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8 pm

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

Mr. Wills: Clause 30 provides that a person who is an accepted hereditary peer or life peer will be removed from the House of Lords if he or she meets the conditions in part 1 of schedule 4, which deals with disqualification for a serious criminal offence or bankruptcy, or is expelled by a resolution of the House under clause 31, or resigns from the House under clause 32.

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Mr. Harper: I notice, having looked at the reasons for removing someone from the House of Lords, that there is nothing about whether the Member of the House of Lords has either the physical or mental capacity. There is a provision affecting Members of this House whereby they can be removed under section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, but the recent Speaker's Conference report suggested that the provision be removed. Does the Minister have anything to say about how that may affect Members of the other place?

Mr. Wills: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) raised earlier. I should like to take this opportunity to make it clear that there is no justification, in my view, for a distinction between mental and physical illness in that respect-none. Therefore, the current situation is clearly untenable. Nevertheless, particular issues must be discussed in terms of the representation of constituents. If a Member is incapacitated for whatever reason, we have to look at how their constituents are best represented. Our view, like that of the Speaker's Conference, is that the issue is best discussed by a Select Committee, and we hope that that will happen without delay. I hope that that provides some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend.

Fiona Mactaggart: The Minister is right that I raised that issue in an out-of-order way earlier in today's proceedings. However, he over-complicates the matter. I was, for example, unable to represent my constituents for many months when I was away, because I had cancer.

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, and perhaps I should have intervened on the Minister earlier, but this debate is specifically about the House of Lords, not about the House of Commons. The remarks of both the hon. Lady and the Minister must be restricted to that.

Fiona Mactaggart: Can I commend the fact that, in this clause, there is no possibility for removing people because of any kind of ill health; and can I suggest to the Minister that he applies the same measure to this House?

Mr. Wills: I have noted those comments, and I am sure that the Committee has noted this exchange. If I may, I shall just carry on and discuss the terms of clause 30.

The Member's removal in the circumstances described is affected by the loss of entitlement to receive the writ of summons, and by the provision that any writ of summons that has already been issued has no further affect. As the writ contains the command to appear to attend Parliament, the peer thereby loses the right to take up their seat. The Committee will be aware that the events of last year focused public attention on the conduct of some Members of the House of Lords, who were accused in the press of being prepared to accept money in exchange for influencing legislation. That serious accusation evoked widespread public disquiet. At that time the Government began to look at the legislation that we might introduce to strengthen the mechanisms, which were widely considered to be inadequate, for disciplining Members in the House of Lords. Their weakness was acknowledged by all parties.

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More recently, the expenses controversy in this House has shaken the reputation of Parliament, and there is an even more pressing need now to restore the public's confidence in its democratic institutions and ensure that there are arrangements to deal adequately with accountability and to discipline Members of Parliament. To ensure the highest standards of behaviour in the House of Lords, robust sanctions must be in place and peers should no longer be immune from being removed on account of the fact that there is nothing short of an Act of Parliament that can take away their membership of that Chamber.

The provisions allowing for removal for reasons of discipline must be flexible to conform to the severity of the offence. For the worst cases of misconduct, removal should be automatic, but those that are less serious demand the exercise of discretion, so that a decision may be made on whether the Member should either be expelled from the House or face a lesser sanction. Clause 31 provides a power for the House to pass a resolution against Members to impose less serious sanctions on them.

On the details of the provisions on removal by automatic disqualification, the two conditions that engage that provision relate to the severest offences, whereby it might be considered beyond dispute that a peer's continued membership of the House is untenable. The first condition, in paragraph (2) of schedule 4, is conviction of an offence where the peer is sentenced to more than 12 months' imprisonment, reflecting the current position in the House of Commons. The condition ensures that the disqualification provision will apply if the Member is unlawfully at large and, therefore, evading justice. The condition is also met even when the offence or the conviction and offence occurs outside the United Kingdom, ensuring that a person may not avoid removal from the Lords by virtue of any event necessary to fulfil the condition having occurred outside the United Kingdom, when it would have led to their disqualification had it occurred in the United Kingdom.

It may be argued that offences that attract a sentence outside the UK could be dealt with under foreign jurisdictions more harshly than in the United Kingdom courts. Indeed, in some jurisdictions, offences that would not be punishable at all under UK law may attract a severe sentence, so there is provision in paragraph (9) of schedule 4 for the House of Lords to pass a resolution to reverse the automatic disqualification. Paragraph (7)(1) of schedule 4 makes provision for a peer to make a claim for the reversal of removal, and to reinstate a right of membership following disqualification on the grounds of conviction and sentence for a serious criminal offence, if a conviction is overturned or quashed, if it is determined that a peer should not have been subject to sentence, or if the sentence is changed in any way such that the conditions that engaged the removal provisions are no longer met. Clearly, it would be unjust not to include provisions to allow recognition and reflection of a court's determinations when they change the parameters in which the individual was judged to have met the conditions for disqualification.

The second condition for which the removal power is engaged as a result of automatic disqualification is if either a bankruptcy restriction order or undertaking, or a debt relief order or undertaking, come into force against a peer as set out in paragraph (2) of schedule 4.
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Bankruptcy per se is not a condition for disqualification; however, the provisions set out in the schedule recognise court decisions that have judged the peer culpable in relation to the bankruptcy, and they therefore provide that their membership should cease. By analogy to the provisions on disqualification for conviction and sentence for serious convictions, there is provision for the peer to make a claim for reversal of disqualification when any orders or undertakings in force against them are annulled. Claims for reversal of removal when the disqualification resulted from an engagement of the first and second conditions are considered by the Lord Chancellor under the procedure in paragraphs (3) to (5) of schedule 4.

I now turn to the power for removal of membership on grounds of an expulsion resolution. The power for the House of Lords to pass an expulsion resolution, when the peer does not meet the conditions for automatic disqualification, is provided in clause 31. It will be discussed in more detail when we debate that clause. However, the significant characteristic of the expulsion resolution is that, by definition, it is not automatic; it requires consideration of the facts of the case and a vote of the House. Therefore, the House may exercise it on a discretionary basis. That might happen if a Member has been convicted and sentenced for a relatively serious criminal offence but-

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. For clarification, is the Minister now starting to deal with clause 31, about expulsion and suspension of Members of the House of Lords? We are discussing clause 30 stand part. He has already gone on to schedule 4, which is intimately linked with clause 30, so that obviously makes sense. Is he deliberately going on to clause 31, or is he going to deal with clause 30 and schedule 4 first of all?

Mr. Wills: Thank you very much, Sir Michael. I understand; I was trying to pre-empt any questions that might arise out of those provisions, but I was not seeking to stray, and I am sorry if I did so inadvertently.

Mr. Hogg: On a point of order, Sir Michael. I intimated to Mrs. Heal that I would like to speak on a clause 31 stand part debate, but if it is convenient to the Minister to group schedule 4, clause 30 and clause 31 together, I, for one, would not seek to stand in his way. We could just have the one debate, if that were acceptable to you, Sir Michael.

The Second Deputy Chairman: Is the House agreeable that we should deal with clause 30, which we are debating, along with schedule 4 and clause 31, and then vote on them or otherwise? Does the hon. Lady agree?

Mrs. Laing: We are happy with that, Sir Michael.

The Second Deputy Chairman: Then the Minister may carry on in that vein.

Mr. Wills: Thank you, Sir Michael. I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for that suggestion, which would very much aid the dispatch of business. I will, if I may, carry straight on and speak to clause 31 and the schedule.

The significant characteristic of the expulsion resolution is that, by definition, it is not automatic: it requires the exercise of discretion by the House. This may take place, for example, if a Member has been convicted of
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and sentenced for a relatively serious criminal offence but one that did not attract a sentence of 12 months or more and therefore did not meet the condition for automatic disqualification-for example, a case of fraud where the sentence handed out is less than 12 months but the nature of the misconduct may be construed as incompatible with the unique position of trust that is occupied by Members of the House. The mechanism to effect the loss of a membership is identical to that for automatic disqualification; in other words, it is the loss of the entitlement to the writ of summons and a provision that any writ of summons that had already been issued is ineffective.

Clause 30 provides the power of removal for Members who wish to relinquish their membership by exercising the right provided under clause 32. The mechanism for removal is the same as the discipline provisions, and this accounts for all the removal powers being grouped in this clause. There should be no assumption-I want to make this absolutely clear-that the removal provision for resignation exists primarily to allow Members who have committed misconduct to do the honourable thing, as it were. There are many perfectly honourable reasons for Members wishing to resign-

Mr. Heath: On a point of order, Sir Michael. Can I be clear about this? We may have agreed to deal with clauses 30 and 31 and schedule 4 in the same debate, but I do not think we agreed to deal with clause 32, and it seems as though the Minister might be straying into a discussion of clause 32.

The Second Deputy Chairman: I think that there are limits as to how much we can reorganise the agreed programme. The hon. Gentleman is correct. We are dealing, at most, with clause 31, and it would be a good idea if we did not, at this point, stray into clause 32, as that deals with resignation from the House of Lords, which is a separate matter.

Mr. Wills: Thank you, Sir Michael. I was trying to deal with the processes in clause 30 and explain why they are all included there together, rather than getting on to the substance of clause 32. These things are grouped together and they are complex, so I am trying to stick to the point but also trying to add clarity to the argument. The fact that these provisions are grouped together in the same place in clause 30 should not imply, when we get on to the substantive discussion of clause 32, that there is necessarily anything dishonourable about Members seeking to take advantage of its provisions.

The provisions in the clause are necessary to effect a Member's removal from the House, but the reasons for that Member's departure may be triggered by the conditions for disqualification under schedule 4 being met, by a decision to expel the Member under clause 31, or by their resignation under clause 32. On that basis, I hope that the clause can be considered to stand part of the Bill.

I wonder whether I should continue to speak to clause 31 and then to the schedule, or perhaps allow any contributions on this particular provision.

The Second Deputy Chairman: I think that given the path that we have chosen to follow, it would be a good idea if the Minister dealt with all the provisions together;
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then anybody who wants to contribute can speak to some or all of them, and we will talk about Divisions a little later on.

Mr. Wills: Okay, then, I shall do exactly that.

I now turn to clause 31. This provides a power for the House of Lords to make Standing Orders to allow it to pass a resolution to expel a peer or to suspend a peer for any length of time specified in the resolution. This resolution may be passed when the House considers that the conduct of the Member has damaged the reputation of the House. The intention is to replicate, as far as possible, the sanctions of suspension and expulsion that already exist in the House of Commons and that the House of Commons has at its disposal to deal with misconduct by MPs. As in this House, the intention is to uphold the fundamental principle of parliamentary privilege, which permits each House to regulate its own affairs. In 1999, the Joint Committee on Privileges said:

In keeping with that principle, the criteria for exercise of the power is non-prescriptive. It requires that the House must find that the Member's conduct brings the House into disrepute. Subsection (1) provides the House of Lords with the power to make in Standing Orders such provisions as are necessary for it to exercise a power to suspend or expel Members by resolution. The precise framework within which the power will be exercised is therefore delegated to the House of Lords. This delegated power will allow the House to elaborate the principal basis for any sanctions as well as the details of the procedural mechanism by which any sanction will be applied.

8.15 pm

Mr. Hogg: There is something troubling me-it is a small point. I can see that if a Member of the other place behaves badly in one way or another, then that Member brings himself or herself into disrepute, but I am not absolutely clear that the bad behaviour of an individual Member can be said to bring the House into disrepute, which seems to be a slightly different concept. When the Minister further considers the drafting, perhaps he should focus on the nature of the conduct of the individual Member as it bears on that person's reputation rather than on the reputation of the House.

Mr. Wills: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for that intervention. He makes an important point, but I think that I have already dealt with it. In our view, some offences axiomatically bring the House into disrepute and therefore merit automatic disqualification-that is why those offences are so categorised-while other offences are subject to the opinion of the House. It is not for us to prescribe that, and that is why we have allowed this discretionary power. It is fundamental to the principles of parliamentary privilege that the other place should make its own decisions on such issues. He is right that there will be some instances of behaviour that bring the Member personally into disrepute but do not, in any common-sense way, affect the reputation of the House at all; there will
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be other kinds that do both. However, that is a matter for the other place to judge, and that is why we are allowing for this discretionary power precisely to deal with the sort of issue that he has raised. I will reflect on it further, and I am sure that there will be further discussion of it in the other place, if nowhere else.

In the House of Commons, matters concerning conduct and discipline are dealt with in Standing Orders and in the Commons code of conduct. The provisions in the clause would allow the House of Lords to establish a similar regime, dealing with some aspects in the Standing Orders and others in the code of conduct along the lines of the existing code. Subsection (3) extends the existing power of suspension currently available to the House by removing the existing restriction that a period of suspension may not be longer than the remainder of the current Parliament. Instead, the duration of the suspension may be for any period specified in the resolution; again, that is in keeping with the principles of proportionality that we are trying to put forward.

The mechanism for the expulsion of a Member is set out in subsection (2). The House passes an expulsion resolution that states that the Member loses his or her right to receive a writ of summons. The resolution is given effect by the removal power at clause 30. A power is also provided at subsection (2) that any writ of summons already issued prior to an expulsion resolution shall have no further effect. It is important to stress that that does not mean that the power to expel and suspend is retrospective, but that it cannot be trumped by a writ that has already been issued.

Subsection (4) of clause 31 provides the mechanism for suspending the Member. The House issues a resolution that states that in the House's opinion the House is in disrepute because of the conduct of that person. I hope that reassures the right hon. and learned Gentleman. The resolution must also state that that conduct warrants suspension of his or her entitlement to a writ of summons, and that accordingly the Member's entitlement should be suspended. That will mean that the Member loses his or her right to sit and vote in the House of Lords, and accordingly is not a Member of the House of Lords for the period of the suspension.

Subsections (5) and (6) together provide that the powers of suspension and expulsion should be exercisable only in relation to conduct that occurs after the date of the making of the Standing Order, which must occur after the date when the clause comes into force. That will mean that the suspension and expulsion provisions are exercisable only prospectively and therefore do not apply to conduct that brings the House of Lords into disrepute if it occurs before the clause comes into force.

We are aware that there may be some expectation that the peers whose conduct last January led to the calls for tougher provisions should be subject to the powers in clause 31. However, it is important that we maintain the principle of retrospectivity. The conduct of those peers has already been dealt with by the other place following the conclusion of investigations into the allegations against them. Two of the peers were suspended for the remainder of the parliamentary Session. We believe that it is fair and just that Members whose conduct has been or could have been dealt with under rules previously available to the House of Lords should not be punished a second time.

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