Referendums (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament on 7th November 2019.

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Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

1. To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether the Referendums (Scotland) Bill adequately meets the objective stated by the constitutional relations secretary for “electronic means of communication to be subject to the same restrictions as print materials”. (S5O-03727)

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I have seen the Finance and Constitution Committee’s recommendations on the topic and I plan to lodge amendments at stage 2 to strengthen the bill in that area as a result. There will be an opportunity to discuss the issue further in the stage 1 debate on the bill later today.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I lodged the question before realising that it would be asked on the same day as the stage 1 debate, so we will have more time to discuss the issue later today. For the time being, is it the Government’s position that, having considered everything that we have heard at stage 1 and recognising that it intends to make changes, there is a reason in principle why electronic publications by non-party campaigners, such as those that appear in social media, should not be subject to the same regulations as print media publications by non-party campaigners?

There are free speech implications, but if someone has a significant social media reach, it is entirely arguable that they should be subject to the same restrictions, however the material is published.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I would broadly agree with the member on that. The restrictions on electronic means of campaigning should have the same effect as restrictions on non- electronic means, in terms of identifying who is responsible.

We have seen a case this week where responsibility for an anonymous advertisement has been traced to a former close aide of the Prime Minister. That is unacceptable. However, there are freedom of speech implications in relation to social media because social media is different from print media. Therefore, we have to take care to ensure that our restrictions do not restrict freedom of speech. We are doing that work with the Electoral Commission, with which we work closely on all these matters. I hope that we will be able to find an effective way to introduce such measures.