Originally published in Kettle Magazine 26 August 2013
POLITICIAN Bill Walker MSP was found guilty of a string of offences that could land him in jail yet, unless he resigns, he will remain a representative until the next election.
The 71 year old Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) was found guilty of over 20 counts of domestic assault and one count of breach of the peace in Edinburgh last week (22 August). The maximum penalty the Sheriff in the case can impose is 12 months imprisonment, which – under Holyrood rules – means that Mr Walker will not be forced out of his seat.
How effective would a jailed representative be?
The job of an MSP is to work for their constituents by raising their concerns in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament in debates, and then in votes. Scrutinising policy and potential policy in committees, and individual casework on their constituents’ behalf.
If Walker is jailed, then the town of Dunfermline and the surrounding area, which he represents, will be left with an MSP whom they can’t approach by most methods, yet he will be paid nonetheless. The only way to contact their MSP directly would be by writing to the prison that Walker is detained in, or by visiting him in jail. Not that he’d be able do much in there anyway.
Of course, it’s entirely plausible that any aides that Mr Walker employs could continue to do casework for his constituents whilst he is away, however, of course there would be no substitute for him in Holyrood’s committees and chamber.
Is it right that someone in jail can continue to represent?
Well, as has just been addressed, the actual amount of ‘representing’ that could be done by Mr Walker is very limited. So, why he should remain in the job and claim the salary?
Of course, that’s not bringing in the fact that Walker has been convicted of violent crimes. It would be extremely difficult to substantiate any argument that Walker is fit to represent after being described by the trial Sheriff as “untrustworthy, disloyal and unfaithful towards others including his present wife.” If asked to pick the three most undesirable attributes in a public representative, surely these would be the three that the public would choose, and in Bill Walker MSP any reasonable person will surely find ‘undesirable’ personified.
The law must be changed to ensure that any public representative sent to prison is automatically discharged of their responsibilities. Especially so in Scotland, as a recent shift in policy has seen that generally only the more serious criminals receive custodial sentences.
There’s no need for so-called “recall” powers to be issued to the electorate, just a set list of events that will result in automatic dismissal. Perhaps we could even call actions that lead to these events “gross misconduct”?
Being elected to public office is a unique position, with the public having no opportunity to oust their representative until the end of their term. Hence, a safety net is provided (in the form of automatic loss of position on being sentenced to a long enough prison sentence) – but there’s no point of having it unless will actually protect the public from unsuitable characters.