EU lawyer credited with coining the term ‘Brexit’. Wilding heads the London-based Influencer Group lobbying firm and was David Cameron’s media chief during his premiership.

Message Matters did not respond to our request to comment.

William Macleod

Wilson-Macleod Consulting met with various ministers on behalf of the UK Hospitality industry body. All 16 meetings – plus 19 with other MSPs – were held by William Macleod, who headed both the lobbying firm and UK Hospitality Scotland at time.

Macleod told The Ferret he headed UK Hospitality Scotland “as an employee of a contracted independent company”.

He held seven meetings during the pandemic, discussing government funding support, business relief rates, and the potential easing of hospitality restrictions. He expressed UK Hospitality’s support to regulating short-term lets, and “the potential impact of Brexit and UK immigration policy on the labour market”.

Macleod also aired concerns around business rates paid by hospitality venues pre-pandemic, as well as potential industry regulations. These included the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) – where consumers pay a 20p deposit to encourage the recycling of drinks containers – which Macleod has been critical of.

A tourist tax, and food allergens and calorie labelling on menus, all of which the body opposes, were also raised, as was Air Passenger Duty (APD).

Macleod previously called the air departure tax (the government’s planned successor to APD) a “tourist tax” in itself. In December, he called for it to be reduced or scrapped for international travellers exiting Scotland to promote tourism after Covid-19.

Margaret Smith

The former Liberal Democrat MSP, Margaret Smith, was recorded as meeting with government 14 times via Perspectiva Consultants and Caledonia Public Affairs, although she told The Ferret that three of these meetings had been included on the register twice. 

Register data states that she also lobbied other MSPs 57 times. Smith said 31 of these entries related to short conversations she had at two events she organised for clients, while four other meetings had been double registered.

Smith lobbied environment and finance ministers, and several Spads for various clients in the glass industry and the Scottish Wholesale Association (SWA). She put forward “alternative proposals to increase glass recycling rates and to request the exclusion of glass containers from the DRS Regulations”.

Perspectiva, where Smith is an associate director, was founded by Karen Freel, another former Lib Dem politician and CBI council member. Freel twice asked then-environment minister Roseanna Cunningham for glass DRS exemptions, while she and Smith lobbied other MSPs on the matter another 42 times. They were ultimately unsuccessful in gaining an exemption. 

Smith said three of Freel’s meetings had been duplicated on the register.

She told The Ferret that lobbyists in the food and drink, retail, hospitality, waste and environmental sectors had also been “heavily engaged” in the DRS issue.

Smith also told then-public health minister Joe Fitzpatrick about the potential impact of government plans to restrict the promotion of foods high in fat, sugar or salt on the food sector for the SWA. In its submission to the Scottish Government on the matter, the SWA said wholesalers would be “indirectly” hit by the reduced sales of such foods by their customers.

Smith runs Caledonia alongside another former Lib Dem MSP, Euan Robson, who was deputy education minister in the Jack McConnell-led Labour and Lib Dem coalition government.

Robson lobbied a minister and MSPs six times, including Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie. Caledonia’s co-founder, Devin Scobie, a former Lib Dem councillor, left the agency in 2020 but continues to lobby for another firm, Perceptive Communicators.

Caledonia also employs eight “senior associates” part time, with “most having served as MSPs or MPs”, according to its website.

Smith told The Ferret: “I am not a member of any political party and have held no public appointments since I ceased to be an MSP more than a decade ago, in 2011. I believe access to evidence and opinion from a range of sources and transparent lobbying are  important parts of the policy making process.”

Smith was involved in Holyrood’s Lobbying Register Working Group, which was established ahead of the lobbying act, “so I have always been keen to ensure its success,” she added.

James Mackenzie

The former head of media for the Scottish Greens from 2007 to 2011, James Mackenzie became a freelance lobbyist in 2013. An occasional political commentator, he recently advocated for the Greens and SNP to enter into government together.

MacKenzie recorded 39 meetings with MSPs and 13 with the government. He mostly lobbied government in favour of DRS on behalf of a conservation charity, also lobbying for Scottish charity, Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust (SIFT).

In 2019 he discussed the changes made to the protection of kelp through a Holyrood bill. The government had in 2018 backed an amendment by Green MSP Mark Ruskell to ban the mechanical harvesting of kelp. Ruskell worked on the amendment with SIFT and Mackenzie lobbied Ruskell about the matter on SIFT’s behalf.

David Ross

David Ross of Dram Communications lobbied MSPs six times and the government nine times. Five government meetings were on behalf of his former employer, the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, where Ross worked until 2018.

The creation of a low emission zone in the city was frequently discussed.

He also lobbied twice for software giant Microsoft with finance minister Kate Forbes, and twice for property developer Landsec, discussing “future investment and development” of city centres with then-trade minister Ivan McKee.

Ross did not respond to our request for comment.

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This investigation is part of our Who Runs Scotland series. We will be shedding a light on ownership and power in Scotland’s economy, environment and politics.

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Photo Credit: kazuma seki/iStock

*This article was updated to more accurately describe the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust as a Scottish charity.

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