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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 Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I have reflected on many occasions on why I did not support the SNP’s white paper. On another occasion we will debate that in detail.

I urge the Scottish Government to have confidence in the Electoral Commission’s process for question testing. If the cabinet secretary does not have confidence in it, the Government should propose an alternative. I am glad that, from the Scottish Government’s point of view, the door does not appear to be closed on testing, so we need to hear more on that before stage 2.

There are many other issues that I wanted to touch on in the brief time available to me: the lessons that we need to learn from 2014, 2016 and more; the issues around political interference and dark money; and political education, which needs to be so much stronger. The Scottish Parliament now has responsibility for our democratic processes, and the integrity of our democracy is clearly under threat. We need to make sure that we are passing legislation that is up to addressing and minimising that threat.

In particular, two issues stemming from the Representation of the People Act 1983 need to be addressed. Digital campaigning is now a core part of the electoral process. The 1983 act is clear on publications: criminal offences arise when publications do not include required information. That is so that people know the source of what they are looking at. That does not apply just to candidates or parties; it applies to everyone. Publishing online, including via social media, is not just like chatter around the water cooler; rather, it is a core campaign tool, and it deserves the same level of regulation.

The Finance and Constitution Committee did not recommend that either the Electoral Commission or a new body should rule on the question of providing objective information, but misleading information is far more powerful in this digital age, when rumours or deliberate misrepresentation can go viral and can become unchallengeable very quickly.

As regards the aspect of the 1983 legislation that proposed criminal offences for misrepresenting the character of an election candidate, we need to find a way to translate that principle into a relationship with referendums, so that the requirements for honesty—not just from campaign bodies, politicians and activists, but from everybody—are applied in the same way in relation to referendums as we expect and hope them to be applied in relation to elections.