THOUSANDS of council staff have been banned from displaying Yes or No referendum badges in their own cars. Some have also been warned they risk breaking new laws drawn up for the referendum if they use council vehicles, such as bin lorries or vans, to display campaign stickers.
With just three weeks to go until the biggest decision faced by Scottish voters in 300 years, staff have been ordered to remove campaign stickers from their cars at Highland Council and to keep their views on the referendum to themselves. Workers in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen are also facing restrictions.
Union bosses have condemned the move – which stems from Scottish Government electoral laws designed to ensure local authorities are seen as politically neutral in the last weeks of the campaign.
One Highland employee was told to peel the Yes stickers off his car which was parked in a public car park during work hours, it was claimed yesterday.
Inverness Unison official John Gibson hit out at the “over-zealous” ruling. “It’s overkill”, he said. “If any Unison member came to me and said, ‘I’ve got a Vote Yes or a Vote No sticker on my car and the council is telling me to remove it’, I would defend their right to put anything they like on to their own car, particularly if it is not being used for work.
“Highland Council does not have the power or the authority to do this. It is an infringement of freedom of expression.”
Mr Gibson said SNP members had e-mailed him complaining the sticker rule was a step too far. “Where does it stop?” he asked. “Could this mean if you are a council employee and live in a council house, you shouldn’t have stickers up in your home?”
The edict was passed down by council chief executive Steve Barron whose staff memo said council facilities and resources must not be used to promote political views. He said staff and councillors must not wear a campaign badge or display a campaign poster while undertaking council duties in the 28-day pre-referendum period.
A council spokeswoman said: “This will include personal vehicles parked at council offices, schools and other locations.”
She added there was no record of an employee being told to remove a campaign sticker from a private vehicle in a public car park, though this might not be recorded.
In Glasgow, similar guidance states: “The display of material promoting one campaign or another in the referendum debate, or which appears designed to affect support for one side or the other, is not permitted anywhere in council buildings.”
It also warns workers against “bullying or harassment of colleagues”.
A council spokesman said the authority was unlikely to have an issue with private cars parked in public car parks displaying badges.
In Edinburgh, staff who may find themselves dealing with the public have also been warned they should not wear badges or other material supporting either the Yes or No campaigns.
Sue Bruce, chief executive and counting officer said: “Staff must remain politically neutral and, as such, customer-facing members of staff should not wear badges or clothing, or display other material which supports a particular referendum outcome when they are at work.
“So far, it appears clear that staff understand this; however any issues arising will be followed up accordingly.”
The guidance places no restriction on staff outside working hours, except for senior staff in politically restricted posts.
The ruling comes from the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013, which imposes restrictions on the publication of material by public bodies in the 28 days before the referendum.
The act prevents those bodies from publishing material which deals with any issues raised by the referendum question or puts any arguments for or against any outcome.
It states: “The act defines ‘publish’ very widely as meaning ‘make available to the public at large, or any section of the public, in whatever form and by whatever means’.”
Donnie Fraser, of the Radical Inverness Yes campaign, said the car sticker ruling was “ridiculous”. He added: “How on earth can they stop people displaying stickers in public places? Are they going to stop workers putting them up in their homes as well?”
A Highland Council spokeswoman added: “For most staff, whatever they do in their own time is their own business, but when somebody that works for the council is at work then they are restricted in terms of wearing badges, or posting stickers on council vans or their own cars within a staff car park.”