The Local Government (Disqualification) Bill is a private member’s bill first introduced by Sir Paul Beresford (Conservative MP for Mole Valley) in the House of Commons and which is being sponsored in the House of Lords by Lord Udny-Lister (Conservative). The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities have published explanatory notes on the bill’s provisions, indicating that it has Government support. The House of Lords is scheduled to debate the bill at second reading on 4 March 2022.

What is the current legal position?

At present, provisions in the Local Government Act 1972 prevent individuals from holding office or standing for elections to a local authority if they:

[Have] within five years before the day of election or since his election been convicted in the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man of any offence and has had passed on him a sentence of imprisonment (whether suspended or not) for a period of not less than three months without the option of a fine.

Section 80 of the act also disqualifies an individual from standing as a candidate or being a member of a local authority if they fall under the following categories:

  • they are employed by the local authority, or by a company which is under the control of the local authority; or work under the direction of a joint board or joint committee;
  • they are subject to a bankruptcy restrictions order, an interim bankruptcy restrictions order, a debt relief restrictions order, or an interim debt relief restrictions order;
  • they are disqualified as a result of an election being questioned, under Part III of the Representation of the People Act 1983; or
  • they are a teacher in a school maintained by the local authority.

Measures in the bill

The Government held a consultation exercise in 2017 on the disqualification criteria for councillors and mayors. In the response to that consultation published in October 2018, ministers indicated that they would disqualify individuals subject to certain sexual offence legal orders from holding such office, including those subject to Sexual Risk Orders (SROs).

The bill seeks to take these proposals forward. Clause 1 of the bill would insert a new section into the Local Government Act 1972 to provide that an individual is disqualified from standing for election or holding office in a local authority if they are subject to:

a. the notification requirements set out in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (commonly known as ‘being placed on the sex offenders register’);

b. a Sexual Risk Order made under section 122A of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

The explanatory notes provide the following rationale for the measures:

The bill updates the disqualification criteria to bring them into line with the values and behaviours expected of elected members by the electorate. There is public interest for councillors and mayors to be demonstrably of good character, and to be capable of being trusted by the electorate to make important decisions for the communities they represent, and on behalf of vulnerable groups, including children and young people.

The measures in the bill are broader than the provisions subject to the 2017 consultation, particularly regarding SROs, where the notes state:

The disqualification criteria have been expanded beyond the offences consulted upon in 2017 to ensure that they are specific and comprehensive in disqualifying individuals subject to the relevant notification requirements or relevant orders imposed in respect of sexual offences, and the territorial equivalents in the devolved nations in the event someone subject to such territorial equivalents subsequently stands for elected office in England.

Clause 2 of the bill would apply the same disqualification provisions to combined authority mayors and clause 3 to the Mayor of London and members of the London Assembly. Clause 4 would allow the secretary of state to make regulations amending the bill’s provisions to take account of any future changes to relevant legal requirements in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man as referred to in the bill (as they apply to those seeking office in England). Clause 5 would provide that the disqualification provisions in the bill do not have retrospective effect. As provided for in clause 6, the bill would extend to England and Wales but would have effect in England only.

Debate on the bill in the House of Commons

The bill was given a second reading without debate in the House of Commons on 22 November 2021. There was brief debate of the provisions in Public Bill Committee in the House of Commons on 1 December 2021, where Sir Paul Beresford spoke to his reasons for introducing the bill:

I was very surprised to hear that there is a loophole in the legislation on disqualification of local government elected members who are convicted of a sexual offence. That conviction means that they are subject to the relevant notifications commonly known as the sex offenders list. If the individuals are subject to a custodial sentence, they are automatically disqualified from their elected post. If they are not subject to a custodial sentence, even though they are put on the sex offenders list, they are not automatically disqualified. […] This tiny but somewhat complex bill will remove that loophole.

Speaking for the Labour Party, Jess Phillips , Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding, said that her party fully endorsed the bill. Similarly, the Minister for Levelling Up Communities, Kemi Badenoch, said she was grateful to Sir Paul for picking up this bill and closing this loophole. She said that two recent cases had revealed the need for reform:

[…] perhaps inevitably when there are 120,000 councillors serving all tiers of local government in England, there are rare occasions when the behaviour of individuals falls below the standards that the public rightly expect.

Two such cases have shone a sharp light on the need for reform, including a particularly notorious incidence that involved a parish councillor downloading indecent images of children soon after their election to public office. Despite being placed on the sex offenders register, this individual refused to do the decent thing by stepping down and he then went on to serve his full term. This intolerable situation was made possible by our current legislation on disqualification not having kept pace with our sentencing regime, as our rules disqualified someone only if they received a custodial sentence of three months or more.

The minister also noted that while local government was a devolved matter, efforts were underway to introduce similar measures in other areas of the UK:

Local government functions are devolved, which means the bill is specifically for England. That being said, the Welsh Government have recently legislated on the matter and the Scottish Parliament may wish to make corresponding provision, because the UK Government, unlike in the devolved nations, retains general responsibility for local government elections. The Government will work with the Northern Ireland Executive to seek to extend these measures to Northern Ireland in a comprehensive package, addressing candidates and sitting councillors.

No amendments were moved during committee stage and the bill progressed without division.

At report stage on 14 January 2022, debate focused on amendments moved by Sir Christopher Chope (Conservative MP for Christchurch) which would have added provisions to the bill on the disqualification of those who have been convicted of certain drink and drug driving offences, and controlled drugs offences, from individuals from holding office or standing for elections to a local authority. Speaking to his amendments, Sir Christopher said:

This is an important bill, and I think everyone supports it in principle, because it is designed to ensure that those in local government who fall short of the behaviour expected of them in a civilised society are disqualified from being able to participate in local government. My problem with the bill at the moment is that it is very selective. It deals only with sexual offences, and does not extend to other offences which I think are equally important, particularly in the context of local councillors who have responsibility for road safety, for example, and also for social services and dealing with the scourge of illegal drug taking.

Responding, Sir Paul Beresford said that, while he had sympathy with the amendments, he felt this bill was not the appropriate vehicle for them. He said that widening the scope of the bill would potentially compromise the support that it enjoyed and require more lengthy consultation with local authorities and others, preventing the rapid closure of the existing loophole on sexual offences. The minister, Kemi Badenoch agreed, suggesting that the amendments would raise several legal impediments given the nature of the offences which would fall under this broadened scope. The amendments were subsequently withdrawn and the bill progressed to third reading, which it was given without division.

Cover image by clairesamanthahaines on Pixabay.

Updated to include the date of the second reading debate.