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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Transparency and the voluntary sector

There are currently a couple of legislative initiatives in the Scottish Parliament promoting greater transparency in government. The first are amendments to the Freedom of Information Act that would extend the scope of the Act to contractors who deliver public services. The other is the proposed Lobbying and Transparency Bill promoted by Neil Findlay MSP that would require lobbyists to register their activities.

While perhaps not the main targets of the legislation, they would both cover the voluntary sector. Incidentally that also includes trade unions like UNISON. Now you might expect openness and transparency to be an important principle for the voluntary sector and of course many organisations in the sector would agree. It is therefore somewhat surprising that the main voluntary sector lobby group, SCVO, is strongly opposed to these provisions. I suspect this opposition is driven, not by the vast majority of the sector, but by the semi-commercial interests whose income and activities have increasingly been dominated by public sector contracts.

I would argue that everyone has the right to lobby, but there is also the equally important right for the public to know who is lobbying to influence democratic decision making. On this basis special exemptions for particular categories of lobbyists or contractors should be avoided. The voluntary sector may not see themselves as lobbyists, but they are. The key principle is that if you chase the public pound you should be bound by the rules of public transparency.

The voluntary sector is responsible for delivering many public services and receives substantial public funds for doing so. For example, the Coalition of Care and Support Providers in Scotland (CCPS) claim that their combined membership, “manages a total annual income in excess of £1.3 billion (2010-11), a significant proportion of which relates to publicly funded service provision; employs approximately 45,000 staff and mobilises the support of over 7,000 volunteers in providing services.”

In a period of public sector cuts the distribution of public spending is a legitimate and significant matter of public concern. Lobbying for the delivery of public services is therefore an activity that should be transparent and open to public scrutiny. The SCVO have also argued that it may be necessary to involve the private sector in public services, which is by any standards politically controversial. It is difficult to see why lobbying for such a position should not be subject to disclosure.

Organisations that deliver public services have nothing to fear from a lobbying register or Freedom of Information. They are in receipt of public funding, are a vital part of our democracy and are key actors in public life. They are part of the political class, and in that sense they are part of the wider political culture, and bear some responsibility for the quality of our democracy. Organisations like SCVO (and in fairness trade unions) enjoy insider status with government, though even SCVO accept that no one body can easily speak for the diverse voluntary sector.

Lobbying disclosure should in principle apply to all those who seek to influence public policy, subject to de minimis levels. This also offers a way for all those concerned about the conduct of public affairs to contribute to greater transparency and public accountability.

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