Disqualification of Elected Persons

– in the House of Commons at 4:43 pm on 16th October 1991.

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Photo of Mr Roger King Mr Roger King , Birmingham, Northfield 4:43 pm, 16th October 1991

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to disqualify from membership of the House of Commons or local authorities any person who is sentenced to a term of imprisonment.

That is the short title of the Bill, but its basic aims are to permit the immediate disqualification from office of a Member of Parliament or local government councillor who has been imprisoned for knowingly, deliberately and publicly defying the laws of the land and, thus, the will of Parliament.

It is necessary to make two distinctions. The Bill is not directed at any individual hon. Member. It is a modest measure and I seek no retrospective legislation. Of course, in part it is motivated by the recent celebrated case of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields), who is in his place. He has paid his dues as the law stands and my prime intention is to avoid a repetition of that case. Secondly, the Bill does not seek to disqualify any councillor or hon. Member found guilty of an offence and subsequently sentenced to a period in custody where it is clear that that person has not actively campaigned to break the law. A remedy for that already exists under the Representation of the People Act 1991 under which an hon. Member can be disqualified when imprisoned for a period exceeding 12 months. However, the law is much less clear for local councillors.

Hon. Members know only too well that events can overtake some of us in a way that was never premeditated or foreseen and certainly never publicly campaigned about. One is reminded of an hon. Member being apprehended for driving while intoxicated and perhaps as a result being liable to imprisonment. The Bill does not cover such a situation, because the hon. Member would not have campaigned and asked other hon. Members and everyone in the land to join him in his drinking and driving. The Bill distinguishes between that type of offence and one in which an elected representative positively campaigns on a platform of deliberate and provocative disobedience of the law of the land.

All hon. Members have a right to disagree; that is our heritage. But we also have a duty to set an example and uphold the law. We express our feelings in the House and do not do so outside, goading our fellow citizens to disobey the law. 'The same is true of councillors. They are entitled to free expression but never to the right to break the law and remain in a position of continuing influence.

Few of us can have remained unaffected by the hon. Member for Broadgreen. True to his word and to his pledge to his constituents, he has resolutely fought against the introduction of the poll tax. Failure to pay and to obey the law laid down by the House resulted in his imprisonment. Then we read that it was business as usual from the depths of the prison. I admire the hon. Gentleman for his nerve and effrontery, but it makes me angry to know that defiance of the law that was knowingly and deliberately undertaken has had little impact on his job prospects, although, of course, his party affiliation is under some examination. Could a police officer who openly challenges the law and is imprisoned remain a serving officer? Of course not. Would not a solicitor be struck off if he refused to carry out his legal duties and advocated that everyone else should do the same? Of course he would.

Five Birmingham councillors still refuse to pay their poll tax and, by their example, they are encouraging thousands of others. That is as clear a case of wilful disobedience of the law as one can get. It is premeditated, calculated and deliberate. If those councillors were brought before the courts it is unlikely that they would receive any more than a month or two in prison, but they would remain councillors, which is the essence of my argument. They have taken on responsible positions and a duty to uphold the laws of the land, but they have openly defied those laws and have campaigned for their defiance.

The Bill would make it impossible to avoid the ultimate sanction of disqualification, because from the moment that councillors were found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment they would cease to be councillors. It would make it absolutely clear that the responsibility of all who are elected to serve as councillors or hon. Members of this mother of Parliaments is to express themselves, to argue fiercely and with conviction, but always to obey the wish of the majority. If they acted in open defiance of that they would face disqualification.

The Bill has been promulgated because of the controversy surrounding the poll tax. Once the Rubicon of transgression has been crossed, as it has, any sort of controversial legislation is an invitation to embark upon wilful disobedience. Rabble rousers and troublemakers will doubtless beat their breasts and proclaim that somehow democracy is all about breaking the law to achieve change. A long time ago that might have been true. At that time debate was about basic freedoms and rights and people had to fight for them. Now such dissent is all about thuggery and militancy and has nothing to do with democracy.

Can we tolerate such loutish behaviour? Is not the House and are not council chambers throughout the land big enough to absorb these political absurdities? The Labour party has tried, in its pathetic way, to introduce some control, but I do not doubt that my arguments will be countered by stuttering rhetoric in defence of the principle that hon. Members should say what they like and do what they like when they like to do so.

The finger that is pointed at those of us who are seeking to achieve what the Bill would introduce is a crooked one. It points back to those Opposition Members who have wilfully disobeyed the law in the recent past. There are others who are still seeking to carry out what they believe is their democratic duty in upholding their beliefs and disregarding the will of Parliament, and at the same time urging others to follow their example.

Without the House clearly and unequivocally spelling out the duties of its Members and those of our council brethren, direct and open militancy, the flouting of what nearly all of us believe in and contempt for democratically arrived-at decisions can only gather pace.

My Bill is a modest measure which is designed to contain excess.

Photo of Mr Dave Nellist Mr Dave Nellist , Coventry South East 4:52 pm, 16th October 1991

Were the Bill to be passed this afternoon, the House would be seeking to take powers to decide for the electorate who could and could not stand or sit as a Member of this place. Those powers would go wide of the existing powers.

You and I have crossed on a couple of occasions, Mr. Speaker, and I know that you have powers, subject to the resolution of the House, temporarily to suspend an hon. Member from sitting in the Chamber because of what is deemed at the time to be disruption. That can be done provided that the result of a Division supports you, Mr. Speaker, but that is different from the slippery slope that we have been invited to travel down. We are being asked to substitute ourselves for the electorate and to decide in the Chamber who can and who cannot be voted for outside it. If that were to come to pass, I would argue that democracy would be weakened and reduced. Surely even Conservative Members have cause carefully to consider the measures that are proposed by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King). His message is, during a pre-election period—it extends even to Tory supporters—that Tory Members do not believe that the electorate is to be trusted to decide which candidates should be elected.

The hon. Member for Northfield has said that rules already exist. There is, for example, a rule that people cannot sit in this place if they are under 21 years of age. I disagree with that. I think that it would have been much better if the hon. Gentleman had introduced a Bill that sought to being to an end the legislation that provides that people can vote at 18 and die for their country at 18 but cannot sit in this place to decide whether there should be an Act of war, which would lead to the death of young men and women. It may be that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) disagrees that that is how the constitutional position is arrived at.

There are other rules that affect those suffering from mental illness and peers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield has done sterling work in changing aspects of the law that bear on peers. There are other rules that bear on various offices of profit, bankruptcy and treason. The rule that relates to treason has been used only once this century.

The Representation of the People Act 1981 con-solidated earlier measures and included the rule that if anyone has been imprisoned for one or more acts here in Britain or in Ireland for more than 12 months, he or she cannot sit as a Member of this place. There have been only five occasions over the past 100 years when that rule has been brought into operation. It will come as no surprise to hon. Members when I say that two cases involved Liberals and the other three involved Tories. The Opposition have a clean sheet.

As you know, Mr. Speaker, the case of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) is sub judice and, therefore, cannot be mentioned in the Chamber. I am sure that that hon. Gentleman will welcome the support that he has had from the hon. Member for Northfield in introducing the Bill that is before us! The Bill seeks to extend disqualification to civil matters such as the poll tax, to which I shall turn later in my remarks. If the Bill became an Act, it would catch most Ulster Unionist Members. Nearly all of them have been in prison over the past five years because of their opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. There was no fuss when that happened. Against that background, why has the hon. Gentleman introduced the Bill?

The Bill would catch those who would go to prison on a point of principle as well as those who are imprisoned for corruption, and crooks generally. Clearly, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) went to prison on a point of principle. I have never known a Tory Member do so, but I know that the Conservative party believes in rehabilitation. Keith Best was the first person to shake the Prime Minister's hand on Friday afternoon as he left the stage during the Tory party conference.

We are not ashamed of those who went to prison when they fought in the past to establish rights for the country and for the Labour movement. We have giants in our movement such as Tom Mann, who was born in Coventry, and Manny Shinwell. I have in mind the women who worked in the north-west cotton mills and many other women. I think of those who wished to establish trade unions and who introduced the right for men and women to join unions. I think of those who secured the right for women to vote after the first world war.

Perhaps the most apposite example is George Lansbury, the leader of Poplar council. With his fellow councillors, he went into prison 70 years ago under a banner proclaiming that it was better to break the law than to break the poor". He established, for the first time in Britain, a genuine dole system. Some years later George Lansbury was elected the leader of the Labour party.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Broadgreen had been imprisoned in Russia, "Panorama" would have made a programme on that event. If the provisions of the Bill had been included in the legislation enacted by other countries in the past, many notable people in Russia and elsewhere would never have risen to high office. I have in mind Vaclav Havel, Alexander Dubcek, Lech Walesa and Mahatma Gandhi. Many people have gone to prison on a point of principle. They have been recognised in later life and as a result of that they have risen in society.

Desmond Tutu is the archbishop who said that sometimes there is a moral imperative that causes people to break the law. By implication the hon. Member for Northfield is attacking the president of Georgia, Gamsukhurdia, who was in prison during the 1970s for monitoring human rights in the Soviet Union. There is the lady in Burma who two days ago was awarded the Nobel peace prize for 1991. The Burmese Government ordered that she should spend two years in detention. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadgreen may not have aspirations to win the Nobel peace prize, to become an archbishop or even to lead the Labour party, but I am proud that he went to prison on a point of principle.

The House knows that the principles of my hon. Friend the Member for Broadgreen cost him two months' imprisonment in Walton gaol. He was imprisoned because of his opposition to the poll tax. He expressed his solidarity with those who cannot pay poll tax debts. This week will probably see the 100th person to be imprisoned in England and Wales for poll tax debts. Many of those people are on low, fixed incomes and there are others who have no income. A dozen of them are pensioners.

I said earlier that I did not know of any Tory Members who had gone to prison on a matter of principle. However, I know one Tory voter who has gone to prison on a matter of principle. His name is Bill Jones of St. Helens. He went to the same prison in Liverpool—Walton—as my hon. Friend the Member for Broadgreen. He was 72 years old and a diabetic. He has only one leg. When he entered Walton prison his wheelchair was dismantled. He was carried up the stairs and put into a cell. Bill was imprisoned because he was unable to pay the poll tax. I send him my best wishes—I hope that many others will do so—following his recent heart attack.

It is a scandal that pensioners and others should be put in prison in 1991 as a result of a barbaric mediaeval law. It does not happen in Scotland. Even this Government introduced what is now the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 to stop people being imprisoned because of debt. I want to see a similar Act apply to England and Wales.

Another example is Norman Cassidy——

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. The hon. Gentleman should relate his remarks to the Bill. At present they are wide of it. The Bill relates to Members of this House.

Photo of Mr Dave Nellist Mr Dave Nellist , Coventry South East

My hon. Friend the Member for Broadgreen went to prison to stop people such as Bill Jones and others being sent to prison.

Two weeks ago, in Northumberland, a 69-year-old pensioner, Norman Cassidy, was put in prison for 90 days for owing £62. That is one day for every 69p that he owed. When Ronson went in prison, the sum was £30,000 for every day served. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadgreen went to prison——

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going miles wide of the Bill as outlined by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King).

Photo of Mr Dave Nellist Mr Dave Nellist , Coventry South East

I take your point, Mr. Speaker.

I contend that we are faced with mediaeval barbarity. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadgreen went to prison to try to put a stop to it. If any of us have to follow him, I think that it will be a price worth paying, to quote someone else's words. The hon. Member for Northfield seeks to introduce a Bill which would disqualify my hon. Friend from taking his seat in Parliament because he was imprisoned as a result of his stand against the poll tax, which was a point of principle.

The imprisonments to which I have referred and the other hundred or so are an attempt to frighten the British people. Millions of them cannot afford to pay the poll tax. The stand on principle of my hon. Friend the Member for Broadgreen was designed to prevent fear entering the minds of the people.

The Bill is at best a shabby item. If it is a serious measure, the anti-democratic implications of it should worry many hon. Members, including Conservative Members. Even if it is merely a political jibe by the hon. Member for Northfield and the Secretary of State for the Environment, who spoke about these matters at the Tory party conference last week, we should question its enforceability. Millions of those who cannot pay the poll tax will stand shoulder to shoulder with councillors and Members of this place.

A Tory Member seeks to ban from the House of Commons those who stood in solidarity against the poll tax. I say to you. Mr. Speaker, and, through this House, to the hon. Gentleman, that he should realise that this sort of bureaucratic and Stalinist measure shows the weakness of his argument. If he thinks that his case is such a good one, he should have confidence in the ballot box in Broadgreen and Coventry, or anywhere else where the poll tax has been fought, and put those ideas before the British electorate, not use bureaucratic measures to try to exclude from the House those who have taken a stand and gone to prison on a matter of principle. I urge my hon. Friends to throw out the Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination for Select Committees at commencement of public business):

The House divided: Ayes 91, Noes 104.

Division No. 229][5 pm
AYES
Adley, RobertJanman, Tim
Alexander, RichardJessel, Toby
Alton, DavidJones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Arbuthnot, JamesJones, Robert B (Herts W)
Ashby, DavidJopling, Rt Hon Michael
Aspinwall, JackKellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyKilfedder, James
Bellotti, DavidKing, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Bonsor, Sir NicholasKnox, David
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)Lawrence, Ivan
Bowis, JohnLloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Braine, Rt Hon Sir BernardMacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)
Brandon-Bravo, MartinMans, Keith
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)Meyer, Sir Anthony
Buck, Sir AntonyMills, Iain
Burt, AlistairMitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Butler, ChrisMoate, Roger
Carrington, MatthewMonro, Sir Hector
Clark, Rt Hon Sir WilliamMontgomery, Sir Fergus
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)Morris, M (N'hampton S)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir JohnMudd, David
Currie, Mrs EdwinaNelson, Anthony
Day, StephenNeubert, Sir Michael
Dickens, GeoffreyOppenheim, Phillip
Dover, DenPowell, William (Corby)
Durant, Sir AnthonyShaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Dykes, HughShepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Evennett, DavidShepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Fairbairn, Sir NicholasShersby, Michael
Favell, TonySmith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Fenner, Dame PeggySpeller, Tony
Fox, Sir MarcusSquire, Robin
Franks, CecilStewart, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Gale, RogerTaylor, Ian (Esher)
Gill, ChristopherThompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Gorman, Mrs TeresaThornton, Malcolm
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)Townend, John (Bridlington)
Grylls, MichaelVaughan, Sir Gerard
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)Viggers, Peter
Harris, DavidWalker, Bill (T'side North)
Hind, KennethWaller, Gary
Hordern, Sir PeterWatts, John
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)Tellers for the Ayes:
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)Mrs. Maureen Hicks and
Hunter, AndrewMr. Jacques Arnold.
Irvine, Michael
NOES
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley, N.)Caborn, Richard
Anderson, DonaldCallaghan, Jim
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyCampbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Ashley, Rt Hon JackCanavan, Dennis
Ashton, JoeCarlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Cohen, Harry
Barron, KevinCook, Frank (Stockton N)
Battle, JohnCorbett, Robin
Beith, A. J.Corbyn, Jeremy
Bell, StuartCunliffe, Lawrence
Benn, Rt Hon TonyDavies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Bottomley, PeterDavis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'I)
Boyes, RolandDixon, Don
Bradley, KeithDouglas, Dick
Dunnachie, JimmyMadden, Max
Eadie, AlexanderMahon, Mrs Alice
Eastham, KenMarek, Dr John
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)Martlew, Eric
Fearn, RonaldMaxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)Meacher, Michael
Flannery, MartinMeale, Alan
Foster, DerekMichael, Alun
Fyfe, MariaMichie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Galloway, GeorgeMichie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)Mullin, Chris
Godman, Dr Norman A.Nellist, Dave
Golding, Mrs LlinPatchett, Terry
Gordon, MildredPendry, Tom
Graham, ThomasPike, Peter L.
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Primarolo, Dawn
Hain, PeterRedmond, Martin
Hattersley, Rt Hon RoyRogers, Allan
Haynes, FrankRooker, Jeff
Hinchliffe, DavidRoss, Ernie (Dundee W)
Hood, JimmyRowlands, Ted
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)Skinner, Dennis
Hoyle, DougSteinberg, Gerry
Hughes, Roy (Newport E)Stott, Roger
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Strang, Gavin
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)Trimble, David
Lamond, JamesWareing, Robert N.
Leadbitter, TedWelsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Litherland, RobertWelsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Livingstone, KenWigley, Dafydd
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)Winnick, David
Loyden, EddieWise, Mrs Audrey
McAllion, JohnWray, Jimmy
McAvoy, ThomasYoung, David (Bolton SE)
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
McKelvey, WilliamTellers for the Noes:
McLeish, HenryMr. Harry Barnes and
McMaster, GordonMr. Bob Cryer.

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Mr Roger King Mr Roger King , Birmingham, Northfield

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will right hon. and hon. Members have an opportunity tomorrow to study carefully the voting in that Division to ascertain how many members of the Opposition Front Bench supported or opposed my very modest measure?

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

That is not a point of order for the Chair to consider.