Euan McColm: Debating Bill Walker’s Holyrood role

MSP Bill Walker pictured after being found guilty of domestic abuse. Picture: Neil Hanna
MSP Bill Walker pictured after being found guilty of domestic abuse. Picture: Neil Hanna
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THE problem isn’t that Bill ­Walker, an MSP found guilty of assaulting three ex-wives and a stepdaughter, is unfit to be an elected politician.

The problem is that, in the eyes of the law, he’s perfectly fit for the job.

Walker may last week have been convicted of 23 charges of assault – including an attack during which he beat a teenage girl repeatedly on the head with a pot – and one of breach of the peace, but he’s entirely within his rights to remain the member of the Scottish Parliament for Dunfermline. And those who know him suggest Walker won’t give up the best part of £60,000-a-year regardless of whether he’s jailed next month or not (and a custodial sentence seems inevitable).

The people of Dunfermline are likely to have to wait until the 2016 election before they can get rid. But that – regardless of the deplorable nature of Walker’s crimes – is, sort of, quite right.

First Minister Alex Salmond led calls for Walker to step down following his conviction on Thursday. He described the MSP’s offences as “extremely serious” and demanded he resign his seat to enable a by-election. Representatives of all mainstream parties echoed the First Minister’s words. Walker, who was expelled by the SNP in April last year when allegations against him surfaced, remained unmoved.

But, then, why would we expect this man to do the “right thing” when the law’s on his side? Having been tried under summary procedure, without a jury, in front of a sheriff, the maximum sentence Walker can receive is 12 months. Under the Representation of the People Act (as incorporated, for the purposes of Holyrood matters, into the Scotland Act) a politician must be jailed for more than 12 months to be forced to quit parliament.

A chorus of condemnation and a parliamentary motion demanding his resignation may articulate public anger, but that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. The law’s the law, and it’s an unsentimental thing.

One suggestion that’s floated back to the surface following the politician’s conviction is that we should introduce the power to recall elected members. Effectively, this would allow voters to sack errant politicians, should they succeed in petitioning enough support to trigger a by-election.

It’s understandable after a case like Walker’s that this might seem the obvious solution. It’s not.

Ours is a political culture where opponents will seize on the slightest misdeed – or the appearance of misdeed – to call for any number of investigations. Civil servants spend hours of their (our?) time following up on pitiful wee complaints designed to score political points rather than ensure standards. The power to recall politicians would be a dream for the vexatious and malicious. Can you imagine the nasty campaigns that would follow the introduction of a recall law? I know the sort of people who populate the world of politics and, let me tell you, there are plenty with the energy to whip up a witch hunt.

An alternative suggestion is that the law should be changed so that a simple conviction is enough to bar an individual from office. Again, it’s a bad idea.

We’d end up with a system where a politician convicted for taking part in a protest, for example, would pay for that stand with his or her job. And since we’d be drawing a new line (always tricky) where would it sit? Would we declare that the new threshold should be a month inside? A day? Perhaps a speeding ticket should be enough.

The current law allows for a bit of common sense. It recognises that not every person convicted of a crime is a monster. It forgives (a little) human frailty. Walker’s right to remain an MSP is down to legislation that makes good sense.

That doesn’t mean we should be at all relaxed that Walker can’t be forced out. His crimes were quite terrible. He abused women across four decades and even the most compassionate among us would surely find a lengthy prison sentence to be in order.

Legal academic Andrew Tickell asked a very good question last week following Sheriff Katherine’s Mackie’s guilty verdict: Just how many counts of domestic abuse does a man have to be charged with to face a jury in this country?

The Crown Office has made much of its commitment to tackling domestic violence so, given the seriousness of the charges against Walker, why wasn’t he tried before a jury, under solemn rather than summary proceedings?

Had that happened and had he been found guilty, Walker would be about to receive the sort of jail sentence that would make all of this irrelevant. Dunfermline would be preparing to elect a new MSP, and we wouldn’t be employing a wife-beater as a legislator.

We’re indebted to Tickell for pushing the Crown Office for an explanation as to why the decision was taken to deal with Walker in the way he was.

We now know that the Procurator Fiscal in Dunfermline initially raised solemn proceedings against the politician and that it was on the advice of Crown Counsel – who usually prosecute the most serious crimes in the High Court – that matters were downgraded to summary status. Had the Fiscal’s first thought been allowed to live, then Walker might this weekend be facing the prospect of up to five years behind bars. I’d be fascinated to hear Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland give more details about why this happened.

Those angered that Walker can remain an MSP may blame the law all they like. They can call for new legislation, sign petitions and even lay down parliamentary motions.

But the fact that Bill Walker is free to retain his parliamentary seat is not down to a fault in the law. It’s down to the unfathomable decision taken by those who run our justice system not to stand him in front of a jury. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm