In the debate on the European referendum one of the contributions from Philip Hammond suggested that he was creating a special form of public statement that will be limited to Government Ministers when using twitter and other forms of social media, possibly to extend to websites, blogs and facebook? The issue at the heart of this is speech has two significant implications for all of us. The speech was reproduced in the Guardian yesterday:
Explaining the decision, the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said the government would show “proper restraint” when it came to spending and had no intention of ordering doorstep mail-shots in the last four weeks of the campaign. But he said it would be “unworkable and inappropriate” to stop the government publishing material that deals with any issue raised by the referendum question. “Ministers will want to be able to continue making the case up to referendum day without being constrained by fears that, for example, the posting of comments on Twitter accounts could constitute publication,” he said.
The implications of this speech include the following two issues:
As far as the idea that comments on social media do not constitute publication is concerned, this has some real areas of concern. The last Government published a bill known as the Lobbying Bill, or in some eyes, the Gagging Bill. One of the implications for this was that charities seen to be supporting one particular candidate, party or policies of a party needed to register as being politically active and account for their actions and spending. One of the clear areas of guidance that helped charities to know if they were crossing a line into political activity was their use of social media as part of any campaign. How can a Government Minister have the barefaced audacity to suggest that one criteria which is seen to politicise charities does not apply to Cabinet Ministers who are supposed to be serving the public interest? In addition if all of us can be held to account for what we publish on social media, it cannot be acceptable for MPs or Ministers to be excluded from this standard, at any time, let alone at a time when it suits their political interests.
The idea that we are supposed to trust the Government when it comes to spending our money on publication of printed and other materials on a campaign that has been created entirely on issues that they have a political interest in shows how much we need a new way of making decisions in our nation. The same would be true on matters such as the funding of political parties, or on Lords Reform or indeed any issue which favours or disadvantages the views of the party currently in Government. If we are to have a referendum or indeed to reform these issues, it cannot be right to allow Turkeys to campaign about the abolition of Christmas. There has to be a separation between the political views of our representatives in Parliament and their access to the levers of Government in the support of these views.