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The National (Scotland)
The National (Scotland)
James Walker

AirBnB could bypass lobbying rules and ‘mislead MSPs’ about licensing scheme

TRANSPARENCY campaigners have called on the Scottish Government to reform lobbying rules amid a pushback against short-term lets legislation.

Transparency International UK, Electoral Reform Society Scotland and Common Weal have all expressed concerns that organisations like AirBnB could take advantage of exemptions in the Lobbying (Scotland) Act to hide the extent of their lobbying and "mislead MSPs".

It comes amid a huge pushback against the Scottish Government’s short-term lets scheme ahead of the October 1 deadline, which has led to some – including tenants’ union Living Rent – saying it shows the power and influence of the short-term lets lobby. 

With just over a week to go, Holyrood parliamentarians from the Scottish Tories, Scottish Labour, Scottish LibDems and SNP MSP Fergus Ewing called for the Lord Advocate to investigate if the scheme breaches human rights laws in a last-ditch attempt to delay it.

Last week, a Scottish Tory bid to delay the scheme by a year failed following a debate in Holyrood.

We also previously revealed that almost a third of a total of 37 MSPs who signed a letter to Humza Yousaf calling for a delay to the scheme have been lobbied by AirBnB.

But there are concerns from campaigners and academics that the American multinational could bypass current lobbying rules, including using so-called "home-sharing clubs" to influence decision-makers while keeping the meetings out of the public eye.

The tactics

Research from the University of Manchester and Ethical Consumer in 2021 found that Airbnb was funding deregulation campaigns in hundreds of cities around the world, using so-called "home-sharing clubs" - associations of landlords recruited by the company – to advocate on their behalf.

The report found that the clubs are mainly established in cities where the effects of Airbnb are leading to calls for stricter regulation. A Facebook group for a home-sharing club for Edinburgh, for example, was created in 2017.

One of the authors of the report told The National that AirBnB has used these clubs to encourage and co-ordinate the minority of hosts who have only one listing to speak with politicians and the press “in order to present a more benign picture of short-term lettings”.

Dr Luke Yates said: “In other contexts, that has involved actively editing the stories of hosts, excluding hosts who have multiple properties from these initiatives, training them and arranging meetings with policy-makers.”

He added: “The Scottish short-term let licensing scheme, together with the Short-Term Let Control Area Regulations, presents a sensible way of regulating the sector and providing a way to reduce the problems associated with it, especially housing pressures which are particularly associated with entire-home lets and landlords with multiple listings.

“The media campaign, and interventions from various allies, arguing that the licensing scheme in Scotland should be delayed, seem to be typical of Airbnb’s strategy to create partnerships behind the scenes.

“These might appear to be spontaneous civil society responses but tend to be co-ordinated by the company.”

Lobbying register weaknesses

The Scottish register was created in 2016 by the Lobbying (Scotland) Act 2016. The legislation aimed “to make provision about lobbying, including provision for establishing and maintaining a lobbying register and the publication of a code of conduct”.

But currently, any lobbying of Scottish parliamentarians goes unrecorded so long as it was done by an unpaid volunteer.

Volunteer members of organisations’ boards or unpaid “ambassadors” are also able to lobby MSPs without any public register and firms do not have to register their lobbying of MSPs if they have less than 10 paid employees, or if it is done over the phone.

The rules also mean that a Zoom call in which a Scottish politician is lobbied will not need to be recorded – as long as the camera remains off.

The Sunday National analysed the Scottish Parliament lobbying register and found a meeting between AirBnB, former Scottish Greens MSP Andy Wightman and an “Edinburgh homesharing club leader”. They discussed “the tabled amendments and related policy proposals to regulate short-term lets, as well as Airbnb's position on tourism tax”.

It is the only meeting on the register involving a homesharing group member but likely only appears because the meeting was done in conjunction with AirBnB, who are a registered lobbyist. 

Transparency campaigners are concerned that the act makes it too easy for commercial interests to bypass rules.

Calls for reform

Craig Dalzell, head of policy and research at Common Weal, told the Sunday National that there is a “serious need for reform” of how we record and monitor lobbying in Scotland.

He said: “As we have discovered through our investigations, it is far too easy for someone who intends to obscure their influence to deliberately hide their lobbying of the Scottish Parliament from the public record by limiting communication to email and phone calls or ensuring that the lobbying is done by people not being paid by the organisation they are lobbying on the behalf of.

“Regardless of the issue being raised or who is raising it – whether a billion-dollar multi-national corporation or a small but influential think tank like ours – it is vital that the Scottish public know who is talking to our politicians, what they're talking about and who they are speaking for.”

Willie Sullivan, senior director for Scotland at the Electoral Reform Society, said it was “clear early on” that while it was an important step for transparency in Scotland, the lobbying register could potentially be exploited.

He added: “In a case like this, where an emotive issue is dividing opinion, it is vital that people know exactly who has the ear of ministers making key decisions. It is also important that the public knows how much money is being spent on such lobbying campaigns.

“This highlights the need for the Government to carry out its long-promised review of the register to ensure the public have a complete picture of who is trying to influence policies that affect the whole country.”

Juliet Swann, a senior policy officer at Transparency International UK, said: "This sort of astroturfing by commercial interests takes advantage of exemptions in the Lobbying (Scotland) Act meant to protect authentic volunteer-led community organisations, potentially misleading decision-makers as to the true intent of the representations being made to them and at the same time keeping the meetings out of the public eye.

"Any reforms to lobbying regulations should consider how to monitor who is funding lobbying activity and why in order to shine a light on any corporate lobbying disguising itself as grassroots campaigning.

"AirBnB, while not the only company to employ these tactics, has been found to have used these tactics in cities across the globe so decision-makers should also be alive to the possibility that representations from ‘homesharing’ groups that appear independent may actually be a funded part of AirBnB’s corporate lobbying efforts."

Aditi Jehangir, secretary of Living Rent, said lobbying rules need to be rewritten and that it raises “deep concerns regarding our democratic processes”.

She said: "Over the last months, we have experienced how the fight organised against short-term lets licensing has been one focused on preserving the profits of the few over the needs of the many. And in this fight, landlords have used everything they could to undermine the democratic process.

"Short-term lets landlord activists have used language comparing licensing to pogroms, they’ve called the licensing scheme sexist and damaging to their human rights. And now to learn that they have potentially had support from a multinational corporation to do all this highlights how out of reach they are with the wider community and how much of this is a co-ordinated lobbying effort to protect, in part, a multibillion-dollar company.

“The lobbying rules need to be rewritten. For a company as big as Airbnb to potentially have been training up short term let ‘activists’ through home-sharing groups to lobby politicians raises deep concerns regarding our democratic processes.

“The Scottish Government needs to reform lobbying rules to ensure that multinational corporations are not able to bypass lobbying rules and go over the heads of the needs and interests of the public without even the most basic public scrutiny."

An Airbnb spokesperson said: "Airbnb’s lobbying efforts are a matter of public record, and we have always been clear about our work and partnership with the Airbnb host community around advocacy for their ability to share their space.

"Almost half of Scottish hosts say the additional income helps them afford rising living costs, and we are proud that many have chosen to engage with policymakers to share – in their own words – how home sharing helps them make ends meet."

A Scottish Parliament spokesperson said: “The purpose of the Lobbying Register is to record regulated lobbying as set out in the Lobbying (Scotland) Act 2016.

“The act explicitly excludes those who are unpaid from regulated lobbying.”

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