Writer and human rights advocate Rob McDowall explains why he’s campaigning for the Scottish Government to strengthen laws to protect parliamentarians
I AM an avid user of social media and I regularly disagree with policies and policy makers on Twitter and Facebook but I always try to do so as respectfully as possible. When you try to make a political point by attacking someone personally, I believe that you’ve lost the argument and lowered the tone into the bargain.
With more politicians using Twitter and Facebook as a means of keeping in touch with their constituents it can mean they are more accountable and visible, but it can also put them within easy reach of those who mean them harm and want to send them abuse or threats.
I believe that no one should be going to work expecting to receive abuse or threats but I do think much more needs to be done to protect our parliamentarians from serious threats or assaults against them, their staff and their families.
The very nature of democracy means that while politicians govern with the consent of the majority, they are often called upon to make deeply unpopular or difficult decisions on contentious matters which may frustrate or anger their constituents.
While we are within our rights to contact our elected parliamentarians and to register our displeasure at decisions made or a course of action taken, we don’t have the right to abuse them, to threaten to rape or hurt them or to attack them or their staff or families.
Last week I introduced a petition to the Scottish Parliament which is calling on the Scottish Parliament “to urge the Scottish Government to bring forward specific legislation, which would introduce a statutory aggravation for assault or threats against the safety or the life of elected members of the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the National Assembly for Wales or the Parliament of the United Kingdom and their staff or families.”
A number of statutory aggravations already exist in Scots law and can affect a number of elements including the way a crime is recorded, the framing of the charges by the police, the availability and willingness of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) to issue fiscal warnings or diversions from prosecution, the marking of a case by COPFS, the weight placed on who the victim is by the court, and the motivation for the offence.
What happened to Labour MP Jo Cox on 16 June 2016 and the attack at Westminster on 22 March 2017 shows us just how serious the threat facing our parliamentarians can be.
Offences committed against police officers and emergency service workers in the course of their duties and offences motivated by race, religion or prejudice are just a few examples of current statutory aggravations in the Scottish legal system.
Parliamentarians perform a unique civic function in the national interest and an assault on them is an assault on democracy. Threatening to kill or harm an elected parliamentarian sitting in one of our legislatures could affect the member’s ability or willingness to proceed with a course of action and could impede them in performing their duties as a legislator.
While we may not agree with some decisions, behaviours or party affiliations of some members elected to national legislatures, these members are duly elected and sit as legislators representing their constituents or respective regions.
This petition would call on the Scottish Government to recognise the unique role parliamentarians play in our society and bring forward legislation to ensure threats and assaults against them, their staff and their families are treated seriously and recorded as an aggravated offence, with sheriffs and judges being required to weigh-up the aggravating factor when sentencing.
Politics is not a glamorous job by any stretch of the imagination and for the vast majority of politicians, money or personal betterment doesn’t even come into the equation. Most are driven by a real dedication to representing the views and needs of their constituents, improving their communities and a desire to make a meaningful difference.
My petition comes from a place of concern and frustration at the increasing instances of the most serious and vicious threats against the safety and lives of those we have elected to serve us and our communities.
My petition comes from a place of concern and frustration at the increasing instances of the most serious and vicious threats against the safety and lives of those we have elected to serve us and our communities within our legislatures.
I believe we have a duty to protect those who represent us and due to the inevitable cynicism it would attract, I don’t believe parliamentarians would bring forward any such measure under their own steam.
It is our responsibility to ensure we provide a safe environment where debate and discussion can take place without fear of serious threats and violence impeding the democratic process.
Picture courtesy of Scottish Parliament
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