All 8 contributions to the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill 2021-22 (Ministerial Extracts Only)

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Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill
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Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

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2nd reading
Tuesday 6th July 2021

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This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill 2021-22 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Michael Gove Portrait The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office (Michael Gove)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a real pleasure to move the Second Reading of this Bill. The Bill contains provisions to ensure that we supersede the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 with appropriate, democratic and timely reform in order to ensure that we restore to this place and to the people an opportunity to ensure that the Government that govern in their name can command the confidence of this House and the confidence of the public.

The legislation that we are bringing forward will I hope command support across this House, because it was a manifesto promise in both the Conservative and Labour party manifestos. Both Front-Bench teams are committed to the legislation, and it follows on from an excellent report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), and from recommendations made by the Constitution Committee in the other place. It has also received extensive scrutiny and support from a Joint Committee of the Commons and Lords. With both Front-Bench teams and three important Committees all in favour of this legislation, we can see already that the arguments that have been lined up for it are powerful and command wide support. I sincerely hope that nothing I say this afternoon undermines that consensus.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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That is very good advice from the hon. Gentleman. He, like me, believes that brevity is the soul of wit.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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Will the right hon. Gentleman give us a definition of “democratic” in view of the fact that when it comes to calling general elections, this legislation will move power from this democratically elected Chamber to royal prerogative?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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Well, it gives power to the people. Fundamentally, all of us sit here at the pleasure of and at the disposal of our electorates. As we saw from the addled Parliament—or the paralysed Parliament or whatever you want to call the Parliament of 2017 to 2019—parliamentarians were actually frustrating the will of the people, in attempting to overturn Brexit and in attempting to sustain in power a Government who needed to seek confidence from the electorate and for the maintenance of their programme. For that reason, we are restoring power to the people, which had been taken away by the FTPA.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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I saw the right hon. Gentleman try to answer what I was going to ask him in his reply to the earlier intervention. Considering that there have been two snap elections in the past four years, what problem are the Government trying to solve?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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It is precisely because there have been at least two elections of the kind that the hon. Gentleman draws attention to that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act has not done what it said on the tin. It has failed the Ronseal test. For those who advocated the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in the first place, all sorts of arguments were made about the importance of the predictability of election timing, and, of course, the Bill palpably failed to achieve that in the way that it failed to achieve so much else. What we are doing with this legislation is restoring a tried and tested method by which Prime Ministers can command the confidence not just of this House, but of the country.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I am more than happy to give way to my hon. Friend, a distinguished member of the Joint Committee.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell
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Does the Secretary of State agree that any legislation in this area must work with any parliamentary arithmetic? That was the problem we saw in the previous Parliament and that is what going back to the status quo ante before 2010 will achieve.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our approach to the dissolution of Parliament and the calling of elections before the Fixed-term Parliament Act was robust, successful and effective and ensured that our democracy worked as it should. What we are doing is ensuring that those tried and tested procedures are restored, and in so doing not just fulfilling our manifesto pledge, but—and it was a pleasure to do so—fulfilling the manifesto pledge of the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and making sure that democracy in that way is underpinned.

Charles Walker Portrait Sir Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con)
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Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was probably the single worst piece of legislation that the coalition Government introduced? Fortunately, I did not vote for it then, but I will certainly be voting for this repeal tonight.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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Regarding the coalition years, I think that others are better placed—given that I served in the Government for five years—to decide which was the worst piece of legislation that was passed. The one thing I will say for the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is that it was very much a child of its time. It did achieve one purpose. It was introduced at the request of our Liberal Democrat coalition partners in order to ensure that, for the five years of that Parliament, neither party could collapse the Government in a way that might secure for either the junior or the senior coalition partner perceived political advantage. It did serve that purpose for those five years. Notwithstanding the points made by my hon. Friend, there was a significant range of achievements that the coalition Government can take pride in; nevertheless, the Act was specifically a child of its time. While it worked in that narrow sense, in cementing the coalition and ensuring it could achieve the policy gains that I believe were gained during those five years, its utility beyond those years in tougher circumstances has been tested to destruction.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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I will let the Minister in on a secret: not all of us supported everything that was in the Labour manifesto at the last general election.

Is there not a worrying issue here, which is precisely what the right hon. Gentleman refers to as “the child of its time”? If the Government can always reconstitute the constitution every time they can pass a law, we have a problem here, because the Government are most likely always to do so in their own interests.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I take very seriously the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, because there are few deeper scholars of our constitution or parliamentary history than him, but I would say two things. First, sometimes there are constitutional experiments or innovations, and it is understandable that they will have partisans who can see benefits from them; but then we can see in real time and in real circumstances whether those constitutional innovations are right and work, or whether it is appropriate for us to go back to the situation that prevailed before, which has actually proven over time, in a variety of circumstances, to be both more robust and more effective.

The second point is that of course there is always a temptation for Governments or any Administration in power to seek to look to the rules and to derive advantage perhaps from changing them, but the critical thing here is that, ultimately, the decision on whether an election has been called and Parliament has been dissolved appropriately rests with the people. We can look at historical examples; for example, in the 1970s Edward Heath decided to go to the country to ask the question, “Who governs?”. He believed that, in choosing the timing of the election, he was doing so to his party’s advantage, but when he asked, “Who governs?”, the country replied, “Well, not you, mate.” On that occasion, it was the case that a miscalculation on the part of the Prime Minister resulted in the electorate deciding that Edward Heath’s Administration should end and that Harold Wilson’s should take over.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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In which case, one could conceive of a situation in which the Government were aware of something coming up that the public were not aware of—a report or a major security breach that had not yet been made public, for example. Or, for instance, the Government might choose to hold a general election before boundary changes because they thought that it might be to their advantage. Would it not make far more sense for the House simply to be able to vote at that moment?

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Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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In both the cases that the hon. Gentleman mentions, if there were jiggery-pokery or the Government were acting in a way that the electorate considered heedless or reckless, electoral punishment would occur sooner or later. Attempting to rig the rules in that way is, as we have seen in the past, something that the public are always alive to, always wise to and always ready to punish.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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Surely the biggest difference, though, between the situation today and that facing Edward Heath in the 1970s is the amount, the nature and the regulation of the spending of money. Heath did not have a long period before a short period of expenses and there were not those controls. Effectively, this Bill will allow the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister alone to be the only person who knows when that long period starts and to pile the money in. That is what this is about, is it not?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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No, it is not what it is about. The money spent on elections is an issue in which the Liberal Democrats and other parties have long had an interest, but more broadly the point is that the choice of election timing should ultimately depend on the capacity of the Prime Minister to command the confidence of this House. We saw during the course of the 2017 to 2019 Parliament the consequences of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in a way that worked against the interests of democracy explicitly.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I will just make a little progress and then come back to the right hon. Gentleman.

We saw in the 2017 to 2019 Parliament what happened when Parliament attempted to sustain a Government in office, to deny a Prime Minister the Dissolution that he requested, and yet at the same time would not allow that Government to get their business through, so we had a paralysed Parliament. We also had a Schrödinger’s Government: they were simultaneously in power and not in power, in office but incapable of carrying forward their legislation. We saw in the December 2019 general election the consequence of that: the party that argued that there needed to be a Dissolution, an election and a refreshed mandate secured that refreshed mandate, and, as a result, we saw our democracy working as it has so successfully in the past and as it deserves to again in the future.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
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If, as the Minister says, this is about the point at which the Prime Minister can command the confidence of the House, surely that is something that can only be determined by this House and not the Prime Minister, so the point made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is a good one.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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The points made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) are nearly always good ones, but on this occasion it is wrong. Ultimately, the decision about whether it is right to call an election and whether the Prime Minister and the Administration should return to power rightly rests with the people. During the course of the 2017-19 Parliament, parliamentarians sought to frustrate the Prime Minister seeking an election, and when that election eventually occurred, we saw that an appropriate decision was taken by the voters.

We also saw during the 2017-19 Parliament the reputation of Parliament—much to my regret—diminished in the eyes of the public because of its failure both to deliver on the original Brexit vote and to allow Government to carry on their business. In making sure that we return to a situation where we do not have the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, we are keeping faith with democracy. We are also keeping faith with the basis on which this Government were elected and, indeed, on which the Opposition argued for office.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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The reality is that Government hold privileged information. In the light of the economic challenge coming down the path, surely the Bill is simply a cut-and-run Bill to allow the Government to call an early general election before they have to deal with that crisis.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I completely disagree. Looking at the broad economic situation that we face and what may happen in future, we have a well-informed and judicious electorate that will make a judgment whenever an election is called about the fitness of this Government to be returned to office or, indeed, the readiness of the Opposition or any other party to assume office, as has been seen in the past.

When Governments have sought to cut and run—when they have sought to manipulate the electoral timetable to their advantage—they have been punished. It was the case not just in 1974 with Edward Heath but in the early 1920s with Stanley Baldwin, when he sought to cut and run using the formidable advantage that he had—the support of press barons and the wealthy. Nevertheless, we saw the return of the very first Labour Government under Ramsay MacDonald, supported for all too brief a period by the Liberals of that time.

Julian Lewis Portrait Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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The historical case that my right hon. Friend is making is absolutely incontrovertible. The fact is that the legitimacy of previous elections has barely—if ever—been questioned. As soon as we brought in that wretched legislation, we ended up in what he rightly described as a paralysed Parliament. However, is he satisfied that clause 3 is strong enough to ensure that Parliament is not paralysed in future by political uses of the court to try to interfere with the process of dissolving Parliament? Professor Ekins in particular, I believe, has certain suggestions that might make that provision a little stronger.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I believe that clause 3 is robust and fit for purpose, but it is also the case that Professor Ekins, of the Judicial Power Project attached to the think-tank Policy Exchange, is a brilliant legal mind. We will pay close attention to his arguments and to those of my right hon. Friend and others, in order to ensure that clause 3 is robust enough.

Reference to clause 3 means that it is appropriate for me to turn to the specific clauses in this short and focused Bill. Before I do so, I just want to thank again the work of the Joint Committee under Lord McLoughlin and others, which did such a service to this House, and indeed to the other place, in scrutinising the legislation. When reviewing the original 2011 Act, the Joint Committee found that—

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards
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Will the Minister give way?

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Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I will in just a second.

The Joint Committee found that the 2011 Act did fulfil its immediate political purpose of maintaining the coalition Government for five years, but that it did not succeed in enforcing a super-majority constraint on the calling of early general elections, given what happened in 2017 and 2019. Mere repeal of the Act without any form of replacement would create uncertainty and what the Committee called a “constitutional lacuna”—hence the need for this legislation. The Government should allow sufficient time for Parliament to explore the full implications of any replacement legislation. Indeed, the Committee’s own work and the work of other committees has been a service to that cause. That constitutional education should secure a wide degree of cross-party agreement—that exists in the support given from the Opposition Front Bench and from others.

Any replacement should be equally suitable for whatever parliamentary arithmetic is provided by the electorate; I believe this Bill does that. Any replacement should consider allowing the date of any early election to be stipulated in a motion triggering that election, which of course it will, and any replacement of the 2011 Act should not contain super-majority provisions. The Joint Committee also made the point that if future Administrations introduced fixed parliamentary terms they should consider whether the political gridlock that characterised the 2017 to 2019 Parliament is a price worth paying for the perceived benefit of a fixed-term Parliament. All those arguments were powerful. I thank the Committee again for its work.

I would also like to thank—I should have mentioned this earlier; forgive me—my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution for the fantastic work that she has done in preparing this legislation and engaging with Committees. It is the first time that she has been back on the Front Bench since her recovery from cancer. She has showed remarkable fortitude and I know that across this House we are all absolutely delighted that she is back in her place.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards
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I absolutely echo the Minister’s comments in relation to his colleague. The law as it stands means that if the Government lose a vote of no confidence, there are 14 days to form another Government, and if that does not happen, that leads to an election. What would be the position following the passing of this Bill? Would the Government losing a vote of no confidence immediately trigger a general election?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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In those circumstances the Prime Minister could immediately, and should immediately, request of Her Majesty a Dissolution and an election would follow. One of the most powerful examples in our recent parliamentary history was the loss of a vote of no confidence in 1979 by James Callaghan, which led to the general election that followed. Some might argue—it is a counterfactual, the truth of which we cannot know—that had James Callaghan sought to refresh his mandate in 1978 when he was in a stronger position politically, he might well have been returned. The perception on the part of the Labour party at that time—although it had lost the support of the Liberals just beforehand—that it was to its advantage to continue was of course undone by a decision of the electorate.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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Historically, many different things have counted as motions of no confidence—for instance, losing a vote on an amendment to the Loyal Address following the Queen’s Speech or on an amendment to the Finance Bill, or refusing to grant supply for a military intervention or to allow a military intervention. Does the Minister think that all those things would still count as a motion of no confidence?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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The formal motion of no confidence that is traditionally requested by the Opposition and has to be granted within a day is a classic example, but on the question of military intervention, I personally believe—again, it is for the House to take a view—that that is a proper exercise of the prerogative power in certain circumstances. That is perhaps for debate in other forums, but it would not count in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Mr Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
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Does the Minister agree that in that situation it would be open to any Member of this House to ask a Minister or the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box whether he or she considered it to be a matter of confidence and then what followed from that would bear that out?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My right hon. Friend is exactly right. If any Prime Minister felt that the House’s decision not to grant supply, the House’s decision to censure an individual Minister or the House’s decision not to authorise support for military action was a matter of confidence, that might mean that it would be appropriate to request a Dissolution at that point.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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Will the Minister give way?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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Not for a little bit, because I want to run briefly through the clauses in the Bill.

There are six clauses and one schedule. The first clause repeals the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The second clause revives the prerogative power and allows the Prime Minister to request a Dissolution from the monarch. The third clause is specifically to ensure that that decision cannot be reviewed in the courts. It is what might be called an ouster clause. It is there explicitly to say that proceedings in this House relating to the exercise of the prerogative power should not be justiciable.

It is very important, following on from the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), that the House understands, appreciates and supports the Bill on that basis. It has been constitutional practice since 1688 and the Bill of Rights that it should not be the case that these matters are reviewed in the courts. Let me say that judicial review is an important part of keeping Governments honest, but there needs to be an absolute limit on what is considered justiciable and it should not be the case that the courts can prevent the request for a Dissolution on the part of a Prime Minister. If that decision is mistaken, then it is for the people to decide in a general election what is appropriate. I was very pleased that the Joint Committee confirmed in its report that it would be appropriate for Parliament to affirm that.

William Wragg Portrait Mr Wragg
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What if the courts sought to test the ouster clause?

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Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I do not think that they would, necessarily. There are people who might seek to do that, but one of the things that Parliament can do—and one of the reasons that my hon. Friend’s question is so helpful, as were the Joint Committee’s deliberations—is to affirm what is the case. It would then be remarkable indeed for any court to attempt to do what my hon. Friend describes; it would be constitutionally unprecedented and, to my mind, would risk the understanding of the balance between Parliament, when its will is clearly expressed, and the courts’ interpretation of the law. I hope that in Committee and on Third Reading, and perhaps later in this debate, all hon. Members will affirm the importance of the non-justiciability of the exercise of these powers.

Jackie Doyle-Price Portrait Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con)
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One thing that came out of the Joint Committee’s report was the very clear interpretation that a Prime Minister requests a dissolution rather than advising the monarch on it. I am pleased that the Government have accepted that advice from the Joint Committee, but does it not make the ouster clause completely superfluous? The monarch, acting in conjunction with Parliament, is non-justiciable already.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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That is definitely my understanding of constitutional practice, but—without getting into the details—there have been one or two recent decisions by the courts that might be thought by some to have moved one or two goalposts on the constitutional playing field. Lest there be any doubt, the ouster clause is there to affirm that interpretation. It is a new pair of braces to join the sturdy constitutional belt to which my hon. Friend refers.

Clause 4 makes it clear that the maximum length of any Parliament should be five years. Clause 5 contains some minor updates, taking account of how the Fixed-term Parliaments Act modernised our electoral law, and introduces the schedule attendant to the Bill. Clause 6 makes it clear that the Bill covers the whole of our United Kingdom.

Charles Walker Portrait Sir Charles Walker
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On clause 4, will my right hon. Friend confirm that a maximum five-year term will mean that the latest that we could have a general election in this Parliament would be January 2025?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I think that I would defer to others on fixing the precise date, but I believe that that is so.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell
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In addition to what is in the Bill, we have to discuss what is not in it: the conventions that we seek to restore and the Dissolution principles published along- side the draft Bill. As my right hon. Friend will know, the Joint Committee considered the conventions, the paramountcy of confidence and all those things quite extensively. From reading our report, what conclusions have the Government reached about the nature of confidence and the circumstances in which calling a general election would not be an appropriate thing for a Prime Minister to do?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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Again, my hon. Friend makes a very important point. Alongside the Bill, we have produced a brief statement of Dissolution principles. He is absolutely right. Our broad understanding of Dissolution principles derives from a letter written by Sir Alan “Tommy” Lascelles pseudonymously—I am glad to be able to use that word in the House of Commons—to The Times in the 1950s. He argued that a Dissolution should not be granted if the monarch thought that there were a viable alternative that could command a majority in the House of Commons—or, indeed, if it were a time of economic crisis or peril in which it would be inappropriate for a general election to be called. We think that it is very difficult, as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution and others made clear in evidence to the Joint Committee, to provide an exhaustive list of example cases in which it would be inappropriate for a Dissolution to be granted when requested. One thing we would like to do in Committee is have proper consideration of them.

It is important that our constitution always remains flexible and agile. I could conceive of circumstances—immediately after an election defeat, for example, when a Prime Minister is still perhaps clinging on, seeking to form a coalition or a confidence and supply arrangement and failing to do so—when that Prime Minister might seek an immediate other Dissolution shortly afterwards. In such circumstances, I can see that it would not be appropriate for a Dissolution to be granted. As I say, it would be helpful for everyone to take part in the debate to outline the circumstances that they think should guide the operation of the principles.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Mr Goodwill
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Is it not also the case that, if there were a vote in the Commons that many considered to be a confidence vote, but the Government refused to accept that, it would be open to the official Opposition to table a confidence motion, in which there would be no doubt whatsoever?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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Exactly so, and it is absolutely important, as my right hon. Friend points out, that we stick to the principle that, immediately upon receipt of a request from the Opposition for a vote of no confidence, such a debate is granted and that the Prime Minister of the day would make their case. Following the defeat of an earlier attempt by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) to secure support for her withdrawal Bill, a motion of no confidence was tabled by the then leader of the Labour party. That motion of no confidence was defeated and that allowed the Prime Minister to consider other ways of fulfilling that mandate.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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I do not want to test everybody’s patience, but the one time when that course is not available to the Opposition is immediately after a general election, before Parliament has got on to actually meeting; and it is the Government, and only the Government, who decide when the House meets and what it debates. I note that we still have no formal process in our system of knowing when, after a general election, the House will meet to transact substantive business, other than to elect a Speaker and have the swearing-in.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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That is an important point, but it is also important to recognise that no newly elected Government can effectively govern without Parliament. It would be impossible without a vote of supply and without a Queen’s Speech to ensure that the basis on which they were elected, and the effective governance of the country, could continue. It is important that we recognise that that is the principle that prevailed beforehand, and it is the principle that we should adopt now.

I shall conclude, because many hon. Members wish to speak. I return to the point that I made at the start. Those who brought forward the Fixed-term Parliaments Act were motivated, I think, by two entirely reasonable motivations. The first was to ensure that the coalition Government—the first coalition that we had had since 1922—was able to proceed and govern in an effective way; of course it was against the backdrop of economic crisis. As a member of that coalition, I do not resile for a moment from the many decisions that were taken during that five years, and I take the opportunity to thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and others who served in that coalition for putting the national interest first at that time.

The second thing that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was designed to do was to ensure that our constitutional arrangements became more predictable. Although the FTPA succeeded in the unique circumstances of the coalition years, it emphatically has not made our constitutional arrangements more predictable, as what happened in 2017, and indeed between 2017 and 2019, reinforced. Indeed, the circumstances of the 2017 to 2019 Parliament reinforced in the public mind—and certainly that was reflected in the general election result of 2019—the need to move to a more flexible, more responsive, more agile, more familiar and more tried and tested set of constitutional arrangements. It is for that reason that I commend the Bill to the House.

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Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. No, we are not doing that, and I will come on to exactly why we are not. Although I acknowledge that the 2019 Labour manifesto said that they would repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and I understand that they intend to abstain in tonight’s Division and amend in Committee, I would caution that any support for this Bill has to be contingent on what is coming to replace it. I say to anyone who might not like the current Act and wishes to see it repealed to be careful what they wish for. To address the point made by the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), let me say that although in and of itself repealing that Act might look fairly innocuous and taken in isolation might even be seen as trivial and almost unimportant, I caution that if it is viewed as part of that wider, much larger strategy to centralise power and control with the Executive, this is a far cry from a benign piece of legislation, as they would have us believe.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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In this House and indeed in this Administration, there is a distinction between the role of Director of Public Prosecutions and Attorney General. I understand that in the Scottish Government the Lord Advocate combines both roles. That is a centralisation of Executive power, is it not? Would the hon. Gentleman advise his colleagues in the Scottish Government to move away from that centralisation of powers, towards the higher constitutional principles that we have here in the UK?

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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That is another piece of absolute obfuscation by the Minister—a ridiculous piece of obfuscation—so I will return to what I was saying. No matter how intense the 2011 Act, this is not a sufficient reason to support this Bill, because what this Government are proposing is a stripping away of one more pillar of parliamentary or judicial oversight. It is not simply a return to the position we had in 2011.

Mark Elliott, professor of public law at Cambridge University, has said:

“The statement of principles accompanying the Bill appears to presume that the Queen will dissolve Parliament as a matter of course when the Prime Minister so requests, thus implying an intention, on the part of the Government, not to restore the pre-FTPA position but to usher in a regime under which its latitude is greater than before”.

As we have heard, prior to 2011 the monarch was able, in certain circumstances, to deny a Prime Minister’s request to dissolve Parliament and seek an early general election. Because of the weaknesses of having an unwritten constitution, the prerogative power of the monarch, exercised, as we have heard, through the Lascelles principles, was one that was never able to be enshrined in statute. The Lascelles principles asserted that the monarch could deny Dissolution in certain circumstances, including in relation to the viability of the Government, being detrimental to the national economy and being able to find another Prime Minister who could govern. If this Bill becomes statute, what becomes of the Lascelles principles and the monarch’s ability to deny a request for a Dissolution of Parliament? As I understand it, this place may be able to create statutory powers by enacting statutes, but it cannot create prerogative powers, which, by definition, derive from a source other than statute. So those prerogative powers that the monarch has to seek a Dissolution are not coming back, meaning that this Bill is little more than an attempt by the Executive to circumvent even the minimal gatekeeping function exercised in the Lascelles principles by the monarch and all the power will be concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister. As Professor Elliott says

“the very legal uncertainty as to whether the prerogative can be revived means that it would be irresponsible simply to legislate to repeal the Act and try to revive the prerogative without being sure that you could.”

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Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I absolutely agree. What is happening here is that the monarch will not be able to refuse under any circumstances, although not because of that very dangerous path of going into the political arena.

Although something of a constitutional anachronism, the Lascelles principles did at least provide a degree of constraint on a Prime Minister who opportunistically may have wanted to cut and run mid-term and hold a snap general election when their popularity was on the up, or perhaps more importantly and more pertinently, when they knew future events—perhaps the result of a particularly unhelpful public inquiry—would be guaranteed to put a major dent in their approval ratings.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That would never happen to the SNP.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The right hon. Gentleman shouts from a sedentary position that that would never happen to the SNP. Indeed, the SNP could not cut and run in the Scottish Parliament because we work to a fixed term. The next Scottish Parliament elections will be on 7 May 2026, and no matter what befalls the Government between now and then, the Scottish Government will be held to account on that date.

--- Later in debate ---
Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will come to the right hon. Gentleman in a moment, but I will take your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, and move on.

Clause 3 of the Bill is an ouster clause. It aims in effect to put the Government’s action beyond the reach of the law, meaning that decisions made by the Government on these matters are non-justiciable. This is clearly the action of a Government who are still smarting from the humiliation of the Supreme Court’s Prorogation judgment in 2019, which said that it was not in the power of the Prime Minister to suspend Parliament for such a long time at such a critical moment.

In January, Baroness Hale and Lord Sumption gave evidence to the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and they both expressed serious reservations about clause 3 of this Bill, which renders non-justiciable the powers given to the Government in clause 2. Those non-justiciable powers include controlling the space of time between the Dissolution of one Parliament and the general election and between the general election and the first sitting of a new Parliament. All of that would be in the control of a Government whose previous attempts to undermine parliamentary democracy through proroguing in 2019 were, as we have seen, deemed unlawful. The difference this time is that they hope that the Supreme Court could not intervene. Back in January, both Lord Sumption and Baroness Hale were unequivocal in saying that the minimum safeguard that this Bill needed in the event of such an ouster clause was to put a time limit on the moving of writs for parliamentary elections, which has not been done.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will give way if it is on that point.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is very much on that point. That case was brought by the hon. Gentleman’s hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry). Why was she sacked from the SNP Front Bench?

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Chloe Smith Portrait The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution (Chloe Smith)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I thank all the very many friends across the House who have said such nice things to me today. It makes me blush but it makes me pleased and happy to rejoin you in person and to be able to lead the closing of the debate on this very important Bill.

I thank everybody who has spoken, including well-known sparring partners on the Opposition Front Benches, with a new one joining from the SNP, so I look forward to many a time speaking on constitutional matters with the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson). I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), who is nearly in his place, and the members of the Joint Committee who have spoken, as well as many other colleagues from across the House.

I will cover as many of the specific points that have been made as I can, but let me start by outlining how today’s debate has underlined how our former and fundamental constitutional arrangements work, with the flexibility that is essential to our parliamentary democracy. The Bill restores that constitutional balance. How do we restore the former arrangements? With reference to the comments by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), it is very important to be clear about how the Bill does this puzzle of reviving the prerogative power. There are two aspects: whether it can be revived, and, critically and importantly, the practical effect of doing so. I will cover both very briefly.

Our view is that the prerogative power can be revived but that express provision is needed, and clause 2 does exactly that. It delivers on its intended purpose to firmly reset the clock with as much clarity as possible. In preparing the Bill, we engaged with a wide range of stakeholders, including many academics, some of whom have been quoted but many more of whom also agreed with the Government’s approach, including Professor Mark Elliott. The drafting is therefore sufficiently clear, as the Joint Committee agreed.

Moving on to the practical effect, a former First Parliamentary Counsel also agrees with the Government’s approach, talking about this question almost as

“a red herring…because…it is perfectly plain that the intention of the Act is to restore the situation to what it was before…and therefore the law will then be indistinguishable”.

Let me turn from that into how this power works and what is being restored. Here we talk about the role of the sovereign. I note that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) was, if I heard her correctly, arguing or concerned that it perhaps was not clear what the role of the sovereign might be in the returning system. Indeed, I think the hon. Member for Midlothian made the same point. I want to be absolutely clear: there remains a role for the sovereign in exceptional circumstances to refuse a Dissolution request. I am not going to be able to speculate on that from the Dispatch Box. It would not be sensible for me to do so, but other Members of this House have already offered some examples this afternoon, such as, for example, if an Opposition already had the numbers to be able to form a Government and could demonstrate confidence and viability. That point was made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). Unfortunately he is not here to enjoy me joining him in making it.

Turning to how the conventions endure, I thank the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove for bringing that point out very well. I also thank Joint Committee members, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), who reminded us of the Lascelles principles. What I will say here is just a point about how we see the principles that accompany the prerogative power—the convention principles, or the Dissolution principles, as we named them in a document that we published alongside the Bill—going forward. That document was published to facilitate Parliament’s discussion and consideration of these very important accompanying points. We also provided a very full response to the Joint Committee, which was a further opportunity to go further in outlining the conventions as commonly understood.

I think the place for further discussion and debate on these conventions is here in Parliament—in this Chamber and the other. That will provide us with a shared understanding and the commanding of confidence— I should say “agreement”; “confidence” risks being misunderstood in the context of our debate this afternoon. It will provide us with the commanding of agreement on what provides conventions, and therefore those conventions may be able to endure.

Let me go from there to what we intend to restore and some elements that we are maintaining, although the grander scheme here is to return to a former set of arrangements. The purpose of the Bill, as I say, is to restore the long-standing arrangements that existed before the 2011 Act, but there are some exceptions, and those are where changes had already been made to enable the smooth running of elections. That brings me to, for example, the retaining of the 25 working day period between Dissolution and polling day. That ensures the continued operability of our electoral system, and I will just dwell on that for a few minutes, because a number of hon. and right hon. Members raised it.

There are three points to be made, and each is about the benefit for voters, which is a point that rang out loud and clear—that we should have such arrangements for the benefit of voters, not administrators or, indeed, politicians. The first point is that the timetable as it stands gives enough time for nominations to be received—six days—and then 19 days for those nominations to be decided upon. Let us remember that in our constitution we have a constituency-based decision going on each time. Any voter in any constituency rightly needs time to consider and decide upon the candidates in the constituency once nominated.

The second point is how much change has occurred in electoral delivery since the arrangements that we are otherwise seeking to restore were created. That is to say that the system of delivering elections is more complex than at any other point in our history. First, before 2014, there was no online individual electoral registration. That is a point of fundamental change that has enabled increasingly higher numbers of last-minute applications. That is of benefit to voters, and I would argue very strongly so. Secondly, postal voting on demand was only allowed in 2000. Again, that is the subject of debate, but I would argue that it is very strongly of benefit to voters.

My third and final point is that, in the written evidence to the Joint Committee, the Association of Electoral Administrators argued strongly that

“it would be catastrophic for everyone involved…if the… period were to be shortened…It would create a significant risk of the election failing and not being delivered and increase the risk of disenfranchising potential electors, particularly those voting from overseas.”

Fundamentally, that is a point that we should be concerned about, and it is a point in favour of the benefit to voters.

Let me move on to acknowledge what it is that we are leaving behind if we are moving to restore a different system. At this point, I acknowledge the words of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and thank him again for his kind words to me. Fundamentally, his argument here is one for statute and one for qualification, and, fundamentally, my argument is not. We will have to agree to differ on that, and we will do so in the Lobby tonight. What we mean by moving away from a statutory system is that we do not think that it is possible to define everything. All the scenarios that could occur at the point at which a Dissolution might be needed could not possibly be codified, so statute is not adequate in this case. What we do think, though, is that there is a very important role for the House of Commons, and I want to make this point because it came up in several hon. Members’ remarks.

There is, of course, a crucial voting role for the House of Commons in indicating confidence in the Government, or the opposite of it. That is no small role at all. To swap a statutorily defined role for the House of Commons for that role is no small swap. Fundamentally, of course, having confidence is what defines the Government. There could be no more powerful role for the House of Commons in our constitution.

That takes us to the point of certainty that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) very wisely made. The certainty comes because the people will know that they then have their role. If it has not been possible to find confidence in the House of Commons in the formation of a Government, then the power flows to the people, and that is a certain understanding of what will happen.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I do not have a great deal of time, but I will give way briefly.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On this point of certainty, surely all parties are entitled to certainty about the date on which the long period for electoral expenses starts to run. Under the current arrangements from the Government, only the governing party will have that certainty. Is that fair?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am extremely glad that the right hon. Gentleman has made that point. I was going to address it in just a moment, because he raised it at the very outset, so I will come back to it shortly.

Let us be realistic. What is the prerogative power here for? It is a bit more like “break glass in case of emergency” than it is the kind of scheme that I think the Liberal Democrats are looking for. I think we can all agree that people do not welcome needless upheaval—Brenda from Bristol put it pretty well—but they do want their role in resolving a crisis. Vernon Bogdanor, in evidence to Committees along the journey of this Bill, made the point very well. Essentially, unsuccessful Governments have attempted to get to five years. Successful Governments have gone to the people at four years. Anything short of that is a national emergency. What we are talking about today is what needs to happen in the cases of emergency or crisis. I note the arguments made for fixed terms, particularly by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), but we have tried designing those and they have not worked, so what we are returning to here is an arrangement that did work.

I want to reassure the House on a couple of points, as I said I would to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. The long campaign expenditure controls are not changed by this repeal. Those arrangements are that if Parliament is not dissolved 55 months from its first meeting, then the long campaign controls apply. That situation continues. That has not changed. I also point out that there is a measure in the schedule to this Bill that adds to that in respect of third party donations. The schedule also provides that the trigger for the election timetable in the case of a general election is the Dissolution of Parliament. That is an important safeguard that we have built into the Bill, acknowledging arguments made on that note from the Joint Committee.

I conclude by thanking hon. Members once again for their contributions this afternoon. It has been a very good debate, and I am delighted to be back and to be part of it. My priority with this Bill is to encourage consensus, because that is what will give us the most effective operation of the conventions that must endure once again.

I close with the points made by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on the nature of our constitution:

“at the heart of the UK’s constitutional arrangements is a fine but constantly-shifting balance of convention, principle and law, that provides clear guidance, but also flexibility… In areas of prerogative power, the Sovereign remains the constitutional backstop.”

I could not have put it better. None the less, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), in his inimitable style, did put it better. He said that our institutions are often the envy of the world, and I could not agree more. It is those that I want to uphold. This Bill will return our country to successful constitutional arrangements that have stood the test of time and will continue to serve the people, with the choice ultimately in their hands.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am anticipating a Division, so could Members please follow covid regulations as they go to vote?

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

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18:46

Division 45

Ayes: 367

Noes: 65

The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.

Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Committee stage & 3rd reading
Monday 13th September 2021

(11 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
Committee stage Page Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 13 September 2021 - (13 Sep 2021)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill 2021-22 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Chloe Smith Portrait The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution (Chloe Smith)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I initially seek your guidance, Chairman? Would you like me to cover all the clause stand parts and to respond, as it were, in advance to amendments? Or would you like me to return to respond to hon. Members once they have spoken to their amendments?

Eleanor Laing Portrait The Chairman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is a perfectly reasonable question from the Minister. As all matters are grouped in one group, she may, in her opening remarks, refer to all amendments and clauses standing part, but of course she will have an opportunity to answer points made by Members when they introduce their amendments and new clauses. Or should I say “he”—[Interruption.] I should say “they”, as the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) has a new clause as well. It is perfectly in order for the Minister to now address everything that is on the amendment paper.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you very much indeed, Dame Eleanor. I shall endeavour to do that, and I hope you will bear with me while I ensure that I cover all that material.

Let me begin at the beginning, with clause 1. There is consensus throughout the House that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has proven to be not fit for purpose and has been damaging to effective and accountable government. The experience of 2019 in particular showed us that the Act was flawed and ran counter to core constitutional principles, and was therefore damaging to the flexible functioning of our constitution. It was unique legislation and it did not work. We saw how, in 2017, a Government who commanded a majority in the House of Commons were able to call an early general election with ease, irrespective of the Act’s intentions.

The events of 2019 then demonstrated how the 2011 Act could obstruct democracy by making it harder to hold a necessary election. The Act’s prescriptive constraints, such as the threshold of a supermajority requirement for a general election and the statutory motions of no confidence, created an untenable situation in which the Government could neither pass vital legislation through Parliament nor call a new election. The result was parliamentary paralysis at a critical time for our Government. The introduction of bespoke primary legislation that circumvented the Act and let us hold a general election in 2019 was the final indictment of the Act.

The Bill therefore repeals the 2011 Act and returns us to the tried and tested system whereby Parliament will automatically dissolve after five years, if it has not been dissolved earlier by the sovereign exercising that prerogative power at the request of the Prime Minister. The key argument is that in doing so it will help to deliver increased legal, constitutional and political certainty around the process for the dissolving of Parliament. Clause 1 repeals the 2011 Act and in doing so delivers, as I have already mentioned, on both a Government manifesto commitment and a Labour manifesto commitment to do so. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.

Clause 2 makes express provision to revive the prerogative powers that relate to the dissolution of Parliament and the calling of a new Parliament. That means that Parliament will, once more, be dissolved by the sovereign at the request of the Prime Minister. By doing this, the clause delivers on the Bill’s purpose, which is to reset the clock back to the pre-2011 position with as much clarity as possible. The clause is clear in its intention and in its effect. As the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act put it, the drafting of clause 2 is

“sufficiently clear to give effect to the Government’s intention of returning to the constitutional position”

that existed prior to the passing of the 2011 Act.

Geoffrey Cox Portrait Sir Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will my hon. Friend help the House in respect of whether the Government acknowledge the existence of the Lascelles principles? If they do, what is the impact of clause 2 on those principles?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Of course the Government and I acknowledge the existence of those principles; they are a historical fact in and of themselves. I refer my right hon. and learned Friend to the fact that we have said consistently throughout the Bill’s preparation and progress so far that we believe that now is the time for the underpinning conventions of the prerogative power to be debated and, indeed, restated. The Government have contributed to that by publishing some Dissolution principles at the beginning of the Bill’s journey. We think those principles form part of a dialogue that continues not only between the Government and Parliament but with the wider public as well. I hope that the work of this Committee today and the work in the other place will together form part of the continuation of that historical tradition of there being an understanding of the conventions that underpin the prerogative.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Mr Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does not the fact that the Prime Minister requests that the monarch take steps so that an election can happen show an understanding of the Lascelles principles? Indeed, there could be other circumstances, yet unforeseen, in which a request is refused.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes, we believe that that is the case; that is the flexibility inherent within the constitutional arrangements that we seek to revive. That brings me back to the express purpose of clause 2, which delivers on the Bill’s purpose, which is, as I said, to reset back to the pre-2011 position with as much clarity as possible. We believe that is clear in our intention to revive the prerogative.

Naturally, I recognise that the revival of the prerogative has been subject to academic debate. For example, as Professor Mark Elliott, professor of public law at the University of Cambridge said:

“Given the scheme of the Bill, it is perfectly clear that the prerogative will be revived and that, from the entry into force of the Bill, the prerogative power of dissolution will once again be exercisable.”

Furthermore, even if any doubts remained from some of the academic debate that has taken place, as the former First Parliamentary Counsel, Sir Stephen Laws, said in his evidence to the Joint Committee, the academic debate is something of

“a red herring, because…it is perfectly plain that the intention of the Act is to restore the situation to what it was before the 2011 Act, and therefore the law will then be indistinguishable from what it was before”.

The Government are, then, confident of the intention and practical effect of the clause. A letter that I sent recently to my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) sets out why we believe that there is a sound legal basis for that position; I hope that Members may have had a chance to see that letter, which I publicised to right hon. and hon. Members. By making express provision to revive the prerogative powers, clause 2 returns us to the tried and tested constitutional arrangements, so I commend it to the Committee.

Clause 3 is necessary and proportionate for the avoidance of doubt and to preserve the long-standing position that the prerogative powers to dissolve one Parliament and call another are non-justiciable. Those prerogative powers are inherently political in nature and, as such, are not suitable for review by the courts. Any judgment on their exercise should be left to the electorate at the polling booth. That was the view of the courts, as expressed by, for example, Lord Roskill in the landmark GCHQ case in 1985: he considered that the courts are not the place to determine whether Parliament should be dissolved on one date or another. That position was recommended more recently in the independent review of administrative law, published in March this year, which noted that clause 3 can be regarded as a “codifying clause” that

“simply restates the position that everyone understood obtained before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was passed”.

As I mentioned earlier, clause 3 has been drafted with regard for the direction of travel in case law. Over the years since the GCHQ case, some of the prerogative powers previously considered to be non-justiciable have been held by the courts to be justiciable. The purpose of the clause is therefore to be as clear as possible about the no-go sign around the dissolution and calling of Parliament. It is carefully drafted to respect the message from the courts that only

“the most clear and explicit words”

can exclude their jurisdiction. This is a matter for Parliament to decide; that view accords with the majority of the Joint Committee, which said that

“Parliament should be able to designate certain matters as ones which are to be resolved in the political rather than the judicial sphere”.

We have made our intentions clear so that the courts will understand that that is the clear will of Parliament. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.

Shailesh Vara Portrait Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does my hon. Friend agree that one benefit of clause 3, as well as highlighting all the issues that she has just mentioned, is that it makes it abundantly clear that Parliament is supreme?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes, that is right. I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to all hon. and right hon. Members who served on the Joint Committee and spent a considerable amount of time looking at these issues. That is the kind of consideration that we ought to give to our constitutional affairs rather than taking them in a hurry—a point that I was making earlier. Let me acknowledge my hon. Friend’s point and thank him and others for the work that they did.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On clause 3, may I take the Minister back to the inclusion of the word “purported” and, in particular, draw her attention to paragraph 166 and the comments of Baroness Hale in relation to the Joint Committee report? She says that

“it looks as if it is saying, “Well, even if what we did”—

that is what the Government did—

“was not within the power that you have been given by the statute, the courts can’t do anything about it.”

She goes on to say:

“If that is the case, the courts would be very worried about that, because it would mean that the Government—the Prime Minister—had done something that was, at least arguably, not within its powers.”

There is some force and logic in the argument of Lady Hale, is there not?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This is a good opportunity for me to be absolutely clear about the reference to the word “purported” in this clause. This has been included to take account of previous judicial decisions—in particular the cases of Anisminic Ltd v. the Foreign Compensation Commission 1969, and Privacy International v. the Investigatory Powers Tribunal 2019. In the latter, the expectation was expressed that the drafting legislation would have regard to the case law and ensure that the drafting made it clear if “purported” decisions—that is decisions that would be considered by a court to be invalid—were intended to be outside the jurisdiction of the courts. What clause 3 does is present an opportunity to Parliament to be absolutely clear on whether it thinks that such things should be outside the jurisdiction of the courts. It is the Government’s position and presentation that they ought to be, and I hope that hon. Members will join me in that.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In the interests of clarity, is the Minister telling the House that the Government are asking Parliament to give them the power to do things that exceed the powers given to them and that nobody should be able to gainsay them?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am proposing that the House understands the use of the phrase “purported”, which, clearly, the right hon. Gentleman does—I have no dispute with him on that point—and that hon. Members join us in acknowledging that it is right to be aware of the case law and to respond to it. The decision in front of us is whether purported decisions relating to this area should or should not be included in clause 3. It is our contention that they should be, because we believe that the entire area of dissolution and the calling of Parliament is intended to be outside the jurisdiction of the courts. That is a perfectly legitimate question to put to Parliament. It is for us here in this Chamber to decide on that, and the reason for doing so would be that we think that such decisions are political rather that judicial in their nature. Fundamentally, the check on the exercise of power is for the electorate to decide on rather than the courts. Therefore, as I have said, the function of clause 3 is to set that out very clearly. I will now move on to clause 4, which deals with five-year maximum terms.

The purpose here is to ensure that a Parliament lasts no longer than five years. We do that by providing that Parliament will automatically dissolve five years after it has first met. In doing so, the clause returns us to the general position before the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill was enacted. We are confident that five years is the appropriate length for the maximum parliamentary term. Our Parliaments have seldom lasted a full five years, and, in practice, they have often been dissolved sooner. In fact, we can see that parliamentary terms have very often developed their own rhythm. For example, from the history books, we can see that a strong Government seeking a fresh mandate might seek a Dissolution after four years. Anything less than four years is usually a sign of some political crisis or emergency. Often, Parliaments are dissolved out of political necessity rather than choice, to put a policy or political question to the electorate or to resolve a political crisis.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

But it is not actually five years; it is five years and a bit, is it not? As the Septennial Act 1716 did, it goes from the date of the first sitting of the new Parliament. It means that, if we stick with this, we will have the longest period from election to election of any democracy in the world. Would it not be better for the period from election to election to be at most five years?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my remarks in respect of his amendment, which I will endeavour to come to after I have worked through all the clauses.

The scheme that we are proposing is the right one and I will come in a moment to why I think that that is the case when compared with other technical methods of achieving a five-year term that the hon. Gentleman is thinking of. This clause provides for a maximum parliamentary term of five years from the date that Parliament first met, so we measure five years from the date of first meeting to the Dissolution of Parliament, and that is the Government’s proposition. We think that that provides the right balance of stability, flexibility and accountability that is entailed in returning to the arrangements that allow for a general election earlier than that. On that basis, I recommend that clause 4 stand part of the Bill.

I shall speak very briefly to clause 5. It introduces the schedule to the Bill, which makes provision for the consequential amendments that are needed to ensure that other legislation operates effectively once the 2011 Act has been repealed and we return to the status quo ante. The consequential amendments primarily reverse or alter legislative amendments made by the 2011 Act. They remove references to the Act in legislation and ensure that, after the repeal of the 2011 Act, other legislation that links to it still works. For example, in repealing the 2011 Act, they reflect the fact that there will no longer be fixed-term Parliaments, so the concept of an early general election would no longer exist in law.

Clause 5 also provides that the repeal of the 2011 Act by clause 1 does not affect the amendments and repeals made by the schedule to that Act. This ensures that essential provisions are not lost. It allows us to modify changes made by the 2011 Act and ensure the smooth running of elections by retaining sensible improvements made by that Act or subsequent to that Act. I know that those are some topics that we will come back to a little later as we progress through our debate this evening.

The schedule also makes a small number of minor changes to ensure the smooth running of elections. In short, this clause is necessary to ensure that electoral law and other related parts of the statute book continue to function smoothly. As such, I recommend that clause 5 stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 is the one that we all know and love that deals with extent, early commencement and short title. It confirms that the territorial extent of the Bill is the United Kingdom, except for a very small number of amendments in the schedule where the extent is more limited. The clause ensures that the Bill has an early commencement, meaning that it comes into force on the day on which it receives Royal Assent, and it provides that the short title of the Bill will be the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2021.

That gives me an opportunity to explain that the Government have agreed with the recommendation of the Joint Committee that a Bill of constitutional significance that seeks to put in place arrangements that deliver legal, constitutional and political certainty around the process of dissolving one Parliament and calling another should be titled accordingly. The short title now reflects the purpose of the Bill and will help to ensure that it is clearly understood and that successive Parliaments are able to discern the intended effect of the legislation. I therefore propose that this clause stand part of the Bill. Mr Evans, would you like me also to make a remark about the schedule and then turn to the amendments?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In that case, Mr Evans, I am going to carry on until you tell me otherwise. There is an amount to get through, but I hope to do so.

The schedule provides for a number of changes to primary and secondary legislation to ensure the effective operation of the statute book when the 2011 Act is repealed. These amendments primarily reverse or alter legislative amendments made by the 2011 Act. The schedule works with clause 6. As I have explained, we want to make sure that references to the 2011 Act work elsewhere in other legislation. There are some key changes in the schedule to draw to the attention of the House.

The first is to rule 1 of schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983, which sets out the election timetable. The Bill amends that rule to ensure that the trigger for the election process in the case of a parliamentary general election is the Dissolution of Parliament, following the recommendation of the FTPA Joint Committee.

The second change provides additional certainty in relation to the election process. The election writ is deemed to have been received the day after the Dissolution of Parliament. This will allow returning officers to begin arrangements the day after the election writs are issued, enabling all constituencies to begin making the necessary preparations, even in the event that the physical delivery of the writ is delayed. Similar deeming amendments are included for by-elections.

The third update is to section 20 of the Representation of the People Act 1985. Under the existing legislation, in the event of the demise of the Crown after Dissolution or up to seven days before, polling day is postponed by a fortnight. The 1985 Act provides no discretion or flexibility to further alter the date of the poll. This Bill provides limited discretion for the Prime Minister to move polling day up to seven days either side of this default 14-day postponement, by proclamation on the advice of the Privy Council. This is beneficial because it ensures that enough flexibility is built into the system should such specific and unlikely circumstances ever occur. There is also flexibility to move the date set for the first meeting of Parliament in such circumstances—again, by proclamation on the advice of the Privy Council.

The last key change that I will highlight in this section is to the Recall of MPs Act 2015, which is amended to ensure that there continues to be provision to prevent or terminate recall petitions close to a general election to avoid redundant by-elections. This means that there is no requirement to trigger a recall petition if the last possible polling day for a general election, based on Parliament running its full term, is less than six months away, and a recall petition is to be terminated when Parliament is dissolved. For the reasons that I have set out, I recommend that the schedule be the schedule to the Bill.

If it remains convenient to you, Mr Evans, I will now start to work my way through the amendments that have been tabled, but I remain at your disposal to return to the clauses if hon. Members would like me to respond after they have spoken to their amendments.

New clause 2 has been tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). As I understand it, it seeks to provide a role for the House of Commons in approving an early general election by simple majority vote. This would adjust the arrangements that exist under the 2011 Act by removing the two-thirds majority requirement. It would in itself be a departure from the prior constitutional norm, whereby the Prime Minister could request an early Dissolution of Parliament in order to test the view of the electorate. As we have already begun to touch on in this afternoon’s debate, the deadlock and paralysis created by the 2011 Act did rather demonstrate why a prescriptive statutory approach does not work. Instead, what we are doing in the Bill is returning to a set of widely understood constitutional conventions and practices. Those tried and tested arrangements are the right ones, and this new clause would run against the grain of those arrangements.

It is, after all, a core underlying principle that the authority of the Government and the Prime Minister, as the sovereign’s principal adviser, are derived from the ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons. The 2011 Act attached confidence and the decision of the Prime Minister to call an election to statutory motions, which gave the Commons a direct say in Dissolution, but it is also possible to argue that those arrangements hindered the function of democracy by making it harder to have necessary elections. Instead, the House should indeed be able to express its view on confidence, but in a much freer manner. We do not need the prescriptive statutory approach of either the 2011 Act or, I fear, this new clause.

New clause 2(5) would require the Prime Minister to advise the sovereign on the date of the election within 30 days of the House approving a motion for an election. I would argue that this is not necessary. Under the Bill, once a general election has been called and Dissolution takes place, the election timetable in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 makes the provision for the timing of an election very clear. Again, rather than introducing prescriptive arrangements, we believe that we should return to tried and tested standards whereby it is a core principle that the Prime Minister must be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons. New measures around that concept are not needed.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

If a Prime Minister were to request a Dissolution that was proper but was perceived to be for political advantage and was premature, would not the remedy be in the hands and judgment of the electorate?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes, that is precisely the point, and that underlies a number of our considerations. In the place of a prescriptive statutory scheme, we can place our trust instead in the ability of people to choose against the behaviour that they observe from parties in Parliament.

Let me turn to new clause 5, which is also in the name of the hon. Member for Rhondda. It would require the House to start sitting 14 days after a general election. Although I agree that Parliament should meet as soon as possible after polling day, it is not necessary to codify that in legislation. Fundamentally, this is a similar type of argument. It is difficult to reconcile more extensive codification with the scheme of the Bill, and I shall set out the reasons why.

First, we think it is unnecessary to allow for such a 14-day period. Before and under the 2011 Act, the date of the first meeting of Parliament was set by the sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister. In practice, Parliament has met within one to two weeks of a general election on all but two occasions since 1950. There are compelling practical reasons for a new Government to call a new Parliament as soon as possible. As I put it earlier, no Government can manage without supply. As the Joint Committee put it,

“without…the authorisation of the Commons to spend money…a modern administration could manage months at best”.

Ultimately, having won an election, any new Government would want to assemble Parliament to pass their Queen’s Speech at the earlier opportunity, and be able to move on to legislation and supply.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

If the largest party was trying to get a coalition, that might take more than 14 days. Is there provision in the legislation to cover that?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman makes precisely the point that goes to the new clause, which is that a Government would, I would have thought, want to assemble faster than 14 days, but there can be occasions when more than 14 days may be needed. Therefore, both these arguments point to flexibility, and that is my principal concern about the new clause.

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Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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All right then, if it is the simplest way of doing it, what is the last date that the next general election can be held if all this is carried as the Minister says?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

With respect, that is not the right quiz question—the right quiz question is whether, under the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, the period would be five years plus 25 days. That would, I believe, arise from his amendment, because he is not counting the length of the election campaign, whereas our provision is five years from first sitting to last sitting, so we are trying to measure the life of a Parliament. I am not trying to engage in maths problems; I simply think that this is the most sensible way to measure it, and I hope hon. Members might agree. [Interruption.] I am really not going to engage in maths questions beyond that. We need a clear and easily understood scheme. I think we are all agreed that it ought to be five years, and we are dealing with how to achieve that. The Government’s proposition is that it should be, as I say, from five years after Parliament has first met. That is important.

Let me turn to the pair of amendments that relate to the shortening of the election timetable: new clause 1 in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and amendment 3 in the name of the hon. Member for Rhondda. I am absolutely sure that there will be some very strong arguments put in this area. To try to help the Committee, I will set out why we have our current timetable and then seek to address what I would anticipate to be some of the core arguments that right hon. and hon. Members will raise.

The current timetable was introduced in 2013 through the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which absorbed fundamental shifts brought about through having postal votes on demand and individual electoral registration. As I have explained, the Bill seeks to return us to the status quo ante while retaining sensible changes that have been made since 2011 to enable the smooth running of elections, which are, in my view, of benefit to voters. The current timetable is one of those changes. It provides a balance between allowing sufficient time to run the polls effectively and for the public to be well informed, while not preventing Parliament from avoiding sitting for any longer than is necessary, which is a very important consideration.

On the requirements for running polls effectively, the 25 days working days are necessary to deliver elections, which are now often more complex than at any other point in our history, for reasons, as I mentioned, to do with postal voting on demand, but also online individual electoral registration. That was a fundamental constitutional change that enabled increasingly higher numbers of last-minute applications. To illustrate that, at the most recent general election almost 660,000 applications were made on the last day possible. Before 2000, as I said, there was no postal voting on demand, and it has since grown in numbers to represent nearly 20% of registered electors. Both things increased the complexity and demands of an election timetable.

The amendments refer to weekends and bank holidays in the election period. Local authority electoral services teams who do this work are already often working weekends and overtime to make elections work successfully. I also note that elections do not just rely on local authorities and their staff; there is a significant commercial element to their delivery through many suppliers, including, but not limited to, the software for maintaining the registers, and the printing and postage of paperwork such as the poll cards, ballot papers and postal votes. There is very little room for error on all that. Creating and maintaining the capacity to deliver it can be extremely challenging, especially at short notice. Weekends and bank holidays are not necessarily in our gift.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)
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My hon. Friend is of course making an excellent speech. The intent behind the new clause, which I will explain more fully when I go through it in detail, is to do exactly what she was calling for earlier, which is to have a clearer and more easily understood scheme. At the moment, it is not clear and not easy to understand, because it states that election periods are 25 days when they may not be: the last election was 36 days. We need more transparency, and that is part of what the new clause is calling for.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Absolutely. This is a good opportunity to remind ourselves that we have not necessarily observed a 25 working day timetable. For example, the 2017 election, known to have been rather a long one, was considerably longer than that minimum statutory period. It is important, as my right hon. Friend says, to be as clear as possible on this point.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
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Does my hon. Friend feel that the debate on this presents the opportunity for a further piece of work on the period from when a Prime Minister dissolves Parliament to when the 25 days should start? I appreciate that this Bill is not really the appropriate moment for that, but does she agree that there should be further study and work to decide whether the timeframe should be tidied up more before we get to the 25 days?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Some of what he refers to is not necessarily within a statutory scheme but within, for example, the processes of this House, but he makes a valuable point. We do need to look at the evidence in this area; that will clearly help us. There is already some written work that I would commend to right hon. and hon. Members. They could look at the most recent report of the Association of Electoral Administrators, which said, in July, that less time would be significantly problematic and that there was only so much that could be done at once. It made the point again in written evidence to the Joint Committee, saying that

“it would be catastrophic for everyone involved…if the statutory election period were to be shortened…It would create a significant risk of the election failing and not being delivered and increase the risk of disenfranchising potential electors”.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Just for clarification on those comments, are the electoral services referring to the 25 working days, not a period leading up to that, and saying that they are confident that they can always achieve their work in the short campaign as defined, not relying on any period of time before the short campaign starts?

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Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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I believe that to be the case, although of course I would not wish to speak for the AEA. I really do commend its report to the Committee to enable it to see in much more detail the challenges that there are in delivering elections within the timetable that currently exists. To answer my right hon. Friend’s question, broadly yes—that set of comments is referring to the statutory timetable rather than any time before it.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Mr Goodwill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We would all wish to maximise participation in elections, and the practicalities of overseas voters, postal voters and voter registration are very important, but do we also need to look at the possibility that as campaigns go on and on, we might get campaign fatigue, which might well result in fewer people casting their ballots because they are sick to death of the election going on for what seems to be forever?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am always sympathetic to that point. There is always a risk when any of us have to bang on too long that we simply get boring, and I can already apologise to the House for having taken 50 minutes of tonight’s Committee in trying to make my way through the material I am obliged to cover. My right hon. Friend makes a wise point, and it is one of the balances that have to be looked at in this discussion. That is one reason why he and others have tabled amendments.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On the wider point about how quickly an election takes place, can I take it as read from the Minister that the Government will always immediately move a writ for a by-election, and not drag it on any longer than usual?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

If only I had the ability to give the hon. Gentleman that promise, I think I would have promoted myself to Chief Whip and other positions in a single move. I do not think I should be drawn on the dark ways of the Chief Whip and the usual channels. Instead, I will take an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker).

Craig Whittaker Portrait Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I want to take my hon. Friend back to the point about 2013 and why the period became 25 working days. She mentioned postal votes and electronic registration, but surely the clue is in the title: electronic registration. Anything done electronically is supposed to be much quicker and clearer. Does the legislation also take into account future ways of voting, particularly for overseas voters who may want eventually to do it electronically?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Again, some incredibly thoughtful points are being put. My hon. Friend is right to observe that the introduction of online registration has enormously sped up how people can register, and he draws me to talk about two things. The first is to acknowledge what needs to be done to ensure that overseas voters can cast their ballots more easily. There is an entire field of working going on there, which we will discuss more in consideration of the Elections Bill—I look forward to seeing him in the debate—but a general point sits in the discussion of these amendments, which is how we ensure voters are getting what they need out of the election process.

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Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will not give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) again, if he will forgive me. I will give my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) a go.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend said a moment ago that she could not speak exactly for the AEA, but she will know from the open letter that it wrote to her that it wants even more time. It is proposing an extended 30-day timetable to

“increase capacity, introduce resilience and ensure electors are put first.”

That is all very well, but the point of an election is not to have the most perfect election imaginable, but to get the right result efficiently, so that everyone can cast their vote, but the country can be allowed to move on and resolve whatever tensions led to the election. The ever lengthening timetable is not in the national interest, let alone the interest of individual electors or individual candidates.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am happy to confirm from this Dispatch Box that the Government’s position is to maintain the electoral timetable as it stands—I am not proposing an extension or reduction—but I draw the threads together as follows. We need to ensure that the system works for voters, and that includes them having enough time to register to vote, to receive their ballot papers, to return their ballot papers and to decide on the candidates in each constituency—we have a constituency-based system, after all. We also need to be able to make the same point about supporting candidates to fulfil their part of what needs to happen in an election timetable, both those who stand for parties and those who stand as independents. We have to think through these things if we legislate here.

In response to right hon. and hon. Members who have tabled the amendments, I suggest there is perhaps a space here for looking further into these issues. There would be an opportunity to have some research drawn together on the tensions between voter engagement, the resilience of polls and the needs of the country for a period when it does not have a Parliament or MPs able to help constituents. Although the Government continue to hold the powers needed to carry out essential business and respond to sudden, unexpected or distressing events, none the less the Government do after all need Parliament to be sitting. If needed, I will return to those points after right hon. and hon. Members have spoken, but I will leave new clause 1 and amendment 3 there.

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Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am afraid I have not got time to give way; I need to draw my remarks to a close. I look forward to the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr being able to say more about his amendment, which he has not yet had a chance to do. It would be rather good at this point if the Committee heard from others, rather than me. I draw my remarks to a close. I hope I have covered all the points on the new clauses, the schedule and the amendments. I commend the Bill as a whole, unamended, to the Committee.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Bill does two things: it repeals the Fixed-term Parliaments Act; and reinstates—or attempts to reinstate—the status quo that existed before 2011. The Labour party supports the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which we committed to in our 2019 manifesto, because the Act undermined motions of no-confidence and removed conventions around confidence motions. The concept of fixed terms, however, is not a bad one, and we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. When the Act was introduced, the then Prime Minister was clear that it transferred power away from the Prime Minister and to Parliament. By virtue of that, the Bill is clearly a power grab by a Prime Minister who thinks that one rule applies to him and the rest of us can just wish for it.

New clause 2, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), would make Dissolution subject to a vote in the House of Commons. At the heart of the new clause is the question whether a Government should have the power to decide when an election takes place or whether elections should be fixed. The democratic position to take is that terms should be fixed. Indeed, that is what happens in our local councils in England and in the Parliaments in Scotland and Wales. In fact, in most parliamentary democracies, Dissolution is controlled by the legislature with varying degrees of involvement from the Executive.

In the UK, with our strong tradition of parliamentary sovereignty, Parliament should be central to any decision to dissolve, for three main reasons. First, there is the electoral advantage. If only the Prime Minister knows when an election will be held, only the Prime Minister will know when spending limits kick in. That plays to the advantage of the incumbent political party. It is also possible to bury bad news by calling an election before such news hits. If, for instance, there was to be an inquiry on covid and they felt that would be bad news for them, they could choose to go early to avoid negative headlines. Secondly, a vote in Parliament for Dissolution would remove any possibility of dragging the Crown into the politics of the decision. I am sure no Members of the House would like to see Her Majesty dragged into that. Thirdly, it would render the Bill’s ouster clause unnecessary, whether that clause is effective or not. The easiest way to keep the courts out of Dissolution decisions is to leave Dissolution in Parliament’s hands. It is impossible to imagine the crack through which the courts could intervene in a duly recorded decision of the House of Commons on that matter.

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Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I apologise, Dame Rosie, that I have been bobbing up and down this afternoon wanting to speak and not wanting to speak, but I think that some of our discussion on the new clauses needs to be teased out a little more. First, I would like to hear from the Minister in response to the point on which I tried to intervene on her, which was about the consequential effects, particularly with regard to referendums. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) made a similar point about the ability of the UK Parliament essentially to take primacy over decisions already made by the devolved assemblies about the dates of elections and particularly of referendums.

Why could not the Bill have been structured in such a way that it simply stopped the Prime Minister from choosing a date on which a poll or plebiscite of some kind was already scheduled? Forcing polls or plebiscites in the devolved areas to be rescheduled instead entirely diminishes or takes away the idea that we are in some kind of union of equals and fundamentally reasserts the primacy of this place above all else. If that does not make the argument for the outcome of the referendum that I will be campaigning for, I do not know what does.

The point about setting the date of the election, which also relates to new clause 2, is particularly important. The effect will be not only that the Prime Minister alone will know the date of the next election, but that he will know all the consequent dates that fit alongside it, particularly the regulated periods, the short campaign and the long campaign. It will therefore affect the ability of parties and individual candidates—as the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) said, we are all individual candidates for election—to spend money and to decide when and how to do so.

That point relates to the Elections Bill, which is about to be considered in Committee, and speaks to the piecemeal approach that this Government are very slyly taking to what is actually a very serious package of constitutional reforms that undermine democratic protections and positions that people have enjoyed across these islands for some considerable time.

That was a bit too long for an intervention, Dame Rosie, so I have taken advantage of the fact that the Committee still had a bit of time to run. As the Minister was not willing to take my intervention, I hope that in her summing up she will be able to reply to some of my points.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As I was advised by the Chairman of Ways and Means at the time, I endeavoured to respond to all amendments at the beginning of the debate, so I have given what I hope was the bulk of my remarks. It remains for me to thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, which have been comprehensive and thoughtful.

I assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) that I will look at commissioning research. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) that, as set out in the response to the Joint Committee’s report, there is ongoing dialogue to be had on conventions. I suggest to the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) that we might meet if he would like to go further over the detail that he requested; I will even extend that invitation to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). I assure them both that I am already discussing these matters with colleagues in the devolved Administrations.

I urge the Committee to agree that the clauses should stand part of the Bill and that the amendments are not necessary. I commend the Bill to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Revival of prerogative powers to dissolve Parliament and to call a new Parliament

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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20:27

Division 66

Ayes: 316

Noes: 162

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I thank hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House for their careful scrutiny of the Bill throughout its passage, and I thank you and your colleagues for your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I am also grateful to all those who contributed in Committee and on Second Reading, and I particularly thank those who served on the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, whose expert scrutiny has informed our approach and improved the Bill.

We have been fortunate to have had an enriching debate today, including on the conventions that underpin the Dissolution of one Parliament and the calling of another. As I mentioned earlier, that dialogue will continue through the remaining stages of the Bill as it passes out of the elected House and goes into the other place. During its passage, the Government have at all times listened with care to the concerns raised and the thoughts posed, and I reassure the House that this is a focused, careful Bill that will return us to the long-standing constitutional arrangements that have served successive Governments and Parliaments and have ensured effective, responsive, accountable politics in which the voters are supreme. All the flexibility encapsulated in that is essential to our parliamentary democracy. This Bill restores that constitutional balance, and I commend it to the House.

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20:46

Division 67

Ayes: 312

Noes: 55

Bill read the Third time and passed.

Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill 2021-22 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Moved by
Lord True Portrait Lord True
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Relevant documents: 8th Report from the Constitution Committee

Lord True Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, if any noble Lords are concerned by the state of my voice, I should say that I have recently had a negative Covid test, but I have just had that cold which your Lordships will know all about. I would like to say how much I am looking forward to the contributions from everybody who is to speak, and congratulate my noble friend Lord Leicester, who was recently elected to this House, on making his maiden speech later; we all look forward to that.

It is a great privilege to open Second Reading on the Bill, which I trust will be welcomed by your Lordships’ House. Repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was a manifesto commitment both of the Government and of the Official Opposition. As the Labour Party manifesto put it, the Act

“has stifled democracy and propped up weak governments”.

I agree, and look forward to unequivocal support from the Benches opposite today and in Committee—you always travel in hope in your Lordships’ House.

The 2011 Act fostered uncertainty and stasis in our democratic arrangements. It led to paralysis when the country needed decisive action. It undermined the effectiveness and responsiveness of our democratic system overall. The flaws of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act are understood and have been analysed by many noble Lords, including your Lordships’ Constitution Committee—I am pleased to see the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, on the speakers’ list today. I am grateful for the depth of expertise and knowledge that your Lordships’ House has brought to bear on the scrutiny of the 2011 Act and that it will bring to bear on the scrutiny of this legislation.

The Bill seeks to return to the tried and tested position of the past over many centuries, replacing the 2011 Act with arrangements more in keeping with our best constitutional practices: delivering stable and effective government; upholding proper parliamentary accountability and public confidence in our democratic arrangements; and, above all, placing the British people at the heart of the resolution of any great national crisis.

The Bill will provide increased legal, constitutional and political certainty around the process for the Dissolution of Parliament and the calling of a new Parliament. I emphasise at the outset that the Bill focuses on the Dissolution and the calling of Parliament only, not any other part of the constitutional process. Ensuring that these arrangements are clear, stable and widely understood underpins the integrity of our constitution.

Your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, in its report of December 2020, warned correctly that the “origins and content of” the 2011 Act

“owe more to short-term considerations than to a mature assessment of enduring constitutional principles or sustained public demand”.

Indeed, the Act led to paralysis and uncertainty at a critical time for our country. An untenable situation arose in the last Parliament, when the Government were neither able to pass vital legislation through Parliament on their central policy nor call a new election and put the question to the people, who had already voted in a referendum for the very proposition Parliament was seeking to block. The result was deadlock and paralysis. The fact that Parliament had to introduce bespoke primary legislation in 2019 to bypass the Act in order to hold the necessary election was surely the final, damning indictment. In summary, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is a political experiment that failed. It is neither credible nor effective and does not serve future Parliaments or Governments, whether they are majority or minority formations or coalitions.

I now turn to the details of the Bill. Before I begin, I reiterate my sincere thanks for the valuable work of Parliament, particularly your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the other place, and the Joint Committee chaired by my noble friend Lord McLoughlin, who I am also pleased to see here in his place today. I also add my thanks for the Constitution Committee’s most recent report on the Bill, which was published on 19 November. The Government welcome its consideration of the Bill and I can give an assurance that they will respond to the report before this House goes into Committee. Its consideration of the 2011 Act and the Government’s Bill has been valuable and has informed our approach, as will become evident.

The Bill is short; its purpose is clear and its objectives are known, because the British people lived with the previous system for centuries. It is a focused Bill of six clauses and one schedule. It restores the status quo ante, except in a few cases, particularly where practical changes to election arrangements made since 2011 have proven beneficial to the smooth running of elections—although I am certain that we will discuss that aspect of the Bill. It returns us to the tried and tested constitutional arrangements that have served successive Parliaments and Governments and that are a feature of our constitutional system.

Clause 1 repeals the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Clause 2 makes express provision to revive the prerogative powers relating to the Dissolution of Parliament and the calling of a new Parliament that existed before the 2011 Act. This means that, once more, Parliament will be dissolved by the sovereign at the request of the Prime Minister. Within the life of a Parliament, Prime Ministers will once more be able to call a general election. That is a tried and tested approach that throughout our history has served successive Governments of different configurations.

By returning us to the status quo ante, the Bill will enable the link between confidence and Dissolution to be restored so that critical votes in the other place can once more be designated as matters of confidence, which, if lost, would trigger an early election—circumstances which many of us well remember from 1979. The other place will therefore continue to play its expected and key role in holding Governments to account and demonstrating whether they have the confidence of the elected House.

This is the status quo ante that we are all familiar with and understand. Under that system, our nation weathered many a constitutional crisis and accomplished enormous social change and social improvement without conflict, revolution or civil strife. That is the position the general public understand and under which our liberties have long been guaranteed.

Clause 3 restates the long-standing position that the prerogative powers to dissolve and call Parliament are non-justiciable. I understand that some noble Lords question why this clause is necessary at all and say that, after all, these prerogative powers are recognised as outside the purview of the courts. Let me explain: Clause 3 is drafted with careful regard to developments in case law. As noble Lords will be aware, since the GCHQ case, some prerogative powers that were previously considered to be non-justiciable have been reviewed by the courts.

The recent independent review of administrative law, which was chaired by my noble friend Lord Faulks, noted that

“the direction of travel in favour of regarding more and more prerogative powers as reviewable in principle is undeniable and has existed for many years”.

This culminated in the decision of the Supreme Court in Miller/Cherry 2 in relation to Prorogation. So, with respect to those noble Lords who say that there is no risk of the courts reviewing a decision to dissolve Parliament, I cannot simply say that the case law would suggest that this risk can be discounted, and recent events, in particular, have underlined this.

Clause 3 has been drafted with great care, taking on board the position of the courts that the most clear and explicit words are needed. It provides that any decisions relating to the revived powers to dissolve one Parliament and call another are non-justiciable, as well as the exercise of the powers themselves. This is to ensure that any preliminary steps leading to the exercise of these powers, including any request to the sovereign to dissolve Parliament and any related advice, cannot be reviewed by a court or tribunal.

Clause 3 further provides that a court or tribunal cannot consider the exercise of those revived prerogative powers or any related decisions, even if the court considers they are invalid or, in the language used by the Bill, “purported”. Nor may a court consider the limits or extent of those powers. Again, taking into account the case law, this is to make as clear as possible the position that all elements of the process relating to the Dissolution and calling of Parliament are covered by Clause 3 and are not a matter for the courts.

Let me be clear: there would be no change to the involvement of the courts, as the Dissolution and calling of Parliament is not an issue that has, so far, ever been considered reviewable. This clause simply confirms that position, preserves it for the future and protects the judiciary from being drawn into political matters.

Ultimately, judgment on the Government’s actions in calling an election is a matter for the electorate at the polling booth. I remember well the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on this subject at Second Reading of the original Bill, that it is not axiomatic that the timing of an election serves the incumbent Prime Minister. As the Joint Committee affirmed,

“it is appropriate for Parliament to make clear where it thinks the constitutional boundaries lie”.

This clause was unamended in the other place, and while I recognise that your Lordships will have questions, we do, I think, mostly agree that the prerogative power for Dissolution is, and should, remain non-justiciable.

Lord Rooker Portrait Lord Rooker (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Before the Minister leaves Clause 3 —I am not a lawyer—will he explain the use of the word “purported” in two of the items? He has spent a lot of time on Clause 3, so I presume he is briefed on this to explain why “purported exercise” is also covered.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I always seek to be brief, but one always aspires to be better briefed in your Lordships’ House. I anticipate that this will be the subject of some discussion in Committee, and I wanted to make some progress in this speech, but to answer the noble Lord, which is my duty, purported exercises of power or decisions refer to things that would be considered by a court to be invalid or a nullity and therefore not a real exercise of power or decision because they have been done on the basis of an error of law. The courts have noted that this could arise where, for example, a decision is made outside the limits of relevant power or without taking into account a relevant consideration.

The reference has been included to make it clear that all elements of the Dissolution and calling of Parliament process fall to the political and not the judicial sphere. The drafting takes account of previous judicial decisions, which I have no doubt we will discuss at some length in Committee. In particular in the case of Privacy International, the Supreme Court said that those drafting legislation should make clear whether such purported decisions are intended to be outside the jurisdiction of the courts. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his intervention, and I look forward to discussing this matter at some length—I hope not at some length—and I have no doubt that we will have a lively discussion in Committee, so I would like to make some progress, if I may.

Clause 4 provides a maximum parliamentary term of five years, calculated from the date of the first meeting of Parliament. This will ensure that elections are held at regular intervals by providing a longstop of five years, a maximum term which is of course still guaranteed by your Lordships through an explicit exception in the Parliament Acts. By reviving the prerogative powers, the Government could call an election either to resolve political deadlock, to seek a fresh mandate from the electorate or after a defeat on a major policy issue.

As I have set out, a Prime Minister will take a number of factors into account when choosing to call a general election. But of course, this would include— I can offer reassurance here—scheduled elections to the devolved legislatures. We recognise the practical administrative challenges of holding elections which are conducted under different arrangements simultaneously or in close proximity. A Prime Minister choosing to call an election would undoubtedly wish to take these matters into account.

Clause 5 introduces the Schedule, which sets out minor and consequential amendments. Clause 6 confirms that the territorial extent of the Bill is the UK, except for a very small number of amendments in the Schedule where the extent is more limited. The Schedule contains a number of minor and consequential changes, including to the parliamentary elections rules in the Representation of the People Acts 1983 and 1985, concerned also with the demise of the Crown and the Recall of MPs Act 2015. I would be happy to explain any of these in detail if your Lordships wished between now and Committee.

The Bill has undergone pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government are indebted to the work of the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. We have carefully considered the committee’s findings and amended the Bill in two respects, the first being the Title of the Bill. This small but significant change ensures the purpose and effect of the Bill is clear, reflecting its precise remit and its constitutional significance. Secondly, having reflected on the Joint Committee’s report, the Government agree that the trigger for the election process should be the Dissolution of Parliament. This amendment will give legal certainty that the election period will automatically follow on from Dissolution, providing a clear timetable leading to a defined polling date.

Let me conclude with the conventions which provide the flesh on the bones of the Bill. In restoring the status quo ante, conventions will once more govern the operation of the revived prerogative powers. Conventions can operate effectively only where there is shared understanding of them. That is why the Government published in draft their understanding of those conventions alongside the Bill for scrutiny—not only by the Joint Committee but by Parliament as a whole. We set out in that document:

“The circumstances in which a Prime Minister might seek a dissolution are underpinned by two core constitutional principles.”


First:

“The Prime Minister holds that position by virtue of their ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons and will normally be the accepted leader of the political party that commands the majority of the House of Commons.”


Secondly:

“The Sovereign should not be drawn into party politics, and it is the responsibility of those involved in the political process to ensure that remains the case. As the Crown’s principal adviser this responsibility falls particularly on the incumbent Prime Minister.”


We recognise that the conventions on Dissolution are part of an interlocking picture. Therefore, in our response to the Joint Committee, we have provided fuller explanations of the conventions on confidence Motions, Dissolution and Government formation. It is intended to provide the basis for discussion and debate among parliamentarians, building our shared understanding in and across both Houses and all those represented in them.

The value of conventions is not that they should cover every single hypothetical scenario but that they provide guiding principles and are an effective deterrent —in particular, the imperative not to involve the sovereign in politics. We welcome further discussion in your Lordships’ House on the conventions. That is the best way to develop our shared understanding.

This Bill will deliver increased legal, constitutional and political certainty around the processes for the dissolution and calling of Parliament. It will restore tried-and-tested constitutional arrangements which have been understood by the electorate for generations and are underpinned by the core constitutional principle that the Government of the day draw their authority by commanding the confidence of the elected House.

I hope these constitutional arrangements that have served us well in the past will continue to serve future Parliaments and Governments of all parties, whatever they may be. The ability of a Prime Minister to call a general election for reasons of political or public necessity, to turn to the people to give their judgment, is an essential feature of our democracy. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act disrupted that relationship. This Bill, we submit, will restore the proper balance to our constitutional arrangements.

I look forward to a constructive debate on not only the Bill but the conventions. I commend the Bill to the House.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, indeed we should never take democracy for granted—although I have noticed over the years, with advancing age, that whenever the party on those Benches is resoundingly defeated at any election, whether by the Labour Party or the party on these Benches, it cries “Populism!”, “Foul!”, “Unfair!”. We have just heard an extraordinary suggestion that an ideal constitution would involve months and months of negotiation, presumably involving the Liberal Democrats, probably on a statutory basis. I have to say that I do not think that that is a way forward that would commend itself to many in this House.

It has been an outstanding debate, and, of course, I must congratulate my noble friend Lord Leicester on his outstanding maiden speech. All of the House found it entrancing: it was deeply rooted in history, traditions and a sense of place, cherishing the best of our past and showing a love and knowledge of the environment. It was also so forward-looking in embracing new technologies and ideas for the future. My noble friend said he liked a challenge. Well, I think we will all relish the challenge that he set out, based on the charm and wisdom that he displayed. By the way, at the age of four I wanted to see a spoonbill and I still never have seen one. That is not a request for an invitation, but I congratulate him on bringing those birds back to these shores.

Also in preamble, I was asked by somebody, possibly the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, to apologise for the 2011 Act. Actually, like my noble friend Lady Noakes with whose speech I much agreed, I was no enthusiast for the 2011 Act. Indeed, I remember coming out of a victorious local election campaign in Richmond in 2010—I will not say who the defeated party were—to be telephoned by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, who said that he had been summoned to a meeting of the Shadow Cabinet to approve negotiations for coalition, which included some of the ideas that we have heard today. I was not entirely enamoured of that. In fact, if you look in the Division lists on the ping-pong on that Bill, you will not find my name. I was a very new Member of the House, but that was my first mini revolt; I rather fear that one or two others followed. I do not commend that behaviour to my noble friend Lord Leicester, but I will not apologise for the 2011 Act, because, I repeat, it was a political experiment. Some, like the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, have said that it was a political expediency. That is correct; hopefully your Lordships will accept that it should be gone and gone swiftly.

We have had a very informed debate on an important constitutional Bill. As I had expected, we have had a large number of insightful speeches based on your Lordships’ varied expertise and experience. I will try to answer as many points as I can. I was sorry that one or two of the speeches suggested that there was an authoritarian approach behind this Bill—I think I even heard the word “fascist” at one point, which is not a helpful word to play at political opponents. That was certainly not the Government’s intention or an approach that I would ever commend from this Dispatch Box. On the other hand, I have been very grateful for the support of many of my noble friends; for example, my noble friends Lord Strathclyde, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, Lady Pidding and others.

I was slightly discouraged by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, casting a fly over the House on the matter of Prorogation. In my humble submission—I used to look at Bills to see how I could amend them to cause trouble for the party opposite over many years—it does not look to me from the Long Title that Prorogation should come into this Bill. I emphasise that the Bill is not, and was never intended to be, about Prorogation. The Government made it clear at the time that they were disappointed with the judgment on Prorogation but, in the event, the Supreme Court noted that its decision rested on the case’s exceptional facts. What we have in this Bill is not in relation to that Prorogation issue, and the Government will not support attempts to bring that procedure into scope. We should concentrate on the matters before us.

I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and my noble friend Lord Hayward about the 25-day election period. It has not been the main subject of debate, but I know that it is a matter of concern to many. I can say that the Government wish to retain the 25-day working period. This was acknowledged; we have made that clear. We believe that any reduction would have adverse effects on all those involved in elections: political parties, electoral administrators and, most importantly, the electors. As both noble Lords said, modern elections are complex operations, including postal and overseas voting. The Government’s position is that we should retain the current system. I hope that we will not detain ourselves too long on that question in this Bill as, obviously, we will have a larger Bill on elections coming forward.

Many referred to the constitutional conventions and principles that lie alongside the Bill. My noble friends Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Bridges of Headley were wise to advise against too much codification; in that, I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. I note the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, about the Cabinet Manual, which I will take away. I can offer her no specific response in advance beyond what I have said to your Lordships before.

Conventions are important. If the Bill revives the prerogative powers to dissolve one Parliament and call another, as we believe, then prerogative powers will once more be governed by convention. As I said in my opening speech, it is critical that there is a common understanding of how they will operate. I have no doubt that we will have valuable discussions on those matters.

I was asked to address a question about whether the prerogative can be revived—a point raised, from different perspectives, by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane; indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, asked for an example. I do not particularly want to go back to the 17th century. The centuries that I was referring to were rather more recent, but I would think that 1660 was a fairly significant example of the royal prerogative being revived.

The Government are confident that the prerogative powers can be revived but, as was said by a number of noble Lords, to make express provision to do so is the intent and effect of Clause 2. The Government believe there is a sound legal basis for this position. The courts have said that a revival of prerogative powers is possible. For example, the Supreme Court said in the first Miller case:

“If prerogative powers are curtailed by legislation, they may sometimes be reinstated by the repeal of that legislation, depending on the construction of the statutes in question.”


That was put more strongly in the case of Burmah Oil when Lord Pearce in 1965 observed that, if a statute that restricts the prerogative is repealed, then

“the prerogative power would apparently re-emerge as it existed before the statute”.

This would be subject to words in the repealing statute, as was referred to in the GCHQ case.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, reminded us, the Joint Committee reserved its position on this question but concluded that the Bill is sufficiently clear to give effect to the Government’s intention of returning to the prior constitutional position. As the former First Parliamentary Counsel Sir Stephen Laws said in evidence to the Joint Committee, this academic debate is a “red herring”. He said that it

“is perfectly plain that the intention of the Act is to restore the situation to what it was before the 2011 Act, and therefore the law will then be indistinguishable from what it was before”.

Of course, many noble Lords on all sides, as I readily anticipated, raised important points about Clause 3. I will address them briefly, although my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern was quite right to say that these matters will need to be probed and discussed in depth in Committee. I think there is general consensus in the House on that, to which I accede, and I look forward to those discussions.

We believe that the clause is necessary and proportionate, for the avoidance of doubt, and will preserve what I still contend, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, is the long-standing position that the prerogative powers to dissolve one Parliament and call another are non-justiciable. Prerogative powers to dissolve are inherently political in nature and, as such, we maintain, are not suitable for review by the courts. Certainly, that was the view as expressed by Lord Roskill in the GCHQ case in 1985, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, reminded us. The courts are not the place to determine whether Parliament should be dissolved on one date or other.

This clause seeks to underline that position. The Independent Review of Administrative Law in March noted that Clause 3 can be regarded as a “codifying clause”, which

“simply restates the position that everyone understood obtained before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was passed”.

Several noble Lords questioned why the clause is necessary at all, if the recognised position is that prerogative powers are non-justiciable. I hope that what happened to my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham does not happen to me in my ministerial career: finding that everything I do is reversed, although that has happened to me in other contexts. I hope that I will be able to reassure him that, in our judgment, the clause is necessary to take account of the direction of travel in case law, and has been drafted carefully in recognition of, and to address, that fact.

Over the years since the GCHQ case, some other prerogative powers previously considered non-justiciable have been held by the courts to be justiciable. So, the purpose of this clause in this case is to be as clear as possible about the no-go sign around the Dissolution and calling of Parliament. It is carefully drafted, respecting the message from the courts in Cart that only

“the most clear and explicit words”

can exclude their jurisdiction. Therefore, while the Government agree that the revived powers of Dissolution are non-justiciable, we are making provision to confirm and preserve this position for the future.

Noble Lords, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, made reference to the judgment of the Supreme Court in respect of the review of the scope of prerogative power to dissolve Parliament. The Government have drafted Clause 3 with regard to case law, including Miller II. It is a proportionate response that seeks to put beyond doubt that Dissolution is not a matter for the courts. The independent review on administrative law noted this judgment, and the distinction it draws creates the potential for the courts to circumvent no-go signs currently mounted around the exercise of prerogative powers. The Clause seeks to make it clear that, in the context of the Dissolution and calling of Parliament, the no-go signs should not be subverted in this way. The democratically elected House of Commons is constituted as a clear expression of the will and judgment of the public, and the ability of the electorate to judge the record of the Government and their decision to call an election as well. That is the continued safeguard which protects Parliament.

Some noble Lords spoke of a concept of an improper Dissolution or an abuse of Dissolution. That concern is misplaced. There are a number of sufficient and appropriate restraints in our constitutional arrangements. First is the convention that the sovereign should be kept out of politics; this in itself is a powerful deterrent to making any improper request. Nevertheless, the sovereign may in exceptional circumstances refuse a request to dissolve Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Beith, had some important and interesting reflections on this point. I too would like to know the answer to his question about 1974.

That is not all. In response to the report by the FTPA Joint Committee, we have amended the Bill so that the statutory election period will be triggered automatically by the Dissolution of Parliament. This will ensure that the theoretical possibility of a Dissolution without an ensuing election period is eliminated. The Government of the day must be able to command the confidence of the elected House. Unduly and unnecessarily delaying the calling of a new Parliament would negatively impact on the authority of the Government. Control by the Commons of tax and expenditure is a further compelling necessity for any new Government to call a new Parliament as soon as possible. One final test is the common sense of the electorate. Any attempt by a Government to manipulate the system would be clear to the electorate, and that Government would be punished in an election.

Many noble Lords—the noble Baroness opposite, the noble Lords, Lord Newby, Lord Grocott, and Lord Thomas of Gresford, my noble friend Lord Lansley, the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and many others—suggested that there should be a role for the House of Commons in approving a Dissolution. I anticipate that we will discuss this issue at some length in Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, with his great experience, offered important cautionary notes here. I found the analysis of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, as clear as it was compelling, and I agreed with his analysis. The Government disagree with that approach: reviving the flexibility of the previous system undermines the entire purpose of the Bill. The creation of prescriptive statutory arrangements represented a significant departure from our previous constitutional arrangements, eroding the flexibility that is an essential part of our democracy.

The evidence is before us. My noble friend Lady Stowell set this out very clearly: we have to see the broad picture. The experience of the 2011 Act demonstrates that statutory systems can perpetuate political instability. The reality was skated over by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in his speech. He said that under the model he proposes, the Prime Minister in 2019 could have had an election three times and had a majority. He forgets the reality of those times. I hope he is never the man with the three cards on Westminster Bridge. The reality is that the Labour Party did not want an election at the time. They could avoid it by simply sitting on their hands, which would not have been possible. The Labour Party could still have avoided an election, even under his proposal.

When the 2011 Act is repealed, it will be vital that the link between confidence and Dissolution is restored in order that critical votes can again be designated as matters of confidence which, if lost, would trigger an early election. Therefore, the House of Commons will continue to play a key role. The claim by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that this debate was a battle to prevent the rigging of the membership of the Commons was a very odd characterisation of the Bill’s central intent, which is to prevent interference with the remittance of great political questions to the people—to allow them to choose their elected representatives. I remind noble Lords that the Joint Committee gave this matter detailed consideration and a majority—I respect the alternative opinions—concluded that the House of Commons should not retain a say over Dissolution. Finally, as my noble friend Lady Pidding reminded us, the other place considered and dismissed amendments to enable it to retain a statutory role. I very much hope that your Lordships will not “go there”, as they say, but I suspect I may be disappointed.

Noble Lords have suggested that the Bill limits the accountability of the Prime Minister. I must agree to disagree with that too. There have been and will remain two vital checks, which again have been widely forgotten by many who have spoken in this debate: the House of Commons and the electorate. It was not the case that under the prerogative system, the Commons was unable to hold the Executive to account. The Bill restores the position whereby a Government hold office by the virtue of their ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons. In that respect, the House of Commons will continue to play a key role. Yes, a Prime Minister will once again be able to call an election at a time of his or her choosing, but elections are an expression of democracy. I believe in democracy. As the Joint Committee put it,

“ultimately elections ensure the electorate—the ultimate authority in a democratic system—has the opportunity to exercise its judgment.”

Again, any attempt by a Government to manipulate the system, as we have seen in recent history, would be likely to be punished.

I thank all those who have spoken for their valuable contributions. I will read Hansard extremely carefully and reflect on the many important and challenging things that have been said. I am pleased we have had such a stimulating debate, which has attracted so many of your Lordships. I look forward to being at the service of your Lordships in the period between now and Committee, and indeed, through the whole passage of the Bill. When we are here, my door will always be open. I met a large number of Members prior to today’s debate, and I look forward to further opportunities to engage and, I hope, persuade. I am sure we will continue to have lively and robust discussions as we take this important Bill through its remaining stages. I believe there is broad consensus for repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and I commend this Bill and the way it is accomplished to the House. I beg to move.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Committee stage
Tuesday 25th January 2022

(6 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Committee stage Page Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: HL Bill 51-I Marshalled list for Committee - (21 Jan 2022)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill 2021-22 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

I hope the Minister will take on board the comments we have made. I know he said that he does not want to see any amendments to the Bill, but as we have heard today, the amendments noble Lords have put forward seek to achieve what the Minister and the Government want to achieve via the Bill. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for doing that. What we need is clarity, which is what many of the amendments before us today seek to achieve. Where there is a lack of clarity, they seek to ensure that the Bill does what the Government want it to do. I am sure that we will return to this issue, but I hope the Minister will not rule out accepting this amendment or having a discussion with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, to see if it could help the Government to achieve their objectives.
Lord True Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all those who contributed to what has been an important and interesting debate. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for bringing it forward, and I also welcomed the opportunity to talk to him about it. What I am going to say on the record is, I hope, a response to that discussion and to matters raised in this debate. I was struck by the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Beith, in an elegant and thoughtful contribution, envisaged circumstances where the reserve power could apply. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that it was inconceivable. The reality is, as we will discuss later, that the Government’s belief, and the traditional practice, is that the reserve power has an important constitutional role.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, had a little go at another Second Reading speech at the start. I agree, of course, with what he said and with what my noble friend Lord Lexden said. I also agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said last time around. It is absolutely true that the 2011 Act was, in her words, clearly designed for a specific purpose at a specific time: to protect the coalition Government from instability. I freely acknowledge the wisdom and accuracy of those words.

There is general support for the Bill, and I welcome that. I cannot encourage the noble Baroness opposite to think that all the amendments are clarifying. I think some of the discussions we have had would involve driving a coach and horses through the Government’s intentions on the Bill, as I hope to persuade the House later.

Turning to the amendment of my noble friend Lord Norton, I repeat that I am grateful to him for tabling it. Clause 2 was carefully drafted to put beyond doubt that the prerogative powers relating to the dissolution and calling of Parliament will be revived. As my noble friend Lord Norton outlined, these are prerogative powers that are personal or reserve prerogative powers, meaning that they belong to the person of the sovereign, acting in the sovereign’s individual capacity. The noble Lord has also sought to place on record and beyond doubt that the dissolution prerogative power is not exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister but is instead a request made to the sovereign. I can assure him that that is the Government’s position.

Turning specifically to Dissolution, the Government have recognised in response to the Joint Committee, for whose work we are extremely grateful, that this personal prerogative is exercised by the sovereign on the request of the Prime Minister, not on their advice. I am pleased to reassure your Lordships that the Government fully accept this accurate characterisation and are grateful for the Joint Committee’s considered conclusions on that point and the submissions made in the debate.

I hope that very clear statement on the record will gratify and ease the concerns of my noble friend Lord Norton and others. I therefore thank him again for tabling the amendment as it has given the Government an opportunity to clarify this point in Parliament, and given this Committee the opportunity to debate this aspect of the constitution. I hope my statement has provided sufficient clarity on the nature of the Dissolution prerogative so that my noble friend may feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Norton of Louth Portrait Lord Norton of Louth (Con)
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My Lords, I am extremely grateful to everyone who has spoken. It has given rise to a very valuable debate with some very helpful interventions. I take the point of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern that there is an extensive academic argument about whether the prerogative can be revived. I am very much in favour of academic debates taking place, since if they did not, I would be out of a job. From my point of view, the one good thing that came out of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was the number of articles I managed to publish on the subject.

Today, however, is the occasion for that debate about the prerogative being revived. I accept that the Bill achieves what it is designed to do: to provide that the prerogative comes back and to put it beyond doubt because of that academic debate about whether it could or could not. This establishes that it does. That has to be our starting point because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said, it is designed to restore the status quo ante. Therefore, the purpose of my amendment is to achieve clarity of that purpose and that it is a personal prerogative, the distinction I drew —in response to the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate—in opening. It is one of only three prerogative powers that the monarch does not exercise on advice.

I deliberately quoted the report of the Joint Committee, which the noble Lord, Lord Beith, referred to, in relation to the point that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, raised: the practice is that the monarch has acceded to requests for Dissolution. I was also trying to touch on the fact that No. 10 has contacted the palace in advance to make sure that it will be granted. I always think that is a useful deterrent; it makes the Prime Minister think about it. There is now the convention that Ministers do not act in a way that would embarrass the Crown, so there is some restraint there. There is a useful purpose in its existing in the same way that, formally, the monarch does not appoint the Prime Minister. That, again, is one of the powers not exercised on advice. There are certain elements there that remind Ministers that there is a higher authority to which they are responsible. There is a purpose in it and a useful role, but that is a wider debate. My starting point is that the purpose of the Bill is to restore the status quo ante and my amendment is focused on that. It is working within the purpose of the Bill and what it is designed to achieve.

As I said in opening, I was keen to get the Minister to put on record at the Dispatch Box that it is a personal prerogative power. Therefore, that is a necessary condition. I will need to reflect on whether it is a sufficient one, but for the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

--- Later in debate ---
I support Amendment 3 in my name and those of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the noble Lords, Lord Newby and Lord Lansley, and I hope the Minister will not just dismiss it out of hand but will be happy to enter into further discussions to see whether it could be a helpful way forward, particularly when we get to the next debate, on Clause 3.
Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken in what has rightly been a lengthy debate. Perhaps my concluding marks too will be lengthy; I trust not. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. Your Lordships will divine that some of those who have spoken I agree with, and some I found less persuasive, but I have welcomed the opportunity to discuss these matters and others with many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness opposite, whose courtesy I always so much appreciate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. I very much appreciate that.

I have listened very carefully to all the arguments, not least the compelling concluding remarks of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. I was a little puzzled by the position of the noble Baroness opposite because she seemed to say that when the Labour Party told the electorate in 2019 that they would repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, what they actually meant was that they would not repeal it, but they would keep the chance of the very zombie Parliament that the public so overwhelmingly rejected in the 2019 election. I suggest to your Lordships that, notwithstanding some speeches that have been made, the risk of that occurring if these amendments are supported remains high.

I respectfully suggest to all noble Lords that retaining a revised version of the failed 2011 Act, which this amendment would do, in effect, by keeping the Commons veto in a revised form, is a highly problematic suggestion. It would not achieve what it is intended to do; it certainly would not secure clarity. I was on the Constitution Committee a long time ago when the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, became chair, and I say to her how much I admired and respected the work that was done by that committee while she was chair; I am sure I speak for the whole House on that. In her compelling speech, she spoke of the need for some degree of clarity and the need to avoid loopholes. We must guard against repeating one of the fundamental errors of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which, in the words of our manifesto, led to “paralysis”, or, in the words of the Labour manifesto, has “propped up weak governments”—Governments without the authority to govern effectively.

I submit that the first problem is that this is not the simple solution that some noble Lords have implied. In fact, a vote in the other place on Dissolution would be complicated and challenging to effect. To highlight one area of difficulty, what will be the likely consequences for constitutional conventions, including the conventions on confidence? Some of your Lordships will recall that this was a question that very much exercised this House in the debates on the 2011 Act.

The amendment would undoubtedly repeat the mistakes of the 2011 Act: it would undermine the fundamental conventions on confidence—by virtue of which a Government hold office—by divorcing them from practical effect and, even worse, making the consequences of a loss of a confidence vote ambiguous. The amendment is dangerously silent on the status and practice of the conventions associated with confidence. That silence is unclear and ambiguous, and could undoubtedly lead to fractious debate, uncertainty and delay at a time when timely action might be needed. In particular, in the event that a Prime Minister lost a vote on a Motion designated as a matter of confidence, they would not be able to request a Dissolution without the prior approval of the House.

It is unclear, therefore, how the amendment would interact with conventions on confidence in practice. Does it mean that the Prime Minister would be expected to table the Motion provided for in this amendment straight away, or would they be able to try to regain the confidence of the House? Would some other Member of the House be able to table the Motion? What happens after the loss of a vote on confidence? We saw with the 2011 Act, which tried to codify what would happen after the loss of a vote of no confidence, that efforts to partially prescribe how essentially political processes are played out leads only to ambiguity and uncertainty.

With respect, rather than introducing a process that would arguably preclude the Prime Minister reflecting on the view of the House after a defeat on a designated issue, the amendment does not provide a clear and unambiguous process, yet it also serves to restrict the ability to flexibly respond. The amendment is silent on these fundamental points of principle and practical implementation and therefore risks us repeating the mistakes of the 2011 Act. I agree with my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston: lack of clarity is risky.

Your Lordships have suggested that a simple majority is the silver bullet, preventing deadlock and stasis. However, I submit that, with the benefit of history—from not so long ago; we do not have to have grey hair to have lived through the disastrous Parliament of 2017-19—we can see that the real risk of a vote, even a simple majority one, as I will argue shortly, is a repetition of the deadlock and paralysis of the 2017-19 Parliament.

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Lord Grocott Portrait Lord Grocott (Lab)
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My Lord, if the Minister is going down the path of history, can he please address the specific point? On three occasions, the Prime Minister in—I agree with him—that dreadful Parliament, obtained a majority for a general election. That is not a theoretical speculation—it is fact.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I am coming on to that, as I just said to the House I would. You can look at those circumstances in different ways, I would submit. Perhaps I will deal with that and then go on to the other point.

The Government had effectively lost the confidence of the Commons on the central purpose of its being, which was to deliver the referendum result on a key European policy. As the noble Lord opposite says, they tried to call an election three times, and three times the Commons refused to grant one. Why did the other place refuse to grant one? I cannot remember which noble Lord it was who said in the debate that it was because the leader of the Opposition sat on his hands and decided to prevent an election taking place. The noble Lord said he would not have done, but he did—three times.

The votes for dissolution were 298 on 4 September, 293 on 9 September, and 299 on 28 October. On every occasion they fell short of a majority. The Labour Party cast its vote to secure what it manifestly wished to do, which was to prevent the Prime Minister going to the country. Three times Mr Corbyn was presented—like Caesar on the Lupercal—with the crown of the election that he could have had the following day, on 4 September, 9 September and 28 October, and he declined.

The noble Lord suggests that of course if they had known there would be an election, the Opposition would never have sought to vote against it. By sitting on their hands, the Opposition defied the people and did not have an election.

Lord Lansley Portrait Lord Lansley (Con)
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My noble friend must address the point. The point is that if the requirement were not what the Fixed-term Parliaments Act required but a simple majority on a Motion in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister back in October 2019 would have secured a simple majority and got his election.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, there is a conditional in that: a “would”. I believe that people must be presumed to intend the consequences of their own actions, and the consequence of Mr Corbyn’s actions was to thwart a general election three times. The figures I have given to the House are there in the book.

I want to move on because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in the gravamen of the argument—although I think the matters I have covered are a flaw in it—used the argument, which I think was taken up by my noble friend Lady Noakes, that the votes of millions of people should not be overturned by Dissolution. A number of noble Lords have addressed this. By implication, the noble and learned Lord argues, per contra, that the chance to vote for millions of people should be denied by a vote of the House of Commons. It seems to me an extraordinary concept that a House of Commons that does not wish to go should, in his words, prevent or overturn the votes of millions. I respectfully disagree. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, who chaired your Lordships’ Constitution Committee with distinction, put some political practicality into the equation, as did the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. This is very serious. I simply do not accept the argument that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, put forward.

A simple majority vote, for the reasons I have given, would not necessarily prevent deadlock in certain conditions—my noble friend Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury spoke to this—such as when the Government of the day held only a small majority, no majority at all or depended on a small party with a particular regional or country-specific interest. The procedure that is proposed would, in my submission, fail the test of clarity and the absence of loopholes, as the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, put to us. The Joint Committee itself noted on the matter of a vote in the Commons before Parliament was dissolved, that, “The majority”—there were conflicting views, as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, put to us—

“considers it a change which would only have a practical effect in a gridlocked Parliament, which could mean denying an election to a Government which was unable to function effectively, and which might therefore be counter to the public interest.”

I agree with the submission of the majority that this would be

“counter to the public interest.”

In short, far from making things simple, the very thing that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said he wished to achieve, it could still lead to stasis.

The most detrimental aspect of a vote in the other place, and potentially allowing that to be used to frustrate an election, is that general elections are sometimes called when the existing Parliament has proven to be unviable. The statutory requirement for a vote in the other place would only compound that problem, and in such a case, as we have discussed or I have submitted, with part of his own party potentially voting against a Prime Minister—circumstances that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, suggested could happen—even a simple majority would be too high.

Past Governments, and potentially future Governments, have often worked within turbulent political and economic contexts, trying to deliver ambitious and significant agendas and sometimes with small majorities. It is in these circumstances, above all, that the flexibility of the system which the two major parties in this country pledged to revive and which we are seeking to revive through this Bill matters most. In these scenarios, a Prime Minister should be able to be decisive and request a Dissolution to try to resolve a parliamentary stalemate or test their mandate to govern.

My noble friend Lord Lansley asked by what authority a Prime Minister might act. I think my noble friend and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern answered that. The Prime Minister, acting as the Sovereign’s principal adviser, is able to request a Dissolution by virtue of an ability to command the confidence of the other place. In the case of a minority Government or a confused House of Commons, the agreement to a Dissolution might be difficult to secure—as it proved three times in 2019. I submit that not many new MPs—some noble Lords have been slightly disrespectful of what might be the motives of people in another place—would rush to face the electorate in a matter of months if given the chance to have a say.

It is by no means certain, as noble Lords have suggested, that past minority Governments would have secured opposition support for an election had this system operated. I agree with the powerful interventions of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, and my noble friend Lady Noakes on this point. Some noble Lords seem to forget the experience of 2017-19. A vote in the House of Commons might have meant other minority Governments and similar ones having to limp on like that one, unable to deliver their priorities. The revival of the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament is, in our submission, the most effective way for a Government to be permitted to put important questions to the people, resolve stasis and secure the mandate to govern effectively. It is a system of constitutional practice that has worked; I urge noble Lords not to seek to add complexity where previously, before 2011, there was none.

I must address briefly the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. It would go further in the development of a statutory process by making express provision that, when Parliament stands prorogued, a Dissolution cannot be sought. The amendment seeks to set a condition that a Parliament must be “recalled”—or rather summoned—for the purpose of the passage of a Dissolution approval Motion.

Prior to the Dissolution of Parliament, a short Prorogation may be necessary to allow the swift conclusion of business; of course, it should be as short as possible. This has happened on several occasions, most recently in 1992, 1997, 2005 and 2010. In 2010, Parliament was prorogued from Thursday 8 April until Monday 12 April, whereupon Dissolution was proclaimed. Among other things, this enabled the general election to take place on a Thursday, as has been usual practice. Although the concepts of Prorogation and Dissolution may be superficially similar in that they are both prerogative acts, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, said, they are distinct. Prorogation is the formal ending of a Session; Dissolution provides an opportunity for the electorate to give their verdict.

I have heard the arguments in favour of a Commons vote on this matter in the circumstance of a Prorogation also but, respectfully, the Government believe that this is undesirable and risks repeating some of the worst aspects of the 2011 Act. In our submission, providing for the requirement that a prorogued Parliament must be summoned serves only to build in additional delay and undermine the ability of the Prime Minister to act decisively. The risk that the noble Lord alluded to in seeking to strengthen the role of the Commons raises that fundamental question: who should be the ultimate judge on the Government’s decision to call an election? As many noble Lords have said, the answer is clear: the electorate. As the Joint Committee said, they are

“the ultimate authority in a democratic system”.

Like my noble friend Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, I simply do not understand the idea of a rogue or outrageous Dissolution because it is the fundamental act of humility by the Executive to place their future in the hands of the electorate, who should be the final arbiter of whether a Prime Minister has called an election legitimately. I acquit the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, of this but I have found it strange to hear noble Lords say that they want to repeal the FTPA but return to some of the worst aspects of it. I think that there is a further complication in what the noble Lord suggested.

I am sure that the House wishes to move on. We will have further opportunities in the debate on the next group to discuss sovereignty and controls on Parliament, but I ought to say in preamble that noble Lords have suggested that a Commons vote increases parliamentary accountability and acts as a check on the Executive. It is not our view that the prerogative system diminishes parliamentary sovereignty and the Executive’s accountability to Parliament. Rather, by reviving the prerogative powers, we are restoring the link between confidence and Dissolution. If a Prime Minister loses the confidence of the elected House, they can either resign, seek a Dissolution or seek to recover the confidence of the House. The other place has the nuclear option of a Motion of no confidence and a plethora of means of holding the Executive to account. It does not require further prescriptive statutory measures to do so effectively.

Notwithstanding the gentle chiding of the noble Lord, Lord Newby—I am grateful to him for taking the time, or wasting it as he seemed to argue, to read the letter that I sent to noble Lords—I ask your Lordships to consider carefully the potential, unknown, long-term consequences of this amendment, which flow out of some of the problems that we have discussed in this debate. A vote in the Commons would disrupt the equilibrium in finely balanced, historical constitutional arrangements and could have an impact on the role of the sovereign. In reviving the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament, the Government have clearly acknowledged that this power is exercised by the sovereign on the request of the Prime Minister, as we discussed in the first group.

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Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, in this debate I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with almost every speaker—agreeing with something they said and disagreeing with something they said.

I start with the point made by my noble friend Lord Stansgate. If the Bill is merely returning to the status quo ante, as was said, I am not quite clear why we need a clause such as Clause 3. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Butler, who said that it seems inconceivable to him that the courts would insert themselves into a decision about a general election. As the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said, the practical consequences of doing so are quite disastrous and it is hard to contemplate the impact that would have on a democratic decision to have a general election.

The elephant in the room that has been alluded to is that everybody, whatever side of the argument they are on, is scarred by the unlawful Prorogation. I appreciate that this is about Dissolution, which is very different to Prorogation, but because of the unlawful Prorogation the Government are concerned that the courts may insert themselves into this decision-making. So, even though they are telling us that it returns us to where we were prior to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, they still feel the need for belt and braces. Yet there is also the view that it is a step too far and would never be needed anyway.

As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, pointed out, a neater way of avoiding the courts involving themselves in a decision about a general election, and avoiding bringing the monarch into a controversial political decision—the noble Lord, Lord Butler, commented on this—is for the House of Commons to have a vote. If the Government are concerned that, because of the way the legislation is drafted without Clause 3, there would be a danger of the courts intervening—in my view, there is not a role for the courts to intervene, but the Government are concerned that there may be—they have this clause. That is the chilling effect that people are concerned about.

This highlights the fact that the Government are not confident that their own legislation does reset. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, which probably surprises her as much as it surprises me, that it is legislation that tries to deal with shadows, because it is something we all hope will not happen. We have to look at this, and we need some more explanation from the Government as to why they feel it is necessary. It is hard to understand how the courts could and would insert themselves into a decision on a general election. I come back to the amendments in group two, particularly Amendment 3, being a better way to deal with this.

Could the noble Lord also address two things when he replies? Although there are the normal checks and balances of conventions, Parliament and parliamentary behaviour, one of our concerns, which comes back, sideways, to the unlawful Prorogation, is that we have a Prime Minister at the moment who does not really stick to the normal conventions of parliamentary behaviour that we expect. The noble Lord and I have had numerous discussions on this across the Dispatch Box—his face shows no emotion at the moment; I do not want to embarrass him. For example, I think that Prime Minister is the first Prime Minister to have ignored findings on the Ministerial Code, and the first to reject the advice of the House of Lords Appointments Commission and do what he wanted to do. In the same way as the 2017-19 Parliament, which my noble friend referred to as the dysfunctional Parliament, and the unlawful Prorogation influenced our decision, we are affected by the Prime Minister’s behaviour when we look at this. It is the same consideration.

Something is still needed to restore checks and balances. I am not convinced that it is this clause, but I would like to hear some more from the Minister, because most of us would be appalled that the courts would be involved in parliamentary sovereignty, for both practical and political reasons.

Could I get the noble Lord to address one final thing when he responds? I am still not clear about the word “purported”. I looked again at the Joint Committee’s report. Various lawyers, such as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, and Lord Sumption also commented that, basically, if the Government did something that was outwith their powers, we could do anything about it. If that is the intention behind clause, that is quite damaging. I would find it helpful if the noble Lord could explain why the word “purported” is in there and why it needs to be. I genuinely do not understand why it should be. That seems more dangerous than the clause itself.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I will certainly seek to do so. I do not wish to pre-empt the Committee in any way. We obviously have other groups to come to. I anticipate that the debates on those will not be quite so lengthy but, given the importance of this amendment, I hope noble Lords will be forbearing if I address it in some detail to place these matters on the record, mindful as we all should be that arguments put at length in Committee should not be repeated at length on Report.

I took it from what the noble Baroness opposite said that the Labour Party agrees with us that the courts should not come anywhere near this. Other people have obviously argued otherwise. She came out with that other elephant in the room, which was glinting quietly in the mists behind the argument from the noble Lord, Lord Butler. She criticises my right honourable friend Minister. The elements are mixed in my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. He has apologised for actions, and things are subject to inquiries. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister is subject to the most unprecedented campaign of personal vilification that I have been aware of in modern politics in my lifetime. Notwithstanding that, I do not think that that justifies ad hominem legislation of any sort. This point was addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks.

The noble Lord, Lord Butler, based his argument on a claim that the Government sought “totalitarian” powers, with an advised plural. This matter concerns one process, as has been pointed out by several people who have spoken, and one process alone: the Dissolution of Parliament and the precipitation of a general election. I find nothing remotely totalitarian in a Government asking the public to be the Government’s judge.

Dissolution remains one of the most fundamental non-justiciable prerogative powers. Nobody has argued that it should be justiciable; some people said, “We do not need to have an ouster clause because it is obviously not”, et cetera. Dissolution is unique for two reasons. First, the constraints on it are democratic; the judgment on a Prime Minister’s decision to call an election is the electorate. There is no vacuum of accountability, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said. What greater judgment and punishment can be meted out if a Prime Minister abuses that power than the loss of power, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, told us? It is the ultimate political reprimand. Secondly, the security of the process of calling an election, and the election itself, underpins the integrity and health of our democracy. It is critical that exercise of the Dissolution prerogative, including the preliminary steps leading to the exercise of the power, are not made insecure. This prerogative power is inherently political in nature and it is not suitable for review by the courts. There is no legal standard that the courts can usefully apply to review the preliminary steps and the Dissolution decision itself.

This has been the view of the courts, as we have heard. Lord Roskill, in the landmark GCHQ case in 1985, said the courts’ right of challenge must

“depend upon the subject matter of the prerogative power which is exercised”.

He agreed that the Dissolution of Parliament was not

“susceptible to judicial review because”

its

“nature and subject matter is such as not to be amenable to the judicial process.”

Furthermore, as Lord Justice Taylor noted in Everett:

“At the top of the scale of executive functions under the prerogative are matters of high policy, of which examples were given by their Lordships; making treaties, making war, dissolving Parliament, mobilising the Armed Forces. Clearly those matters, and no doubt a number of others, are not justiciable.”


However, despite these clear directions from some of the most esteemed judicial authorities, in our judgment the direction of travel in the case law makes a clear and explicit statement of non-justiciability necessary.

As the Independent Review of Administrative Law noted—and I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Faulks for his role in that and for his reasoned and intelligent approach in leading that review,

“the past 40 years or so have seen a steady retreat within the law on judicial review away from the view that exercises of certain public powers are by their very nature non-justiciable in favour of the view that the exercises of those powers are either justiciable or reviewable on some grounds but not others.”

It is this reality that makes it necessary to include this clause leaving no room for doubt. The clause has been carefully drafted, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, divined, respecting the message from the courts that only, in the words of Lord Justice Laws, with

“the most clear and explicit words”

can Parliament exclude their jurisdiction. I am afraid, therefore, that when noble Lords suggest that reviving the prerogative power would suffice—this touches on the point raised by the noble Viscount—as the courts would be excluded from reviewing a prerogative power, that does not take into account the direction of travel in the case law and would be to ignore the clear message of the courts themselves. That was the gravamen of the impressive speech of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, with which, in substance, I agreed, and also the submission of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown.

Noble Lords raised concerns with the specific wording of the clause, in particular the words “purported”, “limit” and “extent”, which I will address in detail. First, I emphasise that this clause says what is necessary and no more. Each of its words is necessary, in our judgment, to preserve the non-justiciability of the prerogative of Dissolution. Drafting this clause has been a technical challenge for counsel, and it has required a response to a range of case law. The purpose of the clause is to be as clear as possible about the “no-go” sign around the Dissolution and calling of Parliament, to preserve the sphere of political decision-making that provides the context for the exercise of the prerogative power of Dissolution and the preliminary steps leading to the exercise of that power. The Independent Review of Administrative Law, which had the benefit of seeing the Government’s clause, did not find it disproportionate but rather agreed that it can be regarded as a “codifying clause” which

“simply restates the position that everyone understood obtained before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was passed”.

I can tell the noble Viscount that it was the view of the Independent Review of Administrative Law that the clause restates the position.

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Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, and I am grateful for the detail that he is going into. I am not a lawyer, but I am not the only person in your Lordships’ House tonight who is not. Can the Minister say, in lay man’s language, what he understands a “purported decision” to be? Can he give an example?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, as noble Lords know, I am a lay man. I have read out the legal advice that I have been given that it should not fall to the courts to assess by reference to whether relevant considerations have been taken into account or irrelevant ones have been discounted. I said that earlier in my speech. I will write to the noble Baroness if the words that I have put before Parliament are not sufficient, but they are the words that I have on advice.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, I suspect that those words are sufficient for lawyers, but I think the Minister’s understanding of this might be as great as mine at the moment, so I will perhaps take advice between now and Report so that I fully understand the implications of what he saying—because I do not think he is able to give me further detail either.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I seek to put into the record the points put to me by those who argue and maintain that this is necessary.

I will further address the specific question of bad faith that was raised. This touches on another area around “purported”. Bad faith was mentioned by Lord Reid in Anisminic as one of the ways in which a decision may be treated as a nullity. Case law suggests that, if an exercise of power by a public body is taken in bad faith, it is unlawful and will be quashed by the court. A decision is taken in bad faith if it is taken dishonestly or maliciously, although the courts have also equated bad faith with any deliberate improper purpose. Therein lies the challenge. Again, there is no suitable standard by which a court can judge what an “improper purpose” is. By what standards can the courts assess the legitimate or illegitimate purpose—

Lord Beith Portrait Lord Beith (LD)
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I want to clarify something. Clearly, one reason to include the word “purported” is to deal with the annulling of decisions that have begun to be put into effect. But the Minister referred earlier to the importance of protecting the political space for the particular decision involved in this legislation: the calling of an election. Is it his understanding that this is quite unlike any other exercise of executive power? If it is not, I shall be even more worried because it would bring about situations in which it is generally publicly accepted that the courts were right to annul, for example, a bad faith decision or a decision that has taken none of the processes that should go with it.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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I heard what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said and I was going to, and will, come on to this point. I am trying to put a considered position on the record for the benefit of the House between Committee and Report.

By what standards would a court assess the legitimate or illegitimate purpose, or for that matter the impropriety or propriety, of a Dissolution decision by a Prime Minister? Is a Government calling a snap election because that may be to their advantage in some way an improper purpose? Where is the line to be drawn? Ultimately, these are matters that political actors and the electorate, not, I respectfully suggest, judges and lawyers, are best placed to opine on.

Therefore, although bad faith is suitable in the context of behaviour seen as, for example, commercially unacceptable or a deliberate improper exercise of an ordinary discretion by a public authority, it is not a term that is apt in the context of the Dissolution and calling of Parliament. This is something that is inherently political or, in the words of Lord Justice Taylor, a matter of “high policy”. Dissolution is simply not amenable to these legal tests.

I turn to the second part—a further amendment to delete “limits or extent” from the clause. Again, I am grateful to my noble friend and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for meeting me prior to Committee to explain their thinking. I hope that what I am about to say reassures your Lordships’ Committee of the necessity and proportionality of Clause 3(c).

As with the inclusion of “purported”, the words “limits” and “extent” are also a necessary response to case law. Clause 3 is drafted in response to the judgment of the Supreme Court in Miller II; that is clear. By reference to certain constitutional principles, the Supreme Court established a legal limit on the power to prorogue Parliament and concluded that it had been exceeded. The point we want to make is that by framing the issue in Miller II as being about the limits of the power to prorogue Parliament, the court was able to put the arguments about non-justiciability to one side.

In analysing the importance of Miller II, the Independent Review of Administrative Law observed that

“it creates the potential for the courts to circumvent the ‘no-go’ signs currently mounted around the exercise of prerogative powers in relation to ‘matters of high policy ... [such as] … dissolving Parliament”.

Therefore, Clause 3(c) seeks to make it clear that in the context of the Dissolution and calling of Parliament, the “no-go” signs should not be circumvented in this way.

My second point is about what standards or limits a court may seek to impose. In Miller II, the Supreme Court considered that two principles of constitutional law were relevant in establishing the relevant limit on the power to prorogue; namely, parliamentary sovereignty and parliamentary accountability. The Prorogation of Parliament is of course different from the Dissolution and calling of Parliament, as we have heard more than once tonight. In particular, the latter enables the electorate to deliver their verdict on the incumbent Government.

However, one might conclude that a court could look to impose a limit on the revived prerogative powers to dissolve and call Parliament, analogous to the limit imposed on the power to prorogue Parliament in Miller II, and in effect require in law a Government, of whatever persuasion and under whatever lead, to have a reasonable justification for calling an election in certain circumstances.

To paraphrase the independent review, in the case of Dissolution, deleting the words “limits” and “extent” would allow the courts to impose

“various conditions on when such a power can be said to have been validly exercised”,

and then declare

“that the power has not been exercised at all if those conditions are not observed.”

The Government consider that this would be an entirely inappropriate limit on the revived prerogative powers.

As I have argued, the Dissolution and calling of Parliament are inherently political decisions that are entirely unsuitable for review by the courts. More specifically, with relevance to Clause 3(c), we do not believe that it is appropriate for the courts to impose legal limits of this sort on when a Parliament may be dissolved and a general election called.

In reply to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, we contend that this clause is not contrary to the rule of law. The Government agree with the independent review, which said:

“It is … for Parliament to decide what the law … should be, and it is for the courts to interpret what Parliament has said.”


The majority of the Joint Committee also concluded that it is

“not inherently incompatible with the rule of law”

for Parliament

“to designate certain matters as ones which”

should

“be resolved in the political … sphere”.

I come now to the point of precedent raised by the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for whose conversations I was very grateful. They asked a specific question and voiced their concerns that this clause sets a precedent. It is not so. As I have explained, Clause 3 is a very specific clause drafted with a particular purpose in mind; namely, to confirm a widely shared view of the nature of the prerogative powers to dissolve and call Parliament. For this reason, it is more accurately described, to use the phraseology of the independent review, as a “codifying clause”—a clause that in effect seeks to prevent the courts in future declaring something to be justiciable that is already currently understood to be non-justiciable.

In this case, it is seeking to ensure the non-justiciability of the prerogative powers for the Dissolution and calling of Parliament, which traditionally the courts have had no role in reviewing—nothing more. This is a bespoke exclusion to address this precise task.

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Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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I will come to that particular piece of legislation—definitely—since it has been raised. To complete what I was saying, the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament is the ultimate expression of humility on the part of the Executive, placing its future and power into the hands of the people. We therefore believe that Clause 3 is appropriate and necessary, as judgment on the Government’s actions in such matters should be left solely to the electorate at the polling booth. I stress that we are asking Parliament to consider these arguments and endorse this clause in this Bill—nothing more. The Judicial Review and Courts Bill, by way of contrast, contains an ouster clause to prevent the judicial review of decisions of the Upper Tribunal to refuse permission to appeal decisions of the First-Tier Tribunal.

I turn to the potential consequences of the amendments proposed. Deleting the wording or the clause would undoubtedly make the dissolution prerogative more susceptible to potential litigation. In effect, the decisions in Anisminic, Privacy International and Miller II potentially offer a route for a court, or more precisely a mischievous litigator, to derail an election process by taking the Government to court for calling an election for political imperatives with which they may disagree. The suggestion by noble Lords to delete “purported decisions” is equally disagreeable, for it would arguably provide litigators with a route to try to delay an election through a court case that could examine why an election has been called on one date rather than another. This, I think, we can all agree would be entirely undesirable.

The clause prevents political litigation about the timing of elections; litigation that I am sure your Lordships dread as much as I do and—I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood—I am sure much of the judiciary would dread. Let me emphasise what it is that we are trying to protect: it is nothing less than the legal certainty of our elections, which underpins our democracy. If the courts can vitiate a Dissolution decision, the principle of the legal certainty of our elections is violated and the courts are inescapably drawn, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said, into making decisions and weighing political imperatives that they are not equipped to do.

If there is an intervention, is the election timetable then suspended? Are the people to be informed that a court might deny them the right to have their democratic say? If the court process moves slowly, could the situation arise where a court then dismisses or questions an election result? Asking the courts to review a Dissolution decision is to ask them to weigh the political merits and imperatives of the decision; it is inherent in the nature of the question. If the courts can vitiate a Dissolution decision, the principle of the legal certainty of our elections is violated and the courts are inescapably drawn into making decisions and weighing political imperatives.

More practically, we must consider the risk that we might send a signal to mischievous and politically motivated litigators that they can disrupt the process with vexatious and frivolous claims against Dissolution. Even the threat of such a court case would be disruptive to the process, drag our judges into the political fray and cause huge expense and delay and a frustration of the democratic process. There is no surer way of risking the reputation of the judicial system among many sections of the British people, no surer way for the courts to be seen as a political institution, and no surer way to drag the sovereign into politics. These are not scenarios for which your Lordships can possibly wish. It is wise to take all the necessary steps to be absolutely certain, without a shadow of doubt, to ensure that these scenarios do not occur.

Finally, let me directly confront the case put by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, that, by removing a judicial oversight, this clause allows a licence for the Executive—far from it. The exercise of the prerogative power is a question for the political, not the judicial, sphere, and the remedies and constraints are in that political sphere.

Our constitution has for centuries proved well able to avoid extremities and has provided for accountable checks on the Executive, and these checks are both pre and post hoc. In terms of pre-hoc checks, a Prime Minister requests a Dissolution of the sovereign which, in exceptional circumstances, can be refused. In parallel, the core constitutional principle that the sovereign must not be drawn into party politics acts as an important deterrent to improper requests being made. That is an immense latent force in our constitutional arrangements. Furthermore, the Government, in response to the Joint Committee, amended the Bill prior to its introduction to Parliament so that the statutory election period will be triggered automatically by the Dissolution of Parliament. This will ensure that the theoretical possibility of a Dissolution without an ensuing election period is eliminated.

There are also post-hoc checks and incentives on the Executive that have worked for many years, effectively compelling Parliament to be called as soon as feasible after an election. The Government of the day must be able to command the confidence of the elected House. Unduly and unnecessarily delaying the calling or meeting of a new Parliament is not in the interest of any Government seeking to make progress on the mandate it has received at a general election. Most importantly, the Dissolution and calling of Parliament are powers that pave the way to a general election and a new Parliament. Again, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, reminded us, the actions of the Prime Minister and the Government are subject to the judgment of the electorate and, in due course, to that of a new Parliament.

If a Prime Minister acts—as we alleged one might—nefariously, even if a Prime Minister acts contrary to prior expectations and past practice, that will be judged by the electorate. It is also available to that new Parliament to undertake the nuclear option of passing a Motion of no confidence on the new Government, almost immediately, if it wishes, on an amendment to the Queen’s Speech. These practical constraints on the Executive have served us well for many generations. As we see, the checks on Dissolution are practical and political; they should not be legal.

I apologise for speaking at such length, but I hope noble Lords will understand the importance of putting these points on the record for your Lordships to consider between now and Report. If any other points have been raised in the debate, I will, of course, write. I sincerely hope that noble Lords will reconsider their amendments and urge them to join the view of the other place to not permit the entry of the courts and support this clause

Lord Norton of Louth Portrait Lord Norton of Louth (Con)
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My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beith, that it has been a very good debate in light of the quality of the contributions that we have heard. I think it demonstrates the value of this House in being able to hear and rehearse these arguments.

I noticed yesterday when the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, was presiding over our proceedings and the Minister was at the Dispatch Box that the Minister resigned. When I saw that the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, was in the Chair this evening and the Minister was at the Dispatch Box I wondered for a moment whether something might happen.

My noble friend Lord True will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with the argument that he has advanced. I retain my points in opening that this clause, particularly the use of the word purported, does not restore the status quo ante and is objectionable on principle. I have previously quoted the late Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who once opposed an amendment being brought forward for the avoidance of doubt on the grounds that there was no doubt to be avoided. I think we may be in a similar situation here. It is quite clear that the courts would not get involved in this, despite what has been claimed about the direction of case law recently. I do not think the issue really arises, in part for the reasons given by my noble friend Lord True. The problems he adumbrated a few moments ago would be reasons why the courts would stay completely clear of entertaining any case relating to this.

My objection is really on the grounds of principle. I do not think it appropriate to try to limit the power of the courts because one disagrees with particular decisions of theirs. It is objectionable on principle. The argument has been advanced that it sets a precedent; my noble friend Lord True said, “No, this does not set a precedent; it is a bespoke solution.” The problem, I fear, is that on future occasions, Governments will find a bespoke solution based on what is included in this Bill.

I maintain my position. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said about the purpose being to keep the courts out of politics, but my fear is that putting “purported” in is designed to keep the courts out of the law. So I am not persuaded by what my noble friend Lord True said. I am sure that we will come back to this on Report but, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, I think that we have had a slightly longer and more interesting discussion on this than we anticipated at the start. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, made a very valid point, not least because we have spoken a lot tonight about the normal conventions and practices of parliamentary politics. It remains to be seen whether the actions of this Government and this Prime Minister, in ignoring so many of them, will become the norm or whether, once he has gone, whenever that might be—it might be sooner than he anticipates—we will return to the normal way of abiding by the conventions.

I wonder whether the Cabinet Manual will be amended to say what happens or what should happen. I was amused earlier today when I read the section on the principles of collective Cabinet government. Paragraph 4.2 says:

“The Cabinet system of government is based on the principle of collective responsibility. All government ministers are bound by the collective decisions of Cabinet”,


which seems a remote concept at the moment, but perhaps we will return to those days as well.

Even though it is not within the power of Parliament to say that these documents should be updated, as with the Ministerial Code—the introduction to which now seems so dated and irrelevant in many ways because what is referred to in it has largely passed—there should be this regular updating. If we are to have a dynamic Parliament and a dynamic constitution, we need to update as appropriate.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has frequently looked forward to that fabled day when the Liberal Democrats will again have, as he sees it, a balance of power in government. Perhaps a manual could be published on what would be the likely behaviour of the Liberal Democrats in the event they had such constitutional authority.

Jokes apart, I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising these points. They are two fundamentally important documents, which, as my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, pointed out, are government documents. We published a Dissolution Principles document because we are aware that principles can operate effectively only when they are commonly understood and, yes, when there is tacit agreement that they should be respected, irrespective of the particular political challenges and circumstances of the day. There has been substantial discussion and scrutiny of the principles, including by the Joint Committee chaired by my noble friend Lord McLoughlin, by PACAC in the other place, and in dialogue back and forth.

As others have said, Amendment 10 proposes that there should be a process for Parliament to scrutinise a restatement of the principles in the form of a vote in both Houses, which has the difficulties that my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and others referred to. The Government have reservations that this would be a step towards a codification of principles and conventions, just as we saw that the 2011 Act, which we have discussed, was not necessarily helpful because of the need for flexibility. In fact, Lord Sumption recognised in principle the challenges of codification when he gave evidence to the Joint Committee. He argued:

“One should be careful not to start codifying conventions, because their practical value is that they represent experience and practice … what is required to make Parliament work is not necessarily the same today as it was half a century ago.”


That will be so in the future. The Government believe that a careful balance needs to be struck between ensuring that there is a tacit agreement that these principles should be upheld—I acknowledge the duty to be mindful of the views of people inside and outside politics—and leaving space for these conventions to move in line with the political context.

In practical terms, on this and the next amendment, the Government would be concerned that this amendment means that the provisions of the Bill would only come into effect once both Houses had considered and voted on a Dissolutions principle. That risks creating uncertainty around the coming into force of the Act and, therefore, the arrangements for calling any election, which we have all agreed today should be avoided.

The same applies to Amendment 11. As noble Lords have emphasised throughout the debates today, constitutional conventions have a vital role to play in our parliamentary democracy. I am conscious that the separate tradition of the Liberal Democrats, which I respect, is that they wish more and more to be written down. The Cabinet Manual, alongside other authoritative texts such as Erskine May, is an important point of reference and reflection for how conventions are understood—but iterations enable evolution.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is quite right to say that it will be necessary to revisit these sections of the Cabinet Manual once the 2011 Act is repealed. The Cabinet Manual recognises that conventions continue to evolve, and the Government will in due course respond to the report of the Constitution Committee and set out their intentions with regard to updating the Cabinet Manual. We are grateful to the committee for its considered review of the manual and its thoughtful identification of the key issues that ought to be considered in terms of any update. I am acutely aware that the Government’s response is long overdue, and I have humbly apologised for this to the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor. We are carefully considering those recommendations and will respond in due course.

To continue on the amendment, the Government agree that the Cabinet Manual should be an accurate reflection of our constitutional arrangements, but we are of the view that this amendment for a parliamentary vote is unnecessarily restrictive, for the reasons given by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and others. But the Government are particularly concerned that the provisions of the Bill would only come into force once a revised version of the Cabinet Manual has been published. Such an undertaking would necessarily require a considerable amount of work. Tying the provisions of the Bill to such a project risks creating uncertainty, which, again, we wish to avoid.

Both these amendments would run the risk of fixing our understanding of these conventions at a point in time—that is point one—undermining the flexibility that is essential to our constitutional arrangements. On the matter of the Cabinet Manual, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment, which would add complications because of the Catch-22 situation: the Cabinet Manual draws its authority from its ability to accurately reflect our arrangements, but we have not yet determined in Parliament what the successor arrangements to FTPA should be.

While obviously accepting the importance of both the principles and the manual as well as their relevance across party, beyond party and beyond this Parliament, I hope that the noble Lord will be content to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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My Lords, the question really is: where are these documents and when are they going to be published? There were some very critical comments from various committees of both Houses, including the Joint Committee, about the lack of quality in what is currently provided in the Dissolution Principles and about the outdatedness of the Cabinet Manual, particularly the part of it that deals with Government formation.

There may be an overall majority for one party at the next election, which would be easier, but we need to future-proof the Bill as we take it through and to prepare for other eventualities. The Joint Committee marks that we are more likely to have non-majoritarian outcomes from elections in the coming years than we have had in the last 50. Perhaps the Minister will be prepared to talk between now and Report about being able to provide some statement on Report about a rather more definite timespan than “in due course”, which, as we know, means “kicked into the long grass for the next year or two”.

We need to have, as far as we can, some shared assumptions, some cross-party agreement, about these crucial conventions in our constitution. That requires trust. Trust is currently in very short supply; trust in this Government and this Prime Minister, if the opinion polls are correct, is currently going through the floor. Where trust is lacking, one needs written rules. Where written rules are challenged, we end up requiring statute. Yes, we would perhaps prefer the flexibility of shared assumptions, but in that case we need to talk about what they are and make sure that we all share similar assumptions, before we slide into a situation that could be another critical outcome or contested set of procedures around the next election.

I look forward to talking further with the Minister, and I may or may not wish to bring these amendments back in some form on Report. For the moment, I am happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment, and I wish all your Lordships a very pleasant evening.

Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Report stage
Wednesday 9th February 2022

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
Report stage Page Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: HL Bill 51-R-I Marshalled list for Report - (7 Feb 2022)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill 2021-22 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, this is the third time in your Lordships’ House that we have had a debate focused on this issue. At Second Reading, it was a key issue, as it was in Committee. It comes down to a fundamental point.

In the other place and, indeed, in your Lordships’ House, Ministers asserted from the beginning that bringing in this piece of legislation takes us back in some kind of parliamentary TARDIS to the status quo ante whereby we return to exactly the position that we were in before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. However, in Clause 3, that argument is completely undermined by saying, “But just in case we haven’t got it right, we are going to have a clause that avoids any legal action”, and the so-called ouster clausem Clause 3. So the Government are not confident that the Bill without the ouster clause returns us to the position that we were in before.

The fundamental point, also made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, is that there is a choice. Do we accept on the calling of an election executive authority or parliamentary democracy? The huge flaw in the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Howard, is that he seems prepared to trust Parliament on every issue—matters of life and death, legislation and whether we go to war—but not on whether there can be a general election.

I heard the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, in exactly the same way as my noble friend Lord Reid. I wrote them down. He seemed to want to make a major constitutional change where power flowed from the ballot box to the Executive. The fundamental basis of our democracy is that power flows from the ballot box to the elected Chamber of Parliament, the House of Commons, and that the Government derive their authority from that House and are responsible to it.

On the point made by the noble Lord about denying the people a vote—that somehow, if the House of Commons were to vote not to have an election, we would be denying the public an opportunity to have their say—he is not correct, but is right on one point. In effect, there is a fixed or maximum term, in which it is not open to the House of Commons, the Prime Minister, or anyone else to never have an election. There is an end term to any Parliament, by which time an election must be held. It is not simply fixed in time. The argument is that previously the Prime Minister would be expected to go to the monarch. I doubt any of us wish to return to the situation where one puts the monarch in such controversy. We are all scarred by the unlawful Prorogation and how the Government behaved on that. It comes back to this point: do we have executive authority or parliamentary democracy in calling an election? There is nothing more basic for the House of Commons than that objective. Offering the other place an opportunity to vote on this issue avoids the need for Clause 3. The idea that the courts would involve themselves in a decision of Parliament to hold a general election is fanciful. This is an elegant and correct solution of this issue.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, referred to the issue of the former Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, threatening MPs that if they failed to support the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister could call an election. If we are talking about hypothetical circumstances or crises that could occur again, that is certainly one, and should be guarded against at all costs, by not placing the power in the hands of just one person. We should not be surprised by such threats; noble Lords may recall that the current Leader of the House, early on in his parliamentary life, threatened your Lordships’ House with 1,000 extra peers if we failed to pass a piece of legislation he supported. Perhaps threats come quite easily to him.

We had a lengthy debate on this, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, summed up well at the beginning. When this was debated in the House of Commons, there was no lengthy debate, and there is an opportunity for them to reconsider this. When we debated it in Committee previously, my noble friend Lady Taylor said that she was surprised that the House of Commons gave away that power so easily. It may be because it did not discuss it in any great depth or with consideration. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, said, the Joint Committee was divided on the issue of whether it was appropriate or not. It is entirely appropriate that the House of Commons is given the opportunity to consider this again.

I come to one final point, which is that the noble Lord, Lord True, said at both Second Reading and in Committee that the Commons had not amended the Bill, so your Lordships’ House should not do so either. Last night, this House sat beyond 3 am, which is unusual. Today, to facilitate business, we are sitting at 11 am, on a much longer day. If it is not the duty of this House to pass amendments that the other end can consider, then what is the point? The amendment has our full support and I urge noble Lords to vote for it.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, the request for a dissolution is perhaps the ultimate act of humility by an Executive. It is placing all that has been lent, first by the electorate, and then by Parliament, in the hands of the British people. That is the underlying thought behind what my noble friend Lord Bridges of Headley said, in what was a significant and important speech, as was the speech of my noble friend Lord Howard of Lympne.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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I am sure the Minister is aware that the House of Commons spent less than two hours in Committee, on Report and on the final stages of this Bill—so to say that it gave it considerable attention would I think be a slight exaggeration.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, your Lordships are required to deal with the Bills that are sent to us by the other place, and the other place has sent us a Bill with no such provision. Members of your Lordships’ House under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord McLoughlin on the Joint Committee, which reflected at length on these matters, did not propose such an amendment. None of those who have scrutinised the legislation formally have proposed what the noble and learned Lord has suggested.

The noble and learned Lord said that we could not return to an ancient system. There is perhaps a faint irony in advancing that argument in an unelected House with a tradition that dates back centuries. He said that we had to be 21st century. Well, we tried “21st century” in 2011 and, frankly, I rather prefer the experience of many decades in the long past which I believe served us well, and the proposition before your Lordships, supported by my party and the party opposite at the general election, was that we should do away with the failed 21st-century experiment.

We do not have to talk the talk about the problems that a Commons vote might cause. There has been a lot of speculation, to and fro, on this, but we lived it in 2017 to 2019; that Parliament refused three times to be dissolved and to meet the verdict of the people.

The repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was in our manifesto and that of the party opposite. I found it fascinating to hear the throaty roar of approval from the Benches opposite when any noble Lord, starting with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said that we must not go back to the situation before the Act was passed. I remind the party opposite, as did my noble friend, of the Labour Party’s promise to the people:

“A Labour government will repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which has stifled democracy and propped up weak governments”.


They wish to maintain an essential part of that Act in the form of a Commons vote.

Lord Reid of Cardowan Portrait Lord Reid of Cardowan (Lab)
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Can the Minister give one example of a spokesman from this side saying that we wish to retain the Fixed-term Parliaments Act?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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I fear I must say to the noble Lord, who I greatly respect and admire, that I simply stated a feature of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act that the party opposite wishes to retain: that there should be a Commons veto on Dissolution. That is what I said, and that is a fact. If the party opposite votes for this amendment, it will be voting for a House of Commons veto potentially on its own Dissolution—it is written there in the book.

Lord Grocott Portrait Lord Grocott (Lab)
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If the Minister is going to give us a history lesson on how people have acted and voted, could he remind us how he and his colleagues voted on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act?

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Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I promised I would look up my personal record on that Bill. I have not done so, but I would be surprised if my name featured very heavily. Anyway, it is being done away with now, and I think the noble Lord and I agree that it should be done away with, whatever follows.

A vote in the House of Commons has created paralysis in a number of contexts and could create paralysis in many contexts. Some noble Lords have spoken on this, including my noble friends Lord Bridges and Lord Howard of Lympne, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown. There could be minority Governments or situations where parties, Parliament or the nation have divided.

The kernel of the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others is that their approach offers simplicity. In fact, it adds a complication to a Bill which is simple. Without going over the same ground, we saw that painfully in 2019, when the Labour Party was three times presented with the opportunity to force an election, and Mr Corbyn thrice denied the election to the Prime Minister and the British people by sitting on his hands. So do not tell me that there cannot be circumstances in which an Opposition would seek to prevent a general election. We have lived that system and I believe that my noble friend Lord Howard of Lympne, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, were absolutely right to warn that these circumstances could recur.

In Committee, I set out the negative consequences for the fundamental conventions on confidence. Simply put, the privilege to request that the sovereign exercise the Dissolution prerogative is an executive function enjoyed by virtue of the ability of the Government to command the confidence of the Commons. Our contention is that this simple process should not be unduly constrained by the type of process that the noble and learned Lord puts before us; it could be disruptive and unhelpful at times when expediency is essential.

Baroness Taylor of Bolton Portrait Baroness Taylor of Bolton (Lab)
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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is talking about the use of executive powers. Is he concerned—I assume he is, because of Clause 3—that the courts might get involved in this and that that could cause serious constitutional conflict? Surely if the amendment proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, was accepted, that would reduce the need for the ouster clause in Clause 3?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I do not think it is an either/or question. If I may use a phrase that was once popular on the Benches opposite, there is third way, which is to have neither of those amendments and to return to the simple and proven practice of the past.

When we send an amendment to the other place, we are always adjured to be careful what we send and to show how we reflect and are thoughtful. I would like to consider some of the practical working of the proposition that the noble and learned Lord puts before us. There is little about that, despite its immense significance potentially for our constitution, and indeed its reversal of the Government’s manifesto commitment to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

For example, the noble and learned Lord proposes that there should be a Motion that

“this present Parliament will be dissolved.”

How would this parliamentary process be sequenced and when would it apply? How would it relate to confidence? Would it also apply following a loss of confidence? Would a Prime Minister have to go for a further Motion? Could anyone put before the House of Commons the Motion proposed by the noble and learned Lord, or would it be only the Prime Minister and the Treasury Bench? If the Motion is passed, is the Prime Minister bound to seek a Dissolution—for example, a sudden tactical alliance could trigger a general election—or could he seek to retain the confidence of the House of Commons? Even if there were such a Motion as the noble and learned Lord has proposed, when would the Prime Minister have to dissolve Parliament?

In even more extraordinary circumstances, given such an amendment, could a Government procure such a Motion on the first day after the end of the debate on the gracious Speech? Could they pass such a Motion

“that this present Parliament will be dissolved”,

and then wait for the rest of the Parliament? After all, it says “will”; it does not say “when”.

These questions are practical and unanswered. I submit that it is not a responsible role for a revising Chamber to send this amendment down to the elected Chamber with none of those issues worked through. They were carefully considered by the Joint Committee, which arrived at a conclusion. This is constitution-making on the hoof.

None Portrait Noble Lords
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Oh!

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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It is the launching of a ship of uncertainty in which many questions are unanswered.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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I find the noble Lord’s comments quite offensive. He is suggesting that it is inappropriate for your Lordships’ House, having debated this issue for significantly longer than the other place, to suggest an alternative. That is perfectly reasonable and normal. The arrangements that he says should be in place are in the Bill. They are also untested, because it does not return us to the situation as before. I ask him to be a bit more careful in his choice of words and his attitude to the House discussing such issues.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I reject those remarks—in a friendly manner, of course. I do not think it is in any way offensive for a Minister at the Dispatch Box, or any other Member of your Lordships’ House, to put to noble Lords that there may be practical difficulties and things that are lacking in amendments proposed before the House.

We are often told that we should proceed with the utmost care in constitutional change; I agree profoundly. “Further and mature reflection” was the phrase I noted from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge; I agree. The Bill had extensive pre-legislative scrutiny. This option was not recommended. The majority of the Joint Committee, on which your Lordships are represented, considered that it would be, as was quoted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, contrary to the public interest. With that advice, and with the utmost respect, I do not think that hasty ping-pong between the two Houses qualifies as utmost care for making a substantial constitutional provision, against what the Joint Committee recommended. I submit that that is not a prudent approach. For that reason, I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and others will reflect on the wisdom and practicality of the amendment.

There is a final fundamental point. The creation of statutory constraints would cut against and under- mine the flexibility that characterises the pre-FTPA arrangements that the Government want to reinstate, as they have promised. Generations of proven practice underlie those arrangements, but they were junked for what we all know was a short-term political expedient in 2011. I do not share the attitude of some to past experience—that we cannot return to the past and apply its wisdom again. Again, I submit that we can.

For all those reasons, I urge noble Lords not to press the amendment. It is defective in practice, leaves a host of very hard practical questions unanswered, and risks recreating the conditions of the very paralysis we all lived through so recently, about which we all told ourselves we would never want to see again. We should not risk returning to that. We should reflect on the wisdom of ages and take pride in our constitutional practice over generations before 2011, and reject the noble and learned Lord’s amendment.

Lord Judge Portrait Lord Judge (CB)
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My Lords, we have probably talked too long already, but I find it wonderful to think that my arguments have been described as “beguiling”—that was my old friend, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. He has reminded me of the days—our boy days—when we used to go round the county courts. He would always do it, every time: he would get up and say to the judge, “Mr Judge has made a very powerful argument,” or “a very remarkable piece of advocacy” or whatever it might be, and then he would punch me straight between the eyes and say, “But he is wrong”. Beguiling arguments have their strengths. They are beguiling because they are soundly based.

And then, I have just heard the noble Lord the Minister create a whole series of fences. It is like Becher’s Brook every time as we go around the course. The point of this amendment is for the issue to go to the other place and for the other place to consider it and decide whether those hurdles are ones that can be overcome or not—to decide which way it should go.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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Does the noble and learned Lord set at naught the recommendation of the Joint Committee of your Lordships and the other place which considered this proposition, rejected it, and cited it as contrary to the public interest?

Lord Judge Portrait Lord Judge (CB)
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There was a majority in favour of the proposition that the noble Lord the Minister has put forward. I happen to think that the minority was right. I am inviting us to let the House of Commons have another look and make its own mind up. They will take into account the decisions, recommendations and all the papers that they are given, I hope, and come to their own conclusion.

What I did find slightly startling about the noble Lord the Minister’s response was the idea that when a Prime Minister seeks a general election, that is an act of deep humility. It is not. It is an act by an individual in power who is seeking the best possible way of retaining power. Elections are not sought in the public interest; they are sought for the advantage of the party in government. Humility has nothing whatever to do with it.

Finally, I want to raise a serious point. I find the idea—it has been espoused by a number of noble Lords—that we should stop any risk of the elected House acting as zombies. What an insult that is being paid to the elected Chamber by this House. Of course, the House will get things wrong—every House, every institution, gets things wrong. But the idea that we are going to suddenly be frozen in a situation which is incapable of movement and the Government will be paralysed and things will not work and the electricity will be turned off, all because the Commons has decided to reject a Prime Minister’s desire for a dissolution is, with great respect, bunkum. I do not propose to withdraw this amendment. I seek the opinion of the House.

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13:04

Division 1

Ayes: 200

Noes: 160

--- Later in debate ---
I should say two more things. I am grateful to the Minister because, as he and I know but others who were not in the Committee do not realise, we had a non-lawyerly debate about the meaning of the word “purported”, along with the noble Lord, Lord Norton. I am grateful to the Minister for his letter to me. It seems that the Government are looking for a belt-and-braces approach. On the one hand they say that the legislation is clear, but on the other they make it clear that it is not clear because Clause 3 is there. However, involving the courts rather than the House of Commons is not the right way to proceed. As I have informed the noble Lord, Lord Butler, we would be unable to support his amendment.
Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords again for an interesting debate and their many contributions. Like others who have never been called to the high profession of the law, I bow to the expertise of so many of your Lordships in this matter. However, as a lay man, I notice the diverse opinions put forward by those eminent enough to have the title of noble and learned, and other learned speakers versed in the law.

The underlying point here is what a pleasure it is for me, after the previous debate, to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others who said a similar thing. There is an underlying political point here, and a point, which I will come to, regarding the degree to which the public would simply not understand what would happen if there were interventions by the courts—a point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown. It could not redound in any way to the credit of the courts for there to be an intervention.

I submit to your Lordships that the concerns of those who have them are misplaced. We believe that this clause is proportionate and required, considering the direction of case law—a point underlined by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, when he talked of the way in which the law had moved on. That is a matter that people in another place will want to notice when they consider the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, should your Lordships, to my regret, approve it. The Government are seeking to confirm the long-standing position that the Dissolution of Parliament should remain non-justiciable.

I explained the Government’s rationale behind the drafting of the clause in detail in a lengthy speech in Committee, which I promise not to repeat at length. However, I said to the Committee that I wanted to put the legal position on the record. I commented further in a letter, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, opposite for her interest in and reference to that. The letter has been laid in the Library and I hope it will be of assistance to your Lordships. I shall not repeat all the arguments but in the Government’s view, which I hope most noble Lords will agree with, it would be highly undesirable for the courts to be permitted to intervene in the Dissolution and calling of Parliament. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, and my noble friend Lord Faulks made devastating interventions on this in Committee. We heard similar arguments repeated today.

Just imagine the scenario. A Prime Minister requests a Dissolution, which is granted. The BBC news starts—“dong, dong, dong”; I do not know what music it has these days, but it fades away to a dramatic headline: “There will be a general election on 7 July”. Up in Telford, workers in the Labour constituency office start the printing presses. The orange tabards come out wherever the Lib Dems are congregating. The poster sites are booked, the canvassers are out, the expenses begin to accumulate and the statutory election clock begins to run. Then the news flashes across social media. Two days later, the BBC headline is “The general election on 7 July may not now go ahead because of an application to the courts.”

Such a situation would be absolutely incredible to 70 million people in this country, even if it might be understandable to a couple of people trying to get a court case going. We really must avoid any risk of this happening in the interests of the country, of politics and of the courts. It would be inappropriate for them to become embroiled in what many have said is the inherently political matter of when an election is called. We must avoid the practical risk of the uncertainty concerning the general election that would follow. Even the possibility of such a court case would be disruptive, drag our judges into the political fray and frustrate the democratic process.

There are checks and balances, to which I referred in Committee. Ultimately, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, has said more than once, the check on any alleged abuse—whatever that might be—of calling an election is the decision of the people. The noble and learned Lord referred again today to Brenda from Bristol.

Lord Lea of Crondall Portrait Lord Lea of Crondall (Non-Afl)
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I understand everything that the noble Lord has said, but is there not a contradiction there? One wants to say that the matter should not be taken to court but, in that case, where is the confidence that something could not go badly wrong with the process? Scenarios ought to be spelled out. Is there not a scenario in which this could go badly wrong? People would say, “Well, it was not conducted in the right way.”

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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Once the general election genie is out of the bottle, it should stay out of the bottle. The decision lies with the electorate. There is no question of a dodgy scenario. It is then down to the electorate. The ultimate political reprimand is available to them, as my party discovered in 2017. You can go backwards, as well as forward.

I cannot accept the amendments of by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for the reasons I explained at length in Committee. He argued that this clause conflicted with the rule of law. The Independent Review of Administrative Law, chaired by my noble friend Lord Faulks, said that it was ultimately for Parliament to decide what the law on non-justiciability should be and for the courts to interpret what Parliament has said. The majority of the Joint Committee agreed that a non-justiciability clause was compatible with the rule of law in a case such as this, where the power is to enable the electorate to make a decision. As my noble friend Lord Faulks said in Committee, unless you reject the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, there is nothing constitutionally objectionable to the clause.

The Government see a strong argument for its principled and pragmatic case that the courts do not have a role to play in the issue of dissolution. That our sovereign Parliament should be able to make provision for this is entirely consistent with the rule of law. For the reasons I gave at length in Committee—and will not repeat here—we believe that the entire wording of Clause 3 is necessary to secure against the risk of an intervention by the courts.

On precedent, I am happy to repeat the reassurance I gave in Committee that we do not see this as setting a wider precedent. Speaking at this Dispatch Box, I repeat that this clause is very specific and has been drafted with a particular purpose in mind, namely, to confirm a widely shared view of the nature of the prerogative powers to dissolve and call Parliament. In this case, it is seeking to ensure the non-justiciability of the prerogative powers for the Dissolution and calling of Parliament, which traditionally the courts have had no role in reviewing—nothing more. It is a bespoke exclusion to address this precise task. I stress again that we are asking Parliament to consider these arguments and endorse this clause in this Bill—nothing more.

In conclusion, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, whom I consider my noble friend, that he cannot have his cake and eat it. He tells us that there is no chance that the courts would intervene, but then puts before us an amendment that would enable them to do so. I am not sure which is his argument. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth made the same argument: that it is unlikely that the courts would intervene. In that case, why are we having this argument, with this point put forward?

The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, told us explicitly that such a challenge might come. So the purported, or in fact actual, intention of this amendment, were it to be passed, would be to procure the circumstances that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, envisaged: namely, that the courts might one day intervene on a Dissolution. That is what I assume the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is wanting: that the courts should have that opportunity—although at the start he said he did not really envisage or like the idea.

I agree very much with the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey: it is vital that we maintain this clause. Deleting or altering it, as proposed by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, would be, in my submission, like building a fence around a field only to leave the gate open—or having an umbrella with holes in it. It would not be completely effective in the light of past judgments by the courts. Desiring to avoid the involvement of the courts and to secure absolute certainty on this point, and on the basis that this does not provide a precedent for the future, I sincerely hope that noble Lords will withdraw or not move their amendments and join with the other place in supporting this clause.

Lord Norton of Louth Portrait Lord Norton of Louth (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have spoken. This has been a very valuable debate which indeed shows the value of the House of Lords. I am especially grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, as well as the noble Lords, Lord Beith and Lord Pannick, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, for their comments.

My noble friend Lord True will not be surprised to hear that he has not persuaded me. For the reasons I have given, I regard the amendment as necessary to remove the words that are either redundant or constitutionally objectionable. This is not about keeping the courts out but about the use of certain constitutionally objectionable words within the clause. My noble friend did not address adequately—indeed, did not address at all—the point that, if we are dealing with a personal prerogative power of the monarch, there is no advice to challenge. I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and my noble friend Lady Noakes did not pick up on the distinction between the prerogative powers that are exercised on advice and those that are exercised not on advice. That is the fundamental distinction that has not been recognised or addressed.

I normally agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, but on this occasion I think he is totally wrong. He argued that he was seeking to protect future members of the Supreme Court. I regard it the other way round and consider that we would be protecting future members by removing the provisions in this clause because, although my noble friend Lord True said that this was not intended to set a precedent, the point is that it will be on the statute book. It will be available to parliamentary draftsmen in the future when other measures come along and they will think, “Oh, let’s keep the courts out. There’s a remote chance they might get involved”. Therefore, there are dangers in this.

--- Later in debate ---
14:33

Division 2

Ayes: 120

Noes: 230

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, I remind the Minister that there was a Constitution Committee report on the Cabinet Manual and I think the Government have yet to respond. Could he give an update on when a response is likely to be? As it would cover these issues, it would be helpful when we have the opportunity for a longer debate in your Lordships’ House, given that we do not have the time today.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for his thoughts on the Cabinet Manual. It is important. I am pleased to say that, of course, the Government agree on the fundamental importance of the Cabinet Manual, and I can confirm to the House, as I have indicated privately to the noble Lord, that the Government intend to publish an updated version of the Cabinet Manual within this Parliament. In response to the noble Baroness opposite, I can also add that I have written to the newly appointed chair of the Constitution Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, to set out the Government’s intentions on this topic.

There have been a number of developments that render the current version out of date, not least—if we ever get to the end of it—this legislation going through now, which will have to be taken into account. As a result, this amendment, which would prevent the Bill coming into force until after a revised version of the Cabinet Manual has been published, is not needed and would be unhelpful. It would delay the commencement of legislation, which, one would infer, our Parliament will pass shortly, and we would be left carrying on under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. I hope, for that technical reason, but also on the basis of the assurance that I have given the House, that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for repeating that statement. I stress that the revision of the manual should ideally come well before the timing of the next election, and I strongly support the opposition suggestion that there should be a debate, ideally in both Houses, on the conventions that will have been restated. On that basis, I am happy to beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

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3rd reading
Thursday 24th February 2022

(5 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
3rd reading Page Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: HL Bill 51-R-I Marshalled list for Report - (7 Feb 2022)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill 2021-22 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Moved by
Lord True Portrait Lord True
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That the Bill do now pass.

Lord True Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank your Lordships’ House for its expertise and careful work on the Bill. It has again demonstrated the constitutional, legal and political expertise that makes this House such a remarkable revising Chamber. The Government have valued those exchanges, as have I. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Butler of Brockwell, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the Front Benches for their co-operation and discussions.

We disagreed on the question of whether there should be a role for the other place over Dissolution. However, although we do not believe it is good practice for this place to seek to dictate procedure in the other place, we will of course now properly await their further opinion on this point. The Government will oppose your Lordships’ amendment in the other place, for all the reasons that I set out during the passage of the Bill. Our intention was to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and that remains our intention.

In conclusion, I thank the dedicated Bill team for its hard work over so many months, which I am sure was appreciated by colleagues on all sides. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part for their dedication in scrutinising the Bill and for their courtesy in our many meetings. It has been an honour to assist the Bill’s passage and serve your Lordships, and I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, who is unable to be with us this morning as she is having a briefing at the moment, I thank the noble Lord for his usual courtesy in dealing with the House and for taking this Bill through it. I also thank the Bill team for the meetings that took place. As he said, we have had scrutinised the Bill well and made one change. We have sent that back to the other place, and we will wait for it to come back to us, and then we will have further debates on that. I know my noble friend is very grateful for the co-operation we have received on the Bill going through. I sat in on many of the debates, and the other Benches were fascinating to listen to. I think we have done our job well and properly, and we await the decision of the other place. I give our thanks to the noble Lord, other Members, the officials and the team in the Labour Whips’ Office for what they did.

Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

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This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill 2021-22 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Michael Ellis Portrait The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Michael Ellis)
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I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.

The Bill passed through the other place, where it was carefully scrutinised and amended in only one respect: to seek to retain a role for this honourable House in respect of Dissolution. The Lords amendment provided that the Prime Minister could request the sovereign exercise—the revived prerogative powers to dissolve and call Parliament—only when this House agreed the motion

“that this present Parliament will be dissolved.”

That would create an untested, hybrid system by imposing statutory arrangements on top of the prerogative system that existed prior to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Such statutory constraints would undermine the flexibility that for generations characterised the pre-2011 arrangements that the Government want to reinstate. With respect, the Government therefore firmly disagree with the Lords amendment.

In fact, the Government and the Opposition both committed—in their manifestos, no less—to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The Lords amendment would repeal that Act only to retain one of its fundamental flaws. That is not our wish or our intention and it does not meet the commitment that we made to the electorate.

Julian Lewis Portrait Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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I am hugely relieved to hear the Minister say that. I have stood in every election since 1997. Only when we saw the chaos caused by a Government who did not want to continue and an Opposition who did not want the chance to face an election could we see how dreadful that old system was. We need to get rid of it, bag and baggage.

Michael Ellis Portrait Michael Ellis
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I agree with my right hon. Friend; there is of course a good reason why the 2017 to 2019 Parliament is referred to as the zombie Parliament.

I remind the House of the commitments that both parties made in 2019. The Conservatives committed to repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
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Will the Minister confirm that, if we dismiss Lords amendment 1 today, the courts will not have a role in fixing the dates for elections, because, surely, that is matter for us, answerable to the electors?

Michael Ellis Portrait Michael Ellis
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My right hon. Friend is quite right that it is not productive, and, in fact, it would not be in the interests of the judiciary themselves, for the courts to have such a role.

We committed to repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, as it had led to paralysis at a time when the country needed decisive action. In a similar vein, the Labour manifesto said that the 2011 Act

“stifled democracy and propped up weak governments.”

A vote in the Commons could create paralysis in a number of contexts, including minority Governments, coalition Governments, or where our parties, Parliament or even the nation, at some point in the future, were divided.

As a majority on the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act noted, a Commons vote would have a practical effect only where Parliament were gridlocked. The problem is that if the Government of the day had a comfortable majority, a vote would be unlikely to make any difference; it would have no meaningful effect, beyond causing unnecessary delay and expense. However, when Parliament is gridlocked, a vote could mean denying an election to a Government who were unable to function effectively. We witnessed the consequences of such a vote painfully in 2019, so let us not repeat that mistake by devising a system where those events could happen again. Lords amendment 1 is, therefore, with the greatest possible respect, without merit.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab)
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The right hon. and learned Gentleman has mentioned what happens in the event of a minority Government. What would happen where the Prime Minister of a minority Government wished to call a general election, but there was the possibility of an alternative Government being formed? Would that Prime Minister be able to dissolve Parliament by prerogative in those circumstances, or would another person be given an opportunity to form a Government and a majority in the House of Commons?

Michael Ellis Portrait Michael Ellis
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I do not want to get into hypotheticals, but what I will say is that the pre-2011 position worked extremely well. There is a reason why it worked well and it was proven to have functioned correctly. We seek to go back to a proven, tried and tested system, which works in a whole variety of different circumstances, not every one of which can be easily expostulated.

Alun Cairns Portrait Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con)
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Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my disbelief at some of the opposition to the current position, especially as we recall the chaos that led to the last general election and the frustration among the public when Parliament, in many people’s eyes, seemed to lose the respect of the population?

Michael Ellis Portrait Michael Ellis
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Good constitutional practice involves protecting the integrity of the legislature, the Executive and the judiciary and, in our view, the proposals do that and this amendment would not, so I agree with what my right hon. Friend says.

Jackie Doyle-Price Portrait Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con)
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I sat on the Joint Committee that reviewed the 2011 Act and we spent long, productive and interesting hours looking at it. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is really unproductive to look at our future arrangements in the context of what happened in 2019, just as it is to look at them in the context of what happened in 2010? The beauty of our system must be that the constitution can flex. Those were particularly unique circumstances in 2019, and we should not let them affect what happens going forward.

Michael Ellis Portrait Michael Ellis
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My hon. Friend is completely right. In fact, it is difficult to expostulate all the different scenarios that may occur in future, so it is best to avoid that, but we know what worked well—the status quo ante the 2011 Act.

As I say, we have experienced the consequences of a statutory scheme and we know what happened in 2019, but the amendment is also dangerously silent on critical questions of implementation and is likely to have undesirable consequences for our constitutional system. For example, it is likely to have negative consequences for the fundamental conventions on confidence. The privilege to request that the sovereign exercise the Dissolution prerogative is an Executive function enjoyed by virtue of the ability of the Government to command the confidence of the Commons. That is the alpha and omega of everything, and should not unduly constrained by any sort of prescriptive parliamentary process that would be disruptive and unhelpful when expediency is essential.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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The Minister responded to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) by saying that he fully agreed with her excellent statement, but he is in essence doing the exact opposite. Why this paradoxical situation?

Michael Ellis Portrait Michael Ellis
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I am obviously not doing that. We are able to see where mistakes have been made and where things have gone well in the past, and we see that in the pre-2011 position—the position we are seeking to achieve and that Labour sought to achieve in its manifesto, as did my party. That tried and tested system worked well, and worked well for generations.

William Wragg Portrait Mr William Wragg (Hazel Grove) (Con)
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May I refer my right hon. and learned Friend to “The Crown”, of which I am sure he was an avid viewer? In answer to the intervention by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), is my right hon. and learned Friend familiar with the Lascelles principles, as written to The Times under the pseudonym “Senex”, and can he update the House on whether they now form part of the Cabinet manual?

Michael Ellis Portrait Michael Ellis
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The Lascelles principles are something we still respect. One of the fundamental tenets of Sir Alan Lascelles’ letter was the fact that we wished to avoid any suggestion that the sovereign be involved in politics.

The amendment, as I was saying, is silent on the issue of the negative consequences. The privilege to request that the sovereign exercise the Dissolution prerogative is an executive function that is enjoyed by virtue of the ability to command the confidence of the Commons.

We must also question how the amendment would work in practice. For example, how would the parliamentary process be sequenced and when would it apply? Would the Prime Minister be required to confirm the support of the House only when they intend to request that Parliament be dissolved before the maximum five-year term, or would it apply following a loss of confidence? There are myriad questions that the amendment would leave unanswered; as we can see, it adds undesired complexity to what is a simple proposition—a return to the status quo ante.

The Bill intends to return us to that status quo, reviving the prerogative powers for the Dissolution and the calling of Parliament and preserving the long-standing position on the non-justiciability of those powers. The amendment would undermine the entire rationale for the Bill. If it is amended as proposed, we would be entering into precisely the kind of ill-thought-through constitutional innovation that we are seeking to repeal.

The simplest and most effective route is to make express provision to revive the prerogative powers for the Dissolution and calling of Parliament, returning our country to tried and tested constitutional arrangements offering certainty around the calling of elections. The prerogative power to dissolve Parliament is the ultimate expression of humility on the part of the Executive, placing the future and power into the hands of the people.

Finally, with all due respect for the undoubted expertise and value of the House of Lords, I suggest it is not appropriate for the revising Chamber to ask the elected House to revisit questions, not least when they relate to the process and role of this House, on which this House has already definitively decided. I thank their lordships, but I hope that they will now take note of this House’s clear view. Therefore, I would welcome this House’s sending a clear signal and I urge it to vote against the amendment.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak for the Opposition in this debate.

I listened very carefully to the case that the Minister made for his motion to remove Lords amendment 1 to clause 2. I was sad to hear it, and I think we could do better. He is right that Labour, both in our manifesto and in the two years since, has supported the principle of the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which was an ill-thought-out and poorly executed piece of legislation. I gently say, though, given how strongly the Minister stressed that, that it was this Government’s piece of legislation, not ours. He cautions us against novations in this space, but that was actually a lesson for themselves, and it is not quite fair to point it in our direction.

--- Later in debate ---
Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
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It is not really for the Scottish National party to defend the Westminster interpretation of democracy, but the Bill, and rejecting the Lords amendment, is such a retrograde step that we must put that on the record and see it as part of a bigger picture. This is not control being taken back by Parliament but control being taken from Parliament by the Executive and, as a number of other hon. Members have said, consolidating power as part of a package of measures—not least the Elections Bill.

The effect of all that is that the next election campaign starts today. Everyone in the Chamber must therefore be aware of what they are doing when they cast their vote on the amendment. The campaigning starts today. The power will end up with the Prime Minister and he alone, without the check of his Cabinet or of this House. That is a significant power grab that will further undermine confidence among the public in the institutions of this place. Again, I say to Government Members that, from an SNP point of view, that is fine in a way. The Bill and the rest of their package of reform is not strengthening the Union. As I said in my interventions, we can look at the systems in place to protect the devolved institutions’ democracies and see how they can dissolve only with the permission of the legislature or must operate to a fixed term that everyone knows in advance, but the Bill is taking this place backwards. It is increasing the divergence on these islands. Once again, from where I am standing, that is fine, but perhaps Government Members ought to think twice about it.

Michael Ellis Portrait Michael Ellis
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First, may I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) that I, too, am a romantic—that may come as a surprise to the House—especially when it comes to the constitution? I agree that flex is required and that it is highly desirable to have an unwritten constitution that gives us that flex and ability to change things as needed while accepting the conventions of our constitution.

The Lords amendment before the House is not a small amendment; in fact, it is a wrecking amendment as it would convert the whole purpose of the Bill. I can hardly think of anything more democratic than saying: a Government of any particular day might have lost of the confidence of the elected House and will therefore go to the country and ask the people for their view.

I know that the Opposition would not want to go back to 2019 and, as happened then, block a general election three times. That is no doubt why they agreed in their manifesto that the 2011 Act had to go. Let us not allow that to happen again. Let us hand power to the people, let us protect the sovereign from involvement in politics and let us disagree with the Lords amendment.

Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.

18:14

Division 210

Ayes: 292

Noes: 217

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H(2)), That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendment 1;

Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

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This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill 2021-22 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Moved by
Lord True Portrait Lord True
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 1, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 1A.

1A: Because the Commons do not consider it appropriate that the dissolution of Parliament should be subject to a vote in the Commons.

Lord True Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will briefly remind your Lordships of where we find ourselves. Your Lordships’ House amended the Bill, which had been passed by the other place, to give the Commons the right to a veto on dissolution and invited the other place to reconsider its decision. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, told us, the amendment would offer the House of Commons an opportunity to reflect again on this highly important constitutional Bill.

It has now been considered by the other place again, and the Commons unsurprisingly maintained its previous decision. During the discussion in the other place, Members noted the flaws of a prescriptive system and feared that it would recreate the paralysis of the 2019 Parliament—something that the manifestos of both major parties at the last general election said they wished to avoid. Furthermore, the importance of retaining the flexible nature of the constitution was emphasised.

Your Lordships asked the other place to consider its role, as is your Lordships’ right. For a second time it has done so, and it has decisively rejected a Commons veto, placing its trust, as do the Government, in the constitutional practices that served this country well for generations before the failed experiment of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The Government agree with the view of the other place: the amendment would undermine the rationale of the Bill.

We are now within reach of securing important and historic legislation and delivering the manifesto commitment of two political parties—and notably, from my point of view, of the Government. The Bill returns us to the status quo ante, revives the prerogative powers for the Dissolution and calling of Parliament, and preserves the long-standing position on the non-justiciability of these powers.

I thank all noble Lords for their important engagement in the passage of this Bill, which was valued by me and the Government. It deepened reflection on the Bill and the principles behind it. However, I would be grateful if your Lordships now accepted the clear decision of the other place, which, as the reason before us today notes, is that

“the Commons do not consider it appropriate that the dissolution of Parliament should be subject to a vote in the Commons.”

That is a very clear message from the other House, and I urge your Lordships not to insist on their amendment.

Lord Judge Portrait Lord Judge (CB)
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My Lords, after a short debate in the other place, the amendment proposed by this House was disagreed, and here we are today. There is still an issue: we believe the Dissolution of Parliament should not be based on the revival of the prerogative, but the other place takes a different view. The other place is the elected Chamber. As I made clear during the debate, this issue was to be decided not by Parliament as a whole but by the other place because that is the elected Chamber. It has spoken. I stand by the undertaking I gave during the debate, and therefore this must be carried.

In doing so—I think I am allowed to say this—I very much hope that, in the long march of the future, it will turn out that the decision of the House of Commons is vindicated. I really do hope that. I would like to think that I will be right, but I still do not have confidence that we can be sure that no future Prime Minister will misuse or abuse this power. We will therefore have to wait for the future to decide who, in truth, was right on the issue.

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, we laugh, and in some ways, it is amusing. It is also extraordinary—I am not sure that it is amusing. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was an Act of its time whose main purpose was to protect the coalition Government, and it succeeded in that to a degree. I was very disappointed to read the response of Ministers in the other place. It seemed to focus on the argument that because all parties agreed that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act must go, there was only one way of doing it. That seemed an extraordinary proposition to make. On the points made by my noble friend Lord Grocott and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, this House had no vested interest whatever in the amendment that it passed. It sought to do so in the interests of the democratic system. The Government’s preferred option was one that we found quite extraordinary.

We enjoy in our Parliament a system of checks and balances in the democratic system. For those of us who do not consider that the Prime Minister alone should decide on the election, there seem to be three alternatives: first, that the courts intervene, which the majority of your Lordships’ House found unacceptable, although I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Butler; secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said, that the monarchy would be drawn into that decision-making process, which we would all seek to avoid—I was glad that he quoted both Jackie Doyle-Price and Kevin Brennan, because I thought the points they made in the House of Commons were very pertinent; finally, that Parliament should have an opportunity to be engaged in that decision.

Those of my age who remember Wolfie Smith in “Citizen Smith” will have heard “Power to the people”; the Minister said, “Let us hand power back to the people”, but the Government are actually handing power back to the Prime Minister. There was never any difficulty in the election process—there was always going to be a general election—it is about who decides on the election. The Minister probably watched too much bad TV in his younger days. I find it extraordinary that the House of Commons was prepared to give up that power so easily.

I agree that, as the other place—albeit its majority being the Government’s majority—does not wish to pursue this, there is little point in our asking it to reconsider. However, I repeat a question that my noble friend Lord Collins asked the Minister in Oral Questions yesterday, which he sort of answered in the affirmative. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was a prime example of legislation being passed for one particular purpose without a great deal of thought, and it has had to be undone for all the reasons we know. Legislation made too quickly for a specific circumstance does not protect the constitution in any way. I hope the Minister will agree with me that constitutional change needs much more careful examination of long-term and unintended consequences. We have got ourselves into a right pickle over this one. Does he accept that, when looking at any significant constitutional change, a period of pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation would provide for better legislation at the end of the day?

But for now, bizarre as the decision made by the other place may seem, we do not intend to pursue this further.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I say to the noble Baroness that this Bill did receive detailed pre-legislative scrutiny; it was considered by a Joint Committee of both Houses and Ministers were scrutinised by committees in both Houses. Ministers in both Houses—I have had some small endeavour in this—have engaged actively with interested Members during the Bill. That is a contrast—perhaps this was the point the noble Baroness was making—to what happened in 2011 when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was cobbled together in back rooms, as we learn about in the memoirs of Mr David Laws.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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Just to help the Minister, that is exactly the point I was making about the Fixed-term Parliaments Act not having proper scrutiny and getting us into the position we are in now.