Clause 20 - Minimum age

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:30 pm ar 15 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:30, 15 Tachwedd 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in clause 20, page 22, line 5, leave out 'nominated as a candidate' and insert 'elected'.

We do not often have the privilege of amending an Act from 1695; it is a welcome departure. To add to the gravitas of the situation, we are also amending the Union with Scotland Act 1706, so these are momentous matters.

I seek to add a degree of consistency. There is no doubt about this matter in the Bill, which states:

''A person is disqualified for membership of the House of Commons if, on the day on which he is nominated as a candidate, he has not attained the age of 18.''

That is admirably clear, and everyone understands it. It is a change from the 1695 provision, but that is not unreasonable as times have changed. The relevant section in the Parliamentary Elections Act 1695 is entitled

''Infants not to be elected.''

Few people nowadays would describe a 20-year-old as an infant, but that was the appropriate description in 1695. I shall not attempt to reflect in my speech the spelling of the 1695 Act. It says that

''noe person hereafter shall bee capable of being elected a member to serve in this or any future Parliament who is not of the age of one and twenty yeares and every election or returne of any person under that age is hereby declared to bee null and void And if any such minor hereafter chosen shall presume to sitt or vote in Parliament hee shall incurr such penalties and forfeitures as if hee had presumed to sitt and vote in Parliament without being chosen or returned.''

The relevant wording of the Union with Scotland Act 1706—

''none shall be capable to elect or be elected''— shows that the moment of election is the relevant time. That is also the test in the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975. As I read it, holding an office of profit under the Crown or a position on the list of disqualifying positions—positions that prevent one from serving as a Member of Parliament—stops one not from being nominated but from assuming the position of a Member of Parliament. Such legislation stops one taking one's seat in the House.

Photo of Jim McGovern Jim McGovern Llafur, Dundee West

Under the hon. Gentleman's formulation, would anyone of any age be able to stand as a candidate and simply be unable to take their seat if they were successful?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Strictly speaking, that is the state of the law. I have just read out part of the 1695 Act, which is the current state of the law. It clearly says that someone may not be elected unless they have reached ''one and twenty yeares''. Currently, one has to be 21 to be a Member of Parliament, but the Government propose that that age should be 18. All we are considering is the date on which that applies, but the date is construed differently for different elections. There was a dispute in the European parliamentary   elections about whether the nomination of a candidate whose 18th birthday fell between the point of nomination and the point of election was valid.

Different rules apply to different elections in what we expect to be a common electoral process. My question is simply this: does the Under-Secretary agree that it would be better to decide what the relevant date for these purposes will be and better for the date to be consistent throughout legislation and across elections? It is not consistent at the moment, so will the Under-Secretary explain why not?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

We welcome clause 20, which reduces from 21 to 18 the age qualification for membership of the House of Commons, for membership of a local authority and for election as mayor or assembly member of the Greater London Authority. The clause will require that the candidate is 18 on the day of nomination, or 18 on the day of the poll in the case of a local authority election or an election to the GLA when the election is not preceded by nominations. In a democratic system, it is only fair that all who are eligible to vote are also eligible for election.

The amendment seeks to change the qualifying time so that the candidate must be 18 by the day of election rather than by the day of nomination. Apart from the fact that the amendment seems to be a keen attempt to grab a few more weeks for 17-year-olds, will the Under-Secretary say whether it would pose any mechanical problems in the event of the election date not being fixed?

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

I rise to speak knowing that I have rather more knowledge of House of Commons disqualification than do most hon. Members, having been the victim of one such disqualification that required primary legislation in the rather anxious weeks before the 2001 election before I could stand.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome rightly highlights several discrepancies. Some disqualifications allow one to stand for election but do not allow one to take up one's seat. The ones that debarred me were precisely those; they were statutes relating to membership of the House of Commons, which presupposed that people did not have to stand for elections. Subsequent electoral law never took that into consideration, so it was perfectly valid for me to stand for election and to be elected, but I could not have taken up my seat. That, however, is not the precise issue that we are debating.

I echo the objection expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) when I say that we do not want someone who is 14 when nominated and at the time of the election having to wait until they are 18 before they can take their seat. After all, there is no axiomatic link between someone being elected and taking their seat. It would be perfectly possible for Sinn Fein Members who were elected months ago to take their seats at any time, so we must be careful about legislating when such gaps exist.

The Bill is trying to do precisely what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has asked us to, which is to harmonise and standardise the arrangements. The arrangements, as they apply to   local and GLA elections, already make it clear that candidates must have reached the minimum age by the time when they are nominated. Clause 20 clarifies the fact that the age disqualification is linked to the day on which the candidates are nominated at parliamentary elections.

One can pick either the day of nomination or the day of the election because the day of nomination is 11 days before the day of election. That answers the point made by the hon. Member for Huntingdon, because one will know the day of the election by the day of nomination. The matter is therefore not technically difficult. It is simply a question of which day one picks. I am attracted to the idea that we would maximise the ability of someone to stand at election if, during those 11 days, the candidate had a birthday and would otherwise be debarred if they turned 18 between the day of nomination and the day of the election, but if the amendment were adopted, we would end up with a discrepancy between the law as it applies to Westminster and the law as it applies to the GLA and local elections.

There are other issues relating to non-contested elections, in which the day of nomination is in effect the day on which the person is elected. Overall, we are trying to do what the hon. Gentleman wants us to, which is to standardise the arrangements. The Bill makes a change from the historical precedent, but we are standardising towards the status quo for the GLA and local elections. I think that his overriding aim is for clarity and standardisation and hope that with that reassurance he will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful. I have been misinformed because I was advised that the qualifying date for local elections was the date of taking one's seat rather than of nomination. The Minister clearly has better advice, and I applaud his desire to standardise. I have a gentle suggestion: he might, given his experiences, consider amending the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 to bring it in line, so that it is clear that the relevant date for disqualification is the point of nomination.

I was not in the same position as the Minister, because, as he says, he had to have a change of primary legislation to allow him to stand successfully for election to the House. However, I was a member of the Audit Commission prior to my election in 1997, and I had to stand down because that was an office of profit under the Crown and part of the list of disqualifying posts. That gave me some nervousness about whether I was getting my resignation in at the right time and whether it would be accepted by the commission, or by the Secretary of State who controls it, so as not to provide any bar to my being elected as a Member of the House.

Simply bringing everything into line would be desirable. That is clearly what the Minister has in mind, and I ask him to consider whether a subsequent amendment might be in order to the measure that he so fondly remembers to make sure that everything is pointing in the same direction. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.  

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.