The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution (Chloe Smith)
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I thank all the very many friends across the House who have said such nice things to me today. It makes me blush but it makes me pleased and happy to rejoin you in person and to be able to lead the closing of the debate on this very important Bill.
I thank everybody who has spoken, including well-known sparring partners on the Opposition Front Benches, with a new one joining from the SNP, so I look forward to many a time speaking on constitutional matters with the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson). I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), who is nearly in his place, and the members of the Joint Committee who have spoken, as well as many other colleagues from across the House.
I will cover as many of the specific points that have been made as I can, but let me start by outlining how today’s debate has underlined how our former and fundamental constitutional arrangements work, with the flexibility that is essential to our parliamentary democracy. The Bill restores that constitutional balance. How do we restore the former arrangements? With reference to the comments by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), it is very important to be clear about how the Bill does this puzzle of reviving the prerogative power. There are two aspects: whether it can be revived, and, critically and importantly, the practical effect of doing so. I will cover both very briefly.
Our view is that the prerogative power can be revived but that express provision is needed, and clause 2 does exactly that. It delivers on its intended purpose to firmly reset the clock with as much clarity as possible. In preparing the Bill, we engaged with a wide range of stakeholders, including many academics, some of whom have been quoted but many more of whom also agreed with the Government’s approach, including Professor Mark Elliott. The drafting is therefore sufficiently clear, as the Joint Committee agreed.
Moving on to the practical effect, a former First Parliamentary Counsel also agrees with the Government’s approach, talking about this question almost as
“a red herring…because…it is perfectly plain that the intention of the Act is to restore the situation to what it was before…and therefore the law will then be indistinguishable”.
Let me turn from that into how this power works and what is being restored. Here we talk about the role of the sovereign. I note that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) was, if I heard her correctly, arguing or concerned that it perhaps was not clear what the role of the sovereign might be in the returning system. Indeed, I think the hon. Member for Midlothian made the same point. I want to be absolutely clear: there remains a role for the sovereign in exceptional circumstances to refuse a Dissolution request. I am not going to be able to speculate on that from the Dispatch Box. It would not be sensible for me to do so, but other Members of this House have already offered some examples this afternoon, such as, for example, if an Opposition already had the numbers to be able to form a Government and could demonstrate confidence and viability. That point was made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). Unfortunately he is not here to enjoy me joining him in making it.
Turning to how the conventions endure, I thank the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove for bringing that point out very well. I also thank Joint Committee members, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), who reminded us of the Lascelles principles. What I will say here is just a point about how we see the principles that accompany the prerogative power—the convention principles, or the Dissolution principles, as we named them in a document that we published alongside the Bill—going forward. That document was published to facilitate Parliament’s discussion and consideration of these very important accompanying points. We also provided a very full response to the Joint Committee, which was a further opportunity to go further in outlining the conventions as commonly understood.
I think the place for further discussion and debate on these conventions is here in Parliament—in this Chamber and the other. That will provide us with a shared understanding and the commanding of confidence— I should say “agreement”; “confidence” risks being misunderstood in the context of our debate this afternoon. It will provide us with the commanding of agreement on what provides conventions, and therefore those conventions may be able to endure.
Let me go from there to what we intend to restore and some elements that we are maintaining, although the grander scheme here is to return to a former set of arrangements. The purpose of the Bill, as I say, is to restore the long-standing arrangements that existed before the 2011 Act, but there are some exceptions, and those are where changes had already been made to enable the smooth running of elections. That brings me to, for example, the retaining of the 25 working day period between Dissolution and polling day. That ensures the continued operability of our electoral system, and I will just dwell on that for a few minutes, because a number of hon. and right hon. Members raised it.
There are three points to be made, and each is about the benefit for voters, which is a point that rang out loud and clear—that we should have such arrangements for the benefit of voters, not administrators or, indeed, politicians. The first point is that the timetable as it stands gives enough time for nominations to be received—six days—and then 19 days for those nominations to be decided upon. Let us remember that in our constitution we have a constituency-based decision going on each time. Any voter in any constituency rightly needs time to consider and decide upon the candidates in the constituency once nominated.
The second point is how much change has occurred in electoral delivery since the arrangements that we are otherwise seeking to restore were created. That is to say that the system of delivering elections is more complex than at any other point in our history. First, before 2014, there was no online individual electoral registration. That is a point of fundamental change that has enabled increasingly higher numbers of last-minute applications. That is of benefit to voters, and I would argue very strongly so. Secondly, postal voting on demand was only allowed in 2000. Again, that is the subject of debate, but I would argue that it is very strongly of benefit to voters.
My third and final point is that, in the written evidence to the Joint Committee, the Association of Electoral Administrators argued strongly that
“it would be catastrophic for everyone involved…if the… period were to be shortened…It would create a significant risk of the election failing and not being delivered and increase the risk of disenfranchising potential electors, particularly those voting from overseas.”
Fundamentally, that is a point that we should be concerned about, and it is a point in favour of the benefit to voters.
Let me move on to acknowledge what it is that we are leaving behind if we are moving to restore a different system. At this point, I acknowledge the words of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and thank him again for his kind words to me. Fundamentally, his argument here is one for statute and one for qualification, and, fundamentally, my argument is not. We will have to agree to differ on that, and we will do so in the Lobby tonight. What we mean by moving away from a statutory system is that we do not think that it is possible to define everything. All the scenarios that could occur at the point at which a Dissolution might be needed could not possibly be codified, so statute is not adequate in this case. What we do think, though, is that there is a very important role for the House of Commons, and I want to make this point because it came up in several hon. Members’ remarks.
There is, of course, a crucial voting role for the House of Commons in indicating confidence in the Government, or the opposite of it. That is no small role at all. To swap a statutorily defined role for the House of Commons for that role is no small swap. Fundamentally, of course, having confidence is what defines the Government. There could be no more powerful role for the House of Commons in our constitution.
That takes us to the point of certainty that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) very wisely made. The certainty comes because the people will know that they then have their role. If it has not been possible to find confidence in the House of Commons in the formation of a Government, then the power flows to the people, and that is a certain understanding of what will happen.