Corporations, businesses and charities lobbying MSPs and ministers to influence Scotland’s laws have reported thousands of meetings later than the six-month statutory deadline, The Ferret can reveal.
Our analysis found that some meetings were not declared for years including a corporate lobbying campaign against an industry-curbing bill that was not published until almost three years later.
All face-to-face meetings by staff influencing on behalf of their employer are considered regulated lobbying and needs to be publicly declared on the Scottish Parliament’s lobbying register within six months.
But organisations reported 1,200 meetings one year after the event, and 270 meetings two or more years after they took place.
The register was launched in 2018 in an effort to increase Scottish Parliament transparency.
The Ferret analysed the publication dates of more than 20,000 meetings published since the launch. We found that 16 per cent of all entries (3,300) were disclosed later than required. A quarter of all meetings that took place in 2020 were recorded late in the register.
Meetings made public more than two years late included companies lobbying MSPs during the draft stages of a new law. Details of the meetings were published only after the bill had passed in parliament.
Campaigners said the lobbying register can provide greater transparency, but only if information is declared on time. They called for tighter reporting periods, tougher enforcement and for the Scottish Parliament to examine these issues.
One campaigner said the lengthy reporting delays showed the register and the lobbying law were “clearly failing”.
The Scottish Parliament said the lobbying register team “set out a number of actions required to improve compliance and response rates.”
Lobbying on bills
Brewing giant Heineken, owner of the Star Pubs and Bars pub chain, lobbied five MSPs in relation to the Tied Pubs bill in October 2019. But four of the meetings were not made public until July 2022 – nearly three years later.
The Tied Pubs Act gives pub tenants more rights over their tenancy but Heineken argues it would have a damaging impact on its business. The law is currently paused, after it was blocked in court by two other major pub chain owners, Greene King and Punch Taverns.
In October 2020, while the bill was passing through the Scottish Parliament, Heineken received a £2m fine for multiple breaches of the Pubs Code – a similar law restricting pub owners in England and Wales.
Heineken also held three video calls in February, April and June 2021 with ministers Jamie Hepburn and Ivan McKee to lobby on the Tied Pubs bill, but didn’t disclose them until more than a year later. The bill was passed in April 2021.
Heineken UK’s spokesperson said it had not received “any notification from the registrar of improper reporting.”
They said: “We understand our obligations under the Lobbying (Scotland) Act and our people always aim to act in accordance with it, regularly submitting to the register. We are looking in more detail at the specific meetings referred to in the report.”
‘Failures are disappointing’
Our analysis also found a delayed report of Norwegian energy company Statkraft meeting an MSP about Statkraft’s business activities, even though its plans weren’t public at the time.
The company, represented by Scottish Borders-based public affairs agency, Smithy House Associates, lobbied Oliver Mundell MSP in April 2018.
The meeting was about Twentyshilling Hill Wind Farm, a proposed onshore wind energy development located in Mundell’s Dumfriesshire constituency, of which the owner was waiting for planning application approval.
But the company bought the development and announced it only months later, in October 2018.
The lobbying event was not published until March 2021, almost three years after the meeting. By then, Statkraft had already finished building the wind farm and sold it in a £104m deal.
Wind farms can cause a risk to aviation and military safety as they can interfere with radar’s ability to identify objects in its range. NATS, the consultee for aviation safety, insisted in March 2018 that the developer mitigates radar’s reduced capacity.
Mundell said: “Challenges progressing this particular project and wider issues securing agreement from NATS to wind farms within Dumfries and Galloway were widely known and were also being raised by community representatives in Upper Nithsdale at the time.
“Failures of companies to make required declarations in a timely manner are very disappointing and undermine the ability of MSPs to meet to discuss potential projects within their constituencies.”
Smithy House Associates said they declared the meeting within the legal time frame. An email from the Lobbying Register to Smithy House Associates, dated 25 September 2018, shows the report had been filed before that date but it was rejected because it didn’t contain enough information.
Statkraft did not respond to requests for comment.
‘Cost of doing business’
Most registered lobbyists file their reports more quickly than the required six months – the average lobbying event is reported within just over two months after it occurs (68 days).
But the lobbying register office recognises there is a “substantial number” of breaches, which includes late reporting. Figures from the Lobbying Register show there have been more than 2,000 breaches of the Lobbying Act between 2018 and 2022.
They also show that two thirds of all registered lobbying organisations (850 of 1,250) have breached the lobby law at least once. Heineken has been found in breach four times and Statkraft twice.
The lobbying register office believes breaches are mostly caused by staff forgetting to file the reports or leaving their jobs before filing, taking the knowledge of the meetings with them. Offences are liable for a £1,000 fine.
Craig Dalzell, head of policy and research at the Common Weal think tank, said: “The Scottish Government should consider if sanctions and other consequences are being properly applied for such breaches or if they are sufficient for the task of ensuring democratic transparency.
“Further sanctions should be considered for lobbyists who severely or persistently breach the legislation, perhaps up to and including barring access to politicians.”
He added: “Delayed lobbying registrations prevent the public from determining whether or not legislation is being made for the benefit of Scotland or merely for those lobbyists.”
Willie Sullivan, senior director at Electoral Reform Society Scotland, said: “For the lobbying register to be effective, information needs to be declared in a timely manner. The public must know who has been lobbying our politicians, and on what bills, before those bills become law.
“We would encourage the Parliament to look at these issues as part of its overdue review of the lobbying register.”
Tom Brake, director at Unlock Democracy and a former Liberal Democrat MP, also believes tougher penalties are required for non-compliance: “At the moment the small fines can be written off as a cost of doing business.”
He said: “The register and the law are clearly failing when companies are reporting meetings more than three years late. These reporting delays stop timely scrutiny of the influence lobbying meetings are having on key government decisions.”
Juliet Swann, senior policy officer at Transparency International UK (TI), said the submissions regime is “confusing” and “allows reporting to slip due to human error as much as intentional delay.”
TI welcomes planned reforms to the register. The lobbying register office sends reminders to lobbyists to file their semi-annual returns, but has plans to improve compliance and reporting responses. “We also support moves to put reporting on a quarterly basis with every registrant reporting on the same timeline,” said Swann.
In the meantime, TI suggested registrants report more frequently and as soon as possible after the lobbying. Swann added: “Without the willingness of registrants to do so, those scrutinising the register are left with an incomplete picture.”
A Scottish Parliament spokesperson said the improvements will include “contacting the CEO of each of the Register’s 1,300 active organisations to highlight its compliance performance to date and, where applicable, tackle as an urgency any unresolved actions by that organisation.”
They added: “It is essential that the register contains an accurate and unambiguous record of lobbying and that all submitted information is published following correct validation.
“Where an information return cannot be immediately published, the lobbying register team provides feedback and now asks for a response within two weeks.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “It is the responsibility of those who lobby to consider whether any engagement they have with lobbyees should be registered.
“The Scottish Government is committed to transparency and all external ministerial engagements are recorded and published.”
In 2021, The Ferret revealed a loophole in the Lobbying Act whereby phone calls and audio-only online conferences are not considered regulated lobbying and meetings in this format do not need to be reported.
This story was co-published by the Sunday National.
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