Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Maria MillerMain Page: Maria Miller (Conservative - Basingstoke)
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.