HC Deb 22 July 1985 vol 83 cc801-6

6.—(1) In the entry 'Chairman of a committee constituted under section 90 of the Mental Health (Scotland) Act 1960' for 'section 90 of the Mental Health (Scotland) Act 1960' there shall be substituted 'section 91 of the Mental Health (Scotland) Act 1984'.

(2) In the entry 'Chairman or Vice-Chairman of the National Seed Development Organisation Limited' the words 'or vice-chairman' shall be omitted.

(3) In the entry 'Director of Harland and Wolff Limited' for 'Limited' there shall be substituted 'p.l.c.'.

(4) In the entry 'Director of Short Brothers Limited' for 'Limited' there shall be substituted 'p.l.c.'.

(5) In the entry 'Member of the panel of persons appointed under Schedule 5 to the Rent (Scotland) Act 1971 to act as chairmen and other members of rent assessment committees' for 'Schedule 5 to the Rent (Scotland) Act 1971' there shall be substituted 'Schedule 4 to the Rent (Scotland) Act 1984'.

(6) In the entry 'President, or member of a panel of chairmen, of industrial tribunals established under section 13 of the Industrial Training Act (Northern Ireland) 1964' for 'section 13 of the Industrial Training Act (Northern Ireland) 1964' there shall be substituted 'Article 30 of the Industrial Training (Northern Ireland) Order 1984'.

The schedule lists offices the holders of which are disqualified from membership of the House. It is desirable and important that those detailed provisions are updated regularly. Of the 44 amendments covered, 24 are new entries, 14 are deletions and six are amendments to existing entries. Approximately 95 office holders will be brought into the scope of schedule 1 and 104 will be released. There is, therefore, a net reduction of nine. I have arranged an explanatory note giving details of all the changes, which was put in the Vote Office some weeks ago. As far as I am aware, no comment or amendment has been made. As we are following a well-established procedure, I commend the motion to the House.

7.29 pm
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) is due to respond on behalf of the Opposition. I know that he wants to ask a question. I was just doing duty on the Yorkshire Water Authority Bill. My right hon. Friend will be heading towards the Chamber quite quickly as the Annunciator will have shown that the Minister was speaking.

My right hon. Friend wanted to ask about recorders. I freely admit that I have not read the explanatory memorandum. My right hon. Friend wanted to raise with the Minister the rather peculiar circumstances of recorders and members of the judiciary in respect of their being hon. Members. Has the Minister had any thoughts about that? I do not know whether the matter has been put to him in writing. I do not recall it being raised before. Indeed, I do not know how many right hon. and hon. Members are recorders but, in my decade in the House, I have heard about some of my hon. Friends carrying out the duties of recorders. Time does not constrain us, so I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to pursue the matter in some detail, and the Minister might like to respond.

Mr. Hayhoe

I am happy to reply to what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) asked about recorders, but, as the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) has now arrived, perhaps it would be for the convenience of the House if I were to reply to any points that he or any other hon. Members raise.

7.31 pm
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

I apologise to m) right hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Hayhoe) for missing his speech. It was so brief that I rushed in only to find that he had sat down.

This is an important debate in that, if accepted, the motion will disqualify some people from sitting in the House and thus to a significant extent diminish individual liberty and political rights. In view of that, it is a pity that the debate is relatively ill attended.

I do not wish to be critical of my right hon. Friend, but I have considerable reservations about the methods that we are adopting. I do not feel able to formulate a clear view about the rightness or wrongness of the changes in the schedule here envisaged. For many years past the House has entrusted to the Minister and his officials the power of making orders under section 5 of the 1975 Act, and we have abdicated responsibility. That is highly undesirable.

I congratulate my right hen. Friend because he, in common with other Ministers, has made it a practice to put an explanatory memorandum in the Vote Office. They have proved to be of considerable assistance to those of us who want to know why people are omitted from, or included in, the schedule. The Government are to be congratulated on that improvement in procedure. The fact that we have an explanatory memorandum, however, reveals as many defects as it tries to cure.

I should like to draw attention to several of those defects. We can now see all of the criteria with which the House is concerned. Apparently, Ministers and officials take account of four criteria when determining whether an office holder should appear in a schedule. Why does £4,000 appear among the criteria? I do not believe that Parliament has ever been asked to express a view about whether the £4,000 is right or wrong. No doubt the figure will be uprated. When? Who will be asked? To what extent will Parliament be consulted? I fancy that the answer is not at all—we shall be told when it happens and not before.

That is true of all of the criteria. I do not believe that any has received statutory approval or been discussed in detail in this place. That is bizarre when those criteria can be used to disqualify people from membership of this House.

Have the criteria ever been the subject of parliamentary discussion? If not, why not? Will we be consulted when the £4,000 is uprated? If not, why not? Criteria (b), (c) and (d) involve quality judgments of some nicety. They are quite capable of abuse. It is clear that many office holders are disqualified when it is not possible to test whether they should be disqualified. It is not possible to determine whether the judgment is fair or unfair.

We also discover that some office holders who have previously been disqualified should not have been disqualified. At least, that must be the implication. We should take the example of members of the Red Deer Commission who are unpaid. They have previously been disqualified, but we now learn that they should not have been. Why were they disqualified in the first place? If they should not have been, how have they suddenly been relieved of the exemption? We are making changes in people's constitutional rights and have not a clue what is going on.

Another category of office holder is now to be disqualified. There is a rather engaging phrase in the explanatory memorandum concerning them: the need to disqualify has only just been recognised. Hard luck on them, but what is the need? Examples are the Commons Commissioner, the director and assistant director of the National Development Team for Mentally Handicapped People, and the chairman of the Business and Technician Education Council. Why has the need to disquality them only just been recognised? What need? Have they been consulted? Did they know that they would be disqualified? What effect does disqualification have on their contracts of employment? It is a very rum situation. Although we can be flippant about it, people's political rights are affected. Their liberties are diminished, as is the electorate's right to choose whom it wishes.

There is another group of people for whom it is extremely difficult to see why disqualification should be justified. I could go on like this for a long time. It becomes tedious in the end.

By the motion, which, if passed by the House, will be incorporated into a statutory instrument, we are legislating to diminish people's political and personal rights. I doubt whether anybody in the Chamber, with the possible exception of the Minister, knows enough about each office that is the subject of disqualification to form a clear view as to whether that office or office holder should be disqualified. I do not, I suspect that Opposition Members do not, and looking at the sparsely attended Conservative Back Benches, I venture to suggest that my hon. Friends do not, either. The fact that the House is so sparsely attended suggests that people are not greatly interested in any event.

The present procedure is inadequate. We as the legislature should not entrust to Ministers and officials the right to enfranchise or disqualify. We need to have a Select Committee, and the draft resolution should be laid before it. It could then comment on the proposals and advise the House so that when the motion comes to be considered by the House on such an occasion, we should have the benefit of a Select Committee's advice, rather like the Select Committee on European Legislation.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. Like him, I find the list of disqualifications and cases where disqualification is no longer thought to be necessary rather foggy. More information is required so that right hon. and hon. Members can make a judgment. The hon. Gentleman and the Minister might consider that, given that under the Government's economic policies we are going through a period of record bankruptcies, that in itself—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the motion deals with office holders. We are not to discuss other disqualifications. We must stick to the schedule that we are now discussing.

Mr. Wareing

I am sorry. I was hoping only that that might be discussed in future by the House. I cannot raise that issue, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take it into account and that in future we shall have the opportunity to debate that aspect of disqualification from membership of the House of Commons.

Mr. Hogg

That will arise only if we have an opportunity, by way of primary legislation, to discuss the 1975 Act in the context of proposed amendments. Today we are discussing the schedule, which is given statutory force by section 5 of the 1975 Act. That does not extend to bankruptcy.

The Government must be congratulated to this extent. The explanatory memorandum helps us, but not sufficiently, because in relation to each of the offices that are being disqualified we do not know which of the criteria has resulted in that disqualification, nor is it possible for the House to form a clear view as to whether the nice judgment formed by the Minister and his officials is fair or unfair. For that reason, I am making my proposals.

7.42 pm
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

I have just one question for the Minister. How many people are covered by A Dairy Produce Quota Tribunal constituted under the Dairy Produce Quotas Regulations 1984."? The reason why I ask that question is obvious. Many of our friends and colleagues take an active part in tribunal work. It can be time-consuming. take a great deal of effort, and involve individuals in considerable expense.

When the regulations were passed in 1984, I found that the tribunal was not like others. Basically those who work in those tribunals decide whether someone has a special case for additional milk quota, and they do not have such wide responsibilities as those in some other tribunals. For no apparent reason, the amount fixed for fees is about five or six times that of other tribunals. Therefore, instead of a small, compact number, a large number of people must be involved. Therefore, how many people are affected who are involved in dairy produce quota tribunals?

7.43 pm
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I agree with the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), as would everyone in the House, that it is important to be sure that we have considered all aspects when we talk of disqualifying people from their political rights. Therefore, I should be interested to hear from the Minister whether those listed as people to be disqualified have been consulted in advance, or whether it has been presented to them as a fait accompli.

I also echo a question asked by the hon. Gentleman. Why, other than the monetary threshold figure, have some of the needs to disqualify only just been recognised? With regard to the threshold figure itself, does it represent any change in the threshold in real terms compared with the threshold when we last dealt with the legislation? In other words, is it purely a cost of living adjustment, or has there been an additional exclusion?

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) referred to recorders. I do not need to elaborate further. I should like to hear the Minister's answer.

7.45 pm
Mr. Hayhoe

I should like to refer to the points that were raised in the debate.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) asked about recorders. I refer him to the debate that we had in April 1983, when the matter was considered in some detail. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) participated—

Mr. Douglas Hogg

I was in the Whips' Office.

Mr. Hayhoe

No doubt my hon. Friend hoped to participate. However, I know that several of my right hon. and hon. Friends did.

It has been recognised for a long time that full-time members of the judiciary are debarred from being members of the legislature. That is common ground between us. It has also been recognised for many years that several hon. Members are lay justices, and, providing that they exercise their jurisdiction outside their own constituencies, some hon. Members continue to give valuable service in that regard.

The position of recorders lies in between those two in that they are paid. I understand that by tradition they do not deal with cases arising from their own constituencies, or sit in their own constituencies. It has been a longstanding practice of the House that recorders and deputy recorders should not be excluded from membership of the House.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr asked how many right hon. and hon. Members practise as recorders or deputy recorders. I understand that at present the figure is 10. The matter could be looked at again, but when we discussed it last time in 1983 the consensus was that the practice had been followed for many years, and there seemed to be no particular reason why we should depart from it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham was right to refer to the explanatory memorandum, although he was a little less generous than he sometimes is. It was an innovation that I helped to bring in a few years ago. It is not produced just a day or so before the debate. I always arrange for a parliamentary question to be answered making it clear that it is in the Vote Office, and a few weeks elapse. This time, it went into the Vote Office on 5 July, which gave people time to study it and raise questions about it. One is always happy to seek to answer any of those questions.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

I did not mean to sound ungenerous. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, because I know that, following the 1982 difficulties, he introduced that procedure. It would be of great assistance to hon. Members if, in relation to each of the office holders being disqualified or relieved, he would say which criterion of the four has had the result of bringing about the disqualification.

Mr. Hayhoe

I was just about to refer to that. As so often happens, my hon. Friend's intervention pre-empted my answer. I was going to say that I had noted his point carefully. I shall look at the matter and see whether that can be done in future years.

I was asked about the £4,000 de minimis figure, which is quoted in the memorandum. It was £500 in 1957 and was uprated to £4,000 in 1983. The figure was published for the first time in last year's explanatory memorandum.

In cost of living terms, £500 in 1957 is equivalent to £4,103 today. Therefore, it has roughly been valorised, and I undertake that the level will be reconsidered. It has certainly not drawn particular criticism in our debates, and perhaps it was about right in 1957, and is about right now. If a change is desirable next year, it will be reported to the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham rightly said that we were discussing the disenfranchising of people tonight, but happily the balance lies with enfranchising people. When we compare the strict balance of those put into disqualification with those taken out, one sees that it is slightly more favourable to enfranchisement, with nine more people no longer being disqualified. The individuals concerned are informed. I would not and could not guarantee that the matter was discussed with everyone affected. However, I take my hon. Friend's point, and will find out whether that would be possible for the limited numbers involved.

My hon. Friend also suggested the possibility of a Select Committee looking into these matters, and I shall draw that to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) referred to the dairy produce quota tribunals The explanatory memorandum shows that 31 individuals are involved.

As I said earlier, we are following well-tried procedures. These are important matters, and it is right that they should come before the House and that hon. Members should have the opportunity, which I have sought to provide by publishing the details of the proposals well before our debate, to make their views known. I shall certainly continue that practice in future, without any commitment one way or the other to the important possibility of a Select Committee studying these matters. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That Schedule 1 to the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 be amended as follows:—