Enterprise Bill

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Mr. Barnes: After that explanation, it seems an entirely sensible clause. The explanation may be relevant also to later clauses.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 253 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 254

Disqualification from office: Parliament

Amendments made: No. 482, in page 176, line 6, at end insert—

    '(2) In this section ''enactment'' includes a provision made by or under—

    (a) an Act of the Scottish Parliament, or

    (b) Northern Ireland legislation.'.

No. 483, in page 177, line 16, at end insert 'or body'.

No. 484, in page 177, line 27, after second 'a', insert 'trust'.—[Miss Johnson.]

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Barnes: The Under-Secretary's explanation of justices of the peace being able to retain their position when bankrupt seems relevant to this clause, which disqualifies bankrupts as Members of Parliament. Why is someone disqualified for bankruptcy not allowed to stand for Parliament, and why will a Member of Parliament who is declared bankrupt lose his seat? That applies to both Houses—and it will apply to the Lords however people are appointed to that House in the short or the long run.

It was pointed out that, depending on someone else's judgment, it is still possible to get rid of bankrupt JPs. Something complex might be needed in order to carry that provision forward for those elected or appointed to Parliament. Although bankruptcy disqualifications date back to 12 and have travelled from one bit of legislation to another, scant attention

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has been paid in Parliament to those provisions. In some cases, no attention has been paid. The Act of 1812 was called An Act to suspend and finally vacate the Seats of Members of the House of Commons, who shall become Bankrupts, and who shall not pay their Debts in full within a limited Time. My researcher in the Library states:

    ''I have checked the main series of debates held in Derby Gate but have been unable to trace a debate on this particular Act.''

It may be that no debate took place on that Act, and legislation has simply moved on and been adopted from that point.

The 1812 legislation arose because those who stood for Parliament had to meet a property qualification, which was discriminative in democratic terms. However, disfranchising people due to bankruptcy tied in with the logic of having a property qualification, because bankruptcy removed the qualification. That logical link was technically broken in 1858, when the property qualification was removed, but reality chugged on for some time until the first payment of MPs in 1911 and the two-stage move to universal franchise in 1918 and 1928.

To establish that point, I quote from an article published by W. L. Burn in an edition of Parliamentary Affairs from the summer of 1949, entitled ''Property qualifications in the House of Commons.'' A parliamentarian called Locke King introduced the measure in 1858; the year before, on an unsuccessful attempt, he quoted W. L. Burn in arguing that

    ''so long as the suffrage was not universal the existence of property qualifications for membership of the House of Commons was unnecessary. Certainly the abolition of those qualifications made little immediate or direct difference in the type and standing of Members elected. The fact was that a property qualification continued to exist in fact though not in law.''

The qualification existed until those early 20th century developments to which I referred.

Mr. Waterson: I am fascinated, as I am sure that all hon. Members are, by the thorough research that the hon. Gentleman has done. I wonder whether there could be another factor involved, however. I cannot remember at what time in Dickens' lifetime people stopped being imprisoned for debt, which affected Dickens personally as much as it cropped up in his books. Could that have been another factor in why MPs were treated differently?

Mr. Barnes: That may be the case, but it does not affect or destroy the logic of my point.

I do not understand what the case is for disqualification when we get past the early 20th century, given that there will be no inhibition in terms of property rights. In 1835, Sir Robert Peel raised the problem that concerns me when he was debating the Municipal Corporations Act, which extended the bankruptcy disqualification to any mayor, alderman or councillor. During the Committee stage of that Bill, he said:

    ''If property was not to be a qualification, why should bankruptcy or insolvency disqualify?''

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That is a key question that needs a response, even if it was not responded to in 1835. However, that was before the change to the property qualification in 1858 and related to local government, where there was a stronger attachment to a fuller franchise.

If the argument is that some people are not fit to serve in Parliament because of their manipulations and incompetencies, resulting in bankruptcy, should that argument apply to those who are not held to be culpable for the bankruptcy, as in the case of justices of the peace, where there is an attempt to square the circle?

5.45 pm

Mr. Field: Likewise, I am fascinated by the research. Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to other concerns in addition to the property qualification, will he say whether he found any evidence that, between 1812 and the end of the 19th century, there were attempts to unseat a Member who did not fulfil the property qualification, although he was not a fully-fledged bankrupt? We can appreciate that bankruptcy would clearly be evidence of failure to meet a property qualification, but was it the property issue alone that was felt to be important, or other aspects of bankruptcy as well?

Mr. Barnes: It seems that the property qualification was not rigorously adhered to. Burn claimed:

    ''It was a matter of common assumption that such men as Pitt, Fox, Burke and Sheridan possessed no qualifications which could bear examination: indeed Fox said quite candidly that the enforcement of the Act 'would exclude talents from obtaining entrance into the House.'''

The situation began to change a few years later as a result of a particular case in which a Member was removed from the House because of the provision. Presumably, that sent shudders through those Members of the House who might have been in the same position as Fox and others.

New clause 9 would make things easier for those on income support or those who have got into difficulties with the Child Support Agency and built up debts, so that they will not have to incur the expense involved in becoming a bankrupt and will not be prevented from doing something that might enable them to handle their matters better in the future. Will people in that category be excluded? Even though people in certain groups in society might find it easier to get selected, I would have thought it desirable and democratic to be open about who can seek to qualify to represent people. The next clause, on appointments to local government, has similar implications.

Mr. Waterson: We are all indebted to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire for having done such painstaking research on the matter; I knew that red box that he carries would come in handy one day. I think that he said that the arguments applied equally to justices of the peace, as they used to be called, or to members of local government, although my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster might want to pick up some specific points.

We have to be careful as Members of Parliament—by definition, we all have an interest in the clause—

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about giving ourselves any greater privilege than exists at the moment. I cannot help the hon. Gentleman to pin down why the law changed at the beginning of the 19th century. There are two, or possibly three, reasons for that. He touched on one; the property requirement. Clearly, nobody took the opportunity, when that requirement went, to change the rule about bankrupts, so perhaps it is not that. It might have been the restrictions placed on bankrupts; there are restrictions under the present system, but also the greater restriction in those days of possible incarceration for debt. That would have hampered the average MP, even in those days, from going about his duties. I like to think that it was the feeling that it would bring the House into disrepute. I shall come back to that.

There is a tantalising fourth possibility. I pricked up my ears when the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire mentioned 1812. If I remember rightly, that was the year in which the only British Prime Minister ever to be assassinated, Spencer Perceval, was shot on his way in to the House of Commons. He was shot by a bankrupt by the name of Bellingham, a direct descendent of whom currently sits in this House for North-West Norfolk. Whether the House took against bankrupts for that reason in 1812, I do not know, but it seems more than a coincidence that that was the year in which they decided that bankrupts should not be able to sit in the House as MPs.

Leaving historical speculation to one side, I return to the possibility of its bringing the House into disrepute. We are, in a sense, back to the stigma argument. Under the previous clause, which I did not rise to speak on, the Under-Secretary used the word ''merely''. That put the whole argument into context. Merely because somebody had become bankrupt, it did not mean that they should not sit as a JP. I assume that the Under-Secretary would apply the same argument to Members of Parliament.

Miss Johnson: With regard to the new arrangements, as distinct from somebody subject to a bankruptcy restrictions order, I made a clear distinction.

Mr. Waterson: Absolutely. I was not going to misrepresent the Under-Secretary. I was coming on to say that. As I understand new section 426A, everything would remain the same as under the current system, but disqualification would apply only to those subject to a BRO. However, people who, to use the Under-Secretary's word, were ''merely'' bankrupt, without the benefit of a BRO, could continue to sit as Members of Parliament. They could even stand for election, although if they stood and were elected under subsection (3), they would be disqualified and their election would be void, as is currently the situation even though there is no distinction between ''mere'' bankruptcy and having a BRO.

There is an argument to be had, as in so many areas, about whether there should be a different test for Members of Parliament and those who wish to become or to remain Members of Parliament and the rest of society. If we are in the business of removing the stigma from ordinary citizens—I am not suggesting that we are extraordinary, as our

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proceedings reveal—are we saying that it should no longer apply to Members of Parliament? Or is there a higher test, not one of principle or ethics, in which we simply ask whether people want to have as their Member of Parliament somebody who has managed to become bankrupt, but without a bankruptcy restrictions order?

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