Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee
Before I call Sir Christopher Chope, it may be useful to Members if I set out the differences between Report and Third Reading.
Report is also known as “consideration”, and provides an opportunity for the whole House to consider what has been done in Committee. Members may table amendments either as probing amendments to elicit more information, or because they want to make changes to the Bill. The scope of the debate is restricted to the amendments that have been tabled. Third Reading provides the final opportunities for Members to pass or reject the whole Bill; Members can speak about the Bill as a whole, and the debate is much wider. Members may wish to consider that, and then decide at which stage they want to try to catch my eye.
New Clause 1
Members of local authorities: disqualification relating to drink and drug driving offences (England)
“In the Local Government Act 1972, after section 81 insert—
“81A Disqualification relating to drink and drug driving offences etc (England)
(1) A person is disqualified for being elected or being a member of a local authority in England if the person is subject to—
(a) a conviction for driving or being in charge with alcohol concentration above prescribed limit contrary to section 5 of the Road Traffic Act 1988;
(b) a conviction for driving or being in charge with concentration of specified controlled drug above specified limit contrary to section 5A of the Road Traffic Act 1988.
(2) For the purposes of subsection (1) a person shall not be regarded as having a conviction until—
(a) the expiry of the ordinary period allowed for making an appeal against the conviction, or
(b) if such an appeal is made, the date on which it is finally disposed of or abandoned or fails because it is not prosecuted.””—(Sir Christopher Chope.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Members of local authorities: disqualification relating to controlled
drugs offences (England)—
“In the Local Government Act 1972, after section 81 insert—
“81A Disqualification relating to controlled drugs offences etc (England)
(1) A person is disqualified for being elected or being a member of a local authority in England if the person is subject to a conviction relating to controlled drugs contrary to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
(2) For the purposes of subsection (1) a person shall not be regarded as having a conviction until—
(a) the expiry of the ordinary period allowed for making an appeal against the conviction, or
(b) if such an appeal is made, the date on which it is finally disposed of or abandoned or fails because it is not prosecuted.””
New clause 3—Members of local authorities: disqualification relating to anti-social behaviour sanctions issued by the Court (England)—
“In the Local Government Act 1972, after section 81 insert—
“81A Disqualification relating to anti-social behaviour sanctions
(1) A person is disqualified for being elected or being a member of a local authority in England if the person is subject to a civil injunction made under section 1 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.
(2) For the purposes of subsection (1) a person shall not be regarded as being disqualified until—
(a) the expiry of the ordinary period allowed for making an appeal against the civil injunction, or
(b) if such an appeal is made the date on which it is finally disposed of or abandoned or fails because it is not prosecuted.””
This new clause would disqualify persons subject to an anti-social behaviour injunction from serving in local government in England, as consulted on by the Government in 2017.
Amendment 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 6, after “authority” insert “(except a parish council)”.
This amendment excludes parish councils from the provisions of Clause 1.
Amendment 2, page 2, leave out line 2.
This amendment (and Amendment 3) remove being subject to a sexual risk order from the list of reasons for disqualification from serving in local government in England, as consulted on by the Government in 2017.
Amendment 3, page 2, leave out lines 7 and 8.
See explanatory statement for Amendment 2.
Amendment 4, page 2, leave out lines 42 to 48.
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1.
This is an important Bill, and I think everyone supports it in principle, because it is designed to ensure that those in local government who fall short of the behaviour expected of them in a civilised society are disqualified from being able to participate in local government. My problem with the Bill at the moment is that it is very selective. It deals only with sexual offences, and does not extend to other offences which I think are equally important, particularly in the context of local councillors who have responsibility for road safety, for example, and also for social services and dealing with the scourge of illegal drug taking.
New clause 1 contains the first such addition that I want to make. It accords very much with the strategy of the Bill, which was set out by the current Chancellor of the Exchequer when he was the Minister for local government. In his ministerial foreword to the response to the consultation on updating the disqualification criteria for councillors and mayors, published in October 2018, he wrote:
“The Government considers there should be consequences where councillors, mayors and London Assembly members fall short of the behaviour expected in an inclusive and tolerant society… Elected members play a crucial role in town halls across the country, and are the foundations of local democracy. They are community champions, and have a leading role to play in building a better society for everyone.”
My view, reflected in new clause 1, is that councillors who fall below the standards expected in relation to drink and drug driving offences should be included in the category of those who are disqualified from being able to serve as councillors and mayors. I think that they fall four-square within the Government’s definition of having been convicted of behaviour which everyone in a right-minded society would say was intolerable. Why should people who are in that position be allowed to continue as councillors while other councillors who have been convicted of a different set of antisocial offences are excluded? That is the essence of new clause 1. If someone is convicted of driving or being in charge of a motor vehicle with excess alcohol or a controlled drug, they should not be able to hold office as an elected councillor in this country.
That brings me to new clause 2, which seeks, similarly, to extend the provisions for disqualification to those who are convicted of offences contrary to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The new clause is particularly topical, because it fits in with the “10-year drugs plan to cut crime and save lives”, which Her Majesty’s Government published in December 2021. As Members may know, that contained a foreword from no less a person than our Prime Minister. He said on page 4:
“And there will be no implicit tolerance of so-called recreational drug users.”
What better way is there of making an example of that and ensuring that the Prime Minister’s words are delivered into action than by amending the Bill through new clause 2 and making it clear that recreational drug users who are convicted would also find that they are ineligible to serve as elected councillors across this country, as champions of local people? If the Government do not accept new clause 2, it would seem that they are already stalling on actually delivering what is a clear objective of the 10-year drugs plan, “From harm to hope”.
I will refer briefly to some of the content of that strategy. Page 13 says:
“Legal consequences for this use”—
in other words, the use of illegal substances—
“have not been sufficiently applied across all levels of society…We will improve our methods for identifying recreational drug users and roll out a system of tougher penalties aimed at this.”
That is what the Government said. The strategy also states:
“For those who nevertheless choose to continue with their drug use, there will be swift, certain and meaningful consequences which will be felt more strongly than today and will escalate for those who continue to offend. Drugs are harmful to society and no one is above the law.”
Surely if those words are true—I certainly support every scintilla of them—we should ensure that we take every opportunity to add to the deterrents and punishments for those who are guilty of recreational and other drug use.
We understand that recreational drug use is treated by some people in our society as relatively unimportant in terms of compliance with the criminal law but the criminal law, under the rule of law, should apply to all. In chapter 4, on page 45, the strategy states:
“Adults using drugs socially often live relatively typical and otherwise healthy lives and may not recognise their role in fuelling the drugs trade or influencing and damaging the behaviour of others, including children. They may also feel that they are not at risk of experiencing any consequences themselves from their drug use. This should not be the case.”
And so say—or so should say—all of us.
At page 57, the Government say:
“Prevention of substance use is a key element of the government’s ambition to reduce the demand for drugs.”
What is also made clear in that document is that both local and national Government are actively involved together in the drugs strategy. It says, under the heading “Local outcomes frameworks”, on page 60:
“For this to succeed, there needs to be alignment between national outcome expectations and local delivery.”
Who are the people who are involved in local delivery? None other than local councillors. So can we tolerate a situation in which local councillors may themselves have been convicted of offences against the Misuse of Drugs Act, in complete defiance of the Government’s strategy, which I think has universal support across the country? That is the essence of new clause 2.
It might be said that we cannot amend the Bill because we have not yet consulted on these issues. In my view, that would be a very technical defence and would not go to, if I can use the expression, the substance of the concerns that I am expressing. The Government did consult on this measure, as I have said, in 2017, with the results of that consultation being published in 2018. I have known my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) for many years, from when we worked together on Wandsworth council and in various other roles, and I very much support the Bill and taking up the proposals from the Government. But what I do not understand is why a subject on which there was consultation—the issue of antisocial behaviour—has been omitted from this Bill.
New clause 3 is designed to add to the Bill the provisions that were originally the subject of consultation in 2017.
Question 3 in that document said:
“Do you agree that an individual who has been issued with a Civil Injunction (made under section 1 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014) or a Criminal Behaviour Order (made under section 22 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014) should be prohibited from standing for election, or holding office, as a member of a local authority, mayor of a combined authority, member of the London Assembly or London Mayor?”
In introducing that, the Government suggested in the consultation paper that they were of the opinion that such people should be disqualified from holding office. In the response to the consultation, they say that 65% of respondents agreed with that proposal—the proposal to disqualify, for such behaviour, from being able to be a councillor, 22% were against and 12% of people did not know.
The Government, to give a flavour of the responses received, quoted, among others:
“We agree on the basis that the period of time for which they would be barred would end once they are no longer subject to the injunction or order”,
“it would not be considered acceptable for people to stand for or hold office where they have been issued with certain Civil Injunctions and Criminal Behaviour Orders”.
So the responses were very much in support of what was then the Government’s proposition. The Government themselves said:
“The Government considers that an individual who is subject to an anti-social behaviour sanction
that has been issued by the court,”—
a civil injunction made under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014—
“should be barred from standing for election…as a local authority member”.
The disqualification period would end when they were no longer subject to the injunction or the order. So not only did the Government consult on the issue and the responses support the measure, but the Government themselves supported the measure in 2018. By implication, I imagine the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was then the Minister with responsibility for local government, also supported it. I submit, with all modesty, that new clause 3 has support at the very highest levels of Government from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as we have not heard anything from him to suggest that he has changed his mind since 2018.
Why, then, is that provision not included in the Bill, which is, as I understand it, essentially a Government handout Bill? One can only surmise that the Government are now watering down their support for that proposition, which they consulted on in 2017, said they supported in 2018 and committed to try to get early legislation on at the same time. We have waited three years-plus to get to this stage. Now we are at that stage, why can we not accept new clause 3? The other amendments I have fit in with what I have just been saying.
Amendments 2 and 3 seek to leave out of the Bill measures that were also the subject of consultation and where consultees disapproved of the proposals. Indeed, in the consultation, the Government themselves said they did not want to include in the Bill issues relating to serious risk orders. Paragraph 15, on page 12 of the document issued in September 2017, states:
“The Government does not propose including another type of civil order, the Sexual Risk Order, as this person would not have been convicted or cautioned of a sexual offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and are not subject to notification requirements for registered sex offenders. A Sexual Risk Order does require the individual to notify to the police their name and their home address. A Sexual Risk Order can be sought by the police against an individual who has not been convicted, cautioned etc. of an offence under Schedule 3 or Schedule 5 of the 2003 Act but who is nevertheless thought to pose a risk of harm to the public in the UK and/or children or vulnerable adults abroad.”
The question posed in the consultation was:
“Do you agree that an individual who is subject to a Sexual Risk Order should not be prohibited from standing for election, or holding office”.
The result of the consultation was that the public agreed with the Government’s view in 2017 that the sexual risk order should not be extended to the provisions. What do we find now? We find that that provision, which the Government said should not be included, is now included in this Bill. I cannot understand why because it taints the Bill. It means it is not just confined to people who have been convicted before the criminal courts—it also deals with people who are effectively in receipt of civil penalties. It offends against the very principles to which I have just referred and which the Government thought in 2017 were a reason not to include these measures in the Bill.
The respondents to the consultation agreed with the Government view at the time, but we now understand that the Government have changed their mind. Is that not extraordinary? Why is it that the Government are now changing their mind on the issue when they have already consulted on it and the majority of respondents to the consultation agreed with the proposition that risk orders should not disqualify people from being able to serve as a local government councillor in our country?
One can see quite a lot of anomalies in all this. At the beginning of the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, you made a statement about Parliament’s role in the scrutiny of legislation. It is a pity that none of the people who were privileged to serve on the Bill Committee thought fit to get down to the detail of the Bill and its background and to test the Minister on the Government’s rationale for being so selective in their response to the consultation. I hope that today’s debate will give the Minister an opportunity to fill that gap. Had I served on the Bill Committee, I would have been able to raise these issues and table amendments in Committee, but all I can do now is raise them on Report and hope we will get some responses. Madam Deputy Speaker, you said that we can table amendments and new clauses with different objectives; the final group of amendments to which I shall speak are more probing amendments than amendments designed to highlight real shortcomings in the legislation.
Amendment 1 and the consequential amendment 4 are designed to restrict the legislation so that it does not apply to parish councils. I say that because of the tenor of the legislation and the remarks, supported by the Government, about the importance of councillors setting a good example. That applies in particular to what we call principal councils throughout the country, but I am not sure it applies in quite the same way to local parish councils and community councils.
On a practical level, how will it be easy for some parish councils, some of which are very small and do not have full-time clerks, or even part-time clerks with any qualifications, to police the proposals that are designed to apply to them? I ask because there is obviously no point in our having laws that cannot be properly enforced. We would not want to burden parish councils with new responsibilities that they find difficult to fulfil, particularly in respect of sexual misconduct orders. They are not convictions and the people to whom they apply are not on the sex offenders register, so it will be even more difficult to identify them.
We know from recent experience that it will be difficult. For example, the police and crime commissioner legislation prohibits someone from standing for office or being elected as a police and crime commissioner if they have been convicted of a drink-driving offence. In Wiltshire last year, a candidate who was “elected” as a police and crime commissioner had in fact fallen foul of the primary legislation because he had been convicted in the past. Even for a police and crime commissioner election, it was difficult for the authorities to establish whether the person standing in the election had already been convicted of drink-driving. That is even more the case when the offences are not criminal offences and have not been properly recorded. I hope that the Minister will be able to help us on that aspect as well.
This is an important Bill. On the one hand, it gives the House the opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to maintaining the highest standards in public office, and on the other, it also ensures that we respect civil liberties and do not start condemning people for conduct that is not the subject of a criminal conviction or even a criminal charge. Many anomalies remain in the Bill and I hope that we will be able to resolve them in the time remaining for debate today.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak for the Opposition on this important Bill. I commend the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) for using his precious private Member’s Bill to close this concerning loophole.
As for the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), there is of course an important discussion to be had about what should disqualify one from being able to run for office, as there is about behaviour while in office. I note that the hon. Gentleman quoted the Prime Minister and his views on what would be needed for higher standards in office for councillors. Given the votes of no confidence being tabled across the country by Conservative associations, I would hazard a guess that not even Conservative councillors are in the mood to take lectures from the Prime Minister about the standards that people should uphold.
What has been missed by the amendments is that the Bill would close a loophole that allows sex offenders in positions where they should be protecting the vulnerable: it is not an opportunity to rewrite the law entirely. I genuinely do not know why the hon. Member for Christchurch is so against protecting some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
I may be new to this place, and particularly new to the spot I am standing in, but having watched previous debates on closing loopholes on female genital mutilation and upskirting, and now this specific Bill about protecting young children, that is the evidence that I have for making the comments that I made, and I do not see a reason to withdraw them.
Just as a matter of record, because the hon. Lady obviously has not read the record, I supported both the pieces of legislation to which she referred. All I did was to try to ensure that they were debated in the House so that they did not pass without any debate.
The hon. Member supported them so much that he managed to talk them out so they could not be passed. This time, I ask him to give those tired antics a rest and allow this uncontroversial Bill to pass. I do not think anyone in this place would condone antisocial behaviour or driving under the influence. Any changes to the disqualification criteria such as those he proposes deserve a much longer debate in their own right. The amendments threaten to weaken the specific point of the Bill. I suspect that he knows that, and will not be surprised that we will vote against them if pressed.
I rise to speak to the amendments all together. Before I came to this place, I was a councillor for many years, and I absolutely uphold the principles of the Bill and of the Nolan principles of conduct in public life. I also believe in redemption. I have dealt a lot with issues relating to county lines and there is nothing more powerful than seeing somebody who has been involved as a victim but who is none the less convicted because at a very young age they were involved in something over which they had very little choice. The thought that in later life that person might be disqualified from serving in public office is wrong, and it is my understanding that that would happen if we included these amendments. We need to reflect on the fact that people in public office need to have experience and sometimes that experience may be in areas where they need to advise people of their past mistakes. Safeguarding is a different issue and I absolutely support the Bill in that regard. As a result of that, I will not support the amendments if they come to a vote.
I have known my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), as he said, for some considerable time; we were both on a south London council. Although we are on the same side of the House, sometimes we agree and sometimes we do not. This afternoon, although I have sympathy with what he is plugging for, I do not think this is an appropriate Bill for what he is proposing. It is a Bill that is answering one small point, on which there has tremendous pressure, because there has been evidence of it and of the loophole being abused. As has been said, the loophole is child protection and the relationship with elected councillors. There has been wide consultation with local government before this Bill on the specific issue. The measures it contains are very deliberate and not retrospective. They are also de facto time-limited by the nature of the current legislation relating to the sex offenders list.
It would be fair to say that the new clauses came as a bit of a surprise, although I should have anticipated them because I have known my hon. Friend for some considerable time. I did ask him whether he would like to serve on the Committee, because I knew he would have issues to raise, but he declined to do so. These new clauses will have a draconian effect on local government. I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that they will be retrospective all the way back to 1971 for drugs offences, to 1978 for drink-driving offences and to 2018 for social disorder offences. There is no time limit for this disqualification and no consideration given to the nature of the offence or the length of the conviction. This is a retrospective, one-strike-and-you-are-out proposal.
If the proposals were put to local government as they are on the Order Paper, I suspect the response would include the far from unreasonable request that such disqualification laws should be applied to Members of Parliament as well. I am sure my hon. Friend has no distant conviction, so there will be no difficulty for him, but if he has, I suspect he may not be alone. More to the point, I would strongly argue that any such purely hypothetical conviction from decades ago would have no bearing on his ability or that of any other hon. Member to discharge their duties in this place.
The same applies to most, if not almost all, of our hard-working colleagues in local government. When I looked at the amendments and new clauses, I had visions of some poor councillor who had the misfortune to be convicted in the late 1970s for a minor drink-driving offence when a student—I remember my life as a student; I got away with it—driving their battered Mini around the university campus. This person may have gone on to serve as a councillor or even as a mayor for decades, rendering great service to their community, but they would be disqualified at a stroke by the conviction many years ago, thereby forcing a by-election. It is worth mentioning a point that will have crossed the minds of some hon. Members. The inevitable and aggressive partisan trawling for past convictions to be used as a tool to unseat councillors will be particularly horrendous should these new clauses be accepted. Certainly, we will see minor, irrelevant incidents from the councillor’s past dredged up and used as weapons to force the resignation of people who have given huge amounts to their local community. That cannot be right on the basis of the brief discussion that we have had on these amendments today.
Finally, my hon. Friend moved an amendment proposing the subject of the sexual risk order as a reason for disqualification from serving in local government. The sexual risk order is made by the court and imposes restrictions on a person’s behaviour that the court deems necessary for the purposes of protecting the public from the risk of sexual harm. An order can be made in respect of any person who the police consider poses a risk of sexual harm to the public, notwithstanding the fact that they have not been convicted of a sexual offence. That is decided by the court. To my mind, individuals subject to such orders have no place in local government, and I fail to fathom the reason behind the amendment, which seems to be arguing the opposite.
I have listened to my hon. Friend, so I would rather not.
The measure, in my view, only undermines the primary aim of this Bill, which is to protect children. I was on the Committee for a Labour Government Bill in 2003 that brought this through, and we went backwards and forwards on this issue. Ultimately, I supported it then, and I do so now. This is a uniquely important issue, and I do not believe that it should be conflated with broader arguments over what should or should not disqualify an individual from participating in local government, as, regrettably, these new clauses do.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) for taking the time to engage with the legislation. I know that he is keen to ensure that Ministers have thought things through, and I am impressed that he has actually gone through the consultation document from 2018. I disagree with his amendments and I hope that I can convince him from the Dispatch Box that we are doing the right thing. I also wish to put it on record that I disagree with the rather unpleasant accusation that the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) made from the Labour Front Bench.
New clauses 1 and 2 would have the effect of creating a new form of permanent disqualification criteria for individuals convicted of a narrow group of offences under section 5 or section 5A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 or offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. There are a number of reasons why the Government are resisting these new clauses. The first is the fact that they propose that the disqualification would be permanent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) has said, this runs counter to the principle and expectation that underpins our justice system that offenders serve their time and are then rehabilitated into society. It would have the effect of creating a permanent bar to individuals contributing to public life in their local communities for this limited category of offences. So, singling out this narrow group of drink and drug offences for permanent disqualification is disproportionate.
Secondly, the Bill legislates to capture not only local councillors but mayors and London Assembly members. However, my hon. Friend’s new clauses apply only to local councillors. Thirdly, serious drink or drug-driving offences are already covered by the existing local government disqualification criteria, which bars anyone from standing or holding public office in local government for five years if they have had a custodial sentence of three months or more.
Amendments that create new, punitive measures to permanently disqualify those receiving a conviction for certain limited drink or drug-driving offences or controlled drug offences are really not the purpose of the Bill. The Bill specifically seeks to update disqualification criteria in line with modern sentencing measures available for registered sex offenders. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) said, these amendments would permanently bar, for example, an individual from standing for local office if, perhaps, at 18 they had had a glass of wine too many and were convicted of being slightly over the limit. Forty years later, they would still be unable to stand, which is a bit draconian.
The Bill is appropriately comprehensive, as it catches all those individuals subject to notification requirements for sexual offences but not subject to custodial sentences. The core purpose of this legislation is to prevent those convicted of sexual offences from having a role as a local elected official that could include access to children and vulnerable adults, and the length of their disqualification would be the length of time that they are subject to the notification requirement.
We also resist new clause 3. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has identified that we did consult on disqualifying individuals who had been issued with antisocial behaviour injunctions in 2017, and the original consultation was focused in scope. This Bill does not include civil injunctions, on the basis that they represent only a partial selection of the injunctions and behaviour orders available to the courts. The Government support this Bill because, as I said earlier, we are legislating comprehensively to disqualify individuals convicted of sexual offences from local office. This Bill responds to calls for changes to the law to disqualify sex offenders who are not given a custodial sentence but refuse to stand down, so we want to bring the disqualification criteria for councillors in line with the modern sentencing practice. The current criteria require updating to reflect changes to the law: the courts have tools that they did not have previously, and the disqualification criteria must reflect that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch mentioned my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. New clause 3 may have been supported by the Chancellor in his foreword when he was serving in this role, but he is not the Bill Minister—I am—and I believe that Bills such as this should be specific, targeted and focused. This private Member’s Bill focuses on addressing those concerns raised by specific cases where councillors made subject to the notification requirements for registered sex offenders did not resign. Those cases highlighted the fact that those registered sex offenders pose great concern to our communities.
I will now move on to amendments 1, 2, 3 and 4, which all amend clause 1, and which we resist for the following reasons. Amendments 1 and 4 would selectively remove parish councils from the list of local authorities subject to the new disqualification criteria. This would be a significant and troubling reduction of the purpose, intent, and comprehensiveness of the Bill. Parish councils are already subject to the existing disqualification criteria, and rightly so, as there are 10,000 parish councils and approximately 100,000 parish councillors in England. It is vital that the large number of individuals who hold this important position—the grassroots of our democracy—are also subject to the new disqualification criteria introduced by the Bill. People must be given confidence that the individuals they elect to represent them at all tiers of local government are of good character and beyond reproach.
Amendments 2 and 3 would exclude sexual risk orders from the updated disqualification criteria for members of local authorities in England. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has helpfully pointed out, the Government did consult on the inclusion of sexual risk orders in 2017, and we committed to legislate to disqualify persons subject to such orders from holding local office. Individuals are subject to sexual risk orders because they are found by a court to pose a serious risk of harm to the public in the UK and/or children and vulnerable adults abroad. When issuing a sexual risk order, the court needs to be satisfied that the order is necessary to protect the public, or children and vulnerable adults, from sexual harm, and the Government believe it is right that anyone subject to a sexual risk order should be barred from standing for election or holding office as a member of a local authority.
My hon. Friend asked why we changed our mind—why this Bill covers more than the sex offenders register. I should clarify that the 2017 consultation responses regarding the matter of sexual risk orders were mixed: some 39% of respondents were in favour of prohibition, and 45% were against. However, my hon. Friend is not correct to say that the Government have changed their mind regarding the inclusion of sexual risk orders in this Bill. In our response to the consultation, we stated that having considered the responses we received, the Government believe that where an individual is subject to a sexual risk order, they should be prohibited from standing for election. This Bill delivers on that commitment.
My hon. Friend also asked about enforcement—how local authorities will know that a councillor is on the register or has received an order for a sexual offence. A candidate must declare anything that might disqualify them from standing for, or holding, local office. Not doing so is a criminal offence, and this Bill will update those disqualification criteria and therefore ensure they are captured by this requirement.
Does that provision apply to people who stand as police and crime commissioners but already have a conviction that should have disqualified them? Does it mean that the gentleman who was elected in Wiltshire as a police and crime commissioner is now the subject of criminal proceedings?
This has been a useful debate. When we hear from the Minister that the Bill will apply to 100,000 councillors, one can see that this is an issue of significance. As always, she delivered a charming and, dare I say, almost seductive response. She referred to the importance of having people in local government who are of good character and beyond reproach. All three of my new clauses are designed to build on that.
As has happened over many years, the Government have managed to find a technical defect in my new clauses that does not alter their substance but makes the Government able to say that they do not agree with them. My new clauses, if they were accepted, would be subject to the transitional provisions set out in clause 5. For drafting purposes, I did not go into a lot of detail, but the essence is that there should be transitional arrangements so that the new clauses would not disqualify people who were convicted before the Bill became law.
The intention of these new clauses is that they should fit into a Bill that already ensures there is no retrospective provision. That technically affects all the new clauses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) said, but the substance is whether the Government believe that somebody who has committed an offence under the Misuse of Drugs Act should or should not be disqualified from serving as a councillor, bearing in mind the importance given to the “From harm to hope” White Paper and bearing in mind recreational drug use.
We are even told that recreational drug use may be taking place within the Palace of Westminster. What a bad example that would be, as it would be if recreational drugs were being used in our town halls up and down the country, when the Government and, I think, the people are committed to trying to eliminate the scourge of illegal drug use and all the harm that comes from it. If we are serious about cutting crime and saving lives through the “From harm to hope” White Paper, do the Government intend to include consequences in legislation for those who are convicted?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I am not a Home Office Minister, so I cannot speak to that Department’s policy. He might find it interesting that the Government have an outstanding response to the Committee on Standards in Public Life on the very things he is talking about in relation to local government and local councillors, and that might be a better place for us to address these points. We are thinking about these issues, but perhaps not in the fora he expects.
That was a helpful and constructive contribution. I look forward to seeing the Government’s response in due course, but I am delighted to hear that they are working on the issue.
I do not know whether I should disclose this, but I recall sitting in the Members’ Lobby with my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley and discussing whether or not I would go on to the Committee, because he was desperate for someone to do so. I said that I would be happy to go on to the Committee, but in the end I was not selected to do so. That is an issue between us, but as it seems to be the subject of a point, I thought I should correct the record.
Let me return to your initial remarks, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think it important for people outside this place, when we are bringing forward legislation, to know that it has been looked at by right hon. and hon. Members. This Bill’s Second Reading went through on the nod with no debate, and I think the Committee spent about five minutes discussing it. If it had not been for the tabling of the amendments and new clauses, it would not have been discussed at all. I think we know from the Minister’s response that some useful material has come out as a result of this discussion and scrutiny. I hope that when the Report stages of more private Members’ Bills come along on Fridays, some of my hon. Friends will feel free to table new clauses and amendments so that they can participate. Of course, if they are lucky enough to secure the lead new clause or amendment, they will be able to initiate the debate and also finish it, which is a great privilege.
Having said that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.
New clause, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move, That the Bill be read the Third time.
I will be very succinct, because having looked at the rest of the day’s agenda, I am aware that there is a taxi behind me tooting its horn.
This Bill is a tiny, specific response to heavy demand from a number of Members and a number of councillors. It is intended to deal with circumstances in which an individual has been able to stand or remain as a councillor despite being on the sex offenders list, because they have not been put in jail. Today we will pass the Bill on to another place, where, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) will be intrigued to know, the third former leader of Wandsworth Council to serve in this building will pick it up and take it forward.
I think the Bill is important. It is short, but it meets a need in ensuring that what applies to councillors who are on the sex offenders list and go to jail also applies to those who, as a result of some quirk, do not go to jail but remain outside, and are therefore able to remain as elected members.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am still a councillor in Charnwood Borough Council, and I am also the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for district councils.
Essentially, I am going to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), and essentially I am going to say that I agree with him. I will take a little more time than that to do so, but not much more.
Sexual offences are some of the most heinous crimes that a person can commit, particularly when they involve children. It absolutely cannot be right that an elected representative who has been convicted of such an offence can remain in office and—as my hon. Friend said—have influence over policy for vulnerable people and contact with them. Those convicted of such offences are harmful to the people they represent, are not acting in accordance with the Nolan principles, and have no place in a position of influence. That is the crux of the matter.
The issues at stake are safeguarding, trust, and —this was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope)—a leading role in society. Those three elements together back up this Bill, and although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) said, it is small and technical, it is also important, and I support it today.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) spoke about the Bill in Committee, she said she was going to be briefer than she had “ever been in Parliament”. I do not doubt that was the case, and I hope I will not take much longer because Labour fully endorses the Bill. I pay tribute again to the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) for promoting this important Bill. As has already been said, it is very specific and very small, but it will have a huge impact.
As it currently stands, sex offenders who avoid a custodial sentence are not disqualified from running for local government positions in England and Wales. We know that people often seek out elected representatives when they are at their most vulnerable and in deepest crisis, and for thousands of people, councillors are a vital backstop day in, day out. It is only right that the people elected to carry out those important roles are fit and proper to do so. It is unacceptable that a small loophole in existing legislation means that people who should be looking out for the vulnerable, especially children, are in a position where we might doubt that that is the case. It is important that the change to disqualification criteria is made in relation to all representations, with this special focus on those who ac as corporate parents. That is why Labour supports the Bill.
I join colleagues in what I think is unanimous support for the Bill, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on his admirable work in progressing it to this stage. I spent 23 years in local government, initially as a councillor, and latterly as a member of the London Assembly, and I feel that the action being taken to address this anomaly is long overdue. I pay a sincere tribute to the aims of the Bill, and I do not believe that a great deal can be said against the proposals.
The Bill will apply to individuals subject to notification requirements under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, known as the sex offenders register, as well as the sexual risk order that my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley mentioned. It will apply to local authorities and the Greater London Authority. Councillors are champions of their local communities, and they have so much contact with a variety of groups, not least the vulnerable and children. It is therefore completely right that this change is made, even if for no other reasons that those of safeguarding. The Bill is necessary because, as my hon. Friend set out in Committee, there is a loophole whereby a councillor who is convicted of a sexual offence but avoids a custodial sentence is not automatically disqualified, despite being placed on the sex offenders register. That is clearly not right.
Let me mention a few potential criticisms of the Bill, although they are few and far between. The Local Government Association has indicated that it is supportive of the Bill, but pointed out that it applies only to councillors, Assembly members and mayors. Police and crime commissioners, and indeed parliamentarians, are not affected by the Bill, and that is a serious omission. After all, if a sexual offence would bar someone from sitting on a local council, it would seem odd to allow the same person to sit as a police and crime commissioner. Perhaps my hon. Friend will address that point when he sums up the debate. However, as we heard from the Minister, the proposals in the current Bill have been consulted on for several years, and the Bill should not now be sunk into a quagmire about what it does not do. We should not make the perfect the enemy of the good, and there is a great deal in the Bill that is good.
As the Minister set out in Committee, there are more than 100,000 local councillors in England, virtually all of whom give up their time and are prepared to put their heads above the parapet in the name of public service. Unfortunately, the Bill is still needed, not only to draw parity between the sentencing guidelines, but to have proper rules in place for those rare instances when something does go wrong.
The most appalling example I have seen, and a case that I suspect contributed significantly to much of the motivation behind introducing this Bill, is that of a parish councillor, who I shall not name, in Saddleworth. He was convicted of 16 counts of downloading indecent photographs of children. He avoided a prison sentence, but was given a community order for 24 months and sent on a programme for sex offenders. Despite that, he continued to sit as a parish councillor on Saddleworth Council, which was officially unable to intervene. It did not have the necessary powers to remove him, because he had not been given the requisite prison sentence of three or more months. As I understand the situation, several other councillors took it upon themselves to see whether it would be possible to call a referendum, but, to make that passable, every member of Saddleworth council would have to be re-elected. That would have been an excessive administrative exercise when there should have been the much more straightforward remedy that the Bill will provide.
I know that we are pushed for time and want to get on to other business, but finally, as local government is a devolved matter, I want to talk about how the Bill should be implemented across the UK. I am unashamedly a passionate Unionist and, although the Bill extends only to England, I noted with interest the Minister’s comments in Committee about commitment to support implementation in Northern Ireland. She stated:
“The Government will work with the Northern Ireland Executive to seek to extend these measures to Northern Ireland in a comprehensive package, addressing candidates and sitting councillors.”––[Official Report, Local Government (Disqualification) Public Bill Committee, 1 December 2021; c. 5-6.]
I warmly welcome that. More widely, the Bill matches rules across the country as the Parliament in Wales recently legislated on the matter. It would be most welcome if similar measures could be enacted in Scotland so that we would have a shared commonality of rules for public representatives across the whole of the United Kingdom. I think that people across the whole United Kingdom would welcome that. For those reasons, I will support the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley on bringing it to the House.
My speech will be very short. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) for bringing the Bill to the House, which, following both policy debate here today and Government consultation several years ago, is close to addressing an important issue regarding our local democracy.
I strongly support clause 1, which will insert a new and important section 81A into the Local Government Act 1972. I have so much that I would like to say, but will not. However, people who commit sexual offences should rightly be disqualified from holding positions in local government, be that the Mayor of London, a charter trustee or a parish councillor such as in the numerous villages in my constituency. With the passing of the Bill, I am confident that another small barrier will be put in the way of those who may consider committing a sexual offence to be acceptable. More generally, as is set out in the code of conduct for councillors, the Bill speaks to the broader need for those elected or co-opted to local government positions to be held to the highest standards of conduct, consistent with the Nolan principles, including objectivity, openness and leadership.
As a councillor in Rother before I was elected to this House by my constituents in Hastings and Rye, I firmly believe that, in more ways than one, local government office holders are a stalwart and integral part of the country’s fine democratic tradition, which has developed over the past several centuries. When considering those who commit sexual offences, the current rules clearly do not go far enough in ensuring that that is always the case, because disqualification essentially has an expiration period of five years, and I know from constituents who write to me that the victims of sexual offences often suffer from these crimes for much, much longer. It can therefore only be right that the rules surrounding disqualification are strengthened in law. The Bill will at last do just that two months after the House passes it, and I offer my full support for it.
Like colleagues, I will not speak for long—no doubt, they will be surprised and delighted to hear that. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on his choice of private Member’s Bill, the fashion in which he introduced it and the way in which he moved the motion. As a former county councillor, I very much welcome the loophole closure. I reflect that I am a former county councillor from Wales, and I therefore very much welcome the Minister’s commitment to work with the Northern Ireland Executive in further rolling out this measure, presumably through a legislative consent motion or engagement with the Executive. I also welcome the work that the Welsh Government have done to date in closing such loopholes. However, it strikes me that there is an anomaly with the Scottish Government’s disqualification orders.
In my contribution, which will end shortly, I want to reflect on whether the Minister could pull together devolved administration counterparts. Without slowing down the Bill—my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley will be delighted to hear that I am not suggesting a new clause—I wonder whether she could bring the DAs together to look at disqualifications more broadly, whether for a Member of Parliament, county councillor, police and crime commissioner or Member of the Welsh Parliament, and bring a universal element to them. That would be outside the scope of the Bill, so I hope I am in order saying that in the Chamber.
My Montgomeryshire constituency is a cross-border part of the world, and many walks of life, whether they are public sector, private sector or delivering at a county council level, do not see the border, so I would appreciate a comment from the Minister on whether we could bring some universal element to the disqualifications as the United Kingdom. I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley and wish the Bill speed.
I rise to support the Bill in its aims and in its practice. I speak as a former councillor and a former magistrate. Those who put themselves forward for elected office often do a brave thing. It is not something that anyone is trained to do or that anyone can practise to do, so I pay tribute to those in our communities who do it, because they form the backbone of our elected system.
The pandemic has shone a light on the importance of local frontline and community responses in keeping us safe. Most often, the response has been organised through brilliant local government networks, including in my constituency by Hertfordshire County Council, East Herts District Council and all our town and parish councils. We should be grateful to them, because we are so reliant on them.
That reliance on local government in our lives gives it the power to infiltrate our lives for good or bad. That is particularly true of the most vulnerable groups in our communities, including children and young people, who rely on service provision locally as much, if not more, than many others. We place an enormous amount of trust in the system and in those people as a result. As a system and a wider culture, we must ensure that we are worthy of that trust and live up to it, because the consequences of an abuse of power within local government can be catastrophic.
As a magistrate, I reflect on the purposes of sentencing. Punishment, deterrence and a public observation that certain behaviours are not acceptable in our society are part of that, but protection of the public is too, and that is where the Bill comes into its own. It will protect the most vulnerable in our society and I commend it for that. I will leave it there, but it has been a pleasure to contribute to the debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on his outstanding work in progressing the Bill. I am pleased to reiterate the Government’s support for the legislation.
The Government are backing this private Member’s Bill because it addresses a critical issue pertaining to people’s faith in their elected representatives and in local democracy. It is an issue that affects communities the length and breadth of the country. It will serve to prevent registered sex offenders from standing or serving as councillors, mayors or London Assembly members.
I am grateful to the Opposition Front-Bench team for supporting this important Bill. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) and for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson), all councillors or former councillors, for their thoughtful contributions. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon), who was on the London Assembly with me when I was deputy leader and he was leader. I am pleased that he and I continue to work together in this place.
To answer some of the questions, I am grateful for the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) about working with the devolved Administrations. He will know that the Secretary of State is the Minister for Intergovernmental Relations. I am sure that if my hon. Friend wrote to the Secretary of State formally with a request, it is something that the Department could look at.
More broadly on how the devolved nations are taking corresponding provisions forward—this was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington—Wales has already implemented similar provisions via the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021, and Government officials have been in contact with Scottish counterparts. It is entirely within the remit of the Scottish Parliament to make corresponding provisions, but my officials stand ready to assist in any way possible. For those who want to know, the Northern Ireland Executive could make corresponding provision regarding sitting councillors, but the UK Government retain responsibility for elections in Northern Ireland. We will work with the Northern Ireland Executive to seek to extend these measures to Northern Ireland in a comprehensive package addressing both candidates and sitting councillors.
There was a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington about MPs and police and crime commissioners. The answer is that standards and conduct for MPs and police and crime commissioners are governed under separate regimes with their own mechanisms to disqualify or sanction against unacceptable behaviour. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) on Report, this Bill is very specific and focused, and that is why we have not included other measures; we would not necessarily even have been able to do so.
Local councillors are part of the democratic fabric of this country. Throughout the pandemic, we all bore witness to the critical role of local authorities in supporting our communities and the most vulnerable in society. It is hard to imagine a time when local government has mattered more, or indeed when people’s faith and trust in it has mattered as much as it does today. People must be given confidence that the individuals they elect to represent them are of good character, deserving of trust and beyond reproach. Mayors and councillors are responsible for the delivery of vital services, including for children and vulnerable adults, and they are empowered to make decisions on a whole range of issues that people care deeply about. Good character in the people making these decisions should be the minimum expectation.
It goes without saying that the vast majority of councillors and mayors are driven by a deep sense of public duty, as we have seen from those of them who have come to this place, and they deserve respect and praise for the excellent job that they do. Perhaps inevitably when there are 120,000 councillors serving all tiers of local government in England, however, there are rare occasions when the behaviour of individuals falls below the standards that the public rightly expect.
Currently, anyone who is convicted and given a custodial sentence of three months or more, suspended or not, is disqualified from local government for five years. These rules date to the Local Government Act 1972. While the existing law may have been effective in addressing serious cases of criminal behaviour, it does not take account of the non-custodial sentences that courts now issue for sexual offences. Those concern individuals who are on the sex offenders register and are subject to the notification requirements to manage sex offender behaviour, because they pose a risk to children and all vulnerable adults.
This Bill is important because it will bring the current disqualification criteria for local authorities in line with modern sentencing practices. Clearly, no community should have to tolerate a convicted sex offender standing or continuing to serve as their local representative. This update to the law governing who can stand as a fit and proper person to represent their community is long overdue and will serve to protect the most vulnerable members of our society, while upholding the high standards expected of locally elected officials.
Finally, may I take this opportunity to say that it has been a great pleasure to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley in taking this much-needed step towards updating the local government disqualification criteria. I look forward to the Bill’s successful passage through the Lords.
My apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker. After all this time, I should have remembered that. I ask the leave of the House to say a few words.
I thank the Minister for her support, and I am grateful for the support from right across the House. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) is behind the Bill, although he was going to add all sorts of thorns to it—much, I think, to the dismay of local government. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) and the Minister mentioned MPs. If my hon. Friend had spent some time on the Standards Committee, he would have heard of the ghastly accusation of bringing the House into disrepute. That would apply to any MP in this situation, and the door would be shown to them.
I thank everybody again, and I hope that the Bill will progress swiftly through the other place, led by another ex-leader of Wandsworth Council.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.