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The Standards Commission is an independent body whose purpose is to encourage high ethical standards in public life through the promotion and enforcement of Codes of Conduct for councillors and those appointed to the boards of devolved public bodies.

Distinguishing between lobbying and helping constituents or service users

28th April 2023

For local authorities and public bodies to be as accessible, approachable and responsive as possible to the people they serve, they should aim to put the public interest at the forefront of all decision-making. This can mean seeking the views of and engaging with service users, constituents, stakeholders and members of public in general.

There is, however, a difference between on the one hand, engaging with and helping those who might be affected by the work of a council or public body or in receipt of services they provide and, on the other hand, being lobbied. Adherence to the key principles of public life, which include integrity, openness and honesty, is vital and must remain at the forefront of the way in which councils and public bodies operate. Public confidence in councils, public bodies and their decision-making processes rests on transparency and decision-makers following due process.

“Lobbying” is the term used to describe where an individual, organisation or group tries to influence politicians and other public representatives to support particular policies or make certain decisions. Both the Councillors’ Code of Conduct and the Model Code of Conduct for Members of Devolved Public Bodies in Scotland contain provisions concerning lobbying and access. The Codes require councillors and members to distinguish between:

1.       their representative role in dealing with enquiries from constituents or service user;

2.       any community engagement where they are working with individuals and organisations to encourage their participation and involvement; and

3.       lobbying, which is where they are approached by any individual, group or organisation who is seeking to influence them for financial gain or advantage. This is particularly those who are seeking to do business with their council or public body (for example, to be awarded a procurement contract) or who are applying for a consent or approval from the council or public body.

Representing constituents and service users, dealing with their enquiries and engaging with the community at large are all key parts of the roles of councillors and board members. Engaging with constituents and service users in this way is vitally important as it helps councils and public bodies to:

·       be more open, accessible and responsive;

·       identify the needs of the communities they serve;

·       determine their priorities; and

·       make decisions in a more informed way.

Lobbying, on the other hand, and in particular private meetings with lobbyists, can undermine public trust in the decision-making process. Councillors and board members must bear in mind that if they are approached by a lobbyist, it is likely that the lobbyist is seeking their involvement as someone in a position of influence, whether as part of a decision-making committee or otherwise.

It is also important to recognise that there is a difference between lobbying on behalf of a commercial or personal interest, and lobbying for a policy change or benefit which affects a group of people, a community, or an organisational sector. Councillors and board members should always consider what will benefit their constituents, areas or service users as a whole, and not just any narrow sectoral interest.

The Codes state that, in deciding whether, and if so how, to respond to lobbying, councillors and members must always have regard to the objective test, which is:

Whether a member of the public, with knowledge of the relevant facts, would reasonably regard their conduct as being likely to influence their decision-making or the decision-making of the council / public body.

This means that councillors and members should not offer or facilitate any preferential access or treatment to those lobbying on a fee basis on behalf of clients, compared with what they afford to any other person or organisation who lobbies or approaches them. This is because the public is entitled to expect that no person or organisation will gain better access to, or treatment by, a councillor or member as a result of employing a company or individual to lobby on a fee basis.

It is vital that councillors and members adhere to their Codes and distinguish between lobbying and helping constituents and service users, in order to meet this expectation and maintain confidence in their council or public body’s decision-making.