Recent cases of proven and alleged misconduct demonstrate the benefits of a system to kick MSPs out of Parliament, writes Scott Macnab.
Should our MSPs be untouchable? The row surrounding former children’s minister Mark McDonald has prompted renewed calls for a system of “recall”, similar to the kind that operates at Westminster, to be introduced by Holyrood. Or perhaps, a strengthened disciplinary system is needed, which applies just as strictly to MSPs as it does to the rest of us. The case of disgraced wife-beating MSP Bill Walker a few years ago and now the allegations against McDonald have led to a growing feeling that change is needed. There are significant areas of wrongdoing where the current regime is effectively helpless to act against Scottish politicians who transgress.
Tory MSP Michelle Bannatyne, who entered Parliament less than a year ago, yesterday expressed surprise at the absence of protocols in place to deal with such scenarios. “We have a strange situation where someone is virtually unsackable in the sense of the job itself – that’s a problem that we maybe need to revisit,” she said.
The current regime seems to stem from an archaic ideal that parliamentarians are “honourable” members who don’t require the kind of procedures that might apply in workplaces up and down the country. This has been thrown into sharp focus by the case of McDonald which has seen him quit the SNP, but remain as an MSP. He suggests he was about to be ousted in a vote of his former colleagues anyway and jumped before being pushed. But others – including Nicola Sturgeon – say that if his conduct was bad enough to make him resign from the party whose banner he was elected under, how can he stay on as an MSP? A summit of party leaders has now been called for by the Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie. He has been a long-term advocate of a system of “recall” at Holyrood, similar to the one Westminster introduced a few years ago in the aftermath of the expenses scandal.
This can be triggered if MPs receive a prison sentence of up to 12 months – a longer sentence means they automnatically lose their seat – or a ban from the Commons over 21 sitting days or if they submit fraudulent expense scandals. This would then allow voters to force a by-election if 10 per cent of his or her constituents sign a petition calling for their removal. Such a regime is popular elsewhere in the world and led to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election as governor of California after his predecessor, Gray Davis, was unseated.
It’s something that the First Minister has previously backed, indicating during the Scottish referendum campaign that such a measure should be enshrined in the constitution of an independent Scotland. Alex Salmond also lobbied for the devolution of recall powers when Walker was found guilty. These now rest at Holyrood. It would have allowed Walker’s constituents to oust him when he initially refused to stand down following a string of convictions for domestic violence in 2013. He eventually chose to quit. But this could not have been used as a mechanism to try to unseat McDonald in the latest episode.
And even a modified Scottish system which would cover such conduct leads to concerns for the victims involved. Do we really want their ordeal to be placed front and centre of a high-profile public campaign to unseat their abuser or alleged abuser? Others want recall extended even further. The Scottish Greens leader Patrick Harvie is supportive of it applying to blatant breaches of electoral promises. The Liberal Democrats infamous volte-face on tuition fees south of the border is perhaps most high-profile of such u-turns of recent years. But that risks opening a real Pandora’s box, particularly in Scotland where Coalition and minority Government means that administrations of all party political hues have been forced to compromise and ditch manifesto commitments to ensure that the day-to-day business of running the country continues. Should John Swinney have been facing recall when he ditched the SNP’s flagship commitment to scrap student debt within weeks of the SNP taking office in 2007?
Perhaps a more realistic answer lies in a review of the Holyrood procedures in dealing with these situations. A disqualification criteria should surely exist which means that MSPs are essentially subject to the same kind of workplace standards which exist in offices and factories across the country. If they are found to be guilty of gross misconduct, they should face the same sanction as workers elsewhere – the boot. This would be an official and independent process, not a political or even a public one. But that may raise questions about openness and transparency. If an MSP is suddenly ousted over “gross discipline”, people may rightly want to know just what’s happened.
However, if recent weeks have shown anything, it’s been a clear reluctance on the part of victims of such abuse, even in Parliament, to speak out and protecting their rights must be a priority. The handling of the McDonald situation has hardly been a shining model of due process. The SNP’s refusal to publish, even in redacted form, its report has been far from satisfactory. No-one has been clear about exactly what he’s supposed to have done, aside from general allusions to sending inappropriate text messages, showing unwanted attention and abusing his power. There’s no suggestion of abuse of a physical nature. It was only when a letter from his fellow Nationalist James Dornan, which complained about McDonald’s alleged behaviour to the Holyrood Standards Committee, was revealed this week that a fuller picture emerged.
The inquiry was dragged out for months before the allegations were put to him. Two more months went by before he was told of the findings – but even he hasn’t been allowed to read the report. It seems an unsatisfactory process and raises questions about why the SNP was conducting such a probe into conduct which seemed to cover his role as a Government minister and MSP. Shouldn’t this make it a matter for the Holyrood and Scottish Government authorities?