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Commons Chamber

Volume 576: debated on Friday 28 February 2014

House of Commons

Friday 28 February 2014

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

House of Lords Reform (No. 2) Bill

Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee

Clause 1


With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 3, page 1, line 2, after ‘peer’, insert

‘and has been a peer for 10 years and is over the age of 65’.

Amendment 4, page 1, line 7, leave out ‘a witness’ and insert

‘two witnesses, both of whom must be peers of the same degree’.

Amendment 6, page 1, line 10, at end insert

‘after the date specified in 2(a) above’.

Amendment 7, page 1, line 10, at end insert—

‘(5) This section does not apply to unelected hereditary peers who sit in the House of Lords’.

Amendment 8, page 1, line 10, at end insert—

‘( ) An hereditary peer who retires or otherwise resigns in accordance with this section shall be deemed to have died allowing any heir to be eligible to be elected.’.

Amendment 9, page 1, line 10, at end insert—

‘( ) A life peer who retires or otherwise resigns in accordance with this section will upon petition to the Queen be raised to the state degree style dignity title and honour of viscount.’.

With hindsight, how fortunate it is that we are not sitting in private to discuss these important matters, which will be of interest to the nation at large, concerning retirement or resignation from the House of Lords.

Amendment 2 would simply add a line to clause 1 to the effect that a peer may not resign until they have been a peer for a minimum of 10 years. If somebody accepts a great honour from the Crown, it seems to me that they have an obligation to live up to that honour. Circumstances might change and require a different lifestyle that makes it impossible for them to attend the House, but to enter lightly into the receipt of a peerage—that great honour bestowed by our sovereign of being a legislator in the second House of Parliament—and then to give it up after a day or two or, conceivably, even after a minute, seems improper.

People enter into a life peerage, and understand that they have done so for life, hence the name. It is amazing how often an obvious point about something is made in its title. There is no obfuscation in the title “life peer”. It is not a temporary peerage, a Parliament peerage or a dated peerage, but a life peerage. One of the glories of the House of Lords is that it represents age. It is not full of scribbling youths, but has people of mature years, of wisdom, of grey beards, and even of grey flowing locks, which shows how much they have learnt and experienced over the years.

I was here for Second Reading, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and must recommend him to the BBC as a panellist on “Just a Minute”—he would be absolutely superb. In the light of his speech on Second Reading and his contribution this morning, which clearly will be enlightening, may I ask whether he opposes any kind of reform of the House of Lords?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The return of the hereditary peerage is the sort of reform that would improve the quality of the House considerably. I do think that there are opportunities for reform but, as I said on Second Reading—I had better not go through this all again, Mr Speaker—I have concerns about this process for reforming the second Chamber. I think that reform ought to have been proposed in a Government Bill and considered in a Committee of the whole House.

Although the Bill is simple, it would fundamentally change the nature of the House of Lords. Removing the absolute certainty that a peerage is for life would allow people appointed to the House to remain there for a term. That change in structure would allow Governments that are not necessarily as benign as this one—I will talk about this further in relation to some of my other amendments—to ensure that peers are in the House for only a certain period, and possibly to get them post-dated cheques for when they might resign. I think that that reform should have been handled differently, but there are certainly reforms that could be made to the House of Lords.

Amendment 2 ties in with amendment 3. The point of amendment 3 is to insert a minimum age for retirement, whereby no peer under 65 could retire. Being a peer—a legislator in the upper House—should not be a marker in somebody’s career. It should not be a point on their CV so that when they apply for jobs in merchant banks, or wherever, they can say “I was a peer for 10 years.” People who take it on should commit to do so for an extended period, so that if a peer is raised to that rank, style and dignity at the age of 40, there will be an expectation that the major part of their future life and career will be a commitment to serve the House—this country—in the second Chamber.

These two amendments, in essence, offer the House the choice of saying that there ought to be a minimum period and that it ought to be longer than a single Parliament. Ten years obviously equates to two Parliaments under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. That gets away from the risk that people might use the House of Lords as a means of advancing their political career in relation to the Commons, a point to which we will return in a subsequent group of amendments. The amendments are about expecting people to follow through on the commitment they have given, so that when their letters patent are issued they will be doing this for life.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. My preference is for amendment 3, as it would ensure that people retired from Parliament when they were coming to the end of their working career. It is wrong for people to use membership of the House of Lords as a point on their CV. It is not an internship that people do for a little while to get a bit of work experience before taking on another job. It is such an exciting and great honour to have—why would these people wish to give it up? I recall that when Disraeli went to the House of Lords, he said that he was not dead

“but in the Elysian fields.”

Who, having entered the Elysian fields, wants to come back down to earth? It seems extraordinary in the first place that anyone would want to leave those glorious red Benches and the gilt around the throne—the magnificence that the House of Lords shows to the world—and trot out into the humdrum life in front of them. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) asks whether this is a job application. I am by no means grand enough to enter their lordships’ House. I like representing the British people—vox populi, vox Dei—through this illustrious Chamber rather than in their lordships’ noble House. Given the question of why anybody would want to leave, they ought to live up to the commitment they have made. Ten years seems reasonable; I would have been happy with 15 or 20 years.

Moreover, crucially, when Ministers go into the House of Lords they may want to be there only while they are in ministerial office. That is not a proper way of treating the constitution. Ministers who go into the House of Lords ought to stay there for an extended period to show a commitment to the legislature, not just to being appointees of the Executive who are here today, gone tomorrow. These amendments are important and would improve the Bill. Had we been debating them in a Committee of the whole House, it is likely that some of these changes would have been made.

Amendment 4 is about the witnessing of the peer’s statement that he wishes to retire or resign. The statement may be witnessed by anybody, but I think that it should be witnessed by two people, both of whom must be peers of the same degree. Is that because I think that lots of fraudulent certificates will be issued by random people wandering around signing things and pretending to be witnesses to statements that peers have not made? No, I do not think that, but these resignations are essentially proceedings in Parliament, and they should be a formal parliamentary proceeding registered by people who are also Members of Parliament. This would be a safeguard to ensure that somebody did not resign in a light moment and then regret it, or have the statement signed in their office and send it in having been pushed into doing it by offers of who knows what—perhaps an offer of becoming a European commissioner or something grand and fancy such as that, although I know that there is a special way for such people to stay in the House of Lords with a formal leave of absence. We should ensure that the grave and important decision to leave the upper Chamber is made properly and thoughtfully and that there is a formal process by which to register that decision.

That ties in with amendment 6, which says:

“after the date specified in 2(a) above”.

The problem with reading out amendments without reading out the relevant part of the Bill is that they sound rather obscure, so it may be sensible to explain. The Bill says that if somebody signs a form resigning from the House of Lords, that notice is irrevocable from the point at which it has been signed, even if it is a long-post-dated cheque. So if a peer entered the House of Lords and said that he intended to resign in eight years’ time, the document would be irrevocable, even though all sorts of things may change. That person would then be ineligible to be a peer again in future. I think that that is a mistake. There should be an ability to withdraw the notice prior to its becoming effective; otherwise, appointments to the House of Lords are opened up to abuse.

I have heard former Leaders of the House of Lords—noble Lords themselves—talk about what happens when people ask for peerages. It may shock you, Mr Speaker, that people ask for peerages. I would have thought it was an enormous impertinence for anybody to say to the Prime Minister or to the Leader of the House of Lords that they would like a peerage, but people do. Apparently, they knock on their doors to ask to be given a peerage; they queue up outside their offices as though they were waiting for an omnibus. When they do so—I really have heard Leaders of the House of Lords make speeches along these lines—they say anything that the people dishing the peerage out may wish to hear. They say, “I’ll always vote with the Government line, I’ll never disobey, I’ll do what I’m told”, and so on and so forth.

Sadly, I have heard Leaders of the House of Lords talk only in general terms—they have not named names—so the hon. Gentleman cannot lead me down that route, and if I did I might be out of order because saying anything critical of a noble peer is against the forms of this House, and neither would I wish to do so.

There is the risk that peers, before they are appointed—therefore, of course, they are not yet peers—are in the position of asking for something that they want that is in the Government’s gift, and the Government want to have some leverage over them to ensure that they behave in the way the Government want when they are appointed. One of the glories of the House of Lords is that once people are there, they are independent because they are there for life. That preserves them from the terrors of the Whips. We in this House live in daily terror of the fierce power the Whips have whereby they may do all sorts of extraordinary things to us with any amount of instruments of torture that are maintained in the bowels of the Palace of Westminster, but in their lordships’ House those instruments are ineffective—they have rusted away because the peers are there for life. That is a great protection for them. If somebody could give a post-dated cheque—if someone could say, “I will leave the House a few years after going in”—that protection would begin to ebb away. But if they had the power to rescind the notice, whatever they said at the point at which they were grubbing round for the peerage, they would be able to withdraw it, and the independence of being a peer for life would be maintained.

This flexibility ought to be added to the Bill because it would allow peers to maintain that which is the essence of the success of our revising Chamber. What makes the House of Lords successful, and different from this House, is that because peers are not standing for re-election and do not need to be readopted by their parties, and because very few of them are Ministers, there are many fewer baubles that may be offered to them to maintain party discipline.

Party discipline is very important. It is important that a Government are able to get their business through, but party discipline in a revising Chamber is unhelpful, because instead of doing its job of revising it tends simply to go along with what is asked of it by the party managers. That is damaging both ways: it is damaging if Governments do it, because it means that they are not necessarily putting through Bills that have had the wisdom and benefit of the proper revising process, and it is equally bad when Oppositions do it simply to oppose what the Government are doing. We have seen that on a number of occasions in the House of Lords when, out of party loyalty, rather than according to the argument, the will of the House of Commons has been thwarted.

To overcome that, the great benefit that their lordships have is their independence, which is dependent on the structure of their appointment, namely that they are there for life and cannot be removed. Anything that undermines that needs to be done with the greatest caution and have as many safeguards built into it as possible, so that people do not become pressurised to leave at a point they would not choose, because if that happens they would be fundamentally less independent.

My amendment 7 is perhaps a little obscure, for which I apologise. It occurred to me that the Bill as drafted has forgotten about the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal. It is extraordinary that anyone could ever forget about them. I think about them most days, at considerable length, and the many onerous duties they have. Anyone who paid attention to the visit of Mrs Merkel yesterday will have noticed that the event was held at the other end of this Palace by permission of the Lord Great Chamberlain, who has a role in Parliament. He is an hereditary office holder—it is one of the few hereditary offices in this country—of a most interesting kind, because the office is shared between families according to reign. I believe the Cholmondeleys had it for two reigns out of three, and two other families share it in the third reign.

The problem with the Bill is that it could lead to the Lord Great Chamberlain retiring from his role in Parliament but not retiring from his great office of state. We could reach the ridiculous position where the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal would remain the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal but would not be Members of their lordships’ House. That would inadvertently and specifically contradict one of the aims of the House of Lords Reform Act 1999, which took away hereditary peers, namely that of keeping 90 plus two. The two were specifically kept because of their hereditary constitutional role and it was felt suitable that they should remain in the House of Lords. I would be sorry to see something that Parliament deliberately decided when reforming the House of Lords in the late 1990s being accidentally removed, because if the Earl Marshal decides to retire from his public duties when he becomes an elderly man—which in due course of time he undoubtedly will—he will not be able to retire as Earl Marshal.

The amendment covers something that has been overlooked with regard to those great offices of state. It would be a shame if the House of Lords were not adorned in this way. As I said earlier, it is such a wonderful and elegant Chamber, but to remain wonderful and elegant it needs to have these fantastic, historic posts. The Earl Marshal is such an important figure in our history. His predecessors were present at so many of the great battles in which Britain—or England, more accurately—fought. He is a noble, historic figure. We do not want to lose him inadvertently from their lordships’ House, and likewise the Lord Great Chamberlain.

I think it would be an error for some of the organisation of this Palace to be done by someone of the highest rank and in the name of the Queen who was not a Member of either House. I do not think it would be quite as bad as the suggestion sometimes made that Mr Speaker should have a specific seat—which is a dangerous idea because it would take him away from the fundamental part of this House and the position he holds—but it would be heading in the same direction. My amendment would put that right.

My amendment 8 would maintain the hereditary principle, so I expect fierce opposition to it from Labour Members. The hereditary principle is established with the remaining 90 hereditary peers, and those who are outside the 90 are eligible for election. Perhaps the Minister will tell me whether it is still possible for a writ of acceleration to promote the holder of a lower title to be eligible for election as an hereditary peer. He will remember that the now Marquess of Salisbury took his seat by writ of acceleration rather than by being given a life peerage. I am unaware of what the precise form would be.

The amendment tries to make that take effect in the event that an hereditary peer resigns his seat. The title could maintain its representation in Parliament, which is something that has usually been protected by allowing the peerage title to leave the House of Lords only when the peer dies. I think that this is sensible from the point of view of widening and keeping refreshed the pool from which the 90 can be elected. The right to sit in the House of Lords and to be among those elected hereditaries should pass along a clear and defined route, and if the top of the root is cut off, its stalk should be allowed to flower. It might not flower, because it might not be elected in one of the by-elections to the House of Lords, but the possibility of flowering should at least be there. I will avoid further horticultural metaphors, because I am not particularly good at them.

My final amendment 9 provides a carrot. This Bill has a lot of sticks with which to beat their lordships over their noble heads. I hope they will wear their coronets to protect them against the sticks with they will be beaten to get them out of the House of Lords. I wanted to provide a carrot and I think it is a nice, juicy carrot. The amendment proposes that a life peer, on petition to Her Majesty, will be raised to

“the state degree style dignity title and honour of viscount.”

What is the purpose of that? I hope I will not be besieged by noble viscounts who think that I would lower the tone of their fine estate by allowing all sorts of other people to enter into it, but it is only a very limited number of enormously distinguished people who would be allowed to do so. It would be a reward for leaving the House of Lords, making way for others to fill their places and making sure that it does not get overfilled.

I did think of tabling an amendment saying that any peer—hereditary or life—who resigned would be raised by one degree in the peerage, but I did not think that would work, because I could not see where the dukes would go. It is not possible to make a duke a royal duke—that requires a blood relationship to the Crown—so I decided not to go that far. I apologise to the marquesses, who were all getting very excited at the possibility of going up to a dukedom and raising the honour of their family.

I think that a viscountcy is appropriate for a life peerage, because it is one step up in the peerage and it is also hereditary rather than for life. That would be a fine thing for families to have. It would also, importantly, continue the tradition of creating hereditary peerages, which I am in favour of, not because they can sit in the House of Lords, but because if we want to allow people throughout society to rise and advance themselves, the highest posts in the land should be open to everybody. By freezing the hereditary peerage we create a tighter class structure than when that peerage is open. Instead of saying, “Unless you got your title before the last ones were given in 1983, you can only have a life peerage”, we could say that a grocer’s daughter who became Prime Minister, for example, could become an earl, or a countess in the case of that lady.

It would be wonderful to allow that degree of social mobility. If social mobility is a good thing—I think most Members in this House think it is—people should be able to rise to the top. A viscount is not quite the top, but it is jolly near the top. It would give a real incentive to peers, particularly those with a sense of history and an interest in their family line. Most peers are likely to be in that category. If the amendment was agreed, it would be fascinating to see whether, on balance, socialist peers or Conservative peers were keenest to get an hereditary peerage by stepping aside. One might be quite surprised by how many die-hard socialists suddenly wanted to improve the decoration of their coronet and to raise their status.

What do I want from my first set of amendments? They aim to safeguard what is important about the House of Lords, and to ensure that it is an institution of the utmost regard, seniority and distinction, rather than something that somebody can enter lightly. I accept that people will ask, “What if somebody falls ill and cannot carry out their duties?” If somebody falls ill, they can leave the House of Lords in other ways—by not turning up, which we will come to in a later set of amendments, or they can get a leave of absence from their lordships’ House until they are better. If we always take the most difficult cases, we will end up creating loopholes that allow dangerous and not fully thought-through constitutional changes.

The amendments are all about protecting the status, stature and seriousness of the House of Lords, as well as about requiring people to stick to what they have said they will do. I have remarkably little sympathy with those who, having accepted an honour, think for no very good reason—a change of circumstance or business interest is not a very good reason—that it is more convenient to give up their peerage. That is a fundamentally bad idea.

In the past 20 years, there has been a change from peerages being dished out as honours to their being dished out to legislators. It used to be that a peer’s legislating role was the secondary aspect of an honour granted for the performance of some great public service. Most peers are now appointed as working peers: they are there to do a job as legislators and, as they have accepted, to do it for life. To allow them to leave after five years—or after any period of less than 10 years—or under the age of 65 would be an error.

I will not dwell on the matter of witnesses, which is a mere technicality, but posts in the Lords that will remain important regardless of whether or not their holders are in the Lords ought to have been included in the Bill.

This debate is about considering resignation as we might have done had we been able, as we ought to have been, to look at it in the Committee of the whole House. It is about ensuring that bits of the Bill are not there accidentally, but have at least been considered by this House, even if the House is not of my mind upon them, and about ensuring that any changes do not lead to unintended consequences which, because of how the Bill has come through, we have not had the opportunity to consider in full.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) on his speech. As ever, it was a pleasure to listen to him, particularly because of his ability to recall what Disraeli said as though he had been there at the time. I disagree profoundly with most of the hon. Gentleman’s arguments, including the extraordinary one that a restoration of the hereditary peerage could assist in improving social mobility, a debate to which we may return on a future occasion.

I want to focus on the hon. Gentleman’s amendments 2 and 3. One reason why the Bill was introduced by the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) and why it is supported by the Opposition is the ever-growing membership of the other place. The amendments propose to create a minimum period of 10 years before a Member of the other place can resign.

The hon. Gentleman for North East Somerset said that there was a risk that someone granted a peerage and membership of the other place might resign after a day or two, or even a minute or two, but I must say that that is very unlikely. The likelier scenarios of a Member wishing to resign before the age of 65 or before being a Member for 10 years are exactly the circumstances mentioned by the hon. Gentleman towards the end of his speech—illness, or a change in family or work circumstances. On balance, it makes sense to retain the flexibility to allow Members of the other place to resign for such reasons.

In the middle of his speech, the hon. Gentleman very entertainingly described people queuing to ask for peerages —in other words, the numbers of people now desperate to get into the other place. Yet his amendments 2 and 3 assume that many Members will, once appointed, suddenly be desperate to get out of it. I am not convinced that that is very likely. He has certainly made an intelligent case for his amendments, but he has not persuaded me to support them, and I therefore urge the House to oppose them.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) for the way he expressed his concerns about the Bill, and for tabling the amendments, because that has given us the opportunity to discuss some very important issues. It is crucial to get such a Bill right, and I am pleased that we can discuss the amendments, but I urge the House to resist supporting them for the reasons that I shall give.

Amendments 2 and 3 would require peers to serve a minimum of 10 years before they can retire or resign, and amendment 3 would also impose an age restriction of 65. We all hope that Members of the House of Lords will want to undertake an active and lengthy role in the House, but my Bill introduces a straightforward, honourable statutory provision that allows those who no longer feel able to serve in the House to resign.

Other hon. Members have already mentioned the reasons why Members may think that they are unable to serve in the House. I do not want to go over the subject again, but on Second Reading we discussed at length the very real distress that some noble Members feel when, because of personal circumstances, they are unable to give the full service that they themselves think membership of the Lords deserves. It would be unfair to remove for non-attendance a Member who had been in the House for less than 10 years, but suffered a terrible health problem or had become a full-time carer for a family member. Such a Member would seem to have been naughty, rather than to have been allowed to make a dignified and honourable resignation. It is not therefore appropriate to prevent somebody from resigning if they make the difficult decision to do so, even though they have not served for a minimum period. Peers may wish to resign for a variety of very personal reasons, and I believe that it would be arbitrary and unfair to put in place such a limitation.

Amendment 4 would require two fellow peers to witness a resigning peer’s notice. The normal legal practice is for most documents to be witnessed by one person, and I do not see how a fellow peer is better equipped to witness a notice than any responsible individual. I note that the disclaimer of an hereditary peerage under the Peerage Act 1963 requires only one signature, which I am sure my hon. Friend pondered at length before he tabled his amendment.

My hon. Friend refers to the witness being any responsible person. With the greatest respect, the Bill does not say that; it simply says “a witness”.

My understanding of the Bill is that the witness would be a responsible person in the same manner as for other legal documents, which usually means a Member of Parliament, a doctor and so on. I do not believe that the Bill needs additional safeguards to ensure the effectiveness of resignation notices. Many very important legal documents and other matters involving this House take such an approach, and there is no reason for a stricter requirement on this matter.

Amendment 6 would confirm that once resignation has taken effect, it cannot be rescinded. I am a little hazy, but that implies that peers could change their mind until the resignation takes effect. Submitting a signed and properly witnessed notice is a significant step, and peers would be fully aware of the effect of doing so. It would not be right to enable peers to submit such a notice lightly, safe in the knowledge that they could withdraw it up until it takes effect. My Bill aims to be straightforward and simple, and adding such a nuance would over-complicate it.

The Bill simply states that the notice must

“specify a date from which the resignation is to take effect”.

That could be any date in the future. There is no requirement that it be no more than a month or six months from the date of the notice being issued. That leaves a period in which it is perfectly reasonable to think that circumstances could change such that the notice might be withdrawn.

I now understand my hon. Friend’s concern better, but I still disagree. For the reasons that he has given, I believe it is a serious step for a Member to take the decision to leave. One change that we made in Committee was to say that a Member who decides to retire or resign may not subsequently be reappointed to the House of Lords. We did that for the very reasons that he has given. Sitting in the House of Lords is a lifetime commitment and it should not be the norm to leave. One should not leave with the expectation that one may simply waltz back in later. When a Member decides to submit a notice stating that they wish to leave, it would not be helpful if they could think, “I can always change my mind before it comes into effect.” Perhaps my hon. Friend and I must agree to disagree on that issue.

Amendment 7 would exempt unelected hereditary peers from disqualification under the Bill. The two peers who would be exempted from disqualification, the Lord Chamberlain and the Lord Marshal, undertake various ceremonial duties in the House of Lords. I do not believe that either officer should retain their seat in the House of Lords if they wish to resign or if they are convicted of a criminal offence. I am of the view that it would not be possible for those officers to undertake their duties in the House and elsewhere if they were in custody for more than a year. I am confident that if that situation arose, the Government, in conjunction with the Palace, would put in place appropriate and effective measures to ensure that the functions of the officer were executed properly while they were in custody. I do not believe that Members of the House of Lords should be able to retain their seats if they are safely convicted of a serious criminal offence. I certainly do not believe that peers should enjoy the privilege of being exempt from that. I therefore do not support amendment 7, although I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset felt the need to raise and discuss the issue.

Amendments 8 and 9 would allow the heir of a retiring hereditary peer to take part in the by-election caused by their parent’s retirement and elevate the retiring peer to the status of viscount. It would be entirely wrong for this Bill to change the current position whereby heirs are not given an automatic right to enter the House of Lords. I would not want to support such a controversial amendment, because the Bill seeks to make straightforward and sensible changes to the membership of the House of Lords. However, this is a fascinating debate that might take place in other circumstances. Under the Bill, departing peers will retain their peerage. I therefore do not agree that those who retire should be elevated automatically to viscount status, nor that they should be entitled to any additional honour simply because they have been a Member of the House of Lords, so I do not support amendments 8 and 9.

The amendments that have been tabled for today’s debate and in Committee have demonstrated that, as I said on Second Reading, the Bill would have benefited from being dealt with as a constitutional Bill, as I believe it is, and debated on the Floor of the House at every stage. Nevertheless, we are where we are and I rise to support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg).

Having said that, amendments 2 and 3 are alternatives, so I express my preference for amendment 3. I do so because the average age of a peer, as of August last year, was 70 so most peers are over the age of 65 and would meet that qualification. As my hon. Friend said in proposing the amendment, when someone is appointed as a life peer, it is reasonable to assume that they will take on that responsibility for the rest of their life. It is therefore entirely reasonable to expect them not to want to retire during the first 10 years—a fairly modest period that is equivalent to two fixed-term Parliaments.

I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), the promoter of the Bill, said about the situations that might arise. I accept that there might be occasions when, sadly, someone wishes to leave the other place because they have caring responsibilities. However, my hon. Friend will be aware that there is already a voluntary retirement scheme in the other place, which allows Members to write to the Clerk of the Parliaments to indicate their wish permanently to retire. Indeed, some Members of the other House have taken advantage of that scheme, so methods already exist that enable Members to leave the other House before 10 years have elapsed.

Amendment 4 relates to witnesses. My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire said that he would expect a witness to be a doctor or a solicitor. I submit that unless the Bill states that a specific qualification is expected of a witness, a court will not impose such a restriction. A court might expect a witness to be an adult, although even that is debatable, but it would place no other special requirement on who could or should be a witness.

I think that, as a minimum, the witness should know the peer in question. The great advantage of amendment 4 is that, by specifying that the notice must be witnessed by two other peers, one could reasonably expect that they would know the peer who has signed the document. The reason we specify in legislation that a document must be witnessed is so that, if the document is questioned, a court can be reassured that the person who signed it did so of their own free will and was of sound mind. A witness could give evidence as to the person’s state of mind when they signed the document.

As the Bill is drafted, the peer could get anyone they wanted to witness the document. The problem with witnesses is that, when a document is called into question, it is very often because there is some doubt about the intention of the person who signed it. Usually that is because there has been foul play and somebody has put forward a document that is not what it purports to be. In such a case, if there is a squiggle from the witness, how can the person who made that squiggle of a signature be called to give evidence?

I wonder whether my hon. Friend recalls the Agatha Christie book “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?”, in which the heart of the matter is who the witness was.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Without being able to find the witness and ascertain who they are, the existence of their signature is not much help to a court.

The idea that there would be an illegible squiggle and that nobody would know whose it was is a bit fanciful. There are not many other legal documents for which we set out in primary legislation a requirement to include a name, address, social security number and so on. It needs to be properly witnessed, but I am not convinced that a big problem with the Bill will be that we will end up with false witnesses and people trying to squeeze out other peers. I accept the spirit in which my hon. Friend makes his point, but it is not likely to be a particularly major problem.

On whether a peer might be of sound mind when making the statement, we are talking about people who at the moment are entitled to vote on legislation for this country. I do not think we should call into question whether they might be able to indicate legitimately that they wish to resign or retire.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, but the Bill’s draftsmen included a requirement for a witness so they must have intended that witness to have a purpose, so what is that purpose? Surely the purpose of the witness, if there is a purpose, must be to give evidence to a court as to the identity of the person who executed the document, and about their state of mind and their position when they signed it. I accept that it may be the will of the House that such evidence can be given properly by someone without their having a special qualification. However, given the importance of such a document in the constitutional affairs of this country, I would have thought it reasonable to require witnesses at the very least to have some form of legal training in order to assess these matters and properly give evidence in court.

Leaving that aside, the amendment would go some way to dealing with the matter. Two peers would indeed be able to give good evidence to a court about the identity of the person who signed the document, and state that the person was who they purported to be, but whenever a witness is required to sign a document, there should be a requirement—as an absolute minimum—not just to sign it but to state legibly their full name and present address. They can then be found if necessary, and contacted to give evidence to a court about the circumstances in which that document was signed.

Amendment 7 demonstrates the great dangers in tinkering with the unwritten British constitution. I often describe the constitution as a delicate flower, and when we start to unpick it and tinker with one aspect of it, unintended consequences inevitably flow from the proposed changes. We saw that some years ago when it was proposed that the office of Lord Chancellor be abolished. It suddenly became apparent, after a relatively short time, that it was not quite that simple, and the office remains to this day. For that reason, I support the remaining amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, and I commend them to the House.

It is a pleasure to respond to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). He is in the happy difficulty that his contributions undermine his arguments. He purports that it is necessary to have wisdom, learning and erudition, or to be possessed of a grey beard, or at least flowing grey locks. I do not know whether he would fit his own description of a scribbling youth, but he is a youthful Member of the House, yet every time he speaks he does so with a depth of wisdom, learning and reflection on these matters that rather undermines his case. However, it is a delight to have him move these amendments this morning. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) for his skill in steering the Bill to this stage of proceedings, which is relatively unusual for a private Member’s Bill, especially in this area. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) brought the usual stringent scrutiny to these matters that we always count on him for, and it is right for these issues to be closely examined.

Amendments 2 and 3 would require a peer to serve 10 years in the House before they can retire, and amendment 3 adds an age requirement of 65. I completely understand and agree with the desire of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset to ensure that noble Lords in the upper Chamber play a full and lengthy role—indeed, the term “life peerage” is, as he correctly pointed out, significant in that respect. Peers should not come into Parliament for the legislative equivalent of a weekend break; they are here to serve the country for the remainder of their life, and I am concerned that they should take their commitment to the House seriously.

The purpose of clause 1 is to ensure a mechanism that entitles peers, who take seriously their responsibilities, to act with honesty and honour by reflecting the circumstances in which they may no longer find it possible to answer the summons, and to discharge that responsibility. My hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset and for Bury North were right to point out that mechanisms such as leave of absence or simply not turning up are available to people who find themselves unable to attend and respond to the summons, but the essence of the Bill is to recognise that, in some circumstances, such mechanisms are deficient and do not provide an accurate reflection of reality. For some people, a leave of absence is not temporary but involves, in effect, a permanent inability to perform the duties that are entailed in membership of the upper House.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire said, such circumstances can be deeply personal or the result of poor health that is unlikely to improve. Members of the other place could be in the service of others, or have family circumstances that require them to move away permanently. To recognise that, there should not be any device; a straightforward declaration that someone’s service is no longer possible to be discharged is right and appropriate.

The Government’s view is that an arbitrary 10-year period during which resignation or retirement could not be tendered is inappropriate and could cause distress to peers who find themselves in the circumstances that I have described during that initial 10 years. Like the shadow Minister, I do not believe that it is likely that a great flood of Members will avail themselves of this option in the first 10 years, but it may be appropriate and necessary in some circumstances.

Amendment 4 would require two fellow peers to witness a peer’s notice of resignation. Admirably, the Bill is as simple as it is possible to be in its drafting and its promotion by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire. To have a signature witnessed seems a proportionate requirement of the legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North is a scourge of the Government on over-regulating, gold-plating or other excesses in legislation, but his support for the amendment takes him in a different direction. There is no particular reason to suppose that the witness chosen by a peer should be suspected of incompetence so that they require another witness to witness the witness to the signature. In fact, it is possible to see an infinite regress, with further witnesses being necessary in case the reliability of the earlier witnesses is not sufficiently established. It would be disproportionate, and Occam’s razor should be applied to this theoretical problem, so that we take the simpler solution.

I do not think it has been suggested that the second peer is witnessing the signature of the first peer: it is simply that both peers are witnessing the event. It is not a continuum of peers. We are not trying to suggest that the second witnessing peer authenticates the first witnessing peer. Both of them are simply witnessing the first peer. Perhaps my right hon. Friend would care to comment on the point that I made about including the address and printed name of the witnesses, because that would be very useful.

I take my hon. Friend’s point, but the need for the second witness—if they are to have any purpose at all—must be something to do with the first witness not being sufficient. If one witness is not sufficient, why should two witnesses be sufficient? We could be drawn in that direction.

In order to witness a document, it is necessary that the witness—through the case law that has been established—should be identifiable. They will need to disclose their identity, and that means that they should be capable of being found if recourse to them is needed in the event of any proceedings or challenge. So there is no requirement for any additional safeguard in this case.

Amendment 6 would ensure that, once a resignation has taken effect, it cannot be rescinded, the implication being that circumstances might change—as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset pointed out—and the peer might want to change his mind about resignation. While I have great sympathy for the thought behind the amendment, it raises a difficult and troublesome possibility. It would introduce the threat of resignation. It would be possible for a peer in dispute with, say, the Government of the day or the leadership of the House of Lords, to postdate a resignation in the knowledge that they had the ability to withdraw it at any point. It is always a good principle in life, whether in this House or beyond, that if someone threatens to resign, they should have in mind carrying out that threat. The ability to deploy the threat of resignation without the consequence of following it through could introduce a degree of brinksmanship into proceedings that I know my hon. Friend in particular would be keen to avoid.

It is right that providing a written and witnessed notice of resignation should be taken very seriously. It is not something that should be considered lightly, and peers should undertake it in full knowledge of the implications. It is not right that someone should be able to go back on that notice of resignation, even if it has not taken effect.

Two very eminent peers would be exempted from disqualification under the amendment—the Lord Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal—both of whom carry out important official duties in the House of Lords. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset said in moving his amendment—and as my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire also mentioned—the Lord Chamberlain is the senior official of the royal household and represents the involvement of the household and Her Majesty in the organisation of the affairs of Parliament. It is a very important channel of communication between the sovereign and the House of Lords. The Earl Marshal is the eighth great officer of state and is responsible for several ceremonial duties, including the organisation of coronations, state funerals and the state opening of Parliament. The importance of those duties is such that the Government do not believe that either officeholder requires a seat in the House of Lords in order to discharge them, for the very good reason that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset mentioned—they are not, as individuals, immune from prosecution at the moment. It is almost impossible to contemplate the eventuality, but it is possible in theory that they could be incarcerated, and it is inconceivable that arrangements could not be made for a coronation or state opening of Parliament during such terrible circumstances. It is not necessary to have the clarification that my hon. Friend suggests.

The amendment would merely exempt the officeholders from the ability to retire or resign. If they cannot resign as Lord Chamberlain and Earl Marshal, it makes no sense for them to be able to resign as Members of the House of Lords. I was trying to bring the two together.

I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but it is relevant that they should be subject to the same procedures as would apply under the Bill to every Member of the House of Lords, whether through resignation—and the same circumstances might apply to them in wishing to resign—or through being convicted of a serious criminal offence. The points that my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire made in response to that capture the essence of the argument. It is not appropriate to permit peers on the basis on which they hold their seats to remain in the House if they are convicted of a serious criminal offence or if they want to exercise—they are under no obligation to do so—the opportunity to retire.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset raised a question about whether a writ of advancement should be available in the case of hereditary peers. There is no reason why a writ of advancement should not be available, but it is worth noting that if a hereditary peer disclaims his or her peerage under the Peerage Act 1963, there is no advancement for his or her heir while the disclaiming peer is still alive.

Amendments 8 and 9 would ensure that the heir of a retiring hereditary peer could participate in the by-election caused by his or her parent’s retirement. My hon. Friend’s ingenious suggestion of an improvement in social mobility by elevating a retiring peer to the status of a viscount is also contained in the amendments. I have some difficulty with the amendments, as I am sure my hon. Friend would imagine. The name of our venerable upper chamber is the House of Lords, not the house of heirs. It would be wrong to break with the tradition of hundreds of years to allow heirs to enter the Chamber just because their father or mother had retired from their role in the House.

My hon. Friend made it clear that he recognised the difference between attendance and membership of the House of Lords and the peerage. His amendment, however, would introduce a novel constitutional concept of the kind that he is generally inclined to view with a certain degree of scepticism. I think that, just like any hereditary peer who, extraordinarily, continues to enjoy a right to sit in the legislature, those heirs should wait until they have been elevated to the peerage as their forefathers did.

As for the question of the elevation of retiring peers to the status of viscount, I do not see the need to provide for such a possibility, given that we are talking about membership of the House of Lords rather than about the peerage itself. As I said earlier, my hon. Friend has advanced an ingenious argument for social mobility. He has anticipated the objection that the ratcheting up to the level of royal dukedoms might cause a problem for Her Majesty. In any event, I should have thought that before embarking on such an approach, one would need to be assured of the consent of Her Majesty, as the fount of all honour and dignity, and to have discussed the issues with Garter King of Arms. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has done those things.

I fully appreciate the attention that my hon. Friends have given to both the Bill and the amendments, but I do not think that any of the amendments is necessary to safeguard the purposes of the Bill from unintended consequences, and—as I hope I have been able to demonstrate—in many instances they would have unintended consequences of their own that would damage the Bill. I therefore urge my hon. Friend to withdraw his amendment.

I have listened enormously carefully to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and my right hon. Friend the Minister. I have the impression that the mood of the House is against my proposals, and I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3

Conviction of serious offence

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 12, page 2, line 24, leave out ‘it is irrelevant’.

Amendment 13, page 2, line 25, after ‘(a)’, insert ‘it is irrelevant’.

Amendment 14, page 2, line 27, after ‘(b)’, insert ‘it is irrelevant’.

Amendment 15, page 2, line 28, leave out from ‘Kingdom’ to the end of line 29 and insert ‘or Ireland’.

Amendment 16, page 2, line 29, at end insert—

‘(c) It is irrelevant subject to a resolution of the House of Lords whether any of the offence, conviction, sentence, order, imprisonment or detention occurs in any Commonwealth Realm.

(d) It is irrelevant subject to a unanimous resolution of the House of Lords whether any of the offence, conviction, sentence, order, imprisonment or detention occurs in any Commonwealth country.

(e) No offence, conviction, sentence, order, imprisonment or detention that takes place in any non-Commonwealth country is relevant under this Act.’.

Amendment 17, page 2, line 37, after ‘appeal’, insert ‘or is pardoned’.

Amendment 18, page 3, line 8, leave out ‘subsection (9) and insert—

‘(9) This section does not apply to unelected hereditary peers who sit in the House of Lords.’.

Amendment 23, page 3, line 8, leave out subsection (9) and insert—

‘(9) A certificate under subsection (2) in respect of a conviction outside the United Kingdom may be issued only if the House of Lords resolves that subsection (1) should apply; and where the House does so resolve the Lord Speaker must issue the certificate.’.

I am in august company today. It is excellent to be in the presence of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), a fine example of the Conservative workers party if ever I saw one. However, I must chide him very gently about one matter, about which I have already spoken to him.

Both the hon. Gentleman and I serve on the Procedure Committee. The House recently resolved that, whenever reasonable, Members should publish explanatory statements. The hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) has published such a statement, but I have not, because, as the hon. Member for North East Somerset knows, the Procedure Committee said that it was not necessary to publish one when what a Member was trying to achieve was so blindingly obvious. However, I must gently tell the hon. Gentleman that it took me several attempts to understand exactly what his amendments would do, and that an explanatory statement would therefore have been useful.

I am shocked that the hon. Gentleman is so slow on the uptake. I always thought that he was one of the faster thinkers on the Opposition Benches. If he waits for a few moments, however, and if you are kind enough to call me, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will explain all.

I am most grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Let me begin by saying something about my amendment 1. The origin of the requirement—in this place, and, indeed, in the United Kingdom’s other Parliaments and Assemblies—for someone to have been given a jail sentence of more than a year to be disqualified is almost accidental. The hon. Member for North East Somerset will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that until the 1960s there were two classes of criminal acts, felonies and misdemeanours. I think that it was Roy Jenkins who, as Home Secretary, abolished the distinction. Until then, someone who was convicted of a felony would automatically be disqualified from serving in the House of Commons. Thankfully, it had been a long time since any Member had been sent to prison, so the rule had fallen into desuetude, and, at the time when the classes of felony and misdemeanour were scrapped, it did not occur to anyone to introduce a provision for that purpose.

Let us now fast-forward to 1981, and the election of Bobby Sands as a member of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. His election understandably prompted a great deal of public outrage, and the Government of day, Mrs Thatcher’s Government, introduced a law providing for the disqualification of anyone who had been given a sentence of more than a year. That would have caught Bobby Sands, and the other terrorists who were on hunger strike in the Maze prison. Again, no one really thought about it at the time. As far as I can ascertain after having consulted the records from the period, there was not a great deal of consideration about whether a year and a day was a particularly suitable target. The provision was designed to capture a very specific group of people; it met that test, and it was therefore passed.

As I think all Members know, there is a long and noble tradition of the right to protest, and, in particular, to engage in political protest. Anyone who visits the Tea Room will see a painting hanging at the Labour end of the room. If Government Members wish to pop down to our end to have a look at it, they are more than welcome to do so. It depicts one of the great protesters and pamphleteers of the 18th century, who was regularly incarcerated for speaking out against the Government. It is an important principle that we should maintain the right to speak against the Government, and that there should be protections against politically motivated arrests and imprisonments. We would not want someone who was simply sent to jail to be disqualified. Many of my constituents have talked to me about this issue, for reasons that I shall explain shortly.

While I strongly disagree with the views of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on fracking and, funnily enough, on many other issues, I respect her right to engage in political protest and to be arrested, and, if she were convicted and sentenced to a few days, it would be absolutely wrong for her then to be disqualified from serving in the House of Commons. The voters in Brighton, Pavilion should have the chance to do that in 14 months’ time.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for being pedantic. Members of the House of Commons who are given prison sentences are not disqualified from serving; they are expelled from the House, but they can stand again in a by-election.

As ever, the hon. Gentleman has shown that his knowledge is superior to mine. He is absolutely right. My point was that such people would be denied the right to be a Member of Parliament for a period.

There is, of course, a huge difference between the length of a sentence that would be received by someone who had engaged in political protest and the length of the sentences that have been received in some of the cases that we have—regrettably—seen in recent years, in this Parliament and in other United Kingdom Parliaments and Assemblies. There was, for instance, the outrageous case of Chris Huhne, who perjured himself, and Opposition Members in the House of Commons as well as Conservatives in the other place have been jailed in connection with expenses. I think that there was a great deal of genuine public revulsion at the idea that politicians in either House, or indeed in any House, would be convicted of serious crimes and go to prison, but would not necessarily have to resign their seats or be disqualified.

The case that made me such a champion of reform in this regard arose in the Scottish Parliament, in my own constituency of Dunfermline. The local nationalist MSP, Mr Bill Walker, was convicted last August of 22 accounts of domestic abuse and one charge of breaking a frying pan over his stepdaughter’s head—which serves to demonstrate the scale of the violence he was showing to a group of women over a 20 or 30-year period. I praise the Sunday Herald, which did so much to bring this story to light. Owing to the way in which the Scottish courts work, the maximum sentence that Bill Walker could receive—and did receive—was one year, so he was not automatically disqualified from serving in the Scottish Parliament, and if he had been a Member of the House of Commons, he would not have been automatically disqualified from serving in this House.

I welcome the recent statement from the Leader of the House that he is interested in starting a dialogue about the rules of the House of Commons and I hope the Minister will set out the Government’s broader thinking about the rules of disqualification and whether or not we need to look at this again.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that looked into these matters. It was happy with the proposal as it stands, and there was no suggestion that the period should be six months. Would he like to comment on that?

Indeed, and I have had a brief chat with the Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). As I recall, the report that the hon. Gentleman is referring to addressed the broader context of the recall of MPs, and from what I can ascertain from the newspapers, I think it is fair to say that that option is now off the table. If we were having a broader debate about recall, I could see the argument for keeping the period at a year and a day.

I just want to make it clear that the report I was referring to was the Committee’s ninth report of the current Session entitled “House of Lords reform: what next?”

I was referring to the previous look at the issue in the Committee’s recall report.

Sometimes in our debates on a Friday Members say “We haven’t had many letters about this,” but I can truly say that I have had a large amount of correspondence on the issue of what is an appropriate disqualification period. On this occasion, I disagree with my hon. Friend the Committee Chairman. I think there is genuine public disquiet at the idea that someone can receive what is frankly quite a lengthy jail sentence yet continue to serve in Parliament, creating laws.

There is an obvious question which I am sure will be posed to me: why do I propose to make the situation for the House of Lords different from that for the House of Commons? If a Member of the House of Commons receives a jail sentence—of nine months, let us say—and tries to tough it out, the electorate still has an opportunity at the next general election to remove them from office. As things currently stand, however, in the House of Lords there is no term limit and therefore no other mechanism for recall. I believe there is merit in exploring whether the period set should be shorter, because the people of Britain do not have an opportunity to remove a Member of the House of Lords who tries to tough it out.

Regrettably, a small number of Members of the House of Lords, on both sides of the political divide, have gone to prison in recent years, and each time it happened there was genuine anger and people said, “Why is there nothing we can do to remove them?” I hope that today we will tease out the Government’s thinking on whether these rules are appropriate and whether there is merit in asking, “Due to the unique nature of the House of Lords—there is no democratic mechanism—should there be the same procedure?”

Turning to the broader issue, it appears that the hon. Members for North Warwickshire and for North East Somerset take slightly different approaches. The hon. Member for North Warwickshire has, I think, managed to achieve all that the hon. Member for North East Somerset wants, but does it in a single amendment. Far be it for me to get in the middle of an argument in the workers party about what is the correct approach, but it seems to me that this is a debate about whether it is appropriate to have to take a positive step following a conviction in a foreign court or whether our starting point should be that we regard foreign courts as having sensible judicial processes and only in exceptional circumstances would we seek not to abide by their recommendations. I hope that this is a rare technical argument.

I have to say that I have more sympathy with the original view of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire. I would find it slightly disconcerting if our starting point were, “We don’t believe a court in Germany, or in Canada or Australia, has due legal process.” Of course there are countries around the world that do not have the same legal history as us, but I have more sympathy with the view put forward originally by the hon. Member for North Warwickshire than I do with the view proposed by the hon. Member for North East Somerset. I look forward to hearing from the hon. Member for North Warwickshire shortly, and I am sure the Minister will set out the Government’s thinking.

May I again congratulate the hon. Member for North Warwickshire on introducing this Bill? There appears to be some noble interest in our debate today, and it is perhaps worth placing on the record the fact that the Bill is supported on both sides of the House. Lord Steel deserves a great deal of credit for championing the issue in recent years. It is possibly not as contentious as legislation he previously introduced when he was a Member of this House, but it is certainly an important Bill and I hope it makes it through both Houses and becomes law.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) for introducing his amendment, because we should regularly revisit and discuss what the correct length of time should be. I took the trouble to look up in Hansard what was said in 1981 when the Representation of the People Act was debated. Lord Belstead made it clear that it was a pretty arbitrary decision to pick 12 months. He said that the Government did not

“rely exclusively on the precedent of 12 months in the 1870 Act. We felt—I admit this quite openly—that it would be more likely than not that persons in the category of those who had received sentences of more than 12 months had committed graver offences and that no injustice would be done by imposing a disqualification.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 June 1981; Vol. 422, c. 143.]

However, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the idea that we should have different limits for the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament and so on. He has certainly made an eloquent case that we should perhaps routinely reassess the level across the board, but I do not think that at present more stringent rules should be imposed on the House of Lords than we have in this place. For that reason, I am afraid I will not be supporting the hon. Gentleman’s amendment.

Turning to some of the other amendments in the group, Amendments 12 to 14 are drafting amendments that remove the words “it is irrelevant” from the start of the subsection in question, but then include them twice within the body of the subsection. They are, in my view, unnecessary.

Amendments 15 and 16 deal with convictions in the United Kingdom and abroad. This has been a controversial issue. Amendment 15 would make disqualification on the ground of a conviction of a serious offence in the United Kingdom or Ireland automatic. Amendment 16 would make disqualification on the ground of a conviction of a serious offence in any Commonwealth realm subject to a resolution of the House of Lords, and in any Commonwealth country subject to a unanimous resolution of the House. It would prevent peers from being removed from the House if they were convicted of a serious offence outside the United Kingdom, Ireland or any Commonwealth realm or country. I believe that I have interpreted that correctly.

The purpose of my Bill is to make straightforward, small-scale changes to the membership of the House of Lords, and I purposely avoided over-complicating the clauses. To make such small distinctions between countries is unnecessary and not something that I believe many of our colleagues would support.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my disquiet that we could be creating an artificial divide by saying that Commonwealth countries have a more robust judicial system than, say, European countries or the United States? I believe that the Foreign Office is troubled by the judicial process in some Commonwealth countries.

I would agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. My heart entirely understands the distinction in the amendments between the Commonwealth and elsewhere, but my head says that it is difficult to justify the suggestion that countries such as Germany and France, for example, should be put into a different category from some members of the Commonwealth.

I presume that the amendment that would make the application of the provision automatic in the case of convictions in the Republic of Ireland is designed to emulate more closely the Representation of the People Act 1981. However, we all know that that legislation was enacted during the troubles in order to deal with the unique circumstances of that time, and incorporating the same provision in my Bill is therefore unnecessary.

In addition, I object to the assertion that it is permissible for a peer to commit a serious crime anywhere other than in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and the Commonwealth, and not to face sanction here for it. Allowing peers to do so and to retain their seats would damage the reputation of the House of Lords, and my Bill seeks to achieve the opposite. I believe that peers who are fairly convicted of offences that are regarded as serious within the United Kingdom should be disqualified if the House so resolves, which is why I am tabling my own amendment to that effect. I will speak to that amendment in a moment.

Amendment 17 would put a duty on the Lord Speaker to issue an additional certificate if a peer were pardoned following conviction for a serious offence to confirm that fact. The impact of a free pardon is that the person is cleared from all consequences of the offence and from all statutory or other disqualifications following conviction. If a peer who has been disqualified on the ground of a conviction for a serious offence is then pardoned, the effect of that would be to remove the disqualification. The amendment is therefore unnecessary.

Amendment 23 has been tabled in my name, and I have given a great deal of thought to this matter. I believe that anyone convicted of murder or any serious offence, whether in Bolton, Belgium or Brunei, should be subject to disqualification from the House of Lords. However, we all agree that criminal justice systems in different countries vary, and of course other jurisdictions sometimes try people in very different circumstances from those in which they would be tried in the United Kingdom. In addition, some countries impose lengthy sentences on individuals for actions that might be deemed to be minor offences, or not offences at all, in this country.

I have listened carefully to those who spoke on this issue on Second Reading and I have given the matter a great deal of consideration. I have also looked carefully at what happens in this House, where only sentencing and imprisonment that takes place in the UK and Ireland result in automatic disqualification. Of course, this House has the inherent power to disqualify whomsoever it chooses and can therefore choose to consider foreign convictions on a case-by-case basis and subsequently disqualify a Member. It seems to me that the House of Lords should be given the same opportunity.

My amendment 23 would make disqualification on the ground of a conviction for a serious offence abroad non-automatic. Instead, the House of Lords would need to resolve that the penalty should apply in each case. This would provide a sensible mechanism by which noble Lords could assure themselves that the conviction and sentencing were safe and met British perceptions of justice before disqualifying Members. I will therefore be pressing this amendment and I urge the House to support it.

I rise to speak to the amendment, but, on reflection, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wonder whether it might be more appropriate for the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) to speak first, followed by the two Front-Bench speakers. I am happy to do it in that order.

North East Somerset, in the great county of Somerset, is always ready. We are on alert for whatever might come. I am fortunate in that my constituency is not under water, so it is perhaps easier for me to be alert than those in the rest of the county at the moment.

The real problem with the exclusion of peers for criminal offences is that, in 1948, they gave up the right to try themselves for felonies. That had been an ancient, historic right that they had used from time to time; we perhaps know it best from “Kind Hearts and Coronets”. The last case, in 1935, involved Lord de Clifford, who was found guilty of manslaughter following a motoring accident. Their lordships judged him not to have been guilty, on the ground that the other driver had been going too fast.

A previous case, in 1901, involved Earl Russell, who was found guilty of bigamy and sentenced to three months in prison. He was found guilty because he had got divorced in Nevada, and their lordships did not think that Nevada was a proper place in which to get a divorce. They decided that it was not valid, and that he was therefore a bigamist. That leads me to my suggestion that we do not always take the views of foreign courts into account, and that they do not necessarily have standing in the United Kingdom. Poor old Earl Russell was known to his contemporaries as the wicked Earl. I am allowed to say that, Mr Deputy Speaker, because he is not still alive. I am allowed to say disrespectful things about wicked earls who are no longer with us.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has great knowledge of these matters. He will know that he is allowed to mention such people as long as they are not Members of the House of Lords.

I am extremely grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am also rather troubled, because that means that I can be rude about hereditaries who are not in the House of Lords. That would be deeply upsetting, however, and I would be shocked if I did such a thing. Anyway, the point about Nevada was that a judgment made there was not considered to be authoritative.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that this would not apply to members of the royal family who had been sitting in the House of Lords as hereditary dukes?

Order. I think I can help the hon. Gentleman on that: we are not going to enter into a debate on the royal family. We are going to get back to the subject that Jacob Rees-Mogg has in hand.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is inconceivable that anyone would ever want to be rude about the royal family.

So, Nevada was not taken seriously and Earl Russell was found guilty of bigamy. My amendments distinguish between the jurisdictions of a variety of foreign countries, and with good reason. The reason for including Ireland along with the United Kingdom is that it matches the form used for exclusion from the House of Commons, and there seems to be a logic in maintaining that. It is also set down in statute that we recognise the unique relationship that the United Kingdom continues to have with Ireland. Irish citizens are the only ones other than Commonwealth citizens who are always allowed to vote in United Kingdom elections, and travel from the Republic of Ireland to the United Kingdom does not require a passport. Ireland is not viewed as a foreign country in the same way as other countries are.

The Commonwealth realms are either serious nations such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada that have a legal form based on ours and that follow the legal traditions of the United Kingdom which they inherited from us, or they are smaller nations, nine of which have the Privy Council as their court of appeal. We can therefore say that any conviction within the Commonwealth realms will be of such standing that we can recognise it because it has been made in a nation with which we have the friendliest relations and the tightest of historical links.

I am seeking enlightenment. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned “realms” a couple of times. If a Member of the House of Commons or the House of Lords were convicted of a crime in one of the Crown dependencies or the British overseas territories, would they automatically be disqualified? I truly do not know the answer to that question.

They are not included in my amendment, although it would obviously be possible to amend the Bill to bring the Crown dependencies in. I am talking about the Commonwealth realms, which are the independent nations in the Commonwealth of which Her Majesty is still head of state. Nine of those nations have appeal to the Privy Council, which is their final court of appeal. They therefore have a standard of justice in which we can have confidence, because it is a standard that we ourselves implement.

I am listening carefully. The hon. Gentleman has made an assertion a couple of times, both directly and in the round, that we have confidence in the Commonwealth judiciary. Without causing an incident by naming the countries, I am sure we can think of a number of Commonwealth countries where the judiciary, perhaps at a state level rather than at federal or national level, is less than it could be. Does he accept that is a concern?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. At the moment, I am talking about the Commonwealth realms and he himself said in his own speech that it would be peculiar if we did not trust the judicial system of Canada. I happen to share that view; there is no particular difficulty with Canadian justice. When we come to some of the smaller Commonwealth realms, they have appeal to the Privy Council and that is the safeguard—that it becomes essentially a British form of justice. In the end, a peer would be able to appeal to a court based in this country. It is actually based in the Middlesex Guildhall; if you have a good arm, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is a stone’s throw away from this palace.

With the Commonwealth realms, it is reasonable that the House of Lords should be able to recognise a conviction in one of them and it would then be able, by an ordinary vote, to expel the peer from the Lords. That seems a perfectly reasonable approach, because one can have confidence in the justice that would be meted out in those realms. In relation to other Commonwealth countries, expulsion would require the unanimous agreement of the House of Lords. That is because there are certainly Commonwealth countries where one would have some concern about the standard of justice that applied and would worry that having an automatic acceptance, or even a simple majority acceptance, of their judgments would not necessarily be helpful.

That relates to my broader question about other foreign courts. There are some Commonwealth countries where one can be imprisoned for a year for some quite extraordinary things. I do not know whether you knew, Mr Deputy Speaker, but if you should go on your travels to Singapore representing the Houses of Parliament, which would be a worthy trip for you to make, although Singapore is a great and civilised country—I am one of Lee Kuan Yew’s foremost admirers—it is illegal to connect to an unsecured wi-fi hot spot. It is classed as

“unauthorised use of computer service”,

it is punishable, for both Singapore nationals and tourists, by a fine of up to 10,000 Singapore dollars and/or imprisonment for up to three years. In 2006, a man called Garyl Tan Jia Luo received 18 months’ probation, nine months’ curfew, 80 hours of community service and an 18-month internet ban for use of an unsecured wi-fi hot spot.

Let us think of some young peer who travels to Singapore and accidentally connects to the wi-fi because he wants to read Hansard to find out what has been going on in their lordships’ house or attend to other matters of public business. If he is caught by the Singaporean police and if we accept judgments of foreign courts he could get three years in prison and be disqualified from the House of Lords.

I am slightly troubled by the hon. Gentleman’s argument, because he seems to be saying that we have a right to look at other countries’ laws and say, “We think that’s a silly law.” Quite a lot of the world’s people drive on the wrong side of the road, but we respect their right to do so when we go to their countries. Should not that young lord have respected the rights and laws of that land, and made himself familiar with them before he travelled there?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman visits Singapore; he will remember that people there drive on the correct side of the road. They know how to do things there. It is a wonderful country.

Breaking obscure laws that it is unreasonable to expect people to have knowledge of ought not to exclude people from the House of Lords. Uganda has been in the news recently for its stringent laws against homosexuality. Are we really to say that peers who end up in Uganda and get into trouble with the law there should be banned from the House of Lords? They could get a life sentence. Is that really a way of deciding who is in a legislature of the United Kingdom? What happens if a lord displays a flag in Kiribati? Someone who displays a flag in Kiribati or wears a uniform in connection with a political object can be sentenced to a year in prison. Lords would suddenly be excluded for doing all sorts of minor things that in this country would not be an offence.

Rather splendidly, in Swaziland it is illegal for any female under 19 to shake the hands of a man; I do not know what the punishment for that is. Under the Bill, a peer could be convicted, regardless of when the offence took place. A 90-year-old peeress, who as a 19-year-old girl had shaken hands with a gentleman in Swaziland, could suddenly be deported to Swaziland, put in jug for a year and excluded from the House of Lords.

There is a tremendously serious point in this. It is that around the world there are hundreds of countries. I have a list of them: Afghanistan; Albania; Algeria; American Samoa; Andorra; Angola; Anguilla; Antigua and Barbuda; Argentina; Armenia; Aruba; Australia; Austria; and Azerbaijan. That just gets us to—

Order. I think we got the message after the first five. I do not want to hear the rest; I think we have a flavour, without a fully detailed world atlas.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I think you are a mind reader. I was going to read out only the As, so your intervention came at absolutely the right moment to help me to continue.

We know remarkably little about many of those countries. We have not carefully considered their legal systems. What is the law in American Samoa? What offences could lead to somebody being sentenced to a year in prison? If a peer went there on a parliamentary delegation, would they randomly find that they had committed some offence? What if somebody has a gin and tonic in Saudi Arabia? They may get lashed, but—

One thing that I can point out to the hon. Gentleman that he probably should know about the “country” of Anguilla is that it is, in fact, an overseas territory and not a country.

It is listed as a country. [Interruption.] But then Wales is a country and it is also part of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman’s pedantry is taking him down a blind alley, if I may say so.

There are also great countries—countries that we respect—that have a legal system about which we have doubts. I will mention two of the friendliest and most civilised countries that the United Kingdom has dealings with: the United States of America and Italy.

In the United States of America, the noble Lord Black was basically told that he could either plead guilty or face decades in prison if he was found guilty. There was a charge sheet against him as long as your arm, and there was a witness to give evidence against him. The witness was told, “If you plead guilty and turn the equivalent of Queen’s evidence, then we will give you a few weeks in a country club.” That approach to plea bargaining ought to raise serious concerns. In this country, it would not be allowed. There is not the possibility to say to somebody giving evidence, “We will give you something very cosy if you help us to find somebody guilty”, and guilty not just of an offence but a whole string of offences with huge sentences, and all in proportion to what was being alleged, so that people are bullied into pleading guilty. The reason that America does that is that it has so many constitutional safeguards to provide for a fair trial that it is consequently very difficult to get convictions. Plea bargaining is therefore used as a means of getting the result that was sought in the first place, but which the protections in place would have made it hard to get. That form of justice should not determine who sits in the House of Lords.

In the example of Italy, we see cases, and reports of cases come to us, of people being found guilty, not guilty and guilty again. In a British sense, that is not justice; it does not observe the requirements of double jeopardy. I know that in exceptional circumstances those requirements can be got round in this country, but as a general rule the oppressive state cannot charge and recharge somebody once they have been found not guilty. Many foreign countries are also willing to try people in absentia, so one does not even have the ability to defend oneself against the charge.

Therefore, it seems to me that when we in this country are deciding how our Houses of Parliament should be designed and who shall have entitlement to sit in them, foreign courts are not a valid place to determine membership. That is the right of our sovereign and of the British people; it is not the right of courts outside this country. Consequently, I support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), which turns things round.

The hon. Gentleman or the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) may correct me if I get this wrong, but where someone does not attend for a parliamentary Session—a whole year—they are deemed to have been disqualified from serving in the House of Lords. Someone who has been detained at the pleasure of the Italian Government for two or three years will not have been able to attend the House of Lords and will surely be disqualified on that basis.

Let me clarify this. That was a flaw in the original drafting of the Bill, but in Committee we introduced a provision whereby the House of Lords has the right to vote to disregard the clause removing peers through being absent in certain circumstances, to deal with exactly the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises.

Indeed, on Second Reading we discussed what would happen to a prisoner of war and whether they would automatically be disqualified—the answer is, obviously, no. It would almost certainly be possible for somebody held in a prison of a vaguely civilised nation to apply to take leave of absence. So, on both counts—either in the special circumstances or on the leave of absence issue—the peer would not be forced to resign.

We should protect our own constitutional rights zealously. We should not allow other places to interfere in how we run our business. The right way to go about it is set out in amendment 23, which achieves what I was aiming to achieve and is pithier. It does not give any special status to the Commonwealth realms, which I was giving not particularly out of a sentimental attachment to them, but more because of the ability to appeal to the Privy Council and the safeguards that builds in. It ought to be the right of the House of Lords to expel people—this House has that right and it is unfortunate that the House of Lords does not. It would be a good power for it to have as part of regulating its own affairs. It has the power to imprison peers but it does not have the power to expel them. However, it should use that expulsion power only if it wants to do so; it should not be forced to do it because a foreign court has told it that it has to.

I was discussing the systems in America and Italy, great nations with which we have the friendliest relations. However, we do not understand—we are not party to—their legal systems. A British person accused in a foreign country is often at a disadvantage to a national accused in that country because they are not in sympathy with the systems that will be used against them. Therefore, having this protection whereby it must be an active decision of the Lords to expel somebody convicted in a foreign country will protect the peer arrested in Kiribati for waving a flag or in Uganda for being homosexual or in Singapore for using the internet unlawfully. It is absolutely right that a judgment can be made as to whether in our terms, under our law and under our rules a peer has done something so serious and manifestly wrong that that right of peerage to sit in the House of Lords should be removed or curtailed. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire has introduced amendment 23, which has saved me from speaking at much greater length on this important subject.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) on, and thank him for, discussing his concerns about this issue on Second Reading. We have subsequently had the opportunity to reflect on and consider the matter, and we see that he has made a powerful and persuasive case. I was going to mention the anti-gay laws in Uganda to which he referred. Tragically, similar laws have recently been passed in another Commonwealth country, Nigeria. So simply to rely upon the laws and legal systems of other countries is not sufficient and not proper in determining our own constitutional arrangements. As he says, even in countries that have advanced legal systems and are our close allies, such as the United States and Italy, there are concerns in certain cases. So he was absolutely right to raise this matter on Second Reading and I warmly welcome the fact that the promoter of the Bill has responded with amendment 23, which intelligently addresses the concerns that have been raised. It says that Parliament automatically will seek to protect peers but has the option of disqualifying. That reverses the original provision and it is an intelligent way of responding to the serious and proper concerns that the hon. Member for North East Somerset has raised, both on Second Reading and again today.

I wish briefly to comment on the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), who also spoke about this issue in Committee. He rightly reminded the House today of the public revulsion at some of the crimes that have been committed, referring to the case of a particular MSP, the crimes of people from all sides of this House and also of some in the other place. He made an interesting argument about why there could be a disparity between the 12-month limit here and a lower six-month limit in the other place because Members in this place are subject to re-election. That argument interests me and it is food for thought as this debate moves forward. My instinct is the same as that of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), which is that if we are to look to a lower limit, it would be preferable if we had a lower limit across the board. Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House has said that we should open a dialogue on this issue as it relates to the rules of the House of Commons.

My immediate recollection is that even where Members of Parliament have been convicted of serious offences and sentenced for a period of less than 12 months they do, generally speaking, resign. That has certainly been the case in relation to recent issues that arose from the expenses scandal. The only case I can think of in recent history where MPs did resume their seats—I stand to be corrected on this by Members from either side of the House—was where they were briefly sent to prison for not paying the poll tax. I cannot think of any other recent cases where a Member of Parliament has been imprisoned for a period of less than 12 months and resumed their seat having come out of prison. There is a case for us to examine the matter, but I do not think that this Bill is the right vehicle for us to do so. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend, who has raised an important issue, will not press his amendment to a vote.

I am delighted to give the Government’s response to this important set of amendments. We are very sympathetic to the reasoning behind amendment 1 from the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), but what his Front-Bench colleague the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) has said pertains: any changes to our procedures in the House of Commons in terms of the length of imprisonment that would trigger disqualification and expulsion are a matter for this House rather than this Bill. I can confirm what the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said about the Leader of the House having indicated that he is open to cross-party discussions to consider these matters. In Committee the hon. Gentleman was right to raise the situation of the Scottish Parliament, which is of course beyond the scope of this House. The Secretary of State for Scotland has given an undertaking, equivalent to that given by the Leader of the House, to engage with the Scottish Government and the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament to discuss the position pertaining to Scotland, which I know has particularly exercised the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.

The thrust of the Bill is to bring the rules in the House of Lords broadly into line with those of the House of Commons, and that is done for a reasonable purpose. There are lots of issues that this Bill could have taken on—there are lots of outstanding areas of contention about the reform of the House of Lords—but my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) is to be commended for navigating a sure course between various possibilities that might distract the Bill and prevent its entering into safe harbour. This issue is one such possibility, so the arguments as to whether the limit should be more or less than 12 months is for another time. His proposal would bring the other place into line with this House.

I welcome the spirit in which the Minister has set out the Government’s case. Does he think that, as has been put to me by a number of organisations, we perhaps sometimes focus on the length of the tariff rather than the type of offence? Would the Government consider that as part of the broader discussion about what the appropriate tariffs for disqualification are?

What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that this is a matter for the House. The Leader of the House has agreed that discussions can be initiated on this, and it is not for me to prescribe the content of those discussions. However, as the suggestion was that they should be cross-party, the hon. Gentleman has at least had the opportunity through his own party to raise that matter.

In amendments 12 to 14, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) proposes moving the words “It is irrelevant” from the start of subsection (3) to the body of the subsection. He always has an eye to elegance on paper as well as in verbal communication. I dare say that it was the aesthetics of the drafting that caught his eye.

Let me save my right hon. Friend some trouble. My amendments were merely to make sense of the changes to the Commonwealth realms and the Commonwealth to move the words from the introduction to the body of the subsection; otherwise, the subsequent amendment would not work.

I understand the point now. I did think it was a rather more syntactical point, but I stand corrected. As I took it from my hon. Friend’s speech that he had been persuaded by the arguments put by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire and that he was content with the simpler expression of the same intention, his amendments would not be required if my hon. Friend’s amendment were made. As my hon. Friend has indicated that he is content with the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire, I hope that he will consider it reasonable not to discuss his proposed equivalents in great detail.

Amendment 17 on pardons adds a duty on the Lord Speaker to issue a further certificate if a Member is pardoned, following the conviction of a serious offence. The effect of a free pardon is that the person is cleared from all consequences of the offence, and from all statutory or other disqualifications following on from the conviction, although it does not remove the conviction itself. On that basis, if a peer who has been disqualified was then pardoned, the effect of the pardon would be the removal of the disqualification, and it would be odd if it were removed in the case of a successful appeal but not of a free pardon.

Part of the reason for adding “or is pardoned” was that the pardon might come from a foreign court, and I do not think that the pardon from a foreign court would have any automatic effect in British law in any other circumstances.

I understand and I am grateful for the clarification.

On amendment 23 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire and the point about foreign convictions, the mood of the House is to acknowledge that criminal justice systems do vary from our own. Of course it is right to respect the differences, but it is equally true that in some cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset has ably drawn attention to, what is illegal in one country may jar quite violently with a British sense of justice. The issue of homosexuality has been mentioned in this debate, and, regrettably, it is currently illegal to be homosexual in at least 77 countries. Under the Bill as it stands, someone convicted of homosexuality in one of those countries and sentenced to more than a year in prison would automatically lose their place in the House of Lords. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said that we should start with a presumption of upholding the authority of overseas courts. However, it would be monstrous, even though the Bill would allow their Lordships to overturn the penalty by dint of special circumstances, for even a temporary disqualification of someone convicted of practising homosexuality in one of those countries and for them to need to apply for relief from the consequence in the House of Lords. That would be a very retrograde step, and we should not for a moment countenance such a temporary disqualification.

The Minister is being persuasive. Does he not accept that in the House of Commons, under our rules in the Representation of the People Act 1981, we do not have a right to wait for an appeal? A Member is automatically disqualified once the judge has passed sentence, and that is for more than a year and a day. It is occasionally possible in the UK that our courts get it wrong, so why is he supporting a different rule for an overseas court than we have in a UK court?

The hon. Gentleman points out something that can, on occasion, be a source of regret in the procedures of this House. It does not follow from that that we should introduce the greater possibility in the other place through this Bill. I do not think that we should contemplate that.

Is it not the case that we cannot allow an appeal when it refers to this House, because the vacancy has to be filled, whereas in the other House there is no limit on the numbers? We have to have every constituency represented, and we could not have two Members of Parliament, which could happen if someone who was excluded was brought back.

My hon. Friend is quite right to explain the differences between the two Houses. That is why it is right to focus on the fact that this is a Bill that proposes changes to the House of Lords. The Houses are not identical in every respect, but my hon. Friend has been careful in restricting his Bill to the House of Lords and to its procedures there.

It is right that their Lordships should review the circumstance in which a Member was convicted abroad in order to satisfy themselves that the offence is recognised as being serious in the United Kingdom and that the circumstances of the conviction are fair. I know that a number of Members raised this issue on Second Reading, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire for the diligent and sensible way he has managed to find an amendment that is elegant and to the point, and the Government are pleased to lend their support to it.

I have listened carefully to the arguments, some of which have been most persuasive. Given the assurances that the Government are open to the whole issue and the fact that I do not want to hold up this Bill, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: 23, page 3, line 8, leave out subsection (9) and insert—

‘(9) A certificate under subsection (2) in respect of a conviction outside the United Kingdom may be issued only if the House of Lords resolves that subsection (1) should apply; and where the House does so resolve the Lord Speaker must issue the certificate.’.—(Dan Byles.)

Clause 4

Effect of ceasing to be a member

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 21, page 3, line 44, at end insert—

‘(9) A person who ceases to be a member of the House of Lords in accordance with sections 1 and 2 of this Act may not be elected to the House of Commons during the course of the next two Parliaments.

(10) A person who ceases to be a member of the House of Lords in accordance with this Act remains entitled to all the other privileges state degree style title and honour of peerage.’.

Amendments 19 and 21 aim to deal with the issue of Members of the House of Lords going from the Lords to the Commons. As the Bill was initially drafted and as we debated it on Second Reading, it would have been possible to have a revolving door or ping-pong back and forth, depending which phrase is preferred. It would have been possible for someone to leave the Commons, go to the Lords, leave the Lords, come back to the Commons and go back to the Lords again. I am glad to say that that was amended in Committee, which has at least to some degree ameliorated the situation. But there is a problem with the House of Lords being changed into a place that can be used as a way of preparing people for political life before bringing them to the Commons. As more and more professional politicians come through—I know this is a matter of concern to the electorate—people can have the following career path: becoming special advisers, going to the Lords and then coming to the Commons, without any real pause in between. As the Bill stands, it would be possible to resign a seat in the Lords immediately before the close of nominations for the House of Commons at a general election—

Thomas Docherty: There is already some precedent for somebody leaving the House of Lords, going straight to the House of Commons and then back to the House of Lords. I think I am right in saying that Alec Douglas-Home did exactly that in 1963 and was elected in Scotland to a seat that he represented for a number years and then became a life peer.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. There is indeed a precedent, which I was well aware of, and it is not just the late Lord Home of the Hirsel; Lord Hailsham did exactly the same. Both of them resigned their peerage for the 1963 Conservative leadership contest, at which point Tory leaders emerged from the magic circle—a very satisfactory way of doing it, but it is now done in a more modern way, and I am glad to say that all Conservative Members have an equal vote in our leadership elections. I cannot quite remember how the trade unions sort it out in the Labour party, but I know that they have a lot of fun with it.

There is indeed a precedent, but the hon. Gentleman will remember that when the ability to disclaim peerages was introduced, a limited time was provided when all peers could disclaim their peerage, regardless of when they had received it. Thereafter, peers who disclaimed their peerage had a limited time in which to do so after inheriting their peerage. It was all done so that Tony Benn, the then Viscount Stansgate, could get back into the House of Commons to be elected for Bristol. That was done to provide for an extraordinary circumstance where people had no choice but to be peers. They had become peers by the wonderful accident of birth that had raised them to such a status, which took them into the House of Lords and forced them to leave the House of Commons, whereas the precedent had already been set in relation to Lord Curzon and George V that the Prime Minister had to come from the House of Commons. Therefore, to allow the widest choice of candidates for that leadership election, peers were able to resign their peerages and come into the Commons. However, people becoming leaders of the party in that way is very different from it becoming a standard part of the career progression of a politician to go to the Lords first and then come to the Commons. The first should not be seen as a stepping stone to the other.

It is also a problem in relation to our constituency work, because it would not be inconceivable that an election result in a marginal seat could see a Member of Parliament defeated, and that his party might so value his or her services that they put them into the House of Lords, from which he has the ability to campaign for the marginal seat for the next five years, before resigning his seat in the House of Lords to come back to the House of Commons.

Again, that situation already exists. We have had a number of cases of Members of the House of Lords being elected to the Scottish Parliament, but it has not led to widespread problems.

The devolved Parliaments are different, because the simple logistics of needing to be in Edinburgh or Cardiff and also in the House of Lords make it much harder to work on that basis than between these two Houses, where the role, the position, the place of activity are so very similar. It is perfectly reasonable to foresee someone who has just lost a seat spending five years as a Lord preparing to campaign for it again. As it becomes clearer, and parties are well aware of this, that to win seats we have all modelled ourselves on the Liberal Democrats—I say that with not a single one present in the House now—we have worked out that to win marginal constituencies—[Interruption.] I was not aware that there was anyone that I could see in the Galleries.

That is why I did not see anybody in them, Mr Deputy Speaker. Although, there is, as you know, the right to speak from the Gallery in the event that the House is full. Sadly, it is not full today.

I can help the hon. Gentleman a little more. It is also up to the Chair to decide who speaks, and on this occasion I have decided to hear a little more from Jacob Rees-Mogg.

I am very grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, although I will let you into a secret: one of my ambitions is to speak from the Galleries one day. I think that it was last done in the 1950s.

To return to my point, it has been established that the best way to win marginal seats is to select candidates early and have them working in the constituencies for a long time in the run-up to a general election. That presents difficulties, however, because candidates have to earn a living, need to find the resources to finance their campaign and have to put other parts of their life on hold. If they can do that from the House of Lords, that is an enormous advantage. It gives them an income of sorts and it gives them status, which they can use to intervene in constituency affairs—a local council or Government body will take a letter from a peer just as seriously as a letter from a Member of the House of Commons. There is the risk of setting up an MP and an unelected peer to fight for a constituency for five years, with the peer simply standing down before the election to put himself forward and conceivably take the seat and go back to being a Member of the House of Commons. That seems to me to be fundamentally undesirable.

Members may say that the risk is slim and that that will never happen, but we are becoming a more professional political class. There is certainly evidence that length of campaigning in constituencies helps. There is currently a very good proposal from “ConservativeHome” to provide candidates with funds to help them with that. How much easier it would be if there was a nice, cosy billet in the House of Lords from which it could be done. Admittedly, that could not be done again, because the peer would have burnt all his bridges in relation to returning to the House of Lords, but that is not too bad, because they would still have got 15 years out of the system: one Parliament as an MP, one as a peer and, if they are clever, another as an MP. It begins to look like a means of forming a political career.

If that system becomes a means of forming a political career, it also becomes—I return to what I said earlier—a means of the parties asserting more control over their lordships’ House. A key thing about being in their lordships’ House is that there really are no further baubles the Government can offer. There are very few carrots and no sticks. That encourages independence of mind. It encourages peers, once they get there, to be more rigorous in considering the merits of the issues before them and to act in the proper way of a revising Chamber. The more possible it is for Governments to encourage, coerce and persuade peers to stick tightly to the party line, the less use their lordships’ House will serve, because it will be unable to do its job as a revising Chamber effectively.

Even if the risk is relatively slim and the numbers involved will not necessarily be huge, it seems to me that some sort of stop ought to be placed on that and that people go to the Lords knowing that they have accepted it for life, as we have already discussed, and that it disbars them from the House of Commons. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that people should face the consequences of decisions they have freely made. That is where it is different from hereditary peers and disclaiming, because a hereditary peerage is not a decision freely made; it is an accident of birth. However, any life peer has received a letter from the Prime Minister saying, “Do you want to be a life peer?”, has had letters patent issued by the sovereign and has had to pay Garter King of Arms to draw up the paperwork. They have had to do something to get that noble status. They know, because they have been told, that it excludes them from the House of Commons, by their voluntary choice.

Some argue that that is against their human rights, which is an absolutely ridiculous understanding of human rights. I know that it has been argued that it is against their human rights to stop them coming back to the House of Commons, but they are the ones who chose to be ineligible for the House of Commons. Surely with rights go responsibilities, and surely people must face the consequences of their actions.

I think that the failure to include that exclusion in the Bill is a mistake. It is something that ought to be remedied, because it could lead to problems in future. It could damage the standing of the House of Lords. It could easily be misused by a powerful political party, because obviously the party in government is more able to decide who the working peers will be, and therefore to use it for its marginal seats, to the detriment of opposition parties. No party is in government for ever, so it is always worth all sides bearing those difficulties in mind. It also fundamentally takes away from someone the consequences of their actions, which I think is wrong. I think that people should bear those consequences, and once they have been elevated they should not be allowed to sink back down, at least for a period.

I shall be brief. I had not planned to speak, but I was so interested by the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) that I want to challenge some of his assumptions.

As I said earlier, we already have a system whereby Members of the House of Lords can serve simultaneously in both the Lords and the Scottish Parliament. Lord Steel served ably for four years not just as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, but as its Presiding Officer while serving in and on occasion, I think, attending the House of Lords. Lord Watson, who was previously an MP, took a life peerage in 1997 and then stood successfully for election to the Scottish Parliament in a constituency in Glasgow in 1999. Lord Foulkes of Cumnock went from the House of Commons to the House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament and maintained his very active role in both the House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament at the same time.

There is no suggestion in any of those cases that being a Member of the House of Lords gave an unfair advantage to those three noble Lords while they were campaigning for election to the Scottish Parliament. Lord Steel in particular was and is still a huge figure in Scottish politics, deeply respected for his 30-odd years’ service to the people of the Borders. That was why Lord Steel was successful when he stood for election on the list in the Lothians region of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

I fear that on this rare occasion the hon. Member for North East Somerset sees mischief where none will exist. He was right to mention Lord Hailsham and the issue with Alec Douglas-Home. I read Alan Clark’s diaries a few months ago, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman has done. He will recall that at one point Baroness Thatcher was considering the merits of Lord Young as a possible successor. It is utterly inconceivable in the 21st century, never mind the 20th century, for a peer to become Prime Minister. That would be unacceptable to the electorate, and possibly even constitutionally these days there would be questions about the validity of that role.

The danger with the argument that the hon. Gentleman makes with some sincerity is that it would close down the possibility that someone may go into the House of Lords and then emerge as a serious contender for high office, though perhaps not the highest office, but if they wished to be Foreign Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer, for example, it might be felt more appropriate for them to be a Member of this House. We have a slightly quirky situation at present, and that was true also under the Labour Government when the First Secretary of State was a Member of the House of Lords and a junior Minister had to answer in this House. Personally, I hope we will look at that again. Putting in an artificial bar—

The proposal would not put in an artificial bar but maintain the status quo, because currently a specific Act of Parliament would be required for a life peer to come into this House. Lord Young could not have been Margaret Thatcher’s successor without an Act of Parliament allowing him to disclaim his peerage.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this door has been opened by the Bill, and I recognise that he is trying to shut it. That was my point in talking about putting in an artificial bar. I hope that the Minister will clearly set out how the Government intend to respond to this issue. I think that the hon. Gentleman is seeing a mischief where there is not one. I hope that when he responds he will reflect on what the two Front Benchers have said.

Amendments 19 and 21 would prevent a peer who resigns or is disqualified through non-attendance from being elected to the House of Commons during the course of the next two Parliaments, thereby making provision for a cooling-off period. I think we all agree that we would not want the House of Lords to become a training ground for a seat in the House of Commons and thereafter provide an opportunity to ping-pong between the Houses. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) said, my Bill does not allow departing peers to return to the House of Lords, so the ponging is gone, and perhaps we are now just discussing the pinging.

I am conscious of my hon. Friend’s concerns, but the likelihood of many of them becoming reality are quite slim. On the first group of amendments, he spoke with great eloquence about how desperate many people are to get into the House of Lords. In my experience and, I think, that of most people in the House, people are very keen to go in that direction but there is not necessarily quite such a large queue waiting to come in this direction. When I have discussed this with colleagues, they have looked at me and said, “Why on earth would somebody want to go from the Lords to the Commons? Most of our colleagues seem to be trying to go the other way.”

On the potential power given to party leaderships, I am not convinced that the party leadership—in our party, anyway—has quite as much control over the candidate selection process as my hon. Friend seems to give them credit for. Whenever the party leadership tries to impose a favoured candidate on a safe seat, the fact that they are known to be the Conservative central office-favoured candidate can at times be the kiss of death with regard to the local association, which usually likes to exert its independence when it come to selecting candidates.

My hon. Friend’s argument needs to be weighed strongly against the very serious issue of barring a British citizen from seeking election to the House of Commons. I take his point when he says that someone will have made this decision when they chose to go into the House of Lords, but it is very large step to say to them, “You, as a British citizen, are one of a small group of people who, through dint of your previous job, are not permitted to seek election to the House of Commons.” We have traditionally prevented people from seeking election to the House of Commons only for very narrow reasons, and I am wary of the amendment for that reason. I am not aware of any widespread desire among parliamentarians to ping-pong backwards and forwards—or ping, at least—and I very much doubt that the party leaderships of all three parties would seek to use that as a method of grooming candidates in future.

Amendment 21 says that any peer who resigned or was disqualified would retain their peerage. That principle is already inherent in the Bill, which does not provide for peerages to be lost, and the amendment is therefore unnecessary. I urge the House not to support the amendments.

I oppose the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), although I recognise the sentiments he expresses about undue campaigning and not allowing political advantage to be conferred on people who try to get selected to this place by virtue of their being a parliamentarian already.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) on the grounds that we already know of many Members of the European Parliament who have sought to come to this place having been very proactive in parts of their constituencies. I am thinking of a particular gentleman who is no longer a Member of this House but was very assiduous in parts of his region where he ultimately got selected as the candidate and was then elected to this House. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset is right to highlight the issue, but I am concerned that he may have given the idea to our political parties, rather than dissuaded them. I do not think it is necessary to put it into legislation. If there is ever a case of the procedure being abused, that would be the appropriate point at which to revisit the issue, in another Parliament.

The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) has raised a serious issue and I have given it a lot of thought. It has been pointed out to me by experts on this matter outside the House that previous proposals for reform of the other place have included some sort of cooling-off period and that it should, therefore, be considered as part of the Bill.

When the hon. Gentleman moved his earlier amendments, he discussed the risk of this becoming a standard part of career progression, which is a fair point. However, we also have to balance that risk with the arguments made by other hon. Members during this debate. The decisive argument that leads me not to support the amendments is that made just now by the promoter of the Bill, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), namely that I cannot defend the principle of barring a UK citizen from standing for election simply on the basis of their previous occupation.

I accept that there is a risk, albeit a relatively slim one, of the system being abused. On the other hand, there could be some advantage to people who have experience of the other place standing for this place. I think it is fair to say that, whatever our different views about the composition of the other place and the method of appointment and lack of election to it, it is often better than we are at the scrutiny of Bills. If a small number of people with experience of scrutiny and revision in the other place came to this place, that might not be such a bad thing. On balance—this is a finely balanced argument—I come down against the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North East Somerset and hope that he will withdraw it.

I am disappointed that the House has lost the opportunity today to hear the unmistakable and authoritative tones of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) coming from the Gallery. It could only have lent even greater authority to his declarations. We shall look forward to it happening at another time, with your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The issue has had a good airing in this short debate. I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concern that we should not risk losing the very important role that their lordships play in being a source of dispassionate expertise and advice to this place, and we all admire their robust independence and scrutiny, even if, on occasion, Ministers find themselves on the wrong end of it. That is their role and they discharge it very well.

We do not want to see the House of Lords become a nursery for the Commons where young hopefuls start their careers before being transplanted to this Chamber at some point. However, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) have said, this is a balanced argument. My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) has sought always to gather those measures of reform that command the greatest possible consensus. This is not the last word on House of Lords reform and some of the principles that even this short debate has thrown up are very serious and have consequences, such as whether it is right to restrict someone who is not a Member of Parliament from standing for Parliament. That debate of some constitutional consequence needs to be approached carefully and to happen in the context of other debates that will no doubt take place in the years ahead about further reform of the House of Lords.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset was gracious enough to acknowledge, the Bill is different from the one first introduced, so it cannot be subject to ping-pong in the way that would have been permitted for the original Bill. We have given a great deal of thought to this matter and those covered in previous discussions. When Lord Steel promoted his Bill in the other place, it made progress and was accepted by their lordships, who were content for it to proceed without what might be called the cooling-off period. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire has been influenced by, and has consciously modelled his Bill on, proposals that have already attracted a degree of support and consensus, following considerable scrutiny in the other place. To depart from the established consensus in the other place might be perilous for a private Member’s Bill on such a subject.

I agree with the comment that preventing someone from running for elected office is a serious sanction. Given the safeguards made to avoid ping-pong between the Houses, it is not necessary for the Bill to forbid someone from doing so. I concede that this House and the other place may want to come back to the matter and, provided that the Bill is fortunate enough to receive Royal Assent, perhaps to make a judgment based on the experience of how it works in practice. I am sure that there will be other opportunities to discuss it in the years ahead.

Let me just mention amendment 21, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset. As has been said, it would clarify that any peer who resigns or is disqualified retains his or her peerage. It may help if I repeat from the Dispatch Box what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire. The Government’s view is that that is already implicit in the Bill, which states that a peerage cannot be lost in such a way. I am happy to confirm that to provide clarity and certainty.

Given the reasons that I have set out, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset is inclined not to press his amendments.

I have listened very carefully to the speeches in this debate. I am very reassured by the Minister’s commitment that the matter will be reviewed if it turns out to be a problem: if my fears turn out to be real, it will be looked at, and if they turn out not to be, it will not matter. I am also reassured that the honorifics that go with a peerage will clearly remain. I do not want to risk the Bill by pushing my amendments to a Division, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Third Reading

Queen’s consent signified.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I thank the hon. Members, some of whom are in the Chamber, who participated in Committee for their careful consideration of and full support for each clause. I do not intend to repeat the very full debate we have just had on Report. The advantage of discussing a wide range of amendments is that we have already explored several of the clauses, so I need not go over them again. I thank colleagues for their considered and thoughtful interventions, and for agreeing to my amendment 23, which will make the Bill a better one.

I am delighted that Members of all political parties have come together to consider the provisions of the Bill carefully and to lend their support throughout its parliamentary stages. The Bill seeks to implement the urgent, housekeeping reforms that the upper Chamber welcomed during the passage of Lord Steel’s Bill. Those include a statutory resignation provision, so that peers may leave the House if they no longer feel able to serve or if they wish to retire; a mechanism for the removal of persistent non-attendees who fail to fulfil their important duties to the House; and a system to remove peers who commit serious criminal offences, thereby safeguarding the reputation of the House of Lords.

It is plain that both Houses embrace those sensible reforms, which Members have long agreed the House of Lords requires. The debate over how reform of the upper Chamber should be achieved has thwarted earlier attempts at reform and has led to these essential and highly reasonable reforms not being implemented. I appreciate that the wider debate about reform will continue and that colleagues hold different views on the need or otherwise for longer-term, substantial reform of the membership of the upper Chamber. I remind Members that the Bill does not prevent those debates from continuing, but focuses on the extremely overdue reforms that we all agree are crucial.

I am confident that, following its considered examination by colleagues, the Bill is in excellent shape to be progressed to the upper Chamber. I therefore urge Members to continue to assist in its safe passage today and to give those in the upper Chamber this vital opportunity to reform themselves.

I, too, will be brief because there are other important Bills that will come before us shortly.

I thank the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) for bringing the Bill forward. It is an impressive Bill, in that it has not only generated a lot of debate, but made sufficient progress in a packed legislative programme to head down to the House of Lords. I hope that, because of the work that has been done here, the House of Lords will not feel the need to spend too long on it and it will become law before the end of the Session.

If the hon. Member for North Warwickshire is the father of the Bill, it is probably worth stressing that Lord Steel is its godfather. Like many godfathers, he is no doubt taking an interest in what we are doing and watching over us in some way. I hope that the whole House will join me in thanking him for his work on the Bill over the years.

I believe in reform of the House of Lords. I hope that this is not the last Bill on the subject. Whether or not Members support an elected or partially elected House of Lords, I think that it is recognised across this House—indeed, it is recognised in the House of Lords itself—that it is absurd to have more than 800 peers and for that number to be growing quickly. I hope that the Bill will have an impact on that, but I also hope that Front Benchers are committed to having another look at the composition and operation of the House of Lords.

I thank the Clerks who have done such a fantastic job, in particular Kate Emms, and all the House officials who have worked with the hon. Member for North Warwickshire, the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), myself and other Members who have tabled amendments.

I commend the Bill to the House. It is an excellent piece of work. I urge the other place not to spend too long rehashing these issues, because it is important that the Bill gets on to the statute book before the end of the Session.

I rise to commend the Bill to the House and to our noble Friends in the other place.

The Bill makes a sensible reform. I was pleased to be invited by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) to help prepare and bring in the Bill, and to serve on the Public Bill Committee.

When a previous version of the Bill was discussed, it did not get past Second Reading, even though it had a significant majority at that point. A number of issues have been raised through amendments today and in Committee. I thank, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who is one of the great champions of constitutional propriety, but who also recognises the need for appropriate reform.

I sincerely hope that the other House passes the Bill without undue delay.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Unfortunately, the rule has a caveat that the House must be full for someone to speak from the Galleries, and sadly that is not the case today.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) for her incredibly generous comments, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) on piloting this Bill. I am surprised that I find myself supporting a reform Bill of any kind, as I am normally with Lord Palmerston: “Change? Change? Aren’t things bad enough already?” My hon. Friend has piloted this Bill with incredible courtesy, efficiency, and a willingness to listen to the points that have been raised. Although I think all its proceedings should have been on the Floor of the House, it is a rare event for a Back-Bench Member to pass a constitutional Bill and it requires a good deal of patience and perhaps responsiveness.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would agree that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) is much more successful at such things than the Deputy Prime Minister appears to be.

For once, I will praise the Lord President of the Council, because to be fair to him—my right hon. Friend!—having not been able to get through a massive reform of the House of Lords that would have had enormous constitutional implications, he has shown good grace in not sulking in his den and trying to obstruct this reform. This Bill allows transitions to take place which, although minor in themselves, are actually quite fundamental. A life peerage is now no longer for life, the problem of peers committing offences is dealt with at last—which in some ways is long overdue—the House of Lords is now able to expel peers, and non-attendance has a sanction. I think those reforms make the upper House stronger. That is not to say that I do not have minor qualms about some of the detail, but my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire has been incredibly successful in piloting the Bill, and has done so in such a way that even those of us who are accused of being Neanderthal about constitutional matters are on his side.

I start by joining the congratulations to the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) on his Bill and his success in reaching Third Reading, and I reaffirm the Opposition’s support for the Bill. In many ways, as he said, this is a housekeeping Bill: it is modest, but important and sensible nevertheless. Without this Bill, we face a real risk of heading towards an upper House with as many as 1,000 Members. That is more than can fit into the other place for a popular debate—surely a farcical position to be in.

Clause 1 is a sensible step that allows peers to retire or resign. As the shadow Attorney-General said on Second Reading, a peerage should not be a life sentence. It remains remarkable that one cannot retire from the House of Lords, and gives an impression of the other place as a members’ club, rather than a serious place of democratic scrutiny. The option of resignation will be useful in a number of different scenarios, such as when a Lord is ill, as was said earlier, or unable to keep up their attendance. To have peers who do not or cannot play their role in the parliamentary process, but who nevertheless remain entitled or expected to do so, surely devalues our democratic process, and I am pleased that the Bill will change that.

Clause 2 provides that a Member of the House of Lords who is a peer and does not attend the House during a Session will cease to be a Member of the House at the beginning of the following Session. The public are understandably frustrated when they wonder why Members of the Lords remain ennobled and able to vote in the Lords when they are never present to undertake that role. The measures in the Bill ensure that that will no longer be the case. To be a member of the House of Lords should not merely be a line on one’s CV or a hobby, but a serious role that requires attendance.

Clause 3 means that a Member of the Lords who is convicted of a serious offence ceases to be a Member. Again, that is a sensible measure to ensure that we protect the legitimacy of the other place. The public would be very concerned if convicted criminals, guilty of serious offences, were still able to play an active part in our lawmaking and democratic process, and I am pleased that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire was successful in his amendment to clause 3 which, rightly, offers further protections for peers who may be incorrectly convicted abroad under foreign jurisdictions.

Nevertheless, it remains the view on the Labour Benches that these changes do not go far enough. They should not be seen as the end of the road, but merely as the next stage of reform. The upper Chamber is in need of much more radical reform and indeed this Chamber has voted for that both in this Parliament and the previous one. There are only two countries in the world—the other being Lesotho—in which the upper House combines non-elected Members with Members selected by birthright and patronage. It is an institution that has eight times as many Members over the age of 90 as it does under the age of 40, but it plays a central role in our democracy—despite having no democratic mandate.

Beyond democratic legitimacy, there are practical considerations. The Bill will help to tidy up the Lords, and is therefore welcome, but the problem will keep coming back. After each general election, new Governments will always seek to reflect the balance of the vote at the election in the composition of the Lords, creating a further pressure that means we still risk having 1,000 Members in the other place. Disqualifying convicted criminals and allowing peers to resign is tidying up a molehill when there is a mountain of reform still needed. Nevertheless, the Bill is an important step in the right direction and I reaffirm our congratulations to the hon. Member for North Warwickshire and commend the Bill to the House.

I echo the plaudits that are no doubt ringing in the ears of my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) for the way in which he has successfully—I hope, although it is subject to the will of the House—piloted his Bill through its stages. I commend him on his bravery in taking forward—as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) said—an important constitutional Bill as a private Member’s Bill. It is a brave Member of Parliament who, when he comes high up in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, chooses House of Lords reform. It is not the most obvious choice, but my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire made it and has piloted his Bill in an exemplary manner.

Part of my hon. Friend’s achievement is to have worked tirelessly to consult and listen to respected voices, many of whom have spoken in the debate today, so that both the formulation of his propositions, and the amendments to them, have been able to establish a degree of support on both sides of the House. I hope that that will also be the case in the House of Lords.

I also wish to put on record my thanks to the Members who participated in Committee on 15 January, considering a large number of amendments that were made without any Divisions. The Bill is not the last word on reform, and there will doubtless be more debate to come. I echo the words of other hon. Members in paying tribute to the officials and the Clerks who guided my hon. Friend in the drafting of the Bill and dealing with some of the questions that arose. It is a tribute to their wisdom and advice that we have been able to make the progress that we have.

I hope that the other place will accept the strong and positive endorsement of the House for the Bill. While discussions on the wider membership and structure of the Lords will continue, the Bill is useful. The three elements that it will introduce—a statutory resignation process, a disqualification mechanism on conviction of a serious offence and removal for those who persistently fail to attend the House without reasonable excuse or leave of absence—are steps in the right direction. It is right that a conscientious peer who has played a full and active role in the House of Lords, but feels in all conscience that they can no longer maintain that level of commitment, should be entitled to an honourable release from that commitment. The Bill, very sensibly, will provide for that.

I also think it consistent with the enormous privilege that comes with a peerage—to which my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset has repeatedly drawn attention—to provide for those who do not attend the House of Lords or take their duty to it seriously to be permanently removed from their seats. I think that allowing persistent non-attenders who do not play a role in the work of the House to keep their seats damages the reputation of those who are diligent, and who contribute their time, effort, energy and learning to the debates that take place there.

It is vital for all Members of the legislature to uphold the highest standards of integrity. Allowing peers who commit serious criminal offences to keep their seats in the House of Lords can only harm its reputation and undermine its important work, and it is right for Members who fall foul of the rules to be permanently removed. Indeed, our colleagues on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee who considered the Bill noted that every witness who had given evidence during its inquiry into House of Lords reform had supported a provision to remove Members who committed serious criminal offences.

For those reasons, the Government fully support the important and reasonable measures that the Bill seeks to implement. We are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire for giving the House an opportunity to consider them, and for the way in which he allowed the debate to be conducted. Following careful and detailed consideration, not just today but in Committee and on Second Reading, the House of Commons has given the Bill full and good consideration, and I think that we are sending it to the House of Lords in a good state. I hope that it will be possible to build on the work of Lord Steel—who, similarly, took great pains to ensure that his own Bill received a degree of scrutiny and support—and that the union between that heritage and my hon. Friend’s Bill will enable it to make good progress in the other place. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

My Bill—which is not exactly extensive, consisting of just two pages of carefully drafted text—is designed to prohibit the wearing of certain face coverings, and seeks to make it illegal for people to cover their faces in public places. In many respects I am sorry that it has come to this, but there is growing concern among my constituents, and indeed throughout the country, about the increasing number of people who are going about in public places covering their faces. It is causing alarm and distress to many people in our country. I have received numerous letters and e-mails, not only from my constituents but from people the length and breadth of the land who fear that the nation is heading in the wrong direction.

The two main face coverings that give rise to concern are full-face balaclavas—which we see being worn increasingly during demonstrations—and full-face Islamic veils. My contention is that, because of political correctness and sensitivities about unintentionally causing harm to religious minorities, the Government are frightened to act on the issue, which is a great shame.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting the chance to introduce this Bill, although I oppose it and will oppose it on Second Reading. As far as I can see, he has 723 Muslims in his constituency. Has he consulted any of them about the proposals he is making to the House today, and if he has, what is their view on whether the Bill should be supported?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As he will know, I am very happy to give way on many occasions whenever I am on my feet in the Chamber, and may I say it is a privilege for me that he has given up his Friday to be here for this debate? I am sure it will be all the better for his presence.

The right hon. Gentleman tells me there are 723 Muslims in the Kettering constituency. I do not count my constituents by their faith. I have no idea whether there are 723 Muslims in my constituency or 7,230. The faith of my constituents is irrelevant to me. I am concerned to represent my constituents whatever faith they may hold, so I do not hold those statistics, but I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for informing me of that.

There is a Kettering Muslim Association and we have had correspondence and conversations about this issue, and I have to say that that dialogue has ended because, despite my offering to speak with members of the association about my Bill, they have declined that opportunity to me. I think that is a great shame, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will feel it is a great shame as well, because, whatever our views on this issue, it is important that they are debated and discussed.

I absolutely agree with the point my hon. Friend has just made, and I am absolutely certain that the vast majority of my constituents will agree with his Bill. I am not sure, though, that I do. I absolutely agree that people must remove their face coverings where everyone else has to show their face, such as in a bank or at passport control, but does my hon. Friend really want to live in a country where we have the Government telling people what they can and cannot wear, because that is the bit that makes me very nervous about our having that kind of authoritarian state?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and may I echo my remarks to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) by saying what a privilege it is that my hon. Friend is here today to take part in this debate? He is a champion of these private Members’ Bills Fridays and he always brings a very distinctive and very personal view to our proceedings. It is surprising to me that he and I are on different sides of this argument, because we agree on so many things, not least the importance of closed-circuit television in fighting crime. My hon. Friend is perhaps the foremost advocate in this place of the benefits of closed-circuit television, but of course one of the big problems with face coverings is that if someone whose face is covered is captured on CCTV, we cannot identify them.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being very generous with his time so early in his remarks. He is touching on an important area that I wish to question him on briefly. One of the reasons this Bill is seen as particularly sensitive is that the two groups he has referred to are very separate. One may be out to break the law—they may be covering their face because they intend to break the law and not be seen—while the others are law abiding and are covering their face because of their religion. It is that conflict between those two groups that causes the difficulty with the Bill.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I am triply blessed today, given that he too is in his place and contributing to the debate. He is without parallel in his scrutiny of private Members’ legislation, which is to the advantage of us all. I want to make it clear from the outset that I know that there are strong views on both sides of this argument. There are strong merits and strong demerits to the Bill. I said earlier that, in many respects, I was sorry that it has come to needing legislation. The problem is that law-abiding citizens who cover their face for supposedly religious reasons are, by their actions, alienating so many of our other citizens in this country. It causes alarm and distress to many of our citizens who are not part of those religious groups to see Britain’s high streets being increasingly dominated by, especially, Islamic women who are covering their faces in full. I would be doing my constituents a disservice if I did not bring these concerns to the Floor of the House.

I absolutely agree with everything my hon. Friend has just said; that is something that I hear from my constituents over and over again. My constituency is in a district of Bradford that, unfortunately, has a very segregated population, and the activity that he is describing exacerbates the differences and the segregation. In many respects, I disapprove of this and wish that people would not wear those face coverings, for the reasons he has just given, but does he not agree that we can disapprove of something without banning it?

That is a very good point. I do disapprove of full-face veils, but I have gone a step further than my hon. Friend in saying that they should be banned. That is the difference between us. The reason that I say it is because the number of people who are now covering their faces is such that it is not helping the integration of ethnic and religious minorities into our society.

One of the big problems we have in Britain today is the number of ethnic minority Muslim women who do not speak English. It is very difficult for people who do not speak English to take advantage of all the positive aspects of our society that are open to each and every one of us.

The hon. Gentleman said in response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) that Muslim women were wearing veils “supposedly” for reasons of religious belief. Does he not accept that they do so because of their religious belief, not “supposedly” because of it? In the Koran, Muslim men and women are instructed to do certain things, and it is their choice whether to do them. It is up to the Muslim women themselves; nobody tells them what to do. If they accept what is written in their holy book, they will choose to do it.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention, and I am happy to give way to him as many times as he wants to intervene on me. That applies to anyone else in the Chamber. I also welcome the tone with which we have started this debate. These are important issues and there are strong feelings on both sides. It is an important part of our role as parliamentarians to air the concerns of our constituents, even if they are difficult issues, and what better place to do that than in the Chamber of the House of Commons? I will respond to the point that the right hon. Gentleman has just raised after I have taken an intervention from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman).

The hon. Gentleman was moving on to talk about Muslim women who did not speak English. That is very much widening the scope of his attack and, frankly, makes one question his motivation. Neither of my parents, who were immigrants, could ever read or write English, although they acquired some ability to speak the language. Should they have been excluded or pressed upon? They enabled me to become a Member of Parliament. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that Muslim women who cannot speak English should not have the right to have their children become Members of Parliament?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman’s parents would be extremely proud of their son being a distinguished parliamentarian, but I am pretty sure that his mother was not veiled. The purpose of my Bill is to talk about covering one’s face and not about restricting people because they do not speak English. My intentions in putting forward this Bill are 100% honourable, because I am standing up and speaking out for the many hundreds of thousands of people in this country who are concerned about the increasing number of people covering their faces in public and who, frankly, feel that that is alien to the British way of life.

I am happy to give way to the hon. Lady and I welcome what she has to say. I want to respond to all the interventions that I have taken, but I am happy to give way to her at this point.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the British way. As someone of Muslim background, I believe passionately in the right of any minority group, including Muslim women, to choose how they dress, and the best of British is our diversity and our inclusiveness. His choice of this Bill and his comment about what the British way is does a great disservice to our country by representing it in such a narrow-minded and intolerant way.

The hon. Lady will not be surprised that I disagree with those remarks. She will know, because I informed her at the time, that a couple of years ago I visited her constituency as part of a TV programme. We did our best to speak with veiled women in her high street and I have to say that it was not an easy thing to do. It further drew my attention to the difficulties that veiled women have in undertaking normal everyday human interaction with people who are not veiled, because part of the traditional British way of life is that when somebody passes somebody else in the street whom they recognise, or half-recognise, they smile, perhaps wave and say hello; it is called neighbourliness. It is difficult for somebody to do that if their face is covered and it is also difficult for somebody else to do it to them, because there is no reaction.

Frankly, I do not want to live in a country where people—whether they are men or women—are increasingly going around with their faces covered, because it will lead to a deterioration in the quality of life. It also means that those ethnic minority women, largely from Muslim backgrounds, who do not speak English will find it much more difficult to learn to speak English, and they will remain at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing public services and interacting with the normal way of life if they cannot speak English properly.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on that point. Does he not think that the introduction of his Bill might lead to more women feeling that they are unable to leave their homes? If they are unable to leave their homes, they will be unable to attend English classes; if they are unable to attend English classes, they are less likely to integrate in the way he describes.

That is an interesting intervention and one that I am, of course, happy to take seriously, but it disturbs me greatly, because if we are talking about women from communities who, if they are not allowed to wear a veil are not allowed to go out, I have to question the ethics of the cultural background that would deny women the ability to go out into a normal British high street without having their faces covered. Has it come to the point that we are saying to women, “You can’t go out of doors, because of your cultural background, unless your face is veiled”? That is abhorrent in 21st century Britain.

I want to press my hon. Friend on this point. I agree with him: I regret the fact that so many people, particularly in the Bradford district, wear full-face veils. So I do not disagree with the sentiment, but I did not come into Parliament to ban everybody else from doing all the things I do not happen to like. One thing I have been perturbed about since I got elected to Parliament is that many people, particularly Opposition Members, are for ever seeking to ban everybody from doing anything they do not like. Does he understand the reluctance to try to impose someone’s will on everybody just because it is what that person happens to think?

I do understand that reluctance and, in many ways, it pains me greatly to propose this Bill. For me, although perhaps not for my hon. Friend, a line is crossed when we are talking about covering one’s face. For me, this is not about telling people what to wear—it is not about clothing; it is about the concealing of someone’s identity. That is where the big difference lies.

Before we move on to the issue of identity, let us stick with the issue of communication. On a serious note, has my hon. Friend had any communication from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, because deaf people rely on being able to see someone’s lips for the purposes of communication if they are a lip reader?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, and I have had communications from deaf people who have raised it. They tell me how frustrated they feel whenever they are faced with a woman wearing a full-face veil, because they are simply unable to communicate, unless in a written form. That must be extremely difficult for deaf people and it is a real concern. It must be extremely difficult for veiled women who are deaf to engage with other veiled women in their communities. Some five interventions ago, the right hon. Member for Leicester East challenged me on the point about religious beliefs. I am not a Muslim; I am a member of the Church of England and I go to my local Salvation Army. I am very much from a Christian background, but I have huge respect for people of faith, whatever their faith might be, and that includes Islam. Of course, I am not an Islamic scholar, but I have researched the matter in some depth and nowhere at all, anywhere in the world, can I find any proscription that women are required by Islam to cover their face. As I understand it, the Koran, the holy book to Muslims, requires women to dress modestly, and the vast majority of Muslim women in this country adhere to that without covering their faces.

The clearest verses on the requirement of the hijab are surah—chapter—24, verses 30 to 31.

I am most grateful for that reference. My Bill has absolutely no impact on the hijab or on any kind of Islamic headdress that does not cover the face, but it would proscribe the niqab and the burqa. Some people have been jumping up and down saying, “Philip Hollobone’s Bill is going to ban Muslim head-dresses”, but that is absolutely not the case. In lots of Christian countries around the world, although not so much in this country nowadays, women have worn head-dresses as a sign of modest dress. Nuns wear head-dresses, and in this country in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, although perhaps not so much in the 1970s, people often wore head scarves when out and about. So the concept of a head-dress is not alien to the British way of life, but covering one’s face in public is absolutely alien to it. That is why it is more than just an issue of dress; it is about concealing one’s identity.

The Bill is quite carefully drafted. Clause 1(1) says that

“a person wearing a garment or other object intended by the wearer as its primary purpose to obscure the face in a public place shall be guilty of an offence.”

It does not mention Islamic veils or balaclavas. The proscription applies to somebody covering their face in a public place. Of course, it is part of the natural way of things that when we go about our daily lives, we interact with our fellow human beings because we can see their face. Imagine how difficult it would be in this Chamber were Members to be veiled. Madam Deputy Speaker calls us to our feet by identifying us and naming us. If all of us in this Chamber now were wearing full face veils, how would she do her job?

Members bow when they go through the Lobby, having cast their vote. In actual fact, they should raise their heads. Hundreds of years ago, Members used to send their man servants to vote on their behalf. In order to stop abuse, the Clerks insisted that everyone raise their heads to show their face once they had cast their vote so that their identity could be secured. It would be interesting to know what the House authorities would do were a Member of this place to wear a full face veil. How would they verify their vote in the Lobby? That is an issue of concern to those who are required to check people’s identities.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, especially on clauses 2 and 3. People should be able to request the removal of face coverings. In situations in which everyone has to identify themselves, it should be compulsory for people to remove them. If his Bill was confined to ensuring that, where appropriate, people had to reveal their identities on, for example, a bus, at passport control or at a bank, I would be wholeheartedly in favour of it. Has he considered limiting the scope of his Bill to that, because he would find much more support than he would for a blanket ban?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. We can pursue such things in more depth when the Bill goes into Committee. I can see that we would have very many animated sessions on just those sorts of points. If I were to restrict the scope of the Bill to those clauses, I might enjoy the additional support from my hon. Friend, but I very much doubt that I would get the additional support from Opposition Members. Those Members are so enthralled by the difficulties of political correctness and on challenging those difficult issues, that even this modest proposal from my hon. Friend would not meet with their approval. They would see it as going against the supposed religious requirements of Islamic women.

Where a person has to prove their identity, whether by the police, in a post office or at immigration control, it is perfectly reasonable that they be required, without any fuss or bother, to remove their face coverings. Of course there is a lot of difficulty with this issue. There is a worry that if we require a veiled woman to remove her face covering, we might be in breach of some race relations or equality law. One of the advantages of my Bill is that it would remove that ambiguity. Under clause 2, the Bill says:

“Where members of the public are licensed to access private premises for the purposes of the giving or receiving of goods or services, it shall not be an offence for the owner of such premises or his agents—

(a) to request that a person wearing a garment or other object intended to obscure the face remove such garment or object; or

(b) to require that a person refusing a request under subsection (a) leave the premises.”

At the moment, a motorcyclist, male or female, pulling up at a petrol station to fill up and then going to pay is required to remove their helmet for security reasons. The owner of the petrol station does not want someone coming into their premises whose identity they cannot check or record on CCTV. They might even recognise them, or they might be able to identify them to the police if a theft were to take place. But somebody going to buy petrol wearing a burqa causes problems, because the owner of the petrol station will be unsure whether they can require that person to remove their head-dress. The person wearing the full-face veil might have already filled up their car or motorbike, but what will happen if the owner of the petrol station is unhappy about whether they are legitimate and does not know whether they can require them to remove their veil? If the person wearing the veil refuses to remove it, what does the owner of the petrol station do? My Bill would remove that ambiguity. It would be an absolute requirement that if, say, someone in a petrol station, a shop, a post office or a bank, wanted someone to remove their full-face veil, balaclava or motorcycle helmet, they could do so without fear of breaking any race relations or equality law. In many respects, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) rightly identified, those are two of the strongest clauses in the Bill.

One mistake that we might be making—the right hon. Member for Leicester East touched on this—concerns whether this is a restriction on religious freedom. One of the cul-de-sacs that the debate can go into is in saying that this is a debate between the west and Islam. Of course it is nothing of the sort. The right hon. Gentleman will know probably better than I that there are restrictions in Islamic countries on wearing the veil. The veil is an issue not just in the west but in Muslim countries. In Turkey, Tunisia, Syria and quite a large number of other Muslim countries, there are restrictions on where one can and cannot wear the veil. The idea that this is Christianity versus Islam is simply not the case.

However, we have areas of particular concern in this country that need to be tackled, and which I am disappointed that the Government have been reluctant to move on. The first is the courts. Most of my constituents would say that justice has to be seen to be done. If a defendant in court has their face covered, the jury is at an immediate disadvantage, because so much of hearing evidence is about reading somebody’s face. If a witness is giving evidence behind a veil or a balaclava, it is difficult to tell whether they are telling the truth. In this Chamber, we look at each other’s faces all the time. The right hon. Gentleman is pulling a funny face at me at this moment.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman, making his case in the passionate way in which he does, suggests that I was pulling a funny face at him. May I assure him that that was my normal face?

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We can see that because my right hon. Friend is not wearing a face covering.

It will come as no surprise to the House that those are not points of order to be dealt with from the Chair, to my great relief, but the House is much the better for the points of information that have come before it in that incorrect way, for which I thank the right hon. Gentlemen.

I am relieved to know that the right hon. Member for Leicester East was pulling a normal face, and very distinguished it is too. I of course meant “funny” in a nice way.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being very generous and has given way to anyone who has asked him to. Can he give any example of a defendant being asked by a judge to remove their veil and refusing to do so? If he can, is he is aware that the Lord Chief Justice started a consultation process last November that will enable people to put forward their views on that before he gives guidance to judges? That is the right course of action and the court process needs to be respected.

I am not aware of a case in which a defendant has refused to remove a face covering when asked to, but I am pretty sure that there have been cases in which a judge has directed someone to remove a veil and there has then been an argument about it. I think there have been restrictions on which parts of court proceedings a person is allowed to wear a veil in.

I think that most of my constituents, and most people in the country, would say that in court someone’s face should be visible all the time. I know that there are circumstances, sometimes involving vulnerable witnesses, in which evidence is given from behind a screen or via a TV link, and I understand those issues. However, in cases that do not involve those special circumstances, I think that most people would think it entirely reasonable for everyone in the court to be able to see everyone else’s face at all times, because so much of the evidence and court proceedings is about reading somebody’s face, seeing their reaction to a point someone else makes and listening to their own evidence. I hope that whoever in legal circles is drawing up the guidance gets on with it, frankly. My submission is that in all circumstances, unless especially vulnerable witnesses or child witnesses need to give evidence by TV link or from behind a screen, everyone should be able to see everyone else’s face at all times. I think most people would agree with that.

The other case concerns schools. Again, I think that most people in this country would say it is entirely wrong for a teacher to be able to teach a class while wearing a full-face veil. The Government have been reluctant to spell that out in black and white, which I think they should do. Likewise, I think that it is abhorrent that in some schools, as I understand has happened in a number of cases, the uniform code requires really very young girls to wear full-face veils. I think that is entirely inappropriate. I would therefore welcome a clear direction from Her Majesty’s Government, perhaps to be given by the Minister on the Floor of the House today, that it is completely unacceptable for either teachers or pupils to wear full-face veils in an educational establishment. Madam Deputy Speaker, I see that you are itching to call me to order—

Order. For the information of the hon. Gentleman, he is perfectly in order. It is his Bill and he is elucidating his opinions on it very well and in a way that is perfectly in order.

I am very relaxed after that guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, so thank you.

Another issue concerns police officers. Would it be acceptable for a police officer to wear a full-face veil? I do not think it would. I think it would alarm members of the public. When tackling these issues, I make up my mind by asking myself, “Is it okay for a woman to wear a full-face veil? Is it okay for a man to wear a full-face balaclava?”

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when some police officers are involved in a terrorist situation and are armed, they will wear balaclavas, which cover their faces completely, just as the face is covered for a Muslim woman? That aspect is covered, just as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) has pointed out that the issue in the law courts is covered by the judges. We do not need a law on it.

Yes, but in the cases where those specialist police officers are covering their faces, it is for health and safety reasons. Where they are dealing with a terrorist incident and there is a likelihood that weapons could be deployed or explosives could go off, often a balaclava is required as a protective device for the police officer’s face. Everybody understands that. What would be completely unacceptable would be for ordinary beat officers—ordinary police officers whom the right hon. Gentleman, I and other Members see every day of the week—to wear full-face balaclavas.

This parallel between balaclava-wearing and the wearing of full-face veils first struck me when I took my children to a local park. I was sitting in the children’s playground watching my children playing, and this Muslim woman wearing a full-face veil came across the playground with her children and her husband, I suppose, as well. I thought to myself, here I am, sitting in a children’s playground in the Kettering constituency in the middle of England, and here is a woman who does not want anyone else to look at her. I thought to myself that at a very basic level, this is discourtesy. Why would anyone want to hide their identity from everyone else?

I thought, “Well, maybe it is a religious requirement.” Then I found out that it is not a religious requirement for a woman to cover her face, and I wondered how I would feel if, instead of the woman covering her face, it was her husband next to her who was wearing a full-face balaclava? How would that make me feel? Of course it would make me feel very concerned indeed about why a man was walking across a children’s playground wearing a balaclava. I asked myself what I would do about it? I would tell somebody in the park security department that there was a man wandering about wearing a full-face balaclava in a children’s playground.

The right hon. Member for Leicester East is definitely pulling a quizzical face at me, and that is fine. He is entitled to do that, and I can see him doing it because he is not wearing a veil, but perhaps he does not understand that it raises real concerns that individuals can go around covering their faces.

The other Member for Leicester was also looking askance at the hon. Gentleman, and I am very surprised that he finds the wearing of the veil so discourteous. In the parks in Leicester or even the soft play area on Evington Valley road where I often take my children, we often see women wearing the niqab and it does not offend me in any way, but if I were to see a gentleman wearing a balaclava, I would of course be concerned because a balaclava is not religious dress and it is out of the ordinary.

The hon. Gentleman is right. There are different interpretations of the Koran. None of us here are Islamic scholars so it is not for us to give our judgment on that, but if these women choose to interpret the Koran as asking them to wear the niqab and the veil, who are we to criticise them for it?

We are parliamentarians standing up for and speaking on behalf our constituents, who are concerned about these things. I do not think it helps the integration of communities in a multicultural British society when an increasingly large number of people, mainly women, go around covering their faces. That cannot promote community cohesion on any level. Do we really want to live in a Britain where a growing number of people are going around with their identities obscured? I do not, and I know that the majority of my constituents do not.

I fear I have provoked the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) into intervening as well.

Has the hon. Gentleman considered how many people could become criminalised and end up in the criminal justice system if they choose to follow their belief—not to follow his interpretation of Islam but their own? There are many interpretations. Some choose the interpretation that they do not have to do this, and others choose to do it. Is it right, and is it good for cohesion, if women find themselves criminalised and in prison thanks to his Bill? Perhaps he should also consider the impact on the prison population.

One thing we can all agree on is that women who wear full-face veils are entirely lawful people who would want to stick to the law. I have no indication that were my Bill to become an Act those women would seek to break the law. I do not believe that they would be of criminal intent at all. In other countries where such legislation has been introduced, there have been only a very small number of infringements. In France, for example, Islamic clerics have urged Muslim women to comply with the law of the land, and there have been very few instances of women who have gone out of their way to break the law.

I am worried about the what the hon. Gentleman has just said. He has told the House that if his Bill becomes law he would expect a lot of women, or some women, to seek to break that law. I feel that this is, in his view, a way of encouraging law-breaking and encouraging a breakdown in the community cohesion that we have in this country. Does he expect people to want to break this law, and does he envisage that that will happen?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman may have misheard what I said. What I actually said was, I hope, completely the opposite of that. I think we established earlier in the debate that none of us is saying that veiled Muslim women are in any way unlawful. I am sure that they are highly respectful of the law. What I said was that if my Bill were to become an Act, I am sure we would all expect those Muslim women to want to comply with the law, as has been the case in countries like France, Belgium and elsewhere where such a law is in place.

May I return my hon. Friend to his excellent point about people wearing balaclavas and veils? I am rather pleased that the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee is in his place, because at Heathrow airport I recently saw a woman in a full-face veil come up to passport control and be waved through without having to remove her veil. I thought that that went against what the Government expect at immigration control. Does my hon. Friend agree that if we did not have this politically correct pussy-footing around such issues, and if the rules were applied more sensibly to make sure that people in a veil were treated in exactly the same way as people in a balaclava, perhaps the public support for something as draconian as his Bill—I accept that such support exists even though I do not fully go along with his Bill—would not exist in the first place?

That is an excellent intervention by my hon. Friend. I am not quite sure whether I accept the word “draconian”. I do not know what the definition of “draconian” is, but it certainly does not sound very good, and I am sure that it does not apply to my Bill. I share his outrage, as I am sure my constituents will, that anyone should be waved through passport control if their face is covered. That outrage would apply as much to someone wearing a full-face balaclava as it would to a woman—we must suppose it is a woman—wearing a burqa or a full-face veil.

There are an increasing number of instances—small, but increasing—where criminal acts are taking place with men dressed as Islamic women in full burqas. There is real concern that criminals are using the get-out of full Islamic dress to commit criminal acts, which of course brings Islam into disrepute.

This is a difficult issue, but one that should not be dodged. Such laws are working in other countries. I believe that in France, for example, community cohesion is better today as a result of the banning of the burqa than it was before such legislation was introduced.

On a very basic level, this comes down to how we have a conversation with someone. I would not want to have a conversation with someone whose face I could not see, nor would I expect them to have a conversation with me. If we all want to rub along together in our great British society, one of the great unspoken tenets of our way of life is the ability to see each other’s face. All my Bill will do is put that into law.

I am sorry that it has come to legislation and that people like me feel there is a need for such legislation, but unless we do something about this, an increasing number of people, mainly women and especially in our bigger cities, will be isolated from the British way of life—finding it difficult to speak English and engage with everyone else—because their culture and supposed religious beliefs are leading them to want to go out and about in public with their faces covered. I find that very disappointing. I am alarmed by that and by the growing number of people in our country who take part in demonstrations with their faces covered by full-face balaclavas, which makes it very difficult to police those demonstrations.

This is a difficult issue and we should debate it. It is a real concern in our country. I welcome the tone of today’s debate and hope we can continue this constructive debate throughout the rest of this Session, because it is important that these controversial issues are aired on the Floor of the British House of Commons.

May I begin where the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) ended and say that I hope we can have a constructive debate on this subject? I think he will find that all Opposition and, indeed, Government Members who have intervened on him—he was very generous in taking interventions—have been very constructive. That is the right way to approach the subject.

I should say from the outset that I oppose the Second Reading of this Bill and I am sure the hon. Gentleman is not surprised to hear that. I hope I will be able to demonstrate that he is wrong in his view that this Bill would help achieve better cohesion in our country.

I am very proud to be a Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom. I came here as a first-generation immigrant at the age of nine and I represent a city that is the most diverse in the country. I share the city with my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) and for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), who is not able to be here today. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South and I have both been enticed to this debate, but my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West is probably in Leicester, doing her job there.

I do not know whether the hon. Member for Kettering was in the Royal Gallery yesterday to hear Angela Merkel’s speech. I was there and I was struck by the German Chancellor’s mention of this country’s values and how important freedom of speech and action is to it. The Bill seems to undermine that basic freedom. I had always thought that the hon. Gentleman was on the side of freedom and that he was against Government imposing their views on the citizen, but I am not surprised at the tenor of the interventions made by two other freedom fighters, the hon. Members for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Shipley (Philip Davies). They believe, as I thought the hon. Member for Kettering did, that it is not for this place—let us call it the Westminster village; I do not know whether there is a better description—to impose on British citizens its views on how they should speak, dress and conduct themselves in a lawful manner.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I agree with him on that point. Does he agree that it is important that where other people are expected to remove their face covering—such as a balaclava at a petrol station, in a bank or at passport control—it is only right, proper and fair that people wearing a face veil are asked to remove their face covering, so that everyone is on a level playing field? That particular issue has caused the resentment that has led to this Bill.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman will join me in opposing the Bill. He does not seem to be a great fan of it, even though he likes some of the things that the hon. Member for Kettering said.

I know of no example of an individual refusing to do what the hon. Member for Shipley said when the issue of security was paramount. I know of one security breach involving the burqa—Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed put one on at the mosque in Ealing and escaped while he was on a terrorism prevention and investigation measure, although I know of another person on a TPIM who did not put on a burqa, but got into a taxi and escaped from the authorities. I know of only one case, but I do not think that Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed, once he had put on a burqa and left the mosque in Ealing, was asked to remove it. I do not therefore know of an example, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman does. I know that he frequently appears in, and often reads, the tabloid press, so if he has an example of a security or legal issue where someone was required to act reasonably and did not do so, I am happy for him to intervene.

The right hon. Gentleman gave a very good answer, but unfortunately it did not relate to my question. I asked a much more specific question, and I got the impression that, uncharacteristically, he was trying to dodge it. My question was: where anybody else would be expected to remove their particular face covering—for example, a balaclava at a petrol station, in a bank or at passport control—does he expect people with an Islamic face covering to be subject to exactly the same requirement? It is not a question of whether they accept or refuse to do something, but whether they should be required to do the same thing as others. Some people pussyfoot around that issue for politically correct reasons. It would be very helpful if he made it clear that he expects the same from people with Islamic veil coverings as from those with balaclavas.

I hope that I am not pussyfooting around the issue. If there has been an example of a security breach and something needs to be fixed, we certainly need to consider that and to undertake proper consultation. I do not, however, know an example of that, apart from Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed wearing a burqa. I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman is not satisfied with that answer, but I do not believe that we should sit here passing laws just for the sheer hell of it, or because someone comes up to us in Kettering high street saying that they do not like a woman in a burqa whom they met in a playgroup and we therefore decide we must change the law of the land. Frankly, I think that we need to be very careful about these issues. If there are examples of something going wrong, of course we can change the law, but I have not seen that happening.

The right hon. Gentleman is a very distinguished Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. Does he share my concern about the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) about a woman wearing a burqa going through passport control without being stopped? Does he share my concern that if we cannot see somebody’s face, they should not be allowed through passport control until their identity has been established?

If for a person coming into the country, the immigration officer takes the passport, puts it under the equipment provided and believes that it is right and proper for the person to enter the country, they should be able to do so. If the immigration officer said to the woman, “Well, I don’t think you are the person here”, that is a separate issue. I know of no example of somebody refusing to remove their veil when asked to do so to check their passport. The hon. Gentleman is not describing the actions of the woman in such an incident, but those of an immigration officer, which is a completely different issue.

The point remains that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and I have a clear belief that everybody who comes into this country through passport control wearing a full Islamic veil should be required, compulsorily, to remove the veil to identify themselves. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree? I am disappointed, as he is the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, that he does not seem to agree.

It is the law of the land that the immigration officer has to be satisfied that the person who enters the country is the person who holds the passport. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had had a long flight. Since he is a witness to history, I do not want to challenge his version of events, but I would rather accept what the immigration officer seems to have done in this case. He or she seems to have been satisfied. If he or she was not satisfied, they would most certainly have said to the person, “I don’t think this is you.”

I think that we need to leave it up to the immigration officer. The hon. Gentleman is many things, but he is not a trained immigration officer, unfortunately. Perhaps we should consider that for the training of future Members of Parliament.

The hon. Member for Kettering talked about the number of people in Kettering who had approached him and called for such legislation. It does not appear to be his idea, but an idea that has come from people in his constituency. We all react to our constituents. Let me tell him what my constituents think of his Bill. The 723 Muslims in Kettering, who represent 0.8% of its population, may have felt that they could not talk to him, but my constituents have had absolutely no problem in entering into a dialogue with me on the subject.

It is absolutely not the case that 723 of my constituents feel unable to approach me. The only difficulty has been that the Kettering Muslim Association has not allowed me to go to one of its meetings to take questions and to discuss and debate the Bill. My door is always open to each and every one of my constituents, whether they are Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian or anything else.

I am delighted to hear it. What I find most strange, from an assiduous constituency MP such as the hon. Member for Kettering, who has among the lowest expenses claims of any Member of this House—I think that he claims nothing, but his claims are certainly very low—is that he should not have used his shoe leather, knocked on the doors of those 723 people in his constituency and asked them about the Bill that he is promoting. When I support a Bill that affects a certain section of my constituents—as this Bill will affect the Muslim community in his area, my area, the area of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and, indeed, in Bury North and Shipley—I go out of my way to ask those constituents for their views so that I have a balanced view before I come to the House.

I will allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene one last time because other hon. Members want to speak. I am happy to give way.

This is my third intervention on the right hon. Gentleman and I think that he intervened on me four times, so I might have another one up my sleeve. There is absolutely no problem with my dialogue with Muslims in Kettering. I speak to all my constituents all the time and use a great deal of shoe leather. Indeed, shoes are made in Kettering in very large numbers. The only problem is that the Kettering Muslim Association will not allow me to address its members and take their concerns. It is not me who is blocking the dialogue.

Shoes are also made in Leicester, as the hon. Gentleman knows. We cannot afford the Church’s shoes that are made in Kettering, as he can.

The hon. Gentleman has not really answered my question. He is talking about the Kettering Muslim Association. My point is that such a hard-working constituency MP as the hon. Gentleman did not bother to knock on the door of a single one of his Muslim constituents and ask what they thought of the Bill.

All right, I will give way for the fourth time. What did they say when he knocked on their door?

What the right hon. Gentleman is saying is simply not true. I knock on the doors of my constituents each and every week, and my postbag on this issue, and my e-mail traffic and telephone calls, has beaten all records. The idea that I do not have a feel for how my constituents feel about the Bill is, I am afraid, simply misguided.

Order. We have had more than sufficient argument about the number of doors knocked on by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone). That is not the business in hand and we will now resume the debate on the Bill.

I felt I had to give the hon. Gentleman his fourth chance to intervene, but he has still not answered the question and told the House how many doors he has knocked on in respect of the Muslim community.

Let me speak about Leicester East, which has 21,705 Muslims—20% of my constituents. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South has even more than that. He is very proud of them, and we are both proud of the multicultural nature of the great city of Leicester. I have received two separate petitions from constituents, one with 700 plus signatures from mosques across Leicester, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Another with 300 signatures comes from Northfields Education Centre. One thousand people have signed petitions opposing what is proposed by the hon. Member for Kettering. That is the largest petition I have received since 1 January this year.

I thank all those residents and mosques for their campaign: in particular, Imam Adam from the Jamia mosque in Asfordby street, Imam Khalil from the Al-Bukhari mosque on Loughborough road, Imam Imtiaz from the Masjid Ali on Smith Dorrien road, Imam Yasin from the Masjid Noor in Berner street, and Imam Mogra from the Masjid Umar in Evington road in my hon. Friend’s constituency—I am sure that after this debate he will be on his way to hold a surgery there. A further 50 constituents have e-mailed me, which is the largest number who have e-mailed on an issue so far this year. They may not have e-mailed in Kettering, but they are certainly e-mailing in Leicester.

I shall not list all the mosques and imams who have got in touch with me, but a great number of my constituents have done so and I have received a number of petitions. If the House divides on this Bill I, like my right hon. Friend, will vote against it. Is not the point that those women who have signed the petitions should have the choice of whether or not to wear the veil, in the same way that a Sikh man in Leicester has the choice of whether to wear a turban, and a Hindu woman the choice of whether to wear a bindi on her forehead? This is about the freedom of choice.

It is; that is absolutely right. That is why I am so astonished that the hon. Member for Kettering, that great freedom fighter who has made so many eloquent speeches in this House about the overweening power of the state and who has criticised successive Governments because they were introducing legislation to dictate to people what they should do, should be on the wrong side of this argument. I am surprised that he is not with his hon. Friends the Members for Bury North and for Shipley, in saying, “Let freedom reign.” What he is proposing would affect the freedom of the citizens of this country. I am talking about fully fledged British citizens who may choose to wear a niqab or burqa and go about their daily business.

At my surgery in Leicester this evening, out of the 60 people I will see, at least one Muslim woman will come dressed in black in a burqa or hijab, and I will be able to see only her eyes. If I am satisfied on the basis of the issues that she puts before me that as a constituent she is entitled to my help, I will give her my help. I will not do what some have suggested Members of Parliament should do and ask her to remove her veil, because that is her choice.

I am not an Islamic scholar—as the hon. Gentleman is not—but I took the trouble of asking a couple of Islamic scholars this morning about the authority for Muslim women dressing in the way that they choose to dress. The Koran instructs both Muslim men and women to dress in a modest way. The clearest verse on the requirement for the hijab is in chapter 24, verses 30 to 31, which ask women to draw their khimar over their bosoms. Two other verses in the Koran concern women’s dress. Verse 31 of the Surah an-Nur contains two commands that particularly relate to women’s dress. The first is that women shall cover all of their beauty except

“what is apparent of it”

around men who are not related to them. The second is that women should extend their head coverings to cover the rest of their body, should they choose to do so. Verse 59 of the Surah al-Ahzab commands that women shall wear long, loose outer garments when they go out from their houses. These two verses, taken together, set out three parts of the hijab or modest dress—the headscarf; modest clothes that together with the headscarf cover everything but what has been exempted; and, for outdoors, a modest outer garment to cover the clothes.

The hon. Gentleman is involved in so many important issues of state in this House; he is a great authority on the European Union; and he is here at 2.30 pm almost every day to speak about all these great issues. I often come to listen to him, and we are on the same side on the question of a European referendum—but I will not go into that as it is not mentioned in the Bill. I am therefore astonished that he should want to interfere in the issue of the clothing of Muslim women, and that he feels—somehow—that the fact that a woman chooses to wear a burqa undermines the multicultural nature of this country. What makes this country great is that we have people here from all over the world whose children were born here—like my children were—and who love this country and believe passionately in the values of multiculturalism.

The Minister spends every day of his working life talking about the cultural diversity of our country, which includes the work that is done by the Muslim community. He will be among the first to tell the House when he catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, that what won us the Olympics was being able to show London as a mirror to the world. So many different languages and religions all come together in London, and there will never be an Olympic games like ours anywhere on planet Earth. London is special, Leicester is special and Manchester is special, and that makes this country special—[Interruption.] Bradford is special, I should add, as the hon. Member for Shipley leaves the Chamber. It is important that we are careful with the precious gift of multiculturalism that we have been given.

The hon. Member for Kettering may think that this is a modest Bill, but it has provoked enormous controversy in my constituency and among the 2.7 million Muslims nationwide. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) will know, because she has a large Muslim community in her very diverse constituency, our constituents are at Friday prayers as we speak, so it is unlikely that they are watching this debate, although we will of course send them copies of Hansard afterwards because we want them to see what we have said on their behalf. The fact is, however, that what makes this country special is diversity.

I know that the hon. Gentleman feels that he has done no wrong in introducing his Bill. He is of course an elected Member of Parliament, and he can talk about whatever he wants to talk about in the Chamber. That is another reason why this country is so special. But he has caused controversy, and I am worried about him, because he is normally a very fair and balanced person. I will not go down the route of how many doors he has knocked on, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I do not want to upset you again, but I think we shall find that, very unusually, he has taken the views of only one section of his constituency. I doubt that he spoke to a single member of the Muslim community about the Bill before presenting it to the House, because if he had done so, he would have been aware of the concerns that would be raised in that community.

I think that I dealt with the issue of security in response to a number of points made by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Shipley. As for the position in the courts, when a judge has required a person to remove a veil that person has, so far, done so. As the hon. Gentleman said, the legal profession is concerned because some of the stuff that goes on in court is not just about voice, and may be about demeanour. I am not suggesting that it is somehow possible to look at someone’s face and know immediately whether that person is telling the truth. After all, the hon. Gentleman misjudged my face earlier: he thought that I was making a funny face, but it was actually my normal face.

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but our current system already covers it. In November last year, the Lord Chief Justice initiated a consultation with the judiciary and the Bar to see what they thought about the issue. However, the hon. Gentleman has been unable to cite any case from the tabloids, or from the internet worldwide, in which someone has been asked to remove a face covering and has refused to do so. The only security-related case that can be cited is the one involving Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed, who put on a burqa and left a mosque in Ealing. Ibrahim Magag did not put on a burqa when he went out of his house and hailed a taxi in order to leave the country. It is not as if that is happening every day; it is very exceptional and very unusual. I therefore do not think that the security issue should concern us in the context of the Bill.

Let me make three more points. First, although this may not have been the hon. Gentleman’s intention—he may have presented his Bill because he wanted a wider debate on the issues, or because his constituents were concerned—the Muslim community feels very strongly that it discriminates against members of their faith. As I have said, 20% of my constituents are members of the Muslim faith. Although I am a Catholic, I represent people from different religions, and if someone comes to me and says, “This discriminates against me as a Muslim”, I believe that person.

Secondly, there is the far more fundamental issue of the violation of a woman’s right to choose what she wants to wear and where she wants to wear it. Thirdly, there is the general point that we should be extremely careful about intervening to tell our citizens what they should wear in this country. There can be no end to that: we shall be on the slippery slope. The hon. Gentleman does not like political correctness—his whole political life has been opposed to it—but he is paving the way for more legislation providing for it.

I think that if the hon. Gentleman reflects, he will realise that rather than putting his Bill to the vote, he should withdraw it and engage in the consultations in which he ought to be engaging in Kettering and throughout the country. If members of the Kettering Muslim Association will not talk to him, I shall invite him to come to Leicester and talk to members of the Federation of Muslim Organisations there. They will tell him exactly what they feel about the subject. I urge him—I beg him—not to force the Bill to a vote. Let us accept that it will not help us to retain the wonderful multicultural country in which we live.

It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. I agree with much of what he has just said, as I agree with him about the need for this country to have its say in a referendum on whether we remain members of the European Union. I suspect we are on different sides in that argument, however, although we are on the same side in this debate.

The Bill was very well introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), with whom I almost always agree. He was supported in bringing the Bill to the House by my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope), and I am sorry that they are not able to be in the Chamber today so that we can hear and debate with them their views on this matter.

The Bill deals with a matter which, while we may not like to admit it, is a concern for many people, because it is unusual in this country. Traditionally, of course, it has not been usual for many believers in the Christian religion to cover the front of their face, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said, it was traditional for Christians to cover their heads in going about their everyday business. In my early life I attended a Christian church at which many of the women would cover their heads; they made a special point of wearing a hat in church. Conversely, men were expected to take their hats off. I should declare an interest: I am a practising Christian and a church warden, and in that role still to this day I have sometimes very gently and discreetly had to ask gentlemen to remove their headgear when they enter church wearing a hat, just because of the sensitivities particularly of some of the older members of our congregation.

I am conscious of the fact that other Members have waited very patiently and want to speak on this matter, so I will not use up all the time and will instead try to allow sufficient time for others to speak, but I do want to make two brief points. First, the difficulty with this whole topic is that there are two groups that would be most affected by introducing a general ban on face coverings. In the first of those groups are those whose primary purpose, having committed or intending to commit a crime, is to escape detection by covering their face. I think we all agree that that is wrong, and it would be helpful if there were some way to separate that group from the rest, because we do not want to see that happening.

The second group comprises those who wish to cover their face for religious reasons. As we have heard, there is a debate about whether it is necessary for a female follower of the Islamic religion to wear a veil. I am not an Islamic scholar, and I do not know the rights and wrongs of this matter. There will be all sorts of views on whether that is right or wrong, but from my point of view, that does not really matter. My view is that if that is what they believe to be right, that should be the end of the matter.

Throughout his speech, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) kept insinuating that I had not spoken to Muslim constituents about the Bill. On the contrary, I have had lots of conversations about it with Muslims in Kettering. Some of them have made the point that they are embarrassed, as Muslims, by Muslim women going around wearing full-face veils. Does my hon. Friend accept that there are Muslim women in Kettering who have a problem with face coverings?

My hon. Friend makes the good point that there are different views even among the Muslim community on the merits or otherwise of people choosing to cover their face.

I take the view that, regardless of one’s religious belief, we should not ban things just because some people disapprove of them. I will not go into the statistics from the opinion polls, but they suggest that a large majority of British adults agree with the sentiment of my hon. Friend’s Bill, with 61% agreeing with the statement that the burqa should be banned in Britain, and 32% disagreeing. Those figures were taken from a YouGov poll taken last September.

The hon. Gentleman sought to make a comparison with the Christian faith. The Christian faith is very diverse, and includes Greek and Russian Orthodox, Presbyterian, Free Presbyterian and Catholic followers. Similarly, Islam is a diverse faith, given the ways in which Muslims worship their God.

The hon. Gentleman is right. As with most religions, the extent to which someone observes the requirements of their religion can vary from Church to Church, from sect to sect and from individual to individual. Some people go to church every week, or as often as they can. Others who also regard themselves as religious go only once a month or once a year. All, in their own way, will regard themselves as religious people, but their observance might be quite different.

The Bill deals with what is undoubtedly seen as a problem in many sections of our community, but it would be wrong for us to introduce a general ban on face coverings. As my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said, clauses 2 and 3 would merit further debate. When an individual is required to remove their face-covering for the purpose of establishing identity, they should have to do so. The same applies when they are on private premises. However, in general terms, I will oppose the Bill this afternoon.

I say gently to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) that he is well known for calling for the cutting of legislation and the peeling back of red tape that restricts the freedoms of the British public, so regardless of what we might think personally about the issue, I am rather surprised that he seeks to regulate in an area where regulation is unlikely to be enforceable.

If this highly illiberal Bill ever made it to the statute book, we would see an increase in the number of people with face coverings, not the decrease that the hon. Gentleman seeks. In a fundamentally British tradition, the introduction of such an illiberal law would encourage civil disobedience and an affinity with those who were seen to be targeted by the measure. In fact, I think that those completely unaffected by the legislation would deliberately don facial coverings in demonstration against this illiberal Act. I confess that when I was a student union president—only a few years ago, obviously—I would have led as many students as possible in a demonstration against such an iniquitous law. We would have donned veils, marched, and taken the consequences.

Of course, in some professions and services—for those in hospitals and police forces, or for firefighters, for example—dress codes are prescribed, but that is a very different issue from restricting personal freedom in public places. It is right that the police and other law enforcement agencies have powers to ask individuals to remove face coverings—for example, to remove balaclavas during riots. As far as I am aware, however, this new law is not being called for by the police, and to give the hon. Gentleman his due, he did not suggest that.

The Bill is careful to exempt people obscuring their faces for any activity or reason other than reasons of personal choice or religious belief. The Bill is about singling out Muslim women, telling them how to dress, and threatening them with arrest if they do not comply. In spite of the general wording of this Bill, it is clear that it is designed to target Muslim women who wear the burqa or the niqab, both of which cover the face, as a means of religious or cultural expression. It is important, therefore, that we set this debate in context. According to the 2011 census, Muslims make up just 4.8% of the population of England and Wales, and only a very small number of women in that 4.8% wear the full-face veil. In my constituency of West Ham—one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the country, and home to a large Muslim community from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Africa—there is not a significant number, and this is not a significant issue. Nationally, we are talking about a tiny minority of an already small community.

As for the issue of recognition on the streets, surely the hon. Gentleman cannot be demanding that each and every one of us should be instantly recognisable as we walk down the street. Surely he does not want us all to look up as we pass a closed circuit television camera and smile. There is a fine line between demanding facial recognition in all public places, and the realisation of a Big Brother state, and the Bill, I fear, is on the wrong side of it.

My hon. Friend represents a diverse constituency, and she also represents non-Muslims. Has anyone written to her to support what the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) proposes?

Nobody has written to me on this issue at all, as yet.

The worst thing about the Bill is that, even if unintentionally, it targets a minority community in this country and contravenes their freedom of expression, of religion and of free speech. It creates the very divisions it purports to be removing. The Bill will have the effect, whether or not this is recognised by the hon. Member for Kettering, of imprisoning in their own homes the very women he claims he will rescue from oppression. I fear that this Bill may have been motivated in part by a misconception that Muslim women are neither politicised nor capable of making their own choices about what they wear—the Muslim women I meet in West Ham are certainly both.

Let us look at the results of the ban in France, which was implemented in April 2011. There has been only one conviction since its introduction, and I admit that I have a very different view from the hon. Gentleman about what that teaches us. An Open Society Justice Initiative report on the results of the French ban reveals that the majority of Muslim women in France who wore the veil have not stopped wearing it. Those women believe the law to be an affront to their religious rights, and since the ban came in, some have, predictably, started to wear the niqab. Thus, an otherwise law-abiding group have potentially been criminalised and, indeed, barred from participation in public life.

The report also highlights the increased mental health issues that these women face, as well as their social anxiety, their fear and their overwhelming reliance on male relatives, which they did not have before. Their movement has been heavily restricted and they now feel unable to walk freely in public, fearing abuse or attack by members of the public—and possible arrest by a policeman. Far from this law creating social cohesion in France, these women report “legitimised” Islamaphobic attacks and speak of how, in effect, in passing the law the state has sanctioned racist intolerance and abuse. That law not merely affirmed a wider prejudice against a section of the French community; it emboldened those who seek to divide society and prevent integration. Is that really the kind of society we wish to create in Britain today?

We want to build a society of tolerance, cohesion, understanding and pluralism. The state should not seek to discriminate against its own people on the basis of how they look or dress. In opposing the progress of this damaging Bill, we defend the right of women to make their own independent choices about how they dress. Although I am sure that some who wear the veil will do so in keeping with the values of their own families or relatives, it is equally true that many women wear the veil because of deeply held religious or personal convictions. I will not condone the wearing of anything under the duress of others, but we should recognise that for many Muslim women that is far from what is happening. It is a perfectly consistent position to condemn both those who force women to wear the veil and those who seek to prohibit the wearing of it.

So let us be clear: I do not believe it is for me, or indeed for this House, to decide what women should or should not wear. It is not for the state to be prescriptive on this and, least of all, to criminalise the individual choices of women. This issue is about taking away the freedom of choice from a very small portion of ou