The Minister for Equalities (Kemi Badenoch)
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.