Bill Walker: the poster boy for a recall law

The issue of recall raises its head today as Bill Walker, the MSP for Dunfermline, has been found guilty, as the BBC reports, of 23 charges of domestic abuse over a 28 year period.

The 71-year-old, from Alloa, had denied 23 charges of assault and one breach of the peace, but was found guilty of all charges at Edinburgh Sheriff Court.

Walker, who will be sentenced next month, has been urged to stand down as the independent MSP for Dunfermline.

He had been elected in 2011 as an SNP MSP, but was suspended by the party after the allegations emerged.

Walker was later expelled, but continued as an independent.

He will be sentenced on 20 September, but would only be disqualified as an MSP if he was jailed for more than a year.

Thing is, as Scottish legal blogger Andrew Tickell points out, he can’t be disqualified as the maximum sentence that the Sheriff can impose is a year because the Procurator Fiscal decided to allow a trial by sheriff alone. Had he been tried by a jury, he’d have been eligible for up to five years in prison.

Of course, he may not have been sentenced to more than a year, but at least it would have been an option.

The power to disqualify from the Parliament is, apparently, reserved to Westminster. I had a brief moment of hope when I read this clause of the Scotland Act 2012:

For the purposes of sub-paragraph (3)(c), the function of Her Majesty of making an Order in Council under section 15(1) or (2) (power to specify persons disqualified from membership of the Parliament) is to be regarded as being exercisable within devolved competence.

Apparently, it doesn’t apply, sadly.

We now have a situation where a man convicted of 23 instances of domestic abuse against 4 different women over almost 3 decades is given a choice as to whether he continues in his £56,000 a year job or not. Even if the man never shows up again within the Holyrood building, he can still pick up his pay cheque. Surely this is simply not acceptable in a modern society.

This is the most powerful argument yet for a power of recall. MPs need to stop faffing about and let Nick Clegg get on with introducing such legislation. If the baseline is a criminal conviction like this, then I don’t think anyone could possibly argue against it.

Scotland’s political leaders have been united in their calls for him to go – First Minister Alex Salmond, Labour’s Jackie Baillie and our Willie Rennie have taken a strong stand. Willie was short and sharp with his comment:

What sort of message would it send to victims of domestic abuse if Bill Walker was allowed to keep his seat in Parliament despite his conviction?

He has to go and he has to go now.

Our MPs need to take the initiative on this and collectively push for change. I wonder if we need an emergency motion at our Conference to keep the issue in people’s minds.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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24 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Aug '13 - 5:24pm

    The law needs to be changed, I’m against witch hunting. Maybe a recall law is the right one, maybe it isn’t.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Aug '13 - 5:55pm

    But, Eddie, this is someone who has been convicted after a trial in a court of law. Surely a 28 year record of violent abuse of a number of women is enough to warrant disqualification from Parliament?

  • Clear Thinker 22nd Aug '13 - 6:13pm

    Isn’t recall about whether a constituency is being actually represented or not? Wouldn’t this be instead about whether a person is a fit person to represent constituents?

    Perhaps, if any MP is convicted of a serious or violent crime, this should trigger an automatic debate in parliament at a minimum, and a consequent immediate expulsion of the debate goes against the offender? This might at least avoid the impression that the judiciary has undue political decision-power.

    But maybe the offender, if free, should be allowed to contest the consequent by-election, so that the constituents can make the final judgment on suitability?

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Aug '13 - 6:15pm

    My initial reaction was shock that someone could stay in parliament after such a conviction. However then I thought about it from a human/criminal rights perspective and wondered how long ago these crimes were and whether or not he had rehabilitated. I also thought how his work might help him to rehabilitate.

    I think it is probably right that he goes, but I didn’t want to say so without knowing enough about the case. Two principles struck me that need to be considered in any future law:

    1. All crimes of a similar severity/grade should be treated the same.
    2. All jobs should be treated the same.

    I am less sure about whether all jobs should be treated the same, but one thing that strikes me is the fact we haven’t already got a good process for dealing with such cases, so we need one.

    I think a recall law is probably the best way forward because if the electorate can “hire” an MP, they should also be able to “fire” one.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Aug '13 - 6:45pm

    Eddie,

    He has shown absolutely no remorse for what he’s done. He basically called the women liars and said that what they were saying was madness. The evidence of a trial over several weeks sounded pretty compelling, but he’s being very bullish about it.

    The reason why he shouldn’t be an MSP is that quite often women go to see MSPs for quite serious problems, often to do with abuse. Is it fair to ask them to go to see a convicted unrepentant abuser. How can he empathise with them and work on their behalf?

    Also, what does it say to victims of domestic abuse when a convicted unrepentant abuser is allowed to vote on issues which may impact on domestic abuse in Parliament?

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Aug '13 - 6:56pm

    Caron, I’m not an expert on the case, I just think these things should be dealt with via a proper process rather than hounding people.

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Aug '13 - 6:59pm

    As you have said in the past Caron, people should put people in other people’s shoes more. We can’t just character assassinate people we don’t know.

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Aug '13 - 7:02pm

    And don’t play the old “how can you stick up for a nasty criminal” game because we should all believe in human rights. I’m not saying he should stay, I’m just saying we should think about all sides of the argument and get a proper process in place.

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Aug '13 - 7:26pm

    I read that he is being sentenced on the 20th of September and if he is convicted for more than a year he will be disqualified. If we disagree with this then we need to campaign for the law to be changed. We must have rule of the law and not rule of the mob.

  • “MPs need to stop faffing about and let Nick Clegg get on with introducing such legislation. ”

    It’s Nick’s area of responsibility. If he wants to introduce such legislation (which was supported by all 3 party leaders in 2010) then its him who can just get on with it.

  • There are multiple reasons why a consituent may not feel comfortable seeing an MP, for example an unemployed person not wishing to be told to “get on yer bike”, a road safety campaigner seeing an MP with a speeding conviction, a man claiming to be falsely accused of domestic violence seeing an MP who is known to be a previous victim of domestic violence and a current campaigner etc. The systemic solution is to have STV, giving constituents a choice of a number of MPs they can see.

  • I’m not familiar with Scottish law, but in England a lower (Magistrates’) court could commit a defendant to a higher (Crown) court for sentence, if it felt that it’s powers were insufficient. Is that not the case in Scotland? Perhaps Scots should consider improving their legal system, if not…

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Aug '13 - 10:54pm

    Simon that sounds like a good idea – to reduce the period required for disqualification from 12 months to six.

    Richard’s solution to give people more than one MP to see by implementing STV is also interesting.

    I wanted to comment on the article because I wanted to support women against domestic abuse, but then I generally dislike groups pressuring others to do things that they don’t want to; hence I emphasised a focus on the law instead. I don’t want to fall out with anyone over such issues.

  • Malcolm Todd 22nd Aug '13 - 10:55pm

    What Richard S says is correct; but in fact, as this is an MSP, a (perhaps imperfect) solution already exists, because any constituent of this man who doesn’t feel comfortable going to see him (hardly surprisingly) has a choice of 7 “list” MSPs representing the region to go to.

    On recall: let’s not confuse disqualification with recall. To allow parliament or the courts to eject and disqualify an elected representative, regardless of the will of his/her constituents, is very troubling. Better would be a proper recall system — where it’s triggered by a petition of constituents and the recalled MP is eligible to stand again if s/he chooses. Let the people decide.

  • Alisdair McGregor 23rd Aug '13 - 1:47am

    I’m with Simon Shaw on this; any recall system is easily capable of abuse.

    Now, reducing the threshold on disqualification from a seat, either outright or in certain categories of offences, would seem sensible.

  • I am not sure it is inherently abusive for the MPs boss (his constituents) to simply decide they don’t want him anymore – for whatever reason is important to them. However, it is clearly impractical to have a system whereby Party A can win a seat against Party B by 55 to 45 percent, and then after an interval the losing 45 percent can call a rerun.

  • A recall system is basically a recipe for the degradation of democracy. As Richard S points out, it will mainly be used by sore losers seeking a second chance. It will be particularly useful against politicians who do the right thing even when it’s unpopular. Their populist opponents will be able to jump in with negative campaigning to overturn the far-sighted decision by playing to a short-term popular mood. Much “better” than waiting until the next election, by which time the unpopular decision might have been proved right!

    The only workable variant would be a system where the criterion for allowing a recall petition is stringent and objective. For example, it might be allowed only when the MP has been convicted of a criminal offence (excluding minor motoring) for which the sentence does not exceed the threshold for automatic disqualification.

  • Simon Shaw

    A good analysis of the situation regarding recall – looks great in theory but will be problematic in practice.

    There is one problem though, the Coalition, especially Clegg, made a big thing about this and all has gone quiet.

    If he still believes it is a good idea then he can implement it as, if I remember correctly, it is in the Coalition Agreement. If he no longer believes in it then why not say so?

    I am getting confused on what Lib Dem policy actually is because things I thought were policy are not getting implemented, such as recall, even though they could be whilst things that weren’t, NHS reform et al, are!

    I would like to ask a LD member on here where I can see what the party policies are for 2015 – there is a lot of criticism that Labour have no policies so where are the LD (or Tory for that matter) ones? All I can see now is a hotch potch of Coalition ones but am not sure how they link to the individual parties

  • Julian Tisi 23rd Aug '13 - 1:28pm

    I agree with Caron. We need a proper system of recall. Apart from anything else, we promised it and it would be nice to go back to the voters in 2015 with some concrete achievements in the field of political reform.

    I agree completely with the worry that a power of recall must not be the same as a disqualification. I also agree that we should not allow x % of voters to be the “trigger” for a recall, as otherwise significant minorities could simply force an election to overturn a close election result. But I don’t agree that it’s impossible to set a clear and fair trigger than was not open to abuse. As David Allen says, the criteria should be “stringent and objective” – but that surely isn’t impossible.

  • @ bcrombie

    We create policy at Federal conference and such policy remains our policy until replaced by new policy. Therefore you can get a good impression of our policies by reading the 2010 manifesto – http://network.libdems.org.uk/manifesto2010/libdem_manifesto_2010.pdf.

    I would like to say that after each conference a report is produced that lists the wording of the all motions and amendments passed but I couldn’t see such a thing on the party website. Therefore to discover our policies since the general election you can read the conference agendas (for policy motions) and daily updates (for amendments and what was passed yesterday) and policy papers – http://www.libdems.org.uk/spring2013.aspx.

  • Amalric

    Thanks – does Clegg know where they are?

  • @ bcrombie

    I am sure he read the manifesto but maybe he doesn’t read what is passed at conference or maybe he doesn’t care.

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