Will there be a by-election for Margaret Ferrier's seat? SNP MP suspended from Commons for Covid rule breaking
The former SNP MP could face a by-election if 10% of constituents back it
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Covid rulebreaker Margaret Ferrier could face a by-election as she has lost an appeal against the Commons standards watchdog decision which recommended she should be suspended from Parliament for 30 days.
Ferrier had appealed against the length of her proposed suspension, but the Independent Expert Panel, which considers appeals against decisions by the Committee on Standards from MPs, has rejected this.
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has said the former SNP MP should “do the right thing” and resign.
With regards to Ms Ferrier’s appeal, a sub-panel which considered the matter found that “none of the grounds had substance” and also said that “the sanction imposed was neither unreasonable nor disproportionate”.
Ferrier was found to have damaged the reputation of the Commons and put people at risk after taking part in a debate and travelling by train while suffering from Covid-19.
If a by-election is called, it will mean an early first test of the SNP’s appeal under new leader Humza Yousaf, against a reinvigorated Scottish Labour, which last won the seat in 2017 by a wafer-thin majority.
Labour are calling for a by-election, with the shadow Scotland secretary calling for Ferrier to “do the right thing and stand down as an MP”.
Why is Margaret Ferrier being suspended?
Ferrier, who sits as an independent having been sacked by Nicola Sturgeon over the Covid breach, has already been ordered to complete a 270-hour community payback order by a court after admitting culpably and recklessly exposing the public “to the risk of infection, illness and death” as a result of her behaviour.
Ms Ferrier Rutherglen and Hamilton West now faces losing her seat in a by-election if the proposed suspension is backed by MPs, as anything longer than a 10-sitting day punishment can trigger a recall petition. If 10% of her constituents back it, a by-election will be called.
Ferrier developed Covid symptoms on September 26, 2020 – a Saturday – and took a test, but still went to church and had lunch with a family member the following day. On the Monday, while awaiting the result of the test, she travelled by train to London, took part in a Commons debate and ate in the Members’ Tearoom in Parliament. That evening she received a text telling her the test was positive. But instead of isolating, she travelled back to Scotland by train the following morning.
Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Daniel Greenberg said Ferrier had breached the code of conduct for MPs “by placing her own personal interest of not wishing to self-isolate immediately or in London over the public interest of avoiding possible risk of harm to health and life”.
She also breached the code because “her actions commencing from when she first took a Covid-19 test to when she finally begins self-isolation have caused significant damage to the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole, and of its members generally”.
Ferrier admitted that her actions had breached the rules on the reputation of the House, but denied the other breach, telling Greenberg: “Whilst I made an error in judgment, I do not believe that I placed my personal interest above the public interest during the period in question.
“However, I did make a series of poor decisions that flowed from my original error which compounded the situation.”
She said “there was not a moment where I was consciously aware of a conflict between personal and public interest and made a decision to prioritise my own”.
The Commons Standards Committee recommended she should face a 30-day suspension, which MPs will be asked to approve by a vote, which is almost guaranteed to pass.
The committee, which is made up of MPs and laymembers, voted in favour of the 30-day suspension, although in an unusual step, several MPs voted voted in favour of a nine-day suspension instead, which would have come under the amount of time to potentially trigger a by-election.
While on the campaign trail in Cambuslang, which is part of Ferrier’s constituency, Anas Sarwar urged former colleagues of Ferrier to approve the suspension. However, he appealed to Ferrier to put her constituents first by stepping down from the post.
He said: “At every single stage of this process, Margaret Ferrier has done the wrong thing. She has one final chance to do the right thing and resign as the local MP and allow the people of Rutherglen and Hamilton West to have a fresh start and elect an MP that’s on their side.
“If she fails to do that, then I’m calling on both SNP and Tory MPs to vote for this sanction when it comes before them in the House of Commons and then allow the people of this constituency to participate in that recall petition. I am confident if that happens they will with overwhelming numbers reject Margaret Ferrier, meaning we have a by-election here.”
Constituents are “furious” that the issue has dragged on for “far too long”, Mr Sarwar said, adding “every step of the way, this individual is trying to keep her job rather than actually standing up for the community that needs proper support”.
Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray has also previously said there should be a by-election in the seat. He said: “Margaret Ferrier’s reckless actions put people at risk and rode roughshod over the rules everyone else followed.
“It is right that Parliament has thrown the book at her for this unacceptable behaviour. There are still serious questions for the SNP to answer on what they knew and what they did at the time. Ferrier should do the right thing and stand down as an MP.
“Even Nicola Sturgeon called for her to resign – now (Scottish First Minister) Humza Yousaf must do the same. If Margaret Ferrier doesn’t resign the people of Rutherglen and Hamilton West can exercise their right to boot her from office.
He added: “Her constituents deserve better and that means a by-election.”
If a by-election is called, it will come at a crucial juncture and potential turning point in Scottish politics. It will mark the first electoral contest for the SNP under newly-elected Humza Yousaf, at a time when there are questions about the governing party’s appeal in Scotland.
Newly emboldened by Nicola Sturgeon’s departure and performing well in national polls, Scottish Labour under Anas Sarwar will no doubt see this as a perfect opportunity to take back one of the historically Labour seats it has lost to the SNP, and begin paving the way back to, if not a majority in Scotland, then a significant revival.
Ferrier currently has a majority of 5,230 or 9.7%. She was first elected to represent the seat in 2015, but lost out by a fine margin to Labour’s Ged Killen in 2017. Prior to 2015, the constituency has always voted Labour since it was created in 2005.