Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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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.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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.

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Sarah Owen Portrait Sarah Owen (Luton North) (Lab)
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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.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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The hon. Lady has just made a ridiculous assertion that is not backed up by anything I have said or anything I believe in. Will she withdraw that?

Sarah Owen Portrait Sarah Owen
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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.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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.

Sarah Owen Portrait Sarah Owen
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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.

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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.
Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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Will my hon. Friend give way?

Paul Beresford Portrait Sir Paul Beresford
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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.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister for Equalities (Kemi Badenoch)
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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.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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This is not retrospective, so it will apply from now onwards. I hope that is helpful.

I hope I have been able to convince my hon. Friend not to press his amendments. They are not trivial, but this Bill is not the right place for them.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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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.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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.