Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, this statutory instrument was laid before the House on Monday 6 June under Sections 9HE and 105(2) of the Local Government Act 2000, and Section 114(1) of and paragraph 12(4) of Schedule 5B to the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, for approval by resolution of each House of Parliament. This instrument amends local election rules to account for the new disqualification for sexual offences introduced by the Local Government (Disqualification) Act 2022. These changes are necessary to ensure that future mayoral candidates continue to correctly declare that they are eligible to stand in elections. This will provide continued clarity for candidates and electoral administrators.
The Local Government (Disqualification) Act closes the loophole which meant that anyone who commits a sexual offence but is not given a custodial sentence could stand for local government election—or, indeed, if convicted once in office, could remain in office following that conviction. The Act passed with cross-party support earlier this year and comes into force today. Election processes now need to be updated through this instrument, which updates “consent to nomination” forms used in local authority mayoral elections. At nomination, a candidate must declare that they are not disqualified by signing such a consent to nomination form. The format and wording of these forms is prescribed in secondary legislation.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
This instrument amends four instances of such forms prescribed in election rules: two instances for county, district and London borough mayoral elections; and two for combined authority mayoral elections. Regardless of the type of office, the amendments to each consent to nomination form have the same effect. The changes update the forms to add a new reference to the updated criteria inserted by the disqualification Act. Further, this instrument updates the forms to require that copies of the relevant new sections from the disqualification Act are reproduced in full and appended to these forms for candidates’ information.
Noble Lords who have been following this matter closely will recall that the disqualification Act was informed by a 2017 government consultation. In our response, we committed to seek to legislate to disqualify sex offenders from local government. This instrument is the last stage to implement this commitment fully.
It should be noted that, alongside this instrument updating mayoral election rules, a similar instrument was made by negative procedure on 30 May. The Local Authority and Greater London Authority Elections (Nomination of Candidates) (Amendment) (England) Rules 2022 updated election rules in the same manner for all tiers of councils, the London Assembly and the Mayor of London.
These amendments to election rules follow statutory consultation with the Electoral Commission. We incorporated its suggestions and the changes have its full support. It has updated its guidance to inform candidates of the new disqualification criteria. Following this instrument coming into force, it will update the nomination packs containing the new consent to nomination forms.
I should clarify the remit of these changes. This statutory instrument applies to England only. Wales has legislated to disqualify sex offenders from local government office but the changes did not require amendments to secondary legislation. Implementation of this instrument should not be delayed as the provisions of the Act are in force from today.
This instrument fulfils the Government’s commitment to protect local communities and make sure that they can have continued trust and confidence in their mayoral candidates. I commend these regulations to the Committee.
My Lords, the regulations refer to today, so time is of the essence. I rise mainly on a point of principle. The Executive should always be questioned by the legislature; it is in that spirit that I always address your Lordships’ Committee. I fought eight general elections—I am glad to say that I won them—but I never saw forms such as are in the schedule. Their drawing up internally in the department must have been quite something; if they are now in their new form, congratulations should surely go to the department. One can only assess the hours that went into painstakingly putting them together. In a general election, one’s nomination form was always of supreme importance; you had to get it right because, if you did not, you did not get on the ballot paper. It is understandable that we need exactitude.
To make progress, can the Minister say how many mayors there are now? There are not many. Everyone knows of the great mayoralty of London but can the Minister itemise their numbers and say what they are so that the record might be up to date?
My Lords, I repeat the interests that I stated in the discussion of the previous statutory instrument as a councillor and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I welcome the addition to the disqualification criteria of anyone who is on the sex offender register. I note what the Minister said, which is also in the document, that, although we are discussing the consent to nomination for mayoral candidates, this has been laid as a negative instrument to include councillors at all levels, including in London. I welcome this.
The Sexual Offences Act was passed in 2003 so why has it taken nigh on 20 years to get what would for everybody be an obvious disqualification criterion included on the consent of candidates form? What has it taken 20 years? I was lobbied by a sitting councillor in the north of England about a parish councillor who was put on the sex offender register. There was no way of disqualifying them. I remember sending Written Questions to the appropriate Minister at the time seeking some action on behalf of the Government to rectify this error because, whatever we think about the situation, people will not stand if they are on the sex offender register. If they have already been elected, they will not be disqualified if the criterion does not exist. That is what happened in this case. If you are elected to public office, you have authority and access to institutions that are not necessarily available to others. If you are on the sex offender register, that brings an additional risk to members of the public. Why has it taken 20 years when my little network of folk knows of an example where a disqualification should have occurred but could not occur because of this lack of action by the Government?
I have a second question, which I know the Minister will be happy to answer. We have this SI for council and mayoral elections, including for combined authority mayors, but what about Members of Parliament? Why is there not an SI that changes the consent to nomination candidates’ form for Members of Parliament? They have even greater status and access to institutions than a councillor or a mayor. Why is that not here? I gently reference the fact that, currently, a number of Members of Parliament are being investigated about complaints of sexual harassment or offences. That would seem to me to indicate that we—those of all parties and none—have got to be more aware of the folk that we ask to stand for public office. Here is a way, by including this criteria in a parliamentary candidates’ consent to nomination, to provide that bar and give protection to the public.
I clearly support what is here today but I have questions for the Minister. I think that he is now trying to find answers to them; I look forward to those.
My Lords, I again refer your Lordships to my entry in the register, stipulating that I am a local councillor in Burnley Borough Council.
This instrument will update the candidate consent to nomination forms to reflect the very welcome changes introduced by the Local Government (Disqualification) Act 2022, to which the Minister referred. An overwhelming majority of local councillors, mayors and mayoral candidates serve their communities to the best of their ability in the spirit of public service and public duty. I have done so for 15 years as a local councillor. I know that the Minister served as a council leader, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock.
However, when individuals fall short of the standards we expect from elected representatives we must ensure that action can be taken to remove them from office and, importantly, prevent them standing in the first place. Labour supported the associated Private Member’s Bill, with my honourable friend the shadow Minister, Jess Phillips MP, stating that
“it is important that this change is made in relation to all representatives, but with a special focus on those who act as corporate parents.”—[Official Report, Commons, Local Government (Disqualification) Bill Committee, 1/12/21; col. 4.]
It is great to have some cross-party agreement on what is quite a sensible thing to do. It is vital that we uphold the best standards in public life at all levels of government. I echo my noble friend Lord Jones’s comments. He spoke about the extra effort and hard work that has gone on behind the scenes to get this here.
I shall finish by asking the Minister a few questions, in the spirit of previous speakers. Are any further instruments necessary to implement provisions of the Local Government (Disqualification) Act 2022? Finally, can he confirm whether these measures will be in force for any upcoming local authority by-elections? I look forward to his response.
My Lords, I thank the Committee for considering this draft instrument. I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to the sponsors of the Local Government (Disqualification) Bill. I thank my noble friend Lord Udny-Lister and the Member for Mole Valley, Sir Paul Beresford—both very distinguished former leaders of Wandsworth Council—for their diligent work to progress the Bill here and in the other place respectively.
I will take a few moments to respond to noble Lords’ questions. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, this has taken a long time, but it was one of those things that came to light. It is a loophole that has been closed because of the Private Member’s Bill taken forward by my noble friend Lord Udny-Lister and Sir Paul Beresford. They are to be commended. It has taken too long, but we have got there. It is one of those things where we are responding to something that, frankly, was not front of mind until, as the noble Baroness said, there was someone in office who chose not to stand down when this became apparent.
The noble Lord, Lord Khan, wanted to know about implementation. My understanding is that the SI will come into effect the day after it is made after the Act commences. The issue is not about speed and delay but whether there is enough time to prepare. Certainly, there was no need for the usual. We are moving at pace. Therefore, by-elections will be covered because of the speed of implementation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, wanted parity, if you like, and asked why not MPs, given some of the recent incidents and cases in the other place. As I previously responded in support of the Bill at its Third Reading,
“standards and conduct for MPs and PCCs are governed under separate regimes, with their own mechanisms to disqualify or sanction unacceptable behaviour.”—[Official Report, 4/3/22; col. 1083.]
We are doing this for members of a local authority, counsellors, local mayors, members of the London Assembly or the London mayor. There are other regimes for MPs. As noble Lords know, MPs can, under certain circumstances, be recalled if at least 10% of the constituency electorate sign a petition.
The noble Lord, Lord Jones, really tested me on the number of mayors and having a schedule of mayors. This is not as easy as noble Lords would think. Obviously we have the London mayor and the London Assembly as one model. A number of combined authorities have a directly elected mayor: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, North of Tyne, South Yorkshire, Tees Valley, West Midlands, West of England and West Yorkshire. Obviously we are covering directly elected mayors, of which we have a number now. There are four in London, in Croydon, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Lewisham, as well as all the ceremonial mayors. I am told that the total number of directly elected mayors is 26 in England. That is quite a bit of work in response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Jones.
In conclusion, it is essential that the provisions of the disqualification Act are accurately reflected in mayoral election rules. That is exactly what this instrument achieves, while ensuring that local government can continue to command people’s faith and trust, both now and in future. I therefore commend these regulations to the Committee.