Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

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

(1 month ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office
Eleanor Laing Portrait The Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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With this it will be convenient to consider the following:

Clauses 2 and 3 stand part.

Amendment 2, in clause 4, page 2, line 3, leave out “it first met” and insert “of the most recent general election”

The intention of this amendment is to require that the last date for a general election is five years after the previous general election.

Clauses 4, 5 and 6 stand part.

New clause 1—Election timetable not to disregard Saturdays and Sundays and bank holidays—

‘(1) Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 is amended as follows.

(2) In rule 2 (1), omit sub-paragraphs (a) and (b).”

The purpose of this new clause is to reduce the time between dissolution and the next meeting of Parliament, by including weekends and bank holidays within the parliamentary general election timetable.

New clause 2—Early parliamentary general elections—

‘(1) An early parliamentary general election may take place sooner than the automatic dissolution under section 4 of this Act only in accordance with this section.

(2) An early parliamentary general election is to take place only if the House of Commons passes a motion in the form set out in subsection (3).

(3) The form of motion for the purposes of subsection (2) is—

(none) “That there shall be an early parliamentary general election.”

(4) Subsection (5) applies for the purposes of the Timetable in rule 1 in Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983.

(5) If a parliamentary general election is to take place as provided for by subsection (2), the polling day for the election is to be the day appointed by Her Majesty by proclamation on the recommendation of the Prime Minister which must be no later than 30 days after the date on which the House of Commons has passed the motion in the form set out in subsection (3).”

The intention of this new clause is to make dissolution subject to a vote of the House of Commons.

New clause 5—Calling of Parliament—

‘(1) The date for the first meeting of a new Parliament must be specified in any proclamation for the dissolution of a Parliament.

(2) The date specified in accordance with subsection (1) may not be later than the 14th day after polling day.”

The intention of this new clause is to require Parliament to meet, and a newly elected Commons to sit to elect a Speaker, within two weeks of a general election.

Amendment 3, in the Schedule, page 4, line 22, leave out “19th” and insert “12th”

The intention of this amendment is to shorten the period between dissolution of one Parliament and the first meeting of the next Parliament by reducing the general election campaign from 25 days to 18.

Amendment 4, page 7, line 15, after “subsection (2)” insert “and”

This is a drafting amendment consequential on Amendment 5.

Amendment 5, page 7, line 17, leave out from “(ii)” to end of line 19 and insert “omit paragraph (b)”

This amendment would ensure that the Secretary of State could not make regulations to combine a UK General Election and an extraordinary general election to the Senedd.

Schedule stand part.

Chloe Smith Portrait The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution (Chloe Smith)
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May I initially seek your guidance, Chairman? Would you like me to cover all the clause stand parts and to respond, as it were, in advance to amendments? Or would you like me to return to respond to hon. Members once they have spoken to their amendments?

Eleanor Laing Portrait The Chairman
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That is a perfectly reasonable question from the Minister. As all matters are grouped in one group, she may, in her opening remarks, refer to all amendments and clauses standing part, but of course she will have an opportunity to answer points made by Members when they introduce their amendments and new clauses. Or should I say “he”—[Interruption.] I should say “they”, as the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) has a new clause as well. It is perfectly in order for the Minister to now address everything that is on the amendment paper.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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Thank you very much indeed, Dame Eleanor. I shall endeavour to do that, and I hope you will bear with me while I ensure that I cover all that material.

Let me begin at the beginning, with clause 1. There is consensus throughout the House that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has proven to be not fit for purpose and has been damaging to effective and accountable government. The experience of 2019 in particular showed us that the Act was flawed and ran counter to core constitutional principles, and was therefore damaging to the flexible functioning of our constitution. It was unique legislation and it did not work. We saw how, in 2017, a Government who commanded a majority in the House of Commons were able to call an early general election with ease, irrespective of the Act’s intentions.

The events of 2019 then demonstrated how the 2011 Act could obstruct democracy by making it harder to hold a necessary election. The Act’s prescriptive constraints, such as the threshold of a supermajority requirement for a general election and the statutory motions of no confidence, created an untenable situation in which the Government could neither pass vital legislation through Parliament nor call a new election. The result was parliamentary paralysis at a critical time for our Government. The introduction of bespoke primary legislation that circumvented the Act and let us hold a general election in 2019 was the final indictment of the Act.

The Bill therefore repeals the 2011 Act and returns us to the tried and tested system whereby Parliament will automatically dissolve after five years, if it has not been dissolved earlier by the sovereign exercising that prerogative power at the request of the Prime Minister. The key argument is that in doing so it will help to deliver increased legal, constitutional and political certainty around the process for the dissolving of Parliament. Clause 1 repeals the 2011 Act and in doing so delivers, as I have already mentioned, on both a Government manifesto commitment and a Labour manifesto commitment to do so. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.

Clause 2 makes express provision to revive the prerogative powers that relate to the dissolution of Parliament and the calling of a new Parliament. That means that Parliament will, once more, be dissolved by the sovereign at the request of the Prime Minister. By doing this, the clause delivers on the Bill’s purpose, which is to reset the clock back to the pre-2011 position with as much clarity as possible. The clause is clear in its intention and in its effect. As the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act put it, the drafting of clause 2 is

“sufficiently clear to give effect to the Government’s intention of returning to the constitutional position”

that existed prior to the passing of the 2011 Act.

Geoffrey Cox Portrait Sir Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con)
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Will my hon. Friend help the House in respect of whether the Government acknowledge the existence of the Lascelles principles? If they do, what is the impact of clause 2 on those principles?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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Of course the Government and I acknowledge the existence of those principles; they are a historical fact in and of themselves. I refer my right hon. and learned Friend to the fact that we have said consistently throughout the Bill’s preparation and progress so far that we believe that now is the time for the underpinning conventions of the prerogative power to be debated and, indeed, restated. The Government have contributed to that by publishing some Dissolution principles at the beginning of the Bill’s journey. We think those principles form part of a dialogue that continues not only between the Government and Parliament but with the wider public as well. I hope that the work of this Committee today and the work in the other place will together form part of the continuation of that historical tradition of there being an understanding of the conventions that underpin the prerogative.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Mr Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
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Does not the fact that the Prime Minister requests that the monarch take steps so that an election can happen show an understanding of the Lascelles principles? Indeed, there could be other circumstances, yet unforeseen, in which a request is refused.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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Yes, we believe that that is the case; that is the flexibility inherent within the constitutional arrangements that we seek to revive. That brings me back to the express purpose of clause 2, which delivers on the Bill’s purpose, which is, as I said, to reset back to the pre-2011 position with as much clarity as possible. We believe that is clear in our intention to revive the prerogative.

Naturally, I recognise that the revival of the prerogative has been subject to academic debate. For example, as Professor Mark Elliott, professor of public law at the University of Cambridge said:

“Given the scheme of the Bill, it is perfectly clear that the prerogative will be revived and that, from the entry into force of the Bill, the prerogative power of dissolution will once again be exercisable.”

Furthermore, even if any doubts remained from some of the academic debate that has taken place, as the former First Parliamentary Counsel, Sir Stephen Laws, said in his evidence to the Joint Committee, the academic debate is something of

“a red herring, because…it is perfectly plain that the intention of the Act is to restore the situation to what it was before the 2011 Act, and therefore the law will then be indistinguishable from what it was before”.

The Government are, then, confident of the intention and practical effect of the clause. A letter that I sent recently to my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) sets out why we believe that there is a sound legal basis for that position; I hope that Members may have had a chance to see that letter, which I publicised to right hon. and hon. Members. By making express provision to revive the prerogative powers, clause 2 returns us to the tried and tested constitutional arrangements, so I commend it to the Committee.

Clause 3 is necessary and proportionate for the avoidance of doubt and to preserve the long-standing position that the prerogative powers to dissolve one Parliament and call another are non-justiciable. Those prerogative powers are inherently political in nature and, as such, are not suitable for review by the courts. Any judgment on their exercise should be left to the electorate at the polling booth. That was the view of the courts, as expressed by, for example, Lord Roskill in the landmark GCHQ case in 1985: he considered that the courts are not the place to determine whether Parliament should be dissolved on one date or another. That position was recommended more recently in the independent review of administrative law, published in March this year, which noted that clause 3 can be regarded as a “codifying clause” that

“simply restates the position that everyone understood obtained before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was passed”.

As I mentioned earlier, clause 3 has been drafted with regard for the direction of travel in case law. Over the years since the GCHQ case, some of the prerogative powers previously considered to be non-justiciable have been held by the courts to be justiciable. The purpose of the clause is therefore to be as clear as possible about the no-go sign around the dissolution and calling of Parliament. It is carefully drafted to respect the message from the courts that only

“the most clear and explicit words”

can exclude their jurisdiction. This is a matter for Parliament to decide; that view accords with the majority of the Joint Committee, which said that

“Parliament should be able to designate certain matters as ones which are to be resolved in the political rather than the judicial sphere”.

We have made our intentions clear so that the courts will understand that that is the clear will of Parliament. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.

Shailesh Vara Portrait Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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Does my hon. Friend agree that one benefit of clause 3, as well as highlighting all the issues that she has just mentioned, is that it makes it abundantly clear that Parliament is supreme?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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Yes, that is right. I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to all hon. and right hon. Members who served on the Joint Committee and spent a considerable amount of time looking at these issues. That is the kind of consideration that we ought to give to our constitutional affairs rather than taking them in a hurry—a point that I was making earlier. Let me acknowledge my hon. Friend’s point and thank him and others for the work that they did.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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On clause 3, may I take the Minister back to the inclusion of the word “purported” and, in particular, draw her attention to paragraph 166 and the comments of Baroness Hale in relation to the Joint Committee report? She says that

“it looks as if it is saying, “Well, even if what we did”—

that is what the Government did—

“was not within the power that you have been given by the statute, the courts can’t do anything about it.”

She goes on to say:

“If that is the case, the courts would be very worried about that, because it would mean that the Government—the Prime Minister—had done something that was, at least arguably, not within its powers.”

There is some force and logic in the argument of Lady Hale, is there not?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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This is a good opportunity for me to be absolutely clear about the reference to the word “purported” in this clause. This has been included to take account of previous judicial decisions—in particular the cases of Anisminic Ltd v. the Foreign Compensation Commission 1969, and Privacy International v. the Investigatory Powers Tribunal 2019. In the latter, the expectation was expressed that the drafting legislation would have regard to the case law and ensure that the drafting made it clear if “purported” decisions—that is decisions that would be considered by a court to be invalid—were intended to be outside the jurisdiction of the courts. What clause 3 does is present an opportunity to Parliament to be absolutely clear on whether it thinks that such things should be outside the jurisdiction of the courts. It is the Government’s position and presentation that they ought to be, and I hope that hon. Members will join me in that.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
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In the interests of clarity, is the Minister telling the House that the Government are asking Parliament to give them the power to do things that exceed the powers given to them and that nobody should be able to gainsay them?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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I am proposing that the House understands the use of the phrase “purported”, which, clearly, the right hon. Gentleman does—I have no dispute with him on that point—and that hon. Members join us in acknowledging that it is right to be aware of the case law and to respond to it. The decision in front of us is whether purported decisions relating to this area should or should not be included in clause 3. It is our contention that they should be, because we believe that the entire area of dissolution and the calling of Parliament is intended to be outside the jurisdiction of the courts. That is a perfectly legitimate question to put to Parliament. It is for us here in this Chamber to decide on that, and the reason for doing so would be that we think that such decisions are political rather that judicial in their nature. Fundamentally, the check on the exercise of power is for the electorate to decide on rather than the courts. Therefore, as I have said, the function of clause 3 is to set that out very clearly. I will now move on to clause 4, which deals with five-year maximum terms.

The purpose here is to ensure that a Parliament lasts no longer than five years. We do that by providing that Parliament will automatically dissolve five years after it has first met. In doing so, the clause returns us to the general position before the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill was enacted. We are confident that five years is the appropriate length for the maximum parliamentary term. Our Parliaments have seldom lasted a full five years, and, in practice, they have often been dissolved sooner. In fact, we can see that parliamentary terms have very often developed their own rhythm. For example, from the history books, we can see that a strong Government seeking a fresh mandate might seek a Dissolution after four years. Anything less than four years is usually a sign of some political crisis or emergency. Often, Parliaments are dissolved out of political necessity rather than choice, to put a policy or political question to the electorate or to resolve a political crisis.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
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But it is not actually five years; it is five years and a bit, is it not? As the Septennial Act 1716 did, it goes from the date of the first sitting of the new Parliament. It means that, if we stick with this, we will have the longest period from election to election of any democracy in the world. Would it not be better for the period from election to election to be at most five years?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my remarks in respect of his amendment, which I will endeavour to come to after I have worked through all the clauses.

The scheme that we are proposing is the right one and I will come in a moment to why I think that that is the case when compared with other technical methods of achieving a five-year term that the hon. Gentleman is thinking of. This clause provides for a maximum parliamentary term of five years from the date that Parliament first met, so we measure five years from the date of first meeting to the Dissolution of Parliament, and that is the Government’s proposition. We think that that provides the right balance of stability, flexibility and accountability that is entailed in returning to the arrangements that allow for a general election earlier than that. On that basis, I recommend that clause 4 stand part of the Bill.

I shall speak very briefly to clause 5. It introduces the schedule to the Bill, which makes provision for the consequential amendments that are needed to ensure that other legislation operates effectively once the 2011 Act has been repealed and we return to the status quo ante. The consequential amendments primarily reverse or alter legislative amendments made by the 2011 Act. They remove references to the Act in legislation and ensure that, after the repeal of the 2011 Act, other legislation that links to it still works. For example, in repealing the 2011 Act, they reflect the fact that there will no longer be fixed-term Parliaments, so the concept of an early general election would no longer exist in law.

Clause 5 also provides that the repeal of the 2011 Act by clause 1 does not affect the amendments and repeals made by the schedule to that Act. This ensures that essential provisions are not lost. It allows us to modify changes made by the 2011 Act and ensure the smooth running of elections by retaining sensible improvements made by that Act or subsequent to that Act. I know that those are some topics that we will come back to a little later as we progress through our debate this evening.

The schedule also makes a small number of minor changes to ensure the smooth running of elections. In short, this clause is necessary to ensure that electoral law and other related parts of the statute book continue to function smoothly. As such, I recommend that clause 5 stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 is the one that we all know and love that deals with extent, early commencement and short title. It confirms that the territorial extent of the Bill is the United Kingdom, except for a very small number of amendments in the schedule where the extent is more limited. The clause ensures that the Bill has an early commencement, meaning that it comes into force on the day on which it receives Royal Assent, and it provides that the short title of the Bill will be the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2021.

That gives me an opportunity to explain that the Government have agreed with the recommendation of the Joint Committee that a Bill of constitutional significance that seeks to put in place arrangements that deliver legal, constitutional and political certainty around the process of dissolving one Parliament and calling another should be titled accordingly. The short title now reflects the purpose of the Bill and will help to ensure that it is clearly understood and that successive Parliaments are able to discern the intended effect of the legislation. I therefore propose that this clause stand part of the Bill. Mr Evans, would you like me also to make a remark about the schedule and then turn to the amendments?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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In that case, Mr Evans, I am going to carry on until you tell me otherwise. There is an amount to get through, but I hope to do so.

The schedule provides for a number of changes to primary and secondary legislation to ensure the effective operation of the statute book when the 2011 Act is repealed. These amendments primarily reverse or alter legislative amendments made by the 2011 Act. The schedule works with clause 6. As I have explained, we want to make sure that references to the 2011 Act work elsewhere in other legislation. There are some key changes in the schedule to draw to the attention of the House.

The first is to rule 1 of schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983, which sets out the election timetable. The Bill amends that rule to ensure that the trigger for the election process in the case of a parliamentary general election is the Dissolution of Parliament, following the recommendation of the FTPA Joint Committee.

The second change provides additional certainty in relation to the election process. The election writ is deemed to have been received the day after the Dissolution of Parliament. This will allow returning officers to begin arrangements the day after the election writs are issued, enabling all constituencies to begin making the necessary preparations, even in the event that the physical delivery of the writ is delayed. Similar deeming amendments are included for by-elections.

The third update is to section 20 of the Representation of the People Act 1985. Under the existing legislation, in the event of the demise of the Crown after Dissolution or up to seven days before, polling day is postponed by a fortnight. The 1985 Act provides no discretion or flexibility to further alter the date of the poll. This Bill provides limited discretion for the Prime Minister to move polling day up to seven days either side of this default 14-day postponement, by proclamation on the advice of the Privy Council. This is beneficial because it ensures that enough flexibility is built into the system should such specific and unlikely circumstances ever occur. There is also flexibility to move the date set for the first meeting of Parliament in such circumstances—again, by proclamation on the advice of the Privy Council.

The last key change that I will highlight in this section is to the Recall of MPs Act 2015, which is amended to ensure that there continues to be provision to prevent or terminate recall petitions close to a general election to avoid redundant by-elections. This means that there is no requirement to trigger a recall petition if the last possible polling day for a general election, based on Parliament running its full term, is less than six months away, and a recall petition is to be terminated when Parliament is dissolved. For the reasons that I have set out, I recommend that the schedule be the schedule to the Bill.

If it remains convenient to you, Mr Evans, I will now start to work my way through the amendments that have been tabled, but I remain at your disposal to return to the clauses if hon. Members would like me to respond after they have spoken to their amendments.

New clause 2 has been tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). As I understand it, it seeks to provide a role for the House of Commons in approving an early general election by simple majority vote. This would adjust the arrangements that exist under the 2011 Act by removing the two-thirds majority requirement. It would in itself be a departure from the prior constitutional norm, whereby the Prime Minister could request an early Dissolution of Parliament in order to test the view of the electorate. As we have already begun to touch on in this afternoon’s debate, the deadlock and paralysis created by the 2011 Act did rather demonstrate why a prescriptive statutory approach does not work. Instead, what we are doing in the Bill is returning to a set of widely understood constitutional conventions and practices. Those tried and tested arrangements are the right ones, and this new clause would run against the grain of those arrangements.

It is, after all, a core underlying principle that the authority of the Government and the Prime Minister, as the sovereign’s principal adviser, are derived from the ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons. The 2011 Act attached confidence and the decision of the Prime Minister to call an election to statutory motions, which gave the Commons a direct say in Dissolution, but it is also possible to argue that those arrangements hindered the function of democracy by making it harder to have necessary elections. Instead, the House should indeed be able to express its view on confidence, but in a much freer manner. We do not need the prescriptive statutory approach of either the 2011 Act or, I fear, this new clause.

New clause 2(5) would require the Prime Minister to advise the sovereign on the date of the election within 30 days of the House approving a motion for an election. I would argue that this is not necessary. Under the Bill, once a general election has been called and Dissolution takes place, the election timetable in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 makes the provision for the timing of an election very clear. Again, rather than introducing prescriptive arrangements, we believe that we should return to tried and tested standards whereby it is a core principle that the Prime Minister must be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons. New measures around that concept are not needed.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
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If a Prime Minister were to request a Dissolution that was proper but was perceived to be for political advantage and was premature, would not the remedy be in the hands and judgment of the electorate?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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Yes, that is precisely the point, and that underlies a number of our considerations. In the place of a prescriptive statutory scheme, we can place our trust instead in the ability of people to choose against the behaviour that they observe from parties in Parliament.

Let me turn to new clause 5, which is also in the name of the hon. Member for Rhondda. It would require the House to start sitting 14 days after a general election. Although I agree that Parliament should meet as soon as possible after polling day, it is not necessary to codify that in legislation. Fundamentally, this is a similar type of argument. It is difficult to reconcile more extensive codification with the scheme of the Bill, and I shall set out the reasons why.

First, we think it is unnecessary to allow for such a 14-day period. Before and under the 2011 Act, the date of the first meeting of Parliament was set by the sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister. In practice, Parliament has met within one to two weeks of a general election on all but two occasions since 1950. There are compelling practical reasons for a new Government to call a new Parliament as soon as possible. As I put it earlier, no Government can manage without supply. As the Joint Committee put it,

“without…the authorisation of the Commons to spend money…a modern administration could manage months at best”.

Ultimately, having won an election, any new Government would want to assemble Parliament to pass their Queen’s Speech at the earlier opportunity, and be able to move on to legislation and supply.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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If the largest party was trying to get a coalition, that might take more than 14 days. Is there provision in the legislation to cover that?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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The hon. Gentleman makes precisely the point that goes to the new clause, which is that a Government would, I would have thought, want to assemble faster than 14 days, but there can be occasions when more than 14 days may be needed. Therefore, both these arguments point to flexibility, and that is my principal concern about the new clause.

We have already referred to amendment 2 and the discussion that we should indeed have about how we set the clock on the parliamentary term. As I understand it, the amendment, again tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda, would mean that the clock on the parliamentary term would start from the date of the general election. By contrast, under the Bill, Parliament would dissolve automatically five years after it had first met. Those are the two rival designs that we might debate this evening. In practice, what we are putting forward in the Bill represents a return to the tried and tested arrangements. It is also the clearest and simplest way of calculating the parliamentary term—from the point at which Parliament is actually sitting. Under the amendment, the clock would instead begin while Parliament was still dissolved.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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All right then, if it is the simplest way of doing it, what is the last date that the next general election can be held if all this is carried as the Minister says?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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With respect, that is not the right quiz question—the right quiz question is whether, under the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, the period would be five years plus 25 days. That would, I believe, arise from his amendment, because he is not counting the length of the election campaign, whereas our provision is five years from first sitting to last sitting, so we are trying to measure the life of a Parliament. I am not trying to engage in maths problems; I simply think that this is the most sensible way to measure it, and I hope hon. Members might agree. [Interruption.] I am really not going to engage in maths questions beyond that. We need a clear and easily understood scheme. I think we are all agreed that it ought to be five years, and we are dealing with how to achieve that. The Government’s proposition is that it should be, as I say, from five years after Parliament has first met. That is important.

Let me turn to the pair of amendments that relate to the shortening of the election timetable: new clause 1 in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and amendment 3 in the name of the hon. Member for Rhondda. I am absolutely sure that there will be some very strong arguments put in this area. To try to help the Committee, I will set out why we have our current timetable and then seek to address what I would anticipate to be some of the core arguments that right hon. and hon. Members will raise.

The current timetable was introduced in 2013 through the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which absorbed fundamental shifts brought about through having postal votes on demand and individual electoral registration. As I have explained, the Bill seeks to return us to the status quo ante while retaining sensible changes that have been made since 2011 to enable the smooth running of elections, which are, in my view, of benefit to voters. The current timetable is one of those changes. It provides a balance between allowing sufficient time to run the polls effectively and for the public to be well informed, while not preventing Parliament from avoiding sitting for any longer than is necessary, which is a very important consideration.

On the requirements for running polls effectively, the 25 days working days are necessary to deliver elections, which are now often more complex than at any other point in our history, for reasons, as I mentioned, to do with postal voting on demand, but also online individual electoral registration. That was a fundamental constitutional change that enabled increasingly higher numbers of last-minute applications. To illustrate that, at the most recent general election almost 660,000 applications were made on the last day possible. Before 2000, as I said, there was no postal voting on demand, and it has since grown in numbers to represent nearly 20% of registered electors. Both things increased the complexity and demands of an election timetable.

The amendments refer to weekends and bank holidays in the election period. Local authority electoral services teams who do this work are already often working weekends and overtime to make elections work successfully. I also note that elections do not just rely on local authorities and their staff; there is a significant commercial element to their delivery through many suppliers, including, but not limited to, the software for maintaining the registers, and the printing and postage of paperwork such as the poll cards, ballot papers and postal votes. There is very little room for error on all that. Creating and maintaining the capacity to deliver it can be extremely challenging, especially at short notice. Weekends and bank holidays are not necessarily in our gift.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)
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My hon. Friend is of course making an excellent speech. The intent behind the new clause, which I will explain more fully when I go through it in detail, is to do exactly what she was calling for earlier, which is to have a clearer and more easily understood scheme. At the moment, it is not clear and not easy to understand, because it states that election periods are 25 days when they may not be: the last election was 36 days. We need more transparency, and that is part of what the new clause is calling for.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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Absolutely. This is a good opportunity to remind ourselves that we have not necessarily observed a 25 working day timetable. For example, the 2017 election, known to have been rather a long one, was considerably longer than that minimum statutory period. It is important, as my right hon. Friend says, to be as clear as possible on this point.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
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Does my hon. Friend feel that the debate on this presents the opportunity for a further piece of work on the period from when a Prime Minister dissolves Parliament to when the 25 days should start? I appreciate that this Bill is not really the appropriate moment for that, but does she agree that there should be further study and work to decide whether the timeframe should be tidied up more before we get to the 25 days?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Some of what he refers to is not necessarily within a statutory scheme but within, for example, the processes of this House, but he makes a valuable point. We do need to look at the evidence in this area; that will clearly help us. There is already some written work that I would commend to right hon. and hon. Members. They could look at the most recent report of the Association of Electoral Administrators, which said, in July, that less time would be significantly problematic and that there was only so much that could be done at once. It made the point again in written evidence to the Joint Committee, saying that

“it would be catastrophic for everyone involved…if the statutory election 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”.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
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Just for clarification on those comments, are the electoral services referring to the 25 working days, not a period leading up to that, and saying that they are confident that they can always achieve their work in the short campaign as defined, not relying on any period of time before the short campaign starts?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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I believe that to be the case, although of course I would not wish to speak for the AEA. I really do commend its report to the Committee to enable it to see in much more detail the challenges that there are in delivering elections within the timetable that currently exists. To answer my right hon. Friend’s question, broadly yes—that set of comments is referring to the statutory timetable rather than any time before it.

Robert Goodwill Portrait Mr Goodwill
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We would all wish to maximise participation in elections, and the practicalities of overseas voters, postal voters and voter registration are very important, but do we also need to look at the possibility that as campaigns go on and on, we might get campaign fatigue, which might well result in fewer people casting their ballots because they are sick to death of the election going on for what seems to be forever?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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I am always sympathetic to that point. There is always a risk when any of us have to bang on too long that we simply get boring, and I can already apologise to the House for having taken 50 minutes of tonight’s Committee in trying to make my way through the material I am obliged to cover. My right hon. Friend makes a wise point, and it is one of the balances that have to be looked at in this discussion. That is one reason why he and others have tabled amendments.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
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On the wider point about how quickly an election takes place, can I take it as read from the Minister that the Government will always immediately move a writ for a by-election, and not drag it on any longer than usual?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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If only I had the ability to give the hon. Gentleman that promise, I think I would have promoted myself to Chief Whip and other positions in a single move. I do not think I should be drawn on the dark ways of the Chief Whip and the usual channels. Instead, I will take an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker).

Craig Whittaker Portrait Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) (Con)
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I want to take my hon. Friend back to the point about 2013 and why the period became 25 working days. She mentioned postal votes and electronic registration, but surely the clue is in the title: electronic registration. Anything done electronically is supposed to be much quicker and clearer. Does the legislation also take into account future ways of voting, particularly for overseas voters who may want eventually to do it electronically?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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Again, some incredibly thoughtful points are being put. My hon. Friend is right to observe that the introduction of online registration has enormously sped up how people can register, and he draws me to talk about two things. The first is to acknowledge what needs to be done to ensure that overseas voters can cast their ballots more easily. There is an entire field of working going on there, which we will discuss more in consideration of the Elections Bill—I look forward to seeing him in the debate—but a general point sits in the discussion of these amendments, which is how we ensure voters are getting what they need out of the election process.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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I will not give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) again, if he will forgive me. I will give my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) a go.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell
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My hon. Friend said a moment ago that she could not speak exactly for the AEA, but she will know from the open letter that it wrote to her that it wants even more time. It is proposing an extended 30-day timetable to

“increase capacity, introduce resilience and ensure electors are put first.”

That is all very well, but the point of an election is not to have the most perfect election imaginable, but to get the right result efficiently, so that everyone can cast their vote, but the country can be allowed to move on and resolve whatever tensions led to the election. The ever lengthening timetable is not in the national interest, let alone the interest of individual electors or individual candidates.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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I am happy to confirm from this Dispatch Box that the Government’s position is to maintain the electoral timetable as it stands—I am not proposing an extension or reduction—but I draw the threads together as follows. We need to ensure that the system works for voters, and that includes them having enough time to register to vote, to receive their ballot papers, to return their ballot papers and to decide on the candidates in each constituency—we have a constituency-based system, after all. We also need to be able to make the same point about supporting candidates to fulfil their part of what needs to happen in an election timetable, both those who stand for parties and those who stand as independents. We have to think through these things if we legislate here.

In response to right hon. and hon. Members who have tabled the amendments, I suggest there is perhaps a space here for looking further into these issues. There would be an opportunity to have some research drawn together on the tensions between voter engagement, the resilience of polls and the needs of the country for a period when it does not have a Parliament or MPs able to help constituents. Although the Government continue to hold the powers needed to carry out essential business and respond to sudden, unexpected or distressing events, none the less the Government do after all need Parliament to be sitting. If needed, I will return to those points after right hon. and hon. Members have spoken, but I will leave new clause 1 and amendment 3 there.

I think I have covered all but amendments 4 and 5, tabled by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards). Please correct me, Mr Evans, if there are any others I have missed, but I think I have covered the set. These amendments highlight a matter that I have been considering carefully, and their tabling gives me an opportunity to update the House on the consideration that the Government have given to how elections to this place, the Senedd or the Scottish Parliament work. I have been engaging for a long while with my devolved counterparts on this matter.

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Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
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Will the Minister give way?

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.

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Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
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I apologise, Dame Rosie, that I have been bobbing up and down this afternoon wanting to speak and not wanting to speak, but I think that some of our discussion on the new clauses needs to be teased out a little more. First, I would like to hear from the Minister in response to the point on which I tried to intervene on her, which was about the consequential effects, particularly with regard to referendums. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) made a similar point about the ability of the UK Parliament essentially to take primacy over decisions already made by the devolved assemblies about the dates of elections and particularly of referendums.

Why could not the Bill have been structured in such a way that it simply stopped the Prime Minister from choosing a date on which a poll or plebiscite of some kind was already scheduled? Forcing polls or plebiscites in the devolved areas to be rescheduled instead entirely diminishes or takes away the idea that we are in some kind of union of equals and fundamentally reasserts the primacy of this place above all else. If that does not make the argument for the outcome of the referendum that I will be campaigning for, I do not know what does.

The point about setting the date of the election, which also relates to new clause 2, is particularly important. The effect will be not only that the Prime Minister alone will know the date of the next election, but that he will know all the consequent dates that fit alongside it, particularly the regulated periods, the short campaign and the long campaign. It will therefore affect the ability of parties and individual candidates—as the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) said, we are all individual candidates for election—to spend money and to decide when and how to do so.

That point relates to the Elections Bill, which is about to be considered in Committee, and speaks to the piecemeal approach that this Government are very slyly taking to what is actually a very serious package of constitutional reforms that undermine democratic protections and positions that people have enjoyed across these islands for some considerable time.

That was a bit too long for an intervention, Dame Rosie, so I have taken advantage of the fact that the Committee still had a bit of time to run. As the Minister was not willing to take my intervention, I hope that in her summing up she will be able to reply to some of my points.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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As I was advised by the Chairman of Ways and Means at the time, I endeavoured to respond to all amendments at the beginning of the debate, so I have given what I hope was the bulk of my remarks. It remains for me to thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, which have been comprehensive and thoughtful.

I assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) that I will look at commissioning research. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) that, as set out in the response to the Joint Committee’s report, there is ongoing dialogue to be had on conventions. I suggest to the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) that we might meet if he would like to go further over the detail that he requested; I will even extend that invitation to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). I assure them both that I am already discussing these matters with colleagues in the devolved Administrations.

I urge the Committee to agree that the clauses should stand part of the Bill and that the amendments are not necessary. I commend the Bill to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Revival of prerogative powers to dissolve Parliament and to call a new Parliament

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

--- Later in debate ---

Queen’s consent signified.

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.