Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Excerpts
Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise briefly, if only to remind your Lordships’ House that the Labour Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and I were not able to vote in 1974, but that is probably not a good reason for rising to the Dispatch Box at this time of night.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Rooker for raising a number of issues that have concerned this House as a whole. I think it was my noble friend Lord Coaker who, during the debate on the police Bill last Monday, reminded the House that we were discussing measures to curtail protests that even Margaret Thatcher would not have contemplated during the worst times—as she would have seen it—of the miners’ strikes. We have moved a long way in what we think of as acceptable.

I point out that in 1838 the Chartists had six demands. All have been met, and we have gone beyond on some, such as the universal male suffrage that they wanted—we have improved on that—except for the one demand of theirs that has never been met, which is for annual elections. I am not making that case.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I thank noble Lords; I am very grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Rooker, for tabling these amendments, which have initiated what has been an interesting short debate, if not necessarily always on the amendments. In 1974, I remember pushing a pushchair and delivering literature, though not necessarily for the Labour Party of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker.

If noble Lords do not mind, I will stick to the amendments and not answer any further questions. The Bill makes express provision for Parliament to automatically dissolve five years after it has first met. This is the most straightforward way to calculate the five-year term. It also remains the case that your Lordships’ House has an absolute veto on legislation to extend the life of any Parliament.

I first turn to the question of the length of parliamentary terms. I have heard the argument for a four-year term, and I heard from the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, that he does not necessarily agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on this. However, the Government remain of the very strong view that five years is the right maximum length for any Parliament.

A maximum five-year term allows the Government time to undertake and implement their programme without having to start any electioneering. This is an important issue that I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, took into account as he did not mention it. Any Government have to deliver on the programme that is in their manifesto. Five years is a maximum period which I and the Government believe balances sensible, long-term government with ensuring that a Government and Parliament are accountable to the electorate in a timely manner.

In fact, we can that see parliamentary terms have developed their own effective and flexible rhythm. 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 for political necessity rather than choice, to put a policy or political question to the electorate or to resolve a political crisis. Moreover, shorter maximum terms invariably mean earlier speculation about whether a Parliament will see out its full term. This speculation does not serve Parliament, the public or businesses well. The former Cabinet Secretary noted in evidence at PACAC that longer-term Parliaments and longer-term tenures for both senior civil servants and Ministers would all be very good for Governments, who are increasingly having to face up to very long-term issues, as we have seen recently.

Finally, this question was reviewed by the Joint Committee, which did not question the starting premise that five years is the appropriate duration for parliamentary terms and the life cycle of a Parliament.

I will now address the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on the timing of elections. The noble Lord has reflected on the experience of the electorate in December 2019 and observed that winter elections are not desirable. I hope your Lordships will allow me to relate Stanley Baldwin’s comments on the impossibility of finding a time for an election that suits everyone. On 23 October 1935, when seeking a Dissolution, Mr Baldwin observed on the timing of elections:

“Therefore I have long come to the conclusion that you must rule out the spring and summer months because of financial business. You must rule out August and September because of the holidays. You are left with the autumn, but in no circumstances must you run into any interference with the Christmas trade.”—[Official Report, Commons, 23/10/1935; col. 154.]

Those light-hearted remarks contain an important kernel of truth.

Certainly, outside times of political tumult when exceptional elections are necessary, it may well be the case that a Prime Minister would prefer not to call on the public to venture out to cast their vote in the depths of winter. I share the noble Lord’s sentiment that winter elections do not provide the most ideal conditions for queuing at a polling station or canvassing from door to door. The election in 2019 was, of course, exceptional and was called to bring an end to a period of extended parliamentary deadlock.

Nevertheless, the purpose of the Bill is to provide for a system that will serve successive Governments. As the 2011 Act has taught us, we should not draft our constitutional arrangements in response to one event. There is no guarantee that, in the future, an election will not again be required in December—or February, as in 1974, which we have heard about. So it would not be wise to legislate in the long term for an event that was an exception to the rule. Our arrangements need to be adaptable. That is the important point.

The challenge of the approach set out in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is that it prevents the flexibility necessary for a Government to respond to particular circumstances. As such, I suggest to the noble Lord that to subject the timing of elections to this particular constraint—even if Parliaments do not normally run their full term—would run counter to that objective.

The purpose of the Bill is to revive arrangements that have stood, and will continue to stand, the test of time. I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Rooker, for stimulating this fascinating discussion but I hope that your Lordships’ Committee will agree with me that Clause 4, unamended, is the most suitable approach to achieve that aim. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, noting that we may return on at least one of these amendments on Report. That remains to be discussed.