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Referendums (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 7th November 2019.

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Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I said that there were discussions; I did not say that I set out examples. I commend the wonderful

Official Report of those committee meetings. They will contain all the information that Mike Rumbles seeks, and I am sure that he will find the time to peruse it.

I turn to the recommendations concerning the campaign rules.

The experience of the 2016 European Union referendum demonstrated that campaigning is changing, and not always in a way that benefits voters. If we are to provide the space for rational, respectful debate of the type that has just been demonstrated, we must change our approach to regulating campaigning.

A key area of development is the transparency of online campaign materials. In 2014, Scotland led the way by mandating that online campaign materials needed to have an imprint showing the name and address of the person who was responsible for the material. The experience of innovating in that area provided valuable information about how to improve the approach.

The bill builds on the experience of 2014 by focusing regulation more closely on campaign material itself. I welcome the committee’s support for changes to the imprint rules, and intend to lodge amendments to make a number of adjustments to those provisions. Those adjustments, taken alongside other changes to the enforcement regime, will give the Electoral Commission additional regulatory tools. It will then be able to focus more closely on monitoring campaign activity.

In particular, I intend to remove the “reasonably practicable” exemption for campaign material, which will incentivise online companies to continue to innovate to ensure that material can always be clearly identified as campaign material.

I have also carefully considered the other recommendations regarding excluding individual opinions from the scope of the provision. I intend to lodge an amendment to exempt personal opinion from the imprint rules and, therefore, focus the imprint requirement more closely on campaigners. That will ensure that individuals are not deterred from participating.

Another key element of the regulatory regime is the penalties that can be applied. When I gave evidence to the Finance and Constitution Committee, I said that a major increase in the maximum civil fine was required. I intend to lodge an amendment at stage 2 to increase the maximum fine from £10,000 to

£500,000, which indicates the seriousness with which the matter is taken. That will significantly strengthen the powers of the commission and act as a deterrent to breaches of the rules.

I also intend to accept other recommendations made by the commission to change the procedure for some offences in the bill. Taken together, the changes will help to deter those who might consider breaking the rules and ensure that those who break the rules are suitably sanctioned. The experience in the 2014 Scottish referendum was positive, but it was not positive in the 2016 United Kingdom-EU referendum.

The Electoral Commission has made a number of recommendations on donations, including on the frequency of reporting and assets held. However, from discussions with the commission, I understand that further work needs to be undertaken before it is able to recommend a specific set of measures. We will continue to work with it on those matters, and we look forward to developing further refinements when appropriate.

With that in mind, I am heartened that the committee supports the objective of ensuring that the bill remains a dynamic framework that can be responsive to changes in campaigning and electoral administration. The provision in section 37 addresses a specific concern of the electoral community, but I accept the recommendation of the committee to consider how to narrow the breadth of that delegated power. I will lodge a suitable amendment at stage 2.

I turn to the one area in which the committee and I have a difference in opinion. We all believe that all questions should be tested before use. That was the case in the only referendum for which this Parliament has so far taken responsibility, and the process resulted in the changing of the proposed question for the 2014 independence referendum. That question was used not only on 18 September 2014, but in 58 opinion polls over the past five years since then. Polling evidence from Progress Scotland shows that the question is well recognised and regarded as fair. Moreover, 77 per cent of respondents in a recent poll said that they would be satisfied if it was asked again, and only 10 per cent disagreed with that.

However, questions will go out of use and require to be altered as time passes. Therefore, questions should have a shelf life, which might be the duration of two parliamentary sessions. I will lodge an amendment to achieve that at stage 2. [

Interruption

.] I think that members should wait until I have concluded.

Some of those who propose testing every question, even those that have been tested before, do so out of principle, which I respect.

I entirely accept that it is right for me to look at the issue again in the light of those views and the evidence that the finance committee has received. I am therefore in agreement with the committee that I should discuss this matter with the Electoral Commission and come back at stage 2 with any proposals that may arise from those discussions. I am happy to commit myself to doing so in the spirit of trying to reach an agreement that will be acceptable to those who take a positive view of the bill and want it to go forward with the widest support, which I certainly do.