Riigikogu MPs lukewarm on prospects of lobbyist registry

Despite requirements put in place in 2021 to record all meetings between lobbyists and Riigikogu MPs, the latter have seen little interest in creating a register of same, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Wednesday.

All ministries and government agencies have since last year been required to keep a log of lobby groups and meetings with lobbyists.

Any such meetings involving senior officials and ministers must be noted down, while meetings' calendars are freely available to be viewed on each of the 11 ministries' websites.

However, this obligation does not extend to the legislature, whose MPs are also, naturally, policy-makers, since the executive, which approved the lobbying best practice, constitutionally cannot impose obligations on the Riigikogu in this way.

At the same time, while NGO Korruptsioonivaba Eesti ("Corruption-free Estonia") has visited the Riigikogu in an official capacity three times this year, to discuss the issue of a Riigikogu register being created, none of these meetings attracted much interest from MPs – with between three and five, out of a total of 101 deputies, attending.

Steven-Hristo Evestus, who heads up Korruptsioonivaba Eesti  and is a former state prosecutor, told AK that: "The current composition of the Riigikogu has shown a very lukewarm interest in making its itinerary of meetings available to the public."

"In this way, decisive steps must be expected from the next Riigikogu," Evestus went on, referring to the general election taking place in March.

Another issue is, according to Minister of Social Affairs Peep Peterson (SDE), the categorization as lobbyists of those who are not, for instance, representing a commercial interest.

Peterson gave the example of gynecologists who, on meeting with the Minister of Justice in order to discuss issues relating to sex crimes, were then recorded as lobbyists, alongside those from, for instance, the tobacco industry.

The Ministry of Justice itself says such distinctions do not need to be drawn, however.

Mari-Liis Sööt, head of the ministry's analysis department, told AK that. "If the goal is, for example, to influence a political decision, or to amend legislation, or to get some /---/ provision favorable to the lobbyist enshrined into law, to gain support, etc., then this concerns influencing a political decision, so then there is a reason to record such a meeting."

AK noted that this entry into a register in any case only concerns official meetings between lobbyists and ministers and/or minister secretaries general and entered via the official calendar.

More informal meetings, even those happening by chance during a walk in the forest, for instance, would not likely be recorded even if the topics of discussion did move into work and lobby-related areas.

Sööt added that the existing meetings calendar system put in place last year had been working quite well, in her view.

She said: "In the beginning, the disclosure was done in perhaps a less uniform way, but the more time has passed, the more this is the case."

"In fact, you can get pretty good and important information about who is meeting whom, and concerning which topics."

Deputy speaker at the Riigikogu and Isamaa chair Helir-Valdor Seeder said the registry of lobbyists and meetings would be an unnecessary bureaucratic encumbrance, which would not do much to accomplish its stated aims.

"Instead, it is an effort of the bureaucrats at the respective institutions and offices, to make a demonstration of how we fight corruption, Seeder told AK.

However, if the Riigikogu board was to set up its own register of lobbyists, the Suitsuvaba Eesti ("smoking-free Estonia") parliamentary group would need to be recorded as such, if and when it met with party groups at the Riigikogu, or with the health minister.

Steven-Hristo Evestus said he thought that such meetings being registered would be "reasonable," on the grounds that: "These meetings are obviously driven by a desire to influence a decision in the direction they want."

Health minister Peterson agreed. "In actual fact, the public needs to know that now sometimes it's like well-meaning members of parliament come together and make such benevolent proposals, but they just go in one direction," Peterson told AK.

Mari-Liis Sööt said that while Riigikogu committee meetings with lobbyists could be made public, no practical steps had been taking along these lines.

In November, lobbyists representing tobacco giant Philip Morris, met with four of the five Riigikogu party groups, with e-cigarettes on the tbale.

Legislation relating to this has been shaped via the Riigikogu's Suitsuvaba Eesti group, on behalf of the lobbyists – who work for PR agency PowerHouse.

That these tobacco lobby meetings took place only became public knowledge due tot he participation of health minister Peterson, AK reported.

While government ministers do not sit at the Riigikogu, Peterson took part along with his Social Democrat party-mates.

Peterson said that he did not get the impression from the meeting, however, that the lobbyists were attempting to get anything in particular, adding that the meeting took place at at time when the issue of underage smoking and the relationship to e-cigarettes was on the table.

"I still meet with everyone who wants to get the full picture," Peterson told AK.

Read the article at ERR.