5.30 pm

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has proposed what is to my mind a perfectly acceptable way in which we might proceed. I am not saying that it is necessarily the only way, but it also chimes very much with this report. I wonder what would have happened if this report had appeared tomorrow. Your Lordships would have been left completely unadvised of the current situation of the Standards Committee, which is absolutely critical to the recall Bill. I am concerned that we are in a really difficult situation. There is a general feeling around the House, particularly from those who have served in the other place, that we are in danger of putting the Standards Committee in a very invidious situation. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has made that point herself. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, is in a minority in saying that he opposes an increased lay role in the committee, but the committee itself is very much in support of that. So there is a serious danger that, if this section of the Bill survives unamended, the pressures on the Standards Committee will be immense.

My noble friends on the Front Bench have not served in the other place, but I want to let them into a little secret. I hope that they will not be too shocked. Sometimes the decisions in the other place are affected by partisan party politics, and we are in danger of handing to the committee a yet more formidable problem. In those circumstances, I appeal to my noble friends to accept that this is unfinished business and to agree to re-examine the role of the committee before Third Reading, not least in the light of this extremely important debate. In the hope that they are prepared to do this, in the mean time I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 2 withdrawn.

Amendment 3 not moved.

Amendment 4

Moved by Lord Campbell-Savours

4: Clause 1, page 2, line 4, leave out “10” and insert “20”

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, for her preparedness to take on my amendment during my absence in hospital. I have always held her in high respect for her contributions on many issues, which is why I asked her to propose my amendment.

I hesitate to repeat the case made at Second Reading and in Committee, apart from drawing attention to my 15 years’ experience as a member of the Commons Privileges Committee. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, was a member of that committee during the critical period that led up to the Nolan reforms.

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I have supported recall for nearly 30 years. So what is the argument all about? I shall put it briefly. The Government’s original Bill, as presented to the Commons, required a suspension of a Member of Parliament of more than four weeks before the second trigger provoked a petition and a possible by-election. The Labour Opposition Front Bench moved its amendment on Report reducing the period of suspension from more than 20 days to 10 days or more. Having read the whole report of Committee in the Commons, I found almost no reference to this amendment in debate apart from speeches by Mr Docherty speaking from our Front Bench and the Minister replying on behalf of the Government. Furthermore, my approaches to a number of MPs who voted for the amendment revealed that they were totally unaware of its content. Only one MP whom I contacted knew of the amendment—Mr Kevan Jones, the Member for North Durham. Only two members of the Standards Committee and the Privileges Committee voted at Committee stage; the chairman and three members abstained and four members voted against. They opposed the 10-day amendment. The Conservative Benches in the Commons voted on a free vote in favour of 20 days—that is to say, they took my position today, which is to have a free vote. The truth is that there was no proper consideration of this 10-day amendment.

In my view, the amendment moved by my honourable friends and may well come back to haunt the Commons in the future. The effect of it will be to concentrate the mind of the Standards Committee’s membership not on the nature of a breach of the code of conduct and the appropriateness of any penalty imposed but on whether a suspension of more than 10 days could trigger a petition; the substantial expenditure by the local authorities on the petition process; a possible by-election with substantial expenditure by the local authorities and political parties, running into hundreds of thousands of pounds; and considerable political manpower being poured into constituencies as part of the campaigns. But, perhaps most importantly, a 10-day plus suspension could trigger political advantage or even disadvantage, which may well end up in the mind of a committee member. That latter consideration, among others, will transform a quasi-judicial committee into a political and politicised committee, and it is utterly inevitable—let there be no doubt of that. As I say, I say that as a former member.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, after the debates at Second Reading, asked me privately while we were seated what the difference is between 10 and 20 days. Surely, he said, the same principle applies. I want to answer that, because it is an important question. First, some cases need more than 10 days’ penalty, but not a by-election. The committee needs the flexibility to introduce longer suspensions without triggering a by-election. Ten days may well be too short a suspension period for some breaches of the code. If the appropriate suspensions are to be imposed under the 10-day rule, we may end up with an excessive number of petitions and a wholly discredited process. Finally, cases of more than 20 days are now few and far between, but such cases may involve major breaches and clearly warrant the petition procedure.

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So how have my noble friends and my honourable friends on the Front Benches of both Houses sought to justify the 10-day amendment? Mr Docherty put it this way:

“According to the excellent research services of the House of Commons Library, it appears that that threshold would have been met on only two occasions over the past two decades, and that no one found guilty during the cash for questions scandal received a sufficiently long suspension to meet the Government’s proposed threshold”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/10/2014; cols. 69-70.]

That has been at the heart of the argument that they have used against us but, with respect to the very erudite Mr Docherty, that is an inadvertent misrepresentation of where we were at the time.

Both those cases took place prior to the expenses scandal. The first involved Michael Trend—I have read in its entirety the third report of February 2003—who was suspended for 14 days. His case turned on the dishonest designation of a house of a friend as his main home and claims for additional cost, when in fact he stayed there infrequently and, when he did stay, it was rent-free. The penalty today would be substantially higher—therefore, it is irrelevant.

The second case was that of Mr Derek Conway, on whom there were two reports—the fourth report of May 2007 and the third report of January 2009. Again, I have read them in their entirety. He was suspended for a total of 10 days, so he would have met the trigger, as it appears here. His case turned on improper payments to his sons, Freddie and Henry. Repayments were made to the Fees Office.

Both these cases would have incurred substantially higher penalties under the conditions that are currently in place. It is now inconceivable that such breaches would command penalties of only 10 and 14 days. If by any chance they were not the subject of criminal charges under Section 10 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, under trigger three, they would certainly trigger in excess of four weeks as a penalty under trigger two. That fact alone, and those two cases, destroys the Official Opposition’s case. I hope that when my noble friend deals with this debate from the Dispatch Box she is not tempted to use those two cases, because they are at the heart of the argument that I have been having with colleagues on the Front Bench in the House of Commons who support the amendment.

The second and final justification for the amendment is more credible. During meetings with Mr Docherty, we were told that Labour was considering longer-term plans for the reconstruction of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. That follows upon the decision taken by the committee to establish a sub-committee and the report which everybody knew was being prepared. Obviously, other political parties have been involved in establishing their position and deciding how they wish to respond to the report. However, the setting up of the committee followed two recent reports, one on Mr Peter Lilley and the other on Maria Miller. Having read both of these, I recognise why the committee took the decisions it did on Peter Lilley. I confess to having some difficulty over the Maria Miller case, but that is not a matter for us. Recognising the need for reform from both Front Benches, the Standards Review

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sub-committee, established to consider the future structure, is suggesting that the legislation we are dealing with today may well be further amended when it is considered at a later stage in the House of Lords. It says that the,

“system is likely to be affected by any Act resulting from the Recall Bill, currently passing through Parliament, which proposes to allow an MP’s constituents, in certain circumstances, to institute a petition for his or her recall. At present this will apply if an MP is suspended from the House for more than ten days. The Bill has not yet completed its passage and this may change”.

The people on the sub-committee recognise the dilemma. They were not going to comment on legislation going through the House but it is quite clear that they do not agree with what is in this Bill and they hope for some further amendment to be made at this stage or a later one.

That report makes a great number of recommendations, some of which I support and some, as I have already said, I oppose. Whatever the final recommendations are, they have not yet been approved by Parliament. This brings me to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. Why are we dealing with this now, without having heard the final position taken by the Committee for Privileges and a decision by the House of Commons on the structure of these committees? We have no guarantee that a reformed structure would command the support of MPs in the new Parliament. It would certainly have to pass the privilege test set by Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg in Committee on 27 October, as reported in col. 73. One could argue that the trigger provisions in the legislation should await reform of the committee.

We know that if the recall Bill, as currently drafted, is enacted, the new structure will still have to surmount the hurdle of the 10-day trigger. An increase in lay membership will not remove the problem because a controversial 10-day trigger petition and by-election could influence the deliberations and future decisions of a committee comprising a greater lay membership. A controversial by-election, called on a 10-day penalty, exploited by the media and with all the political ramifications being felt by the lay membership of a lay-dominated committee could, over time, enter the collective mind of the committee and meddle with its thinking on 10-day judgments. The lay members, and Members of Parliament on the committee, would be placed in a totally impossible position.

All roads lead back to the 10-day trigger. It has to go. The question is at what stage is it going to go.

5.45 pm

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours spoke compellingly on this issue at Second Reading and he has done so again today. He is right that the House of Commons made a mistake in reducing the minimum requirement for a trigger for the recall process from 20 to 10 days’ suspension from the service of the House. He has explained very powerfully why that was a mistake and suggested convincingly that the House of Commons inflicted this error on itself without having adequately considered what it was doing. It is surely essential that the Standards Committee is enabled to retain a sufficient scope and flexibility and a sufficient range of penalties and sanctions to be able to temper its judgments to the

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particularities of the individual case before it. If a 10-day suspension automatically triggers the recall process then the Standards Committee has become excessively constrained. As my noble friend has just described, the political consequences are very major indeed. The committee should not be boxed into a position where it very often has little alternative but to precipitate a by-election, with all the political and personal implications that follow from that.

Nor should this legislation diminish the standing of the Standards Committee. Part of the motive of those who voted in favour of the reduction from 20 days to 10 was that they had given up on the Standards Committee. They actually believe that it has ceased to be a useful instrument of parliamentary self-government. As I said in the previous debate, I, by contrast, believe profoundly that one of the ways in which the House of Commons can help to restore its reputation and public credibility is to be seen to strengthen its capacity for self-regulation and self-discipline, not the reverse.

To go back to a 20-day minimum suspension period triggering the recall process is not to eliminate the political difficulty that the existence of recall will introduce into the proceedings of the Standards Committee. It may be said that there is, in principle, no particular difference between nine days not precipitating recall and 10 days doing so and between 19 days not precipitating recall and 20 days doing so. However, it does diminish the difficulty because it will reduce the frequency of the occasions when the committee feels under inexorable pressure to pronounce or make a recommendation to the whole House that the suspension period should be 10 days or more. It therefore diminishes the force of that politicising pressure on the committee and that is very important. I am grateful to my noble friend for his exhaustive and courageous examination of these issues. He has given wise advice and this House should, in turn, give wise advice to the other place.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con): My Lords, perhaps I may briefly intervene. It seems extraordinary that in rising to support the Government in their original position, I am rising to support an amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. They had got it right when they originally specified 20 days. In the 18th century, one was hung for stealing a cabbage, or for murdering your wife. If you committed any offence, you might as well get rid of any witnesses in order to avoid being hung for stealing the cabbage. We are rather in that position here.

If the provision is about persuading the outside world that the House of Commons takes bad behaviour seriously, I point out that most people would think that losing your pay for 10 days was not a particularly serious sanction. I therefore think that the nought to 10-day spectrum is far too narrow, and that nought to 20 days would be considerably more just and avoid the problem of the kind of political pressure that the noble Lord referred to.

The more that I, as a former Member, read and listen to the debates on the Bill, the more I believe that the House of Commons has lost confidence in itself. It is a bit like the situation at the moment: whenever

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there is a difficult problem there is a tendency to set up a public inquiry rather than actually address the issue. The public inquiry then goes on for ever, costs a lot of money and people feel, in the case of some inquiries, that no one has been held to account and it has all taken so long that the situation has moved on. That all adds to the sense of irritation on the part of the public.

What the noble Lord is proposing is eminently sensible and I am really looking forward to hearing the Minister’s response as to how he is going to explain how what I assume was a carefully considered Bill was presented to Parliament and amended in this way. We have almost gone into a competition to, sort of, wear the hair shirt—against the interests of Parliament. I am not being critical of the Opposition and I understand why they have done that, but it is a route that will lead to the destruction of the House of Commons in people’s eyes. If the House of Commons does not believe in itself and if it does not trust itself, how on earth can one expect the outside world to trust it if it demonstrates that it does not have the confidence to carry out its own sanctions?

It is a long time since I left it in 1997 but in the House of Commons that I remember, there is political partisanship—of course there is, which is why the point about the 10 days is important—but, on the whole, the House has a sense of its own worth and of its relationship with the public. It can be trusted to take the decisions that we are talking about and the amendment is immensely sensible. I hope that my noble friend will revert to the Government’s previous position and accept it.

Lord Soley (Lab): It is entirely right that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has drawn attention to the real problem underlying all this—the lack of self-confidence within the House of Commons. It is rather tragic that we have the Bill before us. I am slightly worried at his reminding people that one could be hung for various things. A number of people would like to hang MPs, and I remind him that when I was chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party and it was heard that I might come to this place, one member of the PLP said that they had the ideal reform for the House of Lords, with one Peer for every lamp-post. I do not use that example too often.

However, I intervene briefly and seriously. My noble friends Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Howarth both made a strong case on this issue. My view is, and remains, that the Bill is a mess and should not have been brought forward but, precisely because of the nature of the mess here and the report to which my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours referred, the Government ought to say that they will take this issue away, look at it in some detail and come back with a proposal involving a return to the 20-day period. I would sign up to that. The Bill is not in a coherent state. It would be bad news for the House of Commons, and I suspect that it is unlikely to be used or be used very much. It is undesirable to have legislation in a mess such as this, especially when there is a report of the type that has been referred to that indicates why we ought to have the 20-day solution. The Government

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have a duty to this House and the other place to say that they will go back, consult and come back with a proposal that is more likely to work in a coherent way.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, your Lordships will not be surprised that we do not support these amendments for the reasons given by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours—well, no, actually, not for the reasons given by him. The amendments would reverse the very changes that Labour won with wholehearted—or should I say widespread?—support in the Commons.

The coalition Government had proposed what my noble friend now wants, which is that MPs would need to be suspended for more than four sitting weeks for the threshold to trigger a recall petition. However, no matter how much we cut that period, only rarely would that trigger be reached. Importantly, it would mean that some serious offences in the House would virtually never trigger a recall petition, which may be the intention of the amendment—or not; but that would be its effect. It would emasculate the role of the Commons in regulating its Members.

We believe that the House of Commons decision to suspend a Member should be able to act as a trigger and that four weeks’ suspension is simply too long. It makes the trigger too high for what constituents would expect. When all this was happening, I was not in Parliament; I was outside. If one asked now how serious an offence should be before someone should face a recall, I should say that being suspended for two weeks is about the right amount. We would not want the threshold to be so lowered that it would allow mischievous claims to be made in the other place. We also recognise that parliamentary dissent is part of our democratic heritage, and that an MP standing up for their beliefs in the other place should not find their right peacefully to protest compromised by unnecessary recall petitions. There is a balance to be struck. However, none of those suspended for protesting would be caught by the new threshold, which was agreed overwhelmingly in the Commons by 210 to 124 votes. In the words of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, if we are to trust the House of Commons, that vote is one that we should hear.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: Can the noble Baroness explain where the other half of MPs were?

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: Obviously, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, will not appreciate that on a one-line Whip an awful lot of them disappear, as he has never been in the House of Commons.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: He was there; that was a joke.

Noble Lords: Joke? No!

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town:It was a joke. It is called irony. It does not work in Hansard; maybe it could use italics. I was explaining that I have never been there. Forget it.

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Lord Howarth of Newport: While my noble friend is celebrating the virtues of House of Commons procedure, will she recognise that there is much merit in a one-line Whip or a free vote on matters that refer to the governance of the House? On matters of parliamentary organisation, the Government always ought to be deferential and accept that these are matters for parliamentarians to decide, not under the pressure of a three-line Whip.

6 pm

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: I really do not think it is for me to tell the House of Commons how best to call its votes. What I do say is that if we are to trust the House of Commons then hearing that it agreed this by 203 votes to 124 on a one-line Whip is a fairly ringing endorsement of its decision. However, I am concerned about the discussion of this amendment rather than the wording of it. Some of the discussion has been more about the pressure on the decision-makers involved—be that the Standards Committee as it is or as it is going to be—than whether the number of days is correct and whether the electorate should be able to petition following the wrongdoing of a Member of the House of Commons. I do not think pressure on decision-makers ought to be higher in our minds than the rights of electors. I say this as someone who has been a magistrate, has had to send people to prison and has sat as a lay adjudicator on all sorts of disputes in other professions when they have lay members in, including removing people completely from their profession. I have been in those sorts of positions. Noble Lords, particularly those on the Cross Benches who have been judges, have taken even bigger decisions than I have. People have backbones and I do not believe that the worry of the pressures on these good people should be uppermost, over and above the rights of the electors to take an opinion on their MP where they have obviously done something serious enough to be suspended by their colleagues in the other place.

The Bill as it stands strikes the right balance on this issue. It strengthens the right of constituents to consider recall without jeopardising parliamentary democracy. I think the other place got it right and we should support it.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, triggering the opening of a recall after a 10-day suspension rather than 20 or 21 days certainly means there is the potential for petitions to open in a wider range of circumstances. My calculation, which I hope I got correct, of what would have happened over the past 15 years during all the rumbling expenses scandal is that on a 10-day suspension trigger some seven Members of the House of Commons in 15 years would have come under it and on a 20-day suspension only two.

Lord Campbell-Savours: The noble Lord is missing the point of my contribution. The climate has completely changed. Do not go by what has happened in the past. Punishments, suspensions, fines or whatever in the past are irrelevant. It is about what happens in the future. That is why all these arguments about the past are totally irrelevant.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire: I take on board the noble Lord’s deep concern for the strain on the members of the Standards Committee but the Standards Committee is evolving. The committee is likely to be up to the task it faces. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said in Committee, Members who have committed wrongdoings sufficiently serious to attract a suspension of 10 sitting days ought to be held to account by their constituents. That is what the other place decided and we should hesitate to suggest that it is our duty to save the other place from itself, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, is getting close to saying.

The noble Lord has expressed fears that this would politicise the Standards Committee on decisions regarding suspension and would affect its decision as to how long to suspend a Member. Of course there is always a degree of political sensitivity to the suspension of a Member of Parliament. The Standards Committee and the House of Commons have exercised their discretion in the past over the suspension of Members and I am confident that they will continue to do so effectively when looking at future cases. Members of the other place have amended the Bill so that a recall petition will open where the House of Commons has agreed to suspend an MP for 10 days or more. One of the reasons for that was the consideration of previous cases where an MP was suspended for less than 21 days but their behaviour was such that they ought to have faced recall if it had existed at the time. Since this Bill relates only to Members of the other place, we should reflect very carefully before seeking to overturn what the other place has decided. I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Campbell-Savours: I have had a rather difficult few weeks. I have had all sorts of discussions with colleagues about what we should do and whether we should divide the House. Until about 10 minutes ago I was going to divide the House. Having heard the intervention from my noble friend Lord Soley appealing, even now there are those who want me to divide the House. Surely something can be done before Third Reading. Can there not be consultations with people in the Commons about what is happening? Can the noble Lord not say something to suggest a basis on which the Government could return at Third Reading? My noble friend Lady Hayter from the Front Bench is shaking her head because she is wedded to this principle, while on the Back Benches, both in the House of Commons and here, there are people who desperately want to get rid of this 10-day trigger.

Lord Soley: I again ask the Minister to think this through. The House of Commons has produced a report that has only just come to light and which affects the Bill now. The Government did not know about it until yesterday—

Lord Campbell-Savours: It was one o’clock this morning.

Lord Soley: It is not a desirable principle to proceed on legislation in conflict with that. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is right to say “Think carefully before you throw something back to the House of Commons”,

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but we have a duty to advise and warn when information has come to light from the other House. I am sorry for a long intervention. I hope it helps.

Lord Campbell-Savours: I welcome interventions on my wind-up, although I do not want to delay the House. I appeal to Ministers to go away and ask around. This is wrong. It is a mistake. Everybody I talk to in the Commons knows it is a mistake. No one knew what they were doing at the time. The House was fairly empty; you can tell by the vote. It was all done on a free vote, so a lot of people had gone home. It is only here where I understand there are some Whips in operation to make sure that this nonsense amendment is not interfered with. Regretfully—I know I am upsetting some of my noble friends—I beg leave to withdraw my amendment but I do so with a very heavy heart.

Amendment 4 withdrawn.

Amendments 5 and 6 not moved.

Clause 3: The first and third recall conditions: expiry of appeal period

Amendment 7

Moved by Lord Gardiner of Kimble

7: Clause 3, page 3, line 30, after “within” insert “the period of 28 days beginning with the date of that determination or, if it ends earlier,”

Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): My Lords, Amendments 7 and 8 make a small change to Clause 3, which details the appeal period that must expire before a petition can open following an appeal by an MP against a criminal conviction or sentence that has met the first or third recall conditions. The Bill makes provision for the recall process not to begin until the appeal period has expired, which ensures that the MP has the opportunity to bring an appeal. In addition, an MP may bring a second appeal, including bringing a judicial review to the High Court, against a decision of a lower court in England and Wales, and also in Northern Ireland. The usual time limit for requesting a judicial review in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is three months. Judicial review is not available in Scotland in relation to a criminal law conviction. Such reviews are rare but the possibility that an MP may wish to bring a judicial review against the initial appeal would prevent the recall process starting until a further three-month period had expired, starting with the date the initial appeal is disposed of. This is the case even if no judicial review is brought. The recall process would be unable to start earlier even if the MP in question indicated that he or she did not intend to bring a judicial review, as the MP would have the right to change his or her mind.

Although the right of appeal is important, and an MP subject to the process must be guaranteed a fair hearing, the recall process must also meet constituents’ expectations. This amendment would ensure that the recall process could begin in good time once the initial appeal had been disposed of by limiting the period in

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which a second appeal could be brought to a maximum of 28 days or the usual period for an appeal to be brought, whichever was the shorter. Other, more common types of further appeal would, in any event, have to be brought within the 28-day period in order to be “in-time” appeals. I should note that all relevant appeals in Scotland have a time limit of 28 days or less.

The amendment does not preclude a judicial review being brought as a second appeal but simply limits the timeframe in which bringing a judicial review for a second appeal will stop the recall petition commencing. If that time passes without an appeal being brought, the recall process will begin. In the unlikely event that a judicial review was brought following an initial appeal and after the 28-day limit, it would not stop the recall petition process commencing. If the court overturned the conviction, the Speaker would have to order the early termination of the process under the provisions in Clause 13.

Amendment 9 would alter Clause 4 to remove the requirement for the court to inform the Speaker that a former MP had been convicted and sentenced after the person had ceased to be a Member of Parliament. As drafted, the Bill requires the court to inform the Speaker if it convicts an MP and sentences the MP to be imprisoned, or if it convicts the MP of an expenses-related offence under the third trigger. This requirement stands, however, even if the MP has vacated the seat in the mean time, or after being convicted and before the appeal is heard, and is therefore no longer a Member of Parliament. That is an unintended consequence of the original drafting and would not serve a practical purpose. First, the Speaker would already know that the MP had vacated their seat and, secondly, the conviction would of course be irrelevant to the Speaker and the recall process. The amendment addresses that by clarifying that the court is not required to inform the Speaker where the person in question has ceased to be an MP. I beg to move.

Amendment 7 agreed.

Amendment 8

Moved by Lord Gardiner of Kimble

8: Clause 3, page 3, line 39, after “within” insert “the period of 28 days beginning with the date of that determination or, if it ends earlier,”

Amendment 8 agreed.

Clause 4: The first and third recall conditions: courts to notify the Speaker

Amendment 9

Moved by Lord Gardiner of Kimble

9: Clause 4, page 5, line 4, at end insert—

“( ) A court is not required under this section to notify the Speaker if, at any time since the application of the section, the MP’s seat has been vacated (whether by the MP’s disqualification or death, or otherwise).”

Amendment 9 agreed.

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Amendment 10

Moved by Lord Dubs

10: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—

“Election courts: recall

Within 2 years of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must lay before each House of Parliament a report assessing the merits and feasibility of granting election courts the discretion of initiating a recall petition process.”

Lord Dubs (Lab): My Lords, we debated an amendment in Committee to deal with this matter. Put simply, the problem is this: if the Bill becomes law, we will have two different systems running in parallel. We will have the system as envisaged in the Bill and a separate, older system, which is the election court. As I said in the previous discussion, it is possible for an election court to punish a Member of Parliament, deprive him or her of their seat and not allow them to stand for a number of years in any by-election for a lesser offence than that covered by the Bill. Clause 1(11) states:

“The loss by an MP of his or her seat under this Act as a result of a recall petition does not prevent him or her standing in the resulting by-election”.

That is very clear, yet the election court has the power—and used it in the case of Phil Woolas in 2010—to prevent a Member of Parliament standing in any by-election for a number of years. That seems to me, at the very least, inconsistent and potentially unfair. After all, under this Bill an MP could be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of up to a year, yet he would still be subject to the Bill and would be able to stand at the by-election. In the case of Phil Woolas and the election court, he was not sentenced to imprisonment but he lost his seat. I am not talking about the merits or demerits of what he did; I am talking about what the election court did to him, which was at variance with the purpose of the Bill.

Therefore, the amendment is very simple. It is much milder than the amendment we debated in Committee, so I hope that the Government will find it fairly easy to accept. It says:

“Within 2 years … the Secretary of State must lay before each House of Parliament a report assessing the merits and feasibility of granting election courts the discretion of initiating a recall petition process”.

We are not making a dramatic change; we are saying that, if the Government are so minded, they can take steps to ensure that in future an election court can say, “No, we don’t want to do what we did to Phil Woolas. We want to subject him to the provisions of this particular Bill”. It seems a very reasonable and mild amendment, and the Government can surely say yes to it. I beg to move.

6.15 pm

Lord Grocott: My Lords, I have put my name to the amendment, which is milder than the one we considered in Committee. It is a reasonable, moderate and sensible amendment, and therefore I tend to fear that the Government may not look at it very favourably.

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The principle seems crystal clear. One of the few good things in the Bill, which otherwise I dislike intensely, is that it gives the final word to the electorate, which is where it should be. That is what I think is at fault with so much of the rest of the Bill: it has all sorts of complicated procedures that intervene between an MP and his or her constituents. Quite properly, a judgment is made every five years at a general election and, in my view, that is the way it should have rested. There are numerous other mechanisms within parties’ own disciplinary procedures which could enable most of the evils that it is alleged are identified by the Bill to be addressed.

However, as I said, the one good thing in the Bill is that it allows a Member of Parliament, even after a recall petition has been carried, to at least stand in his or her own defence in a by-election. That option does not exist following decisions of the election court. The MP—all too easily, it seems to me—is not only thrown out of Parliament but prevented from asking the electorate to give their judgment on the merits or otherwise of their having been thrown out of Parliament. It may well be that the electorate will endorse the decision of the court—in this case, the election court—and say, “Yes, you are right. It is wrong for this person to continue as the Member of Parliament”, but at least they should be given the option. When you introduce, as the Bill effectively does, a new sanction on Members of Parliament who misbehave, or are deemed to have misbehaved—that is, the recall system and the recall petition—then it seems to be a matter of common sense, if not common fairness, that we should consider whether this new mechanism is applicable to existing disciplinary offences or other existing offences. That is the point.

Therefore, this very moderate amendment simply says that, in future, within a period of two years a Secretary of State should be able to consider and report to Parliament whether this new recall petition procedure should be available to the election court as part of its machinery of penalties. If not, all sorts of anomalies might arise. If you bring in a new penalty for a similar category of offence, clearly consideration should be given to whether it should be introduced for older offences and older penalty mechanisms.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes (Con): Does the noble Lord agree that the power of the electorate has already been pre-empted in the first place? What he said is perfectly right, in my view, but it has happened too late to bring constituents back in again with a vote or with an opinion, because their power has been pre-empted.

Lord Grocott: What the noble Baroness said is right to the extent that the whole mechanism of this Bill is doing as she said. But I suppose I am looking for some mechanism whereby it could be made a little fairer and across the board. I am not even doing that; I am saying that the Secretary of State should report to Parliament so that it can judge whether these offences, as determined by the electoral court, should have available to them the penalty of a recall system, which Parliament appears determined to impose. That is all that is being asked by this amendment, and my noble friend put it very well. I rest my case.

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Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with this amendment, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has come up with an ingenious way of bringing it forward. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, indicated, it raises an important issue of principle, which is the freedom of choice of the electors. This is something to which I keep referring and it is why I opposed attempts to ban dual mandate. My view is that if electors wish to put somebody into assemblies, it is entirely a matter for the electors. It might be impractical, but that is not for us to say. It is for us to allow electors to do that. So I agree with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made. It may be that the court says, “You have committed an offence”, but if the electors feel it is important that that person should be returned to represent them, then it is entirely a matter for them.

We keep bringing forward rules that restrict the freedom of electors. We should be looking at it the other way, trying to open up our process as much as possible and leaving it up to electors. If they want somebody to represent them, that is a matter for them. Leave it to the electors. Do not impose restrictions on them. For that reason, I have considerable sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is trying to achieve. Certainly, I am all in favour of reviewing that provision and perhaps even widening it, for the reasons I have given, to look more broadly at how we can protect electors in making the choice that they wish to make, having whom they wish to elect and not being restricted in that.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town:My Lords, as my noble friends have spelt out, the Bill raises the interesting question not just of the interplay between this process and that of the election court but also of what I think is the Government's slap-dash drafting of the Bill, with their cut-and-paste from other legislation, without actually thinking through the best way of dealing with allegations of wrongdoing. As I have said, and as the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, has echoed, we do not want ever to see this Bill used. We hope that MPs will never find themselves in the position of triggering a recall petition. However, if it happens, we need to be sure that the most appropriate mechanisms and penalties are available to suit the particular misconduct. We may have it in this Bill, but we may not; it may not be right. Indeed, on the reverse side, it might be much better for other misconduct to trigger a recall petition rather than straight expulsion, as my noble friend Lord Dubs suggested. The proposal of a report to consider this in the round and come forward with proposals on that basis seems eminently sensible. I hope that the Government will support this amendment.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, behind this issue are some large questions about the role of election courts and the seriousness of electoral offences such as electoral fraud. The role of election courts is to assess whether electoral fraud has taken place and to determine whether it has had a material impact on the outcome of an election. I know that what happened to Phil Woolas preoccupies a number of noble Lords on the Labour Benches. I went back and looked at that sad history and I believe that the noble Lord, Lord

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Dubs, suggested in Committee that he be acquitted on appeal. He was indeed acquitted of one of the three offences but the other two were affirmed.

Electoral fraud is a serious business. I can think of other potential occasions where we could find ourselves with contested results of elections. We had a contested issue in east London in local elections where the severity of what is pled or what might perhaps have happened is not—as I think is being suggested here—something less serious than other potential misconduct. I understand the noble Lord’s intentions in tabling his amendment but I am not persuaded that, after two years, a particular fact will have come to light which would necessarily cause the Government of the day to reappraise the role of election courts, which is what this is really about.

I am also concerned that granting election courts the discretion to initiate a recall petition risks sending a confused message about the seriousness of electoral fraud as such. At present, there is a public expectation that those who commit offences that breach electoral law should face the appropriate penalty and that the appropriate penalty is set. Those offences are particularly relevant to the MP’s democratic mandate, and they are intended to affect the MP’s democratic mandate because, thankfully in this country, we have a very low level of electoral misconduct during campaigns and of electoral fraud; but we are conscious that the potential is always there. In the event that fraud has been committed by a sitting MP, his or her constituents might be confused if they were asked to sign a recall petition, knowing that an election court had already identified proven wrongdoing on the MP’s part.

The Government do not consider that this Bill should be a vehicle for the election court’s functions to be adapted, or for the consequences of established electoral offences to be altered; that is a different and other serious set of issues. There is also a risk that an MP, having been subjected to a recall petition by the election court, could then be prosecuted and sentenced in the criminal courts for an offence of which the election court had found him or her guilty. If the MP had held on to his or her seat following the first recall petition and were then sentenced to a period of imprisonment of 12 months or less, this could trigger another recall petition under the first recall condition.

There are some complicated issues here, but I end where I started. Election fraud or an election offence during a campaign that materially affects the outcome of that election are serious offences. That is the role of election courts. However, the Government are not persuaded that we should now downgrade the severity of that offence.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am disappointed in the Minister’s reply because he has not really faced the point that we were seeking to make in this amendment—and I thank noble Lords who gave their support to it. What happens now, under the Government’s present Bill, is that a Member of Parliament can be sentenced to six or nine months’ imprisonment, yet he would still be subject to the recall procedure and he could stand again. It seems to me that a sentence of six to nine months’ imprisonment is pretty serious, yet the Government, in their wisdom, have a Bill that says,

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“Yes, but you can be subject to the recall procedure and you might well be re-elected”. Indeed, in our history, Members of Parliament who have been refused their seats have stood again and have got re-elected—so that is up to the voters. The whole point of this amendment is that we must trust the local voters to make the right decision, and they can decide one way or the other.

On the subject of severity, I do not have all the details of the Phil Woolas case in front of me, and I do not think that I said in Committee that he had been acquitted. What I am saying is that the electoral court proceedings lost him his seat, but there was no further sanction in terms of imprisonment. Imprisonment is serious, yet under the Bill an MP can be imprisoned and can still be subject to the recall procedure. So the position is entirely inconsistent; it does not make any sense. The amendment simply proposes that the Secretary of State assess the merits and feasibility of granting election courts this discretion. If it is too difficult, the feasibility study would say, “No: it is too difficult”, for the reasons the Minister gave. We are asking only for the Government to have a more detailed look at this than the Minister suggested in reply.

We have been debating for quite a long time and there are further amendments to come. Part of me is tempted to test the opinion of the House. I will not do that, but I wish that the Government could be a little more flexible. Frankly, they have lost the argument. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 10 withdrawn.

6.30 pm

Clause 7: Where and from when the recall petition may be signed

Amendment 11

Moved by Lord Gardiner of Kimble

11: Clause 7, page 6, line 23, leave out “4” and insert “10”

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, this amendment would increase the number of signing places that a petition officer can designate in their constituency from a maximum of four to a maximum of 10. Noble Lords may recall that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee recommended that there should be a maximum of four signing places, and it is for this reason that the Bill included it as a maximum. That said, the Government have listened to the concerns expressed both in the other place and in this House during debates about the potential difficulties that a cap of four signing places could pose in certain circumstances, such as in constituencies that have a large number of population centres or are far flung and where it could be difficult for some constituents to attend a signing place in person.

Indeed, during the debate in Committee on the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, which sought to introduce a minimum of four signing places, we heard how some electors in the noble Baroness’s home constituency of Brecon and Radnor could face a round trip of an hour or more by car and up to half

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a day by public transport if they wished to sign the petition in person. These concerns were shared by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, who reminded us that constituencies such as Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles are made up of a number of islands served by ferries, which makes the choice as to where to designate signing places particularly important to those who live there. Having listened carefully to these arguments, the Government accept that, in some circumstances, petition officers may wish to designate more than four signing places.

In reaching the decision to increase the maximum number from four to 10, the Government have consulted those returning officers whose constituencies could benefit most from raising the cap. I am particularly grateful to the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, which provided views on the subject, and, through them, the returning officers for the Western Isles and for Argyll and Bute. They were clear that a limit of four could pose particular challenges in large rural constituencies or those with a number of islands, and felt that a raised limit would afford them helpful flexibility.

We do not propose to make this an open-ended provision whereby petition officers can designate a considerably higher number of signing places, and nor do we propose to impose a minimum number of signing places that is greater than one. As we said in previous debates on the subject, the petition will be open for eight weeks and there will be an option to sign by post. In some constituencies, it may be that one or two signing places will be sufficient, as has been argued by the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Electoral Commission. I am of the view that we must ensure that petition officers can take a proportionate approach to the provision of signing places.

I recognise the need to ensure that there is enough flexibility to ensure reasonable access for constituents, especially in larger constituencies or those with particular geography. The Government believe that increasing the maximum number of signing places that can be designated to a maximum of 10 allows petition officers to designate the appropriate number of signing places based on the characteristics of their constituency. I also note that the Electoral Commission has stated in its briefing for this debate that it welcomes the change provided for by this amendment to allow greater flexibility for petition officers. I thank those noble Lords who participated in the earlier debates. We have reached a sound conclusion and I beg to move.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, I am delighted to see that my noble friends have been able to respond to the views expressed right across the House on this issue in Committee. Geography, scale and lack of public transport were certainly features in my former constituency of North Cornwall, as I referred to in Committee. But I am even more delighted to witness the fact that my noble friends on the Front Bench seem to be listening a little to what has been said in the House on this Bill—just a tiny little bit. I hope that between now and Third Reading we see some more evidence of flexibility from my noble friends.

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Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I, too, very much welcome this amendment. It is a step in the right direction. I have just one question for my noble friend. Why was the consultation to which he referred not undertaken before the Bill was introduced?

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: I am going to be a little more generous than the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and thank the Minister for listening to the debate on the amendment that we moved in Committee. He will not be surprised that we are delighted with this. Not only is it the right answer in itself, but I also think that it will reduce the demand for postal votes. That will save the resources of the petition officer—their time, their staff and their money—because there will be less need for people to apply for postal votes. So we are very happy to support this government amendment.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, I am most grateful for the generous comments that have been made. As I said, this has come forward because it makes practical sense. If there is an unfortunate instance of recall, it is important that constituents, wherever they are from—the islands or the large constituencies—have the ability to sign if they so wish. So far as my noble friend Lord Norton is concerned, as I said at the beginning, our basis for the maximum of four signing places was because that was what the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee had recommended. If I have further particulars on that, I will of course write to him, but that was the basis for four. However, what has happened in the other place and in your Lordships’ House has ensured that sense has prevailed, so I commend the amendment to your Lordships.

Amendment 11 agreed

Clause 9: Recall petition to be made available for signing

Amendment 12

Moved by Lord Howarth of Newport

12: Clause 9, page 7, line 16, leave out “8” and insert “3”

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, Amendment 12 would reduce the signing period from eight weeks to three weeks. It is intended to minimise the period of the petition—to shorten as far as possible the period in which there can be campaigns on both sides and, in particular, campaigns to secure names for the petition to unseat a Member of Parliament. Three weeks would be amply sufficient for this process. Three weeks allows plenty of time for constituents to make their way to one of up to 10 signing places, thanks to the amendment moved just now by the Minister, which was welcomed by the House. It is also plenty of time in which to organise postal votes to arrange for people to be able to sign the petition by post.

Imagine the situation that will prevail. The Member of Parliament has already been found guilty of serious wrongdoing by a court or by the Standards Committee. Already, he or she has been publicly disgraced. They

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have been shamed at length before their colleagues, their constituents and the nation. There will have been quantities of media coverage, much of it vindictive and gloating, in the period leading up to the judgment and at the moment when that judgment was made. Local media and social media will all have ensured that the Member of Parliament’s constituents are fully aware of the issue. What virtue is there in dragging out the period of the petition? Why do we wish to create this modern form of trial by ordeal? Why in this year of grace, 2015, are we legislating to provide that a political corpse shall twist in the wind and decompose for up to eight weeks? If by any chance there is still any life in that corpse—that politician—a by-election may follow, during which there will be more weeks of media sport, with the media pack baying for blood, and of accusation and counteraccusation; all of it highly unedifying and tending to give politics a bad name.

Some noble Lords may have read an article in last Saturday’s Guardian by the Reverend Giles Fraser, who described how, in the days when we burnt heretics and witches in this country, sellers of cherries would offer their wares to the spectators who had come to witness the public execution. This euphemistically termed “recall Bill” is in fact a process of public torment of a disgraced MP. I do not want to be excessively melodramatic, but I suggest that it is tantamount to political sadism. The market gardeners will be there, out and about in the constituency, selling their cherries. The local Mesdames Defarges will be knitting outside the signing places.

I do not in any way condone or mitigate the seriousness of serious wrongdoing, but it seems that this legislation, and this petition process in particular, is a gesture of self-abasement and of gratification of an angry public on the part of a traumatised and scared political class. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, spoke of the lack of self-confidence in the House of Commons, and I agree very much with what he said. It is right that the House of Commons should have made its apologies. It is right that there should have been contrition on the part of the political class. It is right to take steps to reform the culture of Parliament and to improve its disciplinary processes. But it is not right to do so by tossing miscreants to the crowd for ritual humiliation.

The political leaders, however, and Members of the House of Commons, in their wisdom—it seems to me a somewhat primitive wisdom—have approved the process that is provided for in the Bill. Should we not, however, be aiming to minimise the nastiness in politics, starting, perhaps, with the weekly cage fight at Prime Minister’s Questions in the other place?

I have been struck that noble Lords on all sides of this House who are former Members of the House of Commons have made the case that we do not need this recall procedure at all. The House of Commons has the power to expel a Member of Parliament who disgraces himself or herself and the House. If the Member of Parliament does not resign voluntarily—I will give way.

Lord Soley: My noble friend has been talking about MPs who have disgraced themselves. Clearly, that is the origin of the Bill but, as I pointed out, and others have pointed out, in a number of cases the danger is

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that this Bill will be used where there is a political aspect to the case. We need only think of the Irish Members who in the past have been in conflict or, in the example I gave, if we look forward, of perhaps a Muslim MP going to fight in Syria—not for ISIL, but for one of the other groups—and yet being arrested and perhaps sent to prison. I think we should not fall into the trap of assuming that this will be used only against MPs who have clearly done wrong, because it has more dangerous implications.

Lord Howarth of Newport: I agree with my noble friend. The process provided for in the Bill would allow for the intrusion of all kinds of extraneous factors, such as the ones he describes. If we return to the question of whether a Member of Parliament has committed serious wrongdoing in the terms that the Bill envisages, of course, if that MP chooses not to resign voluntarily, the parties have their means of persuading the Member of Parliament to resign. The parties can remove their endorsement. The matter can thereby be dealt with cleanly and quickly.

Lethal injection is one thing. But hanging, drawing and quartering over eight weeks is quite another. If we must have this petition process, let us make it as short as possible. I propose that three weeks would be amply sufficient, but some noble Lords may consider that, for practical reasons, we might need four weeks, conceivably even five weeks. I would not be dogmatic on that. The principle that I wish to put forward in this amendment is that we should keep the petition process to the minimum of time in which it can be performed as satisfactorily as possible. Eight weeks, it seems to me, is altogether excessive. There is also a consideration that if we are to have 10 signing places staffed for eight weeks on end, it will be very expensive. However, that is not my argument. My argument is about mitigating or minimising the gratuitous unpleasantness that is inherent in this process.

I hope that noble Lords will agree with my point of view. I hope that Ministers may feel that there is scope for them to respond flexibly and perhaps adjust the period of eight weeks to three, possibly four. I beg to move.

6.45 pm

Lord Grocott: My Lords, my observation is simply on the practicalities of this. I do not know what would happen in these signing places, the number of which we have just agreed should be extended to a maximum of 10. What would actually happen to them in weeks two, three, four, five, six, seven and eight? Surely, the overwhelming evidence shows that, with the kind of build-up that is being described by my noble friend Lord Howarth, anyone who wanted to sign this petition would, I imagine, have built up to a sufficient level of frenzy that they would be virtually queuing at the station where the petition could be signed. Certainly, they would have dealt with it by week two or week three. There is an idea, somehow, that we need to keep these stations open for 10 weeks. For heaven’s sake, consider a general election campaign, until this dreaded Fixed-term Parliaments Act came along, about which I have expressed opinions in the past. Normally, there

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were five or six weeks of intense campaigning, which constituted a general election campaign. That was more than enough for most of us, I think. As far as I was concerned, I found it exhausting.

We know, from the evidence, about postal voting. Experts such as my noble friend Lord Kennedy on the Front Bench will no doubt know more about this than I do. Is not the evidence overwhelming that people either cast their postal vote within a day or two of receiving the ballot or they do not do it at all? I think exactly the same principle would apply to this. I think it most unlikely that this Act, as it will become, will come into operation very often, if at all, which makes the whole operation seem rather a waste of time. Assuming, however, that it comes into operation, I would safely predict that the poll clerks in these up to 10 signing places would be sitting there reading newspapers for weeks 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. I can see no conceivable practical reason, let alone in the arguments that my noble friend has advanced, why we need such a long period for signing.

Lord Soley: I want to emphasise what I said in my intervention. Bear in mind that when Bobby Sands starved himself to death, there were constant displays outside all sorts of places relating to government in Northern Ireland and southern Ireland. If we have this, there will be something similar. It will not, I hope, ever be as dreadful as that period again, but do bear in mind a very important point: people get sentenced for offences as a result of a political situation.

I shall give another example, which has been given here in the past and concerns the First World War and conscientious objectors. There is a whole range of issues on which, in the past, Members of Parliament have committed offences which are illegal and get them into trouble with the law. Under this legislation, it would result in their losing their seats. If you want to look at a situation, of course it is easy to identify ones where MPs fiddled their expenses. That is the easy option. However, when they are linked into a political-style offence, it is a very different ball game and there are all sorts of dangers. To my mind, that is a much bigger danger in the whole of this Bill, not just this individual question of three or eight weeks.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, I do not wish to detain the House for long, but would the Minister like to say exactly why eight weeks was chosen? In all our debates, I have never heard—I may have missed it—a precise definition of how that was arrived at. Why eight weeks? There must have been some reason for choosing eight weeks. Was some sort of scientific study done? Or was eight weeks simply plucked out of the air as a good idea? Of course, the shortest time would be one day, but that is clearly impracticable. We would not want it to be a sort of side-show to be done in one day.

I simply throw this into the ring. It may be that the eight weeks that is provided to give people the maximum amount of time to make up their minds and to vote actually has the opposite effect. By the end of these eight weeks, people may be so fed up with it that they will not bother going to sign the petition, which would

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be counterproductive. The other side of that is that when you ask people to sign the petition, they might ask, “When do we have to sign by?”. If you say, “Eight weeks from now—two months”, they will say “I’ll do it tomorrow”. Some of my noble friends will, like me, remember knocking on people’s doors asking them to go the poll and them saying, “Can we come and do it tomorrow?”. That is absolutely true. I imagine that people will say, “Well, we’ll put it off”.

Although I am one of those who is, if you like, a sort of prophet of doom in the sense of fearing that a huge frenzy will build up in the media, even the media cannot sustain things much beyond three weeks. Even the most lurid cases disappear after three weeks, because the media have moved on to something else. I am not sure that even the media would be prepared to commit the resources to get the petition signed for, in totality, beyond two or three days.

Apart from that, the timing is far too long. A decision must be arrived at, although whether three weeks is the right length of time or not, I really do not know. My noble friend has not said why it should be three weeks; he said that perhaps it could be three or four. We should be flexible on this, in the sense that neither the coalition Government nor we should say it has to be three weeks and nothing more or nothing less. The Government are wrong in thinking they have to stick by eight weeks. If the Minister cannot accept three weeks, I hope he will understand that this is not an attempt to wreck the Bill or anything like that. Whatever its faults, we have to try to make the Bill as sensible and workable as possible. Why eight weeks? Why not four weeks? Would that not be a much better way and a much better use of resources?

Lord Tyler: I was enormously impressed with the noble Lord’s very dramatic introduction of his amendment. Perhaps he has been over-Mantelled recently and has been watching too much “Wolf Hall”. However, in these circumstances, he has a perfectly valid point.

My questions follow on from the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hughes. Who advised Ministers that it should be eight weeks? Most significantly, there is the very important cross-reference with the number of signing places, which my noble friend Lord Norton and I referred to in Committee. If there are only two signing places, perhaps you do need longer; but if there are 10, you should obviously review that situation. Has whoever gave advice to Ministers on the number of weeks, on the original basis of a maximum of four signing places, been asked to review that advice in the light of the Government’s now much more flexible attitude? That is something we need to be told now, otherwise it seems to me that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, has huge merit, at least in making the Government think again about the very new circumstances that their own flexibility has now created.

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I, too, support this amendment for the reasons we discussed in Committee. I argued then that the number of signing places should be expanded and the period of time in which you can sign reduced. The Government have

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got half way there, so I hope that they will now go the rest of the way as well, for the reasons that have been well advanced.

Like other noble Lords, I cannot understand the rationale for eight weeks. As the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said, it is much longer than an election campaign. In the case of one election, the Prime Minister announced it and it took place four weeks to the day after that. However, here we are saying that twice as long should be available for people to reflect on whether they should sign a petition—eight weeks. Why on earth should anyone take eight weeks to think about whether they should sign a petition or not? The news about the Member being eligible will be out quickly. It will be in the news and, as has been touched on, it will then cease to be newsworthy after a matter of days, if that. Why are we going to linger for weeks with people sat at polling stations twiddling their thumbs waiting for people to turn up and sign? I can see no argument for that length of time. It is not even as if we are still in the period where it took days for news to reach people and they then had to rely on some slow means of transport to get somewhere to actually sign something. Even if we were in that period, they could do it in less than eight weeks. Why nowadays, with instant communication and the ability to get to one of potentially 10 places to sign fairly quickly, do we need as long as eight weeks? It may be an arbitrary figure, but why eight rather than, say, six?

The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said that he is flexible and that it could be four or five weeks. I thought he was, if anything, generous in saying three weeks. Why on earth would you need three weeks to reflect? Are you going to call the family together to hold great deliberations about whether you should sign it or not? Once you know about it, you think about it and then you decide whether you are going to make the effort to go and sign the petition—you go and sign and that is it. That could be quite easily achieved within a period of three weeks and, to be honest, one could achieve it with a much shorter period.

As I said, the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, is being quite generous in putting down that figure. Had he not put down his amendment, I would have put one down to reduce the period and would probably have chosen an even shorter period. The argument for his amendment is eminently rational. It does not raise any serious issue of principle in terms of recall per se, so I see no reason why the Government, having moved on the number of places where signing can take place, could not be moved just as easily on this. It makes perfect sense. There is also the practical point that was touched on about people having to staff the places at which signing can take place. There is a cost to the public purse, and we should not lose sight of that.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport has made a good case for considering whether and why eight weeks is somehow the perfect period for the petition to run. We remain unclear on the question that my noble friend Lord Hughes raised as to why the Government chose this period—a question to which they never gave a clear answer in Committee. As I said before,

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two weeks, as it was then, did seem too short a period if it was to include the run-up to the signing period—in other words, the time to get the signing issues out and for everyone to get to know about them as well as the signing period itself.

The Electoral Commission thinks eight weeks is, in its words, a relatively “long signing period”. Certainly, in democratic terms, two months is a long period for an MP to be effectively out of the Commons and fighting to retain his or her seat. However, the period does have to be sufficient for people to know about it, to hear the debate and to come to a view, and three weeks probably is too short if it is to cover the whole of the public awareness period—I do not like the word campaign—as well as the actual signing period. Amendment 12, as it stands, might not be the right one, but it will be very interesting to hear whether the Government can give us any reason why they chose eight weeks and, even more interestingly, whether they are willing to consider some movement on this.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for tabling this amendment; we have had a very interesting debate. I appreciate that an eight-week period may seem lengthy, but the main reason why it was considered appropriate is that we thought it was important that constituents are given sufficient time to consider any available information from the Member of Parliament or from those concerned with the petition. I very much hope, as I said before, that we do not have these recall petitions. I hope and expect that the behaviour of Members of Parliament will be of the highest standard, and that this will not happen.

7 pm

In answer to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, an eight-week period is appropriate because we think that it is important that all the available information should be seen not in a rushed and precipitate manner, although I do not think that it will be Madame Defarge and cherries. We want the feeling that this period is one of mature reflection and that there is proper consideration over a period of time. The shorter period that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, has proposed could result in electors feeling pressurised into making their decisions without all the facts before them. I understand the point that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, is raising about a Member of Parliament being hung out to dry, but we hope that that not will happen. We hope that this will be an eight-week period of reflection.

In its briefing today, the Electoral Commission has stated that it does not support this amendment. It is concerned that a three-week signing period would significantly reduce the accessibility of the petition process to people entitled to sign. We share this view. Reducing the signing period to three weeks could make it difficult for those who wish to sign the petition by post. This is the point I would like to make to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in response to his mention of the practical reasons. One of these, to which I will refer later, is that it is likely that in certain parts of the kingdom, perhaps in Northern Ireland or maybe some far-flung places, signing by post will be a popular way in which constituents will wish to respond.

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While existing electors with a postal vote in place would automatically be sent a signing sheet when the petition opens, electors without a postal vote who wished to sign by this method would have to submit an application, have it approved and receive their postal signature sheet in good enough time to return it before the petition closes. At elections the deadline for making an application by post is 11 working days before the poll. Under the noble Lord’s amendment, which proposes a 15 working-day signing period, the time available for an elector to decide whether to apply for a postal signing sheet would be unduly constrained.

Electors are very familiar with the ways in which they can vote at an election. However, recall petitions are likely to be rare and the first time that an elector will receive information on the alternative methods for signing a petition will be when they receive their petition notice card. Under the amendment, electors would have to decide probably too quickly, perhaps within the first week of the signing period, whether they wished to sign by post and request an application.

Petition notice cards will need to be dispatched once the register for administering the petition has been created. The earliest that this can happen is three working days before the petition opens. Assuming an elector received their petition notice card on the day before the petition opened, they would have only a short time to apply for a postal signing sheet. We will discuss the deadline for postal signing-sheet applications in a later group, but if we look at the deadline that exists at elections, postal-vote applications must be made by the 11th working day before the poll to allow the applications to be checked, and postal votes to be printed, despatched and returned. This allows very little time for electors to consider their options and decide, in this case, whether they wish to sign the petition.

For a variety of reasons postal signing could prove to be a popular and convenient way for electors to participate in a recall petition. Therefore, the Government believe that having a signing period of eight weeks is desirable and necessary, as it ensures that electors have time to consider the arguments put forward, and if they choose to sign the petition, to decide when, and in what way, it is most convenient for them to do so. As the Electoral Commission points out, three weeks would significantly reduce the accessibility to electors of the petition process.

I entirely understand the good intent and the kindness of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, in bringing this amendment forward.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: Does the Minister accept that one of the problems of an eight-week period is that someone who signs in the first two or three days might well reflect after five, six or seven days that he or she has made a mistake? There is no provision if someone changes their mind. For the process to work properly, if it can work at all, the shorter the period in which people make up their minds, the better.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: Another interpretation is that if you have too rushed an arrangement and want to vote by post, along with the problems that I have

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outlined about three weeks, this will be a serious and rare event. In replying to the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, I think that there should be a time in which mature reflection is permitted. If someone knows that they have a decent length of time either to send their vote back by post or to go to the signing place, this encourages them rather than causing in them a knee-jerk reaction from the last thing they read in the press. Because this is a serious move, a period of calm is required and would be provided.

If it was all to be condensed into a very short period, we could possibly have the hiatus and the cherries and the Madame Defarge scenario, whereas we want this to be taken seriously by Parliament; and if that happens, we want it also to be taken seriously by electors who will not in my view feel rushed by the arguments of one or the other side. They should have some time in which to reflect properly on the matter.

While I understand the kind and good intentions that the noble Lord has portrayed in not wanting to seek an unattractive scenario, I think that the eight weeks provide the calm reflection that I hope there would be abroad for this very serious matter, and so I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, I am very grateful to everybody who has spoken and certainly to all who have expressed support for the principle of what I was trying to achieve in putting this amendment forward.

Even at this stage, I hope that I can persuade the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, who has been conciliatory and flexible on the number of signing places, to be equally conciliatory and flexible on the matter of the duration of the signing period. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, put it so strongly and effectively, there should be an interaction between these two factors. The Government have helpfully and constructively moved on the one, but so far the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, has given us only half a loaf. If he is prepared to reflect on it he will see that there ought to be an interaction between these two considerations.

I have not at any point sought to suggest that we should so abbreviate the signing period that it becomes in practical terms impossible to conduct its administration properly. I also do not think that these decisions about recall should be taken hastily—far from it, because I agree with everybody who has stressed just how important these decisions are. Equally, we do not want to be dilatory about this process, partly for the reasons that I developed as I moved the amendment. We run a risk of some extended, gratuitous unpleasantness that is bad for political life and for our country. I know that the Minister fully understands the significance of that.

There are other factors. There is cost. These are stringent times. How can it possibly be justified to keep these signing places open, staffed by paid officials, for more weeks than they are genuinely needed? My noble friend Lady Hayter made another important point for which I am most grateful. She drew attention to the fact that if the petition signing period runs for eight weeks, and should there not be the 10% of registered voters signing the petition, the Member of

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Parliament whose future is in question will be absent from the service of his or her constituents, and absent from the House of Commons, for the whole of that period. That seems to be a very important case.

The Minister has expressed in very general terms the desirability of people not being made to rush their judgment in this matter. I think there is realistic scope for a compromise to reduce the period of eight weeks to what would be the necessary minimum to enable constituents to reflect adequately on the important decision they have to take and to implement that decision by way of signing the petition, whether directly or by post. Is the Minister willing, between now and Third Reading, to think further about it and perhaps meet us to discuss it? I hope that he will not be as adamant as the first part of his remarks just now seemed to suggest. I invite him to tell us now whether he sees an opportunity for some further consideration of this—which, it seems to be agreed all around the Chamber, it is desirable to do—to reduce the signing period to the necessary minimum and no longer. Is the Minister willing to give us that undertaking?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, I do not think I am in a position to give an undertaking. The truth is that thought should be given towards any stage in your Lordships’ House. But I cannot promise to bring anything further back because, for the reasons I have outlined, the Government are of the view that three weeks is not sufficient and they think that eight weeks is the right length for mature discussion. Of course, I am always very happy to see the noble Lord, but I am not in a position to promise that I would be able to support anything beyond the Government’s current position.

Lord Howarth of Newport: I completely understand that the noble Lord is not in a position to give a solid undertaking that he will introduce an amendment that changes the signing period. But I take it from what he has just said that he is willing to enter into a discussion with his ministerial colleagues. He has said that he is willing to talk to some of us about this. That would be genuinely desirable. I think that somewhere between three weeks and eight weeks, we can arrive at a better span of time which should be agreeable to everybody. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 12 withdrawn.

7.15 pm

Amendment 13

Moved by Lord Kennedy of Southwark

13: Clause 9, page 7, line 22, leave out subsection (4)

Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab): My Lords, Amendments 13 and 14 are in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town. I moved similar amendments in Committee. Amendment 13 removes the petition wording from the Bill, and Amendment 14 makes provision for the wording to be agreed following consultation with both the Electoral Commission and the Welsh Language Commissioner.

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At present we have words in the Bill that have not been user-tested. The Electoral Commission has given some advice, but unlike the referendums in Wales and Scotland, it will not be involved in the user-testing. According to its briefing, it seems quite content with that, which in itself is a bit odd. In Committee I asked the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, which organisation would be undertaking the user-testing of the wording. He was not able to answer me then but agreed to write to me, which he has done and I am most grateful to him for that.

I would like to understand why the Cabinet Office launched a tender exercise on user-testing rather than asking the Electoral Commission to do the work. What was the discussion in government that came up with that decision? The Government have not been clear on that so far and it is not referred to in the briefing note from the Electoral Commission either, but discussion on this issue must have taken place. This is all very rushed and not a good way to undertake an important exercise. Putting untested petition words in the Bill, although they can be amended by regulation, is not the most satisfactory way to go about this.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, as I hope he will confirm the involvement of the Welsh Language Commissioner in the process but, as I said, it should be done in a much better way. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, should reconsider the position he took in Committee. This is not a very encouraging way to move forward and I think it is a bad case of putting the cart before the horse. I beg to move.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, it seems to me that the horse is actually before the cart. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, suggested—I thought rather unkindly—that there was a lot of cut and paste in the Bill. Actually, we have followed wherever possible agreed and established rules in comparable cases of electoral law. That seems to be an entirely appropriate way to do it.

Our decision to include the specified wording in the Bill mirrors the position for UK parliamentary elections where the form of the ballot paper appears in primary legislation but may be amended through regulations. As I said in Committee, a modest but worthwhile advantage of the appearance of the signing sheet’s wording in the Bill is that any future changes made to it will then be reflected in the text of the parent Act, which helps to make the law as clear as possible for petition administrators, parties and campaigners.

I agree that it is important to check that the wording is fit for purpose. That is why we have committed to user-test it with input from the Electoral Commission on the user-testing specification. If changes are identified, these can be made through regulations which require the approval of both Houses. We currently have a tender out for a supplier to undertake this work in consultation with the Electoral Commission.

On the question of consultation with the Welsh Language Commissioner, I can reaffirm that the Government will prepare a Welsh translation of the wording in secondary legislation, as is the practice at other statutory polls, using a power and following a principle established in the Welsh Language Act 1993.

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This translation will be subject to user-testing in the same way as the English version, and we will consult the Electoral Commission’s Welsh language experts to ensure that the translation is accurate and user- friendly.

The Welsh Language Commissioner has no formal statutory role in assessing electoral forms and notices. I am in favour of those with an interest in the process being involved in and aware of user-testing, although it would be unusual to provide a statutory role for the commissioner here and not in respect of other polls. In summary, I believe it is important that the wording of the petition appears in the Bill, and that it is user-tested and commented on to ensure that any improvements which are identified can be made. With those reassurances that we are following established practice in both respects, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark: I thank the noble Lord for his response. I still think it is an odd way to be moving forward. I am not sure that the Government have thought this through particularly well. We are trying to help the Government with these matters, but at this stage I am prepared to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 13 withdrawn.

Amendments 14 and 15 not moved.

Amendment 16

Moved by Lord Kennedy of Southwark

16: Clause 9, page 7, line 35, at end insert—

“( ) The petition officer must not make public a running total of signatories to the recall petition during the signing period.”

Lord Kennedy of Southwark: My Lords, the two amendments in this group are in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town. Amendment 16 mirrors an amendment tabled in Committee by my noble friend Lord Hughes of Woodside.

I disagree with both the Government and the Electoral Commission on whether, when the recall provisions have been triggered, it will be a local event with a local feel. It would be a grave error for a running total to be published throughout the eight-week signing period. It will be a national event and a potential media circus, with different outlets reporting daily on the number of people who have signed the petition. If the noble Lord is not minded to accept my amendment, I hope that he will confirm very clearly to your Lordships’ House that this will not be allowed to happen and that in the regulations that will be issued it will be explicit that the number of people who have signed the petition cannot be released under any circumstances during the signing period.

Amendment 18 requires the petition officer to make public the number of people on the electoral register at the cut-off period before the petition process opens. This will enable everyone to be clear on the number of signatures needed to trigger the recall process. It is very important that everyone involved in the process is

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clear on the number of signatures needed to have a Member of Parliament recalled, and for there to be no doubt about what that figure is.

Again, if the Minister is not minded to accept my amendment, I hope that in responding he will give a clear assurance to the House that this will be explicit in the regulations he issues. I beg to move.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I am very happy to confirm that the Government’s intention is that the regulations will require the petition officer to make public the number of eligible electors in the constituency—as has been suggested—and that the regulations would not sanction the issuing of a running total during the petition process itself.

As I said in Committee, the Bill does not specify whether a running total should be published, but further detail would be a matter for the conduct regulations. It would not be consistent with the level of detail in the Bill to specify these matters here but I can assure the noble Lord that we have heard and understood his arguments, that we agree with them and that they will be adequately covered in the regulations. On that basis I again hope that he is sufficiently reassured to be able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark: I thank the Minister for his response. I am reassured and am happy to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 16 withdrawn.

Clause 10: Persons entitled to sign a recall petition

Amendment 17

Moved by Lord Kennedy of Southwark

17: Clause 10, page 8, line 12, at end insert—

“( ) Any persons wishing to apply to vote by post, who are not interested to do so before the Speaker’s notice is given or on the cut-off day, must do so no later than the end of the fifth week of the signing period.”

Lord Kennedy of Southwark: My Lords, Amendments 17, 19 and 20 again are in my name and the name of my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town.

Amendment 17 would bring in a deadline of the end of the fifth week to be able to apply to sign the petition by post. At both Committee stage and in the memorandum which outlines the draft regulation, the only information provided by the Government on the limitations on signing the petition by post was that the procedures for elections and referendums would not be appropriate for the recall process. However, a letter to my noble friend Lord Hughes of Woodside stated that the Government intended to maintain the same time limits. So can the Minister tell the House why 11 days is deemed appropriate? Who has been consulted on this?

Even with the Government’s commitment to increase the number of signing places from four to 10—which is welcome—it is reasonable to believe that there will be a greater demand to sign the petition by post. Given all that, does the Minister think that 11 working days will be long enough to check—and double-check—all

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the applications that may be received? Our amendment allows for a longer period to check that everything is okay. It enhances security and enables greater vigilance to be deployed by petition officers, as they will have more time to undertake their work.

Amendments 19 and 20 are the same as those I moved in Committee. They raise the penalty for double signing from an illegal practice to a corrupt one. I was disappointed that the Minister did not accept those amendments then. I have had some discussions with him outside the Chamber and I would be interested to hear careful words from him that clearly state that the reasons for double signing will not necessarily be the same and that therefore on some occasions prosecutions in the corrupt band would be necessary, while in others they would be in the illegal band.

As I said in Committee, a corrupt practice at an election includes things such as impersonating another individual to use their vote, signing and submitting a false election expense return or attempting to bribe, treat or use undue influence on a voter, whereas an illegal practice includes not putting an imprint on your leaflet. The noble Lord must surely accept that the former offences are more in keeping with the double signing offence than are the latter. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to this and other points I have raised. I beg to move.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for again raising these issues, which we have discussed in Committee. As I stated in Committee, the detail of how postal and proxy signing will operate will be dealt with in the regulations made under Clause 18. This again mirrors the approach made at UK parliamentary elections, where the rules for absent voting appear in secondary legislation.

Therefore, the Bill itself does not set a deadline by which postal signature sheet applications must be received. At an election this is usually the 11th working day before the poll, which allows applications received in the days just before and up to the deadline to be processed and postal ballot packs issued to electors for them to complete and return in time for the close of poll.

As I previously stated, for a petition it is possible to set a deadline during the petition signing period itself. The last day of the period is, in effect, analogous to polling day at an election, so there needs to be a cut-off point. I therefore have some sympathy with the policy suggestion made by this amendment, and can confirm our intention that the regulations will set a deadline. However, the amendment is not necessary, as the regulation powers in the Bill are sufficient to enable a deadline for applications to be set.

It would be prudent to ensure that the rules about postal and proxy signing are set out clearly in a single place for the benefit of practitioners and campaigners, and in this sense it is not helpful to specify the deadline for only postal signature sheet applications in the Bill. So the regulations will set out regulations for both postal and proxy voting.

Amendments 19 and 20 would modify the nature of the offence in the Bill for signing the petition twice, making it a corrupt rather than an illegal practice. It

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does this by amending provisions in the Representation of the People Act 1983 that apply to the offence of double voting. These amendments were originally tabled in Committee.

Clause 12 makes it an offence for two or more signatures to be added to the petition by or on behalf of any individual elector, just as in elections it is an offence for two or more votes to be cast by or on behalf of an individual elector. As was noted in Committee, Clause 12 mirrors the offence of double voting in electoral law in terms of the maximum penalties that apply upon conviction. First, a person guilty of the offence is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, which is up to £5,000—a not inconsiderable sum. Secondly, a person convicted of the offence is incapable for a period of three years of being registered as an elector or voting in parliamentary elections and local government elections in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, being an MP or holding a local government elective office in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. The sentencing court has the option partially or wholly to waive these incapacities.

The amendments proposed would modify the first of these two aspects, with the result that a person convicted of double signing would be liable on conviction to a prison sentence of up to two years. In this respect, the amendments treat the offence like an even more seriously corrupt practice in electoral law such as personation, either by impersonation or via an absent vote.

I read through all this with great fascination. My wife votes twice, and has voted twice for some time, holding a proxy as she does for our son, who has been working in the United States for some time. One of the greatest delights in the past week is that he has just accepted a post at Edinburgh University—so her second proxy vote will be removed as he returns to this country.

The amendments do not amend the second aspect: the duration of the incapacity to vote or stand in an election. The three-year bar is retained, and replaced by a five-year bar for corrupt practices such as personation.

The Government’s view is that the penalties for illegal practices are adequate for the offence of double signing, and that the penalties for corrupt practice are more appropriate for these even more severe offences. Our consideration is—again given the existing law covering electoral offences—that it would be inappropriate to arrange for a different set of standards for petition elections than holds for other forms of election. I hope that that is clear. We are attempting to be consistent here and I hope that on that basis I have again reassured the noble Lord. His knowledge of electoral law is—I am well aware—deeper than mine, but I hope that he will be able to withdraw his amendment.

7.30 pm

Lord Kennedy of Southwark: I thank the Minister for his response. I hope that outside the Chamber we may be able to have some discussions about the question of the signing period for applying for a petition vote. There is some issue about the 11 days and the sheer amount of pressure on returning officers to deal with

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that, so I hope that we can do that. The offence of double signing, if proven in a court of law, would sit more comfortably with corrupt rather than illegal practice. However, at this stage, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 17 withdrawn.

Amendment 18 not moved.

Clause 12: Double signing

Amendments 19 and 20 not moved.

Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 8.30 pm.

Welfare Assistance Schemes

Question for Short Debate

7.30 pm

Asked by The Lord Bishop of Truro

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that local welfare assistance schemes provide effective support to people in crisis and will continue to be able to do so.

The Lord Bishop of Truro: My Lords, I am very grateful indeed for this opportunity to raise a very important issue by putting some questions to the Government on, and raising matters relating to, local welfare assistance schemes. In doing so, I declare my interest that I am chair of the Children’s Society, a national charity which has conducted quite a lot of research in this area and to which I shall refer.

I begin by welcoming the government decision to make visible within the local government settlement £129.6 million for funding for local welfare provision. This funding provides a vital safety net for families and children, and vulnerable residents, in a crisis. The additional allocation of £74 million to local authorities, coming on the back of campaigns run by the Children’s Society and others and announced last week by the Government, is also a welcome, necessary and vital step in ensuring that all local authorities up and down the country have the resources available to put in place local welfare schemes.

The level of public support for the reinstatement of funding for local welfare provision has been significant. I am sorry that I was not in the Chamber earlier to hear the Question asked on this matter. More than 5,000 campaigners from the Children’s Society and Shelter responded to the government consultation in November on the future of local welfare provision, calling for funding to be provided in addition to the core grant funding made available to local authorities. The consultation on the provisional settlement, held in January, received an even greater number of responses, with more than 12,500 answering the specific question on local welfare provision—and all calling for the funding to be reinstated at the level available for the current financial year. In fact, since 2010, spending on the discretionary Social Fund has been

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reduced by £150 million in real terms, so this emergency support has faced significant funding cuts in the last five years.

The need for an effective safety net of last resort is vital to provide emergency help to very vulnerable families and children in crisis situations. This is especially necessary given the growing struggles that many families are facing, as evidenced in particular through the growing use of food banks and other emergency food aid provisions. The growth in these also shows the growing need for such crisis support. In addition, the combined proportion of household incomes spent on food, housing and utilities for households in the bottom income decile rose from 31% in 2003 to 40% in 2012, as we made clear in the report Feeding Britain, produced in December. On the back of this public support and calls from councils and the voluntary sector, I am pleased with the announcement that a visible funding line will be available for local welfare provision and that additional money will be made available to local authorities to ensure that these schemes are in place.

The vulnerability of claimants to local welfare schemes, and previously to community care grants and crisis loans through the discretionary Social Fund, is clear. Over half of community care grants awarded in the final year of the discretionary Social Fund, prior to localisation, were made to families in a crisis. Research shortly to be published from the Children’s Society found that over a third of local authorities used their local welfare assistance schemes as one of the only ways in which they could support young homeless people aged between 16 and 20. Many local authorities up and down the country have put in place innovative local schemes to help vulnerable residents, while evidence from local authority returns to the Department for Work and Pensions review found that 86% of funding allocated to local authorities was projected to be spent in 2014-15.

The Children’s Society has worked closely with a number of councils seeking to improve and continually evaluate their local schemes. However, there is undoubtedly a mixed picture up and down the country; the quality of schemes varies enormously. Following additional money being made available by central government to support local authorities with local welfare provision, there is the opportunity to provide guidance—or a clear steer from Ministers—that this funding should be spent protecting the most vulnerable. It would be really useful to hear tonight from the Government their plans in this regard.

We know from the information currently available that information gathered about local schemes varies hugely. Monitoring the effectiveness of local schemes is therefore a significant challenge for local charities, service providers and central government departments in taking decisions on the future funding of such schemes. I point the Minister to the Children’s Society’s report Nowhere to Turn?, which has recommendations for local schemes. These include, first, ensuring that low-income working families are able to access local schemes by ensuring that eligibility criteria are not restricted to those in receipt of out-of-work benefits. Evidence has found that a quarter of schemes require claimants to be in receipt of out-of-work benefits,

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with only 9% of schemes explicitly stating that they allow claimants in receipt of working tax credits or work benefits to apply for emergency support. We know that approximately six in 10 children in poverty now live in low-income working families, making this requirement extremely important to ensure that families have somewhere to turn in an emergency.

Secondly, not requiring applicants to the scheme to access other sources of consumer credit before applying to their local welfare scheme is another suggestion from the report. Forcing families further into a debt trap will not help those who are struggling. This should not be a requirement for accessing your local scheme in an emergency. Thirdly,the report recommendsensuring that local schemes do not have restrictive and overly long residency criteria, prohibiting many families in a crisis from accessing their local schemes. Half of all schemes require claimants to be resident; a further 13% require claimants to have lived in the area for more than six months.

If local schemes are cut and vulnerable people have nowhere to turn, we are likely to see a number of additional and more expensive costs to the public purse. This will motivate councils to maintain schemes but central government will also bear costs, and so should be motivated to ensure that local schemes are maintained.

Since the provisional local government settlement for 2015-16 was published in December 2013, schemes up and down the country have been hampered by uncertainty over funding. This uncertainty has caused some councils to restrict access to schemes, in the hope of being able to roll over underspend to future years and ensure that they do not have to cut back a service which they are no longer able to fund. I therefore suggest that greater certainty over funding going into 2016-17 would enable councils to design schemes to meet the needs of residents now, and in the longer term. There has also been a lack of clarity on how funding levels are decided. Even if it is not currently possible to commit to levels of future funding, which I would of course understand, the Government should be able to provide clarity on the process that they will undertake to make this decision.

I believe that it is possible to monitor local schemes effectively. The Scottish Welfare Fund, for example, is administered locally with information gathered centrally. This includes information about whether the applicant has children or a disability, and the reason for the application. People with disabilities are particularly likely to be overrepresented among recipients. In the last year of the Social Fund, 32% of community care grants expenditure and 19% of crisis loan expenditure was for people with disabilities. In Scotland, where we can still see a clear picture of the characteristics of recipients, two out of every five recipients of the Scottish scheme claimed ESA.

Alongside the more effective monitoring and evaluation of local schemes, putting funding on a more sustainable future footing is required, as I have said, to ensure that this vital safety net continues into the future. As I end my speech, I will therefore ask some questions of the Minister and I hope that other people will support the idea that we need to find ways to ensure that these

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local welfare schemes are firmly put within local authorities and used for the purposes for which they are set.

Will the Minister consider issuing guidance or best practice on local welfare assistance schemes to help local authorities implement effective schemes in their local area? Children are a key beneficiary of local welfare schemes. Will the Minister explain where families will be able to turn in an emergency should their local authority not provide a local welfare assistance scheme?

What steps, I wonder, will the Minister take should schemes be completely abolished in a minority of local authority areas, and how will he address this circumstance? Will he outline how the additional funding amount of £74 million was decided upon and why the full allocation for 2014-15 was not provided in addition to the core government grants, as called for by many members of the public, charities and local authorities? Does the Minister agree that the next comprehensive spending review will provide an ideal opportunity to ensure that longer-term funding for local welfare provision is available over the course of the next Parliament? I look forward to answers to some of these questions.

7.40 pm

Baroness Jenkin of Kennington (Con): My Lords, I wish to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro for securing this debate, which gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to his commitment to social justice issues and those in need, and also to thank him for his leadership, together with Frank Field, of the all-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger. He and I travelled to Birkenhead and South Shields together to listen to local evidence and I was particularly sorry to miss the inquiry session which he helped to organise in Looe, as I know that great work, much of it done by local churches, is taking place in Cornwall.

I would like to start by quoting from the right reverend Prelate’s introduction to the inquiry’s report published in December last year in which he acknowledged that these are complex issues. For those who have not read the report and his thoughtful comments, I take this opportunity to recommend it. He wrote:

“We are living at a time of difficult financial circumstances. The Government has to make hard choices with limited resources”.

He went on to set the increasing need for food banks in the context of,

“a deeper problem in our society; the ‘glue’ that used to be there is no longer there in many instances”.

But this social glue is precisely what localising welfare assistance can help to create and nurture and he and I have seen many great examples of it. It is vital that national government continue to fund local authorities to deliver effective schemes. Indeed one recommendation of the inquiry’s report was that the Government should continue to protect local welfare assistance funding and not allow it to be wholly incorporated into the local government finance settlement.

Everyone in this Chamber today knows how much pressure every local authority is under and we were concerned that assistance for vulnerable working-age adults and financially needy families would fall by the wayside if forced to compete with statutory duties.

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Like the right reverend Prelate, I welcome the fact that the DCLG has earmarked £74 million in response. The inquiry also recommended that DCLG monitor take-up rates for local welfare assistance within each local authority and work with those where registration is inexplicably low. Eighty per cent of authorities are not spending the whole of the allocated funds. Where this is due to potential applicants’ low awareness of availability, a range of agencies, including Jobcentre Plus, must ensure that those who need it are finding their way to accessing it. Yet the focus cannot simply be on meeting need with cash. Where severe financial need is partly due to inability to access and progress in work, serious personal debt, drug or alcohol problems, domestic abuse or other profound relationship problems—all of which can be a driver and effect of mental illness—these root causes must also be addressed.

I want to focus my remarks on a couple of the many local welfare assistance schemes that are doing just that and I wish time allowed me to acknowledge more of the organisations working in this field. The individuals delivering them are, if I may say, evidence that social glue, which can perhaps be defined as love for fellow human beings, is by no means absent. Indeed it is flourishing where the state is acknowledging that the human-scale, whole-person approach on which many local grassroots organisations operate will very often be more effective than top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches. The DCLG could help to increase the effectiveness of its funding by showcasing superb practice, as I am about to do, by drawing on examples which we heard about during the inquiry into hunger.

The Matthew Tree Project in Bristol is so much more than a simple food bank in terms of its early intervention and prevention approach. Its 400 volunteers offer advice, support and love—that word again—to help people develop skills to make life healthy and sustainable. For some that means becoming work-ready while others need help with budgeting and other advice. A couple of weeks ago a group of us, including the Members of Parliament for Birkenhead and for South Shields, visited in West Norwood the first community shop to be up and running on the lines of a social supermarket model. It is an entirely replicable, self-funding social enterprise. We came away inspired and enthused and I would encourage other noble Lords to visit and see for themselves.

I could spend the whole of my time today talking about it, but will save that for another day because I also want to mention the Centre for Social Justice Alliance of over 300 grass-roots charities working at the coalface of poverty as another source of inspiring good practice. Furniture Now in Brighton is an innovative community waste, reuse and training charity which recycles unwanted furniture and white goods and sells them on either at very low prices to homeless families, others in sudden crisis and those receiving benefits or to other customers who pay a full second-hand cost. The organisation provides free training and employment skills for those who are not in education, employment or training, have mental health difficulties, or have struggled with drug and alcohol dependency. All of its more than 60 volunteers are from vulnerable groups—those with mild learning difficulties, those in drug,

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alcohol, mental health or domestic abuse recovery and ex-offenders—enabling them to contribute meaningfully to society.

These welfare society foot soldiers are, however, rarely funded by local welfare assistance money and it is important to consider if and why they are missing out in local authority commissioning practices. In a survey, 91% of the CSJ Alliance said they did not feel there was a level playing field for small organisations providing public services and two-thirds were not consulted by local government about the design of services relevant to their work. It is to be hoped that the current review by the noble Lord, Lord Young, of the Public Services (Social Value) Act for the Government will consider whether those best equipped to help people transform their lives and circumstances are getting a fair crack of the whip when it comes to commissioning.

7.47 pm

Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab): My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for initiating this important and timely debate. I also thank the Government for the welcome concessions they have made following two rounds of consultations. I should perhaps declare an interest as the honorary president of the Child Poverty Action Group, which was instrumental in the test case that led to the consultation—an example of the threat of judicial review bringing real benefit to some of the most deprived members of our society.

However, the new money available is also intended to ease pressures on health and social care and the total allocation represents a cut of around £100 million on the previous year, which itself represented a cut in funding, as the right reverend Prelate has already noted. The statement underlined that there would be no ring-fencing or monitoring of its use. I hope the right reverend Prelate will forgive a Biblical allusion when I say that this smacks of the Pontius Pilate approach to policy-making—central government washing its hands of all responsibility for what happens to the money it has earmarked to meet the needs of some of the most vulnerable members of society.

It is important to put these schemes in context and remember that they are not some new addition to the welfare firmament but replace long-standing social safety net provisions within the social assistance scheme. Some of us recall when discretionary exceptional needs payments were replaced by regulated single payments. These were described at the time by the Social Security Advisory Committee as an “essential part” of the social assistance scheme,

“providing a cushion against particular one-off events which cannot be provided for from within a very basic weekly income”.

This is still the case, as minimum income standards research highlights. Regulated payments were of course then quickly replaced by the discretionary Social Fund.

Given this history, it really is essential that central government does not wash its hands of all responsibility for the allocated funds. At a minimum it needs to establish basic monitoring requirements so it is possible to evaluate how well the schemes are meeting needs and also so that local authorities operating less effective

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schemes can learn from those operating more effective ones. The noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, highlighted some of them.

The Department for Work and Pensions review of the first 18 months of operation included very little information on those seeking help. This means, among other things, that, as the equality statement on the 2015-16 funding allocation acknowledges, it is difficult to predict the full impact on protected groups because the Government do not nationally collect data on who has benefited from existing local schemes. Yet it also acknowledges that it is reasonable to consider that a number of protected groups could be impacted by any decisions. This is simply not good enough, especially as the Scottish Government have shown that it is possible to monitor local schemes effectively, revealing, for example, that people with disabilities are particularly reliant on the scheme, as the right reverend Prelate has already observed. In its report on localisation issues in welfare reform, the Work and Pensions Select Committee recommended that central government should monitor the use of the funds until the new arrangements had bedded in, suggesting a period of five years, which seems very reasonable. Interestingly, I noted that it has moved from its initial position of not supporting ring-fencing and is now recommending that the money should be ring-fenced.

I am making a very modest request, which is that the Government review their position on monitoring and accept that they still have a responsibility to ensure that the money earmarked to meet the needs of vulnerable groups, such as homeless people and care leavers, is used effectively for the purposes intended. Simply intoning that local authorities will act responsibly, as the Minister did earlier today, is no answer. I am not accusing local authorities of acting irresponsibly. I am simply asking for accountability.

7.51 pm

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope (LD): My Lords, as always it is a great pleasure to follow my friend the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett. I share her concern. This is a very risky area of policy to continue in the current vein. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for drawing this important matter to the attention of the House.

The first point I want to make is that these are not local welfare services; these are local crisis and emergency services. When the right reverend Prelate went into his speech, he lapsed out of the jargon into crisis and emergency services. He is absolutely right about that. I hate the word “welfare” because it is so pejorative and indicative of a patronising and wholly inappropriate way of treating people in emergencies. Language and approach are all-important in this.

I absolutely agree that it is not good enough to say that £74 million is better than a slap in the face with a cold fish. We need this to be put on an ongoing basis, and it is incumbent on the Government to do so. Of course they cannot commit future Governments—I will be interested in what the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, who is also my friend, says about what the future might hold. It is no good saying, “We’ll put this in place and see what happens”. This is the safety net, the

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last resort. People have nowhere else to go and there is no other port of call. Leaving this to local authorities and not ring-fencing the money is taking a huge risk. The five questions that the right reverend Prelate asked are interesting. If the Minister has not got time to deal with them adequately, I hope he will write to the right reverend Prelate and the rest of us to give us some comfort because all these questions are absolutely appropriate and need an answer.

The context for all this has changed quite dramatically. We underestimate the level of household debt being experienced by the lowest one or two deciles of household income distribution. People are now using credit cards to pay for weekly day-to-day expenditure. I have been as interested as my friend the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, in all this for more than 35 years. I have never known a situation such as now where households are making ends meet by borrowing money. You cannot do that indefinitely. We are storing up trouble for ourselves if we do not understand that.

Emergency and crisis provision takes no account of the ability to enter into any kind of preventive and advisory support and sustaining services. I do not think local authorities should provide them; central government needs to do it. We might be doing some of that with universal credit—if it works, when it works. Universal credit’s so-called local delivery, the support system which is applied to claimants at their universal credit application point, is something we need to work on to make sure that it dovetails with what is being provided by local authorities.

Coming from Scotland, you might expect me to say this, and everybody else has said it so I do not want to be left out: Scotland does some of these things better. The national monitoring framework is an essential tool that must be put in place in the future to make sure that things get done right. In the old days, there used to be systems of appeal. There used to be a Social Fund commissioner whose responsibility it was year on year to produce a report for Parliament saying what he thought was being done with the increased money that used to be available. Now we have nothing of that kind. There are no appeals and there is no guarantee that people have any certainty about where they can go if their applications for so-called local welfare provision payments fail.

I endorse everything that has been said so far, but I want to make two extra points. First, DCLG will need to accept responsibility, and I hope the Minister will, for the co-ordination of all the agencies that are now involved in this area of public policy, not just DWP and the LGA but including the devolved Administrations and civil society. Somebody has to co-ordinate things. Secondly, I hear on the grapevine that Northern Ireland has just agreed a settlement that gives discretionary grants for community distribution. I do not know how much money is involved, but I would be very pleased to hear whether that is a bit of best practice which might be considered for sharing in the future. I hope that DCLG and the ministerial team involved in this will look carefully at these things. I hope we will get some answers to these important questions. I am much less happy about getting £74 million because I do not think it is enough.

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7.57 pm

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD): My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate for securing this debate and for his very powerful speech. As a district councillor, I have seen many instances where local assistance schemes have kept the wolf of hunger, want and need from the door while families gained a breathing space to enable them to cope. There are numerous reasons why individuals and families require emergency relief. They may have been evicted from their home for non-payment of the mortgage due to the main earner losing their job. Having been evicted, they may have lost their furniture and personal belongings because they had nowhere to store them. They may have been in temporary accommodation provided by the local council and are now being offered a permanent rented home. They may have been able, through friends or charity shops, to gather together the basics of beds, chairs and a small table, but they have no cooker or perhaps no fridge. They may not have been able to make their money stretch and have run out of credit for their electricity pre-payment meter. They may have no food with which to feed their children, again having not been able to make their money stretch. In cases such as these, referrals to the local assistance scheme have provided them with the vital necessities to enable them to rebuild their family life.

Let no one be in any doubt that every one of the cases helped by the local assistance scheme is totally justifiable. The people assisted are not scroungers but are desperate, with their backs against the wall. In Somerset, local citizens advice bureaux administer the scheme on behalf of the county council. They receive referrals from social services, housing associations, district councils, the voluntary sector, GP surgeries, the faith communities and many other sources. No cash ever changes hands. There are some who turn up thinking that they will get cash, and when they find that the help on offer is in the form of a voucher, they often go away and look elsewhere for help. Sometimes they will go to a loan shark. Perhaps their child’s class at school is due to go on an outing that has to be paid for: most parents would not want their child to be the one left behind. Many schools will have funds to help children from families struggling to make their money stretch, but often there is a reluctance on the part of parents to identify themselves to the school as being in this category. It is less embarrassing to go to the anonymous citizens advice bureaux and sometimes easier to fall victim to a loan shark who does not ask questions about what they want the money for.

However, the local scheme does help a large number of people and families by providing vouchers for white goods that can be exchanged at specified outlets; vouchers for furniture exchanged at Furnicare, the local charity that takes in unwanted furniture, refurbishes it and passes it on; vouchers that can be exchanged for a top-up of their electricity key meter, and—often the most used facility—a referral to the local food bank. As I said earlier, the reasons for needing emergency help are many. Some are claimants and have been sanctioned, but do not realise that until the money does not arrive; some have

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very limited budgeting skills. However, local citizens advice bureaux are able to refer these people to skills courses where help is available not only with budgeting but also with basic literacy and IT skills.

Like other noble Lords, I was extremely concerned when I realised that the local assistance schemes were coming to an end. I am delighted that, due to the considerable efforts of my friends the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right honourable Danny Alexander, and the honourable Stephen Williams, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, additional money has been provided, although not enough, according to many noble Lords. I welcome the £74 million that will go to upper-tier authorities to help them meet the needs covered by the local schemes and to deal with the additional pressures on social care. While this money is not ring-fenced, it is an identifiable line in the budget. I feel certain that these authorities—perhaps I am being optimistic—will distribute the money wisely, where a very small amount of resource can make the most difference to the lives of their residents. I look forward to witnessing a positive impact on the lives of the most vulnerable in our communities and to hearing the reassurances sought by the right reverend Prelate.

8.02 pm

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, I intervene briefly in the gap to emphasise two matters that would support the encouragement, advice, steer, or even the requirement on local authorities to distribute local welfare provision, recently enhanced by a further £74 million. As other noble Lords have said, this is vital crisis support—genuinely a safety net—that is needed and should be used.

First, I want to request that attention be given to the stability of this provision and funding going forward. Despite the political uncertainties of the coming months, we can be clear of the need for local welfare provision beyond this year. That unfortunately is certain. Allocations that are made in a piecemeal fashion, as has happened recently, are less than helpful; consistency from year to year would be preferable. Some local authorities seem to have rationed this year’s funding while provision for the coming year was uncertain. An undertaking to maintain this notional provision, or at least a process that did not demand last-minute substantial representations, would increase the likelihood of local councils adopting best practice. I hope that the Government will consider this.

Secondly, I emphasise that there is an economic case for local welfare provision. The review by Portsmouth City Council, my own see city, of this provision concluded that modest expenditure saved costs elsewhere. Failing to grant a little often increases the demand for mental health services, children’s social care, temporary accommodation provision and debt advice. Preventing a tenancy breakdown, for example, saves an authority nearly £7,000 per eviction. I trust that local authorities will heed that and the Government will encourage, steer, advise and even ask for undertakings about the spending of this vital provision.

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8.05 pm

Lord McKenzie of Luton (Lab): My Lords, like all others who have spoken, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro for the opportunity to focus on local welfare assistance schemes in this short debate. I draw attention to my interest in the register as a trustee of NOAH Enterprises—that stands for “new opportunities and horizons”, rather than the boat—which is a Luton-based charity supporting disadvantaged individuals.

Like others, I begin with the good news, and recognise that the Government did, by consent order in the judicial review proceedings in September last year, agree to conduct a consultation, conclude their review of local welfare provision and review their funding for 2015-16. As we have heard, this led to additional funding being allocated for that year, but it was to cover health and social care as well as local welfare. This is a real advance on where things were heading when the announcement was made that there was to be no funding from 2015, without formal consultation or consideration of the equality duty. Sadly, this was an insight into the mind of the Government of what they were hoping to get away with.

It might be worth recapping how we got to local welfare assistance schemes. It was the Welfare Reform Act 2012 that paved the way with the abolition of key components of the discretionary Social Fund, namely community care grants and crisis loans. This funding was described then as the ultimate safety net for the most vulnerable—enabling, for example, women and children fleeing domestic violence to clothe themselves and furnish their homes. Funding under the new arrangements was to be channelled to local authorities and devolved Administrations for them to provide assistance as they saw fit. This funding, as we have heard, was not to be ring-fenced—a bone of contention at the time which was, from recollection, vigorously pursued by my noble friend Lady Lister. The best we could get was an agreement that the funding allocated was to be set out in the settlement letter that accompanied the local government finance settlement. However, concern was about not only the lack of ring-fencing but the lack of any new duties to provide support for the most vulnerable.

Although the Government claim to have passed through programme funding levels previously available to the Social Fund, that was after the Government had set about “managing” demand of the latter down, back to its pre-2006 levels. They did this by no longer paying crisis loans for such items as cookers and beds and cutting back the rate paid for living expenses to 60% of the benefit rate. The problem was not the devolving of responsibilities for providing this support to local authorities; it was the nature of the funding regime into which it was devolved.

Although it might be said that it is early days, work done by the LGA and the DWP suggests that councils are creating schemes which better meet the underlying needs of applicants because they have a good understanding of their local community and its demography. This is to be welcomed. The DWP, in its November 2014 review, instances a range of approaches as to who are supported and how they are chosen. The

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survey of local authorities showed a common list of provision—with food being on the top—but differing restrictions or limitations on what was provided. It showed some good practice on aligning funding with existing services, but overall the picture was of the limited provision of the most basic components of daily living for those in crisis: patchy provision, as the right reverend Prelate said. There seem as yet limited attempts to monitor outcomes.

There are concerns that even this provision is not sustainable, which is why, before the recent announcements of some additional funding, LGA research showed that as many as three-quarters of local welfare schemes would be scaled back or scrapped, a deeply worrying prospect. Of course, the model is familiar. Government devolves responsibility to local authorities, fails to adequately provide starting funding, fails to ring-fence what funding is available, continues to cut local authority support, and does so in a way which takes proportionately more from the most disadvantaged, and it leaves local government with the awful choices of which discretionary budgets to access to fulfil the statutory obligations in adult and children’s services.

The Minister may tell us that a majority of councils did not spend the whole of their allocated funds in 2013-14. That is not altogether surprising, given the time to get processes up and running and the then understanding that the council would have to fund the service from 2015-16, a point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth. Over half of local authorities forecast spending all of the funding in 2014-15 but, again, some plan to carry forward some to support the subsequent year. It is in part the uncertainty of what is going to happen in future that engenders caution on behalf of local authorities and, of course, the price is paid by those who miss out on current support because the criteria are too restrictive.

The question may be asked—indeed, it was asked—about what the Labour Party would do should government come our way. We are committed to a fairer allocation of resources between councils and, in that context, would review the operation of local welfare assistance schemes.

We debate this in terms of budgets, allocations and resources, but it is really about people. What commitment are we in this rich but still unequal country to make to those down on their luck, hitting a crisis, or in need of support? Above all, I suggest, we need to see them as human beings, like you and me, and not just as the poor.

8.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con): My Lords, first, I join other noble Lords in thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro for securing this debate and, in doing so, pay tribute to his work on the hunger inquiry, with which my noble friend Lady Jenkin also engaged and was involved. I have not been asked a question on that specifically, but the Government welcome the report, which is a serious contribution to discussions. As the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend may know, we convened a meeting with representatives from food

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retailers, manufacturers, trade associations and the food distribution charity sector on 20 January to discuss how more surplus food can be put to good use, including the vital and incredible work done by local charities.

In 2012, the Government replaced the national community care grants and crisis loan schemes with localised funding so that local authorities could tailor and deliver support to vulnerable people as part of their existing services to their communities, depending on local need. This followed criticism from the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee that the national schemes had become complex to administer and were poorly targeted and open to abuse.

Local authorities responded in different ways. Some set up new schemes, while others upped resources to in-house or partner services to ensure fit with local needs and existing services. This support is often called “local welfare provision”—an umbrella term, or shorthand, used to describe the variety of local schemes and responses.

On funding, we have heard figures cited—and, of course, I welcome the support, albeit somewhat qualified, for the additional funding that the Government have found in the current settlement for this important issue. We feel that local authorities could spend as much or little of the funding as they wanted, depending on their local priorities. However, the fact that the Government, in making these announcements, flag up the fact that this is related to welfare spend should give an indication of the Government’s intent for how this money should be utilised. However, we feel, as many local authorities will also feel, that they are better placed to determine their local priorities.

On local provision, the Department for Work and Pensions published a review of the new localised provision last November. It found that local authorities have used their funding to help people experiencing an unexpected emergency or crisis, or those who need help and support to live independently in the community, by providing emergency support for vulnerable adults to move into or remain in the community; helping families under exceptional pressure to stay together; and providing household goods to people fleeing domestic violence, care leavers or those who had previously been homeless. My noble friend Lord Kirkwood talked about the use of emergency support in that respect. It is important to reflect that sometimes Governments are accused of U-turns when what they have done is to reflect on certain elements, such as the issue of vulnerable women, particularly those who have suffered domestic violence. As noble Lords will be aware, the Government have allocated an additional £10 million to women’s refuges in a direct response to need. I am sure that that is well received, not just across this Chamber but across the country as well.

Different local approaches have been taken. Many local authorities work in partnership with other agencies and have aligned support with existing services—the local glue of which my noble friend Lady Jenkin spoke so eloquently—for example, with local credit unions, homeless charities, or domestic violence charities. This has led to the establishment of wide-ranging models

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of delivery—wholly in-house using internal teams, wholly by external providers, and others, or a combination of the above.

Local authorities have also developed many methods to facilitate payment or provision. Some use cash-based systems for both grants and loans, with payments being made electronically to a bank account or a kiosk in a local shop. Others offer pre-paid cards, vouchers, travel cards, provision of furniture or equipment and food parcels. My noble friend Lady Jenkin talked of innovative schemes. When I was a local councillor in the London Borough of Merton, we partnered with the Vine Project, providing grant letters for applicants to take to the project to exchange for recycled furniture or kitchen appliances that had been donated and were available at affordable prices. In addition, the local authority innovated further to ensure that the Vine Project also offers training and employment opportunities to the local community, including those who have been referred by the council. The right reverend Prelate and my noble friend quoted other examples and there are other great schemes up and down the country.

I turn to the better care fund. Local welfare is not the only service that works better when local areas set their own priorities and join up services for the benefit of those who use them. We know that many people with complex health and care needs often find it frustrating when health and social care services do not talk to each other and they have repeatedly to tell their story. It is welcome that the £5.3 billion better care fund requires every clinical commissioning group and local authority to pool budgets and to work more closely together. The vast majority of the better care fund is being spent on social care and community health services designed to keep people well in the community and prevent them ending up in hospital or residential care.

The troubled families programme has also been enormously successful at turning around the lives of some of our most troubled families, through an integrated, whole-family approach. I have often been asked what turning around a family means. It means that children are back in school, youth crime and anti-social behaviour are significantly reduced and adults are off benefits and in work. As some noble Lords may know, the programme is bang on track. Almost 118,000 families have been identified and more than 117,000 are being worked with. More than 85,000 of these have already been turned around, and more than 8,000 adults have been helped into continuous employment. These are good examples of how welfare provision and support is working at a local level.

The right reverend Prelate asked a specific question about what happens if local authorities close schemes or people are turned down. My noble friend Lord Kirkwood also referred to this. Other support schemes are available. There is the benefit system as a whole, including short-term benefit advances and budgeting loans for those on benefits. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, spoke about discretionary housing payments. Some £445 million of flexible housing funding was made available between 2011 and 2015, and £125 million in 2015-16. Local authorities can do exactly what noble Lords have said this evening: help the most

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vulnerable households through welfare reform. Credit unions, to which I referred earlier, have also been supported by £38 million of government investment, providing affordable alternatives to high-cost credit. DWP hardship funds are available in certain circumstances. The Government’s aim is to incentivise work and tackle root causes of poverty. I am sure noble Lords share this sentiment.

I turn to the provisional local government finance settlement. As with the better care fund and the troubled families programme, councils know how best to support local welfare needs. What might be right for Merton will not necessarily be right for Macclesfield. So from 2015-16, councils can continue to provide local assistance to take on board local priorities funded from within their general grant rather than a specific one. A clear theme in responses to our consultation was that there should be more guidance on possible spend in this area, based on the review of provision to date. This is why we identified £129.6 million within the upper-tier local authority budgets for local welfare provision funding.

The right reverend Prelate asked about the £74 million. I repeat that Governments are often accused of not listening but we listened to representations on the financial pressures faced by councils and many welcomed this. I met the London Borough of Enfield and Havering Council as part of the ministerial engagement on this issue. My ministerial colleagues and I also met a large number of local authorities and the Local Government Minister held a phone-in with more than 100 authorities. The consultation also received numerous written responses from a wide range of organisations from both local government and the voluntary and community sector. The representations predominantly called for additional funding to be made available to maintain schemes and prevent costs increasing in other services, including preventing homelessness. They also highlighted financial pressures more broadly, in particular the costs of providing social care services.

I pay tribute to the Local Government Minister responsible for this, my honourable friend Kris Hopkins, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State who, with other ministerial colleagues, have listened to these representations. As a result, the Government announced an additional £74 million to assist them in dealing with pressures on local welfare and health and social care. This will further help councils as they develop localised arrangements and enable them to continue to provide assistance to the most vulnerable people in their communities and maintain their front-line services. The Government continue to believe that the £129.6 million relating to local welfare within the settlement is appropriate. I have been asked about local authorities being given the freedom and flexibility to respond to the needs of their own communities. We have announced that this money will not be ring-fenced and we will not be placing any additional monitoring requirements on it. However, I note that good practice will be shared, and the 2016-17 financing in this regard will, of course, form part of the next spending review.

My noble friend Lady Jenkin and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth also talked about this element of sharing good practice. The Department for Work and Pensions has published a review, which

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contains many examples of good practice. I welcome other organisations such as the Children’s Society, in which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro is involved, helping local areas to develop their schemes. Indeed, I know that the society particularly welcomed the recent announcement.

Other questions were asked about guidance, by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, among others. I recognise that there is a strong desire to share good practice. The Government, as I have said, have done this through the DWP review, which included many examples. However, it is right that one should reflect on what has been said in this Chamber, and I will certainly reflect on those comments and on the points that have been made across the board about local schemes, which my noble friend Lady Bakewell and others mentioned. I will also take back the comments made in this debate to see how the Government can do more to facilitate sharing good practice at a local level. I speak from experience in this respect, and maintain that local authorities remain best placed to run local schemes, but the ultimate objective is helping local residents most effectively, particularly the most vulnerable. I hope that, in at least part of what I have said, I have given noble Lords—indeed, the right reverend Prelate—some assurance in this regard.

I take this opportunity to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short but extremely important debate. If questions remain, I shall of course write to noble Lords in more detail. However, for now, I thank all noble Lords for their valuable contributions, which I will take back to see how the Government can continue to improve their aim to support local authorities in providing for the most vulnerable within our communities.

8.25 pm

Sitting suspended.