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Social Media Consultancies

Volume 639: debated on Wednesday 25 April 2018

The Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland does not currently use social media consultancies and has not done so in the past.

Freedom of information requests published by The Ferret show that one advertising campaign from the Scotland Office targeted small business owners solely in the Secretary of State’s Dumfriesshire constituency. Did he direct his officials in the Department to target his own constituency specifically?

There are very clear rules in relation to such matters. If the hon. Gentleman has any specific suggestion to make, he should take them up through that process.

It must be more than a coincidence that the Scotland Office did a very targeted Facebook campaign in the Secretary of State’s own constituency, excluding cohorts such as those with an interest in Scottish independence, so can he tell the House when he knew that his Department was using social media to target his constituents only?

I have clearly answered the point that the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), raised, and if he has specific suggestions that the very clear rules under which the Government operate have been breached, I would like to hear them. But it is very clear, for example, that the Scottish Government target specific audiences, and if he is saying that they do not, I would be very surprised to hear that.

We have been told that the Scotland Office published numerous Facebook posts to coincide with Government visits, but it appears that only the posts relating to the Secretary of State’s constituency received a financial boost. If that is the case and the Scotland Office is seen to be micro-targeting tailored Facebook adverts only on voters in his constituency, does he consider that a misuse of taxpayers’ money and an abuse of power?

The hon. Gentleman does have a track record of asking questions when he does not know what the answer is going to be. I return very clearly to the point that, if there are specific suggestions that the code under which the Government operate has been breached, they should be made and taken forward in the proper way. But if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the Scottish Government do not target specific individuals with their material, he is misleading this House.

Well, if the hon. Gentleman were suggesting it, he would be, but he is not, so he is not. I am sure that the SNP is not accusing the Secretary of State of impropriety, as that would be the wrong thing to do on the Floor of the Chamber, but equally, I am sure that the Secretary of State is not making any accusation of impropriety.

Cambridge Analytica claimed yesterday that the SNP’s involvement with it was far more than Nicola Sturgeon has previously claimed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the SNP should be far more open and honest about its involvement with Cambridge Analytica, particularly with its own MPs?

Mr Speaker, I might well agree, but as I am sure you would tell me, I am not responsible for the SNP.

Did my right hon. Friend share my interest in the answers provided to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) by Cambridge Analytica yesterday, in the most recent hearing, and does he agree that it is important that the separatists are equally open about how they have used these consultancies?

What I agree with, and this is not necessarily the forum, is that the SNP has a very great many questions to answer about its involvement with Cambridge Analytica. Perhaps Mr Peter Murrell, when he deigns to speak to the MP group, will answer some of those questions for them.

It is rather ironic that the SNP submitted this question en masse, given its subsequent unwillingness to offer basic transparency over the party’s dealings with Cambridge Analytica, but I hope that today the Secretary of State can be more transparent than the SNP has been. While his Government decimate public services, his Department is spending £50,000 on targeted social media, so can he tell us what data the Scotland Office gathered on the public and whether he believes that this was an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money?

The Scotland Office did not gather data on the public. We used established methods of advertising effectively on Facebook. If the hon. Gentleman pays attention to some of the debates and discussions in this House, he will know that many people now gain information through social media, so in terms of the Scotland Office fulfilling its obligation to the people of Scotland about what the Government and the Scotland Office are doing, social media is a perfectly appropriate channel to do it through.