In defence of Liberal principles

At the (virtual) Party Conference at the weekend, a large number of amendments will be proposed to the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ Constitution. Many of these are recommended by a Working Group (of which I was a member) appointed by the Executive. Others are proposed by the Executive themselves, mostly intended to improve or clarify the wording, and largely uncontentious. There is one, however, which was not recommended by the Working Group and which I believe should be strongly opposed.

Since the formation of the Party in 1988, the Constitution has set out the grounds on which a Party Member can be expelled from membership and the procedure by which this can be done. Until 2009, there was no provision for suspending a person’s membership while the grounds for expulsion were investigated or considered. A power to suspend was then inserted into the Constitution, largely because there could be occasions when the Party’s reputation might be at risk if it did not seem to be taking action about something unacceptable. The length of time for which a member can be suspended was limited to three months, after which it must lapse. The concept of “innocent until proved guilty” is an important one to anyone of liberal mind. Suspension, even for a short time, does deprive somebody of their rights and needs to be justified.

The Executive is proposing to Conference to increase the length of time for which a Party Member may be suspended to six months. I understand that the reason arises from our adoption of the Federal Party’s disciplinary process a few years ago. This process was a response to concern about the Party’s handling of complaints of inappropriate behaviour by Party Members, and it can be quite protracted, though cases now average about six weeks.

The Working Group received a submission that a suspension ought not to be limited to three months when the disciplinary process has been invoked and an investigation not completed by then. The Group, however, considered that the three month limit is still appropriate, but recommended as a compromise that a suspension could be extended for a month at a time, and only when the procedure had been invoked and was not complete. This recommendation was not taken up, and the amendment being put to Conference now would allow a six months’ suspension, whether the disciplinary process is continuing or not.

I have asked on three occasions why the Working Group’s proposal was not thought sufficient, but have received no explanation of that specific point. I believe a unilateral extension to six months of the limit for suspension would pose a significant risk to the rights of a member, especially if (for example) that person is a Parliamentarian or Councillor or aspiring candidate, since the member would not be able to participate in any Party activity while suspended.

We should hope that the Party and its members will always act in good faith, but a system that allows such a long period of suspension is open to abuse and we have seen in other parties examples of how rules can be used to frustrate the legitimate ambitions of their members. We are also the Party that stood up to Blair’s proposal to detain people for 90 days. That was a good example of Liberal principle and we should apply it here too! I hope you will join me in voting against the six-month suspension.

* John Lawrie is something of a legend in the Scottish Party. He is an authority on matters constitutional, experienced senior returning officer, a former Scottish Treasurer and Edinburgh Councillor, who has been a member of the party for almost 60 years.

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5 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 6th Oct '21 - 8:03pm

    Suspension should only be used in cases where, if they allegation were upheld, ejection from the Party would be the sanction. Since these case should be the minority, most complaints should not require suspensions.

  • @Brad Burrows – not necessarily. You might want to suspend someone where their involvement or activity might prejudice the process – for example, if that person is an elected representative.

  • Laurence Cox 7th Oct '21 - 11:41am

    John,

    I think you are quite right on this. There can be no reason for continuing the suspension of a Party member once the disciplinary process is complete; they should either lose their Party Membership if the offence is serious enough, or face other sanctions if convicted of lesser offences. The advantage of staying with a three-month suspension limit to my way of thinking is that it does force the Party to expedite the investigation and come to a decision without unnecessary delay.

    What would be useful, though would be if you were to quote the number of cases that require close to the current upper limit of three months to resolve; for example your average 6-week time could be made up of 50% of cases resolved in one week and 50% in 11 weeks. I don’t for a minute believe that , but if you could say something like 25% of cases are resolved within 4 weeks, another 70% between 4 and 8 weeks and only 5% require a third month, that to me would be a more convincing argument than just quoting the 6-week average.

  • David Evans 7th Oct '21 - 11:42am

    John, If I had a vote in Scotland I would be with you on this. All the best.

  • An interesting article and I side with John in this regards. The central theme of Innocent until proven guilty is the central theme in our public lives, however the pressure of trial by media and the onslaught this can cause has probably resulted in this rule. Maybe a set time period in which the evidence can be gathered and the person having the right to challenge in front of a membership board

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