Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Chloe SmithMain Page: Chloe Smith (Conservative - Norwich North)
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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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Queen’s consent signified.
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.