Thank you, Mr Speaker/Madame Deputy Speaker.
Can I firstly take this opportunity to congratulate my Honourable Friend for Mole Valley on bringing forward this piece of legislation to the House that, after much policy debate and a Government consultation several years ago, is now close to addressing an important issue as regards our local democracy.
In no matter what form they come, sexual offences are a reprehensible and deplorable act of criminality that for too long have been a scrouge upon our society and many others across the world. It is worth noting too that, whilst men can of course be the victims of serious offences, this type of crime does disproportionally affect women.
No single piece of legislation can or will immediately stop sexual offences from taking place here in the United Kingdom. However, I know that my colleagues across this House will agree with me that, where measures can be implemented to potentially help prevent and stop such offences taking place, they should be properly considered and implemented forthwith where appropriate.
It is from this viewpoint that I wish to express my wholehearted support for my Honourable Friend’s Private Members’ Bill as, whilst we must be careful about who is excluded from standing for various positions at the local government level such as in the London Assembly, I strongly believe that sexual offenders forfeit their right to do so due to the heinous nature of their crimes.
Much of the aforementioned debate and subsequent consultation and response from the Government of the day in 2017-18 rightly focused on the potential disqualification criteria and, building on this matter, I commend the clear and comprehensive details that this Bill offers.
Specifically, I would like to put on record my strong support for Clause 1 of the Bill that inserts a new and important section – entitled 81A - into the Local Government Act of 1972.
As I understand it, this outlines that any individual is to be disqualified from standing for election in a local authority in England if they are subject to any of the following:
- The notification requirements of part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, otherwise referred to as being on the sex offenders’ register
- A sexual harm prevention order that comes under section 345 of the Sentencing Code
- A sexual harm prevention order under section 103A of the Sexual Offences Act 2003
- A sexual offences prevention order under section 104, a sexual risk order under section 122A, or a risk of sexual harm order under section 123, all of the same Act.
In the Explanatory Notes for this Bill, it is stated that, building on the offences consulted upon in 2017, the details that I have just highlighted are there to ensure that they are “specific and comprehensive in disqualifying individuals subject to the relevant notification requirements or relevant orders imposed in respect of sexual offences”, an aim that I believe has been fully and properly met.
Returning again to the previous consultation findings, whilst there were some welcome proposals in it vis-à-vis the local government positions that ought to be included when considering disqualification for sexual offences, I note that question marks were left around the election of local government representatives in the City of London and the Isles of Scilly, as well as those individuals subject to a Sexual Risk Order or SRO.
Bearing these pertinent question marks in mind, this Bill once again builds upon the 2017-18 consultation findings and offers proper clarity on such issues.
Clause 1, for example, also disqualifies individuals from standing for election and/or holding office if they are subject to orders under a number of equivalent pieces of legislation, and this includes legislation from Scotland, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands.
This not only helps to ensure that individuals from those jurisdictions subject to such orders will rightly and properly be disqualified, but it also helps to maintain continuity across our United Kingdom and certain Crown dependencies. With regards to Wales, I understand this Bill extends across the border but only has effect in England.
Through various amendments and the introduction of new sections to pre-existing Acts, I also welcome the list of offices provided by numerous clauses in the Bill that sexual offenders will be disqualified from standing for.
Alongside the general barring from standing for election or holding office in ‘a local authority’, the public offices specifically mentioned include:
- Charter trustees
- Parish councils
- Local authority mayors
- Health and wellbeing boards
- Combined authority mayors or Metro Mayors, such as in the Liverpool City Region
- The Mayor of London, as well as members of the London Assembly
People that commit sexual offences should rightly be disqualified from holding positions in local government – be that the Mayor of London, a Charter trustee, or a Parish Councillor such as in the numerous villages in my constituency. With the passing of this Bill, I am confident that another small barrier is also being put in the way of those who may consider that committing a sexual offence is an acceptable thing to do.
More generally, and as is already set out in the code of conduct for councillors, the Bill speaks to the broader need for those elected or co-opted to local government positions to be held to the highest standards of conduct consistent with the so-called ‘Nolan’ principles including objectivity, openness, and leadership.
Mr Speaker/Madame Deputy Speaker, having previously been a Councillor myself in Rother before being elected to this House by my constituents in Hastings and Rye, I am of the firm belief that – in more ways than one– local government office holders are a stalwart and integral part of this country’s fine democratic tradition that has developed over the past several centuries.
From fixing potholes and presiding over planning matters to the collection of waste, many of the day-to-day services that my constituents depend upon and continuously use are administered at the local government level.
Local government representatives are often the first port of call for constituents in need of assistance or information when things go wrong and it is only right, therefore, that those who can be elected to such offices are of good and sound character.
When considering those who commit sexual offences, it is clear that the current rules do not go far enough in ensuring that this is always the case as disqualification essentially has an expiration period of five years.
I know from constituents who write into me that the victims of sexual offences often suffer from these crimes for a much longer period than this and it can only be right, therefore, that the rules surrounding disqualification are strengthened in law.
This Bill will at last do just that a day and two months after it is passed by this House, and I offer it my full support in doing so.