Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

(Committee stage)
Maria Miller Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office
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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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Will the right hon. Member give way?

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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If I could finish this point, I will then allow the hon. Member to intervene.

Another of the pieces of legislation deployed under the coalition Government was the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, section 14 of which extends the timetable of a general election from 17 to 25 working days. That neatly carves out bank holidays, weekends, high days and holidays, and anything else that might get in the way, when in fact all of us sitting here know that once the starting gun is fired, everybody—just everybody—is working their socks off in electoral offices up and down the country to make sure that we deliver the election on time. The provision is just not truthful, and it needs to be a better reflection of what goes on.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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I think, therefore, that if the Bill goes through as the Government intend and we do not have the right hon. Member’s new clause or any other amendment, the last date that the next general election can be held is 23 January 2025. Is that her understanding?

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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Oh, the hon. Gentleman is getting me into the maths quiz with which he tried to tempt the Minister. I will leave the Government to decide that, because it is more in the Minister’s bailiwick than mine.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
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Is not the essence of what my right hon. Friend is saying that it is exceptionally difficult to get elected to Parliament—we have all been through it—and it costs a lot of money? We tend to forget that candidates who have not been elected to this place more often than not give up work. Coming back to the point I made to my hon. Friend the Minister earlier, is there not a body of work to be done on the period between our Prime Minister calling an election and the short campaign starting? We must try to make it fair for those standing for Parliament for the first time, which can have an enormous financial cost.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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My right hon. Friend makes a really important point. New clause 1 deals with the particular issue of the election campaign itself, but there is also the additional period of time that we colloquially call the wash-up, which can last for days or weeks, and it feels like months sometimes. Such a body of work could look at not only what is prescribed in legislation, but more broadly. I will go on to some of the issues I think we face by having overly long campaigns, of which I do not think there has been sufficient scrutiny.

However, before I do that let me say—and I am struggling to remember when you were elected, Mr Deputy Speaker—that I was elected in May 2005, as I am sure you remember, and when that general election was held the total length of the campaign was 23 days. It felt a lot longer for some of the reasons pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke). At the last general election it was a total of 36 days, and indeed in 2015 it was 37 days, so almost two weeks longer than when I was elected. My right hon. Friend talked about some of the issues facing new candidates, who have perhaps had to give up their work and are not being paid. It is not without an impact, yet so little work has been done to consider what the impact is.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
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I was a new candidate at the last election, and I can absolutely attest that it was a wearying experience, as it is for the electorate. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that that piece of work also needs to study the effect on the likelihood of people to turn out to vote? I think Brenda from Bristol spoke for us all when she said, “Oh no, not another one”.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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Of course, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has a wealth of knowledge on these issues, as I know from having served on a Bill Committee with him.

We are talking not only about the impact on people standing for election. By lengthening our campaigns by almost two weeks, a number of other issues start to come into play. There is two weeks less scrutiny of Government by this place, which is not an inconsiderable issue that we should look at, yet it is not part of a scheme of work to consider all of these different issues. There is the fact that purdah gets longer not just at national level, but at local level, so fewer decisions are being made by local government for longer, and in stifling decision making that also has an effect that is not being captured. There are not inconsiderable impacts on our economy with the potential risk to our economy, depending on the economic circumstances we face at the particular time. Indeed, there is the risk of an outside actor interfering in our democratic process. The length of elections matters to returning officers—that is for sure—but there are many other issues that we should be considering that it is not clear are being brought into play at the moment.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell
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My right hon. Friend has given an excellent list of some of the reasons why a long campaign is not desirable, but the simple fact is that voters are without their MPs. If, for example, Operation Pitting had taken place during an election campaign, Members across the House who have been deluged by casework would not have been able to take up that casework in the midst of an election campaign. The longer the campaign, the more likely it is that something will occur during that campaign.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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My hon. Friend has put his finger on something that is probably more inequitable than he has realised, because constituents who have a re-standing Member of Parliament can deal with casework, but those where such an individual is not standing again do not have that access to casework. He raises an incredibly important point that needs to be taken into account.

There is emerging academic research in the US and Sweden that recommends shortening the length of campaigns for some of the reasons that have been made in interventions about increasing voter turnout, yet the Cabinet Office, in the excellent work it does with its democratic engagement plan, is silent on this issue. I was really pleased to hear the comments made by the Minister from the Front Bench today. Indeed, I thank her enormously for the way she has engaged on this and for the meetings she has had with colleagues. It is clear that she is not silent on the issue—she has views and thoughts—but there is no formal assessment of the link between the length of an election, voter engagement and all the risks I have talked about to our broader democracy.

New clause 1 is very much a probing amendment, but it needs a very clear response from the Minister today. She is quite rightly concerned about things such as engaging overseas voters in participating in the electoral process in a much more comprehensive way through other pieces of legislation that she is bringing before this place, and that is laudable and an important objective. However, the issue there is not the length of campaigns, but the awareness of the need to register annually. In some ways, the length of campaigns is sometimes being used as a solution for what is not necessarily the problem we face.

Chris Green Portrait Chris Green (Bolton West) (Con)
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Does this point not really get to the heart of the matter of the performance, whether of local government or of other bodies, in always being prepared for an election? Many have elections in thirds, and they may have mayoral or police and crime commissioner elections. Local authorities ought to be prepared and to make sure that their ability to hold an election is always up to date?

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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That is a very important point. If one of the pillars of our democracy is elections, we should be prepared to have an election within a specified period at any point in the year. It should be mission critical, and I am surprised by some of the comments that have been made showing that that is not the case. Gone are the days when we ran out of salt because there was too much frost on the road. Hampshire County Council makes sure that we have a very large stock of salt to avert such a crisis. We should make sure that some other issues that have been a problem are dealt with as well.

I am very grateful to the Minister again for listening to these concerns so intently. Rather than my pushing new clause 1 to a vote, I hope she might indicate in her comments that the Government will be commissioning research about the impact of the length of general elections on our democracy—not just on voter participation, but on the broader democracy—so that we in this place can keep a close eye on how longer campaigns affect the quality of the democracy in our country. Perhaps this will form a foundation stone for the modernisation of UK elections more broadly—a thorny issue, I know—and perhaps she will report on the findings of that research as we start to discuss further legislation, including the Elections Bill in this place.

Craig Whittaker Portrait Craig Whittaker
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That is the nub of these issues. Instead of extending elections because of their complexity, surely we should be considering alternative ways to allow people to vote differently to the way they currently vote.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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My hon. Friend makes points that I am sure those listening to that debate will be pondering. In a day and age when electronic mail, not postal mail, is the norm, they will be asking what the Government are doing to ensure that our electoral system is modernised. I applaud the Government for all they are doing on voter identification. It is such an important thing but it has been sadly lacking. This is a reforming Government in that area, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will do all she can to continue that reforming zeal in her work.

Let me pull together two other points that are allied to what we have been discussing. I think a great deal will be needed in returning to the status quo ante. The vast majority of Members do not remember the status quo ante—some of us do, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) and perhaps one or two others such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell, but there are not many of us left. Ensuring that the House and Members understand those conventions that are not formalised in law will be something of a challenge. I am sure the Minister is up to that challenge, but it is something we need to address. She has rightly made a number of comments on this issue—she has written a letter to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and there are pieces of correspondence and an opportunity for debate—but as we move forward we need a settled view of the conventions.

Finally, on the wash-up, the day that a Prime Minister announces a general election is not the start of the general election campaign, and hon. Members need to take a much closer look, perhaps through colleagues who sit on the relevant Committees, as to how we can get better control over what is considered in that wash-up session. There are often a few deals regarding what legislation will pass through Parliament before the election campaign, and perhaps that would be better done after the election, rather than before. We should be considering such matters, with a focus on shortening the election campaign to something that is not just best for one set of people, but best for our democracy.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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I will hopefully delight the Committee by trying to speed things up a little, and I will not detain Members for long.

I agree with the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) that the Bill smacks of a Government who are still smarting from the events of 2019. I suggest that perhaps anger and revenge are no way to govern, and hopefully the House will help the Government to look beyond their bruised pride and get to a situation far beyond this Bill. Although in and of itself clause 1 may look fairly innocuous, and when taken in isolation might even be seen as trivial and almost unimportant, I caution the Committee that when viewed alongside other legislation currently going through this place—the Elections Bill, for example, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—we are witnessing a strategy on the part of the Government to centralise power and control with the Executive at the expense of this House. Some clauses in Bill, including clause 1, give more power to the Executive, strip parliamentarians of their powers, and deny the judiciary the ability to scrutinise what they are doing, while at the same time eroding the public’s right to protest against it. As has been said, this is an unashamed power grab by the Executive at the expense of this House, and we believe that that is how it will be seen in the context of that wider picture.

However intensely hon. Members may dislike the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, simply voting for the Bill this evening will not automatically return us to our position prior to 2011 when that Act was introduced. The Scottish National party has said it will oppose the Bill all the way through, and we will oppose it again tonight. New clause 2, and the idea that a general election could be called to dissolve Parliament and that that motion must be agreed by this House, is correct. It appears to me that if the Bill passes without new clause 2, the Prime Minister of the day will have full and unfettered control over the Dissolution of Parliament and the timing of any general election.

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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.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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Madam Deputy Speaker, I thank you and your colleagues, the Clerks and all hon. and right hon. Members who have taken part in what has been a good-natured debate.

Having said that, this is still a thoroughly bad piece of legislation, and nothing I have heard tonight has changed my mind.

Conservative Members seem determined, on a regular basis, to turn the clock back, in this case to a system deemed undesirable and out of touch more than a decade ago. As we have heard, politicians and academics are still arguing about whether it is even possible to believe that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 had never been enacted. We are being asked to pretend that it never happened. At the risk of showing my age, let me say that it is as though this Government have been taking advice from the scriptwriters of “Dallas”, who asked the world to pretend that Bobby Ewing had never died and they could just go back and pick up the storyline as though nothing had happened previously and anything that had happened in the past would have absolutely no consequence now. While that academic debate rages on and we are heading back to the situation prior to 2011, there can be no doubt that this Bill is little more than a brazen attempt by the Executive to entrench more and more powers with themselves, at the expense of this Parliament. I repeat: as bad as that is in and of itself, when it is viewed alongside what else is going through this place, we see that we are witnessing a full-on attack on our democracy. For that reason, we will be opposing the Bill on Third Reading.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third Time.