Scottish Parliament

Lobbyists just love Holyrood’s Cross Party Groups

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AFTER RECENT scandals over MP’s moonlighting as lobbyists at the UK Parliament and receiving considerable amounts of cash for so doing, it has been suggested that All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) could be the next big Westminster lobbying scandal.

For those who don’t know, APPGs are special interest groups formed in the Parliament which comprise MPs and other participants from outside, be they individuals or organisations, who share a particular interest or interests. For example, there is an APPG on Scotch Whisky chaired by SNP MP David Linden, who was recently accused of overdoing his background research on a taxpayer-funded jolly to Gibraltar. He has denied any alleged misbehaviour, but the various ironies of Linden’s admitted behaviour have not been lost on most people.

Now it appears folk are waking up to the idea that APPGs provide an easy route to lobbying MPs and for commercial concerns to make their cases in less rigorously policed circumstances.

What may be less well known, however, than the existence of APPGs at Westminster on causes from smoking bans to Cuban solidarity, is their equivalents at wur ain wee Parliament at Holyrood, where they are known by the different name (of course) of Cross Party Groups (XPGs). Despite the different nomenclature their purpose is essentially the same.

Which begs the question; could the XPGs at Holyrood possibly also provide another opportunity for the, relatively unregulated, lobbying of our MSPs who, remember, have always been keen to promote their cleaner-than-clean image in comparison with their dastardly, sleazy, and corrupt Westminster cousins?  Well, surely the XPGs are worthy of further examination, are they not?

There are, according to the Scottish Parliament website, currently sixty-nine active or previous XPGs at Holyrood, with subject matters covering the full gamut of the important to the, quite frankly, ridiculous. Their effectiveness depends very much on how involved the MSP members are – two must attend an XPG meeting for it to be legitimate – and whether members are committed to the topic or just virtue-signalling.

The website also tells us that XPGs “do not get financial or staffing support from the Parliament” but “can receive money from organisations to cover costs”. And this is an early red flag, even although financial contributions from one source in excess of £500 are required to go through the normal registration process. There does not appear to be, however, any limit on the funds that can be contributed to any one XPG from a multitude of sources.

But let’s have a closer look. Take, for example, the XPG on the Armed Forces and Veterans Community, a topic close to my own heart. There’s a healthy membership of MSPs from the three main parties and a goodly representation from across the wider armed forces community in Scotland. Secretarial support comes from the charity Veterans Scotland and the XPG’smost recent meeting agenda is full of good stuff. Nothing untoward here I would say.

The clear waters become slightly more opaque when we look at, say, the XPG on Construction. Here the secretariat is provided by the Federation of Master Builders (Secretary, Gordon Nelson, FMB; Treasurer, Grahame Barn, CECA Scotland). According to its website, the FMB is “the largest trade association in the UK construction industry representing the interests of small and medium-sized building companies and lobbying for members at both national and local levels (my emphasis). CECA Scotland’s website informs us it is “the sole trade body for Scotland’s civil engineering contractors”. Presumably providing secretarial services and the treasurer to the relevant industry XPG isn’t purely a charitable act then?

The waters become progressively muddier when we examine the XPG on Oil and Gas. It appears that the secretariat is provided by a chap called David Evans whose email address points us to OGUK, “Proud champions of the UK oil and gas industry”, apparently. Members of the Group include Weber Shandwick, not unknown in the lobbying world, and minor companies like Shell, BP, and Petrofac. What on Earth would they be doing devoting resources to interacting with the good and virtuous folk of the Scottish Parliament, I hear you ask?

I have the inside track here because, whisper it softly, I have been and still am (to a certain extent) a freelance, professional lobbyist. Not so long ago I ran what in retrospect seems to have been a highly successful lobbying organisation from offices in Hanover Street in Edinburgh. We had a broad spectrum of clients from all three sectors, private, public, and charitable, plus the occasional wealthy individual who sought to make a difference.

It was highly lucrative. I well remember Mike Russell MSP, then a member of the Scottish Cabinet, asking me why I didn’t focus on becoming an elected representative instead, which had always been my first ambition. When I replied that I couldn’t handle the cut in salary it would bring I think he thought I was joking, but I was not. Twenty years ago any lobbyist at Holyrood worth their salt was earning way more than a Cabinet Secretary at the Scottish Parliament, maybe twice as much. I don’t know if this still pertains but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Anyway, lobbying at the Scottish Parliament was (is?) always pretty formulaic. And alongside the usual nonsense of drafting questions for individuals for presentation at FMQs (do you realise how many FMQs and speeches I drafted for MSPs on behalf of sundry clients which were reproduced verbatim in the Chamber?) and so on there was always the advice to clients of “join the appropriate XPG and offer to provide the secretariat”. It was not unknown for such offers to be accepted.

A tawdry tale, perhaps, but what I am definitely not saying is that there is or was any evidence of financial corruption in the Scottish Parliament. Moral and intellectual probably yes, but not financial, not that I ever noticed anyway. I habitually advised my clients that MSPs were usually subject matter experts on nothing at all and were therefore intellectual sponges, happy to spout as the truth what the last organisation had told them. Again, I cannot comment whether this still pertains, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it does.

Which brings me back to XPGs. Don’t tell me these groups are not an easy option when seeking to lobby MSPs, because I know otherwise having done it many times myself. And, although I’m happy to be corrected by those who might know better about today’s procedures, I suspect that XPGs fall outside the registration of lobbying interests on which the Scottish Parliament has been so pleased to compliment itself. Make no mistake about it, lobbying is big business at Holyrood.

So, before pointing the finger at the corruption and sleaze at Westminster, maybe we Scots should get wur ain hoose in order first?

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© Stuart Crawford 2021

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