All 2 Kemi Badenoch contributions to the Local Government (Disqualification) Act 2022

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Wed 1st Dec 2021
Fri 14th Jan 2022
Local Government (Disqualification) Bill
Commons Chamber

Report stage3rd reading & Report stage

Local Government (Disqualification) Bill

Kemi Badenoch Excerpts
Committee stage
Wednesday 1st December 2021

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Read Full debate Local Government (Disqualification) Act 2022 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab)
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I shall be briefer than I think I have ever been in Parliament and simply say that I and the Labour party fully endorse the Bill, and we congratulate the hon. Member for Mole Valley on his efforts in bringing it forward. In my view, 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. The Labour party supports the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister for Levelling Up Communities (Kemi Badenoch)
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I have a very long speech that I am keen for all members of the Committee to go through with me over the next 25 minutes.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) for picking up this private Member’s Bill and helping us to close this loophole. It has been an absolute pleasure to work with him in progressing the Bill to Committee stage, and I look forward to supporting it over the upcoming legislative hurdles, of which no doubt there will be very few for what is a common-sense and necessary measure for the statute book.

It is clear that people must be given confidence that the individuals they elect to represent them are of good character, worthy of trust and beyond reproach. Mayors and local councillors are responsible for the delivery of vital services, including for children and vulnerable adults, and good character in the people making decisions about such services 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, and they deserve our respect for the excellent job they do. However, perhaps inevitably when there are 120,000 councillors serving all tiers of local government in England, there are rare occasions when the behaviour of individuals falls below the standards that the public rightly expect.

Two such cases have shone a sharp light on the need for reform, including a particularly notorious incidence that involved a parish councillor downloading indecent images of children soon after their election to public office. Despite being placed on the sex offenders register, this individual refused to do the decent thing by stepping down and he then went on to serve his full term. This intolerable situation was made possible by our current legislation on disqualification not having kept pace with our sentencing regime, as our rules disqualified someone only if they received a custodial sentence of three months or more.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley has already described the clauses that are to stand part of the Bill, so I will not repeat them, but it is important to mention the devolved Administrations, as they are not represented in the room. There is a commitment to support Northern Ireland implementation, and clause 6 sets out that the Act will come into force two months after the day on which it is passed. The clause also confirms that the provisions apply to England only.

Local government functions are devolved, which means the Bill is specifically for England. That being said, the Welsh Government have recently legislated on the matter and the Scottish Parliament may wish to make corresponding provision, because the UK Government, unlike in the devolved nations, retains general responsibility for local government elections. 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.

This Government believe that it is absolutely right for councillors, Mayors and members of the Greater London Assembly to face consequences if they fall short of the behaviour we all expect in an inclusive and tolerant society. This private Member’s Bill will help us uphold standards in public life and deliver on our commitment to legislate on this issue. Updates to the disqualification criteria are timely and, many would say, long overdue, and I am pleased to commend the Bill to the Committee.

Paul Beresford Portrait Sir Paul Beresford
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I am delighted but not surprised that there is general support. I am conscious that Members want to get out of here, so I will be very quick. Before you put the question, Dr Huq, I wish to thank you and all who have attended, having been dragged out of the coffee room. I ask the Minister to convey my thanks to her officials who put the Bill together, because it is much more complicated than it looks—I remember struggling with local government legislation when I was a local government Minister. I thank those who have spoken for being succinct, and I also thank those who did not speak.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Local Government (Disqualification) Bill

Kemi Badenoch Excerpts
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.

--- Later in debate ---
Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister for Levelling Up Communities (Kemi Badenoch)
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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.