Leaders: Let the punishment fit the crime

Demonstrators called for Bill Walker to resign. Picture: Jule Bull
Demonstrators called for Bill Walker to resign. Picture: Jule Bull
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Wife-beating former MSP Bill Walker is this morning waking up to his first day of a 12-month prison sentence. His three ex-wives and a former stepdaughter who suffered dreadfully from his violence can now feel some satisfaction that justice has been done, though it can in no way compensate them for the trauma they endured.

Any satisfaction they do feel, however, may well be tempered by the fact that his sentence for an appalling catalogue of domineering abuse spanning nearly three decades seems unduly lenient. This was domestic violence of the worst sort – his second wife, who left him 27 years ago, is even now frightened about what may happen when he gets out of prison.

If ever there was a case for a tougher, exemplary, sentence which might help rid Scotland of this all too often hidden scourge, this was it. Men who think that they have a right to assault their wives and children, as it seems Mr Walker did, need to be sent a powerful message that such crimes carry a high penalty. Fem-ale victims also need to learn that police and prosecutors will be on their side if they take the difficult step of reporting abuse.

No criticism of the sentence can be attached to the sheriff, Kathrin Mackie. Her powers were limited by the fact that Mr Walker was tried on summary procedure without a jury. The law says that under this procedure, one year was the maximum term at her disposal and she had no powers to remit the case to a higher court where longer sentences are available.

That she did impose the maximum available term and allowed no mitigating factors, such as Mr Walker’s age of 71, hints that she might well have imposed a longer sentence if one had been available. She certainly saw no sign of redemption by Mr Walker, describing him as being in extreme denial, utterly remorseless and unapologetic, and even believing he had been right to use physical force. Much of this should have been obvious from the police report to the procurator-fiscal. And the fact that Mr Walker’s viciousness was sustained over the 22 assaults with which he was charged, spanning 28 years, including the use of a saucepan with which he inflicted injuries, should surely have suggested that the case should have been tried under solemn procedure in front of a jury.

Had he been found guilty under those circumstances, then the maximum term available to sheriff Mackie would have been five years. Courts can always sentence under maximum limits, but they cannot sentence above them.

But possibly more worrying is the fact that this case was referred to a special domestic abuse court and that it had these limited sentencing powers. What signal does it send to the perpetrators and victims that this is the category into which the justice system routinely places domestic abuse, even domestic abuse of the extreme kind such as in this case.

Yes and No, minister

Yes, minister, the public know they should be using their cars less and doing more walking, cycling, or taking the bus and the train. They know it is good for their health, good for the planet and might even save them a bit of money in these hard-pressed times. You have told them that often enough. I am sure just how you are getting on with that yourself has no bearing, minister.

So what if you are actually taking more car journeys, not less. So what if it is rather a lot more – up from 8,200 in 2010-11 to nearly 10,400 in 2012-13, which is actually a quarter more. Of course the public can still have faith that you are “continually looking for ways to minimise the use of cars for official journeys”. Only the greatest cynic could possibly speculate that George Orwell was doing your PR.

It is true that not only are you making a larger environmental impact but that it is also costing more. Yes of course, costing the taxpayer more. Up from £975,000 to £1.2 million over the last two years.

I am sure the public don’t mind at all that this is happening as the government harps on all the time about helping the environment, reducing carbon and looking at sustainable development and renewable energy. Of course some people struggle to see the universal benefits from wind farms and why the subsidies are just a necessary means of encouraging societal change, but is that not what leadership is about?

No, minister, I am sure no-one thinks there is the merest whiff of hypocrisy over car use, and the expression “environmentalism like charity begins at home” has never been muttered.

This is a courageous course of action, minister.