Lord True (Con)
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.