Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

(Committee stage)
Cat Smith Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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

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

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

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

Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)
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Does my hon. Friend agree that the new clause is a much more effective way of keeping the courts out? The ouster clause is a bit like a red flag or saying to someone, “Don’t think of an elephant”—they will think of an elephant. It is saying to the courts, “You can’t touch this,” which would be a charter for clever lawyers and clever judges to start to think, “Where can we start to look at this?” rather than using the long-established, age-old way of deciding matters: a vote here in Parliament.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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I agree. In fact, it is probably like dealing with a toddler: if we tell them not to do something, we know fine well that they will do it.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
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I will not debate the points of politics with the hon. Lady. On her comments about using Parliament for Dissolution, we have had all of that. There are probably few Members of the public watching us in the Chamber tonight, but they certainly watched what happened in 2019. Surely when we have a Chamber in stalemate, the Government should be able to resign. She will recall how her then leader stood on Parliament Square to say that the Government should resign but then came in here and stopped them from resigning, which was incredible. Surely when Parliament is deadlocked, as it was then, the Government should be able to resign and that should just happen, not be stopped by Parliament.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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They should do it today.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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I agree with the heckling from my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda. I think the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) is quite wrong and that the public are watching the debate with deep fascination. He underestimates the passion for constitutional legislation in this place. The point is that the new clause would remove the possibility of the courts being involved, and I think there is consensus across the Committee that that would be desirable. It strikes me that new clause 2 would be the most straightforward and easy way to do that. Of course, we know fine well that if the Government of the day can carry the House—in most cases, they can—there would be no issue in having a Dissolution. It would also avoid dragging the monarch into politics and remove the governing party’s electoral advantage. The new clause therefore strengthens the Bill, so I support it.

I turn to amendments 1 to 3 and new clause 1 on the length of an election campaign. It is impossible to look at the Bill without considering how it would move us to a position in which pretty much all elections will be unscheduled. I say “unscheduled” rather than “snap” because I recognise that an election period is very long; it certainly does not feel very snappy for candidates, voters or anyone campaigning. Unscheduled elections cause a problem for our electoral administrators. From having spoken to many of them and heard representations from the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators, it is clear that many close misses happen on the timetable, and a reduction of the timetable alongside the Bill, which could lead to more unscheduled elections, risks the public’s confidence in our democratic elections. For that reason, although it would be desirable to have shorter elections, I cannot support those amendments.

The Bill is not in a vacuum—we also have the Elections Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill before the House—and taken together, it is clearly part of a political power grab with a movement of power away from Parliament. It is a movement away from 650 Members to the hands of one man or woman who is Prime Minister, who will decide when the starting gun will be fired on an election. The Bill is, frankly, an overreaction to and misunderstanding of the causes of the gridlock in the 2019 Parliament. The principle of fixed terms is not wrong, although the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was clearly flawed. Prorogation should be in the hands of Parliament, not the Executive.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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I rise to speak in particular to new clause 1 in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), my hon. Friends the Members for North West Cambridgeshire (Shailesh Vara), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) and for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) and a number of others. It is well supported. As the Minister set out, this is an important Bill. I had the privilege of serving on the Joint Committee on the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, where we heard the most extraordinary body of evidence about the last 10 years. I must say that it was overwhelmingly in support of the Government’s direction, which should take us back to the status quo ante position so eloquently outlined by the Minister. However, the evidence sessions also revealed a number of gaps—things that the Bill might do but does not—particularly on general campaigns and their lengths.

The Minister talked about the importance of a clear and easily understood scheme, and I completely agree. Elections are incredibly important parts of our democratic process—the pillar of the process in many ways—and should be clear and easily understood. However, as I alluded to in my intervention, the length of general elections is neither clear nor easily understood, and one must dive into the mice type to find out what the rules are.

The legislation says that elections should be 25 days in length, but that is not actually what it means: it is 25 days plus high days and holidays, and in essence that means an awful lot longer.

--- Later in debate ---
Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

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

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

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

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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This Bill would have benefited from being amended in Committee. Although it is right and proper that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is repealed, as it was so clearly flawed, reverting to the status quo hands power to the Executive. Indeed, it is a power grab by a Tory party that believes there is one rule for it and another rule for everybody else.

This Bill should not be the Government’s priority during a global pandemic. While our doctors and nurses are having to wear bin bags, the Government are coming up with legislation to play to their own electoral advantage. However, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was clearly a flawed piece of legislation and the 2019 Labour manifesto committed to repealing it. Although the Bill could have been improved in Committee, and it is regrettable that it was not, we will be abstaining on Third Reading.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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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.