Clause 3 - Conviction of serious offence

House of Lords Reform (No. 2) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:15 am on 15th January 2014.

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Photo of Dan Byles Dan Byles Conservative, North Warwickshire 9:15 am, 15th January 2014

I beg to move amendment 12, in clause 3, page 2, line 8, leave out

‘is to be treated as having been convicted of a serious offence’ and insert

‘“is convicted of a serious offence”’.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Leader of the House of Commons

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 13, in clause 3, page 2, line 9, after ‘person’ insert

‘, while a member of the House of Lords,’.

Amendment 14, in clause 3, page 2, line 13, leave out subsection (3) and insert—

‘( ) It is irrelevant for the purposes of subsection (2)—

(a) whether the offence is committed at a time when the person is a member of the House of Lords;

(b) whether any of the offence, conviction, sentence, order, imprisonment or detention occurs in the United Kingdom or elsewhere; (but see subsection (6)).

( ) The reference in subsection (2) to an offence is only to an offence committed on or after the day on which this section comes into force.’.

Amendment 15, in clause 3, page 2, line 17, at end insert—

‘( ) The reference in subsection (2) to a person being sentenced or ordered to be imprisoned or detained indefinitely or for more than one year does not include such a sentence or order where the sentence or order is suspended.’.

Amendment 16, in clause 3, page 2, line 18, leave out

‘takes effect on the day on which’ and insert

‘under subsection (2) takes effect when’.

Amendment 17, in clause 3, page 2, line 19, leave out from ‘If’ to end of line 21 and insert

‘a person who has ceased to be a member of the House of Lords in accordance with this section is successful on appeal—’.

Amendment 18, in clause 3, page 2, line 23, at beginning insert

‘on the issue of that certificate,’.

Amendment 19, in clause 3, page 2, line 24, at end insert—

‘( ) A person who has ceased to be a member of the House of Lords in accordance with this section “is successful on appeal” if, and only if, the Lord Speaker certifies that—

(a) the conviction certified under subsection (2)(a) has been quashed, or

(b) the sentence or order certified under subsection (2)(b) has been—

(i) varied so that it is no longer a sentence or order that the person be imprisoned or detained indefinitely or for more than one year within the meaning of subsection (2)(b), or

(ii) replaced with another sentence or order that is not a sentence or order that the person be so imprisoned or detained.’.

Photo of Dan Byles Dan Byles Conservative, North Warwickshire

Clause 3 provides for Members who are convicted of a serious offence to lose their membership. In many ways, this is the clause in the Bill that has attracted the most interest. The provision will apply only if the Lord Speaker certifies that the Member has been convicted of an offence and sentenced to imprisonment or detention of more than one year and the order is not suspended. If the person successfully appeals against their conviction or sentence, the Lord Speaker is to revoke the first certificate by issuing another. The Lord Speaker exercises no discretion or judgment in that. That is an important point, which was discussed on Second Reading. It is not the Lord Speaker making the decision to do that; he is simply the mechanism through which it is done, as a certificate relates to matters of fact.

Disqualification from the House will be automatic, although it will be open to the House to disregard a foreign conviction if special circumstances apply. For example, if a person is convicted abroad and the circumstances of their conviction appear to be unsafe or if the offence of which they are convicted is treated much more seriously in that country than we would treat it in the United Kingdom, it will be open to the House—not to the Lord Speaker personally—to disregard the conviction and to allow the peer to retain their membership of the House.

I appreciate that various views were expressed on this issue on Second Reading, but having given it very careful consideration, I remain unconvinced at present that an amendment to the clause is needed to exclude  foreign convictions. It is right that the presumption is that a conviction for a serious offence will lead to a loss of membership. It is also right that a safeguard is provided to allow the House to take into account special circumstances in the case of foreign convictions, so that Members are not unfairly penalised if they are convicted in unusual circumstances. I believe that the Bill as drafted provides the necessary protection to Members who find themselves in that situation and the outcome remains the same.

It has long been the case in relation to this House that Members who are convicted of offences that carry a sentence of more than a year’s imprisonment are expelled. It is appropriate that that principle apply to the House of Lords as well.

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart Conservative, Penrith and The Border

Out of interest, will my hon. Friend clarify why we chose 12 months as the length of time that would be the cut-off date for imprisonment?

Photo of Dan Byles Dan Byles Conservative, North Warwickshire

That is a very good question. I have had a number of discussions with people about it. In this case, the aim is simply to bring the House of Lords into line with the House of Commons. There is of course a wider question about whether that is the appropriate length of time for either or both Houses, but I do not think that it would be right at this stage for the House of Lords to have a different threshold from the House of Commons. That is a wider debate that colleagues might wish to have on another occasion.

It is worth noting that this proposal received unanimous support in both the oral and the written evidence that the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform took during its inquiry into Lords reform.

I will now go through the amendments in detail. Amendments 12, 13 and 16 to 19 are simply technical amendments that clarify and improve the drafting. Amendment 12 makes it clear that subsection (2) applies to those who are convicted of a serious offence and removes the unnecessary reference to “treated”. Amendment 13 ensures that the application of the clause to convictions and sentences is not retrospective. Amendments 16 to 19 ensure that the circumstances in which certificates are issued are unambiguous and that there is a clear definition of “successful on appeal”. Amendment 13 makes it clear that certificates will take effect from the moment that they are issued. Amendment 14 ensures that the clause applies to offences that were committed at any time and to offences that are committed abroad. Disqualification from the House will be automatic, although it will be open to the House, as I said, to disregard a foreign conviction if special circumstances apply.

Amendment 15 allows Members who receive a suspended sentence of imprisonment to retain their seat. When a court imposes a custodial sentence, it may choose to suspend the sentence for up to two years. That means that the offender does not go to prison immediately, but is given the chance to stay out of trouble and to comply with requirements set by the court. The reason for that is that a suspended sentence is intended to be less punitive than an immediate custodial sentence. Accordingly, a less punitive approach to any continuing membership of the House of Lords should be adopted. Given that  MPs who are given a suspended sentence are not disqualified under the Representation of the People Act 1981, suspended sentences should not trigger disqualification in the House of Lords. That is all I have to say on the amendments.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

The clause is an important part of the Bill. We have had a number of high-profile cases over the years, where peers have been convicted. The credibility of Parliament and the second Chamber is called into question when there is disparity between the treatment of Members of House of Commons, where imprisonment happens, and Members of the House of Lords. Bringing the two broadly into line is a sensible and long overdue reform, which we very strongly support.

The amendments that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire proposed are sensible. The solution that he has found to the tricky issue regarding potential convictions abroad is a sensible one that certainly, in my opinion, meets the concerns that were raised by Government Back Benchers on Second Reading. On that basis, I am pleased to give our support to the amendments and the clause.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Like the hon. Gentleman, the Government support the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire. Some are technical amendments that clarify and improve the drafting, ensuring that the application of the clause to convictions and sentences is absolutely clear. My hon. Friend has found the right solution to a question that troubled the House on Second Reading, which was whether the disqualification should be automatic following a conviction by a foreign court. The fact that it will be automatic in the Bill, but open to the House, rather than the Lord Speaker personally, to consider whether special circumstances apply, provides the necessary assurance.

Amendment 15 brings the procedures of the House of Lords into line with those of the House of Commons, in terms of suspended sentences. On that basis—the limited ambition to align the regimes in the two Houses—my hon. Friend’s amendments do the job.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am most grateful for the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship today, Dr McCrea, and I will be brief. On the point that the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border touched on, I have previously expressed concern about 12 months and a day being required. You will probably recall, Dr McCrea, that I introduced a private Member’s Bill earlier in the Session, because one of my local Members of the Scottish Parliament was convicted, over the summer, of domestic abuse charges in a Scottish court. He was convicted of 23 counts of domestic violence against three former wives, and of breaking a frying pan over his stepdaughter’s head, but because of the way in which the court system worked, the maximum sentence he could receive was one year. He would not automatically be disqualified, because it is not only the House of Commons and the House of Lords that follow, or will follow, the system, but the three devolved Parliaments.

Although I understand why the hon. Member for North Warwickshire, whom I congratulate on his proposals, has suggested that the House of Lords should fall in  line with the Commons, will the Minister indicate whether the Government have any intention of keeping the issue under review? It is probably fair to say that there is support on both sides of the House to have an appropriate look, perhaps on Report or elsewhere, at whether the law can be amended on the issue of 12 months and a day. Perhaps I could help the Minister further by saying that the issue of suspended sentences does not apply to Scotland; we do not have suspended sentences in Scotland.

I am grateful for the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship again, Dr McCrea, and I welcome the Bill.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I want to congratulate the hon. Member for North Warwickshire on tabling the amendments. They bring the legislation into line and therefore, I hope it proceeds expeditiously.

Photo of Dan Byles Dan Byles Conservative, North Warwickshire

I want to say a few more words, given that there has been more discussion about the 12 months. I am not sure whether it is appropriate for the Minister to stand up and directly respond to that, but I entirely understand the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife. The example he gave from Scotland raises serious concerns. It is clearly a much wider question than the Bill can address, and it would probably require primary legislation to make changes to this House and the devolved Assemblies. That would probably be part of a wider discussion about what the right level is. I would be happy to have that discussion with the Minister—to take it up with him and prod him—perhaps during a subsequent debate or a subsequent Bill that we might look at. I thank both the hon. Gentlemen who raised the matter. It is an interesting point that perhaps I had not considered fully.

The House of Commons already has the power to expel Members for wrongdoing, not just as a result of a criminal offence, but I must confess that I do not know whether that applies to the devolved Administrations.

Thomas Docherty indicated dissent.

Photo of Dan Byles Dan Byles Conservative, North Warwickshire

I see the hon. Gentleman shaking his head. It seems as though there are several anomalies, where there are differences between the various Parliaments and Assemblies, which could at some point be tied up, but that falls outside the scope of the Bill.

Amendment 12 agreed to.

Amendments made: 13, in clause 3, page 2, line 9, after ‘person’ insert

‘, while a member of the House of Lords,’.

Amendment 14, in clause 3, page 2, line 13, leave out subsection (3) and insert—

‘( ) It is irrelevant for the purposes of subsection (2)—

(a) whether the offence is committed at a time when the person is a member of the House of Lords;

(b) whether any of the offence, conviction, sentence, order, imprisonment or detention occurs in the United Kingdom or elsewhere; (but see subsection (6)).

( ) The reference in subsection (2) to an offence is only to an offence committed on or after the day on which this section comes into force.’.

Amendment 15, in clause 3, page 2, line 17, at end insert—

‘( ) The reference in subsection (2) to a person being sentenced or ordered to be imprisoned or detained indefinitely or for more than one year does not include such a sentence or order where the sentence or order is suspended.’.

Amendment 16, in clause 3, page 2, line 18, leave out ‘takes effect on the day on which’ and insert

‘under subsection (2) takes effect when’.

Amendment 17, in clause 3, page 2, line 19, leave out from ‘If’ to end of line 21 and insert

‘a person who has ceased to be a member of the House of Lords in accordance with this section is successful on appeal—’.

Amendment 18, in clause 3, page 2, line 23, at beginning insert

‘on the issue of that certificate,’.

Amendment 19, in clause 3, page 2, line 24, at end insert—

‘( ) A person who has ceased to be a member of the House of Lords in accordance with this section “is successful on appeal” if, and only if, the Lord Speaker certifies that—

(a) the conviction certified under subsection (2)(a) has been quashed, or

(b) the sentence or order certified under subsection (2)(b) has been—

(i) varied so that it is no longer a sentence or order that the person be imprisoned or detained indefinitely or for more than one year within the meaning of subsection (2)(b), or

(ii) replaced with another sentence or order that is not a sentence or order that the person be so imprisoned or detained.’.—(Dan Byles.)

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.