Brendan O'Hara debates involving the Cabinet Office during the 2019 Parliament

Thu 16th September 2021
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Wed 15th September 2021
7 interactions (1,439 words)
Wed 15th September 2021
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Mon 13th September 2021
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Tue 7th September 2021
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Wed 18th August 2021
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Tue 13th July 2021
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Tue 6th July 2021
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Wed 23rd June 2021
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Wed 14th April 2021
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Thu 11th February 2021
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Mon 14th September 2020
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Tue 4th February 2020
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Wed 8th January 2020
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Elections Bill (Fourth sitting)

Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Thursday 16th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Cabinet Office
Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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Thank you, Alan. As always, it is good to debate with you and really good to have your expertise.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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Q We have spoken to various witnesses, including a former electoral commissioner, over the last couple of days about the statutory policy statement. No one seems to have been aware that this proposal was coming. Were you aware of it being trailed or discussed privately with either the devolved Administrations or in academic circles, to see whether the changes would enhance and improve the independence and the working of the Electoral Commission?

Dr Renwick: No, I was not. I would not expect to have been aware necessarily of all the consultations that might have taken place, but I do not recall being aware of the proposals before they were announced by the Minister in June. To be honest, that is problematic. I have expressed concerns about the substance of the proposals, but procedurally there is a difficulty here as well because of the point that I have already alluded to. With the best will in the world, and with full respect to you as MPs, the fact that you have a vested interest in this issue means that it is incumbent upon you to proceed with particular care when you are thinking about electoral matters generally, and particularly the governance of the Electoral Commission.

I think the procedure that ought to be followed in such a case is that there is an independent review before any recommendation such as those that have been introduced here are put forward. That was the case in 2000; the introduction of the Electoral Commission stemmed, if I remember correctly, from the Fifth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The changes in 2009, introducing, among other things, the partisan commissioners, reflected recommendations made in, if I remember correctly, the Eleventh Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. There has been no comparable process in this case. I do not think that that is an appropriate way to introduce significant changes in the governance of the Electoral Commission.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
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Q Can I ask you then to speculate on why it has not been done as you would have expected and as it has been done in the past? Why do you think it has been done in this way?

Dr Renwick: I do not think it is for me to speculate on that to be honest. I regret that it has happened in this way. I have great respect for the Minister, and I hope that there may be scope for reconsideration of some of these aspects. For example, as you will all be aware, the CSPL published a report just two days after the Bill was published on the regulation of election finance, which of course is part of what the Bill covers. I would very much hope that the Government have been considering the recommendations made in that report, and might introduce amendments to take account of many of them. I thought it was an excellent report. I hope that there is scope to change elements of the Bill in order to reflect the views that have been heard since its publication, because I do think that steps up to that point were too hasty.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
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Q Finally, increasing public trust in electoral systems and the institutions that support them has been a recurring theme throughout this evidence session. Do you think that the proposal from the Government will increase or decrease public trust in the independence of the Electoral Commission?

Dr Renwick: The main point is that the governance of the Electoral Commission should stand up to proper scrutiny, and should be appropriately independent. Frankly, I am not sure whether it has much impact on public perceptions. I suspect that most people have higher priorities in mind. Certainly, the measures diminish the integrity of the electoral process, or will do if introduced, and that ought to be regretted. Quite what effect that has on public opinion as such, who knows?

Elections Bill (First sitting)

Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Wednesday 15th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Cabinet Office
Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
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Q I am seeking a comment on what I am about to read to you. I apologise to the Committee that what I am about to read is exceptionally offensive and, frankly, quite evil. This relates to the Batley and Spen by-election. This is something that happened in June of this year. What I am about to read to you we were not able to trace, no matter how hard we tried, but I seek your comments on it. This relates to your comment on religious pressure:

“Brothers & Sisters of Batley & Heckmondwike I am publicly calling out members of our communities who we have supported in the past: Shabbir Pandor, Ghulam Maniyar, Dr Rajpura and others who have shamelessly brought the Labour Candidate (who is openly Lesbian) to the ‘Masjids’ (the house of Allah) for votes. Would Allah be happy with their actions considering he destroyed the people of Lut A.S which is clearly referenced in the Holy Quran as a lesson for mankind? We are already powerless in schools against forced LGBT education and the effect it is having on our children. Must people from our community promote this agenda too? Mr Maniyar who is part of the Muslim burial committee is trying to land his daughter Fazila the job she previously had under the late Jo Cox. I ask him ‘Would you like to be buried with this on your conscience? You are promoting an MP that could potentially harm the Imaan of our children.’ This is not an endorsement of another party or candidate. I want you all as a community to understand that the blind loyalty to the Labour Party of these people for selfish gains be it ‘peerages’ or ‘better job roles’ is being asked FROM US at a cost of the corruption of our future generations. (PLS SHARE THE TRUTH SO PPL MAY KNOW)”.

I apologise for how offensive that was, but I think it is important to the Committee. That was in June of this year, in the parliamentary by-election. I seek your comments on what I have just read.

Richard Mawrey: I quite agree with you that it is offensive, but there is an obvious line to be drawn regarding individuals expressing strong, perhaps bigoted, perhaps extreme religious or indeed ideological views, for example against LGBT people and so on. The key, I think, with religious influence is that, first of all, it has to be directed. Directed against a candidate is perfectly okay for what was, I think, section 115 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, because it is just as much an offence to try to get somebody unelected as to get a named person elected. Quite often if something false is spread about a candidate’s personal character, so as to engage, I think, section 113, it does not matter that that may not be directed to the election of any other person, but just in order to get a candidate unelected, as it were.

The point about religious influence is that it has to be a way of influencing people. The fact that somebody expresses a view such as that might just fall short. If that person were himself an imam, some other religious teacher, or somebody of standing within the community who is saying, “Don’t vote for this candidate because their views are against our religion,” then you probably might breach the threshold of undue influence, because people would be voting not on general principles but on strictly narrow sectarian principles. That would be true of any religion; it just happened in this case to be Muslim.

Lord Pickles: I have nothing to add to that. I agree with everything that Richard said.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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Q I have a couple of questions, directed to both of you, but I will start with Lord Pickles. You said that there have been some shocking examples of postal vote fraud, and you gave some examples. However, you said that it is not endemic in the system but that the system is vulnerable. Do you think that, with the system being vulnerable, we are missing an opportunity to tighten up on postal vote fraud in the Bill? It does not seem to be a huge part of the Bill. Given what you have said, the Bill seems to be almost looking in the wrong places to tighten up on fraud. Where could we tighten up more on the postal vote fraud that you say is not endemic but to which the system is vulnerable?

Lord Pickles: Thank you. That gives me a brief opportunity to clarify the remarks. If postal vote fraud was widespread, it would be too late, and this place would be stuffed with people with a vested interest in keeping a vulnerable system. It is vulnerable. We have delineated a number of court cases, over several years, and showed how vulnerable it is. What we want to do is to close that.

Obviously, it is up to the Committee to move various amendments further to restrict postal votes. The recommendations that you have here plough a middle route between taking away from things that people have become very used to and restricting too much. For example, having to renew every three years is important; restricting the number of people who can handle postal votes is important. As Richard says, postal votes are by their very nature more vulnerable than votes at the polling station. Things like carousel fraud are no less possible, but they are hard to do.

You have to come to a judgment. Certainly, I would urge you to put down some amendments to test the Government on restrictions on postal ballots. However, in many ways the horse has bolted on that—people have become used to it. Going back so that everybody voted in person, except in cases of illness or business, would probably be a step too far, but it would certainly be worth putting down a probing amendment. Obviously, I am not saying to my Conservative colleagues that they have to vote for it, but nevertheless it would be a good debate.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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Q The problem that you have both identified is around postal voting, and the examples of personation that you have given have been pretty few and far between. It is fair to say from what you have said that where the system is most vulnerable and weak is around postal voting.

Richard, you were talking about a particular culture that existed in Tower Hamlets and manipulation by religious means. You said yourself that that was an extreme case. The Tower Hamlets example has been used in previous debates to claim that voter ID cards are absolutely necessary. In your opinion, how would voter ID cards at polling stations have changed what you witnessed at Tower Hamlets?

Richard Mawrey: Tower Hamlets would be a bad example. In Tower Hamlets, as I said, they virtually ticked every box of electoral offence. But for my being rather kind-hearted, they would have ticked the intimidation box as well—they ticked them all. Voter fraud played a very small part, funnily enough, in Tower Hamlets. There was a handful of personation cases. Because they were orchestrated by the candidate, they were enough, as it were, to get him over the line.

If you as the candidate, or as an agent of the candidate, procure one false vote, you are out. It is all or nothing: you do not have to show that it made a difference. There was simply a handful. I regret to say that, in that case, a number of people who were carrying out these frauds by registering themselves at the wrong address were people who were councillors who lived outside the borough and registered in the borough, but that was a rare occurrence.

Birmingham, in particular, Slough and Woking were all cases that were purely postal fraud. Voter ID at polling stations, frankly, is neither here nor there. Personation at polling stations is very rare indeed, because it is so dangerous—if someone turns up to a polling station and says, “I am Mr Jones of Acacia Avenue”, and somebody says, “I know Mr Jones; you are not him”, the next thing is a policeman’s hand on his shoulder and he’s up at the local Crown court—but postal vote personation, whereby you are voting in the name of a non-existent person or a person who lives somewhere else, is very difficult to detect and to trace. It is only when you have a full-scale petition that it comes to light and you are able to unseat someone.

Voter ID in polling stations is all right, but voter ID for the purposes of registering votes would require checking. If you do not have a mechanism to check—even just to spot check—then registering people at addresses where they do not live, which is the key to that sort of postal fraud, which is a form of personation, voter ID is going to be quite difficult to operate. What you need is simply to check that if Mr Jones is registered at 1 Acacia Avenue, there is a Mr Jones living there. That takes money and resources. We do not have an identity card system in this country, for good or ill, so there is no way, obviously, of cross-checking that. Voter ID only takes you so far with postal votes. Beyond that, the system is vulnerable, and necessarily vulnerable.

Lord Pickles: Thank you for the really interesting question. I did not recommend photo ID, but I think things have moved on since then. I was very interested to see that the Government said that 98% of the population has some form of photo ID. To emphasise the importance of voting, to be able to demonstrate that you are that person by producing, in my case, my bus pass—I could not use my driving licence, because I still have a paper one; I am that old—or something from work is a very sensible process. It occurs to me that the 2% who do not have any kind of photo ID might in itself have a wider use beyond voting in a polling station. It is an important check and a way of emphasising the importance of the vote. If Barack Obama can sign for his ballot paper, which might be an alternative, it is not unreasonable to have the same level as we have for getting a pair of Nike trainers from Amazon.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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Q That is a purely subjective view. The fact that you did not recommend photo ID in your report and it is now being introduced would suggest that it is a solution seeking a problem.

Lord Pickles: No, not really. I did bear in mind what had happened in Northern Ireland. I am sure you will recall that it started with paper ID for the first few years and then went over to photo ID. A lot of things have happened. Essentially, what the Government are suggesting, so far as I can follow what they are doing, is that we are moving to the Northern Ireland system without an intermediate stage with paper ID—

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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Q Sorry, Lord Pickles, can I interrupt? Are you seriously suggesting that the situation in the United Kingdom in 2021 bears any similarity to the situation in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s?

Lord Pickles: In what respect? I do not understand the question.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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Well, you say we are moving to the Northern Ireland system. The Northern Ireland system was introduced for very specific reasons. Are you saying we should move to the Northern Ireland system because there are similarities between what is happening here in 2021 and what was happening in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s?

Lord Pickles: I think you are putting words in my mouth. My remarks on Northern Ireland were restricted to the point that at first there was a paper check, and then photo ID. The Government are suggesting that we move on to photo ID now. What has changed since 2016 is the growth of photo ID. It is important to be able to demonstrate who you are when you go to the polling station, not just in order to deal with personation but to emphasise the importance of the vote. No doubt you will spend many happy hours together debating that point. I shall read the debates with great interest.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
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Q I wanted to pick up on your point about policing, Mr Mawrey. You have been very critical, in both your judgments and your previous evidence to Parliament, of the police and their determination not to get involved. My question is twofold. What does that imply about how many cases have not been brought that perhaps ought to have been? Does the Bill empower the police, and would you expect them to be more willing to be involved in future?

Richard Mawrey: Those are two separate questions. One was whether the police are empowered. They have the necessary powers now. In the aftermath of my critical remarks in the Birmingham judgment, a number of forces had designated officers to deal with the issue, but for various reasons, there were never enough officers for some to be spared to deal with electoral matters only, so they tended to be somebody who added this issue to his or her other duties—say, with the fraud squad, or whatever it was. They did not have the time or resources, because obviously this was regarded—not unreasonably—by some police forces as being very low priority. They tend to think, “This is a squabble between politicians. Let them sort it out.”

In certain areas—Tower Hamlets is a good example—the police force was wary of the local politicians, who were, of course, only too anxious, particularly in the case of Lutfur Rahman, to meet any sort of criticism or investigation with cries of “Institutional racism!”, mentions of the Macpherson report, and all that. The police were wary of dealing with that. They have the powers; whether they have the resources and the will is an entirely different matter.

On whether lots of cases are going undetected, the answer is undoubtedly yes. It is very difficult to prove fraud, and when you have proved it, it is very difficult and time-consuming to prove who benefited from it. In some systems—in Australia, for example—you can prove fraud until you are blue in the face, but you no longer prove who benefited from it, so anyone elected with fraudulent votes stays elected. That is obviously not a good idea. What you see in the cases that I try is the tip of the iceberg, and those cases exist only because concerned citizens are prepared to put their money—their houses, sometimes—on the line in order to fight that fraud. You can end up, as the petitioners did in Tower Hamlets, with a large order for costs against someone who cheerfully declares themselves bankrupt, and you find yourself having spent a fortune doing what you think to be right, only to see none of that money back.

What the Bill does not deal with, although it might have done, is any reform of the process of electoral petitions, trying disputed elections, and all that—things on which Lord Pickles and I have given evidence on other occasions. I am sorry that it does not deal with that, but it is a big, long Bill; perhaps you will get round to it later. The idea that it should be made easier for elections to be challenged by citizens or candidates, and less expensive—

Elections Bill (Second sitting)

Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Wednesday 15th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Cabinet Office
Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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Q Thank you very much for your insight. Is there any more that you would like to say about the particular processes that will be required to support overseas electors in demonstrating their connection to the constituency they are registering in?

Louise Round: As with all these things, some of the detail will come out in secondary legislation. At the moment, it is really tricky because registers are not nationally open. If someone has to show that they have not been on a register apart from in the constituency in which the particular registration office is operating, there is no way really of registration officers checking that, so in a sense it is taken on trust. There is no way for them to check the register even of a neighbouring constituency, let alone one at the other end of the country.

The obligation to be satisfied that someone has a local connection is obviously really time consuming, and it depends how well prepared the person wishing to register is and what evidence they can adduce. At the end of the day, the registration officer has to be satisfied. There is wording in one of the clauses around whether, had they applied a long time ago, they would have at that point been able to demonstrate a local connection, which all begins to get a little existential, almost, and very theoretical. We are not trained detectives, so there is a balance, as in all registration activity, between not wanting to make the requirements so tight that no one can ever be registered and ensuring that we are not registering people who are not entitled to be registered and might be constituency hopping, as it were, to find the most convenient place to register for a particular election depending on what is going on there.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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Q Thank you very much for joining us. This morning, Richard Mawrey talked about the widescale postal vote fraud in Birmingham. What have you done to tackle that? What in the Bill helps you to further tackle that wide-scale postal vote fraud, and is anything missing from the Bill that would help you were it to be added?

Rob Connolly: I am not sure that something is missing from the Bill. What always surprises me is the number of postal votes that we get handed in on the day. We are talking perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 at a parliamentary election. We also recorded, as part of what happened, how many people brought the postal votes and in what numbers, and we often asked for names and addresses. There is no legal obligation to tell us, but in case there was a follow-up we tried to address that problem.

After the problems we had in Birmingham, the law was changed to deal with some of the issues that arose. To be honest, I am not aware that we have had major wide-scale problems in Birmingham, but it is not something that we can be overly confident can never happen again; it may do. We just have to be extra vigilant. That is where the joint working comes into play.

Restricting the number of postal votes that you can bring into a polling station may help, but we need to understand in a bit more detail the reasons behind it, because one of my concerns with the Bill is that you might be restricted to bringing in two postal votes into a polling station, but what is stopping you going to another polling station in the constituency and handing in another two? I also worry that by limiting it to such a small number we are potentially disenfranchising the honest person as opposed to your determined fraudster. A bit of work could be done around that.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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Q Would it be safe to say that your biggest headache would be around postal voting, and being able to police how postal votes are managed and handled?

Rob Connolly: No, because with postal voting at the moment—I always put that qualification in—we have not had any issues. This is where we work closely with political parties, because we share information on how many we are getting back by ward and by constituency, so that they can spot any potential areas. We have always had a system in place that, if we have more than six new postal applications from a particular household, that would be flagged up and we would have a closer look. We have always put in measures to raise red flags. Individual registration and having to supply, for newer registers, national insurance numbers and dates of birth is helpful. We have the IT equipment whereby we do the signature checking, which is, again, very helpful. IT has moved on a lot since 2004.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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Q Finally, how widespread have you found personation at polling booths since you joined the council in the early 2000s?

Rob Connolly: It is not a major issue that has been raised with me by either electors or political parties. We did keep some stats in polling stations as part of how to restore confidence in Birmingham. We would record, when someone came in, why they could not vote—for example, it could be that they come in and their surname is already marked off on the register. We have to do a number of years of research into that, looking, checking the numbers.

The two biggest reasons are, first, it was a simple error on the part of the poll clerk—often, it was a big family and they have just put the mark against the wrong person—and, sometimes, they came in but were marked as a postal voter. Again, it was a simple case of forgetting that they had applied for a postal vote. When we got that information back, we undertook that we would look at those cases, to establish whether there was any possible personation or other types of fraud. However, as I say, we have not picked that up and it has not come through to me from any source that personation has been a major problem. We cannot say that it has never happened or does not happen, because we do not know, but I am fairly confident that if it were widespread at a local level, it would have been picked up by party activists who would report it to us and to West Midlands police.

Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

(Committee stage)
Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office
Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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My hon. Friend makes points that I am sure those listening to that debate will be pondering. In a day and age when electronic mail, not postal mail, is the norm, they will be asking what the Government are doing to ensure that our electoral system is modernised. I applaud the Government for all they are doing on voter identification. It is such an important thing but it has been sadly lacking. This is a reforming Government in that area, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will do all she can to continue that reforming zeal in her work.

Let me pull together two other points that are allied to what we have been discussing. I think a great deal will be needed in returning to the status quo ante. The vast majority of Members do not remember the status quo ante—some of us do, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) and perhaps one or two others such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell, but there are not many of us left. Ensuring that the House and Members understand those conventions that are not formalised in law will be something of a challenge. I am sure the Minister is up to that challenge, but it is something we need to address. She has rightly made a number of comments on this issue—she has written a letter to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and there are pieces of correspondence and an opportunity for debate—but as we move forward we need a settled view of the conventions.

Finally, on the wash-up, the day that a Prime Minister announces a general election is not the start of the general election campaign, and hon. Members need to take a much closer look, perhaps through colleagues who sit on the relevant Committees, as to how we can get better control over what is considered in that wash-up session. There are often a few deals regarding what legislation will pass through Parliament before the election campaign, and perhaps that would be better done after the election, rather than before. We should be considering such matters, with a focus on shortening the election campaign to something that is not just best for one set of people, but best for our democracy.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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I will hopefully delight the Committee by trying to speed things up a little, and I will not detain Members for long.

I agree with the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) that the Bill smacks of a Government who are still smarting from the events of 2019. I suggest that perhaps anger and revenge are no way to govern, and hopefully the House will help the Government to look beyond their bruised pride and get to a situation far beyond this Bill. Although in and of itself clause 1 may look fairly innocuous, and when taken in isolation might even be seen as trivial and almost unimportant, I caution the Committee that when viewed alongside other legislation currently going through this place—the Elections Bill, for example, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—we are witnessing a strategy on the part of the Government to centralise power and control with the Executive at the expense of this House. Some clauses in Bill, including clause 1, give more power to the Executive, strip parliamentarians of their powers, and deny the judiciary the ability to scrutinise what they are doing, while at the same time eroding the public’s right to protest against it. As has been said, this is an unashamed power grab by the Executive at the expense of this House, and we believe that that is how it will be seen in the context of that wider picture.

However intensely hon. Members may dislike the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, simply voting for the Bill this evening will not automatically return us to our position prior to 2011 when that Act was introduced. The Scottish National party has said it will oppose the Bill all the way through, and we will oppose it again tonight. New clause 2, and the idea that a general election could be called to dissolve Parliament and that that motion must be agreed by this House, is correct. It appears to me that if the Bill passes without new clause 2, the Prime Minister of the day will have full and unfettered control over the Dissolution of Parliament and the timing of any general election.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I wanted to make this point to the Minister. Not only will the Prime Minister have full power, but some of the clauses and consequential amendments in the Bill will have a profound effect on other aspects of the constitution. It specifically amends the Referendums (Scotland) Act 2020 as a consequential amendment. That Act states that a referendum in Scotland cannot be held on the same date as a UK general election, but it is not the referendum that takes precedence; it is the UK general election. So if the Scottish Government set a date for a referendum, say in May 2023, under this Bill, it would be entirely within the Prime Minister’s power to set that date for a UK general election and consequently shift the date of the referendum in Scotland. We are handing a gross power to the UK Government as a consequence of the Bill.

Nigel Evans Portrait The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr Nigel Evans)
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Was that the hon. Gentleman’s speech? Shall I cross him off the list?

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
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I do not believe it was my hon. Friend’s speech, Mr Evans, but if it was, it was a perfectly good one and I thank him for it. The points he makes are absolutely valid.

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

I guess that, like me, my hon. Friend finds it a bit perplexing, when sitting in this debate and looking at Conservative Members, who advocated for Brexit in their constituencies and for Parliament to take back control, that they will walk through the Lobby tonight to neuter Parliament. Do he and his constituents who voted against Brexit see the irony in what the Brexiteers will do tonight?

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
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I am sure I am not the only person in this House who can see the irony of how taking back control supposedly has led us to a position where Parliament is being neutered by the Executive, and the people who were most loudly proclaiming “Take back control” are the people holding the scissors and doing the neutering—if that is not too much of an image, Mr Evans.

If the Bill passes, as well as there being no parliamentary or legal scrutiny, an active debate will still rage about whether the monarch’s prerogative powers would return to exactly as they were in 2011. I notice that, in her letter to the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the Minister acknowledged that

“there remains a role for the sovereign in exceptional circumstances to refuse a Dissolution request.”

But the monarch’s prerogative powers are now being enshrined in statute, having been removed by statute; they are now being restored by statute. So what exactly are the exceptional circumstances in which the monarch can refuse a Dissolution request? How can the Lascelles principles, which we heard earlier were prerogative powers, now be statutory powers? I cannot see how this returns us to the position we were in in 2011.

Therefore, we have been and will continue to be extremely uneasy about the insertion of the ouster clause making the Government’s action in relation to the dissolution of Parliament non-justiciable. As I said, we share the concerns of many Members across the Chamber that the repeal of the Fixed-terms Parliaments Act would not automatically take us back to the position of 2012 and we need a lot more clarity about exactly what legal position we would be in.

The Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee pointed out in a letter to the Minister:

“The Fixed-terms Parliaments Act was passed and the consequences of this cannot simply be wished away.”

I note that, in her response to the Committee Chair, the Minister accepts that there is an academic debate about the issue, but she seems to believe the opinion of her academics that the courts

“will be required to act as if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act had never been enacted”

and that they will be

“required to pretend that it never happened.”

It is a ridiculous situation and an extremely unsatisfactory position in which we find ourselves. For years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said, we have heard this Government talk about taking back control and the importance of parliamentary sovereignty. This is an early test of how this Parliament takes back that control, and the Executive are legislating to prevent it from happening. If the Bill is passed as it stands, Parliament and the judiciary, and arguably the monarch’s traditional role, will no longer be in play, and the decision to dissolve this place and call a general election will be entirely in the hands of the Prime Minister, who may call one when it is politically expedient so to do. That is not how a modern liberal democracy should function, and that is why we will not be supporting the Bill.

Back in January, both Lord Sumption and Baroness Hale were unequivocal in their evidence that the minimum safeguard required in the event of an ouster clause being put in place was the inclusion in the Bill of a time limit on the moving of writs for parliamentary elections. However, as it stands, there is no such provision in the Bill; six months on, the Government have not produced anything of the sort, and the original clause remains. In effect, that allows the Government to decide the length of a period of Prorogation, the gap between the Dissolution of Parliament and an election, and indeed the gap between an election and the first sitting of a Parliament. That is deeply worrying. The Government had an opportunity to take the advice of many learned people and improve the Bill. They refused to take that advice, and I fear that it is sinister and troubling that they did not.

Geoffrey Cox Portrait Sir Geoffrey Cox
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a great pleasure to follow so erudite and intelligible a speech from the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara).

I have an experience that is very rare in my political career—a sense of complete vindication. I voted against the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011, when it was brought in, and I seem to recall saying then what I hear the Minister saying from the Front Bench now: that it would not work and that it was an abominable intrusion and distortion of our constitution. I see this Bill as a welcome correction that brings our constitution back to the fundamental principle, which has existed for many years, that, with the important exception that the monarch has the right to speak his or her mind at the time the Prime Minister requests a Dissolution, and in the last resort even perhaps to decline it—although it would not be known for many years that he or she had—it should be the case that the Prime Minister can advise Her Majesty to dissolve the House. We are at last returning to sanity and, with the pardon of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), to normality when it comes to the constitution.

However, I say to the Committee and the Minister that there is an issue that troubles me. It seems to me that, when we presented our manifesto to the country in 2019, we did not only promise that we would restore the balance of our constitution by repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. We presented the country then with a constitutional programme, or at least the willingness to look fundamentally at our constitution and to consider deeply whether we should restore to a more Conservative and a more traditional basis other aspects of our constitution, too.

In welcoming this Bill, therefore, I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I hope that it is not the last measure that we will introduce in the portfolio that she occupies. At the moment, I look at our offering and I see this Bill, which I fully support, I see the Elections Bill, which I also support, and I see the Judicial Review and Courts Bill. I hope we are not going to be quite so timid as to present that as our sole offering to the country. In 1997, the Labour party was elected. One thing one can say about that Government is that they came in with a coherent, radical plan for the constitution, and they then enacted it with complete ruthlessness, and with complete disregard for Opposition voices. I was in the House some years later, and I recall vividly how the Labour party steamrollered its constitutional changes, including the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, through this House with very little by way of consideration and regard for alternative voices.

We now have a majority comparable to that, and I hope that we will not squander that opportunity. There are important things that we should now be doing. I have some sympathy with the plea this afternoon by the hon. Member for Rhondda that we should be considering Prorogation. So we should. We should be considering whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller No. 2 should stand. We should be considering whether other decisions of the Supreme Court should be allowed to stand. There comes to mind, for example, the Adams case, in which Mr Gerry Adams was effectively acquitted of his convictions in 1975 because the Supreme Court held that the Carltona principle in effect did not apply to the decision then taken. That, in my view, is a matter that this House ought to be reviewing.

I say to right hon. and hon. Members and to my friends on the Government Benches that we must not regard the constitution as an area that is too complicated for us to go into. We must not accept the liberal consensus, as it is no doubt called, upon which the new Labour Government in ’97 traded. We must not accept that these things are permanent features of our constitution. They were not introduced with our consent, and we have every right, with the mandate from the people that we now have, to reconsider them.

I say to the Minister that I applaud this Bill, and I applaud her particularly. I was impressed, if I may say so, throughout the course of her presentation by how deeply competent and how completely on top of her brief she was. Thank heavens for such a Minister.

--- Later in debate ---
Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I bid this Bill well as it passes to the other place. On behalf of other members of the Joint Committee, I particularly thank the Minister for her incredible hard work throughout the passage of the Bill, despite the other challenges she was facing at the time. I personally thank her for her words in response to new clause 1. I look forward to talking to her further about the research she has undertaken to do on the length of elections.

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

Madam Deputy Speaker, I thank you and your colleagues, the Clerks and all hon. and right hon. Members who have taken part in what has been a good-natured debate.

Having said that, this is still a thoroughly bad piece of legislation, and nothing I have heard tonight has changed my mind.

Conservative Members seem determined, on a regular basis, to turn the clock back, in this case to a system deemed undesirable and out of touch more than a decade ago. As we have heard, politicians and academics are still arguing about whether it is even possible to believe that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 had never been enacted. We are being asked to pretend that it never happened. At the risk of showing my age, let me say that it is as though this Government have been taking advice from the scriptwriters of “Dallas”, who asked the world to pretend that Bobby Ewing had never died and they could just go back and pick up the storyline as though nothing had happened previously and anything that had happened in the past would have absolutely no consequence now. While that academic debate rages on and we are heading back to the situation prior to 2011, there can be no doubt that this Bill is little more than a brazen attempt by the Executive to entrench more and more powers with themselves, at the expense of this Parliament. I repeat: as bad as that is in and of itself, when it is viewed alongside what else is going through this place, we see that we are witnessing a full-on attack on our democracy. For that reason, we will be opposing the Bill on Third Reading.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third Time.

Elections Bill

(2nd reading)
Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Tuesday 7th September 2021

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Cabinet Office
David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will take another day to give lectures on points of order.

The simple truth is that there is a greater responsibility on the Government than on anyone else to do the right thing and to avoid errors working to their own advantage. That is what I am arguing here today. This voter ID scheme is an illiberal idea in pursuit of a non-existent problem, and that is what we need to address. We need to get rid of it, and that is what I will seek to do on Report.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

Fundamentally, this Bill is an attack on democracy that will disenfranchise millions, entrench more powers with the Executive, and remove the power of the Electoral Commission to scrutinise. Like many others, I urge Members not to look at the Bill in isolation but to view it in the wider context of the other legislation going through the House at the moment with respect to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, citizens’ right to peacefully protest, and even the proposed privatisation of Channel 4. That paints a very bleak picture for our democracy.

When the Bill first appeared, in the Queen’s Speech earlier this year, the headline-grabbing proposal was voter ID, whereby photographic evidence would be required before an individual was allowed to cast their vote. However, as we have heard from many others this afternoon, voter fraud at polling stations barely reaches the height of minuscule, and the evidence that we have heard from those on the Government Benches has been based on personal anecdote. We have to ask: what is the problem they are seeking to solve?

Seeing a Government introduce such radical policy changes without a shred of evidence to support those changes sets alarm bells ringing among those of us who believe that every Government should be trying to remove barriers that prevent participation in the democratic process, rather than raising them.

Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP)
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My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about not taking the Bill in isolation and looking at the cumulative effect. Does he agree that it is definitive of a Government that have lost any confidence in their ability to outrun their outrageous false claims, their untruths and their broken promises that they have to bring this measure in to try to gerrymander the system?

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
- Hansard - -

I could not agree more, and I will elaborate on that as I go through my speech.

In all the debate and discussion that have followed the Queen’s Speech in May, the Government have had ample opportunity to produce the evidence that these proposals are a proportionate measure to deal with an identified problem, and they have not. The reason they have not is that there is absolutely no evidence for them to produce. As one leading, albeit unelected, Scottish politician recently said:

“They can’t cite any evidence of it because I don’t think there’s any evidence to cite. In terms of this particular part of the Queen’s Speech, I think it’s total bollocks, and I think it’s trying to give a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, and that makes it politics as performance.”

It is not often that I agree with the former Scottish Conservative leader, Baroness Davidson, or whatever her title is at the moment, but on this occasion she was absolutely spot on.

In the absence of any evidence that voter ID is the answer to an identified problem, we can only conclude that, for the Conservative party, the problem is not folk turning up at polling stations without photographic ID, but that certain folk turn up at polling stations at all.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I ask the hon. Gentleman the same question I asked the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith)? Does he disregard the recommendations of the OSCE?

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

I do not regard any findings of the OSCE, but what I think is important in this place, looking at UK-wide elections, is that we have a measure that works for United Kingdom general elections, and this is one that absolutely does not. The right hon. Gentleman says we should be reinventing the wheel and starting from scratch. There is a debate to be had, but the imposition of this kind of voter ID now is absolute nonsense and there is no evidence whatever to justify it. This is, therefore, actually a ploy to stop people going to the polling station in the first place. I believe it really is as crude as that. The Government plan appears to have been to conjure up a demon, convince people that that demon is posing a threat to them, and then allow themselves to introduce draconian and totally disproportionate measures to slay the demon they have just invented.

The fatal flaw in that argument is that there never was a demon. No matter how the Government have tried to spin this, people know that there never was a demon and that there is nothing to see. Now, the United Kingdom Government stand accused of a sleazy attempt to gerrymander the register for their own electoral gain.

Tom Randall Portrait Tom Randall (Gedling) (Con)
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In his judgment on the election in Tower Hamlets, Richard Mawrey QC said there was an appreciable amount of personation by false registration in Tower Hamlets. I wonder if the hon. Gentleman has read that judgment.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
- Hansard - -

I would say gently to the hon. Gentleman on the Tower Hamlets issue, which I believe went back to 2014, that to change an entire voting system on what went on in one particular London borough—the anecdotal evidence I have heard is that it was more to do with postal voting than personation. This measure is to do with personation, which has been proven not to be a problem.

This is an utterly reprehensible proposal that would be more at home in Donald Trump’s Republican party than in the United Kingdom. What is more important and more chilling is the brazen way in which the Government are doing it. They seem not to care. We always know it will not be the well-heeled and the affluent middle classes who will struggle to produce a passport, or a driving licence. We know and they know it will be the young, the poor, the marginalised and the minority communities who do not have a passport or do not drive, who will struggle to manage to collect a voter ID card. They will be affected by this registration.

The Government know that there are already between 2 million and 3 million people who do not have that ID. They also know that there are about 9 million people not registered. I think they should be spending an awful lot more time getting people on to the register than organising to take people off that register.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Mr Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
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Would these be the same young people who have to show photo ID to get into a bar, a nightclub or a pub every Saturday night?

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
- Hansard - -

If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to reduce this debate to that level, he is perfectly welcome so to do, but this is about a fundamental right for people to exercise their democratic right to vote. I urge him to take it a bit more seriously.

Yet again, this highlights the differences between what is happening here and what is happening in Scotland. If ever there was a reason why we need our independence, it is to get away from draconian legislation such as this. In May, when the Scottish National party won an unprecedented fourth term, we did it with a record number of people turning out to vote in a Scottish Parliament election. That does not happen by accident; that was by design. The SNP Government led the way by extending the franchise to all 16 and 17 year olds and, more recently, by allowing all eligible refugees in Scotland and those foreign nationals with settled status the right to vote. It is because we extended that franchise that we now have a thriving, healthy and robust democracy in Scotland. It is telling that, as Scotland, and indeed Wales, extend that franchise, this place seeks to do the exact opposite.

Over the summer, we learned that the Bill goes far beyond plans for voter ID. If it is passed, the Government will assume powers over the running and scrutiny of all future elections. The Bill reveals plans to strip the Electoral Commission of its powers and the independence it enjoys at the moment, and put it directly under the control of the Government, forcing it to conform to a strategy and policy statement which will be written by the Government. This means that the Government—the Executive—will be giving political direction to the organisation whose job it is to independently scrutinise and adjudicate on the fairness of elections. At a time when its powers should be extended, this Government are stripping the Electoral Commission of its powers and making scrutiny far more difficult.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. On extending the Electoral Commission’s powers, it has previously said that it does not have enough powers to keep the major parties in check and that overspending and breaches of electoral law have become business as usual, because it cannot fine them enough. Is this not all about taking further control rather than accepting open elections?

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are heading down a dangerous road and I urge Government Members to think carefully before proceeding.

One would have hoped that, at a time when democracies across the world are under threat from the influence of hostile actors, Governments could have taken this opportunity to introduce legislation to tackle those shadowy groups—those unincorporated associations—with anonymous sources of cash that are seeking to influence UK politics. However, given that openDemocracy recently revealed that since 2019, the Conservative party has accepted £2.5 million in donations from these shadowy groups, it was never going to be the anonymous, deep-pocketed bankrollers of the Conservative party who would be targeted in the Bill.

This Bill was always designed to hit the poor, the disadvantaged, the trade unions, the charity campaigners and civic society activists, because it will be the Secretary of State who will get to unilaterally decide who can campaign, what they can campaign on, when they can campaign, how much money they can raise and what they can spend those funds on. At a stroke, a Government Minister could ban a whole section of civic society, including trade unions and charities, from engaging in elections and campaigning or donating. It is fundamentally anti-democratic and people should be outraged by it. But, of course, if those people are unhappy and want to take to the streets to protest, this Government are already planning to block off that avenue to them.

David Morris Portrait David Morris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me intervene. Charities are supposed to be apolitical—how do you explain that?

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Order. I say again that hon. Members really should not use the word “you”; otherwise, it becomes a bit of a conversation down there and we feel kind of left out.

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

A charity has the right to advocate on behalf of its members and the people it represents. A charity must have the leeway and the bandwidth to advocate. To block that off screams of the anti-democratic road that this Government are determined to go down.

What we have here is a Government who are allergic to criticism, who are terrified of scrutiny and who are determined to give themselves, through this and other pieces of legislation, the powers to silence their critics. They want to prevent public displays of dissent and weaken their political opposition while, at the same time, entrenching the advantage that they already have, all at the expense of democracy.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Aneurin Bevan famously said that in the struggle between poverty and property, when poverty rises, property will attack democracy. Is this not what we are seeing in terms of voter suppression, getting rid of the right to peaceful protest, and attacking the judiciary and our fundamental democratic rights?

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

I agree with the hon. Gentleman: we are heading down a very, very dangerous road. The public have to be made aware of that and Government Members have to be aware of where this could lead.

We would not take this in any other walk of life. If this was a casino, we would demand that it be shut down and the owners arrested for loading the dice, marking the cards and allowing the dealers to have aces hidden up their sleeves. If this was a football match, there is no way that we would accept the home team manager being the referee and the assistant manager sitting up in the VAR box. Why, then, are we being asked to accept this? Why are we being asked to let this Government play fast and loose with something as fragile and as precious as our democracy—something that so many have done so much to defend? Why are we being asked to let this Government undermine those independent institutions that are specifically there to scrutinise our elections and preserve the public’s trust in a free and fair electoral system?

This is little more than a grubby attempt to gain electoral advantage. Why are we being asked to potentially disenfranchise millions of poor people and disadvantaged communities? Why are we being asked to accept that a Government Minister can unilaterally decide who can or cannot campaign for what they passionately believe in? Why are we being asked to turn a blind eye to those incredibly rich and powerful bodies that seek to buy their way to influence and power in the UK Government?

Our democracy, as I said, is under sustained attack. The arithmetic of this place means that the only people who can prevent this anti-democratic slide are Conservative Members. If they decide to fall meekly in line with what the Government say and nod this truly, thoroughly anti-democratic legislation through, I fear that history will judge them as those who facilitated one of the darkest days for democracy in the history of this country.

William Wragg Portrait Mr William Wragg (Hazel Grove) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As ever, I will seek to calm the House, if I can, as I perambulate around a few of the issues that the Bill presents. I suggest to the Minister, as an early judgment, that it is perhaps a curate’s egg of a Bill. I will explain why I have come to that assessment, but we must understand at the outset why these matters are important. They are important to protect everybody—democracy itself in its entirety, clearly, but also candidates, agents and volunteers for all political parties who are actors in our great democratic process—and to give due regard to those who ultimately deserve consideration: the voters.

Having listened to the debate so far, I think we need to hit two issues on the head. I suggest gently that it is slightly anachronistic to compare democracy in this country with the events that we saw after the US presidential election. To those who would have us believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with our system, I suggest that they could be accused of suffering from Gerald Ratner syndrome, whereby they completely undermine what they wish to improve.

It is a shame that the Bill was not subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, which might have ironed out issues that have caused a degree of contention. Indeed, it could be suggested that the Bill would have benefited from consideration beforehand by a Speaker’s Commission, which is a cross-party entity—none of us has the monopoly on virtue when it comes to elections or matters pertaining to them.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said several interesting things about ID. I have a great deal of sympathy for what he said: notwithstanding the substantial list in schedule 1 of acceptable forms of ID, there is work to be done.

May I briefly mention the Speaker’s Committee? I am a member by virtue of chairing the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, and for no other reason. I agree that the Speaker’s Committee would benefit from having no majority from a particular party. I see colleagues who are members of it frowning at me, but I simply say that I would be willing to sacrifice myself if we needed to remove a Conservative member. I do not wish to take away from the importance of the Committee’s work, but if it were necessary for me to discharge that heavy burden on to somebody else, I might well do so. I do not want to cause even more offence to Members on the Treasury Bench, as I do occasionally, but I do ask whether it is appropriate to have two Ministers of the Crown as members of the Committee. I think that there is some work to be done; perhaps we will come back to the matter on Report.

On the vexed subject of the Electoral Commission, it is fair to say that opinion is mixed, but the commission is ultimately a regulator—perhaps the most sensitive regulator, because it regulates what we, and those at other levels of representation, do as candidates. o I simply say that we should tread carefully, perhaps recognise some of the work that has been done recently, welcome the new chair of the organisation, and judge it in the years to come.

I appreciate that many other Members wish to speak this afternoon, so with that, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will conclude my remarks.

--- Later in debate ---
Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am certainly happy to offer that meeting. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution mentioned earlier that she has had a number of meetings with the RNIB already and has been working with it, but she will continue to meet it as the Bill progresses, because that is vital. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s illustration of the support for this measure in Northern Ireland.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I want to address some of the evidence that the hon. Gentleman’s party asked for. One survey conducted just a few years—

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
- Hansard - -

It is on that point.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will address the point that the hon. Gentleman’s party raised. One survey, conducted by the Electoral Commission in 2009 under the last Labour Government, just a few years after the introduction of photographic ID in Northern Ireland, found that 100% of respondents in Northern Ireland experienced no difficulty with presenting photographic ID at polling stations. As part of its post-election questionnaire in 2019, the Electoral Commission reported that 83% of voters in Northern Ireland found it very easy to participate in elections, as opposed to 78% across Great Britain, including, of course, Scotland.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
- Hansard - -

Can I just clarify whether the Minister is drawing a clear and direct parallel between the situation in Northern Ireland in the 1990s and the situation in the United Kingdom in 2021? Is there a clear and direct parallel that joins the two that explains this legislation?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman should want us to learn from what works in one part of the UK for the whole of the United Kingdom. I am very pleased to see the United Kingdom aligning further, with Northern Ireland leading the way as Great Britain takes forward a measure to protect the integrity of elections, which has been tried and tested to great effect in Northern Ireland.

Some of the wider claims we have heard in today’s debate are simply not borne out by the experience of Northern Ireland. They echo some of the scaremongering when this Government successfully introduced individual electoral registration. Many Opposition Members cried that that would result in mass disenfranchisement, but we saw the effect in the last UK general election, when a record number of people were registered to vote. The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, one of the hardest working Ministers with whom I have had the pleasure to work and herself no stranger to Northern Ireland, excellently articulated the reasonable and considered approach we are taking across the Bill.

We heard a number of very powerful speeches in support of these measures from my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), my right hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Mr Baker), for Southport (Damien Moore), for Leigh (James Grundy), for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) and for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), and my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Tom Randall), for Keighley (Robbie Moore), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew).

I want to try to answer some of the points that have been raised and some of the questions that have been put to me in Members’ contributions. Before I do, however, I think it is worth reflecting on the work undertaken to get to this point and the long pedigree of some of the measures in the Bill. This is not just a product of the Government or the Cabinet Office; it has been inspired, informed and enhanced by the input of a wide variety of organisations and individuals. We are grateful to a number of parliamentary Committees, many of whose thoughtful contributions are reflected in the measures and some of whose Chairs we heard from in today’s debate. To highlight just a few individuals, the important contribution of Lord Pickles has been critical in understanding the very real risks and challenges our electoral system faces. Similarly, the reports by colleagues in this House, as well as by the House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, have highlighted key considerations, from the need for more transparency in areas of digital campaigning to political finance.

Along with the valued contribution of the electoral sector experts, I know the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution has been meeting a wide range of organisations in the voluntary and community sector, which have raised some important points and will play a vital role in ensuring that the detail that will be developed in secondary legislation will meet the needs of all those who manage and use our electoral services. In particular, she is committed to continue engagement with people with disabilities, other minority groups and some of the key groups of vulnerable people who have been all too often, as my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe and for Bolsover pointed out, the major victims of electoral fraud.

I want to turn to some of the specific questions that have been asked. The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and her colleague the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) asked about an impact assessment. I would direct them to the 21-page equality impact assessment and the 120-page impact assessment published alongside the Bill.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) asked about the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I welcome the report published by the Committee in July. As the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution said, the recommendations will be given full and proper consideration, and the Government will respond. In fact, I should point out that we are bringing forward measures in the Bill which are closely linked to recommendations made in that report, such as a new requirement on political parties to declare their assets and liabilities over £500 on registration, and a restriction of third-party campaigning to UK-based or otherwise eligible campaigners.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made a powerful speech, as he always does. Like many on the Government Benches, I happen to disagree with him on this particular one, but let me point out that the Government research he quoted also found out that 98% of people across the age groups have access to accepted forms of photographic ID already, 99% of people from ethnic minority groups have that level of access, and 99% of those aged between 18 and 29 already have an acceptable form of photographic identification.

The hon. Members for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) asked about important issues of engagement with the devolved Administrations. Devolution means that we already have different arrangements for devolved and reserved elections. We do engage regularly and I can offer him the reassurance he sought that the strategy document will not undermine the partnership between the Electoral Commission and the devolved Administrations.

There are many other points that I would like to address, but I will not have time. Let me conclude by thanking hon. Members for all their valuable contributions. The Bill will place British citizens’ participation at the heart of our democracy and will keep it modern, secure, transparent and fair, so that our democracy can continue to thrive. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution will do an excellent job of steering it through Committee, and I look forward to a lively debate in the next phase of its passage. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Afghanistan

Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Wednesday 18th August 2021

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Cabinet Office
Ian Blackford Portrait Ian Blackford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree with the right hon. Lady that it is important the House has the opportunity to reflect on this and consider what mechanisms we need to put in place to protect people in Afghanistan.

The harsh reality is that 3 million people have already been displaced, and 80% of those fleeing their homes are women and children. These people are now crying out for our help.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

My right hon. Friend will be aware that yesterday the Nobel laureate Nadia Murad said:

“I know what happens when the world loses sight of women and girls in crises. When it looks away, war is waged on women’s bodies.”

Sadly, she is correct. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we do not act now and go so much further than the Government are proposing to protect women and girls, this political disaster will become a catastrophic moral failure?

Ian Blackford Portrait Ian Blackford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree with my hon. Friend.

I just reflected on the fact that 3 million people have already been displaced. We need to show a generosity of spirit that recognises the scale of the challenge we face, so that women do not face the loss of their human rights, so that women do not face persecution and, yes, so that women do not face even worse, including death.

It is important to say that, if we are to support the Afghan people, this crisis needs to mark a point of fundamental change in this Government’s approach to refugees. In the past few months alone, this Government have introduced a hateful anti-refugee Bill that would rip up international conventions and criminalise those coming from Afghanistan in need of our refuge. The UK Government have spent a sizeable part of their summer making political play of turning away migrants and refugees in small boats who are desperately making their way across the channel.

--- Later in debate ---
Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Just to correct the record, my local authority, East Ayrshire Council, has resettled Syrian refugees.

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

As has mine.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) should correct the record.

International Aid: Treasury Update

Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Tuesday 13th July 2021

(3 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office
Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)
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This is a vote about our soft power; a vote on the definition of global Britain; and a test of our political courage to see the bigger international picture and stay committed to our international obligations even when we face difficulties at home. I will not tire of telling the House just how dangerous and complex our world is becoming. A simple question that I put to the Prime Minister, the National Security Adviser, the Defence Secretary and all the respective heads of the armed forces was this: is global instability over the next five to 10 years going to increase or decrease? In every single case, the answer was increase.

We face an unpredictable, uncertain decade, with growing authoritarianism and extremism on the rise, an ever assertive China and Russia, and, of course, climate change increasingly wreaking havoc across the world. The Government acknowledge that in their own integrated review, but hard and soft power are two sides of the same coin, as we learnt to our peril in Afghanistan. Cutting our soft power will have operational, strategic and reputational consequences. The sheer scale of global challenges was acknowledged at the G7 summit, yet here we are debating the reduction in our soft power profile—the only G7 nation to do so. In contrast, China is using its aid programmes as part of a long-term strategy to advance its own global reach. Look at what is happening across Africa and Asia. A new global soft power war is taking place. This, to me, is the face of a cold war that is slowly emerging, but we in the west have yet to wake up to its reality. China is weaponising its immense soft power to significantly advance its influence and reach and to promote its own interpretation of the international rules-based order, and it ensnares dozens and dozens of countries into its sphere of influence. That is why we should not be diminishing our own soft power.

I suspect the Government may succeed in winning the argument today, but they will lose the moral high ground. We claim to be a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective. It is simply not a good look to promote a global Britain agenda, emphasising leadership, responsibility and resolve, but then to cut our overseas aid budget.

I urge the Government to ask what Churchill might say to the House now, given the 1930s feel to the world. Why not articulate to the nation the wider geopolitical uncertainty that we face, the urgency for the west to regroup, and the influential role that Britain could play if we retain our soft power commitments so we can begin to address the progressively dangerous trajectory our world is now on? I have no doubt that, if the Government did that, the nation would be fully in support.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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May I begin by saying how pleased I am that the Government have finally bowed to pressure and that we in this House are having the vote that we were promised on cutting money to the world’s poorest people? It is absolutely right that we have that vote because every Member of this House must declare his or her position. I fear that, without a meaningful vote, Members on the Government Benches could continue to hide behind crocodile tears or meaningless words of regret, without ever having to display the courage of their convictions and stand up and tell this Government that the decision to take £5 billion away from the world’s poorest people is fundamentally wrong and morally repugnant.

At the end of this debate, we will all have to declare where we stand, and no one can continue in the hope that, by choosing to stay silent, he or she will not be asked to come off the fence. Although this vote has been a long time coming, it does mean that we are all in this House well rehearsed in the arguments. Absolutely no one can pretend that he or she does not know what they are voting for this evening, or that they do not understand the consequences of their actions when they vote. They now know that, if they support the motion, that money is not coming back.

I find it utterly incomprehensible that the Government of one of the richest countries in the world appear hellbent on making the poorest people on this planet even poorer and more susceptible and vulnerable to disease, hunger and the lack of clean water. For them to push this as vigorously as they have, despite every single analysis telling them and us that millions of people will die, simply beggars belief. It is shameful that, if the motion is agreed tonight, it will mark a new low point for a country that pretends or boasts about being a beacon for tolerance, decency and humanity. This is the test of that vote.

As I have said before, this country has a moral obligation to help those in what we now call the developing world, not least because this country is in no small way responsible for the situation in which they now find themselves. The UK—Great Britain—grew rich and powerful on the backs of the world’s poor. We invaded, conquered, divided and plundered, leaving behind an impoverished wasteland. It is about time that this country woke up to its moral responsibility to assist those we abandoned to live with the consequences of British imperialism. We should not be running away from that responsibility. Those on the Government Benches have to accept that that is the consequence of their action tonight.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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We now go back to Catherine West.

Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

(2nd reading)
Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Tuesday 6th July 2021

(3 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office
William Wragg Portrait Mr Wragg
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Of course, this is all my view. The House will have a chance to listen to the utterances of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) later on, and we look forward to that immensely. He will teach us a thing or two.

I support the Bill, but I fear that clause 3, the so-called ouster clause, may be superfluous. Its inclusion could be seen by those of a cynical bent as being a hangover from the intervention of the Supreme Court in 2019. We should hold more surely to the Bill of Rights of 1689. After all, the Queen in Parliament is not justiciable—at least that is my understanding.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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May I, too, say how pleased we are to see the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) back in her place? I look forward to many confrontations with her in the coming weeks and months. Let me say at the outset that the SNP will be opposing the Second Reading of this Bill when the House divides this evening. We will do so not because we are particularly wedded to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, but because we believe that the Bill is a much wider part of a fundamental attack on our democracy.

One should not view the Bill in isolation. I believe that when Members look at it in the wider picture and place it alongside the voter suppression Bill, the Government’s plan to neuter the Electoral Commission and the draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, they will reach the same conclusion that many of us have reached: this Bill is simpler another part of a brazen attempt by this Government to further centralise control, give more power to the Executive, strip parliamentarians of their powers and deny the judiciary the ability to scrutinise what they are doing, while at the same time eroding the public’s right to protest against them. This is an unashamed power grab by the Executive, and we believe that it will be seen as such when seen in the context of the wider picture.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Mr Goodwill
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Surely we are just reinstating the status quo before 2010.

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - -

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.”

Anthony Mangnall Portrait Anthony Mangnall
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This is more of a clarification point. If the Lascelles principles are in place and the Government were to call a general election but an alternative grouping could come together to be able to create a Government, would that not allow the Queen to appoint a new Prime Minister, under the principles that were referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg)?

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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As I understand it, and reading what Professor Elliott says, the Lascelles principles would go and therefore we are not returning to exactly the position we had prior to the introduction of the 2011 Act. The Lascelles principles, because they are royal prerogatives, are not part of statute and therefore there is nothing to say that they will remain. They will go, so all the power will be on the Prime Minister and when a Prime Minister requests a Dissolution and a general election, the monarch will have no power on which to refuse.

Anthony Mangnall Portrait Anthony Mangnall
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so patient with me on this, but on reading the Bill, I do not see where it will be rescinding or taking away the Lascelles principles.

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

I think the fact that the principles are not there suggests that they will not be there. I understand that there is no statute—there cannot be—and therefore there will be no Lascelles principles on which to act. Hon. Members will know that things are pretty bad when I of all people stand here discussing the right of an unelected Head of State to use prerogative powers to act as a check on the excesses of the Executive.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because this is perhaps where we see the significance of clause 3. If there is to be nothing in this Bill or no decision that would be justiciable, then surely the implication is that, in fact, there is only one decision that can be made by the monarch, and that is to grant the application.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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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
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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.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Presumably in that case, as with the OECD report on Scottish education, the SNP would just not publish the report until after the election.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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The Scottish Government will stand by and have stood by their record, and have been accountable on the day of the Scottish elections for every Parliament. The Scottish Parliament knows when the next election will be, and every Government will be accountable on that day. If those in the Chamber want to look at the success of the Scottish Government—the SNP Scottish Government—as put forward and verified by the Scottish public just two months ago, let me say that I am sure there is not a Member of this House, particularly on the Liberal Democrat Benches, who would not give their eye teeth for such an endorsement. However, I will move on, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I can see that I am testing your patience somewhat.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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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 - -

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?

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

In the name of the wee man. Madam Deputy Speaker, I attempt not to waste your time or this House’s time, so yet again I will ignore the Minister.

In evidence to the Committee, the Government were advised that:

“The Fixed-term Parliaments Act had a provision that limited the time within which writs for parliamentary elections could be moved, and it is the latter that I think you would be wise to introduce into this Bill.”

Lord Sumption also warned the Government at that meeting. He said:

“I suspect that if the Prime Minister was effectively attempting to rule without Parliament by simply failing to issue writs of summons, the courts might well intervene for precisely the same reasons that they intervened in the case of the prorogation…I think it quite likely that the reasoning in Miller No. 2 would be applied to that situation. But, because this is a very undesirable state of affairs, I would very strongly urge you to introduce into the Bill a provision with a time limit.”

Baroness Hale and Lord Sumption could not have been clearer, but, six months later, the Government still have not introduced anything of the sort and clause 3 remains as it was back in January, in effect allowing the Government to decide on the length of a Prorogation, the gap between a Dissolution and an election and, indeed, the gap between an election and the first sitting of a new Parliament. They were warned by learned judges that that is not an acceptable state of affairs and they have had six months to do something about it, but it still does not appear in the Bill. If the Bill is passed as the Government wish, they will be able to do all of that in the hope of not having the courts look at it.

Until now, the only vague explanation I have heard about why the Government have not taken on the former Supreme Court judges’ advice is on a basis of, “Trust us—do you really think we would do such a thing?” The obvious answer is yes, because they have form for doing exactly that and have been found to have acted illegally. When the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution responds to the debate, will she explain why the Government have not taken on their advice? Indeed, will the Government finally seek to amend the Bill?

Under normal circumstances, a debate on whether this Parliament chooses to fix a term between its general elections is not something that the SNP would get overly het up about. Indeed, we do not intend to be here much longer. Hopefully, Scotland’s participation in UK general elections will be a thing consigned to the history books and children will learn about it alongside Robert Burns, William Shakespeare, the moon landings and how England came so close to winning the European championships. I hope, and have little doubt that, when established, our independent Scottish Parliament will continue to use the current arrangement: the one whereby everyone knows that, barring the collapse of the Government and an inability to create a new one, Scottish Parliament elections will take place on the first Thursday of May in 2026. That is how it should be.

The Bill once again exposes the absurdity of the UK not having a written constitution and reveals the inherent weakness of a system which simply hopes that the Executive branch do not do the things that, as a matter of legal and constitutional theory, they are allowed to do. Unfortunately, when the Executive decide to flex their muscles at the expense of the legislature and the judiciary, the failure to have adequate entrenched legal constitutional constraints becomes all too apparent. As I have said several times, the Bill cannot be seen in isolation and must be viewed as part of a concerted and co-ordinated power grab on the part of the Executive; one which, if they are successful, will give them even greater powers over Parliament and the courts. That is why the SNP will vigorously oppose it.

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

First, may I put on the record how much I welcome the Bill? Indeed, having served on the Joint Committee chaired so ably by the noble Lord McLoughlin, who has gone on from a distinguished career in this House to—I hope—even greater things in the other place, I can probably own up to knowing more about the constitutional convolution surrounding this subject than it is healthy for any person to know, with the possible exception of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).

I was slightly confused by the points made by the shadow Minister, as Labour has a manifesto commitment to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. I am not sure whether we will see some backtracking on that. I was also confused when she said that the Prime Minister of the day could take the opportunity of the Opposition being in disarray to call a general election. I have to say that I could probably pick any day in the past five years, and no doubt in the next four years, when that particular situation could be in force.

When we started out on this journey, I took the view that we should go as far as possible to restore the situation to as it existed before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. At the end of our deliberations, I remained of the same view, but we all came to understand better the historical and constitutional context. It is important that we restore the royal prerogative. Less important is the academic discussion about whether it was merely in abeyance and could be restored or had been abolished. The Lascelles principles were discussed: the reasons why the King or Queen could refuse the initiative from No. 10 and, of course, the discretion around a request—or is that advice?—to Her Majesty. Indeed the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) talked about whether the Lascelles principles would still be in place. We learned about the golden triangle—the communications between the Queen’s private secretary, the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister’s private secretary—who would head off an embarrassing situation for the monarch who might have to turn down an election because it was too soon after the previous election, because an alternative Government could be formed, or because other situations might mean that it was inappropriate to call that particular election.

Oral Answers to Questions

Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Wednesday 23rd June 2021

(4 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office
Alister Jack Portrait Mr Jack
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Again, I say that the hon. Lady should be at Cabinet Office questions asking the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to answer for his Department. Again, I have spoken to the Cabinet Office about this. It does not engage in political polling, and it is very clear about that.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
- Hansard - -

It seems to me that this Government’s plan to strengthen the Union is to first sell out the fishing industry and then betray Scotland’s farmers. Can the Secretary of State explain how the Australia trade deal, which allows the UK market to be flooded with thousands of tonnes of cheap, factory- farmed, inferior-quality beef and lamb, is the golden opportunity the Prime Minister promised? How will it help Scottish farmers’ business?

Alister Jack Portrait Mr Jack
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The SNP has never found a trade deal that it likes.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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Answer the question!

Alister Jack Portrait Mr Jack
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am going to answer the question very clearly. The SNP voted against or abstained on all trade deals in the European Parliament and the one we have just done with the European Union. It is an isolationist party. The reality on the Australia trade deal is that it is upholding animal welfare standards. Under the World Organisation for Animal Health, Australia gets five out of five. We have safeguards in place to stop the market being flooded with beef or any collapse in price. We are very clear that we will protect our farmers, and this leads us into the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, worth £9 trillion. That will be a huge win for our farmers, and all the members of the farming community I have spoken to understand that. The SNP should see the big picture and understand that we are not going to reduce our animal welfare standards, that we are not going to flood the market, and that it will be seen very clearly in a few years’ time to have cried wolf.

Lobbying of Government Committee

Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Wednesday 14th April 2021

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office
Rachel Reeves Portrait Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That the following Standing Order shall have effect until 31 December 2021:

Investigation into the Lobbying of Government Committee

(1) There shall be a select committee, called the Investigation into Lobbying of Government Committee, to consider:

(a) the effectiveness of existing legislation to prevent the inappropriate lobbying of Ministers and Government;

(b) the rules governing all public officials regarding conflicts of interest;

(c) the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Lex Greensill as an adviser in Government and the process by which Greensill Capital was approved for commercial arrangements with Government departments and other public sector bodies; and

(d) the role Government played in facilitating the commercial relationship between Greensill Capital and the Gupta Family Group Alliance.

(2) It shall be an instruction to the Committee that it:

(a) considers whether there are robust transparency and accountability procedures in place and whether existing rules are being adhered to;

(b) considers whether the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments’ regulatory framework and sanctioning powers are sufficient to enforce its advice;

(c) assesses the extent of undue influence that former politicians and advisers have on the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies; and

(d) that it makes a first Report to the House no later than 18th October 2021.

(3) The committee shall consist of 16 members of whom 15 shall nominated by the Committee of Selection in the same manner as those Select Committees appointed in accordance with Standing Order No. 121.

(4) The Chair of the committee shall be a backbench Member of a party represented in Her Majesty’s Government and shall be elected by the House under arrangements approved by Mr Speaker.

(5) Unless the House otherwise orders, each Member nominated to the committee shall continue to be a member of it until the expiration of this Order.

(6) The committee shall have power—

(a) to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report from time to time; and

(b) to appoint specialist advisers to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee’s order of reference.

(7) The committee shall have power to appoint a sub-committee, which shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report to the committee from time to time.

(8) The committee shall have power to report from time to time the evidence taken before the sub-committee.

Mr Speaker,

“The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.”

That is how former Prime Minister David Cameron described the next big scandal to hit British politics, back in 2010. We might think that what David Cameron lacks in transparency he makes up for in fortune telling, except that he had inside information because the person exploiting the loopholes would be the very same David Cameron.

We had a Conservative Prime Minister giving Lex Greensill access to all areas of Government. He was brought in and given privileged access to the heart of Government with the title and the business card of a senior adviser in the Prime Minister’s office. Then—what a stroke of luck—when he was no longer Prime Minister, and just past the required period, when he no longer needed the approval of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, David Cameron joined Greensill to lobby the Conservative Government full of his friends.

Having refused to respond to any questions at all for 40 days, David Cameron chose a period of national grief, hoping that there would be less political criticism and less scrutiny. It is cynical and it is shabby, and the statement itself was toe-curling. He is not sorry for his conduct, for the texts and the drinks, but he is sorry he got caught and he is sorry that his shares are now worthless. This is not just a question of why he did not go through the correct channels; it is question of why he was doing this at all.

Let us be really clear: David Cameron was not working in the national interest; he was working in his own personal interest, with the hope of making millions of pounds for himself through the exercise of his share options. But questions cannot just be asked of David Cameron, when it is current Conservative Ministers who have paved the way for this scandal. When it comes to lobbying, it takes two to tango. For every former Minister lobbying, there is someone in power being lobbied. That is why this scandal is not just about the conduct of David Cameron during his time as Prime Minister and in the years afterwards. This is about who he lobbied in the current Government and how they responded.

Lex Greensill was awarded a CBE and was made a Crown representative by a Conservative Government, yet his company’s spectacular collapse now means that over 50,000 jobs are at risk around the world, including thousands in the UK’s steel communities, from Hartlepool to Stocksbridge, from Rotherham to Scunthorpe and to Newport. The steel industry is crucial and the Government must make it clear that our steel industry will not pay the price for the failures at Greensill and beyond.

This Government have set up an inquiry, but just about supply chain finance and Greensill. Such a review is wholly inadequate, and deliberately so. They do not want to explore what needs to change in lobbying or who currently gets access to power, or the wider issue of how to lift standards, which have fallen so far in the 10 years of Conservative Governments. They do not want public hearings. They do not want the disinfectant of sunlight, as David Cameron once urged. They just want this to go away, which is why they have chosen Nigel Boardman to chair the inquiry.

It is a fact that Nigel Boardman is a good friend—a very good friend—of the Conservative Government. Some may suspect that the son of a former Conservative Cabinet Minister might be unlikely to make waves, but let us look at his record. Mr Boardman has been paid over £20,000 per year as a non-executive director at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—a Department with a real interest in the British Business Bank, which lent to Greensill, and the British steel industry, where so many jobs are now at risk. Mr Boardman has already whitewashed the Government’s handling of public procurement during the pandemic and I fear that he will do the same again with this inquiry.

You will remember, Mr Speaker, that I jointly chaired the inquiry into the collapse of Carillion. The fact that Mr Boardman’s law firm made £8 million advising Carillion, including £1 million on the day before the outsourcers collapsed, leaves a terrible taste in my mouth as it should in the mouths of Members on the Government Benches. To cap it all, Mr Boardman was appointed to a prestigious role at the British Museum by—oh, by David Cameron! What is being proposed by the Government is not remotely fit for purpose. It is not an inquiry. It is not independent. It is an insult to us all.

The scope of this inquiry has to be bigger than supply chain financing. It has to be about lobbying, too, and bigger than what rules were broken. If the existing lobbying rules were not breached, that is a big part of the problem, surely. Had the Conservatives backed Labour’s amendments to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill back in 2014, there would have been much more transparency, but they did not. David Cameron and his Government voted them down, and boy are they exploiting them now! We need public service in the national interest, not people viewing the state like some get-rich-quick scheme, with taxpayers treated as collateral damage.

We now learn that the Conservatives are joined in all this by the SNP, whose Rural Economy Secretary in the Scottish Government dined with Lex Greensill in one of Glasgow’s finest restaurants with no officials, no notes, no emails, no texts and no phone records about the meeting. Here in Westminster, we have witnessed the degrading of the ministerial code.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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We have absolutely no quibble with what the shadow Minister has been saying, but is she trying to draw an equivalence between what David Cameron did and what Fergus Ewing did in a meeting that was recorded and has been publicly available for a long time on the Scottish Government’s website? There was nothing untoward in what Fergus Ewing did, and in trying to conflate the two, the hon. Lady does a great disservice to herself and her argument.

Rachel Reeves Portrait Rachel Reeves
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Well, the Scottish people can be the judge of that. If the hon. Member thinks that a Scottish Minister dining with Lex Greensill is okay, his party should put that on its leaflets in the elections in May.

Sir Alex Allan resigned as independent adviser on ministerial interests following the Prime Minister’s failure to take action on the Home Secretary’s bullying behaviour. That was five months ago. The Government have not replaced him. They have not even advertised the job. What does that say about how seriously this Government take standards?

--- Later in debate ---
Chloe Smith Portrait The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution (Chloe Smith) [V]
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I welcome the chance to contribute to this Opposition day debate. I am sure that you will appreciate, Mr Speaker, that it is appropriate and possible to do so virtually.

First, may I add my own tribute to those made earlier this week to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, whose commitment to the service of this country and to the highest possible standards of conduct was exemplary?

During the extraordinary challenge of covid-19, the Government have worked with people and businesses of all sorts—from private citizens to key workers, from our brilliant small and medium-sized enterprises to multi- nationals. In that monumental effort to protect the public and save lives across the country, civil servants across Government, working under incredible pressure, have achieved extraordinary things.

Even away from times of crisis, this country can be proud of the standards that we uphold. In Transparency International’s 2020 index, which ranks countries, the United Kingdom was ranked above close European neighbours such as France and Ireland in 11th place. We are the first G20 country to establish a public register of domestic company beneficial ownership and the first G7 country to undergo an IMF fiscal transparency evaluation.

This Government value such reputation and will always uphold it. As hon. Members heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister say just now, we are concerned about some of what has emerged in recent weeks. Most of what this complex motion proposes is already being done. Indeed, as the policy Minister responsible, it is perfectly sensible for me to respond today on behalf of my Department. The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) has shadowed me before—10 years ago—and it is good to see her again today in her place.

The motion seeks to establish in Standing Orders a Select Committee with a remit so wide-ranging as to cut across Parliament’s existing Committees and independent bodies that have responsibilities in this area. Let us take the elements part by part. Looking at the effectiveness of existing legislation on lobbying, the Government are already doing this and I shall explain more in a second. On the Greensill affair, an independent review was announced this week, before this motion was laid, and will be effected. On transparency measures and the ACOBA framework, the Cabinet Office is already working to strengthen the former and supporting the reforms of my noble Friend Lord Pickles to bolster the latter. We are opposing the motion today because it seeks to duplicate the work that is already in the gift of Parliament and its Committees and, as I will set out now, work that is already being undertaken by the Government.

Starting with the effectiveness of existing lobbying legislation, we are currently conducting post-legislative scrutiny of part 1 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, which we all know as the lobbying Act. It is looking precisely at the scope and effectiveness of that legislation. The hon. Lady did not mention that—not one whit. That legislation introduced a new statutory register of consultant lobbyists and a requirement that those undertaking paid lobbying on behalf of any third party must register and make clear who they are representing to Ministers and permanent secretaries.

The requirement for consultant lobbyists to declare that work complements the system of self-regulation that lobbyists also adhere to through professional codes of conduct. It makes transparent otherwise hidden lobbying. It remains an important part of the framework, filling an accountability and transparency gap that existed prior to that point. We think that it operates effectively but, as I have said, we are looking at whether further improvements can be made, as is best practice through post-legislative scrutiny. Once that work is complete, we intend to deliver a memorandum to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee for further scrutiny. Would it really be constructive for these workstreams to be undertaken in parallel by separate Committees, potentially cutting across one another, sowing confusion? We think that it would not.

While the creation of Select Committees is of course a matter for the House, there are already relevant Committees in Parliament with the powers and capacity to do such work as is proposed. I note that the Chair, and indeed the prior Chair, of PACAC have already spoken today. That Committee is responsible for the examination of the quality and standards of administration across the Government. In this Parliament, it has already undertaken relevant inquiries. Indeed, it has also called the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to give evidence. It has the powers to send for persons, papers and records, and to report to the House—the powers proposed for the new Committee—so I question the necessity of an additional Committee. Indeed, that additional proposed Committee would also cost a quarter of a million pounds.

Her Majesty’s Government has a full framework in place to ensure that public money is spent efficiently, and that those who serve as stewards of those public resources act in accordance with the highest standards and in the public interest. The use of public money is overseen by the Treasury and, of course, Parliament, and the use of public position and information is overseen by the Cabinet Office and rightly held to account by Parliament and the public. Furthermore, all those who work across the public sector are expected to maintain the ethical standards embodied in the seven principles of public life, which underpin the respective codes for Ministers, for the civil service and for special advisors, as well as the code of conduct for board members of public bodies. That requirement to act with integrity means that public office holders must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work, and all holders of public office must declare and resolve any interests.

We are not complacent, neither about the scale of this challenge nor about taking action where necessary to uphold the public’s faith in what we should all stand for. Since 2010, under the coalition and then under Conservative Governments, we have significantly increased transparency on the workings of Government—which the public should rightly be able to expect—from publishing contracts and details of spending, salaries, tenders and meetings to launching that statutory register of consultant lobbyists, far more than ever published under the last Labour Government. This Government have banned the once-endemic practice of Government quangos hiring lobbyists to lobby the Government. They have ensured that taxpayer-funded Government grants are not then used to lobby the Government themselves. They have introduced greater transparency of trade unions and campaign finance controls on third parties seeking to lobby in our elections, so when the Government are being held to account—as is right—it is because a tougher regime of transparency has been in place for over a decade, and is now the norm.

We are going further still to uphold the covenant of trust with the public. I have already touched on the Government’s review of lobbying legislation. In addition, we are reviewing and improving business appointment rules, which I will return to in a moment or two. However, as the hon. Member for Leeds West dwelt upon at some length, the Cabinet Office this week has announced a review on behalf of the Prime Minister into the role in Government of Greensill Capital, the finance company that went into administration last month. The review will look at the development and use of supply chain finance associated activities in Government, and specifically the role of Greensill, including how contracts were secured and business representatives engaged with Government.

The review will be wide-ranging, and will also consider the issues raised by my noble Friend Lord Pickles regarding Mr Bill Crothers’ role at Greensill Capital. The public can be assured that Mr Nigel Boardman, the senior lawyer leading the review, who will pause his activities as a non-executive director at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for the duration, will have full access to the people who were in government at the relevant time and who made the relevant decisions. I would add that the information that has already emerged in recent weeks about Greensill Capital has done so in some part because the system in place is doing its job, and ensuring support for transparency and accountability.

I will not go into great detail further about recent events, because that inquiry will do so, but two further things can be said now about lobbying policy. First, the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists conducted an investigation into Mr David Cameron’s activities, and has confirmed that those did not require registration under the current legislative framework. For good reason, these rules apply to consultant lobbyists, who may seek to influence policy making on behalf of a third party who would otherwise be hidden. Mr Cameron was working openly in-house as an employee. To complement this law, the meetings of Ministers and permanent secretaries with external organisations are published on a quarterly basis and are made available on gov.uk. That data describes both the purpose of the meeting and the names of the organisations or individuals who are met. That is very important. Regulation must of course balance the need for transparency by lobbyists while not preventing engagement by the voluntary and private sectors.

The second thing is to engage in the politics of today’s Opposition day, although it is a great shame to do so in a period of national mourning. The hon. Member for Leeds West failed to say that Labour now wants to repeal the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. This was in its manifesto, alongside repealing the Trade Union Act 2016. Who is not to say that the Labour party would simply give favours to the union barons who bankroll it? After the EU referendum, Labour MPs called for tighter controls on third-party campaigning, but their official policy is to rip up these lobbying laws. Indeed, in 2014, at the time of making that law, the Labour party supported amendments that would have placed significant barriers on engagement and required thousands of businesses, charities, non-governmental organisations and trade bodies to pay a registration fee of £1,000 a year to write or speak to Ministers. This could have been detrimental to the public interest during the covid pandemic, when groups across civil society rightly wanted to put their case to Government.

However, I agree with the hon. Lady that transparency and probity are fundamental. I would like to cover one more area on business appointment rules. As I have mentioned, the Cabinet Office is working with Lord Pickles, who is the chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments—ACOBA—to improve and extend the business appointment regime. That applies lobbying bans on former Ministers and civil servants, including special advisers. The business appointment rules seek to protect the integrity of the Government while allowing for people to move on to roles outside government. Although affording ACOBA statutory powers to enforce these rules would be out of line with the general principle of UK law that Ministers and officials are subject to the same legal system and statutory framework as everybody else, ACOBA is able to enforce a range of sanctions for non-compliance. That is very important. The Government support changes being introduced by ACOBA to improve the business appointment process. A framework with a risk-based consideration of cases aims to bring greater transparency and improve the reporting of any breach of the rules, increasing the moral and reputational pressure on those leaving public office. In addition, the Cabinet Office is leading work to improve the scope, clarity and enforcement of the rules, and how consistently and proportionately they are implemented across government. In short, we are taking action on a range of fronts to ensure that we maintain the highest standards in our politics and public life.

We should all condemn the kind of lobbying that gives politics and politicians a bad name in all parts of the House, but this motion does not achieve that. Instead, it sidetracks, proliferates and duplicates. I invite Labour to settle its own view, find its own position, and agree with us that transparency and probity are vitally important. I urge all hon. and right hon. Members to join us in this work to continue to scrutinise these critically important matters through the work of existing Select Committees, through the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and through the inquiry that we have now set up—among other ongoing, unstinting efforts that are of course accountable to this House—and to vote against this unnecessary and unconstructive motion that achieves so little extra. It is incumbent on all politicians to act with integrity as elected Members, as Ministers when we hold such positions, and in accordance with the principles of public life. It is incumbent on all of us in this House to ensure that important issues are carefully and effectively scrutinised. I have explained today how the Government are playing their part in this, and I urge all hon. Members to vote against the motion.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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Mr Speaker,

“I believe that secret corporate lobbying…goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest. It’s an issue that...has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.”

Wise words indeed, and I wish they were mine, but they are not. They were said by David Cameron in February 2010, just a few short months before he became Prime Minister. He became Prime Minister with a promise that:

“If we win the election, we will take a lead on this issue by making sure that ex-ministers are not allowed to use their contacts and knowledge—gained while being paid by the public to serve the public—for their own private gain.”

Today, David Cameron, that self-styled great reformer, is up to his neck in the same cronyism, corruption and sleaze that he promised to call out, expose and eradicate while in opposition.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking, and not simply because nothing has changed. We now know that far from taking on the corrosive culture of the nod and a wink and the old boys’ club favouritism, he actually took it into government. We now know that while David Cameron was Prime Minister, Lex Greensill himself became so embedded in Downing Street that by 2012, he even had an official No. 10 business card, describing himself as a “Senior Advisor”.

Almost 10 years to the day after delivering those stirring words and making those great promises, we discover that David Cameron directly lobbied the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and senior Government officials, thereby securing 10 meetings in three months in an attempt to influence the UK Government’s covid corporate financing facility. He did it to benefit Greensill Capital, where he was then working as an adviser and lobbyist for the same Lex Greensill and where he reportedly held share options worth millions of pounds.

I invite Members to compare and contrast that level of access to the Chancellor and the powers that be at the centre of Government with that given to the millions of people and businesses left without any UK Government support during the pandemic, and in particular the group of the excluded—those 3 million self-employed people who have been left without a penny of Government support. What they would have given for just one of the opportunities that were afforded Mr Cameron, let alone the 10 that he got.

I wonder whether Mr Cameron recalled at any point while brokering those meetings his own hollow words of February 2010. He said:

“We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.”

Of course, now it transpires that the Greensill influence in Downing Street during the Cameron years went even further and deeper than we could ever have imagined, with the astonishing revelation that in 2015, one of Britain’s most senior civil servants was given permission to work part-time as an adviser to the board of Greensill while still serving as the UK Government’s head of procurement.

How is it possible that the Cabinet Office gave the green light for the former Government chief commercial officer at the Cabinet Office to become part of Greensill Capital in September 2015 while still working as a supposedly impartial civil servant? Who authorised such a move? Who approved this appointment? Who thought that that was okay? What questions did the people at the Cabinet Office operating the internal conflict of interest policy actually ask to reach the conclusion that it was perfectly all right for one of the UK’s most senior civil servants to twin-track and work for a private finance company whose owner at that point was swanning about Downing Street, dishing out business cards describing himself as a special adviser to the Prime Minister? It beggars belief.

This is crony capitalism at its worst. It stinks. The closer we get to it, the more it reeks, and that is why we will be supporting a full independent and transparent investigation and why we will support this motion when the House divides this afternoon.

On its own, the Greensill scandal would be bad enough. Unfortunately it is far from being an isolated event. It is just the most recent example of the rampant cronyism that is at the heart and centre of this Government, who seem to be stumbling from one scandal to another as the details emerge of a network of those who have become fabulously wealthy during this pandemic not because of their skill or business acumen but because of their political connections. In November last year, the National Audit Office revealed that companies with political connections who wanted to supply the UK with personal protective equipment were directed to a high priority channel, where their bids were 10 times more likely to be successful that those from companies that did not have links to politicians and senior Government officials.

In and of itself, the existence of this high priority channel is quite remarkable, but it becomes far more sinister when we consider that the NAO also reported that there were no written rules for how this high priority channel should operate, meaning that the companies gaining political support had access to hundreds of millions of pounds of public funds, were not subject to the usual procurement rules and could bypass the essential paperwork that in normal times would be a prerequisite for safeguarding against the misuse of public funds.

No matter how we look at this, it is not a good look. I absolutely agree with Professor Liz David-Barrett of the University of Sussex when she said:

“It’s not clear to me why MPs or peers should have any special expertise on whether a company is qualified to provide PPE.”

She is absolutely right. She went on to make the entirely reasonable point that those who can be described as being linked to politically exposed persons are usually treated as being higher risk and therefore deserving of more scrutiny rather than less.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
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I asked a parliamentary question about the standards being applied to people and companies on this supposed fast-track list versus others, to check that the same due diligence standards were being applied to both sides and that there was a level playing field. The answer that I got was that they were and that in this respect the playing field was level, so would the hon. Gentleman care to reconsider his point that the same processes do not apply?

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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What I would love to happen is for the Committee, when it meets, to examine that in detail to find out exactly whether it is true. What is inescapable is that a company is 10 times more likely to receive a Government contract through a political contact. That deserves careful scrutiny and has to be smoked out to the nth degree.

Jamie Stone Portrait Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
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However we collectively as the body politic got into this situation, may I suggest that it is damaging public trust in elected representatives? The one good thing about this Committee, if it were seen to be put in place, would be that it could restore some of that trust and repair some of the damage to democracy in the UK.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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The hon. Gentleman is right. I think we all know from our postbags that, regardless of which side of the House we are on in this debate, we are all tainted by this. Anything that can shine a light on this —admittedly where some might not want it to be shone—would be a very good thing, and I wholeheartedly support it.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
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Is there not another point here, which is that whatever inquiry needs to be done must have the proper powers? For instance, it needs to be able to guarantee that anybody who gives evidence can do so without fear of prosecution, so that if there is a whistle that needs to be blown, it can be blown. It also needs to have subpoena powers, so that people who do not want to give evidence could be forced to do so. So far as I can see, those powers could be provided only by a judge-led inquiry—maybe we should go down that route, but I think it is unnecessary—or by a parliamentary inquiry.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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The short answer is yes, and that is something that I will come on to in a moment. That is why this is so important.

It is not just Members of this House who are questioning the corrosive culture of cronyism at the heart of this Government; it has been attracting some fairly high-profile international attention too. At the end of last year, The New York Times decided to investigate how the UK Government managed what it described as the greatest spending spree in the post-war era. It concluded that of the 1,200 central Government contracts worth nearly $22 billion,

“$11 billion went to companies either run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party, or with no prior experience or a history of controversy.”

That is an incredible amount of money, and any hint that it has been spent at the behest of someone with close ties to Downing Street or for the benefit of companies that have political allies in Government is deeply worrying. It has to be examined—and examined fully, robustly and independently.

While people might understand and accept that things had to happen quickly in the circumstances, and perhaps that normal procurement rules were not sufficiently speedy, they will not accept that a Government have any right to rip up every rule, every standard, every safeguard and to start throwing about public money like a scramble at a wedding, particularly when it is their mates who are there waiting to pick it up.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
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Does my hon. Friend agree that the Committee should perhaps look at other activities that this Government get up to? There are things such as the Brexit contracts—I recall that they gave a contract to a ferry company that had no ferries—and all the appointments to external bodies and regulators, which are further examples of cronyism. We need to look at this in the bigger mix as well.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
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I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I am sure that will not have escaped those on the Treasury Bench.

The Government’s inquiry, led by Nigel Boardman, simply will not work. It cannot be seen to be independent, as we have heard, because of the baggage and the back story that he has. Mr Boardman may have carte blanche to ask whatever questions he likes to whomever he likes, but they will have carte blanche not to answer those questions. If that is the case, what is the point? I have no doubt that this scandal will rumble on, and when it does, we must have a mechanism that is robust enough to see it.

Back in 2010, in his now risible speech, Mr Cameron said:

“We can’t go on like this…it’s time we shone the light…on lobbying in our country and forced our politics to come clean about who is buying power and influence.”

I wish he had meant it back in 2010. We have to mean it now, and that is why we will be supporting this motion.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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We have many speakers to get in in what is a fairly short debate, so I will impose a four-minute limit to start with—that will be on the clocks in the Chamber and on the screens of those participating virtually—but it will probably have to go down to three minutes fairly quickly.

I call the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, William Wragg.

Oral Answers to Questions

Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Thursday 11th February 2021

(8 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office
Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I think Bolton is still a town!

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP) [V]
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Since December, Argyll and Bute’s shellfish exporters have been, in their words, haemorrhaging money. Last week, one small company even paid €1,400 to taxi prawns from Boulogne to Brittany to prevent losing a high-value customer permanently. This cannot be dismissed as teething problems—the industry is being destroyed. When will we see a long-term plan to help all seafood exporters withstand the impossible trading conditions they find themselves in? (912237)

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. His Scottish nationalist party colleague, Fiona Hyslop, who is the Minister in the Scottish Government, is working with the UK Government to ensure that we do everything we can to support the seafood sector across Scotland and, indeed, across the United Kingdom. But I cannot help but observe that if the Scottish nationalist party had its way, we would be back in the common fisheries policy and we would not be able to take control of our waters in the way that we want to.

United Kingdom Internal Market Bill

(2nd reading)
Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Monday 14th September 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office
Bernard Jenkin Portrait Sir Bernard Jenkin
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I do not think it is a matter to be done casually and without very great care, but, as many right hon. and hon. Members, even those objecting to this Bill, are now saying, if the worst comes to the worst, we may have to avail ourselves of these powers, because it is the obligation of this House, first and foremost, to stick up for our national interests.

The EU says it will act against the UK through the European Court, but there is something absurd about the EU attempting to impose its laws on a member state after it has left the bloc—when did the voters endorse that? There is something ironic, even bizarre, about MPs in this Parliament demanding that the EU should continue to impose its laws instead of themselves wanting to make the laws for their constituents—they still do not accept Brexit. One wonders whether the Government recognise better than many here how most voters will react to this. Most of those shouting the loudest now showed how little they understood the voters in the 2016 referendum. Voters will support a Government who are determined to resist the unreasonable enforcement of the withdrawal agreement by the EU. Today, the Government have a strong mandate and a secure Commons majority for taking back control of our laws—voters will expect no less than that and they will give little quarter to this Parliament if they are let down again.

We are in a process of constitutional transition, from being subordinated by the EU legal order towards the restoration of full independence. While we are in this penumbra period of mixed constitutional supremacies, it is unsurprising that this sound of controversy should arise. Our other allies and trading partners will have far more respect for the UK if we stand up for our interests in this way than they will if they watch us accepting that we are to remain indefinitely a non-member subsidiary of the EU. The Government must ensure that there will be a clear end to the jurisdiction of the EU Court; that is the test of whether we are taking back control of our own laws, and our democracy demands it.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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What a self-made mess this Government find themselves in, and it was beautifully articulated by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin). For three long years this Government struggled to get their withdrawal agreement through this place. So much time was spent on it that I doubt that there was a dot or comma of that agreement that was not known to the Government. In January, they signed a legally binding international treaty. The Prime Minister signed it and described it then as a “negotiating triumph”. Not only was it a negotiating triumph, but, as he told the electorate in December, it was “oven-ready” and good to go. He told the electorate, “Vote for me and I will get Brexit done”, and for reasons that I will never fathom, the people of England did. So in December, flushed with a huge majority, he led every single Tory MP through the Lobby to support his deal. However, the Government now want unilaterally to move the goalposts and renege on what they signed up to at the start of the year. In so doing, they are wilfully prepared to break international law, take the UK’s already diminished reputation further into the gutter and take a wrecking ball to the devolution settlement. Even for this Government that is quite an achievement.

Are Ministers asking us to believe that, despite three years of intense negotiation, they did not actually understand what they were voting for, and that they did not understand what their confidence and supply partners from the Democratic Unionist party were saying about differential arrangements between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK? Are we to believe that they were unable to grasp the implications of their own Northern Ireland protocol—the one they designed with the EU to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland? It is not credible because it is not true.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown
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My hon. Friend makes a fine point: it is not credible and there has been bluff after bluff. Is it not the case that when the warnings were pointed out, Ministers stood at that Dispatch Box and said, “Don’t worry, we have a magic solution There won’t be any cameras or infrastructure at the border; technology will solve it all.”? We have technology that can control the movement of people and goods and deal with different customs arrangements”? Yet another bluff from an incompetent Government.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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14 Sep 2020, 12:01 a.m.

My hon. Friend hits the nail squarely on the head. That is absolutely true. They knew exactly what they were signing up to and exactly what they were voting on—a fact acknowledged by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster himself, who said in April that the deal ensures that we can leave the EU, and it is “entirely consistent” with the Belfast agreement and all our other domestic and international obligations.

So, how did we get from the agreement being a negotiating triumph in January, and being entirely consistent with domestic and international obligations in April, to today, with a Government boasting that they will knowingly breach international law if they do not get their own way? I believe that, in short, it is because those at the heart of this Government have decided, in true Trumpian fashion, that the UK will no longer play by the rules. They have cynically done their sums and reckon they have the numbers to push this legislation through. It is the behaviour of a Government who have lost their moral compass—a Government who have been reduced to using the Good Friday agreement as a bargaining chip.

It is little wonder that the United Kingdom is fast becoming regarded as a bad-faith actor among the international community, where adherence to international law and the obligations that come with it are what sets us apart from rogue states and dictatorships. The irony of all this is that it emerged against the backdrop of the faux outrage about the last night of the proms and whether it was appropriate to play “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!”; we know it is a case of Britannia waives the rules. It is not just now; it was ever thus. Ask the Irish and the people of India. Go to large swaths of Africa. Go anywhere that is still recovering from the wreckage of British colonialism and the people there will give chapter and verse about Britannia bending, breaking, inventing and waiving the rules all day long to suit its own ends. The world had hoped and probably half expected that those days were gone; sadly, they clearly are not.

For Scotland, it does not have to be this way: we have an escape route available to us—an escape route with independence that will take us back to the family of nations of the European Union, as a law-abiding European country on an equal footing with every other independent country. It is little wonder that opinion poll after opinion poll has shown a majority for independence. I confidently predict that tonight’s shenanigans will bring that independence closer and Scotland will become an equal member of the European Union, because that is the fast-approaching settled will of the Scottish people.

Imran Ahmad Khan Portrait Imran Ahmad Khan (Wakefield) (Con)
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14 Sep 2020, 12:05 a.m.

Just like the overwhelming majority of Members, I was returned to this House on the promise of getting Brexit done. I am an ardent supporter of Brexit and look forward eagerly to the opportunity to bolster the United Kingdom’s position by becoming an independent, self-governing nation, possessed of the confidence that flows from our vision and principled values.

Although I stand four-square behind the Government’s policies and objectives, including those advanced by the Bill, I cannot vote for legislation that a Cabinet Minister stated from the Dispatch Box will break international law. Before I was returned to this House, I spent many years in distant, sometimes dangerous places on behalf of our country, our closest friend, the United States, NATO and the UN, where I was committed to upholding the international rules-based system, which is the only shield we have against the law of the jungle. The rules-based system is, of course, one that the United Kingdom was proud to play a central role in building.

I have every sympathy with Her Majesty’s Government and place the responsibility for the impending denouement firmly with the EU, as it haughtily refuses to deal with the UK as a sovereign equal, like our sibling Canada. The Northern Ireland protocol was agreed on the assumption that Brussels would provide an off-the-shelf trade deal with no bells and whistles, as Monsieur Barnier himself offered. That would have involved no more than a light-touch border between Britain and Ulster. The EU has moved the goalposts. The prospect of a no-deal rupture and intra-UK trade tariffs has constitutional implications for the United Kingdom, creating a much harder trade border in the Irish sea than Unionists supposed. It therefore intrudes ineluctably on the Belfast agreement.

Lobby and Media Briefings: Journalists' Access

Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Tuesday 4th February 2020

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office
Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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4 Feb 2020, 1:35 p.m.

This is an important point. As we have already discussed, there are ways to do that, and this Government are committed to them. We have mentioned some points of policy, and we have looked at the business rates point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison). To that, I add the way that this Government are making sure that they are available on social media, which, by its very nature, does not require to be inside any Westminster bubble. That is a way for people rightly to be able to hold this Government to account. It is that kind of principle that we hold very highly, and what I have been able to outline today are all the ways in which we are doing that.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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4 Feb 2020, 1:35 p.m.

Clearly, the Minister cannot defend what has happened and therefore she is providing a master class in whataboutery. Yesterday, Downing Street announced that there was a new show in town and that it was doing it simply because it can. It was deliberately sinister and knowingly provocative. I am sure that those involved are celebrating the fact that they have an urgent question out of it. What happened yesterday was out of President Trump’s playbook for bullies, and I am sure that those involved are feeling pretty smug about it. Did the Minister and her colleagues know that this was the type of Government they were voting for when they so enthusiastically backed Boris?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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4 Feb 2020, 1:36 p.m.

The type of Government we are talking about is the type that has just won a resounding majority at a general election and has the support of the people. I think that is a pretty good answer to his question.

Oral Answers to Questions

Brendan O'Hara Excerpts
Wednesday 8th January 2020

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office
Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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8 Jan 2020, 12:20 p.m.

Yes, indeed I will. I pay tribute, by the way, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb)—where is he?—who campaigned for so long for synthetic phonics, which has done such a huge amount to help kids to read in this country. This is the only country in the G7 where the reading performance of disadvantaged pupils has actually improved since 2009. We need to do more, and as my hon. Friend says, that is why we are investing more now—record sums—in education.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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Q6. Margaret Thatcher— Hurrah! Order. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Margaret Thatcher, John Major and the right hon. Gentleman’s immediate predecessor all accepted that the Union of the United Kingdom can only be maintained by consent. Yet despite winning three elections seeking to test that consent, the Prime Minister insists that the SNP Government do not have a mandate to hold another independence referendum, so could he tell me exactly what mechanism is available to the Scottish people to give their consent or otherwise for maintaining this Union, and how they should go about exercising that? [900075]

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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8 Jan 2020, 12:22 p.m.

I can only repeat my point, which is that the Scottish people do have a mechanism. They used it in 2014: it is a referendum. It took place, and as I think SNP Members all confirmed, it was a once-in-a-generation event.