By Richard Wood
Central Scotland MSP Graham Simpson has lodged his proposal for a Removal from Office and Recall Bill (19 January 2022). This potential Act of Parliament is a direct response to the ministerial resignation of then Finance Secretary Derek Mackay in February 2020, as a result of him messaging a teenage boy, and his subsequent disappearance from parliament while claiming a full salary as an MSP.
If passed in the Scottish Parliament, the Bill will make MSPs more accountable to the electorate by setting out new terms to remove MSPs from office where appropriate. The bill has three main functions:
- To remove absent MSPs from office
- To lower the jail time threshold for removal from office
- To establish a system of recall for MSPs
Here are five reasons why all five of Scotland’s political parties should come together and pass the Bill.
1. Democratic duty of participation
Legislators have a duty to act on behalf of their constituents and attend parliament. Turning up at parliament is the bare minimum that should be required of MSPs. Under the status-quo, MSPs can remain in post even if they don’t show up for work (while claiming a salary!). This is simply unacceptable.
The Removal from Office and Recall Bill will mean automatic expulsion from parliament if an MSP fails to show up for six months. Importantly, the Bill will have a provision so that MSPs on maternity leave or those affected by ill-health are exempt from this reform.
This automatic expulsion will address the problem of non-attendance and is the right step forward for Scottish democracy. It is also worth noting that such a provision has existed in government as a result of Section 35 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. To put that in context, the Scottish Parliament is almost half a century behind Scottish councils. It must catch up.
Holyrood must learn from the rules of local government and support Graham Simpson’s bill.
2. Criminals have no place in parliament
Elected officials should act and behave in a way that is expected of them. Standards in public life are extremely important – as have been shown by events of the last few months in Westminster. It is therefore vital that anyone jailed while serving as an MSP should not be in their position.
The current rules ban MSPs from their job if they go to jail for more than a year. This means that representatives jailed for a year or less can remain in post, a loophole that is simply unacceptable. This could have happened in 2013 had Bill Walker MSP not resigned from parliament. Graham Simpson MSP highlights this in his proposal, saying:
Bill Walker, the former MSP for Dunfermline, was convicted of 23 charges of assault and one of breach of the peace in August 2013, yet was sentenced to just a year in prison. If he had not resigned then the Parliament would have had no power available to it to remove him and, consequently, the people of Dunfermline would have been represented for a year by an MSP in jail.Graham Simpson MSP (19 January 2022)
Thankfully, the Removal from Office and Recall Bill will ratify this problem by containing a provision to expel MSPs from parliament of they go to jail for one year or less.
3. Taxpayer money
In addition to the moral argument that MSPs have a duty to attend parliament, participate in debates and vote, there is also the issue of money. Absent MSPs mean wasted taxpayer money.
When Derek Mackay stopped turning up to parliament between February 2020 and May 2021, he cost the taxpayers a heft sum for doing very little – if anything – at all.
The Removal from Office and Recall Bill will ensure that MSPs absent for six months or more (without a valid reason) are booted out of Holyrood. The main argument for this is to ensure that constituents are fairly represented in parliament but their is also a strong case to ensure taxpayer money is not wasted, adding weight the need for change.
READ MORE: Why Holyrood needs a recall rule for MSPs
4. Accountability – why we need a recall rule
The Removal from Office and Recall Bill crucially adds a mechanism allowing constituents to recall their MSPs. This is vital to improve accountability so that the public have a say on members that bring the parliament into disrepute.
Of course, this needs to be done carefully to ensure the mechanism doesn’t become a political tool. Appropriate checks and balances can be put in place, taking a steer from the process set-up at Westminster in 2015. The UK’s Recall of MPs Act 2015 sets out the following three conditions for a recall petition:
- A custodial prison sentence (including a suspended sentence)
- Suspension from the House of at least 10 sitting days or 14 calendar days, following a report by the Committee on Standards
- A conviction for providing false or misleading expenses claims
Furthermore such a system should also account for both types of MSPs elected (constituency and regional). The exact way to do this is hard to say as highlighted in the Bill’s proposals.
5. Positive experiences from Westminster and around the world
Lastly, the proposed measures in the Removal from Office and Recall Bill have been tried and tested elsewhere, showing that they are workable. Upgrade Holyrood advocates for democratic best practice and learning from how other democracies conduct themselves. The functions proposed in the bill have a history of working elsewhere.
The House of Commons has had a recall rule since 2015 and to date has been used on three occasions. Crucially, it has not been used as a political tool and the mechanism is largely viewed as a success. While there are still questions to be answered about how this would practically work for regional members, it is right that the balanced approach of the recall process at Westminster should be the starting point for reform of the Scottish Parliament.
The Scottish Parliament Information Centre has outlined other models from elsewhere where recall rules have been successful.
READ MORE: 5 reasons to ban dual mandates
Next steps for the bill – contribute to the consultation and write to your MSP
The Bill has a long way to becoming law as it needs the support of MSPs from different parties to overcome the first hurdle to be introduced to the chamber. One action to help move this forward is to ask your MSPs to back the motion. You can find out who your MSPs are here.
Another way to help out is by contributing to the open consultation, which will close on 13 April 2022. Make your case for the Removal from Office and Recall Bill here.
You can read more about the consultation and the Bill here.
Where do Scotland’s political parties stand on the bill?
The Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Liberal Democrats both supported recall proposals in their 2021 manifestos, the former’s leading to Graham Simpson’s bill.
Scottish Labour did not include a similar proposal but have since come around to supporting the bill, as reported by Holyrood Magazine. Scotland’s two governing parties, the SNP and Scottish Greens, have yet to voice their support.
These days, Scottish politics is viewed as extremely polarised but surely this is one issue where Holyrood’s five parties can come together. Even if there are disagreements on some of the detail, surely there is enough common ground on the principles to introduce and pass the bill.