HL Deb 30 June 1981 vol 422 cc141-66

6.55 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Before I describe the provisions of the Bill, I hope it will be for your Lordships' convenience if I refer briefly to the legislative history of the disqualification of prisoners. I wish also to refer briefly to the immediate circumstances in Northern Ireland which, in the Government's view, have made fresh legislation desirable, indeed essential.

It has long been accepted that certain people should not be qualified for election to the House of Commons, and noble Lords will be familiar with at any rate many on the list of those disqualified. Apart from Members of your Lordships' House, the list includes bankrupts, those under the age of 21, civil servants, members of the armed forces, policemen, judges, holders of various offices and clergymen of the Established Church. The common thread of the disqualifications is incompatibility; it is incompatible with membership of the legislature that a parliamentary candidate should be in the employment of the state or should hold an office of profit under the Crown. It is incompatible with the dignity of Parliament that its Members should be under age or bankrupt. It has been the trend of modern legislation to set out these incompatibilities in statute so that they applied generally and automatically, rather than that the House of Commons should be called upon to exercise judgment in every individual case whether or not to expel a disqualified Member.

But the Criminal Law Act 1967 made certain changes in this area which went against that trend. It was for many years the law of the land that a conviction for certain offences was also incompatible with election to Parliament. Under Section 2 of the Forfeiture Act 1870 a person convicted of felony and sentenced to a term exceeding 12 months imprisonment was automatically subject to various civic penalties. The most important of those were disqualification from sitting or voting in Parliament and disqualification for voting at all elections. That legislation applied in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not in Scotland.

The Criminal Law Act 1967 and the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 removed those disqualifications as a result of the abolition—recommended by the Criminal Law Review Committee in 1965—of the division of offences into felonies and misdemeanours. That committee recommended that there was no need to preserve any of the automatic disqualifications. The Government agreed, and with little substantive comment or debate the position was restored to the pre-1870 position, and disqualification following conviction became entirely a matter for the House of Commons to decide. It is easy to criticise those changes from the point of view of hindsight; but we should remember that Parliament in 1967 had a clear recommendation before it from the Criminal Law Review Committee, and the possibility of a convicted prisoner, let alone a convicted terrorist, being elected must have seemed remote 14 years ago.

But soon, second thoughts began to prevail. Shortly after the enactment of the 1967 legislation, it became clear that certain of the other disqualifications which had applied to convicted prisoners should be restored, and under Section 4 of the Representation of the People Act 1969, the Labour Government of the day restored the disqualification of prisoners from voting. Soon after that, under the Local Government Act 1972, the Conservative Government of the day disqualified prisoners from being elected as members of local authorities. A person is disqualified under that legislation if, within five years before the date of the election, he or she has been convicted and has been sentenced to imprisonment for at least three months without the option of a fine. That is a very rigorous disqualification and it was put into law by the Local Government Act 1972 for convicted prisoners at local elections. So the effect of the legislation which I have described was that Parliament decided to reimpose several disqualifications on convicted prisoners, but the disqualification for election to Parliament was not re-imposed, and the Bill now before your Lordships' House seeks to rectify that omission.

Even given the historical background and the precedents, your Lordships may well ask: Is this new disqualification right, and why now? The Government believe that it is right in principle, for two reasons. First, the election of a convicted prisoner to another place is arguably a pointless election It has not, I think, been suggested in any of the debates in another place that the popular will of the majority as expressed through the ballot box should be able to override the judicial process, so as to release a convicted prisoner, and let him enter the House of Commons and take his seat; so the constituency would go unrepresented.

No person can fulfil his parliamentary duties from inside a prison; and that would be the inevitable consequence for the whole electorate of the constituency, not just the majority, or even a minority, who elect a prisoner candidate. The choice of a prisoner MP effectively disfranchises everyone in the constituency. That might be the objective of those who do not believe in democracy, but it makes a mockery of the parliamentary process.

Secondly, if the argument that it is a pointless election holds water, we should ask, what are the motives of those who put up a prisoner candidate? Most probably the aim is to achieve publicity, to use the parliamentary election process not to secure its object—election of a candidate to the House of Commons—but to whip up public feeling in favour of a particular cause. The Government recognise that the seeking of publicity may of itself be a political aim. Indeed, there is an honourable tradition of candidates standing solely to press one individual issue, regardless of their chances of being elected. Those of your Lordships who have fought parliamentary elections and have represented constituencies in another place can, I am sure, think of many candidates who have stood in that way; and that is a perfectly honourable and accepted thing to do.

But there is a crucial difference between such candidates and prisoner candidates, such as the late Mr. Sands in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. In that by-election the electoral process was used to try to secure an entirely extra-parliamentary, undemocratic objective. A loophole in our electoral law was exploited in order to play on sectarian feeling and, in effect, to undermine our democracy. In immediate terms the Bill is aimed not at a hunger-striking prisoner, but at those who organise terrorism, who stand behind terrorism, and who are anxious to exploit any opportunity that we might leave them to make propaganda, regardless of the parliamentary consequences, even for their own supporters. That is the background to the Bill, the Government's case, and I now wish very quickly to describe the provisions of the Bill.

Clause 1 provides that the disqualification of convicted prisoners should extend to those in prison, or ordered to be detained, indefinitely or for more than 12 months, whether in the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. The term "indefinitely" refers of course to life-sentenced prisoners. The disqualification does not extend to prisoners on remand or detained while unsentenced. It does not extend to prisoners who have been released following the grant of remission, on licence or on parole.

In another place my right honourable friend did not claim that the disqualifying point of more than 12 months represented a fine judgment that those above that line were unfit for election and that those below it could be elected; nor do the Government rely exclusively on the precedent of 12 months in the 1870 Act. We felt—I admit this quite openly—that it would be more likely than not that persons in the category of those who had received sentences of more than 12 months had committed graver offences and that no injustice would be done by imposing a disqualification.

In another place my right honourable friend also made a significant addition to Clause 1. As your Lordships will know, citizens of the Republic of Ireland, as well as British subjects, are entitled to be elected to the House of Commons. It therefore seems right that the disqualification following imprisonment should at least extend to prisoners in the republic, which is such a near neighbour of ours. Although when preparing the Bill my right honourable friend had been anxious to keep it as simple as possible and to confine it to its primary object, he was persuaded that the inclusion of the republic would not complicate it unduly, and Clause 1 so provides.

Clause 2 of the Bill provides that if such a person is elected to the House, his election will be void, and if a Member of the House becomes so disqualified, his seat will be vacated. In addition, a convicted prisoner's nomination is also to be declared invalid. The Government considered very carefully the case for leaving the disqualification of a convicted sitting Member of another place solely in the hands of the House of Commons to decide. However, given the trend that I have sought to describe, towards expressing these matters in statute, we do not believe that that would be appropriate. After all, as I have attempted to say, a person in prison cannot represent the interests of constituents. It seems to the Government that it is no part of Parliament's function to revise or to qualify the verdict of a court.

The other significant aspect of Clause 2 to which I should draw attention is the disqualification of nominations. This part of the Bill will not only prevent a disqualified prisoner from being elected to, and sitting in, the House of Commons, but will also void his nomination. At the moment a parliamentary returning officer may reject nominations on the grounds that they are not in proper form, or are not subscribed in the manner required by law. The returning officer is not entitled to reject nominations on other grounds. In his consent to nomination a candidate is required to sign a statement to the effect that he is not disqualified under the provisions of the House of Commons Disqualifications Acts, but the validity of that declaration is not a matter for the returning officer. However, the Government decided that it is not unreasonable to ask returning officers to reject nominations made on behalf of persons known to be in prison and serving a sentence of more than 12 months. Imprisonment is a matter of fact; it is not a matter of judgment which would involve the returning officer's discretion or prejudice his impartiality—matters to which we must attach the very greatest importance.

Among the very many representations which the Government received following the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election, there was a widespread sense of outrage at the fact that the nomination of a convicted terrorist should be allowed to stand. We should also not overlook the considerable benefits which prisoner candidates acquire, in common of course with all other candidates, from the act of being nominated and standing for Parliament: the free post facility, whereby all electors may receive an election address free of postal charges; the free use of rooms for meetings; and the many extra opportunities for broadcast and press coverage. For all those reasons it seemed to us reasonable to impose a new obligation.

The returning officer will, of course, reject nominations only when he is sure of his grounds. If he has doubts—if, for example, sufficient information is not available in time from the prisons to confirm that a potential candidate is disqualified—a nomination will stand. The election of a candidate who goes forward in those circumstances, but who is in fact in prison and is thus disqualified will, of course, in the end be void. If the nomination of a candidate were to be wrongly rejected because the returning officer thought that someone was in prison—really a most unlikely circumstance—the aggrieved candidate would be able to petition for a fresh election.

To assist the returning officer, Clause 3 and the schedule to the Bill make certain changes to the parliamentary elections rules in the second schedule to the Representation of the People Act 1949. In consenting to nomination candidates will be required to give their dates of birth so as to make easier the checking of records. The statement of persons nominated will be published in draft if necessary to enable objections and representations to be made. While making these changes we have also removed the anomoly whereby Saturday can be considered a working day for the purposes of parliamentary elections. The net effect is slightly to lengthen the overall timetable of parliamentary elections.

My Lords, this is an important Bill. It has been introduced to remedy a defect in our electoral law revealed by a particular situation. It puts right an omission which has been ruthlessly exploited. In doing so it will ensure that elections to the House of Commons are not used as occasions to exploit the electoral rights of the people of the United Kingdom. I commend the Bill to your Lordships, and I beg to move that it be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Belstead.)

7.11 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the House always admires the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, deals with Bills which are in his charge. Tonight he has been a model, if I may say so, in making a clear summary of an undoubtedly important Bill in such measured and quiet tones that your Lordships might be led to believe that we are not being asked, in extraordinary circumstances, to pass a constitutional measure which alters the whole law relating to the election of Members of Parliament. I make no apology if, tonight, I speak for longer than I normally do because of the importance of this measure.

If I may quote for a moment from the speech that was made by the Minister of State on the Second Reading of this Bill in the other place, he said: It is certainly a Bill which gives rise to unusually important issues". He was also frank in another place when he continued by saying why it was that this Bill was being brought forward at all at this stage—and again, if I may, I am quoting from col. 100 of Hansard of 22nd June, on the Second Reading. The Minister said: We should be deceiving ourselves if we supposed that we should be debating the Second reading of the Bill tonight were it not for recent events in Northern Ireland, were it not for a general feeling in the United Kingdom that those events constituted a dangerous and damaging abuse of our electoral system, and were it not for the fact that in the near future they could be—and, if the law is left as it stands, almost undoubtedly would be—repeated in the same constituency and perhaps in other constituencies not once but repeatedly". My Lords, one would not have imagined, in those circumstances, that a Bill which is acknowledged to raise important issues would be rushed through Parliament in a manner which shows, if I may say so with moderate language, scant respect for this House. It is not for me to talk about the respect paid to another place. The Bill was printed on 12th June; it received its Second Reading in another place on 22nd June; it had its Committee stage, and indeed went through all other stages, on 25th June; it came up to this House on 26th June; we are having the Second Reading debate on 30th June; and, my Lords, it is planned by the Government to have the Committee stage the day after tomorrow, thus completing all stages of the Bill on Thursday and giving precisely 48 hours after the Second Reading debate tonight in order that amendments should be put down to a Bill described by the Minister of State at the Home Office as one raising very important issues.

So, my Lords, it is my duty to try to tell your Lordships how I conceive this Bill to be wrong—wrong because of its timing, wrong because of its format and wrong, possibly (but that is a question of judgment), in giving a propaganda advantage to those whose activities every single Member of this House deplores, hates and abominates. About that, there is no difference of opinion, I would imagine, between anybody sitting in this Chamber tonight. My Lords, that is a question of judgment. Personally, I hold the view that this Bill might well become known as the Sands Bill, and in my judgment that is not a memorial to which Mr. Sands was entitled.

Having said that, may I please deal with the history that the noble Lord the Minister dealt with rather briefly? This Bill has its historic origin in the Forfeiture Act 1870. In that Act, it having previously been provided that goods and lands which belonged to a felon or a traitor were escheated to the Crown, it was provided that that should no longer take place but that there should be certain disabilities upon anyone convicted of felony. One of those disabilities—and the noble Lord the Minister, if I may say so with respect, skated over this—was that a convicted felon who was serving more than a 12-month sentence in prison (there were also certain matters referring to penal servitude, but we need not concern ourselves with those tonight because penal servitude has gone) was not allowed to sit in Parliament. That was a provision which applied to both Houses: he was not allowed to sit in Parliament. He could be nominated, he could be elected, but his election was obviously then subject to disqualification. Of course, if he happened to be in that position after being elected to the House then it was the province of the House of Commons to expel the Member if they so decided.

I do not think it is proper for a Member of this House to go into any amount of detail or argument as to whether another place has by its will very recently deprived itself of a right. That is not my object tonight, and I do not intend to spend any time upon it. But I want to remind your Lordships again that the Forfeiture Act 1870 said that a convicted felon who was serving a sentence of imprisonment of more than 12 months was disqualified from sitting as a Member of the House.

In 1965, a committee—it was the Criminal Law Committee, a very august committee—sat in order to look into the question of whether there should be a difference between misdemeanours and felonies, and they recommended that there should be no difference. As the Minister frankly said (but this was not frankly dealt with in another place in the debates), they recommended that there was no need to worry about the disqualification provisions that would go if that part of the Forfeiture Act went which differentiated between felonies and misdemeanours. That was, in fact, enacted in the 1967 Criminal Law Act.

When that Bill was before another place—and in various organs of the press many learned editorials have been written on this subject, editorials which said, quite wrongly, that Parliament did not notice that the disqualifications were removed—this matter was specifically raised by an honourable Member there, Mr. Rees-Davies. I will, if I may, quote precisely what he said in the Second Reading debate on the Criminal Law Bill: It is a little unfortunate that at this stage of the week the Government should put forward a measure in which it will be quite all right for criminals of seven to ten years' standing to enter Parliament. Indeed, any criminal even though he has served a sentence of imprisonment will hereafter be allowed to hold any office of profit under the Crown or in the Army or the Navy. That is because the Bill abolishes Section 2 of the Forfeiture Act 1870". The Minister replied to that—and I am quoting again from the Second Reading debate at that time—by saying: May I reassure honourable Members who expressed anxiety about felons joining the House of Commons. In fact the change of law is not very important because the felon was formerly disqualified only while he was serving his sentence and disqualification ceased to operate after that". So, my Lords, the matter was fully considered. When it came before this House, nobody sought to concern himself with the removal of this disqualification. And, of course, it did not matter. Since 1870, there have been seven cases of Members of Parliament who have found themselves disqualified as a result of being convicted of a felony. Each and every one of them was an Irish rebel. The House then took the view, one would have thought rather wisely, that you do not legislate for one section of a very wide community when you have precedents of that kind which show that really the problem arises only in that one connection, as it does today.

That Bill was passed, and nobody has worried since. In fact, when the Minister quotes two subsequent Acts, as he did in his admirable speech, he is quoting Acts which are common sense Acts which have nothing to do with what we are discussing today. It was found obviously inconvenient that people should be able to exercise a vote while they were serving a prison sentence; and so it was decided that they could not vote. It was also obviously sensible where dealing with local government, where local councillors have the right, (as they have especially in the small authorities) to vote on contracts, where certain people can get benefits and where there is an opportunity for exercising all sorts of fraudulent acts if you happen to be a rogue, that that Act went much further than does this Bill tonight. As the Minister pointed out that Act says that you cannot be elected not—"nominated" but elected—as a local government councillor if during five years before the date of the election you have been sentenced to a term of imprisonment (without the option of a fine) of three months. That legislation has nothing to do with what we are considering tonight.

What am I trying to say to the House at this moment of the importance of this rushed measure? I am not going to deal with the question of whether or not the Bill is sensible in aiding the propaganda of our enemies at home or abroad. That I am not on. I happen to hold a view and I have expressed it. What we are asked to do in this rushed-through legislation is to throw aside a bit of the historic right of our people. May I say very briefly why I make this point? This Bill, for the very first time, enacts that a person cannot be nominated if he is serving a sentence of over 12 months' imprisonment. It is an extraordinary thing; but the right to stand as a candidate has an extraordinarily important traditional ring about it when you look at our parliamentary history—even though the person who is nominated knows perfectly well, and the electorate that nominates him knows perfectly well, that he cannot be elected.

Does this House remember the story of Bradlaugh, who stood for a principle—not one that would be welcomed by the right reverend Prelates in our midst, I have no doubt—a principle that he wished as an atheist to have the right to affirm. The electorate knew perfectly well that, because he could not and would not take the oath but wished to affirm, Bradlaugh could not sit as a Member of Parliament. The electorate decided to show what they felt about a matter of principle by electing Bradlaugh not once, if I remember, but twice—

Several noble Lords

Four times!

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am grateful for that correction. Does one remember a more recent case, that which enabled, if I may say so, a very distinguished Member of this House to become the Prime Minister of England? Does one remember the fight of a certain Lord Stansgate in 1960, concerning a title which is not necessarily one by which he is recognised today in certain circumstances? But does one remember that fight in 1960? The electorate in Bristol knew perfectly well that he could not sit as a Member of Parliament, but they wanted to show that from their point of view this was a national matter which ought to have national attention. They elected Lord Stansgate as a Member of the House. Obviously, he was disqualified from standing.

Does one remember—I say this with some feelings, as your Lordships will appreciate—the case of Baron Rothschild, another example? His constituency elected him time and time again. He could not take his seat (and they knew he would not take his seat) because, as a Jew, he could not take the oath as a Christian. In principle, he came before Parliament, and was not allowed to take his seat because he would not take the oath. But the nation was showing, and his constituency, in particular, was showing, that this was an injustice; and they elected him time and time again, even though they knew he would be disqualified —until the time came when he was allowed to take the oath in accordance with his religious conscience.

These are examples which cannot lightly be set aside. In this Bill the wedge has been driven into the right of an electorate to receive a valid nomination and to show precisely what they feel as a result of it. If one looks in the future, can one detect the possibility that a clergyman of the Established Church, beloved in a certain area, might again want to fight for a principle in spite of the fact that he is represented in this House by the bishops? He might want to fight for the right of a clergyman to sit in this House. A civil servant might want to fight for the right to stand for election and then resign as a civil servant on being elected. These are ways in which we have managed to bring matters of great public importance before the nation and before Parliament.

This Bill kills that right and it is the thin edge of the wedge. It deals with this one issue of the person in prison. I have time to give only one other example, if your Lordships will permit it, of the injustice and the absurdity, if I may say so, of this Bill being rushed through as it is. First of all, because this is a principle that we have never dealt with before, do your Lordships realise—I say this with the utmost respect, and I would be so glad if the Minister would deal with this here-after—that one of the things that can happen as a result of this Bill is that somebody may be in prison on the day of nomination and come out of prison the day afterwards, having served a sentence, of more than 12 months' duration. On nomination day, his nomination cannot be accepted but he comes out of prison the next day. According to the Minister, the only reason for this Bill is that it is wrong that a Member should be elected who cannot sit. But in such a case that Member could sit.

Sometimes, prison sentences are imposed because people do something which they regard as being in accordance with their conscience, but it happens to be against the law. I do not want to take any narrow view. We have had some trade union legislation passed quite recently. We have had other legislation —I do not want to limit it to trade unions—where matters of conscience can make somebody break the law. It is possible that, if in the view of a judge it be a serious breach of the law, a prison sentence of more than 12 months may be imposed. I am not necessarily talking about somebody who is fundamentally a rogue and quite definitely unsuitable to be a Member of the House.

My very last point—and I promise this is my last—is to show exactly why it is that it is so wrong to rush legislation through in this panic and in this piecemeal fashion. Has it been realised by your Lordships from that gentle opening speech of the Minister that there is such a thing as a wrong conviction and that there is a right of appeal? Can your Lordships remember reading quite recently in the press the terrible injustice done to somebody who has committed, so it was said, a very serious crime? He was convicted of murder. It has been found that it was a mistake.

I remember that some years ago there was a Member in another place who was convicted in the court below. He went to the Court of Appeal and the judge in the Court of Appeal called him into the well of the court and said: "I want it known publicly that you have been completely exonerated by this court. You have been found not guilty. You should not have been convicted."

There is a provision in this Bill which robs an electorate of the right to elect the man they want, robs people of the right to nomination in the circumstances I have described, and there is no provision here that, if there be an appeal and the appeal reverses the conviction or the sentence, anything can be done about it at all. He is disqualified, and that is an innovation in our law. My chief protest, as I have said, is that, when one is dealing with a constitutional matter of the representation of the people, one should not get panicked by the IRA, and one should give proper consideration to a measure which deserves the consideration of your Lordships' House because it deals with the fundamentals of democracy, since it deals with the representation of the people.

7.36 p.m.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I have listened, as always, with great interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said. I have listened with fascination to the constitutional discourse of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. I hope that the House will now bear with me if I concentrate largely but briefly on the Bill as it affects Northern Ireland. When the problem of what to do with Maze prisoners who wanted to stand for election to Westminster first arose, I had little doubt that they should be debarred in future by law, as was formerly the case and as was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead. That seemed the obvious course to follow; but, as I have considered the question more carefully, I have come to believe that that is not the right one. Let me make my case. I speak for myself, although I trust my noble friends will not disagree with my conclusions.

I have been surprised for some time now at references to the idea that the Northern Irish react according to what they believe to be the truth rather than necessarily to the truth itself I was surprised because I should have thought that, apart from the comparatively few who deliberately distort the truth, that was what we all do willy-nilly. What I say now is certainly based on what I believe to be the truth, taken from information supplied by the television and the press; but I have found that my occasional visits to the Province have left me with a much greater feeling of optimism than I should otherwise have had.

Those imprisoned in the Maze prison are there because of terrorist activities, often brutal and sometimes involving murder. It is right that they should be there and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, agrees on that point. My party fully accepts that it would be quite wrong to give them special category status with all that that involves. Conditions there are very good and it is sad that at this point of time, Mr. Haughey should be suggesting that we have only to make a few concessions, and so on. I fully agree with the Statement on prison conditions made by the right honourable gentleman the Secretary of State in the other place this afternoon. So much is largely agreed in this country; but that is not the question before us today. What we have to decide is whether or not the electors should be allowed to express their opinions freely by voting for a convicted criminal.

That the result of the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election recently shocked and disappointed moderate opinion is beyond dispute for it showed quite clearly the so-called "polarisation of opinion". Bobby Sands, after all, had only a small majority over his hard line Unionist opponent. For myself, I should have liked to see an Alliance candidate stand and prosper, for that party is doing most, I believe, to bridge the gap between the two communities. But it was not to be, and unfortunately things worked out quite otherwise.

The attitude of the Republicans amazes me. They set out deliberately to elect to sit at Westminster a man who would never be able to represent them there and who was breaking the ruling of the Catholic faith, which many of them hold, by committing suicide or who, if they do not like it put that way, had been callously sentenced to death by his so-called leaders. It seems that the attitude of the electors is much to be regretted. Their vote was a clear message to the outside world that, despite all the disadvantages their policy involves, they prefer that rather than support a hardline Unionist. In this case they chose to use the ballot rather than the bullet, and I believe we ignore this at our peril.

It is argued that if this Bill is not passed the IRA will be able to put forward another candidate, with all the electoral privileges of free post, time on television and so on, that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has mentioned to us. But I believe that Milton was not mistaken when in his Areopagitica, his brilliant attack on the censorship of the written word, he said: So Truth be in the field: we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple! Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? I accept there may be difficulties in the "free and open encounter". What we need to do is to see that the problems are brought into the open where myth can give way to reality and fear to trust. For the truth, as I see it, is less depressing than we are often led to believe. There is a solution and there is much to admire, even in the Northern Ireland of today.

The use of violence and intimidation is vicious, but as Alf McCreavy, the distinguished journalist, so movingly puts it in his book Profiles of Hope: Almost undetected there is a pollen of peace spreading over so many parts of a scarred but still fertile land". Or, as another writer puts it in the same book: I believe that through the violence of Northern Ireland you can see God working. Some good has come even from the death and tragedies affecting my own colleagues. It has come through the changed lives of people and I hope that I am a better man as a result. To me, the courage of many of those who have lived through the last 10 years in Ulster is an inspiration, and I find it very moving to read of those who have suffered the tragic loss of a loved relation and come through without bitterness, saying, "I would rather it was my son who died than that my son had brought suffering on another."

Gerald Priestland, the distinguished broadcaster said through the BBC in 1978 that the English ought to visit Ireland more often and went on— Then they might begin to understand how insensitive we often seem to both communities, swinging between boredom and brutality, lacking either tact or patience or subtlety, determined only not to lose face.". That may to many seem an unfair comment, but I believe it has in it more than a grain of truth.

This Bill, of course, originates in the Home Office and not in the Northern Ireland Office. I would very much like to believe that the Province would be a better place for its enactment, but I do not. I believe it will only check a symptom and not cure the disease.

7.43 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am sure that this Bill has been introduced with the best of motives, but, in my view, it is a hastily contrived and a hastily drafted Bill and one that we cannot look at solely from the aspect of Northern Ireland. I believe it is a bad Bill on three grounds. I do not believe it will improve the situation in Northern Ireland; it is also a bad Bill because it introduces very far-reaching constitutional change; it is a bad Bill because I believe it is unwise to deal with important changes of electoral law in this way.

As has been made quite clear, the Bill is being rushed through in order to change our electoral law so as to deal with one particular situation. I think we can all understand that the public generally feel outraged that a convicted gunman can stand for Parliament and be elected; but surely the issue of real concern is that 30,000 voters in Fermanagh and South Tyrone voted for such a candidate and they acted in precisely the same way in 1955 when they elected another person who had a 10-year sentence. Each noble Lord will have his own opinion, but I do not think that this Bill will improve the situation in Northern Ireland. On the contrary, I feel that it will enable the IRA to have as much publicity and opportunity for building up sympathy and support as was given to the election of this particular candidate. Rightly or wrongly, the electors of Fermanagh and South Tyrone voted for the person they wanted, as they did in 1955—for what reasons I do not know, but that is what they did. If a constituency chooses to elect a person who will not be able to sit and vote in Parliament, that has been a matter entirely for the electors concerned and that has been the situation which has existed for far more than 100 years. The Fermanagh electors knew who the candidate was and what he was. If this Bill becomes law the IRA could then say: "Now the British will not let you vote for whom you want", and a good propaganda campaign could be built upon that.

Under the schedule to the Bill, a person nominated may be disqualified and the name would not be included on the ballot paper, but that will not be determined until after the close of nominations. There will be no opportunity to put forward an alternative candidate, and so again there could be a good propaganda campaign conducted to the effect that the United Kingdom has prevented the electors from having before them particular views. I have not heard it suggested anywhere that a member of the IRA or a convicted terrorist should be allowed to take his seat in Parliament if elected; that is not the issue before us. The Bill will disqualify a person only when detained in prison. A person convicted and sentenced to more than 12 months' imprisonment, say, for a firearm or similar offence, who has served his sentence remains free to be nominated and elected to Parliament.

Even though such a person may be subsequently expelled by Parliament, he could stand in a consequential by-election without disqualification, and such a person could be a former Maze prisoner or a violent gunman. So there would still be an affront to the public which would not be removed by this Bill. So why are we attempting to do it in the way the Government have prescribed in this Bill? The Bill is not bringing back the position to what it was before the 1967 Criminal Law Act. My noble friend Lord Mishcon has made that absolutely clear—that the changes which are made go far beyond what the position was before the 1967 Act. Therefore, I will not go over that point again because his case was powerfully put.

There are other grounds for disqualification for membership of the House of Commons and in no other case will there be a similar provision for the rejection of nomination or an automatic exclusion from the House of Commons. They will have to be dealt with either by a decision of the House of Commons or by electors' petition. I will not weary your Lordships by going through all the previous cases. My noble friend has listed a number of them to show that there have been innumerable examples where the electors have decided whom they will have and whom they will elect, even though the person may be debarred from actually becoming a Member of the House of Commons. I have mentioned the position in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where the people have done this twice. In 1955, the same year that that constituency took this action, Thomas Mitchell (who was also sentenced to 10 years for a raid on an army depot) was elected for Mid-Ulster and re-elected at a subsequent by-election. I do not justify this but I note from the excellent reference sheet in the Library of the other place the following quotation: However nonsensical this may sound, it must be admitted that the Bill removes an option which is at present available as regards all types of disqualification and which was also available in the past as regards disqualification of convicted prisoners. In this sense the Bill is undoubtedly a constitutional innovation". As my noble friend has said, the Government are endeavouring to rush this measure through Parliament, even though it is a great constitutional innovation. The Bill could be a very dangerous precedent. It could be that the denial of the right of electors to vote for whom they choose at some time might be extended to other categories of persons. The intention of the Bill may be to disqualify imprisoned terrorists, but its provisions will apply to all persons while serving a sentence of more than 12 months.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, whom I also greatly respect for his general views, said that what the Government are trying to do is to avoid the mockery of an election. Let us see what could happen as a result of this Bill. There could be persons of otherwise good character who sincerely believe a law to be unjust and who feel that they must act against it. There are nationalists who have been burning cottages. Nobody supports that, but an automatic denial of their nomination would be a lovely propaganda weapon for the nationalist cause, if they wished to stand in a constituency. I read in today's paper that a member of the Welsh Language Society was sentenced to nine months for trying to damage a radio transmitter. If the sentence had been just over 12 months, and if for some reason he wanted to stand in a constituency, he could not do so under this Bill. What a lovely propaganda weapon that would be for a political party, if he were denied!

Then, again, a trade union leader may believe, perhaps wrongly, that he must stand against one of the labour laws and he may be convicted for more than 12 months. The people in the area in which he lived may feel that they want to show their support for that man, but under this Bill they cannot do so. There may be individuals who wish, maybe wrongly, to take action against the development of nuclear energy, as is happening on the Continent. If a person with such beliefs were convicted for more than 12 months, he would not be eligible to stand under this Bill. This is a complete departure from what we have had in this country for so long. The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, referred to local government and disqualification from being elected a member of a local authority, or from being a member of a local authority. But what has not been mentioned is that there is no disqualification of a nomination. If a person is not qualified to be a member of a local authority, or to be elected a member of a local authority, the matter can be dealt with only by an election petition. Therefore, that point is completely irrelevant to what we are discussing this evening.

Finally, the Bill proposes not only a fundamental constitutional change but a change in electoral law. The noble Lord explained the two points on which a returning officer can, at present, invalidate a nomination paper. But those of us who have been concerned with elections have always stressed that the returning officer does not reject a person's nomination; he rejects only a nomination paper. He has no power whatever to determine the qualification of a person to be nominated. The Bill would change that. For the first time in modern history the returning officer is now given the responsibility of determining whether or not a person is in order to be nominated; not whether his nomination papers have been properly subscribed.

There are also proposals in the schedule for altering the timing of nominations and objections. The only point I wish to make on that is that, as the noble Lord has explained, the schedule proposes that Saturdays be treated as excepted days for election proceedings. That may be good, so far as it goes, but I believe that all this has been decided without consultation with the political parties. It has not been before a Speaker's Conference, although it may be that a Speaker's Conference is not appropriate at this time. But it also has not been before an electoral advisory conference, because the Government terminated the existence of that conference. Therefore, so far as I am aware, the Government have made this change on their own. The effect will be to change the last date for the receipt of absent vote applications. At present, 12 days have to be given before the day of the poll, excluding excepted days, for the closing of applications for the absent vote. This is now to be changed, because Saturdays are being excluded.

I am certain that members of the party opposite will be as much concerned with this as other noble Lords in this House. We have only until Thursday, and we do not have the regulations before us, but somehow I propose to table an amendment to ensure that this is reduced to 10 days, in order to keep the period as it is at the moment. I should be very happy if the noble Lord could say in reply that the Government appreciate this point, and that they themselves will bring in an amendment to meet it. But this indicates the rush way in which this Bill has been contrived, and I emphasise that not only does it change this important electoral law regarding the power of the returning officer, but it changes a great constitutional practice. I am certain that every noble Lord who puts his hand on his heart will feel that this is wrong and that this Bill should not go through. Unfortunately, we do not vote against Second Readings in this House, but, somehow or other, we must see whether we can bring in some sensible amendments at Committee stage.

7.56 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, while being very glad to be able to make my contribution to the debate this evening and, more especially, to stress some of the points already made, I should like to say how sorry I am that I shall be unable to stay to the end of the debate, and I apologise to your Lordships for missing the ensuing speakers. As has already been said, this seems, on the face of it, to be an eminently reasonable Bill. Indeed, who in their right minds could possibly disagree with the principle that any society should do its best to make provision for ensuring that its representatives are fit for public office, and that these people who are placed in a position to rule and make laws should, at least, have some claim to moral authority. There are, of course, the antecedents which have been mentioned for excluding certain types of people from this elective office, and judged from this principle it could hardly seem more appropriate to add murderers and terrorists to that list.

However, although, as I have said, this Bill appears at first sight to commend itself, I should now like to point out what, in my view, represent certain disquieting aspects, mainly concerning Northern Ireland. As my noble friend Lord Mishcon said, this Bill has been constructed in very great haste—too much haste. It has been introduced with an urgency for one reason; to prevent what recently happened in Fermanagh and South Tyrone from happening again. I refer to that by-election at which, as we all know and as the noble Lord the Minister stated, the motive of the prisoner candidate was to use the parliamentary election process, not in order to secure its object—namely, election to Westminster—but to whip-up feeling and public emotion in a political atmosphere and to achieve the maximum amount of publicity to the self-formed cause of the provisionals. I do not have to describe the sense of outrage, horror and disgust which this manoeuvre created in the minds of all thinking, caring people.

However, before I comment on the likely practical consequences of this Bill towards Northern Ireland, and how it might affect the already grave situation existing there, may I first make one point about the principle behind the introduction of this Bill, a point that has already been made; namely, how alarming and unwise it is to introduce a general constitutional provision to deal with a particular localised case. It cannot be right suddenly to invent a general theory in order to deal with an individual difficulty, and there can be no doubt in any of our minds that this is what has happened here. There can also be no doubt in our minds that it has happened at very great speed.

May I now say a few words—and I say them with a great deal of feeling—about how this Bill will affect the cause to which every single one of us here in your Lordships' House can but be committed; namely, the cause of a just and peaceful settlement of Northern Ireland's problems, and an ending of the tragedy which has entered into the lives of so many of its peoples. First, let us reflect on how this Bill might appear to them, to the Northern Irish people, for, after all, this has been designed to deal with a specific problem which has occurred in Northern Ireland. So it would seem both right and wise to try to look at this legislation through their eyes.

As a result of recent events, the minority Catholic community must at this moment be in a state of very great anxiety and bewilderment. They are a community whose trust and confidence the Government badly need to foster. Those are people who, by a very large majority, still give their allegiance to the ballot box rather than to the gun. And long may that last! However, on the basis of the intractable situation surrounding them at present, they have little cause to look too optimistically towards Westminster for a constructive solution to their serious security and social problems. Thus, their confidence in the democratic process of government should not be further tested by removing the right of total freedom of choice in the selection of their representative. The fact that the law should, does and will continue to prevent such a representative, should he be a convicted criminal serving a sentence in prison, from carrying out his representation and parliamentary duties on their behalf is a matter for them, and them alone, to face. Thus, this Bill proposes to interfere with people's rights to select their Member of Parliament although in effect with no practical consequences.

Unlike my noble friend Lord Blease, I do not live in Northern Ireland and therefore am not in constant contact with its people. Nevertheless, I understand from certain of my friends and contacts engaged in the work of reconciliation and the pursuit of peace that they have deep misgivings about the implementation of the Bill. As was described by the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, in such very moving terms, these are the people who have the responsibility before them. It is their responsibility to build the future and it is for us to give them every possible help that we can.

Now may I turn to the argument of the greatest importance: the one regarding the consequences of such legislation on those enemies of democracy and freedom, the terrorist forces. First, speaking generally, may I say that in my view such a law could only give justification—spurious justification though undoubtedly it would be—to the one argument which worldwide terrorists, whether it be the PLO, the Red Brigade, the INLA, all use; namely, that it is because they cannot get representation through the ballot box that they have to resort to the gun and to the bomb. This argument is frequently put forward by terrorist forces and it has almost become a conventional justification for their crimes.

Finally, may I take the more specific example of the Provisional IRA. There can be no doubt whatsoever that this organisation, having drawn to the full the utmost publicity value out of the Fermanagh by-election, will now move on and use the disqualification provided by the Bill as a powerful propaganda weapon. They will use it not only with their own community whose interests they so callously claim to represent but also to feed their highly organised propaganda machinery overseas, notably in the United States of America, by way of manipulation of this Bill to make it appear to be an imperialistic instrument designed to prevent them from representing the true interests and wishes of the Northern Irish Catholic Community, a community which already attracts so much support and sympathy from its expatriates in the United States, support unhappily expressed not only by sentiment but more dangerously through funds and arms.

So, as I said at the start, although the Bill may appear to have so much to commend it I fear that far from assisting us in our campaign against terrorism and violence it may well have the opposite effect. We all know the ominous and daunting task that is facing the free countries in their war against terrorism. We all know how impossible it is within our democratic structure to subjugate terrorism. All that we can do is to protect as best we can members of the community from their destructive forces and to render the work of the terrorist more and more difficult. Therefore, I oppose this Bill because I very much fear that in the present climate of tension in Ireland the terrorist may contrive to use this legislation to help him in his grisly task.

8.6 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs has dealt most comprehensively with the substance of the Bill, as indeed have other noble friends on this side of the House. Therefore I shall not attempt to match what they have said. However, I should like to say one or two words about the form which the Bill takes. Before doing so, may I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for the fact that I missed the opening sentences of his introductory speech which was very properly praised by my noble friend Lord Mishcon, with the qualification that he felt, and I think rightly felt, that it was perhaps a rather low-level speech which sought to present a Bill of very considerable importance as though it were a minor measure of no great consequence. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, is an expert in this line. He is capable of presenting a nuclear explosion as though it were a firework. I have had occasion to criticise that on another occasion, and I hope to do so again.

Here we are faced with a rather extraordinary Bill. I suppose the view might be taken that we in this House are ill-fitted to criticise or comment upon a Bill which has to do with elections. Some of us have never been elected and some of us are no longer elected. However, none of us is subject to the process. Therefore, the view might be taken that perhaps we are not the best people to express opinions upon what ought to happen in another place. I do not take that view, because it seems to me that the proper function of a second Chamber is to look at legislation, to see what is wrong with it and possibly to cause the primary Chamber to think again, and perhaps to cause the Government to think again. The cogent arguments which have been put forward on this side of the House seem to carry such weight and such force that I hope the Government will be persuaded to think again. The arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, and the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, will no doubt be expressed in terms of amendments, which I hope and believe will be of such value and coherence that the Government may be persuaded to accept them. If not, I hope that we shall press them through the Lobbies.

As I said just now, this is a most extraordinary Bill. I doubt whether so many peculiarities have ever been included in such a short Bill. To take Clause 1, a person may be found guilty of one or more offences "whether before or after the passing of this Act". That means that this will be retrospective legislation. That is the first peculiarity. Grave exception has been taken from time to time to retrospective legislation. Clause 1 goes on to speak of that person being found guilty of one or more offences "whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere". Therefore, the finding of guilt may take place anywhere in the world: not in the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland, but in the United Kingdom or elsewhere.

It is very strange that we in this country apparently are to take account of guilt which may be determined anywhere in the world. In other words, so far as we are concerned we shall abrogate the question of judging whether or not a person is guilty. We shall not rely upon the courts of our own country to make that determination; it can be determined anywhere else in the world. There are various parts of the world in which we regard those who are found guilty as not guilty. In fact, people have been found guilty in various parts of the world where we feel that it is a privilege to have been found guilty. This is a very peculiar thing to include in a British law. Clause 1 goes on to say that this person shall be disqualified from membership of the House of Commons while detained anywhere in the British Islands or the Republic of Ireland. Therefore, for the purpose of detention, one foreign country—and the Republic of Ireland is a foreign country—is selected out for the place of detention. This is a most extraordinary Bill. I doubt whether anything quite like it has ever been placed before the House.

Turning next to Clause 2(2), if a Member of the House of Commons becomes disqualified by this Act, his seat shall be vacated. Consider the question that arises here. If the seat became vacant in the middle of a Session of Parliament, by the time that the next general election took place the sentence could have been served and the Member concerned could again present himself for re-election. But if the vacation should by any chance fall towards the end of a Session of Parliament and overrode the period of a general election, then not only would the Member be disqualified from one Session of Parliament but he would also be automatically disqualified for the next Session of Parliament, because the period of disqualification would overlap the two.

This Bill is really an absurdity. I sincerely hope that we shall be able to drive some sense into the Bill at Committee stage, but I have doubts that we shall be able to do so, for the reasons which have been put forward so adequately by my noble friends on this side of your Lordships' House. It seems to me that the Bill is wrong in principle and wrong in detail. It ought not to have been brought before your Lordships, and I hope that as a result of the proceedings in your Lordships' House the Government will decide to take back the Bill and think again.

8.11 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I ask the indulgence of your Lordships' House in speaking, not having put my name to the list of speakers. I speak largely because no Back-Bencher on this side of your Lordships' House seems to have thought that this was an important enough matter on which to address you, and also because I regret that so few on this side of the House have been present to hear the arguments. It does seem to me that this Bill is being rushed. It is a constitutional matter and it is not one that should be rushed. If we are to have disqualification—and that may be necessary—then I myself should much prefer that there should be disqualification from sitting in the other place rather than from standing for the other place.

8.12 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, as other Members of your Lordships' House have indicated, the Bill we are debating is a comparatively short one; but as the noble Lord the Minister has already said, there can be no doubt that the measures proposed in the Bill loom large in their importance as political issues. Certainly the Bill raises serious matters concerning our electoral system and about the principles governing parliamentary representation.

Like other noble Lords, I have read with interest the Official Report of the debates in the other place on the 22nd and 25th June, on the Representation of the People Bill. What impressed me most about these debates was the strong and vigorous defence by all elected Members of Parliament who took part—both those for the Bill and those against it—of the rights of the electorate freely to express their opinions through secret ballot and free elections. Whatever may be the need for a review of the electoral law and the law on disqualification, there is no doubt that we should not be debating here today were it not for the recent election events in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Several noble Lords have mentioned the fact that Fermanagh and South Tyrone has given rise to this particular Bill and the fact that it is wrong, in their view, as it is in my view and in the view of many others, that legislation should be enacted to deal with a "one off "situation or a singular instance. Why should one constituency out of 635 be the subject of a particular piece of legislation?

In this connection, I believe that the honourable Member for Walsall, North, Mr. David Winnick, fairly stated the case when he referred to the two distinct campaigns which have been waged in Northern Ireland during the past 12 years: the campaign of terrorism, and the propaganda campaign. Mr. Winnick, together with others—including Members of your Lordships' House—has condemned the callous campaign of brutality and terrorism perpetrated by the para-military units. Mr. Winnick also questioned the effectiveness of the Government in countering the dishonest claims waged in the propaganda campaign. This point was also covered by Mr. Roy Hattersley when he declared that all want to see the IRA and everything it stands for replaced by genuine democratic debate and political discussion in Northern Ireland. The fear is that this Bill will not bring about that end.

I join with my noble friends who have already spoken in disputing most strongly the need for this Bill. Is it not the position that when Mr. Sands was elected to represent Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Members of the other place had more than adequate powers to prevent his taking his seat if, in the individual case, that was considered to be the correct course of action? In other words, I am saying that powers already exist within Parliament by which a person in a similar situation to the person who was elected for Fermanagh and South Tyrone can be disqualified.

I repeat what others have declared: that as a matter of general principle we must not alienate people from the ballot box. It is for the constituents, not Parliament, in the first instance to choose. Constituents do not live in a vacuum. We must respect their right to select the candidates of their choice. On a more specific level, I believe that this Bill is a failure and it cannot and will not obtain the objective for which it is promoted; that is, prevent the misuse of democratic election procedures. The infamous loophole which allowed convicted prisoners incarcerated in the Irish Republic to stand for election has been plugged, but that is not the only gap in the measure. Within the borders of Northern Ireland it does not, as I imagine it was intended to do, prevent all prisoners held in prisons in Northern Ireland from standing for election. The Bill relates only to convicted prisoners and not those who are remanded in custody and awaiting trial. Given the rate of conviction in the Diplock Courts and the time lag involved, a large number of persons in this category are going to be found guilty of scheduled offences, and in the case of a by-election it cannot be doubted that the IRA or the IRSP would so choose its candidate as to ensure a guilty finding which, in the event of the nominee's election, would lead to disqualification. A further election would then be required when, again, a prisoner in remand could be nominated.

I know that it may be difficult for some noble Lords to understand the sort of situation that exists in Northern Ireland, but it is not impossible that the kind of situation which I have presented could occur and recur. May I ask the noble Lord the Minister whether the consequences of this Bill are as I have portrayed them? If so, can the Bill stand up as it is, without amendment?

Another level on which I would question the wisdom of this measure relates to Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states: The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature". I would again ask the noble Lord the Minister whether or not the Government have considered the compatibility of the Representation of the People Bill with this provision, and if so what conclusions have the Government reached?

Noble Lords have mentioned Northern Ireland particularly in connection with this Bill, but I was pleased that other noble Lords drew attention to the fact that the Bill has wide repercussions and wide-sweeping applications for the whole of the United Kingdom. It is not only concerned with Northern Ireland; it is a Bill which has serious consequences for other parts of the United Kingdom. I would ask the Minister this question: is this not the first piece of United Kingdom legislation to disqualify a prospective candidate from nomination for election? Does not this open up a whole area of law on disqualification in electoral law and is it not an unsatisfactory piecemeal approach to the needs in this area of law? I understand that the Home Secretary has now completed a review of electoral law, but would it not have been better to wait for this comprehensive review before proceeding with this unhappy and hurried measure?

Finally, as a citizen of Northern Ireland I cannot accept the view expressed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that this is the right type of measure for Northern Ireland. Despite the polarisation reflected in the recent local government election results, all parties welcomed the high turnout and commitment to the ballot box. That commitment must be fostered and not discouraged. The result in Fermanagh served a valuable political end. It drew to the surface what previously might have been suspected but not generally believed: that there is a degree of support for the H-Block campaign. No matter what one's personal views may be in this matter, this is a political reality. Indeed, it was confirmed in the recent Irish Republic General Election. Is it not better that we should know the facts by the ballot box and that they should emerge in that way rather than at the end of the barrel of a gun? In conclusion, my Lords, I think there is a better way to uphold and protect democratic parliamentary representation than this Bill provides.

8.22 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, this has been an important debate. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, referred to this Bill as being an important constitutional measure and I would respond by saying that the Government do not lightly withhold the right to be elected to the House of Commons from any group of people. But I think it is important, in the light of the speeches that have been made by your Lordships this evening, for me to make the point that the question of basic principle here is a basic principle which, in the main, goes back 14 years and, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Blease, it is not cutting a new furrow in constitutional history. It is important to remember that our predecessors have disqualified from membership of the House of Commons those they have considered to be incapable of serving there, and that was the law until it was changed in 1967. In saying that, of course I realise that I am disregarding the fact that in this Bill we are making new law so far as nominations are concerned. I will come to that later.

In addition to that being the law up to 14 years ago, when I was speaking earlier in the debate I sought to remind your Lordships of some of the present grounds of disqualification; and in addition to those which I mentioned disqualification applies also, of course, to those who are serving any sentence for treason and to those who have been convicted of certain electoral offences. As I have said, as recently as 1967 persons convicted of a felony and serving a prison sentence of more than 12 months were disqualified.

To your Lordships who have said that none the less this Bill should not go on the statute book, I would ask this question: what would noble Lords who take that view put in the place of this Bill? From many of the speeches which I have heard this evening, I have taken it that many of your Lordships would put nothing; that you would accept the state of the current law and would rely on the expulsion powers of another place.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister has asked a question, and it is only right that there should be a frank reply from the Front Bench of the Opposition. One of the alternatives that the Government had and did not take was to realise that this was to deal with an Irish situation, an ad hoc one and a serious one, and to make this a Bill of one year's duration, then to be re-enacted by an order of the Secretary of State if confirmed by both Houses of Parliament, on exactly the same lines as the terrorist legislation which exists now. That would have been a very practical alternative that the House could at least have considered, away from this constitutional alteration.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am interested to hear the noble Lord say that. I am sure the noble Lord will acquit me of any discourtesy when I say that that was not the impression that I gained from the speeches that I heard this evening. Until the noble Lord made that interesting suggestion I had not heard it made at all. The burden of the speeches which have been made in opposition to this Bill has been that this is a matter, not which is wrong as a matter of timing, but one which is wrong as a matter of principle; and therefore, not unreasonably, I come back to asking whether, as a matter of principle, this Bill were not to be put on the statute book would we then put nothing? The reality of the matter—

Lord Underhill

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. The Government could quite easily have restored the position to what it was prior to 1967 without going any further with this Bill. They could have brought in a Bill to do that.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am coming to that in just a moment; but before doing so I should like to point out that the Government have to deal—and indeed Parliament has to deal—with the reality and not with the theory of the situation. The reality is that unless we pass this legislation the near certainty is a repetition of the events that we have seen in Fermanagh and South Tyrone: the nomination of someone who has been put up—and that is the only expression that one can use, because the unfortunate man in that case was in fact in prison and was therefore nominated in that way, with all the attendant publicity—and then, if elected, not being able to take his seat, and in being elected his constituency, in such a case, will be effectively disenfranchised. This is a situation which the Government really feel that the country cannot tolerate and we believe that Parliament should not tolerate it.

I think it would be only fair for me to refer to the extremely skilful and interesting speech which the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, made when he referred to the Bradlaugh case, to the Baron Rothschild case and to the case of Mr. Tony Benn. The noble Lord suggested that their candidature, or indeed the candidature of a clergyman or a civil servant, would be on all fours with the candidature of a convicted prisoner. I am glad to see that the noble Lord is shaking his head, because then we can agree that there is a fundamental difference in those two cases. The people referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, stood in a genuine attempt to be elected and, at least one day, to take their seat in the House of Commons; and their campaign was to change the electoral law, as they saw it, to improve democracy. But no one in this debate has seriously suggested that the late Mr. Sands should have been released in order to take his seat in Parliament. His candidature was quite different. It was simply an attempt by people who were manipulating him to gain publicity; not a genuine attempt to gain membership of the House of Commons.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I do apologise to the noble Lord for interrupting again, but this is such an important Bill. So that the House gets the reality he has asked that the House should get, does he appreciate that there is absolutely nothing to stop an IRA man who is not presently detained in prison, but who may have served a sentence and completed it, from standing with the name of Bobby Sands at the next by-election? Has he realised that this is obviously a ruse that can be employed, and that therefore all this Bill and all this constitutional change is for nothing?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the noble Lord is most uncharacteristically being a little naive. The noble Lord realises, and I realise, that there is a very great deal of difference between someone, whoever he may be and whatever his motives, putting up for election for another place and someone who is on hunger strike and in prison being used by evilly-disposed people, with all the attendant publicity of an election campaign, and simply using the campaign for totally other reasons.

If I may say so, I do not find it surprising that the disqualification of prisoners will by no means be unique to this country. Similar provisions apply, for example, in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and in many European countries.

If I may respond to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and indeed other noble Lords, it is true, of course, that the Bill goes further than the Forfeiture Act 1870. However, we are not bound by the decisions of our predecessors in these matters, and we must do what we believe to be right in the light of the circumstances that prevail. The Government are putting to both Houses of Parliament that they believe it not right to make available all the election facilities—which, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill understands far better than I do—which are the right of a Parliamentary candidate in contesting an election, and all the publicity, which is the real objective, incidentally, in these cases of terrorism. When the noble Lord, Lord Blease, asked me whether powers did not exist to prevent someone from taking his seat in the House of Commons by a decision of the other place, of course the answer is, yes, the noble Lord is absolutely right. But that would not prevent nomination, and it is important, I think, to prevent nominations in these particular cases.

My Lords, I have been asked several direct questions. The noble Lord, Lord Mischon, referred to the hard case of a person in prison on nomination day but out of prison by election day. That is a perfectly fair point. But it applies to all forms of disqualification—for example, a person who holds a disqualifying office on nomination day, such as a member of a state board or tribunal. If a person is disqualified on election day his election would be void.

The noble Lord, Lord Blease, raised with me the Northern Ireland point, which again is absolutely valid; I admit immediately that there is validity in both points, the point that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, made and the first point which the noble Lord, Lord Blease, made. The noble Lord asked about those who are on remand in Northern Ireland, who will not be touched by the Bill. The noble Lord told the House that, in his view, there was a difference in Northern Ireland, because, owing to the weight of business on the courts, remands can be for a considerable length of time. But, my Lords, we can only do our best. It would clearly not be right, in the Government's view, to disqualify a person who had not been convicted of a criminal offence. We appreciate that this may mean that some undesirable people may be able to stand, but it is not the purpose of this Bill to disqualify undesirable people, but to disqualify convicted prisoners from standing, anywhere in the United Kingdom, for the reasons I have sought to set out.

The noble Lord asked me specifically about Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It does, of course, guarantee the right to free elections. The disqualification in this Bill, which is similar to the disqualification of prisoners in many other European countries, does not, in our view, offend against that right.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, referred to the drafting of Clause 1, particularly the expression "convicted in the United Kingdom or elsewhere". This is to cover persons convicted in the Republic of Ireland and detained in that country, persons convicted in the Channel Islands, or the Isle of Man, or persons who have committed grave crimes in one of our dependent territories who have been transferred to this country under the provisions of the Colonial Prisoners Removal Act 1884. There are at present less than a dozen such prisoners detained here under the 1884 Act. It will not, contrary to the suggestion of the noble Lord, apply to prisoners convicted in other countries, since they would not be serving their sentences here.

There is one final point I should answer, and that is the question of appeals, which the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, raised. Again, I admit that it is the case that, under the provisions of the Bill, the disqualifications take effect on sentence and the disqualifications are not suspended pending the outcome of an appeal. This was a matter which was debated extensively in another place. It may very well appear to be an injustice if a person is prevented from standing because he is found guilty and later on appeal proved innocent, and the sense of injustice will be most acute if the person affected is a sitting Member who has had to vacate his seat and a by-election has been held.

Against that, the fact is that a person sentenced for a period of more than 12 months has been found guilty of a serious offence. He is treated as guilty in our prison system and in the reporting of the case. He will not be able to continue with his duties as a Member of Parliament, and to provide for suspension of the disqualification pending appeal could leave a constituency unrepresented for a substantial period. I would only say in addition to that that I do not find it surprising that the Forfeiture Act 1870 had exactly the same effect as the effect which has been written into the present Bill. As I understand it, the Forfeiture Act bit immediately a conviction was imposed, and not following appeal.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, again the noble Lord the Minister is being most courteous, and I obviously put this to him not in the way of an informed opinion but as a respectful view. I think he will find that the Forfeiture Act would not have applied to a sitting Member of Parliament in the sense of declaring his seat void. That was the privilege of Parliament itself. All that it would have prevented him from doing—and that was a factual matter which would be obvious—was from sitting as a Member of Parliament. That is the vital difference here: the whole power has been taken from Parliament; it is now an enactment and the seat will automatically become void, irrespective of an appeal or anything of that kind.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I shall, of course, look very carefully at what the noble Lord says, and this is no mere politeness, because I do endeavour to do so when the noble Lord is speaking of legal points, and indeed others. Although there is little point in raking over ancient history, I am advised that the disqualifications under the 1870 Act were automatic. Perhaps I may refer the noble Lord to the case of Alfred Lynch in 1903, where the disqualification in that case did not require a specific resolution of the House. I am advised that that was the case with the 1870 Act in each case. I will look at what the noble Lord has said, and perhaps the noble Lord would care to glance at what I have said in reply.

Since 1967, prisoners, unless convicted of treason or of certain electoral offences, have not been disqualified from membership of the House of Commons. This has not until recently been a matter of practical concern. May I make that absolutely clear, as the Minister of State did in another place. Your Lordships will not need me to say that the practical considerations, not the principle of the matter, have changed in recent months. We have recently witnessed the candidature and election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone of a convicted terrorist serving a sentence of 14 years in one of our prisons for possession of firearms. This has brought to public attention the loophole in our law, which has been exploited quite cynically by people who were not seeking the return of a Member of the House of Commons. They were intent on something very different. It is to close this loophole that I have moved the Second Reading of this Bill in your Lordships' House this evening. I can do no more now than commend the Bill to your Lordships' House.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I should like to make one point only by way of clarification. The noble Lord knows from the speech that I ventured to make to the House that I felt personally that this was a bad Bill in the sense that it would have the opposite effect in Ireland to the one we all want. I expressed that view perfectly frankly even though it may be a view which other noble Lords may disagree with. When I answered the question which the noble Lord addressed in his final speech it was to give an alternative, that even if the Government were right about Ireland at this moment and about the effect that this Bill would have, it should be a temporary measure. Then we would have a chance of looking properly, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton said, at the constitutional issues involved, whatever might be the final decision.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, this is a matter which we can take up again at the other stages of the Bill. I think that it would be wrong if I did not make it clear on behalf of the Government that I do not agree about the desirability of the course which the noble Lord is putting forward. But I think that it would perhaps be tedious if I explained in any detail why that is so. My reasons, I hope, are clear for believing that this, as a matter of both practice and principle, is a timely Bill to bring before your Lordships House.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.