Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill (Joint Committee)

Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 7:45 pm on 16th April 2013.

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Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley The Leader of the House of Commons 7:49 pm, 16th April 2013

I beg to move,

That this House
concurs with the Lords Message of 15 January 2013, that it is expedient that a Joint Committee of Lords and Commons be appointed to consider the draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill presented to both Houses on 22 November 2012 (Cm 8499), and that the Committee should report by 31 October 2013.

That a Select Committee of six Members be appointed to join with the Committee appointed by the Lords;

That the Committee shall have power—

(i) to send for persons, papers and records;

(ii) to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House;

(iii) to report from time to time;

(iv) to appoint specialist advisers; and

(v) to adjourn from place to place within the United Kingdom;

That Mr Crispin Blunt, Steve Brine, Lorely Burt, Mr Nick Gibb, Sir Alan Meale and Derek Twigg be members of the Committee.

The motion arises from the statement made on 22 November last year by my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice in response to a judgment in the European Court of Human Rights. That judgment required the Government to bring forward legislative proposals on prisoner voting for Parliament to consider. The Justice Secretary published the draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill and proposed that a Joint Committee of both Houses be appointed to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny. In this motion today, the Government are seeking the establishment of a Joint Committee to consider that draft legislation.

The Justice Secretary made it clear in November that although Ministers might have strong personal views on this matter, the Government are under an international law obligation to implement the Court’s judgment. Equally, however, the Justice Secretary was clear that Parliament is sovereign, a fact recognised explicitly by the Human Rights Act 1998, and the current law passed by Parliament will remain in force unless and until it is changed.

The Government believe that it is right that Parliament should be given the opportunity fully to consider the difficult and contentious issue of prisoner voting. That is why we brought forward draft legislative proposals for pre-legislative scrutiny. We consider that to be the most appropriate course of action, given the importance of the issue and the strong views that exist across both Houses. It will be for Parliament to scrutinise the legislation, which contains a number of options reflecting the spectrum of views that we know exist on this question. The Lords started the process of establishing a Joint Committee of both Houses to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny in January. Following discussions through the usual channels, the Government tabled a motion on 1 March to nominate the Commons Members to serve on the Committee.

My hon. Friend Mr Chope and others subsequently tabled an amendment, which has necessitated the debate we are having today. I understand the purpose behind the amendment. Following the implementation of the Wright report, we now elect the Chairs of most Select Committees, and the membership of those Committees is determined by elections within the political parties. It might therefore be argued that it would be in the spirit of the Wright report for the membership of pre-legislative Committees similarly to be elected by the House and by the parties, rather than being determined by the Government and through the usual channels.

However, there are strong arguments of principle and of practicality against such a move. As a matter of principle, joint pre-legislative Committees need to be carefully balanced to ensure that they properly reflect all shades of interest and opinion across both Houses of Parliament. To ensure that scrutiny is rigorous, that means including critics of the legislation as well as its supporters. With the best will in the world, a process of election is unlikely to achieve that balance. If a majority of the House has a prior view on a particular piece of legislation, that view is likely to be reflected in the composition of any Committee appointed following elections.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I am just wondering whether we could save some time tonight. If that is the right hon. Gentleman’s position, will he tell us which members of the Committee will be in favour of the proposal and which will be opposed to it, under the balanced arrangements that he has arrived at?

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley The Leader of the House of Commons

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has quite understood the character of the Bill. It offers options, and to that extent—

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I was just following up on what the right hon. Gentleman was saying.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley The Leader of the House of Commons

Yes, and for the benefit of the House and the hon. Gentleman I am attempting to explain that acceptance of the amendment to tonight’s motion might be inferred as establishing a point of principle. I am explaining that there are objections in principle to that approach to joint pre-legislative Committees.

The point that I was making was that if a majority of the House had a prior view on a particular piece of legislation, that view would be likely to be reflected in the composition of any Committee appointed following elections. In my view, it is not healthy for a legislative Committee to hear only one side of the arguments. If the Commons membership of Joint Committees were determined by election, that would leave the House of Lords to seek to achieve the necessary balance through appointments in that House. I doubt that Members of the other place would welcome that, as it could fetter their choice considerably.

On a practical level, I believe that it would be counter-productive to elect Members to serve on Committees undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny. There is usually an imperative to establish a Joint Committee as quickly as possible after the publication of a draft Bill to enable the Committee to complete its work in time for the Bill proper to be introduced in Parliament later in the Session, or by a specified date. A process of elections conducted by the parties would be bound to delay the establishment of Joint Committees, giving the Committees less time to complete their work or prejudicing the Bill’s timetable.

In addition, I would point out to Members that the membership of the Joint Committee is not imposed by Government or by the usual channels. Members have an opportunity to table amendments to the motion put down, as demonstrated today, and if they wish to, to suggest alternative names to serve on the Committee. The whole House then has an opportunity to vote on the membership. Such is the character of this evening’s debate that I would say that I am not aware of any objection in practice to the proposed membership of the Joint Committee.

Finally, I should emphasise that to endorse the principle behind the amendment before us would represent a significant change in the way in which we conduct legislative scrutiny. If we are to make such a change, we should do so only after a full investigation of the all the potential consequences, both intended and unintended. That would include proper consultation with the parties affected, including the Liaison and Procedure Committees both in this House and in the other place. Members will recall that the Wright report made a wide range of recommendations designed to improve Parliament’s scrutiny role, but I note that it did not recommend the change suggested in the amendment.

For that reason, I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch not to press his amendment to a Division today, and I hope that the House will resolve to establish this Committee and allow it to get on with its work.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 7:56 pm, 16th April 2013

I rise to support the motion on the draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill and the Joint Committee therein, and to oppose the amendment.

The first thing to say is that the draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill is a highly contentious piece of legislation. The Bill will offer the choice of three options for Parliament to consider on prisoner voting: a blanket ban on all prisoners having the vote; entitling prisoners serving four years or less to the vote; or entitling prisoners serving six months or less to the vote. It is crucial that legislation as contentious as this be given extensive pre-legislative scrutiny. We on the Opposition side thus support the establishment of a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament to scrutinise for a period of six months the proposals in this Bill.

I believe that the decision to pursue the scrutiny of the draft legislation by the means of a Joint Committee of both Houses is perfectly reasonable given the nature of the Bill under consideration, and given the fact that it contains different options on prisoner voting for Parliament to consider. Since 2010, 10 Joint Committees of both Houses have been set up to scrutinise draft Bills. These Committees have tended to be used to scrutinise the most complex pieces of legislation, including on the detention of terror suspects and the reform of the House of Lords. They have also been deployed where Government policy is still to be formed in detail or where cross-party agreement is felt to be crucial to the success of the proposals. Labour Members welcome the establishment of a Joint Committee to scrutinise this particular draft Bill, which I suspect falls into all of those categories at once and has probably managed to create some entirely new ones of its own.

I believe that it is also right in this instance that the membership of this Joint Committee should be decided in the usual way via the Committee of Selection. It is important that the Joint Committee be filled by Members of both Houses and of both parties who possess the necessary skills and expertise to scrutinise the Bill fully. While I acknowledge that some in this House believe that everything that emanates from the Whips Office of any party is somehow hopelessly tainted, I have to say that I do not share this analysis. I do not think that the usual channels are inherently tainted; in fact, they often work extremely well.

I make that observation as someone who in my years in this House has both served in the Whips Office and voted against the Whip—not at the same time, I hasten to add! I have also been elected as vice-chair of the parliamentary committee for the Labour party and on the Labour party’s national executive committee against the wishes of this supposedly “all-powerful” Whips Office—so they do not always get their way. It follows that I do not believe that it is necessarily always virtuous if the House bypasses the Whips Office. Deciding to bypass the Whips Office simply because one wishes to bypass the Whips Office is not an argument for changing the way we do things in this instance.

In the circumstances, I am content for the members of the proposed Joint Committee to be selected by the Committee of Selection. I think that it would be odd for us to change the procedure on a one-off basis for the purpose of this particular Joint Committee, and I agree with the Leader of the House that the Wright Committee did not suggest such a reform in its report. I understand that the Procedure Committee and its Chairman, Mr Walker, recently announced that they planned to conduct an inquiry into the operation of the Committee of Selection in the coming year. I suspect that the Leader of the House and I may be approached to give evidence to that Committee.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Is the hon. Lady surprised that my hon. Friend Mr Walker supports my amendment?

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I am somewhat surprised. Although I would never criticise an hon. Member, I should have thought that if the Chairman of the Procedure Committee wished to look into the way in which the Committee of Selection works, he might want to hear the evidence before putting his own views on record. However, he is his own very competent man, and he has his own views on these matters. I hope that he will also have an open mind when the Procedure Committee looks into how we might sensibly change the way in which the Committee of Selection works. I look forward to the work that it will devote to the subject.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Procedure Committee

I can reassure the hon. Lady that the Procedure Committee is very independent-minded, and that it will not be led by me.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I think that it may be one of the anarchist Committees that we have in the House. Given its membership, I know that it will not be led by anyone, notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman’s undoubted prowess.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

Let me reassure the hon. Lady that I am not an anarchist, although I serve on the Committee, and that, actually, we follow my hon. Friend Mr Walker very carefully.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I had never quite imagined that the hon. Gentleman would fall into the anarchist persuasion, but I am glad he has reassured the House that that is not the case.

It may be advisable for me to return to the subject of the amendment. I believe that it would be wrong for us to adopt a different method for selecting members of the Joint Committee on an ad hoc basis before we have had an opportunity to see what the Procedure Committee might wish the House to consider, and, once its work has been done, to see more details of that work and of the evidence that it wishes to gather. I think that the amendment is premature, and I ask the House to vote against it.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 8:02 pm, 16th April 2013

I beg to move amendment (a), leave out the names at the end of the motion and insert

“That the membership of the Committee shall be nominated by the Committee of Selection under Standing Order No. 121 following elections within the parties using whatever democratic and transparent method they choose.”

The amendment stands in my name and those of quite a few of my right hon. and hon. Friends, as well as that of at least one Opposition Member.

I must say that the opening remarks from the two Front Benches, otherwise known as the usual channels, caused me to feel that there was every good reason for us to change our present procedures. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House presented objections relating to both principle and practice. One of his points about practice was that it was important for us to be able to deal with Joint Committees very quickly. The decision to set up this Joint Committee was made in late November, but, some four months later, we still have not set it up. I detected no sense of urgency; perhaps, if I am wrong about that, my right hon. Friend will intervene.

I do not think that it was a convincing argument that if we were to elect the members of the Committee through our party groups, there would be an unacceptable delay. The delay that has taken place so far has been due to the Government, and no one else can be held responsible for it. Indeed, I have heard suggestions that the Government have always been rather keen on kicking this whole subject into the long grass, and that my amendment, which was not inspired by the Government, was just an extension of the long grass and meant that this whole issue and the appointment of the Joint Committee could be delayed further.

I do not buy into the notion that there is an issue to do with practical problems because of the question of speed, nor do I buy into the objections in principle. I am not suggesting we should change the standing orders and deal with all Joint Committees on the same basis. I am suggesting that this particular subject is unique—I think we can use that over-used word in this instance—because at present we find ourselves before an international court being told we have to change our law when this elected House of Commons has made it clear that we do not wish to change the law. This is not some run-of-the mill situation, therefore.

It is a unique situation, and it strikes me that it would have been much better for the Executive to have kept their hands well out of it. Whatever they do or do not do is going to be looked at by politicians in the rest of Europe. When the Lord Chancellor introduced the draft Bill, he conceded this was essentially a political issue as much as a legal issue. If the Government were able to say, “We put forward these three alternative proposals in a draft Bill; we then left it to the House of Commons, in its wisdom, to decide who should serve on a Joint Committee; and that Joint Committee took evidence and examined it and reached various conclusions”, the Government would be under no obligation to accept those conclusions. If a Joint Committee, however comprised, was to reach conclusions that were not in accordance with the evidence it received, that would bring the Joint Committee into disrepute.

I do not accept the principle put forward by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that it will be impossible to have a properly balanced Joint Committee if it is elected. I suggest quite the reverse: if a Committee is elected, its members are accountable to the people who elected them. If those elected Committee members do not participate in the Committee proceedings or if they reach perverse conclusions, they will find it very hard to get re-elected.

When we appoint members to Select Committees or our party groups, we will inevitably be electing mainly the enthusiasts. The Environmental Audit Committee has a lot more enthusiasts for what I would call “greenery” and an acceptance of climate change science than it has members who disagree with that, although I am delighted that my right hon. Friend Mr Lilley has latterly joined the Committee to try to introduce some balance.

Perhaps the example of that Committee gives the answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. If Members feel a Committee is becoming too homogenous and is not being objective in its assessments of the evidence before it, the remedy lies in the Members of this House choosing an alternative member of the Committee to introduce balance. I do not believe only the usual channels can introduce balance into this Committee; quite the reverse, in fact.

On the issue of whether some Members proposed to serve on the Committee have a prior view, we know that some of them do, as that was expressed in the vote in the House on this subject. Other Members put forward a motion to the Committee that decides on the allocation of time for Back-Bench business; they put their heads above the parapet, and we know whether or not they are serving on that Committee. The same point applies in respect of the matters before us today.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House says, not totally tongue-in-cheek, that it is open to us, as the House, to put forward amendments for alternatives. I am not criticising any Members of this Committee. My amendment is not designed to do that; it is designed to ensure that the decision on the membership of the Committee is made by the individual Back-Bench groups of the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the official Opposition. Those groups can then elect the people they would like to see on the Joint Committee. It seems to me that that system would work perfectly well and would distance the Government effectively from any of the Committee’s work.

As the chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I can say that there is quite a lot of suspicion among the other 46 member countries that the UK Government are trying to ensure that nothing happens very quickly as they realise that the UK Parliament is totally at odds with the judges in the European Court of Human Rights on this issue. If the Lord Chancellor could have said to his counterparts in other countries that he had nothing to do with who was on the Committee, that the usual channels were not involved, that the Government left it to the Members of the House of Commons to choose their own Committee members and that the Government did not have to accept their findings but could merely see what they think, he would have had a better alibi. People looking in from outside might say that the motion is a fix by the usual channels.

I understand that the Select Committee on Justice undertook an informal bidding process, making representations to the effect that it wanted one of its number to serve on the Joint Committee. The Justice Committee is not the lead Select Committee on this matter—that is the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, of which I happen to be a member. The Justice Committee put forward a number of names that were considered by the usual channels, and one of those names was chosen and is among those in the motion.

That seems to me to be a totally non-transparent way of dealing with such issues and it is not appropriate that we should set a precedent whereby a Select Committee can start to lobby the Government covertly to have one of its members as a member of a Joint Committee when that Select Committee is not the lead Committee. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has taken evidence on this subject from the Deputy Prime Minister and others, and if we are to give somebody from a Select Committee a place, we have not necessary chosen the right one.

My point is that the process would be much better dealt with without the Government’s involvement and that is why I hope that Members will feel able to support my amendment—not necessarily by voting for it tonight, but by asking their Whips and colleagues whether the natural development of the Wright Committee reforms would be to introduce a further reform in this regard. That would mean that if we choose to set up a Joint Committee in the future we can do so quickly, knowing what the rules are and demonstrating that we are giving power to the Back Benches on such important issues. That is even more the case with pre-legislative scrutiny.

After the Government’s rough experience of setting up a pre-legislative scrutiny Committee on the reform of the other place, I should have thought that they might say that they would do better to draw their neck in and leave it to Members to choose the members of such Committees. They would then be free to decide whether to accept the recommendations, taking into account the extent to which those Members have responded positively or otherwise to the evidence put before them.

I have pleasure in moving the amendment and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity to speak about this important subject before we go on to other business before the House this evening.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley The Leader of the House of Commons 8:15 pm, 16th April 2013

If I may, I do not mean to detain the House too long, but the shadow Leader of the House and my hon. Friend Mr Chope made some important points and I want to respond to a number of them.

My hon. Friend put some interesting points, but I remind him that when we make changes to our procedures we should proceed on the basis of full consultation and discussion across the House, and on the basis of investigation and recommendation from our Select Committees. As it happens, not only does the Procedure Committee intend to consider questions relating to the Selection Committee, as the shadow Leader of the House made clear, but I remind my hon. Friend and the House that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is considering progress on the implementation of the Wright reforms.

I have not heard in the course of the debate an objection as such to the proposed membership of the Joint Committee from this House, and I perceive no delay on the part of Government once the Lords has completed its process of finding members. My hon. Friend’s arguments left out the Lords in this context. As we are talking about a Joint Committee, it is important to recognise that balancing the Committee is important across both Houses, not just in this House.

I continue to depart from my hon. Friend on the issue of elections for specific legislative scrutiny. Notwithstanding the points he makes, I think there is a point of principle about the risk of the election of Members to that scrutiny committee prejudicing the process of dispassionate scrutiny. I heard what he said about the nominations coming through a process of consultation within the usual channels. The shadow Leader of the House and I are not the usual channels. The proposal emerged from within the usual channels. If my hon. Friend looks at the proposed membership, I think he will certainly conclude that the proposed membership of the Joint Committee will clearly be dispassionate and independent in its scrutiny, the members of the Committee having taken differing positions themselves and having obvious expertise to bring to the subject.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for taking an intervention. May I remind him ever so nicely that in Northern Ireland we have 1.8 million people? Will he explain why no representative in the House from Northern Ireland has been selected to sit on the Committee? We do have some prisoners in Northern Ireland. It is a very controversial issue in Northern Ireland. Please do not tell me that justice is devolved. I do not sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I sit in this House.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley The Leader of the House of Commons

I entirely understand. The hon. Lady will be well aware that the membership of the Committee is not large and it would be difficult to pursue balance across the House. It is in any case the purpose of the pre-legislative scrutiny not to decide on the Bill, but to scrutinise the Bill to ensure that it is in a fit state and to make recommendations so that the House can come on to consider the policy of the Bill and its legislative implementation, which will give Members in all parts of the House an opportunity to comment on it.

I ask my hon. Friend Mr Nuttall to forgive me if he is still to make his contribution. I anticipated that there would not be an extended debate beyond this point, but having listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch I wanted to respond to the debate up to that point because I thought he made important points that were worth responding to and considering in future.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North 8:19 pm, 16th April 2013

I do not intend to delay the House for long, because I appreciate that there is other business that we need to get on to, but I wish to support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Chope and signed by me and several other hon. Members.

It seems reasonable to me that the membership of the Joint Committee, in so far as it is drawn from this House, should reflect the views of this House and, therefore, the views of the wider public, which is perhaps more important. As Lady Hermon mentioned in her intervention, none of the Committee members chosen by the Committee of Selection is from Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales; they are drawn exclusively from England.

Fortunately, thanks to the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee, we know exactly what this House’s view is on the matter, because on 10 February 2011 it held a debate on the subject. After a full and lengthy debate that lasted most of the day, 256 right hon. and hon. Members took part in the Division, with 234 voting in favour of maintaining the status quo and 22 voting in favour of changing it. Therefore, over 91% of the Members who voted supported the status quo, which I think very much represents the view across the country. It is therefore fair and reasonable that the country would expect any Committee of this House to reflect those views.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

Would the hon. Gentleman be so kind as to put on the record whether the Government abstained or voted in that key vote last February?

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

As far as I am aware—I do not have the voting record in front of me—no members of the Government took part in the Division. Either deliberately or by accident, the Government abstained; it was predominantly Back-Bench Members who took part. That is noteworthy, because it removed more than 100 Members from the vote, so I submit that the figure of 256 is probably relatively representative of the views of the House as a whole. Even if a larger number of Members had taken part, the result would still have reflected the 91.4% against 8.6%.

I want to make it absolutely clear for the record that I have no objection in principle to any of the Members being put forward by the Committee of Selection. Indeed, I have spoken with them privately and expressed my view that that is not why I support the amendment. Rather, what we know is that of the six Members who have been put forward through the Committee of Selection’s convoluted procedure—it is certainly not transparent—only two took part in the Division on 10 February 2011. One voted in favour of the status quo and not giving prisoners the right to vote and the other, who was acting as Teller—I think that is correct—voted in favour of changing the status quo.

We do not know what the views of the other four were, and that is where there is a problem. If the Government wanted balance on the Committee, that may not occur because the other four are all in favour of the argument or—I know not—are all against, in which case the Committee certainly would not be representative of the views of this House. Either way, there is a problem with the proposal before us. If it were indeed the Government’s view that there should be balance, then perhaps the logic of that argument would be for the six members of the Committee to have been drawn exclusively from those who showed an interest on that occasion back on 10 February 2011, and equally from those who voted for the motion and those who voted against it. Clearly, however, that is not what has happened.

As my hon. Friend Mr Chope said, this is a unique situation. There are grounds for changing what has happened in the past. In response to the point that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made a few moments ago, the fact that not only the Chairman but other members of the Procedure Committee have signed and supported the amendment shows that there is a feeling within that Committee that it is sensible and demonstrates the right way forward. On that basis, I am pleased to support the amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.