Changes to UK lobbying and transparency registers proposed

Out-Law Analysis | 30 Mar 2021 | 2:42 pm | 2 min. read

Changes to the way in which lobbying is regulated at Holyrood and Westminster may be forthcoming, potentially impacting what businesses have to disclose as a result of their political engagement.

Businesses should monitor this changing landscape and consider closely how they might be impacted if changes were made to what can already be a confusing regulatory environment to navigate across the UK. In addition to statutory regulation and compliance considerations, there is also reputational risk attached to non-compliance with lobbying requirements.

The mandatory regulation of lobbying activity in the UK was first introduced in 2014, when the UK government passed the Transparency of Lobbying Act. The Scottish government passed its own lobbying legislation in 2016.

Each regime seeks to increase transparency in the work of those paid to engage with lawmakers and senior policy influencers. However, the extent to which political stakeholders are covered - and the communication methods which count as 'lobbying' - vary greatly between the two jurisdictions.

Scott Wright

Account Executive Pinsent Masons

In addition to statutory regulation and compliance considerations, there is also reputational risk attached to non-compliance with lobbying requirements

The Lobbying (Scotland) Act, which covers face to face engagement with all Scottish government ministers, MSPs, special advisers (SpAds) and the head of the civil service, was recently the subject of a review by the Scottish parliament's public audit and post-legislative scrutiny committee. While the Scottish government does not have to act on the committee's review, its recommendations will command cross-party support and will come with an expectation that action should be taken.

The committee has recommended that the scope of the Act should be extended, and some of its workings reviewed subject to a full impact assessment by the Scottish government. Its final report (56-page / 1.27MB PDF) concludes that there are deficiencies in the ability of the Lobbying Register to "unearth instances of poor practice and undue influence", making it difficult to ascertain whether or not the Act has enhanced transparency around political engagement.

The regime at Westminster, governed by the Transparency of Lobbying Act, includes a register of the activities of consultant lobbyists and their dealings with UK government ministers and civil service department heads. The Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists recently consulted on compliance with the Act (4-page / 180KB PDF), clarity of its own guidance and the need for a standardised code of conduct, and will use its findings to inform future recommendations on how the UK regime should change.

There is already growing support among MPs that the existing legislation does not go far enough to capture the full breadth of lobbying activity that goes on in Westminster. One proposal (28-page / 965KB PDF), put forward by Conservative Party MP Bob Seely for think tank the Henry Jackson Society, would see a broadening of the range of agents, activities and targets that are in scope of the register. Ostensibly, the proposal seeks to address the influence of foreign lobbying on the UK parliament and government - however, UK-based businesses would also be affected by proposed new definitions of "lobbyist" and "lobbying activity". Many more organisations would be covered by these new definitions than is currently the case.