All 1 Lord Rennard contributions to the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill 2021-22

Read Bill Ministerial Extracts

Tue 30th Nov 2021

Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Cabinet Office
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, the Bill gives more power to Boris Johnson and less to Parliament. It is therefore in my view a Bill that Parliament should oppose, and I remain surprised that it has so much support from the Labour Benches. When Labour left government in 2010, the Labour Party manifesto of that year was committed to the principle of fixed-term Parliaments. Labour’s opposition to the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Bill was clearly tactical, and the argument that it then made against it was that the proposed term should have been four years, not five.

No athlete in a race would be expected to fire the starting gun. The power to fire such a gun in the race to win seats in a general election is, I believe, a strong one. While criticising aspects of the 2011 Act, the Institute for Government said that

“for all its faults, the FTPA does stop an incumbent government from timing an election for maximum partisan advantage, resulting in a fairer contest.”

Those of us on either side of the debates on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011 were proved to be wrong in certain respects. Some of us thought that it would mean that Parliaments would generally last for five years in future. Others thought that Parliament would not be able to provide for early elections. But the general elections of 2017 and 2019 proved that we were both wrong. But I believe that the principle should remain that Parliament should decide whether there is to be an election outside an agreed regular timescale, and that a significant majority should be required for it to happen.

In our debates this afternoon, we have considered at some length issues of electoral advantage. I have great respect for the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, and his experience as Cabinet Secretary, but, as I understand the political system, it was never the role of the Cabinet Secretary to run a party’s election campaign. Those of us who have run them would say that control over the timing of the election confers a very significant advantage to that party, and those of us who have run election campaigns with very limited war chests would say that you are at a very considerable disadvantage if you do not have control or knowledge of when the election will take place.

The principles introduced in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act have actually proved practical for the Parliaments and Assemblies in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. I should point out that they were legislated for by the Labour Government after 1997. These principles also proved to be effective for every single local authority in the United Kingdom. The Parliament that agreed them for the governance of these places should agree them for itself.

The 2011 Act was not without faults, of course. As it was initially proposed, the 55% threshold for immediate Dissolution was a short-term fix to suit the coalition at the time—and I said so. It would have been better to have followed, straightaway, the rules that Parliament had previously set in Scotland and Wales, which require a two-thirds majority for an immediate Dissolution. Those rules have proved effective there, and the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill was changed before it become an Act.

Another problem with it was the lack of clarity over what would happen in the fortnight after a Government lost confidence when there was not a two-thirds majority for an immediate Dissolution. Again, the principle of elected Members electing the Prime Minister should have been adopted, as it was agreed by this Parliament under a Labour Government for the Parliaments of Scotland and Wales. This power might allow our Parliament to remove an incumbent Prime Minister. It might allow another Prime Minister from the same or another party to serve in their place.

I am sorry that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Clarke of Nottingham, is not in his place; were he here, I would have pointed out to him that, had we had such a rule in 2019, perhaps he might have achieved his childhood ambition and become Prime Minister. He might have been chosen by the Members of the House of Commons at that time. Perhaps it might have been possible for people in Britain to be offered the choice in a referendum of the reality of Brexit, as opposed to the glossy packaging that suggested that there were no downsides to it. As in Scotland and Wales, where the elected Members choose the First Minister, such an arrangement would, in my view, avoid the potential of dragging the monarchy into politics in an unfortunate way. Instead, we had a general election in 2019 on an entirely false prospectus—namely, that there was an “oven-ready” deal.

Another problem that we later identified with the 2011 Act was that it left in place the very short timetable of 17 working days for the conduct of an election campaign. This was no longer practical in the era of widespread postal voting, including from abroad, and with many people still needing to register to vote once a general election was called. This problem with the election timetable was eventually addressed in the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which introduced a timetable of 25 working days, and I am pleased that the Government recently accepted that this timetable must stay in place.

There were attempts in the other place to revert to the previous 17 working day timetable for general elections. Huge concerns were expressed by the bodies representing electoral registration officers and the suppliers of electoral materials such as ballot papers about a potential change to allow fewer than 25 working days to conduct general election campaigns. The Electoral Commission in its briefing on the Bill chose to highlight why a minimum of 25 working days is needed for general election campaigns. Postal voting has become much more widespread since it became an option for everyone in 2000. Many people need time to apply to vote by post, and virtually no local authorities accept electronic applications to do so. Time is needed for applications to vote by post, for postal vote packages to be sent out, and for them to be returned by polling day. This is especially true for UK voters living overseas, including members of our Armed Forces serving abroad.

A final reason why the longer timetable is needed is that, as the Electoral Commission has pointed out, 9 million people in the UK are not registered to vote and should be, or are incorrectly registered. Some 60% of people think that voter registration is automatic. They are wrong, but electoral registration should be automatic, as the right to vote is not something that you should have to apply for. Were we to introduce such a system, the calling of such elections and the fairness of them would be greatly improved.