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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 12 November 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Sheku Bayoh, European Union Citizens’ Rights, Decision Time, Intimidation in Public Life


Intimidation in Public Life

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-19251, in the name of Rachael Hamilton, on tackling intimidation in public life. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the announcement from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Jo Cox Foundation that they will work together on a Joint Standard of Conduct that will set out the minimum standards of behaviour expected from all political party members in order to reduce intimidation and abuse in public life and raise public awareness about its impact, including in the Scottish Borders; understands that a survey by BBC 5 Live found that 90% of MPs elected in 2017 said they experienced some form of abuse, while the Intimidation in Public Life: A Review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life report found that people are being put off from standing for elected office as a result of intimidation; further understands that the Scottish Women’s Convention has noted that “A huge amount of the abuse directed at female parliamentary candidates in particular is highly sexualised and dangerous”; believes that this is yet another barrier for women to be elected to public office, and notes calls for the Parliament to establish a similar Code of Conduct that would assist MSPs and Scottish parliamentary candidates to reduce intimidation and help victims deal with problems effectively as it considers that reducing intimidation is one way that the Parliament and other elected bodies in the UK can empower more women to stand for election and help achieve equal gender representation.


Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I thank colleagues from all parties for signing my motion and allowing us to debate this important issue. I pay tribute to the Jo Cox Foundation, which, together with the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has been working on a joint standard of conduct for all political parties to adhere to. It will set out the minimum standards of behaviour expected from all political party members in order to reduce intimidation and abuse in public life.

Britain’s liberal democracy has universal admiration across the world. Above all, we are lucky to be defined by our freedom of expression and thought. Significantly, our ability to argue from different viewpoints is the cornerstone of respectful debate. Jo Cox said that we have

“more in common than that which divides us”.—[Official Report, House of Commons, 3 June 2015; Vol 596, c 675.]

Indeed, win or lose, opinions can be changed and progress achieved. In the Scottish Parliament, we have a responsibility to create a culture of respect and to set a dignified tone, regardless of our differing views. In a speech on standards in public life on 6 February 2018, Theresa May said that it is incumbent on us all in public life to

“accept our responsibility to help sustain a genuinely pluralistic public debate.”

However, the sad reality is that democracy is in decline. On top of that, respectful discourse is being undermined and disagreement is leading to intimidation. Could the Rubicon have been crossed? Can we reverse the course?

I want to take members back to the general election in 2017, which was described as “toxic” and “divisive” and in which we saw a marked increase in abuse and intimidation experienced by candidates of all parties. Death threats, rape threats, misogyny, antisemitism, racism, homophobia and criminal damage all feature in recollections of that election. A survey that was carried out by BBC Radio 5 Live in that year contacted all 630 Westminster MPs and asked about their experiences. Of the 113 who replied, 77 of whom were male and 36 of whom were female, just over half—51 per cent—said that the 2017 general election campaign had been the worst that they had ever experienced. Nearly all the MPs—87 per cent—said that they had faced some form of abuse on the campaign trail.

It is accepted that many of us experience the rough-and-tumble element of being in public life, and we are described as Teflon coated and thick skinned, but does that mean that intimidatory behaviour is acceptable? Robust discussion is of course essential, but sadly it is now commonplace to be heckled at hustings or shouted at from across the street. Moreover, in the rise of social media, we face a bigger threat that has seen insults take on a nastier and more personal edge. Social media is undoubtedly a great way for us to engage with constituents and voters, but it has become more unsociable than sociable. It is a conduit for vitriol or hurtful remarks that are designed to intimidate and which are made in the blink of an eye by anonymous individuals. Would people go to the pub and speak to someone who they do not know in the same way?

Oliver Dowden MP said:

“For those in public life, it has become harder and harder to conduct any political discussion, on any issue, without it descending into tribalism and rancour. Social media and digital communication—which in themselves can and should be forces for good in our democracy—are being exploited and abused, often anonymously.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 5 November 2019; Vol 667, c 71WS.]

Although robust legislation is in place, in the form of section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, it is worth noting that in Lord Bracadale’s recent review of Scottish hate crime legislation various groups believed that legislation on online abuse should be tightened.

My family and friends tell me that they do not know how I put up with the abuse that I get on social media. It might come as a surprise to members, but I am not as bothered by it as my friends and family are, because online tools are also my friends. I can use the mute or block buttons on Facebook and Twitter or disable comments, but it is traumatic for my nearest and dearest to be bystanders to such abuse.

In that vein, my thanks go to Amnesty International for all its work and for the briefing that it kindly put together for the debate. I agree with its view that we need to see better reporting systems in place, on top of the current options.

No one would disagree that intimidation experienced by parliamentary candidates and others in public life has become a threat to the diversity, integrity and vibrancy of representative democracy in the UK. We know that women and ethnic minority candidates face the worst abuse. The Scottish Women’s Convention noted:

“A huge amount of the abuse directed at female parliamentary candidates in particular is highly sexualised and dangerous.”

Indeed, we are seeing individuals being put off entering public life, evidence of which the Committee on Standards in Public Life found during its review. We are also seeing a flux of female MPs leaving politics, announcing that they will not be standing in the forthcoming general election and citing the daily abuse that they face in their jobs.

We know that we cannot sit back. Tackling intimidation is one way in which the Scottish Parliament and other elected bodies in the UK can empower more women to stand for election and help to achieve equal gender representation and diversity.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life made a package of recommendations for action by the UK Government, social media companies, political parties, the police, broadcast and print media, MPs and parliamentary candidates. One of its recommendations was for a joint standard of conduct for all political parties to adhere to. Scottish Conservatives believe that that would be a good place to start.

I genuinely hope that members’ interest in the debate means that they agree that it is incumbent on us to set an example. With full cross-party support, we could be a force for good in considering implementing similar recommendations to those made by the committee. A sensible place to start would be the setting-up of a cross-party group and agreeing the minimum standards of behaviour that we expect our elected representatives and party members to abide by.

In answer to a question from me on social media abuse, Nicola Sturgeon said:

“We have to start with our own behaviour, call out those within our own parties and lead by example in the standards that we set. If we all do that, perhaps we can play our part in contributing to a much healthier space for public discourse on social media.”—[Official Report, 8 February 2018; c 24.]

Furthermore, parties could agree to incorporate the UK Government’s seven principles of public life in a revised code of conduct to ensure that politicians are aware of what is acceptable both offline and online. In any case in which the code of conduct is broken, the appropriate disciplinary action should be taken in a timely fashion.

In addition, we should consider the implementation of a parliamentary reporting system, with the Parliament issuing clear guidelines. Members should be able to report to the parliamentary body the misconduct of fellow politicians on social media, in a way that would be similar to the reporting line for sexual harassment.

Best practice guidelines for political parties and their candidates should also be issued, with the aim of protecting candidates, volunteers and party staff. A political party should subsequently have to create its own guidance for candidates and volunteers, which should be publicly available.

Last but not least, a robust reporting system must be adopted by social media operators, which already have an obligation to address inappropriate, malicious, threatening or slanderous posts. The recommendations set out in the UK Government’s response to the committee’s review outlined clearly the action that social media companies need to take, including the development of automated techniques to identify intimidatory content posted on their platforms. They must do more to prevent users from being inundated with hostile messages and to support those who become victims of such behaviour.

I thank colleagues for taking a keen interest in the debate. If we implement some of the key recommendations, we will be taking an important step in protecting our political culture from further damage. There has not been enough time to cover other important areas, such as educating young people, cyberbullying or dealing with the explosion of unregulated misinformation—so-called “fake news”. However, by setting a good example in the Scottish Parliament, we can find our way back, restore healthy debate and conduct civil disagreement respectfully.


Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

I am pleased to speak in this members’ business debate, and I congratulate Rachael Hamilton on securing it.

I served as an MP in the House of Commons from 2001 to 2005 and I have been a member of the Scottish Parliament since 2011, and I have never witnessed such a nasty and hostile political environment as there is at the present time. I am sure that we have all—regrettably—been on the receiving end of vitriolic abuse online, in correspondence or face to face. That is not just unpleasant; it is corrosive to the body politic, and that should be a matter of concern not just to politicians but to every citizen of our country.

Although we recognise that democracy as a system of government is by no means perfect, it must be viewed in the round as better than all the alternatives, so we all have a stake in tackling the issue head on, and we in the Parliament should set an example and lead the debate. I would welcome further discussions about how we can best go about that. A code of conduct might be the most appropriate route, but there might be other things that we should look at. A code of conduct could, of course, apply only to elected members of the Scottish Parliament. Political parties’ candidates would require to be dealt with directly by the political parties themselves.

In drawing up any code of conduct, we would have to be very careful that we did nothing that would impinge on robust debate. I differ from Rachael Hamilton: I would include heckling in public meetings in general terms within the boundaries of what we could call robust debate. Robust debate is essential if we are to ensure that we can stand up for our constituents and hold accountable those in positions of power. After all, that is what we were elected to do.

I, for one, was always brought up to believe that, at its heart, politics is about people and dignity, and I will call out without fear or favour any politician—or any political party—who, through their actions and policies, disrespects people, denudes them of their rights and takes away their dignity. I believe passionately in doing that.

I have talked about vitriol, collective actions that we can take and the important need to distinguish between robust debate and vitriol or abuse. Conduct that amounts to intimidation, which is an important issue, can, depending on the facts and circumstances, be a criminal offence under Scots law, so it should be dealt with as such, as should hate crimes, which Rachael Hamilton referred to, and otherwise threatening or abusive behaviour. Those are potentially offences under the criminal law and must be dealt with in that way to reflect the severity of the behaviour.

The issues that have been raised are extremely important, and they would merit a much more detailed debate. I do not have time in four minutes to go into all the issues that I would like to go into, in particular the particularly harmful impact of such behaviour on female politicians. I know that such behaviour has a very negative impact on the willingness of females to consider putting their names forward to stand for election. We simply cannot allow that to happen, because we want to make more progress on female representation and not see that go backwards.

It is important to stress that the onus is on each and every one of us to practise what we preach, to rise above vitriol and to call out abusive language wherever it manifests itself. All politicians must strive every day to raise their game.


Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

I, too, thank my colleague, Rachael Hamilton, for lodging the motion for debate. This debate is especially welcome during an election campaign, when the differences between people and parties are often accentuated.

Of course, on this, we are all in agreement—intimidation, whatever its form, is wrong. However, there is, unfortunately, no doubt that intimidation has been on the rise in our public life, recently. As we heard, the UK Government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life found in December 2017 that intimidation has become a threat to the diversity, integrity and vibrancy of democracy in the UK.

Every one of us will have experienced intimidation, at least to some degree, and several of us in Parliament have seen the full range of intimidation, from mildly offensive tweets to serious threats.

Earlier in the year, I worked with Parliament staff to bring the social media giants Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to Parliament to hold sessions for members and staff, which included online safety advice and how to report online abuse. Since those sessions, I certainly use the “mute” function on abusive messages more. However, as we have heard, although that function stops me from seeing the threats and what people are saying, they can still be viewed by my family and friends; basically, they are there for everyone to see.

Earlier this year, I spoke about a series of online threats and abuse that I had received. It got to the point that I had to contact Police Scotland and the Scottish Parliament’s security team. I would like to take the opportunity in this debate to thank both those groups for the help and support that they offered. Parliament’s security enhancements for MSP offices are very welcome, and I hope that they continue to improve wherever possible.

However, the problem does not go away just because we alert authorities. I have had to vary my route to work: I still cannot believe that. I have also had to change where I hold my surgeries. I used to hold them in rooms in libraries, but now I have to have them in much more public areas. I also feel that I need to watch what I am doing and where I am going, because, on occasion, the threats have come with the distressing knowledge that the people who make them know exactly where I am.

As I have said, I know that I am not alone—it is a problem that people of every party face. I read Derek Mackay’s comments on the issue earlier this year. He said:

“You’d like to think that the people engaging in that on Twitter would never say such things to your face if you met them in the street, but even that's starting to change.”

Sadly, that is the reality. Some people just do not see that their words and actions have consequences, and they set no limit on the abuse that they are willing to throw at others. As we have heard, that will drive people away from politics, and it will stop many young people ever getting involved in politics in the first place.

I hope that people of all parties and the media continue to raise cases when they occur, and to speak out against intimidation in every form. We cannot let intimidation become an accepted part of public life that we just tolerate. I call on every one of us in Parliament to encourage social media users to report online abuse. We must say firmly, over and over again, that intimidation must stop, because the quality of our democracy will suffer if it does not.

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Will the member give way?

Annie Wells

I am sorry, but I have finished.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am glad that you sorted that out between yourselves. I do not need to referee, which is good. Elaine Smith will be the last speaker in the open debate.


Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I, too, thank Rachael Hamilton for bringing the debate to the chamber. It is a timely reminder that we all have responsibilities with regard to our own conduct and that of others, as we participate in parliamentary and campaigning activity.

As I reflect on the early days of the Scottish Parliament and the founding principles to which we all signed up, I remember the optimism with which we took on our roles in public life, and our shared belief that our Parliament would be different and would encourage others to contribute, to become involved, to scrutinise, to challenge and to question. The Presiding Officer will also recall those days.

Challenging, questioning and scrutinising are so important if we are to make good laws that are well informed, and which can be revisited and regularly adapted and improved. That was then and is now about an inclusive Parliament that encourages participation in public life, listens to and learns from voices in our communities, and opens up increasing opportunities for all those who want to have a say in building a better society.

We have the “Code of Conduct” for members of the Scottish Parliament, which all MSPs sign up to. We have to do so. It requires MSPs to treat other MSPs

“with courtesy and respect”,

and not just in the chamber. The debate should cause us all to reflect on whether we and the staff for whom we have responsibility are adhering to that code of conduct. It should also remind us of all the work that we need to do to ensure that nobody is put off putting themselves forward for public office.

I regret to say that there have been occasions when the tone of debate and behaviour of members in the chamber have fallen short in terms of courtesy and respect, and—if I may say so, Presiding Officer—as a former Deputy Presiding Officer, I had occasion to deal with such behaviour from the chair.

Earlier this year, many members from across the political spectrum—two thirds of the eligible members—signed a motion that was lodged by my colleague, Jenny Marra MSP. It put on record the strong belief

“that there is no place for violence or threats of violence towards women engaging in public life in Scotland.”

The motion that we are debating refers to the importance of equality in representation, and we should recognise that we have some way to go to ensure that all of Scotland is represented in this chamber. On women’s voices, I pay tribute to the ongoing cross-party campaigning that is done by organisations such as 50:50 Parliament. I draw everybody’s attention to the current demands of the 50:50 campaign, which is calling for candidate quotas, for all political parties to report on diversity data for their candidates, for an end to sexism, bigotry and harassment in politics, for improvement in reporting mechanisms and for strong enforcement. Some of those issues were raised by Rachael Hamilton in her opening speech.

The motion references the Jo Cox Foundation. I strongly endorse the words of Catherine Anderson, who is the chief executive of the Jo Cox Foundation, who reflected recently that Jo Cox’s murder is a constant reminder that the threat of violence and intimidation towards MPs, candidates, MSPs or anybody else in public life can never be acceptable. She said:

“We all value vigorous political debate and freedom of speech but that should not extend to abusive behaviour designed to intimidate and silence people. It threatens our democracy itself”.

The work of the Jo Cox Foundation and the Committee on Standards in Public Life in developing a code of conduct for which all political parties would take responsibility is welcome. MSPs have a particular responsibility, not only towards each other, but in how we debate and examine difficult and controversial issues.

I said in today’s Morning Star newspaper on protecting and advancing women’s rights that

“Good laws require thorough scrutiny, and as a Member of the Scottish Parliament I will continue to ask questions and listen to women’s concerns.”

I should be able to do that without vicious verbal abuse.

Creating an environment in which we can raise questions and concerns without fear of intimidation would be a good way to value the legacy of Jo Cox and encourage a diverse range of people to come forward to have their say, to stand for elected office and to play a part in public life in Scotland today and in the future.

I thank Rachael Hamilton again for lodging the motion for debate and for giving us issues to consider as we move forward.


The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

As is customary, I begin by congratulating Rachael Hamilton on securing this opportunity to debate the issue of intimidation in public life.

I, too, welcome the announcement from the House of Commons Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Jo Cox Foundation that they will work together on a joint standard of conduct for political parties and I support the call for this Parliament to consider a similar approach, albeit recognising Annabelle Ewing’s point about the practical application and reach of such a code. I also note that often the worst behaviour seems to come from people who are not members of any particular political party.

I also want to thank members, not for their contributions but for their tone. They were all considered and respectful—as we would want wider political discourse to be.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental tenet of any healthy democracy. Members of the public have the right to make their views known to their elected representatives and to protest peacefully if they do not like the decisions that are taken on their behalf. Those are rights that we should all continue to cherish and champion, even—or especially—if they occasionally make us politicians feel uncomfortable.

In return, though, those who campaign and stand for election have the right to freely debate any issue without fear of harm, abuse and intimidation. If, as a society, we allow abuse and intimidation of that sort to go unchallenged, we risk depriving our politics of a wealth of talent, diversity and experience.

As well as having those rights we—including politicians and political parties—also have responsibilities. Those responsibilities, which we have as parties and individuals, include self-policing and, in so doing, sending the message that there are lines that should not be crossed.

As we have heard today, some of the most shocking abuse that is directed at all levels of political office, is most frequently aimed at women, because they are women. That adds to the barriers that can discourage women from seeking public office. Such a situation is unacceptable in 21st-century Scotland, where our democracy must fully represent and reflect the rich diversity of our communities. By our actions as politicians, we should reinforce that.

Members will have read everything that was shared by Amnesty UK ahead of this debate, which illustrates the appalling abuse that is directed at women of all parties through social media. It is often the case that the acts or threats of violence that women experience online, regardless of whether they are in public life, are similar to what happens offline, which is evidenced by the inequality and discrimination that, sadly, still exists in elements of our society. The abuse and the harassment that is experienced online has its own unique challenges, of course. For example, perpetrators find it easier to remain anonymous, and distance is no longer a barrier. The internet provides space in which networks and individuals can engage in such behaviours.

As an MSP and a political campaigner, I have had cause to pull people up—supporters and opponents—on social media because of their comments about the gender or the looks of women politicians or campaigners. The delete button and, sometimes, the block button have had to be pressed on occasion. I know that colleagues will have had to act similarly.

The political parties of which we are members also have responsibilities with regard to considering the message that we send when we select candidates who have expressed dubious or, indeed, offensive views. We are seeing progress in that regard.

As elected representatives, we should not deploy the kind of language that is so unambiguous and contentious that it inflames passions and, whatever the intent, has the effect of green lighting unacceptable abuse of political opponents. There is a clear distinction to be drawn between calling out opponents for mendacity or spin—and maybe even incompetence—and triggering unacceptable levels of abuse, the brunt of which, let us remember, is often borne not by us politicians but by our staff.

As members will recall, a comprehensive review of our hate crime laws was carried out by Lord Bracadale, and his report was published in May 2018. Two recommendations are particularly relevant to our discussions this evening. He recommended the introduction of a new statutory aggravation on gender hostility and the extension of the existing stirring up of hatred offences in respect of each of the protected characteristics. Lord Bracadale set out that that would form an integral element of an effective system to prosecute online hate crime and hate speech.

Following Lord Bracadale’s review, the Scottish Government launched a consultation document entitled, “One Scotland: Hate Has No Home Here”, which sought views on what should be included in a new hate crime bill. We published an analysis of findings in June 2019. As members know, my ministerial colleagues are now considering how best to progress work on developing new hate crime legislation with the intention of bringing forward proposals for Parliament to consider in this session.

The internet is, of course, an integral part of our everyday lives, and we want all citizens to be empowered and to feel confident about accessing the digital world creatively and fearlessly. However, it has become increasingly apparent in recent years that a form of regulation is required to keep users safe online. The publication of the UK Government’s “Online Harms” white paper is an important step towards finding a new regulatory landscape, and we are supportive of developments in that area. We recognise that regulation of the internet is a complex area that needs to ensure the protection of freedom of speech. However, as I said earlier, with rights come responsibilities, and I bet that there is no member here tonight who has not occasionally winced or recoiled when reading social media comments. We expect the UK Government to extensively and meaningfully engage with civil society and relevant groups and, importantly, with industry, the technology community and social media providers around those issues.

The Scottish Government continues to actively engage and work with the UK Government to ensure that Scotland’s interests are appropriately represented, particularly in relation to the development of the UK Government’s media literacy strategy and the work that is being delivered through the UK Council for Internet Safety. In parallel, the Scottish Government is proactively taking action on online safety for all citizens through our national action plan on internet safety for children and young people, the cyber resilience learning and skills action plan and Scotland’s refreshed digital strategy.

Abuse of any nature, whether online or otherwise, against anyone, regardless of whether they are in public life, should not be tolerated. The Scottish Government fully supports the police, prosecutors and our courts in taking a robust approach to dealing with offending against anyone who suffers abuse. In 2010, the Scottish National Party Administration introduced the statutory offence of threatening and abusive behaviour, which provides legal protections for everyone, including politicians and candidates.

It is worth highlighting that the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Management Board for Scotland maintain close contact with Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, and that they regularly discuss electoral integrity and security matters. The Electoral Commission has worked with the national police chiefs and the Crown Prosecution Service to produce two guidance documents for candidates and campaigners. I call on members to familiarise themselves with those guides and to share them with colleagues. I take this opportunity to reiterate the Electoral Commission’s key piece of advice:

“If you feel that behaviour towards you may be unlawful or are concerned for your safety or that of others, you should always contact the police.”

Elaine Smith

Will the minister take an intervention?

Graeme Dey


The Deputy Presiding Officer

It will have to be brief, because the minister needs to conclude shortly.

Elaine Smith

It occurred to me earlier that if, when the Parliament was established 20 years ago, I had received in the mail some of the comments that I receive online today, I would have sent them straight to the police. Over the years, have we become rather immune to some of the abuse because it is on social media?

Graeme Dey

The member makes a good point. The fact that we find ourselves in that situation, 20 years on, does not represent progress in any way. People need to make a judgment call on what is and is not acceptable. We have heard some good speeches about what is reasonable to accept as political knockabout or as part of the process but, self-evidently, there is a clear line that ought not to be crossed.

I will take the Presiding Officer’s instruction to conclude. This has been a good and timely debate. It is clear that there is cross-party agreement that it is incumbent on us as politicians to maintain high standards of behaviour and discourse. However, like all citizens, we also have the right to work and live our lives free of abuse, harassment and intimidation. I will continue to work with members from across the chamber on that important agenda.

Meeting closed at 17:37.