HC Deb 19 April 1999 vol 329 cc571-3 3.30 pm
Madam Speaker

I have a brief statement to make. The House will recall that on 22 March, following the conviction of the hon. Member for Newark in the Crown court on a charge of making a false declaration as to election expenses, I stated that the seat had been vacated in accordance with law.

The House will also be aware that the Court of Appeal has since quashed that conviction. The Court of Appeal, however, considered that it had no jurisdiction to go on to rule on whether or not the hon. Lady recovers her seat following the success of her appeal.

This is an unprecedented situation. On the one hand, there are considerations of natural justice. The conviction has been quashed; should not the vacancy also be overturned? On the other hand, whatever the outcome of the appeal, it is the interpretation of the Representation of the People Act 1983 which is crucial.

It is for the courts, not for the House, to interpret the law. I have therefore asked the Attorney-General, on behalf of the House, to seek an authoritative declaration from the High Court on the true construction of the 1983 Act. The court will be invited to make a declaration that, following the decision of the Court of Appeal to quash her conviction, Fiona Jones is entitled to resume her seat.

I understand that the application is being made today. I hope very much that it may be disposed of as speedily as is consistent with fairness and with certainty.

May I add in the interests of Members in all parts of this House that, once this matter has been resolved, I think it would be desirable for this part of our statute law to be reviewed to see whether it cannot be expressed more clearly, so as to avoid this kind of situation in future.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)


Madam Speaker

Is it a point of order?

Mr. Ashton

Yes. I should like to ask a question. You have obviously laid down a precedent today, Madam Speaker, and I am not disagreeing with it or raising any matter arising out it, but can you tell us whether the issue is still sub judice? The Tories have said publicly in Newark that they have withdrawn their candidate; so have the Liberals, and they do not want a by-election.

There is obviously a great deal of stuff to be debated, which the media and everybody else are interested in, but we do not know where we stand with the sub judice rule. The appeal took only 12 minutes and the Lord Chief Justice said—as you said, Madam Speaker—that, now that the conviction is quashed, so are the consequences, and he sees no reason why this case should be different from any other. Is the issue debatable anywhere or is it still sub judice?

Madam Speaker

It cannot be sub judice until a date for the hearing has been set down, but I think that, in the best interests of the hon. Lady, Fiona Jones, and of the House, the application to the High Court, which was made on our behalf by the Attorney-General about an hour and a half ago, should now proceed. We should leave it to the High Court to come to us with its decision.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. May I fully endorse your ruling on this issue? However, I understand from the ruling of the court—as I read it in the newspapers—that the court does not wish to confuse its role with that of Parliament. While I fully endorse your ruling, would not it be appropriate for this House to express an opinion, after a brief debate?

Madam Speaker

I understand that view, but I suggest that now that those steps have been taken on behalf of the House and in accordance with the rule of law, which we must uphold, we should await the High Court's decision. I am sure that that is in the best interests of all of us at this time.

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