Where stands Scotland? The political implications of Brexit

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By Alex Bruce @alexandersbruce

A month out from the UK’s momentous decision to leave the European Union, Orbit Communications Director Alex Bruce considers the implications for Scottish politics, for Scotland’s future relationship with the rest of the UK and with the European Union – and the likelihood and potential outcome of a second referendum on Scottish independence.

As was widely predicted prior to the 23rd June, the vote to leave the European Union has provoked a short term shock to the UK economy, particularly in terms of currency exchange rates, share values and the UK’s international credit rating. Leave campaigners continue to argue that the longer term economic gains of leaving the EU will outweigh this short term instability, but there are also worrying signs of the potential for significant job losses in the longer term, particularly in financial services.

At a political level, the Leave vote provoked an immediate leadership crisis within both of the main UK political parties. Even prior to the vote, it was always inconceivable that David Cameron would survive as Prime Minister if the UK voted to leave. Following an aborted leadership contest that saw all of the other contenders either eliminated or drop out, Theresa May has emerged as the new Prime Minister. Upon arrival at Number 10, she has made immediate efforts to shore up a potentially deeply divided Conservative party by appointing leading Brexit campaigners to those ministerial portfolios at the front line of Brexit negotiations. The challenge from here will be to reconcile the very high (some might say unrealistic) expectations of Leave voters and campaigners with what is likely to be a brutal negotiation with the EU27 in which EU leaders appear to hold most of the cards.

Meanwhile, a new leadership contest within Labour is already underway. However, it currently seems unlikely that challenger Owen Smith will be able to win the support of a majority of Labour party members, most of whom fiercely maintain their loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. If Corbyn clings on to the leadership, what will happen to a Labour party led by someone who has the confidence of only a small minority of the Labour parliamentary party remains to be seen. But its credibility as an effective opposition at Westminster has all but disappeared.

With a majority vote for Remain in Scotland, there has been an immediate increase in support for Scottish independence – albeit not the 60% support the SNP leadership had set as a benchmark to determine if a second independence referendum was winnable and therefore worth calling. Nicola Sturgeon remains sensibly cautious on the matter – treading a fine line between keeping the party faithful onside while at the same time not wishing to paint herself into a corner of having to call a referendum prematurely and then face the career-ending prospect of losing.

As opinion polling has consistently shown, it is also important to remember that it was predominantly the economic uncertainty of independence which swung the outcome in favour of ‘No’ in 2014 (and not the Vow as many on the Yes side have sought to claim). Confronting the Scottish electorate with a second independence vote before the future terms of the UK’s relationship with the EU are known might be seen by many as having jumped off the Brexit cliff only to be asked to take an event bigger leap of faith by leaving the UK.

Nicola Sturgeon has secured a mandate from the Scottish Parliament to seek negotiations with the EU institutions and other EU Member States to explore how Scotland could preserve its relationship with the EU as the UK prepares to leave.

But the issue now for Scotland is it lies stuck between a rock and a hard place. Although the First Minister may have received a warm welcome in Brussels, the devil of any future arrangement lies in the detail. Ultimately, just as the remaining EU Member States cannot be seen to give the UK an easy ride following its decision to leave, giving Scotland a preferential deal on EU membership which fudges the economic criteria would set a hugely dangerous precedent – as would transferring the UK’s preferential terms of EU membership to Scotland as a ‘successor Member State’.

The latter arrangement sets equally dangerous precedents within the UK. Scotland was not the only constituent part of the UK to vote Remain. A deal to secure preferential terms of continuing EU membership for Scotland will prompt an immediate clamour for similar treatment from Northern Ireland and London – something the UK Government is likely to be equally unwilling to entertain.

Despite all of the political manoeuvring currently underway to explore scenarios whereby Scotland could remain both a member of the EU and of the UK, the reality is that Scotland’s best prospect of a continuing positive relationship with the EU is either through a well negotiated Brexit deal for the UK as a whole that preserves access to the single market – or else by becoming an independent country and subsequently applying for EU membership.

In the current context, the economic case for Scottish independence is arguably on even shakier ground than it was in 2014. Latest figures show Scotland’s public expenditure outstripping its annual revenue by the order of almost £15 billion and the oil price remains stubbornly low. In pure financial terms, Scotland’s trade relationship with the rest of the UK is worth four times more than its exports to the European Union. The issue of currency also remains to be resolved although there are now moves afoot within the SNP to explore the possible creation of a new Scottish pound.

The outcome of a second Indyref will largely come down to whether the Scottish electorate’s economic instincts are now trumped by a sense that Scotland no longer has much in common politically with the rest of the UK – and a willingness to go through a potentially painful economic ‘adjustment’ to be able to strike out on its own path with the longer term aim of rejoining the European Union as an independent country. Given the current fractious nature of UK politics, it would be foolish to rule that out either.

What do you need to know about the Lobbying (Scotland) Act?

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By Alex Bruce @alexandersbruce

What do organisations who engage with the Scottish Parliament need to do to prepare themselves for newly adopted legislation on lobbying? Orbit Communications Director Alex Bruce explains the background and main elements of this new legislation and why organisations of all types should make themselves aware of their new responsibilities under the Act.

Lobbying:

“…in a professional capacity, attempting to influence, or advising those who wish to influence, the UK Government, Parliament, the devolved legislatures or administrations, regional or local government or other public bodies on any matter within their competence.”

UK Public Affairs Council (UKPAC)

The term lobbying has taken on increasingly pejorative connotations in recent years in the wake of a series of high profile lobbying scandals involving in particular Members of the UK Parliament.

Against the backdrop of apparent growing public concern over a lack of transparency around lobbying activities, Labour MSP Neil Findlay originally lodged his own proposal for a Member’s Bill to introduce a lobbying register in 2012. However, this was superseded the following year by a Scottish Government announcement of its intention to introduce legislation of its own on lobbying. A Parliamentary inquiry and Scottish Government consultation followed this announcement, culminating in the introduction to Parliament of the Lobbying (Scotland) Bill in October 2015.

The Bill received Royal Assent on the 14th April 2016 having been passed at its final stage during March of this year.

The practical effect of this legislation is to introduce a lobbying register for any organisation engaged in what is defined as “regulated lobbying”. This definition includes any paid lobbying, whether carried out by external consultants or in-house members of staff and irrespective of whether the organisation comes from the public, private or third sectors. Included within the scope of “regulated lobbying” are face-to-face meetings with Scottish Government Ministers and MSPs concerning their Government or Parliamentary functions. This can include their role as legislators or decisions on the award of contracts, funding and so on.

It’s also important to note that the legislation extends to any representative of an organisation, irrespective of their role, and not just to those who may be specifically employed to communicate with external stakeholders.

Various forms of communication are exempted from the definition of “regulated lobbying”, including:

  • Communications to an MSP representing a constituency or region where the communicator’s business is ordinarily carried out;
  • Instances where the communication is made on behalf of an organisation with less than 10 full-time equivalent employees;
  • Communications made during a meeting of a recognised cross-party group;
  • Communications made for the purposes of journalism;
  • Communications made as part of Parliamentary proceedings (for instance, giving evidence to a committee);
  • Instances where the information request originates from an MSP or minister;
  • Communications by political parties, the judiciary and by or on behalf of her Majesty the Queen;
  • Government and Parliament communications.

Despite representations in support of their inclusion during the Bill’s passage through the Scottish Parliament, senior civil servants, government agency officials and special advisers are excluded from the scope of the legislation as are other forms of lobbying than face-to-face meetings such as telephone calls, emails, letters and video conferences.

Crucially, it is the responsibility of the organisation rather than the individual engaged in lobbying activity to enter their details onto the lobbying register. Entering and updating the register will be free of charge but failure to comply with certain aspects of the legislation will lead to criminal sanctions.

Responsibility for establishing and maintaining the new register will lie with the Clerk of the Scottish Parliament. Anyone engaged in regulated lobbying will initially be required to enter their details in the lobbying register. Those not currently engaging in regulated lobbying but who anticipate doing so in the future can enter their details voluntarily onto the register. There is also a 30 day grace period for organisations or individuals to register themselves following the first instance of regulated lobbying.

Once registered, lobbyists are expected to submit six monthly returns outlining any regulated lobbying activity undertaken and including, in each instance, the following information:

  • Who was lobbied, when and where;
  • A description of the circumstances in which the lobbying took place (a meeting, Parliamentary reception or other event…);
  • Who undertook the lobbying;
  • Whether this was undertaken on the registrant’s own behalf or on behalf of someone else and, if so, who;
  • The purpose of the lobbying.

Failure to register or to submit returns when required to do so or the submission of false or inaccurate information are defined as criminal offences under the Act, punishable by a fine of up to £1,000.

The legislation also establishes a complaints process with investigation and reporting responsibilities being conferred to the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland. It also requires the Scottish Parliament to publish a Code of Conduct for persons lobbying Members of the Scottish Parliament. This is to cover all types of communication to an MSP and not just those defined as “regulated lobbying”.

Having summarised the legislation as clearly and concisely as I can, what does it all practically mean for your organisation?

First, it is important to acknowledge that, throughout the detailed discussions leading up to the adoption of this legislation, the value and importance of lobbying as a legitimate part of the democratic process were consistently emphasised. The intention of the new Act is certainly not to discourage lobbying of the Scottish Parliament but rather to make the process more open and transparent.

Following the elections in May, if your organisation is already in the habit of meeting MSPs face-to-face with a view to influencing policy or simply raising awareness of issues pertaining to your organisation, you will be required in most circumstances to submit your details to the new lobbying register. In future, any such meetings will need to be recorded and submitted as part of your organisation’s six-monthly return to the Clerk of the Scottish Parliament. If you are in any doubt, it is always going to be safer to register your organisation, even if this means that your six-monthly returns will be completely empty. Once published, organisations should also take the time to familiarise themselves with the Scottish Parliament’s new Code of Conduct for lobbyists.

No doubt there will be ongoing arguments about the precise scope of the legislation and how workable or effective it will be in practice. But in so far as it encourages organisations to think more carefully about how they engage with politicians and to operate in as open and transparent a way as possible, it has to be viewed as a positive step.

The importance of building a good reputation

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Alex Bruce @alexandersbruce

“No such thing as bad publicity” goes the old adage. But for the construction sector, conveying the right image is increasingly critical.

Many companies don’t give their reputation much thought. After all, order books are full and clients seem generally happy so why worry?

While true for now, most contractors also know from bitter experience how fierce competition for new business now is and how perilously thin profit margins have become.

Against that background, a little investment towards managing your reputation and promoting your achievements can go a very long way when it comes to winning your next contract.

Faced with a choice between a contractor who can actively demonstrate their credentials through regular media coverage and public recognition and one who makes those claims purely on paper, the decision for the client becomes a very easy one.

The issue of reputation doesn’t stop at the front line of new business opportunities either.

One of the biggest issues industry employers now face is to find suitably skilled workers to work for them. Faced with an ageing workforce and a chronic shortage of new talent, recruiting and retaining the skills your business needs to grow is a real challenge.

Ironically, statistics show that the average salary of someone working in the construction sector compares very favourably with other sectors of the Scottish economy, surpassed only by banking, finance and offshore oil and gas.

But preconceptions about the industry and career prospects within it have proved very difficult to shift. Careers advice in schools has come in for some sharp criticism from the industry in recent times. Some of it is entirely justified as politicians have sought to reduce the skills issue to a headline-grabbing apprenticeship numbers game.

Sadly, there is a lack of recognition for the superior quality of the four year indentured apprenticeship framework offered as standard in the traditional building trades. In that context, measures such as the suggested introduction of foundation apprenticeships risk devaluing the qualification and real damage to the development of specialist construction skills.

At the same time, the tradition of local officers from CITB going out and regularly banging the industry drum in local secondary schools seems to be on the way out as CITB’s remit adapts to new UK Government proposals for an apprenticeship levy on all large employers.

Hence, there is a growing expectation that building sector employers should be carrying out this missionary work themselves. What is more, your skills search will be that much easier if you can get in front of school pupils at an early stage and convince them why they should choose a career not only in the construction industry generally but with your company in particular.

Ultimately, it could mean the difference between having enthusiastic candidates approach you proactively about employment opportunities and having to go out and find those candidates, only to find they’ve already been put off a career in construction by their careers adviser – or worse yet, they’ve already taken an apprenticeship with a competitor that did take the trouble to come and talk to them in school when they were starting to think about careers.

What’s more, once recruited, your workforce needs to know they’re working for a company they can take pride in. Sustaining and promoting your company’s reputation is equally important to maintain internal morale and get the very best out of your team.

More than many other industries, building sector employers frequently suffer from having their own reputations tarnished by the poor practice of a small minority of rogue traders.

Once again, making the extra effort to manage your own company’s reputation can yield big returns with potential customers spooked by horror stories of botched jobs and bills spiralling out of control. At the sharp end, it could make the crucial difference between them going ahead with the work or putting it off for another day.

Whether to give you that crucial edge in the competition for new work, to attract and retain the skills and talent your company needs for the future or give customers the confidence they need to appoint you, managing your reputation and actively promoting your business has never been more crucial to future success.

This article first appeared in Project Scotland.