HOLYROOD should change its rules to ensure politicians no longer enjoy protection when committing defamation, an expert has said.

Charles Robert, a senior official in Canada’s House of Commons, said the Scottish Parliament “is better placed than most to finally abandon defamation as a protected right of 
free speech”.

He said defamation has “no legitimate role in the conduct of Parliament and the debates of its members” and is an “affront to the core purpose of Parliament to represent and defend the rights and interests of citizens”.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: CMO Dr Catherine Calderwood resigns

Mr Robert made the comments in a chapter he wrote for The Scottish Parliament At Twenty, a book published to mark two decades since devolution.

Under the Scotland Act, MSPs are protected from being sued for defamation over anything they say during proceedings of the Scottish Parliament. The publication of any statement under the authority of the Parliament is also absolutely privileged.

Recent examples of controversies include Donald Trump’s son Eric accusing Scottish Green co-leader Patrick Harvie of making “libellous statements” in Holyrood.

Mr Harvie had called for the US President to be investigated in Scotland and forced to disclose how he made his millions.

Last year, former SNP health secretary Alex Neil used parliamentary privilege to raise allegations that a Westminster civil servant worked to “deliberately and systematically destroy” a clinical waste company.

Mr Robert, who has been Clerk of the House of Commons in Canada since 2017 and has published several papers on the issue of privilege, insisted the protection from defamation should be scrapped.

He said the guarantee of free speech was originally required to protect parliament from the king and the courts he controlled, and argued a modern legal reality that “admits to a paramount rights-based culture” means the rules should change.

“This shift requires parliament to exercise free speech in a more responsible way, one that is more deliberately accountable,” he wrote.

Mr Robert added the risk of defamation is real and substantial, 
and it has become greater and more damaging in the age of televised proceedings and social media.

He pointed to the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, which does not give its members immunity from defamation actions.

He wrote: “The Scottish Parliament has already provided that any incitement to hatred in debate will not be protected by the free speech privilege of members.

“Out of respect for its citizens, it does not seem much of a stretch to insist that members be held liable to prosecution in the courts if they commit defamation.”

Mr Robert suggested the Scotland Act be amended to remove the protection from defamation, or else create an internal complaints process that could result in suspensions or fines.

He wrote: “In the 21st century, the freedom of debate guaranteed to Parliament and its members that is protected by the courts should not be the cause of unnecessary harm 
to citizens.

“The dignity and authority of Parliament are not enhanced when free speech attacks or damages the name or reputation of a citizen with impunity.

“Members no longer deserve to be completely protected when committing defamation.

“This is a matter that deserves the attention of the Scottish Parliament and, because of its recent creation, it seems better placed to deal with the problem than other, more established, parliaments.

“As is clearly shown by Australia and New Zealand as well as Westminster, the older parliaments remain caught up in their history and have had only limited success in dealing with the challenge even though they have acknowledged the risk.”
He said the Scottish Parliament “is better placed than most to finally abandon defamation as a protected right of free speech”.

READ MORE: Stewart Paterson: Just like Prince Charles, Dr Catherine Calderwood thought she was different

Mr Robert added that defamation “has no legitimate role in the conduct of parliament and the debates of its members”.

Scottish Green MSP Andy Wightman insisted there is “absolutely no basis” for getting rid of Holyrood’s legal protections against defamation, saying they are “an essential mechanism to enable serious matters to be raised without fear of being threatened or shut down”.

He added: “I can’t think of any instance where that privilege has been used irresponsibly in the Scottish Parliament in 20 years.

“In 20 years of Scottish devolution, this has never been abused in my view and it should stay.”

Mr Wightman recently won a £750,000 defamation case unconnected to parliamentary privilege.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Parliament said parliamentary privilege is “covered under the Scotland Act and it would be a matter for the Parliament as a whole if it wished to change that”.

The Scottish Parliament At Twenty is published by Luath Press.