Local Government (Disqualification) Bill - Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 11:27 am on 4 March 2022.

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Lord Udny-Lister:

Moved by Lord Udny-Lister

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Photo of Lord Udny-Lister Lord Udny-Lister Conservative

My Lords, I am reminded of the fact that the strength of your Lordships’ House is when we can come together to improve legislation and close legislative loopholes in an attempt to strengthen our democracy and protect the citizens of our country.

In this Second Reading, together we have the opportunity to prevent sex offenders serving in local government. As someone who, like many noble Lords present, started their public service at the coalface of politics by serving as a local councillor—I did so for 35 years—I was surprised, in fact horrified, to learn that a loophole exists in our legislation that allows sex offenders to avoid disqualification from local office.

When we consider the role of local councillors in the community, we must think of the position of trust that they hold and the work that they do, often with the most vulnerable members of our society. I do not need to go into depth on this point, as the duties undertaken by our local representatives, while perhaps not celebrated enough, are well known to noble Lords present. However, I reiterate from my own experience as both a former councillor and a former council leader that, every day, councillors and those holding local office across the country work closely with children and vulnerable adults. We must therefore do everything we can to ensure that those who are convicted of a sexual offence are barred from the privilege of serving their local communities on a local authority.

The loophole that exists is found in the legislation that covers disqualification from office in local government. Noble Lords will be aware that, if someone is subject to a custodial sentence, they are automatically disqualified from their elected post. However, bizarrely, when a sex offender does not receive a custodial sentence but is still deemed to be that much of a threat that they are placed on the sex offenders list, there is nothing in law to prevent them taking up office in local government.

The fact that someone who has committed offences of the most grotesque nature can then be allowed to stand for election and occupy a position of trust and responsibility in their community is an outrageous flaw in our electoral law and something which I hope that noble Lords will help to correct with the passage of this Bill. In observing the proceedings and passage of the Bill through the other place, I was appalled to learn that due to this legislative loophole, individuals on the sex offender register have been able to retain their seat after refusing to resign. This is simply outrageous, as holders of office in local government should, as the majority of them are, be people who embody the values of public life and abide by the laws of this land. This loophole casts an unsavoury shadow of doubt over the security of the vulnerable, especially children, and we therefore have a duty to come together, not only to strengthen our law but to strengthen trust, integrity, and confidence, in our system of local government.

We have before us a relatively short yet slightly complex Bill, which seeks to remove the loophole I have just described. The Bill is not intended to reform the complexities of other areas of electoral law, nor should it be seen as an opportunity to bring about wider disqualification clauses. The Bill is about acting swiftly to safeguard the vulnerable. It will update the disqualification criteria for local government members, including councillors, mayors of combined authorities, the Mayor of London, and London Assembly members, who are subject to relevant notification requirements or orders due to their sexual misconduct, preventing them not only standing for office but remaining in office. If they have already been elected to serve, we are aiming to fix the current as well as the future.

In this country, our system of local government is deeply rooted in having strong local representation of people who are of good character, worthy of trust and beyond reproach. Through the Covid-19 pandemic, I witnessed first-hand a resurgence of the role and duties carried out by our local officeholders on the ground, and I can foresee the duties of our locally elected representatives only being extended in the future. Therefore, we must ensure that only those with integrity can stand to serve. Those holding office in local government today are tasked with making decisions on behalf of children and vulnerable adults. Therefore, it is obvious that those trusted to make decisions should be of irreputable character.

Our local representatives deserve our utmost respect. The vast majority work tirelessly to strengthen the country and are the very foundation of our democracy. However, sadly, there are rare occasions when the behaviour of some falls below the standards that the public expect, and when cracks appear in the foundations of our democracy, we in this place must strive to seal the gaps.

It should be noted that the Local Government Association, in its quest to ensure that the highest standards of integrity and conduct are present in public life, supports the objectives of the Bill. The Bill received cross-party support in the House of Commons and arrives in your Lordships’ House with the support of Her Majesty’s Government. I thank Sir Paul Beresford, who championed the Bill through the House of Commons, and the Government and opposition parties for their support so far. I further pay tribute to the officials who have combed through the complexity of our electoral legislation to help ensure that the Bill is sufficiently primed to close the loophole mentioned.

I hope your Lordships will look favourably on affording the Bill a safe passage through this House, so that together we can close a loophole and thus strengthen our democracy for the better. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Goudie Baroness Goudie Labour 11:34, 4 March 2022

My Lords, I welcome the Bill. Like many others in this House, I was in local government and found it wonderful to be there, and I find it wonderful to know that today we are trying to reform these kinds of loopholes. I thank Sir Paul Beresford for bringing the Bill forward and the Labour Party for giving it its full support.

We must ensure the highest standards of conduct and integrity in local government. I hope this will be reflected in elections with a higher turnout than we have seen in the last few years. I look forward to seeing a better turnout. That is the object of the Bill. The Local Government Association supports it. I support it. It sets out grounds of disqualification for members of local authorities in England, including parish councillors, members of combined authorities, the Mayor of London and London Assembly members.

The Bill asserts new grounds of disqualification relating to sexual offences, expanding the criteria to include being on the sex offender register or being subject to a sexual risk order under the Sexual Offences Act. These individuals should not be able to run for public office or retain their seat if already elected. Recent cases have restated the need for reform.

I have one criticism: the Bill does not go far enough. It should also include Members of this House, Members of the House of Commons and the police and crime commissioners, and it should be extended throughout the United Kingdom.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative 11:36, 4 March 2022

My Lords, I approach the Bill from a somewhat Janus point of view. I welcome its contents but, rather like the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, I am concerned about its nature, in that it does not cover other elements. When I spoke at the Second Reading of the Elections Bill, I identified—the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman picked up this—that there are 25 major pieces of legislation relating to elections. Our election law is a mess. Unfortunately, this piece of legislation just adds another point to it. A matter that I will return to in Committee on the Elections Bill is precisely this point: we are passing a piece of legislation to exclude certain people from certain elected offices, but we are not excluding those same people from other elected offices. There is a complete mess in relation to those banned from local councils, those banned from standing for office as police and crime commissioners and those banned from being in this House or the House of Commons. It is somewhat ironic that there are fewer restrictions on people being elected as Members of Parliament than as police and crime commissioners and councillors. Somebody could therefore become Prime Minister with far fewer restrictions imposed on them than if they were to be a local councillor.

In conclusion, I add one other observation. It is not directly relevant to the Bill but it relates to a frame of mind. There is a tendency in this day and age for all parties to disown candidates who have made comments on social media that are regrettable but were often made when they were youngsters. Then, in the haste and fear of an election, the candidate is disowned and dropped. All parties should address this issue. It is not relevant to the Bill, but it is well worth all parties giving serious consideration to how they cope with the content of social media which in many cases people made in their youth.

Overall, I welcome the Bill but regret the circumstances under which it is coming forward because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, said, there should be other similar disqualifications and a general review of disqualifications for all elected offices.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 11:39, 4 March 2022

My Lords, I shall be brief and begin by confirming that the Labour Party fully endorses this proposed legislation. I also pay tribute to Sir Paul Beresford for promoting this important Bill in the other place and to the noble Lord, Lord Udny-Lister, for sponsoring it in your Lordships’ House. As my noble friend Lady Goudie just said, it is also supported by the Local Government Association.

As we have heard, as it currently stands, sex offenders who avoid a custodial sentence are not disqualified from running for local government positions in England and Wales. We know that people often seek out elected representatives when they are at their most vulnerable and in deepest crisis. Those of us who have held such office, whether at council level or here, know that we see more vulnerable people than we would really like to and, importantly, we can vouch for being that support and backdrop for thousands of people, day in and day out.

As legislation, the Bill is very specific and small but, if passed, will have a huge impact because it will close the loophole that allows sex offenders to hold respected positions where they will have contact with these vulnerable people. I am particularly concerned about children in care, whom councillors are expected to protect. The noble Lord, Lord Udny-Lister, rightly said that, if this goes through, it will strengthen our democracy.

I also pick up the important point made by my noble friend Lady Goudie and the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, about needing consistency across all elections when we are choosing our representatives. It is only right that the representatives elected to carry out these important roles are fit and proper people. As the noble Lord, Lord Udny-Lister, said, they should embody the values of public life. It is unacceptable that a small loophole in existing legislation means that people who should be looking out for the most vulnerable are in a position where we might still doubt that that is the case. It is important that the change to disqualification criteria is made in relation to all representations, with a particular focus on those who act as corporate parents, as councillors often do. Labour fully supports the Bill and is pleased that the Government are taking it forward.

Photo of Lord Greenhalgh Lord Greenhalgh The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 11:42, 4 March 2022

I thank noble Lords, in particular my noble friend Lord Udny-Lister, for sponsoring this Private Member’s Bill. I also congratulate the honourable Member for Mole Valley, Sir Paul Beresford, for all the work he has done to progress this Bill through the other place. The two of them share one thing in common: they were both leaders of Wandsworth, which is known, by them at least, as “the brighter borough”. I served for 20 years in Hammersmith and Fulham, and learned an awful lot from them and from what they achieved for their local residents. My noble friend has an unrivalled record, certainly when I compare it to mine. As he said in his speech, he served as a councillor for 35 years, with great distinction, and—I do not know how he survived it—19 years as leader of a London borough. That requires some survival instinct; it is quite incredible. Beyond that, he served five years in City Hall, along with the then mayor, Mayor Johnson, before completing the pyramid with two years in Downing Street. It is great that this Bill is sponsored by my noble friend, whom I very much consider a mentor.

The Government support the Bill for three main reasons. First, preventing registered sex offenders from either standing or serving as councillors, mayors or London Assembly members will strengthen communities’ faith and confidence in their elected representatives. Secondly, the Bill delivers on the Government’s stated commitment to bring local government disqualification into line with modern sentencing practice for sexual offences. Thirdly, the electorate has a right to expect that the people who stand and serve to represent them and their local communities are of good character.

The current disqualification criteria for local government candidates and councillors will automatically disqualify anyone for five years if they are convicted of a custodial sentence of three months or more, suspended or not. This rule dates back to the Local Government Act 1972. However, while the existing law is still effective in addressing serious cases of criminal behaviour, it does not take account of the non-custodial sentences the courts now issue for certain categories of sexual offences. This means that some individuals who are convicted and who ought to be disqualified do not meet the current threshold and can therefore slip through the net.

Noble Lords have indicated that they agree with me and the Government that it is quite intolerable that people deemed by the courts to pose a risk to children and vulnerable adults are not barred from serving as members of local authorities. The Bill rights that wrong by updating the law to ensure that only fit and proper persons can stand or serve as locally elected officials. We know, of course, that the vast majority of local authority members serving their communities are of good character, worthy of trust and beyond reproach. But, with some 120,000 councillors in England, there have inevitably been cases in which the behaviour of elected officials has fallen well below the standards the public expect and deserve.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, referred to two excluded categories. Why were they excluded, as this is probably an off-the-shelf Bill?

Photo of Lord Greenhalgh Lord Greenhalgh The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I was going to come to that; I was not going to finish my speech without addressing that point, but I will bring it forward a paragraph or two. The answer to why this does not apply to MPs, as was raised by my noble friend Lord Hayward, or to PCCs, as was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, is that standards and conduct for MPs and PCCs are governed under separate regimes, with their own mechanisms to disqualify or sanction unacceptable behaviour. There is currently the power to recall a MP, under certain circumstances, if at least 10% of the constituency electorate signs a petition. I take the general point: this Bill tidies up this issue, but there is another regime in place. I think my noble friend alluded to that point.

I had better resume from where I was. We know that the vast majority of local authority members serving their communities are of good character, worthy of trust and beyond reproach. That is one of the reasons why, in 2018, the Government responded to a consultation to update the local government criteria with a commitment to legislate on this matter. This was, in part, in response to an infamous case in which a parish councillor, shortly after being elected, was convicted of possessing indecent images of children. He was placed on the sex offender register but not given a custodial sentence. Despite repeated calls for him to resign, he refused to stand down and actually remained a parish councillor for the full term. The law as it stands allowed him to continue to do so, but this Bill would prevent such circumstances occurring again.

These new disqualification criteria will protect our communities by barring such individuals from holding office while they remain subject to the notification requirements for sexual offences or subject to a sexual risk order. Where offenders pose such a severe risk to the public that they are subject to indefinite notification requirements, communities can feel safe in the knowledge that such individuals will remain disqualified from elected office for the entire duration.

On its remit with regard to the devolved Administrations, I should state that the Bill applies to England only, as much of local government is devolved. The Scottish Parliament can make corresponding provision and the Welsh Government legislated on this matter last year. That said, since the UK Government retain the responsibility for elections in Northern Ireland, we will work with the Northern Ireland Executive to extend these measures there too, with a comprehensive package addressing the rules that govern both candidates and sitting councillors.

The Government strongly believe that there should be severe penalties for locally elected councillors who break the bonds of trust that hold local democracy together. This Bill puts that principle into practice, while ensuring that local government can continue to command people’s faith and trust, both now and in future. The Government are therefore delighted to support the Bill.

Photo of Lord Udny-Lister Lord Udny-Lister Conservative 11:49, 4 March 2022

My Lords, I say thank you very much to the noble Baronesses, Lady Goudie and Lady Hayman, the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, and the Minister for their support for this Bill. In particular, I thank the LGA, which has been very supportive on its journey. I fully understand the arguments about why this should be widened to other groups, but an argument has been clearly made by the Minister about why that should be done by other mechanisms in another place. This will deal with the problem in local government and I urge you to support it. I also thank the Minister for his kind words.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Sitting suspended.