The opportunity to shadow a serving MSP has been something that was an eye-opener for myself and completing this internship gave me an insight into the inner workings of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party in the higher echelons of Scottish politics. This short blog serves to detail the learning over the course of my internship.
I worked closely with Sophie Castle, Parliamentary Researcher for Annie Wells MSP, as well as Ewan McQueen. On the first day, 8th May, my tasks involved a round-up of Glasgow news from the local press. The reason behind this was to get key stories (such as the banning of rogue landlords in Glasgow, Blindcraft job cuts after a £500k funding cut and Scotrail failings brought) to the attention of Annie Wells.
I researched the legislation, which if introduced, would make it a legal requirement for all landlords to register with the relevant Licensing and Regulatory Committees in their areas before ‘Fit-for-Purpose’ certification is issued. The purpose being to prevent unscrupulous landlords taking advantage of tenants desperate for housing; for example due to lack of social housing or inability to get onto the property ladder. MSP Anne Wells is interested in ensuring that her constituents have access to a reporting system, designed to ensure that certification is carefully monitored, thus protecting both the landlords and their tenants.
On this day, I sat in the chamber to observe the Justice Committee discussing the ‘Management of Offenders Bill’, which makes a provision for electronic tagging of offenders amongst other changes. The Glasgow constituency has an increasing number of offenders on e-tags, who need to be monitored for compliance with restrictions on movement as part of their release from custodial sentences, as well as restriction of liberty orders, drug treatment and testing orders.
In addition to this, I prepared a debate briefing for the MSP on ‘Everyone’s Business Campaign’, which focused upon maternal mental health for all pregnant women up to twelve months after giving birth. Anne Wells has a clear vision and interest to see all women across the Scotland and the United Kingdom get consistent, accessible and quality health care and support for their mental health.
Other key business of the day involved sitting in the chamber while Humza Yousaf, MSP for Glasgow Pollok and the then Transport Minister, fielded questions regarding the poor performance of ScotRail, cancellation of train services, and failures on 75% of key performance indicators. This gave me a view that the responsibility lies with the ministers and that the government officials and staff must abide by and offer explanations of their work to peers, members of the opposition and their constituents.
The second week of the internship began with a round up of the Glasgow news. There was an increase in gun crime and gang activity in the Central Belt, with a reported 164 known gangs to the police. The reports also stated that there was an increase in the use of drugs in public areas within Glasgow City Centre, such as Renfrew Street, which now resembles a shooting gallery, with needles, alcohol bottles, other drug paraphernalia and rubbish, and use as a toilet.
I also had the opportunity to finally meet with Annie Wells to discuss key issues that she wanted to tackle and for me to research upon during my internship. Key issues included research on tackling hate crime on social media platforms and what the key social media organisations are doing. As part of my research, I had to review policies by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. Included amongst my research were the changes to the law and processes into hate crime reporting in Scotland, and how that impacted upon the law makers, Police Scotland and victims of hate crimes. My report at the end of the blog.
In addition to this, I discussed the implementation of advocacy groups with Annie Wells, which in secondary schools to give pupils an opportunity to speak to teachers and peers about any issues that they face without fear of prejudice. This is a scheme which has already been trialled in six schools in Glasgow, and there is a desire to roll it out to schools across the Glasgow City Council catchment area.
I compiled a report on the No Problem Here – Understanding Racism in Scotland book which was recently published. A summary of this report for Annie Wells MSP confirmed that there is a leadership vacuum when it comes to tackling discrimination in Scotland.
The Scottish Government, politicians and employers have been urged to tackle the country’s problem of racism by authors of the book. My research also looked at a British Social Attitudes report in 2013 which stated that despite the talk of the rise of far-right sentiment in the UK, there is data to demonstrate that racial prejudice is on the decline. It needs to be stated, however, that this report was published prior to the 2015 IndyRef in Scotland and the Brexit vote of 2016. The authors of this report would do well to revisit their recommendations and conclusions, further reviewing their findings and demonstrating if they are still consistent with attitudes in modern day Britain.
Whilst there is a momentum towards dealing with the problem, this is a result of two powerful long term social trends, such as the generational shifts in attitudes and rising educational level. This serious problem needs to be tackled head-on and society must realise that Scotland is no more immune from racism and Islamophobia than anywhere else and must guard against a head-in-the-sand approach to racism, which leads to complacency and resentment.
Policy measures to reduce inequality such as addressing educational inequalities, active labour market policies (which are targeted not only towards ethnic minorities but residents in deprived areas), improving careers services at further education colleges and universities, the extension of the Equality Act 2010 to cover the private sector, perhaps with monitoring and enforcing arrangements. The final point could also be developed into voluntary schemes for ethnic minority monitoring and reviewing the Scottish Government policies for reporting hate crimes.
Initiatives and support for tackling racism in Scotland – Recommendations and future references made to the MSP.
Deal with the institutional, structural and direct racism by organisations and individual employers. It has been suggested that introducing quotas based on ethnicity to redress the imbalance and implement an outcomes-based policy approach may ensure equality.
Ensure that Glasgow City Council have a commitment to achieving equality and diversity within their workforce.
Implement the Scottish Government Race Equality Action Plan published in December 2017 which includes key actions to be taken in areas including education, employment and housing. These initiatives are aimed at breaking down barriers that prevent people from minority ethnic communities from realising their full potential.
Continued cross party support and welcoming attitude to migrants from all major parties. There is an acknowledgement that political debate around issues on immigration and racism is “healthier” at Holyrood that that at Westminster.
I shadowed the Policy and Research team for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party at the Scottish Parliament, getting an understanding of their day-to-day roles and responsibilities.
Their key role is to shape the latest thinking and policy work of the Scottish representatives to the Scottish Parliament. I spoke to Gordon who demonstrated how the team’s research strategy as well as their planning and development ensured that their research was fit for purpose. In an ever changing political landscape, this is crucial in supporting the high-quality research carried out daily.
Their work is to promote responsible conduct of research and compliance with the party’s requirements, including operation of ethics procedures and policy. This team develops recommendations with politicians and policymakers across Holyrood to improve the lives of their constituents and challenge the Scottish Government to create changes to policy, and improve the integration of local knowledge and research-based evidence into policy-making. This team delves into the statistics and archives of information, and funded by a pool which all Conservative MSP’s contribute towards.
I prepared a report for the MSP which looked at the funding cuts by Glasgow City Council to its Arm’s Length and External Organisations (ALEOs). Glasgow's budget for local services remains under substantial pressure. The amount of money set aside for local government has fallen - and the share of the national budget that is then allocated to Glasgow has also declined. As a result, the council had reduce its spending while trying to increase its income to balance the city's budget, which it is legally required to do. These cuts have had a negative effect on the communities that the MSP represents.
For example as a consequence of the cuts, ALEOs such as a Glasgow Life have found it difficult to deliver cultural, sporting and learning events for disadvantaged groups including over 65s, women, and young children. The impact of this will be felt far and wide by organisations such as the NHS which will have to deal with more cases of ailments related to poor health and obesity. This is extremely concerning as Scotland is already ranked as the most obese country in Europe, with more than 1 in 3 in children affected.
In my report, I noted that obesity in children is strongly associated with risk factors for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, orthopedic problems, mental disorders, underachievement in school and lower self-esteem. In adults, obesity is linked to cardiovascular, respiratory and many other chronic health problems. Instead of cutting funding to Glasgow Life and ALEOs, the Glasgow City Council must recognise that promoting physical activity for underrepresented groups as part of everyday life would improve the health of those especially those from a poor socio-economic background.
Day Two Article
Protecting social media users from hate and abuse.
Policies and practice.
Protecting communities from hostility violence and bigotry is at the forefront of the Government’s commitment to tackling hate crime, underpinned by some of the strongest legislation in the world. The Home Office (2016) published a plan to tackle hate crime over the next four years.
Two years into that plan, there has been a shift in the political paradigms in Scotland and globally, with an increase in the use of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram amongst many others. The rise of anonymous accounts and fake news reporting has presented a new challenge to social media organisations and public bodies tasked with protecting citizens and users. There needs to be an understanding from all interested stakeholders covering hate crime on social media. Currently, groups are protected by hate crime legislation based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and transgender identity.
What remains clouded, however, are the active policies applied by social media organisations in tackling these crimes committed by users under the guise of various profiles, termed ‘keyboard warriors’. A lot of these users firmly believe that hiding behind an internet enabled smartphone or computer, allows them to break the law, thus failing to uphold the shared value of co-existence of different people which underpins the British way of life.
Platforms use their terms and conditions to set out key information about who can use the service, what content is acceptable and what action can be taken if users don’t comply with the terms. We know that users frequently break these rules. In such circumstances, the platforms’ terms state that they can act, for example they can remove the offending content or stop providing services to the user. However, we do not see companies proactively doing this on a routine basis. Too often companies simply do not enforce their own terms and conditions! The Government wants companies to set out clear expectations of what is acceptable on their platforms in their terms, and then enforce these rules using sanctions when necessary. By doing so, companies will be helping users understand what is and isn’t acceptable. There are strong indications that anonymous abuse is a problem online. The Chartered Institute for IT Consultation advises that companies should encourage people to use their real identity when using social media. Companies need to pay attention to taking actions against users that hide behind accounts to abuse others.
Facebook states that it has a clear policy under their Community Standards policy rationale, which covers harassment based upon unwanted and malicious contact on their platform. Whilst there is a clear policy which addresses content which falls foul of their community standards and which states that members of the community should feel safe and respected, there is evidence detailed below which demonstrates that users have openly abused others based upon the detailed characteristics without any form of retribution being applied.
The reason behind this? Facebook algorithm!
When a user pushes the ‘Report Abuse’ button, there is complex mechanism which kicks in. This allows for dedicated teams at Facebook to follow the flowchart above to resolve complaints and conflicts. The allocated teams can determine that reported content violates the site’s policies and/or Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, and the teams have the authority to remove it and warn the person that posted it. In addition, the team can revoke a user’s ability to share types of content and use certain features, disable the account, or if need be, report to law enforcement. However there is no clear evidence to confirm that the latter has been done and no figures exist on the number of accounts reported to law enforcement. Facebook have not chosen to publish this information publicly in the United Kingdom, as the government here does not have jurisdiction over the social media site, whose offices in Europe are in Dublin, ROI.
Whilst the site defines hate speech and protects those are directly affected by publishing hate speech policy, it is interesting to note that Facebook also allows for users to share content which contains hate speech for the purpose of raising awareness or educating others or use words that are used self-referentially or in an empowering way, with a nod to allowing users to clearly indicate their intent. They claim that it allows them to better understand why they shared it. Often, users will not feel the need to explain their actions. This allows for confusion. While Facebook claims that it allows for humour and social commentary related on these topic, believing that people are more responsible when they share that kind of commentary using their authentic identity, users will abuse this stance and proceed to commit and encourage others to engage in abuse.
Where is the imaginary line in the sand which is not to be crossed?
It is critical to note that Facebook’s Bullying Policies do not apply to public figures to allow for discourse that includes critical discussion of people who are featured in the news or those with a large public audience. Surely, this encourages users of the site to freely and openly abuse esteemed members of the public such as government officials, knowing that they will not be censured?
Twitter’s Hateful Conduct Policy means that unbecoming behaviour is not tolerated and encourages users to report it. Accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others based on protected categories are not allowed.
Once again, like Facebook, Twitter states that the context in which tweets are posted may seem abusive when viewed in isolation, but may not be when viewed in the context of a larger conversation. Reports of violations are encouraged from anyone; however, they emphasise the need to hear from the target to ensure that they have proper context. This would mean that if the intended victim does not report the abuse, Twitter do not follow it up!!
While the number of reports received do not impact whether something is removed, it helps in establishing the hierarchical order in which it gets reviewed. There is a clear focus on enforcing the policies on behaviour, with the consequences for violating rules varying dependent upon the severity of the violation and the poster’s previous record of violations. Possible sanctions include asking the poster to remove the offending tweet before they can tweet again, suspending and account and removing the account. Twitter applies a robust guideline by permanently suspending users who attempt to circumvent an abusive behaviour ban from the site.
The recently published Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper has looked at how to ensure that Britain is the safest place in the in the world online. The strategy considers the responsibilities of companies like Facebook and Twitter, among others, to their users and the application of technical solutions to prevent online abuse. This is vital in the introduction of technological solutions to online harms, the social media code of practice, transparency of reporting and a social media levy. The Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper sets out that the Governments should to work closely with industry and explores why it is critical to improving users’ experience online. Users must be free from fear of abusive or harassing behaviours and harmful or illegal content. The Digital Charter should be enforced for the norms and rules for the online world and putting them into practice.
Social media companies must have a legal liability for the illegal content which is shared on their sites, including considering how they could get more effective action through better use of the existing legal frameworks and definitions. Online platforms need to take responsibility for the content they host. Whilst progress has been made in removing illegal content, particularly hate and abusive material, a lot more needs to be done to reduce the amount of damaging content online, legal and illegal.
Thirty-two percent of respondents to a survey agreed that social media platforms have a duty of care to remove and reduce inappropriate behaviour or content on their platforms. Developing options for increasing the liability for online platforms must also include examining how existing frameworks and definitions can be made a lot better, and what the regime liabilities should look like. The digital economy needs to tackle illegal content for it to continue to thrive and must work closely with the full range of stakeholders who have an interest in this area, including technology companies and international partners.There should be a greater consistency across platforms so that users understand what standards of behaviour are acceptable across the whole online ecosystem and what can be done to tackle content which falls short of this. Individual companies have made progress and most of industry respondents have terms and conditions relating to online safety in place already.
There are also several voluntary initiatives and pieces of guidance that have helped to set direction for online safety. But some consultations revealed that the gap between users’ experiences online and the response from the companies in dealing with abusive users.
Key to this discrepancy is whether the measures that have been taken are consistent across technology firms of all sizes. To date, it’s been the largest platforms who have taken the biggest steps forward in relation to online safety. This is understandable as they have the largest user bases and the greatest amount of resource to invest in safeguarding their users. It was also these larger, more established technology companies that provided responses to our consultation and highlighted their achievements in this area.