Lesley Riddoch: Walker situation must be dealt with

Walker seems to have made a point of attending women-led parliamentary events at Holyrood. Picture: Neil HannaWalker seems to have made a point of attending women-led parliamentary events at Holyrood. Picture: Neil Hanna
Walker seems to have made a point of attending women-led parliamentary events at Holyrood. Picture: Neil Hanna
SO THE convicted wife-beater Bill Walker is set to draw a salary for another two and a half years as independent MSP for Dunfermline – is that all right then?

Despite being convicted of 23 assaults and one breach of the peace against three former wives and a step-daughter last week, the decision to prosecute in a sheriff court means Walker cannot be handed the sentence which would trigger his automatic expulsion as an MSP. So – the consensus seems to be – we’ll just have to thole him.

No way.

In our sister paper, Scotland on Sunday, Euan McColm fairly summarised the dangers of changing the current system. Shortening the current one year minimum sentence as the qualification for expulsion from Holyrood might leave campaigning MSPs out on their ear – Tommy Sheridan for example, served several short stints in jail whilst an MSP for fine default and breach of the peace over nuclear weapons and the poll tax.

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Some have suggested the wording of the Representation of the People Act (RPA) could be changed so that “no person convicted of violent crime may represent the people of Scotland”.

So long as conviction for breach of the peace cannot be construed as “violent crime” that may be a solution. But what about monstrous fraud?

Another suggestion – that constituents be allowed to “recall” offending MSPs – appears to have been dismissed out of hand as “a dream for the vexatious and malicious”.

Strange – because Westminster disagrees. The 2010 coalition agreement included proposals for a recall system where an MP was “found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing” and where 10 per cent of the electorate signed a petition calling for a by-election. That’s been watered down. Now a petition will be triggered if an MP receives a jail term, or a committee of MPs rules they should face recall.

Mind you, the principle has been accepted at Westminster. The only argument is over who gets to decide when enough is enough – the courts, the Commons or the constituents. Just before the recess, Tory MP Zac Goldsmith described the use of an MPs committee to judge on a recall move as an “absolute stitch up”, the chair of the political and constitutional reform committee Graham Allen warned: “The restricted form of recall proposed by the government risks creating the illusion that people will have a say in recalling their elected representative while ensuring that this will probably never happen in practice”, and Labour MP John Woodcock asked David Cameron: “Do you seriously plan to give a parliamentary committee the right to block the public’s chance to vote on recalling a convicted MP?”

Radical stuff. But here in Scotland we don’t seriously plan to even debate the public recall option. Is that right?

Of course there are risks associated with action and change. There are also risks associated with inertia – the risk of further alienating a thoroughly scunnered public one year before the referendum vote, the risk of demonstrating that people in high places are immune from justice (again) and the risk of making the law appear to be an ass and the Scottish Parliament not much better. In fact these are not risks. This will soon be the reality.

Over the passing weeks and months as the Bill Walker story develops, the credibility of the Scottish Parliament will be damaged – and the public will not suspend judgment simply because Westminster alone can change the Scotland Act.

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Labour MP Thomas Docherty plans to raise a Private Members Bill in the Commons to call for reform. It would be an absolute nonsense if that call was not the product of a debate by MSPs about what’s best for Holyrood. Who cares if it’s currently beyond their remit? That hasn’t stopped discussion of defence, war, Iraq or nuclear weapons. The people of Scotland expect to hear Holyrood formally debate the scandal of Bill Walker’s continuing presence now.

In reality, MSPs will have to make a multitude of individual decisions. Do they sign Willie Rennie’s petition calling on Bill Walker to go? Once Walker is out from his probable custodial term will they speak to him or decide he has “served his time”?

Walker will doubtless ensure as many people face that decision as possible. Since his violent past was first exposed in March 2012 the Dunfermline MSP seems to have made a point of attending women-led parliamentary events at Holyrood. He even managed to find his way into group photographs of a health group led by a female GP.

What should MSPs, invited guests, members of the public and Holyrood staff do? Pretend he isn’t there? Look the other way? Or get up and leave, jeopardising months of preparation and the precious time of many people gathered for meetings?

Of course a man described as “violent, domineering and relentless” might enjoy all the chaos and attention or might just retreat from Holyrood and claim his full salary without turning up. All possible – all perfectly legal.

One of Walker’s ex-wives has described the MSP as “money-mad” – if that’s true he is unlikely to quit given the rewards of hanging on. And they are tasty. If Walker stays until the next scheduled Holyrood election in April 2016, he will get about £155,000 in salary and around £7k per annum pension – for potentially doing nothing. After all, what constituent, except one unaware of his behaviour, would bring a case to him? What cause would canvass Bill Walker’s support? According to the rules, Walker need not even show up at Holyrood to claim his wonga. That’s the reality that lies ahead. An utterly shameless disregard for democracy.

So MSPs have to make a choice between difficult options – overcome “genteel” manners to boycott Walker out of Holyrood or approach Westminster to change the rules and let the voting public have the final say in future.

Trust is the most precious thing in a democracy and it’s up to the people to decide when it’s broken. Yet time and time again, politicians question the ability of the public to exercise common sense and sort the wheat from the chaff.

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One in five women in Scotland experiences domestic abuse at some stage in their lives and that hurt and humiliation is usually swept under the carpet. Do MSPs intend to side with women or with Bill Walker?