With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 12, page 2, line 24, leave out ‘it is irrelevant’.
Amendment 13, page 2, line 25, after ‘(a)’, insert ‘it is irrelevant’.
Amendment 14, page 2, line 27, after ‘(b)’, insert ‘it is irrelevant’.
Amendment 15, page 2, line 28, leave out from ‘Kingdom’ to the end of line 29 and insert ‘or Ireland’.
Amendment 16, page 2, line 29, at end insert—
(d) It is irrelevant subject to a unanimous resolution of the House of Lords whether any of the offence, conviction, sentence, order, imprisonment or detention occurs in any Commonwealth country.
(e) No offence, conviction, sentence, order, imprisonment or detention that takes place in any non-Commonwealth country is relevant under this Act.’.
Amendment 17, page 2, line 37, after ‘appeal’, insert ‘or is pardoned’.
Amendment 18, page 3, line 8, leave out ‘subsection (9) and insert—
‘(9) This section does not apply to unelected hereditary peers who sit in the House of Lords.’.
Amendment 23, page 3, line 8, leave out subsection (9) and insert—
‘(9) A certificate under subsection (2) in respect of a conviction outside the United Kingdom may be issued only if the House of Lords resolves that subsection (1) should apply; and where the House does so resolve the Lord Speaker must issue the certificate.’.
I am in august company today. It is excellent to be in the presence of Jacob Rees-Mogg, a fine example of the Conservative workers party if ever I saw one. However, I must chide him very gently about one matter, about which I have already spoken to him.
Both the hon. Gentleman and I serve on the Procedure Committee. The House recently resolved that, whenever reasonable, Members should publish explanatory statements. Dan Byles has published such a statement, but I have not, because, as the hon. Member for North East Somerset knows, the Procedure Committee said that it was not necessary to publish one when what a Member was trying to achieve was so blindingly obvious. However, I must gently tell the hon. Gentleman that it took me several attempts to understand exactly what his amendments would do, and that an explanatory statement would therefore have been useful.
I am most grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Let me begin by saying something about my amendment 1. The origin of the requirement—in this place, and, indeed, in the United Kingdom’s other Parliaments and Assemblies—for someone to have been given a jail sentence of more than a year to be disqualified is almost accidental. The hon. Member for North East Somerset will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that until the 1960s there were two classes of criminal acts, felonies and misdemeanours. I think that it was Roy Jenkins who, as Home Secretary, abolished the distinction. Until then, someone who was convicted of a felony would automatically be disqualified from serving in the House of Commons. Thankfully, it had been a long time since any Member had been sent to prison, so the rule had fallen into desuetude, and, at the time when the classes of felony and misdemeanour were scrapped, it did not occur to anyone to introduce a provision for that purpose.
Let us now fast-forward to 1981, and the election of Bobby Sands as a member of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. His election understandably prompted a great deal of public outrage, and the Government of day, Mrs Thatcher’s Government, introduced a law providing for the disqualification of anyone who had been given a sentence of more than a year. That would have caught Bobby Sands, and the other terrorists who were on hunger strike in the Maze prison. Again, no one really thought about it at the time. As far as I can ascertain after having consulted the records from the period, there was not a great deal of consideration about whether a year and a day was a particularly suitable target. The provision was designed to capture a very specific group of people; it met that test, and it was therefore passed.
As I think all Members know, there is a long and noble tradition of the right to protest, and, in particular, to engage in political protest. Anyone who visits the Tea Room will see a painting hanging at the Labour end of the room. If Government Members wish to pop down to our end to have a look at it, they are more than welcome to do so. It depicts one of the great protesters and pamphleteers of the 18th century, who was regularly incarcerated for speaking out against the Government. It is an important principle that we should maintain the right to speak against the Government, and that there should be protections against politically motivated arrests and imprisonments. We would not want someone who was simply sent to jail to be disqualified. Many of my constituents have talked to me about this issue, for reasons that I shall explain shortly.
While I strongly disagree with the views of Caroline Lucas on fracking and, funnily enough, on many other issues, I respect her right to engage in political protest and to be arrested, and, if she were convicted and sentenced to a few days, it would be absolutely wrong for her then to be disqualified from serving in the House of Commons. The voters in Brighton, Pavilion should have the chance to do that in 14 months’ time.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman has shown that his knowledge is superior to mine. He is absolutely right. My point was that such people would be denied the right to be a Member of Parliament for a period.
There is, of course, a huge difference between the length of a sentence that would be received by someone who had engaged in political protest and the length of the sentences that have been received in some of the cases that we have—regrettably—seen in recent years, in this Parliament and in other United Kingdom Parliaments and Assemblies. There was, for instance, the outrageous case of Chris Huhne, who perjured himself, and Opposition Members in the House of Commons as well as Conservatives in the other place have been jailed in connection with expenses. I think that there was a great deal of genuine public revulsion at the idea that politicians in either House, or indeed in any House, would be convicted of serious crimes and go to prison, but would not necessarily have to resign their seats or be disqualified.
The case that made me such a champion of reform in this regard arose in the Scottish Parliament, in my own constituency of Dunfermline. The local nationalist MSP, Mr Bill Walker, was convicted last August of 22 accounts of domestic abuse and one charge of breaking a frying pan over his stepdaughter’s head—which serves to demonstrate the scale of the violence he was showing to a group of women over a 20 or 30-year period. I praise the Sunday Herald, which did so much to bring this story to light. Owing to the way in which the Scottish courts work, the maximum sentence that Bill Walker could receive—and did receive—was one year, so he was not automatically disqualified from serving in the Scottish Parliament, and if he had been a Member of the House of Commons, he would not have been automatically disqualified from serving in this House.
I welcome the recent statement from the Leader of the House that he is interested in starting a dialogue about the rules of the House of Commons and I hope the Minister will set out the Government’s broader thinking about the rules of disqualification and whether or not we need to look at this again.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that looked into these matters. It was happy with the proposal as it stands, and there was no suggestion that the period should be six months. Would he like to comment on that?
Indeed, and I have had a brief chat with the Committee Chair, my hon. Friend Mr Allen. As I recall, the report that the hon. Gentleman is referring to addressed the broader context of the recall of MPs, and from what I can ascertain from the newspapers, I think it is fair to say that that option is now off the table. If we were having a broader debate about recall, I could see the argument for keeping the period at a year and a day.
I was referring to the previous look at the issue in the Committee’s recall report.
Sometimes in our debates on a Friday Members say “We haven’t had many letters about this,” but I can truly say that I have had a large amount of correspondence on the issue of what is an appropriate disqualification period. On this occasion, I disagree with my hon. Friend the Committee Chairman. I think there is genuine public disquiet at the idea that someone can receive what is frankly quite a lengthy jail sentence yet continue to serve in Parliament, creating laws.
There is an obvious question which I am sure will be posed to me: why do I propose to make the situation for the House of Lords different from that for the House of Commons? If a Member of the House of Commons receives a jail sentence—of nine months, let us say—and tries to tough it out, the electorate still has an opportunity at the next general election to remove them from office. As things currently stand, however, in the House of Lords there is no term limit and therefore no other mechanism for recall. I believe there is merit in exploring whether the period set should be shorter, because the people of Britain do not have an opportunity to remove a Member of the House of Lords who tries to tough it out.
Regrettably, a small number of Members of the House of Lords, on both sides of the political divide, have gone to prison in recent years, and each time it happened there was genuine anger and people said, “Why is there nothing we can do to remove them?” I hope that today we will tease out the Government’s thinking on whether these rules are appropriate and whether there is merit in asking, “Due to the unique nature of the House of Lords—there is no democratic mechanism—should there be the same procedure?”
Turning to the broader issue, it appears that the hon. Members for North Warwickshire and for North East Somerset take slightly different approaches. The hon. Member for North Warwickshire has, I think, managed to achieve all that the hon. Member for North East Somerset wants, but does it in a single amendment. Far be it for me to get in the middle of an argument in the workers party about what is the correct approach, but it seems to me that this is a debate about whether it is appropriate to have to take a positive step following a conviction in a foreign court or whether our starting point should be that we regard foreign courts as having sensible judicial processes and only in exceptional circumstances would we seek not to abide by their recommendations. I hope that this is a rare technical argument.
I have to say that I have more sympathy with the original view of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire. I would find it slightly disconcerting if our starting point were, “We don’t believe a court in Germany, or in Canada or Australia, has due legal process.” Of course there are countries around the world that do not have the same legal history as us, but I have more sympathy with the view put forward originally by the hon. Member for North Warwickshire than I do with the view proposed by the hon. Member for North East Somerset. I look forward to hearing from the hon. Member for North Warwickshire shortly, and I am sure the Minister will set out the Government’s thinking.
May I again congratulate the hon. Member for North Warwickshire on introducing this Bill? There appears to be some noble interest in our debate today, and it is perhaps worth placing on the record the fact that the Bill is supported on both sides of the House. Lord Steel deserves a great deal of credit for championing the issue in recent years. It is possibly not as contentious as legislation he previously introduced when he was a Member of this House, but it is certainly an important Bill and I hope it makes it through both Houses and becomes law.
I am very grateful to Thomas Docherty for introducing his amendment, because we should regularly revisit and discuss what the correct length of time should be. I took the trouble to look up in Hansard what was said in 1981 when the Representation of the People Act was debated. Lord Belstead made it clear that it was a pretty arbitrary decision to pick 12 months. He said that the Government did not
“rely exclusively on the precedent of 12 months in the 1870 Act. We felt—I admit this quite openly—that it would be more likely than not that persons in the category of those who had received sentences of more than 12 months had committed graver offences and that no injustice would be done by imposing a disqualification.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 30 June 1981; Vol. 422, c. 143.]
However, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the idea that we should have different limits for the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament and so on. He has certainly made an eloquent case that we should perhaps routinely reassess the level across the board, but I do not think that at present more stringent rules should be imposed on the House of Lords than we have in this place. For that reason, I am afraid I will not be supporting the hon. Gentleman’s amendment.
Turning to some of the other amendments in the group, Amendments 12 to 14 are drafting amendments that remove the words “it is irrelevant” from the start of the subsection in question, but then include them twice within the body of the subsection. They are, in my view, unnecessary.
Amendments 15 and 16 deal with convictions in the United Kingdom and abroad. This has been a controversial issue. Amendment 15 would make disqualification on the ground of a conviction of a serious offence in the United Kingdom or Ireland automatic. Amendment 16 would make disqualification on the ground of a conviction of a serious offence in any Commonwealth realm subject to a resolution of the House of Lords, and in any Commonwealth country subject to a unanimous resolution of the House. It would prevent peers from being removed from the House if they were convicted of a serious offence outside the United Kingdom, Ireland or any Commonwealth realm or country. I believe that I have interpreted that correctly.
The purpose of my Bill is to make straightforward, small-scale changes to the membership of the House of Lords, and I purposely avoided over-complicating the clauses. To make such small distinctions between countries is unnecessary and not something that I believe many of our colleagues would support.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my disquiet that we could be creating an artificial divide by saying that Commonwealth countries have a more robust judicial system than, say, European countries or the United States? I believe that the Foreign Office is troubled by the judicial process in some Commonwealth countries.
I would agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. My heart entirely understands the distinction in the amendments between the Commonwealth and elsewhere, but my head says that it is difficult to justify the suggestion that countries such as Germany and France, for example, should be put into a different category from some members of the Commonwealth.
I presume that the amendment that would make the application of the provision automatic in the case of convictions in the Republic of Ireland is designed to emulate more closely the Representation of the People Act 1981. However, we all know that that legislation was enacted during the troubles in order to deal with the unique circumstances of that time, and incorporating the same provision in my Bill is therefore unnecessary.
In addition, I object to the assertion that it is permissible for a peer to commit a serious crime anywhere other than in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and the Commonwealth, and not to face sanction here for it. Allowing peers to do so and to retain their seats would damage the reputation of the House of Lords, and my Bill seeks to achieve the opposite. I believe that peers who are fairly convicted of offences that are regarded as serious within the United Kingdom should be disqualified if the House so resolves, which is why I am tabling my own amendment to that effect. I will speak to that amendment in a moment.
Amendment 17 would put a duty on the Lord Speaker to issue an additional certificate if a peer were pardoned following conviction for a serious offence, to confirm that fact. The impact of a free pardon is that the person is cleared from all consequences of the offence and from all statutory or other disqualifications following conviction. If a peer who has been disqualified on the ground of a conviction for a serious offence is then pardoned, the effect of that would be to remove the disqualification. The amendment is therefore unnecessary.
Amendment 23 has been tabled in my name, and I have given a great deal of thought to this matter. I believe that anyone convicted of murder or any serious offence, whether in Bolton, Belgium or Brunei, should be subject to disqualification from the House of Lords. However, we all agree that criminal justice systems in different countries vary, and of course other jurisdictions sometimes try people in very different circumstances from those in which they would be tried in the United Kingdom. In addition, some countries impose lengthy sentences on individuals for actions that might be deemed to be minor offences, or not offences at all, in this country.
I have listened carefully to those who spoke on this issue on Second Reading and I have given the matter a great deal of consideration. I have also looked carefully at what happens in this House, where only sentencing and imprisonment that takes place in the UK and Ireland result in automatic disqualification. Of course, this House has the inherent power to disqualify whomsoever it chooses and can therefore choose to consider foreign convictions on a case-by-case basis and subsequently disqualify a Member. It seems to me that the House of Lords should be given the same opportunity.
My amendment 23 would make disqualification on the ground of a conviction for a serious offence abroad non-automatic. Instead, the House of Lords would need to resolve that the penalty should apply in each case. This would provide a sensible mechanism by which noble Lords could assure themselves that the conviction and sentencing were safe and met British perceptions of justice before disqualifying Members. I will therefore be pressing this amendment and I urge the House to support it.
North East Somerset, in the great county of Somerset, is always ready. We are on alert for whatever might come. I am fortunate in that my constituency is not under water, so it is perhaps easier for me to be alert than those in the rest of the county at the moment.
The real problem with the exclusion of peers for criminal offences is that, in 1948, they gave up the right to try themselves for felonies. That had been an ancient, historic right that they had used from time to time; we perhaps know it best from “Kind Hearts and Coronets”. The last case, in 1935, involved Lord de Clifford, who was found guilty of manslaughter following a motoring accident. Their lordships judged him not to have been guilty, on the ground that the other driver had been going too fast.
A previous case, in 1901, involved Earl Russell, who was found guilty of bigamy and sentenced to three months in prison. He was found guilty because he had got divorced in Nevada, and their lordships did not think that Nevada was a proper place in which to get a divorce. They decided that it was not valid, and that he was therefore a bigamist. That leads me to my suggestion that we do not always take the views of foreign courts into account, and that they do not necessarily have standing in the United Kingdom. Poor old Earl Russell was known to his contemporaries as the wicked Earl. I am allowed to say that, Mr Deputy Speaker, because he is not still alive. I am allowed to say disrespectful things about wicked earls who are no longer with us.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has great knowledge of these matters. He will know that he is allowed to mention such people as long as they are not Members of the House of Lords.
I am extremely grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am also rather troubled, because that means that I can be rude about hereditaries who are not in the House of Lords. That would be deeply upsetting, however, and I would be shocked if I did such a thing. Anyway, the point about Nevada was that a judgment made there was not considered to be authoritative.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that this would not apply to members of the royal family who had been sitting in the House of Lords as hereditary dukes?
Order. I think I can help the hon. Gentleman on that: we are not going to enter into a debate on the royal family. We are going to get back to the subject that Jacob Rees-Mogg has in hand.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is inconceivable that anyone would ever want to be rude about the royal family.
So, Nevada was not taken seriously and Earl Russell was found guilty of bigamy. My amendments distinguish between the jurisdictions of a variety of foreign countries, and with good reason. The reason for including Ireland along with the United Kingdom is that it matches the form used for exclusion from the House of Commons, and there seems to be a logic in maintaining that. It is also set down in statute that we recognise the unique relationship that the United Kingdom continues to have with Ireland. Irish citizens are the only ones other than Commonwealth citizens who are always allowed to vote in United Kingdom elections, and travel from the Republic of Ireland to the United Kingdom does not require a passport. Ireland is not viewed as a foreign country in the same way as other countries are.
The Commonwealth realms are either serious nations such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada that have a legal form based on ours and that follow the legal traditions of the United Kingdom that they inherited them from us, or they are smaller nations, nine of which have the Privy Council as their court of appeal. We can therefore say that any conviction within the Commonwealth realms will be of such standing that we can recognise it because it has been made in a nation with which we have the friendliest relations and the tightest of historical links.
I am seeking enlightenment. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned “realms” a couple of times. If a Member of the House of Commons or the House of Lords were convicted of a crime in one of the Crown dependencies or the British overseas territories, would they automatically be disqualified? I truly do not know the answer to that question.
They are not included in my amendment, although it would obviously be possible to amend the Bill to bring the Crown dependencies in. I am talking about the Commonwealth realms, which are the independent nations in the Commonwealth of which Her Majesty is still head of state. Nine of those nations have appeal to the Privy Council, which is their final court of appeal. They therefore have a standard of justice in which we can have confidence, because it is a standard that we ourselves implement.
I am listening carefully. The hon. Gentleman has made an assertion a couple of times, both directly and in the round, that we have confidence in the Commonwealth judiciary. Without causing an incident by naming the countries, I am sure we can think of a number of Commonwealth countries where the judiciary, perhaps at a state level rather than at federal or national level, is less than it could be. Does he accept that is a concern?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. At the moment, I am talking about the Commonwealth realms and he himself said in his own speech that it would be peculiar if we did not trust the judicial system of Canada. I happen to share that view; there is no particular difficulty with Canadian justice. When we come to some of the smaller Commonwealth realms, they have appeal to the Privy Council and that is the safeguard—that it becomes essentially a British form of justice. In the end, a peer would be able to appeal to a court based in this country. It is actually based in the Middlesex Guildhall; if you have a good arm, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is a stone’s throw away from this palace.
With the Commonwealth realms, it is reasonable that the House of Lords should be able to recognise a conviction in one of them and it would then be able, by an ordinary vote, to expel the peer from the Lords. That seems a perfectly reasonable approach, because one can have confidence in the justice that would be meted out in those realms. In relation to other Commonwealth countries, expulsion would require the unanimous agreement of the House of Lords. That is because there are certainly Commonwealth countries where one would have some concern about the standard of justice that applied and would worry that having an automatic acceptance, or even a simple majority acceptance, of their judgments would not necessarily be helpful.
That relates to my broader question about other foreign courts. There are some Commonwealth countries where one can be imprisoned for a year for some quite extraordinary things. I do not know whether you knew, Mr Deputy Speaker, but if you should go on your travels to Singapore representing the Houses of Parliament, which would be a worthy trip for you to make, although Singapore is a great and civilised country—I am one of Lee Kuan Yew’s foremost admirers—it is illegal to connect to an unsecured wi-fi hot spot. It is classed as
“unauthorised use of computer service”,
it is punishable, for both Singapore nationals and tourists, by a fine of up to 10,000 Singapore dollars and/or imprisonment for up to three years. In 2006, a man called Garyl Tan Jia Luo received 18 months’ probation, nine months’ curfew, 80 hours of community service and an 18-month internet ban for use of an unsecured wi-fi hot spot.
Let us think of some young peer who travels to Singapore and accidentally connects to the wi-fi because he wants to read Hansard to find out what has been going on in their lordships’ house or attend to other matters of public business. If he is caught by the Singaporean police and if we accept judgments of foreign courts he could get three years in prison and be disqualified from the House of Lords.
I am slightly troubled by the hon. Gentleman’s argument, because he seems to be saying that we have a right to look at other countries’ laws and say, “We think that’s a silly law.” Quite a lot of the world’s people drive on the wrong side of the road, but we respect their right to do so when we go to their countries. Should not that young lord have respected the rights and laws of that land, and made himself familiar with them before he travelled there?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman visits Singapore; he will remember that people there drive on the correct side of the road. They know how to do things there. It is a wonderful country.
Breaking obscure laws that it is unreasonable to expect people to have knowledge of ought not to exclude people from the House of Lords. Uganda has been in the news recently for its stringent laws against homosexuality. Are we really to say that peers who end up in Uganda and get into trouble with the law there should be banned from the House of Lords? They could get a life sentence. Is that really a way of deciding who is in a legislature of the United Kingdom? What happens if a lord displays a flag in Kiribati? Someone who displays a flag in Kiribati or wears a uniform in connection with a political object can be sentenced to a year in prison. Lords would suddenly be excluded for doing all sorts of minor things that in this country would not be an offence.
Rather splendidly, in Swaziland it is illegal for any female under 19 to shake the hands of a man; I do not know what the punishment for that is. Under the Bill, a peer could be convicted, regardless of when the offence took place A 90-year-old peeress, who as a 19-year-old girl had shaken hands with a gentleman in Swaziland, could suddenly be deported to Swaziland, put in jug for a year and excluded from the House of Lords.
There is a tremendously serious point in this. It is that around the world there are hundreds of countries. I have a list of them: Afghanistan; Albania; Algeria; American Samoa; Andorra; Angola; Anguilla; Antigua and Barbuda; Argentina; Armenia; Aruba; Australia; Austria; and Azerbaijan. That just gets us to—
Order. I think we got the message after the first five. I do not want to hear the rest; I think we have a flavour, without a fully detailed world atlas.
We know remarkably little about many of those countries. We have not carefully considered their legal systems. What is the law in American Samoa? What offences could lead to somebody being sentenced to a year in prison? If a peer went there on a parliamentary delegation, would they randomly find that they had committed some offence? What if somebody has a gin and tonic in Saudi Arabia? They may get lashed, but—
One thing that I can point out to the hon. Gentleman that he probably should know about the “country” of Anguilla is that it is, in fact, an overseas territory and not a country.
It is listed as a country. [Interruption.] But then Wales is a country and it is also part of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman’s pedantry is taking him down a blind alley, if I may say so.
There are also great countries—countries that we respect—that have a legal system about which we have doubts. I will mention two of the friendliest and most civilised countries that the United Kingdom has dealings with: the United States of America and Italy.
In the United States of America, the noble Lord Black was basically told that he could either plead guilty or face decades in prison if he was found guilty. There was a charge sheet against him as long as your arm, and there was a witness to give evidence against him. The witness was told, “If you plead guilty and turn the equivalent of Queen’s evidence, then we will give you a few weeks in a country club.” That approach to plea bargaining ought to raise serious concerns. In this country, it would not be allowed. There is not the possibility to say to somebody giving evidence, “We will give you something very cosy if you help us to find somebody guilty”, and guilty not just of an offence but a whole string of offences with huge sentences, and all in proportion to what was being alleged, so that people are bullied into pleading guilty. The reason that America does that is that it has so many constitutional safeguards to provide for a fair trial that it is consequently very difficult to get convictions. Plea bargaining is therefore used as a means of getting the result that was sought in the first place, but which the protections in place would have made it hard to get. That form of justice should not determine who sits in the House of Lords.
In the example of Italy, we see cases, and reports of cases come to us, of people being found guilty, not guilty and guilty again. In a British sense, that is not justice; it does not observe the requirements of double jeopardy. I know that in exceptional circumstances those requirements can be got round in this country, but as a general rule the oppressive state cannot charge and recharge somebody once they have been found not guilty. Many foreign countries are also willing to try people in absentia, so one does not even have the ability to defend oneself against the charge.
Therefore, it seems to me that when we in this country are deciding how our Houses of Parliament should be designed and who shall have entitlement to sit in them, foreign courts are not a valid place to determine membership. That is the right of our sovereign and of the British people; it is not the right of courts outside this country. Consequently, I support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Dan Byles, which turns things round.
The hon. Gentleman or Dan Byles may correct me if I get this wrong, but where someone does not attend for a parliamentary Session—a whole year—they are deemed to have been disqualified from serving in the House of Lords. Someone who has been detained at the pleasure of the Italian Government for two or three years will not have been able to attend the House of Lords and will surely be disqualified on that basis.
Let me clarify this. That was a flaw in the original drafting of the Bill, but in Committee we introduced a provision whereby the House of Lords has the right to vote to disregard the clause removing peers through being absent in certain circumstances, to deal with exactly the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises.
Indeed, on Second Reading we discussed what would happen to a prisoner of war and whether they would automatically be disqualified—the answer is, obviously, no. It would almost certainly be possible for somebody held in a prison of a vaguely civilised nation to apply to take leave of absence. So, on both counts—either in the special circumstances or on the leave of absence issue—the peer would not be forced to resign.
We should protect our own constitutional rights zealously. We should not allow other places to interfere in how we run our business. The right way to go about it is set out in amendment 23, which achieves what I was aiming to achieve and is pithier. It does not give any special status to the Commonwealth realms, which I was giving not particularly out of a sentimental attachment to them, but more because of the ability to appeal to the Privy Council and the safeguards that builds in. It ought to be the right of the House of Lords to expel people—this House has that right and it is unfortunate that the House of Lords does not. It would be a good power for it to have as part of regulating its own affairs. It has the power to imprison peers but it does not have the power to expel them. However, it should use that expulsion power only if it wants to do so; it should not be forced to do it because a foreign court has told it that it has to.
I was discussing the systems in America and Italy, great nations with which we have the friendliest relations. However, we do not understand—we are not party to—their legal systems. A British person accused in a foreign country is often at a disadvantage to a national accused in that country because they are not in sympathy with the systems that will be used against them. Therefore, having this protection whereby it must be an active decision of the Lords to expel somebody convicted in a foreign country will protect the peer arrested in Kiribati for waving a flag or in Uganda for being homosexual or in Singapore for using the internet unlawfully. It is absolutely right that a judgment can be made as to whether in our terms, under our law and under our rules a peer has done something so serious and manifestly wrong that that right of peerage to sit in the House of Lords should be removed or curtailed. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire has introduced amendment 23, which has saved me from speaking at much greater length on this important subject.
I congratulate Jacob Rees-Mogg on, and thank him for, discussing his concerns about this issue on Second Reading. We have subsequently had the opportunity to reflect on and consider the matter, and we see that he has made a powerful and persuasive case. I was going to mention the anti-gay laws in Uganda to which he referred. Tragically, similar laws have recently been in passed in another Commonwealth country, Nigeria. So simply to rely upon the laws and legal systems of other countries is not sufficient and not proper in determining our own constitutional arrangements. As he says, even in countries that have advanced legal systems and are our close allies, such as the United States and Italy, there are concerns in certain cases. So he was absolutely right to raise this matter on Second Reading and I warmly welcome the fact that the promoter of the Bill has responded with amendment 23, which intelligently addresses the concerns that have been raised. It says that Parliament automatically will seek to protect peers but has the option of disqualifying. That reverses the original provision and it is an intelligent way of responding to the serious and proper concerns that the hon. Member for North East Somerset has raised, both on Second Reading and again today.
I wish briefly to comment on the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend Thomas Docherty, who also spoke about this issue in Committee. He rightly reminded the House today of the public revulsion at some of the crimes that have been committed, referring to the case of a particular MSP, the crimes of people from all sides of this House and also of some in the other place. He made an interesting argument about why there could be a disparity between the 12-month limit here and a lower six-month limit in the other place because Members in this place are subject to re-election. That argument interests me and it is food for thought as this debate moves forward. My instinct is the same as that of Dan Byles, which is that if we are to look to a lower limit, it would be preferable if we had a lower limit across the board. Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House has said that we should open a dialogue on this issue as it relates to the rules of the House of Commons.
My immediate recollection is that even where Members of Parliament have been convicted of serious offences and sentenced for a period of less than 12 months they do, generally speaking, resign. That has certainly been the case in relation to recent issues that arose from the expenses scandal. The only case I can think of in recent history where MPs did resume their seats—I stand to be corrected on this by Members from either side of the House—was where they were briefly sent to prison for not paying the poll tax. I cannot think of any other recent cases where a Member of Parliament has been imprisoned for a period of less than 12 months and resumed their seat having come out of prison. There is a case for us to examine the matter, but I do not think that this Bill is the right vehicle for us to do so. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend, who has raised an important issue, will not press his amendment to a vote.
I am delighted to give the Government’s response to this important set of amendments. We are very sympathetic to the reasoning behind amendment 1 from Thomas Docherty, but what his Front-Bench colleague Stephen Twigg has said pertains: any changes to our procedures in the House of Commons in terms of the length of imprisonment that would trigger disqualification and expulsion are a matter for this House rather than this Bill. I can confirm what the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said about the Leader of the House having indicated that he is open to cross-party discussions to consider these matters. In Committee the hon. Gentleman was right to raise the situation of the Scottish Parliament, which is of course beyond the scope of this House. The Secretary of State for Scotland has given an undertaking, equivalent to that given by the Leader of the House, to engage with the Scottish Government and the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament to discuss the position pertaining to Scotland, which I know has particularly exercised the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.
The thrust of the Bill is to bring the rules in the House of Lords broadly into line with those of the House of Commons, and that is done for a reasonable purpose. There are lots of issues that this Bill could have taken on—there are lots of outstanding areas of contention about the reform of the House of Lords—but my hon. Friend Dan Byles is to be commended for n navigating a sure course between various possibilities that might distract the Bill and prevent its entering into safe harbour. This issue is one such possibility, so the arguments as to whether the limit should be more or less than 12 months is for another time. His proposal would bring the other place House into line with this House.
I welcome the spirit in which the Minister has set out the Government’s case. Does he think that, as has been put to me by a number of organisations, we perhaps sometimes focus on the length of the tariff rather than the type of offence? Would the Government consider that as part of the broader discussion about what the appropriate tariffs for disqualification are?
What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that this is a matter for the House. The Leader of the House has agreed that discussions can be initiated on this, and it is not for me to prescribe the content of those discussions. However, as the suggestion was that they should be cross-party, the hon. Gentleman has at least had the opportunity through his own party to raise that matter.
In amendments 12 to 14, my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg proposes moving the words “It is irrelevant” from the start of subsection (3) to the body of the subsection. He always has an eye to elegance on paper as well as in verbal communication. I dare say that it was the aesthetics of the drafting that caught his eye.
Let me save my right hon. Friend some trouble. My amendments were merely to make sense of the changes to the Commonwealth realms and the Commonwealth to move the words from the introduction to the body of the subsection; otherwise, the subsequent amendment would not work.
I understand the point now. I did think it was a rather more syntactical point, but I stand corrected. As I took it from my hon. Friend’s speech that he had been persuaded by the arguments put by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire and that he was content with the simpler expression of the same intention, his amendments would not be required if my hon. Friend’s amendment were made. As my hon. Friend has indicated that he is content with the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire, I hope that he will consider it reasonable not to discuss his proposed equivalents in great detail.
Amendment 17 on pardons adds a duty on the Lord Speaker to issue a further certificate if a Member is pardoned, following the conviction on a serious offence. The effect of a free pardon is that the person is cleared from all consequences of the offence, and from all statutory or other disqualifications following on from the conviction, although it does not remove the conviction itself. On that basis, if a peer who has been disqualified was then pardoned, the effect of the pardon would be the removal of the disqualification, and it would be odd if it were removed in the case of a successful appeal but not of a free pardon.
Part of the reason for adding “or is pardoned” was that the pardon might come from a foreign court, and I do not think that the pardon from a foreign court would have any automatic effect in British law in any other circumstances.
I understand and I am grateful for the clarification.
On amendment 23 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire and the point about foreign convictions, the mood of the House is to acknowledge that criminal justice systems do vary from our own. Of course it is right to respect the differences, but it is equally true that in some cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset has ably drawn attention to, what is illegal in one country may jar quite violently with a British sense of justice. The issue of homosexuality has been mentioned in this debate, and, regrettably, it is currently illegal to be homosexual in at least 77 countries. Under the Bill as it stands, someone convicted of homosexuality in one of those countries and sentenced to more than a year in prison would automatically lose their place in the House of Lords. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said that we should start with a presumption of upholding the authority of overseas courts. However, it would be monstrous, even though the Bill would allow their Lordships to overturn the penalty by dint of special circumstances, for even a temporary disqualification of someone convicted of practising homosexuality in one of those countries and for them to need to apply for relief from the consequence in the House of Lords. That would be a very retrograde step, and we should not for a moment countenance such a temporary disqualification.
The Minister is being persuasive. Does he not accept that in the House of Commons, under our rules in the Representation of the People Act 1981, we do not have a right to wait for an appeal? A Member is automatically disqualified once the judge has passed sentence, and that is for more than a year and a day. It is occasionally possible in the UK that our courts get it wrong, so why is he supporting a different rule for an overseas court than we have in a UK court?
The hon. Gentleman points out something that can, on occasion, be a source of regret in the procedures of this House. It does not follow from that that we should introduce the greater possibility in the other place through this Bill. I do not think that we should contemplate that.
Is it not the case that we cannot allow an appeal when it refers to this House, because the vacancy has to be filled, whereas in the other House there is no limit on the numbers? We have to have every constituency represented, and we could not have two Members of Parliament, which could happen if someone who was excluded was brought back.
My hon. Friend is quite right to explain the differences between the two Houses. That is why it is right to focus on the fact that this is a Bill that proposes changes to the House of Lords. The Houses are not identical in every respect, but my hon. Friend has been careful in restricting his Bill to the House of Lords and to its procedures there.
It is right that their Lordships should review the circumstance in which a Member was convicted abroad in order to satisfy themselves that the offence is recognised as being serious in the United Kingdom and that the circumstances of the conviction are fair. I know that a number of Members raised this issue on Second Reading, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire for the diligent and sensible way he has managed to find an amendment that is elegant and to the point, and the Government are pleased to lend their support to it.
I have listened carefully to the arguments, some of which have been most persuasive. Given the assurances that the Government are open to the whole issue and the fact that I do not want to hold up this Bill, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made: 23, in clause 3, page 3, line 8, leave out subsection (9) and insert—
‘(9) A certificate under subsection (2) in respect of a conviction outside the United Kingdom may be issued only if the House of Lords resolves that subsection (1) should apply; and where the House does so resolve the Lord Speaker must issue the certificate.’.—(Dan Byles.)