[Relevant documents: Report of the Joint Committee on the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of Session 2019-21, HC 1046, HL 253, and the Government Response, CP 430; Sixth Report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2019-21, The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, HC 167; and the Government Response, Session 2019-21, HC 1082; Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is a real pleasure to move the Second Reading of this Bill. The Bill contains provisions to ensure that we supersede the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 with appropriate, democratic and timely reform in order to ensure that we restore to this place and to the people an opportunity to ensure that the Government that govern in their name can command the confidence of this House and the confidence of the public.
The legislation that we are bringing forward will I hope command support across this House, because it was a manifesto promise in both the Conservative and Labour party manifestos. Both Front-Bench teams are committed to the legislation, and it follows on from an excellent report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend Mr Wragg, and from recommendations made by the Constitution Committee in the other place. It has also received extensive scrutiny and support from a Joint Committee of the Commons and Lords. With both Front-Bench teams and three important Committees all in favour of this legislation, we can see already that the arguments that have been lined up for it are powerful and command wide support. I sincerely hope that nothing I say this afternoon undermines that consensus.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give us a definition of “democratic” in view of the fact that when it comes to calling general elections, this legislation will move power from this democratically elected Chamber to royal prerogative?
Well, it gives power to the people. Fundamentally, all of us sit here at the pleasure of and at the disposal of our electorates. As we saw from the addled Parliament—or the paralysed Parliament or whatever you want to call the Parliament of 2017 to 2019—parliamentarians were actually frustrating the will of the people, in attempting to overturn Brexit and in attempting to sustain in power a Government who needed to seek confidence from the electorate and for the maintenance of their programme. For that reason, we are restoring power to the people, which had been taken away by the FTPA.
I saw the right hon. Gentleman try to answer what I was going to ask him in his reply to the earlier intervention. Considering that there have been two snap elections in the past four years, what problem are the Government trying to solve?
It is precisely because there have been at least two elections of the kind that the hon. Gentleman draws attention to that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act has not done what it said on the tin. It has failed the Ronseal test. For those who advocated the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in the first place, all sorts of arguments were made about the importance of the predictability of election timing, and, of course, the Bill palpably failed to achieve that in the way that it failed to achieve so much else. What we are doing with this legislation is restoring a tried and tested method by which Prime Ministers can command the confidence not just of this House, but of the country.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our approach to the dissolution of Parliament and the calling of elections before the Fixed-term Parliament Act was robust, successful and effective and ensured that our democracy worked as it should. What we are doing is ensuring that those tried and tested procedures are restored, and in so doing not just fulfilling our manifesto pledge, but—and it was a pleasure to do so—fulfilling the manifesto pledge of Jeremy Corbyn and making sure that democracy in that way is underpinned.
Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was probably the single worst piece of legislation that the coalition Government introduced? Fortunately, I did not vote for it then, but I will certainly be voting for this repeal tonight.
Regarding the coalition years, I think that others are better placed—given that I served in the Government for five years—to decide which was the worst piece of legislation that was passed. The one thing I will say for the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is that it was very much a child of its time. It did achieve one purpose. It was introduced at the request of our Liberal Democrat coalition partners in order to ensure that, for the five years of that Parliament, neither party could collapse the Government in a way that might secure for either the junior or the senior coalition partner perceived political advantage. It did serve that purpose for those five years. Notwithstanding the points made by my hon. Friend, there was a significant range of achievements that the coalition Government can take pride in; nevertheless, the Act was specifically a child of its time. While it worked in that narrow sense, in cementing the coalition and ensuring it could achieve the policy gains that I believe were gained during those five years, its utility beyond those years in tougher circumstances has been tested to destruction.
Is there not a worrying issue here, which is precisely what the right hon. Gentleman refers to as “the child of its time”? If the Government can always reconstitute the constitution every time they can pass a law, we have a problem here, because the Government are most likely always to do so in their own interests.
I take very seriously the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, because there are few deeper scholars of our constitution or parliamentary history than him, but I would say two things. First, sometimes there are constitutional experiments or innovations, and it is understandable that they will have partisans who can see benefits from them; but then we can see in real time and in real circumstances whether those constitutional innovations are right and work, or whether it is appropriate for us to go back to the situation that prevailed before, which has actually proven over time, in a variety of circumstances, to be both more robust and more effective.
The second point is that of course there is always a temptation for Governments or any Administration in power to seek to look to the rules and to derive advantage perhaps from changing them, but the critical thing here is that, ultimately, the decision on whether an election has been called and Parliament has been dissolved appropriately rests with the people. We can look at historical examples; for example, in the 1970s Edward Heath decided to go to the country to ask the question, “Who governs?”. He believed that, in choosing the timing of the election, he was doing so to his party’s advantage, but when he asked, “Who governs?”, the country replied, “Well, not you, mate.” On that occasion, it was the case that a miscalculation on the part of the Prime Minister resulted in the electorate deciding that Edward Heath’s Administration should end and that Harold Wilson’s should take over.
In which case, one could conceive of a situation in which the Government were aware of something coming up that the public were not aware of—a report or a major security breach that had not yet been made public, for example. Or, for instance, the Government might choose to hold a general election before boundary changes because they thought that it might be to their advantage. Would it not make far more sense for the House simply to be able to vote at that moment?
In both the cases that the hon. Gentleman mentions, if there were jiggery-pokery or the Government were acting in a way that the electorate considered heedless or reckless, electoral punishment would occur sooner or later. Attempting to rig the rules in that way is, as we have seen in the past, something that the public are always alive to, always wise to and always ready to punish.
Surely the biggest difference, though, between the situation today and that facing Edward Heath in the 1970s is the amount, the nature and the regulation of the spending of money. Heath did not have a long period before a short period of expenses and there were not those controls. Effectively, this Bill will allow the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister alone to be the only person who knows when that long period starts and to pile the money in. That is what this is about, is it not?
No, it is not what it is about. The money spent on elections is an issue in which the Liberal Democrats and other parties have long had an interest, but more broadly the point is that the choice of election timing should ultimately depend on the capacity of the Prime Minister to command the confidence of this House. We saw during the course of the 2017 to 2019 Parliament the consequences of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in a way that worked against the interests of democracy explicitly.
I will just make a little progress and then come back to the right hon. Gentleman.
We saw in the 2017 to 2019 Parliament what happened when Parliament attempted to sustain a Government in office, to deny a Prime Minister the Dissolution that he requested, and yet at the same time would not allow that Government to get their business through, so we had a paralysed Parliament. We also had a Schrödinger’s Government: they were simultaneously in power and not in power, in office but incapable of carrying forward their legislation. We saw in the December 2019 general election the consequence of that: the party that argued that there needed to be a Dissolution, an election and a refreshed mandate secured that refreshed mandate, and, as a result, we saw our democracy working as it has so successfully in the past and as it deserves to again in the future.
The points made by Chris Bryant are nearly always good ones, but on this occasion it is wrong. Ultimately, the decision about whether it is right to call an election and whether the Prime Minister and the Administration should return to power rightly rests with the people. During the course of the 2017-19 Parliament, parliamentarians sought to frustrate the Prime Minister seeking an election, and when that election eventually occurred, we saw that an appropriate decision was taken by the voters.
We also saw during the 2017-19 Parliament the reputation of Parliament—much to my regret—diminished in the eyes of the public because of its failure both to deliver on the original Brexit vote and to allow Government to carry on their business. In making sure that we return to a situation where we do not have the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, we are keeping faith with democracy. We are also keeping faith with the basis on which this Government were elected and, indeed, on which the Opposition argued for office.
The reality is that Government hold privileged information. In the light of the economic challenge coming down the path, surely the Bill is simply a cut-and-run Bill to allow the Government to call an early general election before they have to deal with that crisis.
I completely disagree. Looking at the broad economic situation that we face and what may happen in future, we have a well-informed and judicious electorate that will make a judgment whenever an election is called about the fitness of this Government to be returned to office or, indeed, the readiness of the Opposition or any other party to assume office, as has been seen in the past.
When Governments have sought to cut and run—when they have sought to manipulate the electoral timetable to their advantage—they have been punished. It was the case not just in 1974 with Edward Heath but in the early 1920s with Stanley Baldwin, when he sought to cut and run using the formidable advantage that he had—the support of press barons and the wealthy. Nevertheless, we saw the return of the very first Labour Government under Ramsay MacDonald, supported for all too brief a period by the Liberals of that time.
The historical case that my right hon. Friend is making is absolutely incontrovertible. The fact is that the legitimacy of previous elections has barely—if ever—been questioned. As soon as we brought in that wretched legislation, we ended up in what he rightly described as a paralysed Parliament. However, is he satisfied that clause 3 is strong enough to ensure that Parliament is not paralysed in future by political uses of the court to try to interfere with the process of dissolving Parliament? Professor Ekins in particular, I believe, has certain suggestions that might make that provision a little stronger.
I believe that clause 3 is robust and fit for purpose, but it is also the case that Professor Ekins, of the Judicial Power Project attached to the think-tank Policy Exchange, is a brilliant legal mind. We will pay close attention to his arguments and to those of my right hon. Friend and others, in order to ensure that clause 3 is robust enough.
Reference to clause 3 means that it is appropriate for me to turn to the specific clauses in this short and focused Bill. Before I do so, I just want to thank again the work of the Joint Committee under Lord McLoughlin and others, which did such a service to this House, and indeed to the other place, in scrutinising the legislation. When reviewing the original 2011 Act, the Joint Committee found that—
I will in just a second.
The Joint Committee found that the 2011 Act did fulfil its immediate political purpose of maintaining the coalition Government for five years, but that it did not succeed in enforcing a super-majority constraint on the calling of early general elections, given what happened in 2017 and 2019. Mere repeal of the Act without any form of replacement would create uncertainty and what the Committee called a “constitutional lacuna”—hence the need for this legislation. The Government should allow sufficient time for Parliament to explore the full implications of any replacement legislation. Indeed, the Committee’s own work and the work of other committees has been a service to that cause. That constitutional education should secure a wide degree of cross-party agreement—that exists in the support given from the Opposition Front Bench and from others.
Any replacement should be equally suitable for whatever parliamentary arithmetic is provided by the electorate; I believe this Bill does that. Any replacement should consider allowing the date of any early election to be stipulated in a motion triggering that election, which of course it will, and any replacement of the 2011 Act should not contain super-majority provisions. The Joint Committee also made the point that if future Administrations introduced fixed parliamentary terms they should consider whether the political gridlock that characterised the 2017 to 2019 Parliament is a price worth paying for the perceived benefit of a fixed-term Parliament. All those arguments were powerful. I thank the Committee again for its work.
I would also like to thank—I should have mentioned this earlier; forgive me—my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution for the fantastic work that she has done in preparing this legislation and engaging with Committees. It is the first time that she has been back on the Front Bench since her recovery from cancer. She has showed remarkable fortitude and I know that across this House we are all absolutely delighted that she is back in her place.
I absolutely echo the Minister’s comments in relation to his colleague. The law as it stands means that if the Government lose a vote of no confidence, there are 14 days to form another Government, and if that does not happen, that leads to an election. What would be the position following the passing of this Bill? Would the Government losing a vote of no confidence immediately trigger a general election?
In those circumstances the Prime Minister could immediately, and should immediately, request of Her Majesty a Dissolution and an election would follow. One of the most powerful examples in our recent parliamentary history was the loss of a vote of no confidence in 1979 by James Callaghan, which led to the general election that followed. Some might argue—it is a counterfactual, the truth of which we cannot know—that had James Callaghan sought to refresh his mandate in 1978 when he was in a stronger position politically, he might well have been returned. The perception on the part of the Labour party at that time—although it had lost the support of the Liberals just beforehand—that it was to its advantage to continue was of course undone by a decision of the electorate.
Historically, many different things have counted as motions of no confidence—for instance, losing a vote on an amendment to the Loyal Address following the Queen’s Speech or on an amendment to the Finance Bill, or refusing to grant supply for a military intervention or to allow a military intervention. Does the Minister think that all those things would still count as a motion of no confidence?
The formal motion of no confidence that is traditionally requested by the Opposition and has to be granted within a day is a classic example, but on the question of military intervention, I personally believe—again, it is for the House to take a view—that that is a proper exercise of the prerogative power in certain circumstances. That is perhaps for debate in other forums, but it would not count in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests.
My right hon. Friend is exactly right. If any Prime Minister felt that the House’s decision not to grant supply, the House’s decision to censure an individual Minister or the House’s decision not to authorise support for military action was a matter of confidence, that might mean that it would be appropriate to request a Dissolution at that point.
Not for a little bit, because I want to run briefly through the clauses in the Bill.
There are six clauses and one schedule. The first clause repeals the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The second clause revives the prerogative power and allows the Prime Minister to request a Dissolution from the monarch. The third clause is specifically to ensure that that decision cannot be reviewed in the courts. It is what might be called an ouster clause. It is there explicitly to say that proceedings in this House relating to the exercise of the prerogative power should not be justiciable.
It is very important, following on from the points made by my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis, that the House understands, appreciates and supports the Bill on that basis. It has been constitutional practice since 1688 and the Bill of Rights that it should not be the case that these matters are reviewed in the courts. Let me say that judicial review is an important part of keeping Governments honest, but there needs to be an absolute limit on what is considered justiciable and it should not be the case that the courts can prevent the request for a Dissolution on the part of a Prime Minister. If that decision is mistaken, then it is for the people to decide in a general election what is appropriate. I was very pleased that the Joint Committee confirmed in its report that it would be appropriate for Parliament to affirm that.
I do not think that they would, necessarily. There are people who might seek to do that, but one of the things that Parliament can do—and one of the reasons that my hon. Friend’s question is so helpful, as were the Joint Committee’s deliberations—is to affirm what is the case. It would then be remarkable indeed for any court to attempt to do what my hon. Friend describes; it would be constitutionally unprecedented and, to my mind, would risk the understanding of the balance between Parliament, when its will is clearly expressed, and the courts’ interpretation of the law. I hope that in Committee and on Third Reading, and perhaps later in this debate, all hon. Members will affirm the importance of the non-justiciability of the exercise of these powers.
One thing that came out of the Joint Committee’s report was the very clear interpretation that a Prime Minister requests a dissolution rather than advising the monarch on it. I am pleased that the Government have accepted that advice from the Joint Committee, but does it not make the ouster clause completely superfluous? The monarch, acting in conjunction with Parliament, is non-justiciable already.
That is definitely my understanding of constitutional practice, but—without getting into the details—there have been one or two recent decisions by the courts that might be thought by some to have moved one or two goalposts on the constitutional playing field. Lest there be any doubt, the ouster clause is there to affirm that interpretation. It is a new pair of braces to join the sturdy constitutional belt to which my hon. Friend refers.
Clause 4 makes it clear that the maximum length of any Parliament should be five years. Clause 5 contains some minor updates, taking account of how the Fixed-term Parliaments Act modernised our electoral law, and introduces the schedule attendant to the Bill. Clause 6 makes it clear that the Bill covers the whole of our United Kingdom.
In addition to what is in the Bill, we have to discuss what is not in it: the conventions that we seek to restore and the Dissolution principles published along- side the draft Bill. As my right hon. Friend will know, the Joint Committee considered the conventions, the paramountcy of confidence and all those things quite extensively. From reading our report, what conclusions have the Government reached about the nature of confidence and the circumstances in which calling a general election would not be an appropriate thing for a Prime Minister to do?
Again, my hon. Friend makes a very important point. Alongside the Bill, we have produced a brief statement of Dissolution principles. He is absolutely right. Our broad understanding of Dissolution principles derives from a letter written by Sir Alan “Tommy” Lascelles pseudonymously—I am glad to be able to use that word in the House of Commons—to The Times in the 1950s. He argued that a Dissolution should not be granted if the monarch thought that there were a viable alternative that could command a majority in the House of Commons—or, indeed, if it were a time of economic crisis or peril in which it would be inappropriate for a general election to be called. We think that it is very difficult, as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution and others made clear in evidence to the Joint Committee, to provide an exhaustive list of example cases in which it would be inappropriate for a Dissolution to be granted when requested. One thing we would like to do in Committee is have proper consideration of them.
It is important that our constitution always remains flexible and agile. I could conceive of circumstances—immediately after an election defeat, for example, when a Prime Minister is still perhaps clinging on, seeking to form a coalition or a confidence and supply arrangement and failing to do so—when that Prime Minister might seek an immediate other Dissolution shortly afterwards. In such circumstances, I can see that it would not be appropriate for a Dissolution to be granted. As I say, it would be helpful for everyone to take part in the debate to outline the circumstances that they think should guide the operation of the principles.
Is it not also the case that, if there were a vote in the Commons that many considered to be a confidence vote, but the Government refused to accept that, it would be open to the official Opposition to table a confidence motion, in which there would be no doubt whatsoever?
Exactly so, and it is absolutely important, as my right hon. Friend points out, that we stick to the principle that, immediately upon receipt of a request from the Opposition for a vote of no confidence, such a debate is granted and that the Prime Minister of the day would make their case. Following the defeat of an earlier attempt by my right hon. Friend Mrs May to secure support for her withdrawal Bill, a motion of no confidence was tabled by the then leader of the Labour party. That motion of no confidence was defeated and that allowed the Prime Minister to consider other ways of fulfilling that mandate.
I do not want to test everybody’s patience, but the one time when that course is not available to the Opposition is immediately after a general election, before Parliament has got on to actually meeting; and it is the Government, and only the Government, who decide when the House meets and what it debates. I note that we still have no formal process in our system of knowing when, after a general election, the House will meet to transact substantive business, other than to elect a Speaker and have the swearing-in.
That is an important point, but it is also important to recognise that no newly elected Government can effectively govern without Parliament. It would be impossible without a vote of supply and without a Queen’s Speech to ensure that the basis on which they were elected, and the effective governance of the country, could continue. It is important that we recognise that that is the principle that prevailed beforehand, and it is the principle that we should adopt now.
I shall conclude, because many hon. Members wish to speak. I return to the point that I made at the start. Those who brought forward the Fixed-term Parliaments Act were motivated, I think, by two entirely reasonable motivations. The first was to ensure that the coalition Government—the first coalition that we had had since 1922—was able to proceed and govern in an effective way; of course it was against the backdrop of economic crisis. As a member of that coalition, I do not resile for a moment from the many decisions that were taken during that five years, and I take the opportunity to thank Mr Carmichael and others who served in that coalition for putting the national interest first at that time.
The second thing that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was designed to do was to ensure that our constitutional arrangements became more predictable. Although the FTPA succeeded in the unique circumstances of the coalition years, it emphatically has not made our constitutional arrangements more predictable, as what happened in 2017, and indeed between 2017 and 2019, reinforced. Indeed, the circumstances of the 2017 to 2019 Parliament reinforced in the public mind—and certainly that was reflected in the general election result of 2019—the need to move to a more flexible, more responsive, more agile, more familiar and more tried and tested set of constitutional arrangements. It is for that reason that I commend the Bill to the House.
I begin by saying how lovely it is to see the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, Chloe Smith, back on the Front Bench after her absence, how well she is looking, and—without wishing the entire debate away—how much we are looking forward to her contribution at the end of this Second Reading debate.
As the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said, the Bill seeks to do two things: it repeals the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and it reinstates the status quo before that Act came into force. Effectively, it is turning back time. It is on those two points that I shall focus my remarks.
I suspect that we shall have quite a lot of debate today about whether the Fixed-term Parliaments Act worked. The Minister has set out clearly that he believes that it did not, but I believe there is an equally valid argument that aspects of it did work, although of course it was not without its pitfalls and flaws. The best example was the 2015 general election, which took place five years after the 2010 general election. It worked in the sense of holding the coalition Government to that timetable. However, I would argue that we could also say that the 2017 general election proves that the Act worked, because there were clauses within it for having an early election and those were gone through in the 2017 election.
The debate about whether the Act works probably centres around whether the 2017 to 2019 Parliament worked. That probably highlights the flaws in the Act. The fact that the Act said the Prime Minister could control the date of the election was, I would argue, one of the main sticking points of the Act, because at that point the Opposition felt the Prime Minister might abuse the Act to leave the European Union with no deal. Therefore, the Act was not without flaw.
There are also the issues around confidence motions and the questions that they raise. I think that will probably be explored in quite a lot of detail.
I concede the hon. Member’s point that the Act did work as far as holding the coalition together until 2015 was concerned, but it did not work in 2017. If it had not been for the fact that the Scottish nationalists and the Liberal Democrats, for political reasons of their own, decided to allow the Dissolution, that stasis could have gone on for months, or years longer than it did. The Parliament would have been paralysed endlessly until the end of the five years. That cannot be right, surely.
I will let other parties answer for their own actions. I certainly do not seek to speak for them. I think it would be a misinterpretation to say that the Act was purely for the purpose of holding the coalition together. I think that was a huge reason for support in certain parts of the then Government, but actually it was an idea that had been batted around in politics long before then. Indeed, I believe it had been a matter for various private Members’ Bills before the coalition Government came into office. It was certainly not an idea that was just thought up to hold the coalition together.
I look forward to sparring with the hon. Lady on another constitutional Bill. Just to come back to the point she made about trying to set the date of the last election, she may recall that, 24 hours before the one-line Bill was passed, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act failed again to cause the election. The one-line Bill was put through and the irony was that it was by a two-thirds vote of the House. That undermines the FTPA because it shows it was just being used to play games.
It is a pleasure to see the right hon. Gentleman in his place and I, too, look forward to sparring with him again on constitutional matters. I do not disagree with that. I am certainly not stood here to mount a defence of the FTPA. I was outlining some ways in which I felt the Act did work, but I am also highlighting huge flaws in the Act. Indeed, there is a reason why, in the Labour manifesto of December 2019, we said we would repeal it. The point he raises about the Prime Minister being able to control the date of the election is a huge reason why the Act is flawed. However, I am arguing that the principle of having fixed terms in itself is not necessarily a bad principle; it is a very pro-democracy principle.
Something occurs to me. Those on the Government Benches might say there was stasis for two years, but perhaps the public expected politicians to debate and find a way ahead for the country, rather than just fix into positions and refuse to compromise. The way is not always to jump. It should not always be the Government alone who decide what is best for the country. That is Parliament’s role, surely.
It would not be at all like the Liberal Democrats to dig into a position and hold it. [Laughter.] I do not believe that that Parliament hit the troubles it hit necessarily just because of the FTPA. If the Act had not been in place, there would still have been huge problems, because the governing party could not command confidence within its own Members and have a majority for its flagship policy. That was the sticking point for that Parliament.
The Act has been used as quite an easy scapegoat. It is blamed for all the ills of that Parliament. While it is not a perfect piece of legislation, and I support its repeal, I can see that the principle of fixed terms is not, in itself, necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, I believe the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, said 10 years ago, during the passage of the Act, that it was the biggest move of powers from the Executive in several centuries. That raises the question, if we are to repeal that Act and go back to the status quo and the old way of doing things, whether today is the biggest transfer of powers from the legislature to the Executive. Indeed, the 2015 Conservative manifesto celebrated the Fixed-term Parliaments Act’s success:
“We have also passed the Fixed Term Parliament Act, an unprecedented transfer of Executive power.”
That raises the question of whether we are transferring power back to the Executive and, if so, whether that is something this House really wishes to do.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, as this is such a therapeutic exercise. It is 10 years of hurt. [Laughter.] I am like a dog with a bone. The problem with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011 was that it transferred responsibility for keeping the coalition together away from the leaders of each of the coalition parties to Parliament. It was never any of Parliament’s business to keep that coalition going; it was the responsibility of David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
I feel so much better for having got that off my chest for the second time in a decade. I thank the hon. Lady.
If it does not work out in politics, perhaps I have a career as a therapist.
I find it remarkable that Ministers sitting on the Treasury Bench filed through the Lobby 10 years ago to vote for the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, as today they will presumably be voting the opposite way.
The hon. Lady asks who power is being transferred to but, as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said, it is a transfer to the people.
I enjoyed the hon. Lady’s exchange with Christine Jardine, but the problem with the 2017 Parliament is that it did not trust the people, which is why we ended up where we did. That is why we had to have the election we eventually had, and it is why we had the result we did. If we just trusted the people, we would all be much better served.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say this is about power and where power lies. Where we probably disagree and diverge is on the definition of where power is moving to and from.
The Bill before us transfers all the power into the hands of one individual, the Prime Minister. The power to call an election currently lies with all 650 Members of this House, who are elected by the people. I would argue that power to the people lies more in keeping the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Of course I disagree with the Act, and I support its repeal, but I disagree with the Government’s replacement.
If I may, I will make a little progress. I am conscious of time.
I want to say a few words about comparisons, because it is always important to compare this House and how we do things with other countries and other parts of the United Kingdom. It is about the principle of who has the power to decide when an election takes place, or whether it should be fixed.
The Opposition believe that the democratic position to take, as a starting principle, is that these things should be fixed. Indeed, that is already the case for the Scottish Parliament, the Senedd Cymru and the Northern Ireland Parliament, as well as for our local councils in England and English elected Mayors. We know, and the voters know, when those institutions and individuals will be up for re-election, when they can re-elect them to do their job or reject them if they disagree.
The only question mark lies over this House and when this House goes to the people and the country. We are out of step even within our United Kingdom. In most parliamentary democracies, Dissolution is controlled by the legislature, with varying degrees of involvement from the Executive. I would argue that is good for democracy and, of course, for planning legislation and passing the Government’s manifesto, which the people would have voted for. It helps civil servants to work and plan with politicians, and it helps our electoral administrators, who have frankly been put under an awful lot of pressure in recent years. It helps us as political campaigners to know when a long campaign spend will start, because if we know when an election is called, we know when the spending limits can start kicking in. It is also good, most importantly, for voters to know when they can either re-elect or reject a politician.
The UK has a strong tradition of parliamentary sovereignty, and I believe that Parliament should be central to any decision to dissolve.
Of course, in most circumstances an Opposition will want to have an election. If the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the 2019 situation, that was not about not wanting to have an election; it was about not wanting a situation in which the Government could take the country out of the European Union with no deal. That was the sticking point, and that was the issue with the date. In most situations, an Opposition would always want an election. Indeed, I can say quite confidently that I would do a darn sight better job than Michael Gove, but he knows that.
I find it difficult to disagree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, the points that he has made, not just in that intervention but in earlier interventions on the Minister, have raised some important questions that I hope the House will consider. I am grateful that the Bill will be considered in Committee of the whole House and that we will have the advantage of my hon. Friend’s insights at that stage, as well as his contribution in the Joint Committee.
There is no way that this legislation would be before us this afternoon if it did not provide an electoral advantage. When Governments decide when elections happen, there is absolutely no doubt that it can be played to their advantage. As has already been made clear, the Government can call an election before bad news is about to be delivered, or if they feel that their Opposition are in disarray. Professor Petra Schleiter from Oxford University did a comparative study of 27 western and European democracies and found that when governing parties had the power to control when elections happened, they gained, on average, a 5% electoral advantage. Those of us who live and breathe politics will understand that that is the difference between forming a Government and falling out of government. That is why I would argue that it is anti-democratic to allows all the power to lie in the hands of one individual.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but that argument is somewhat of a straw house of an argument, because that could still be used at the end of a five-year parliamentary term if the Government stacked their legislative programme to be so in the interests of their constituent base that they would win anyway. So I am not entirely sure that her argument holds water, because either way, the Government of the day, whatever their colour, are able to do whatever they want in legislative terms that is most beneficial to their constituents.
I suppose the difference is that when there is a five-year Parliament and all the parties know when the election is happening, there is a level playing field, unlike when a Government can call a general election unexpectedly if the advantage lies entirely with the governing party and not with any of the Opposition parties. The Bill therefore skews power towards the Executive and towards incumbent governing parties. It also gives Prime Ministers the power to haggle with Parliament by threatening early Dissolution and early elections. I would also argue that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act—although it is flawed and I certainly support its repeal—puts us more in line with other democracies that constrain the power of Prime Ministers.
Turning to the monarch and the attempt to restore the royal prerogative with legislation, if the Crown is left as the only check on untimely requests for Dissolution, that would inevitably draw the Crown into controversy if such requests were refused. Perhaps the Minister will shed some light on that in her closing remarks, but I struggle to see the circumstances in which a sovereign might decline a request for an election. I would argue that the most effective way of avoiding such a constitutional crisis would be to leave decisions on Dissolution to Parliament, which is the right place for what is a quintessentially political decision. The House of Lords Constitution Committee said when it published its report on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in September:
“Reform of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act must keep the Queen out of politics.”
I sincerely agree with that. The Government’s proposal that the monarch should be the only check on a questionable request for Dissolution inevitably risks dragging the monarch into politics. I argue that the easiest way out of such a situation would be a parliamentary vote on Dissolution, which would protect the monarch from being dragged into politics.
I would like to make a bit more progress.
I put on the record my thanks to Professor Meg Russell and Professor Robert Hazell for their evidence to the Joint Committee, which I have found very useful, as well as for their informative podcast, of which my hon. Friend Chris Bryant was a feature.
The arguments that I have heard for leaving Dissolution in the hands of Parliament have convinced me that it would be the easiest way to keep the courts out of these decisions. Clause 3 will be a topic of quite heated debate. It is impossible to imagine the crack through which the courts could intervene had a House of Commons decision to trigger a statutory power of Dissolution been recorded. If the Government adopted that approach, we could remove the ouster clause, which would then be self-defeating in its current terms.
As long as Prorogation continues as a prerogative power, one way to avoid Parliament being prorogued against its will would be to make the prerogative power exercisable at the request of Parliament, rather than on the advice of the Prime Minister. An alternative would be to abolish the prerogative power and put Prorogation on the same footing as the power of Adjournment, thereby enabling Parliament to be prorogued when the House of Commons passes a motion to that effect.
Ultimately, I believe that Dissolution should remain in the hands of Parliament, not the Executive. The Bill is very much about the question of where power lies. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was problematic and there are certainly aspects of it that I will be quite happy to see the back of, but the principle of having fixed terms is not in itself necessarily a bad thing—indeed, it puts us on a level footing with many other western democracies and progressive democracies around the world, and in line with our own Parliaments here in the United Kingdom.
Prorogation should be in the hands of Parliament, not the Executive, so I urge all colleagues, as this Second Reading debate continues, to consider where power should lie and how checks on that power can be put in place. If indeed we are to place power in the hands of people, I argue that the situation is far stronger if that power lies in the hands of the elected representatives in this House, rather than in the hands of one Prime Minister.
I welcome the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith back to her rightful place on the Treasury Bench. May I say how appreciative I have been of her attendance at the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which I chair, over recent months to discuss this subject and others?
I thank my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for his mention of our report on the Bill, although it perhaps had a slight difference of emphasis to that which came from the Joint Committee. As he is in the Gallery today, I pay full tribute to Lord McLoughlin from the other place for so ably chairing that distinguished Joint Committee.
There are many minds in the House greater than mine that have given this subject a lot of thought—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] On this subject, there certainly are, if I can be self-deprecating. As Bagehot would have it, we are discussing, and indeed legislating on, the at once solemn but also practical interaction between the “dignified” and the “efficient”—that is to say, the transaction between the monarch and the Prime Minister. On that note, I was pleased to see that the draft Dissolution principles were changed on the advice of the Joint Committee, such that the Prime Minister now shall not advise the monarch of the need to dissolve Parliament but rather make a “request” so to do.
How have we reached this point? I suggest that the disputatious nature of politics in recent years is too easily given as a reason. I contend that part of the real reason is the lesson of not tinkering with the constitution to suit immediate circumstances, which brings me to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Was it a high political ideal, as advanced by some, or a case of political expediency? I humbly suggest that it was the latter. It was of course necessary for a smaller coalition partner to have the assurance that it was not going to be cast off part way through a term, when it might have been to the larger party’s advantage to seek an election.
In all this, motivation is key, so it is perhaps helpful to consider briefly the Dissolution principles, which have been mentioned already as the Lascelles principles. In May 1950, Lascelles, the King’s private secretary—Senex being his pseudonym—wrote to The Times to suggest that “no wise Sovereign” would refuse a Dissolution except in three instances. We have heard them already, but the first was if the existing Parliament was still viable. The second was if a general election
“would be detrimental to the national economy”.
The third, and perhaps the most interesting and still relevant, was if the sovereign could find
Do they all stand today? As I have said, I think the latter one certainly does.
Most people’s knowledge of Tommy Lascelles, I am afraid, comes from “The Crown”. That is how we learn history these days, and of course it is a flawless representation of the truth. People know him from that, rather than from his letter to The Times some 70-odd years ago. Here I seek to make a tangential link to the world of drama, for all are players in our unwritten constitution. Each has a role set for them, even if it is unscripted. The actors must conform to the expectations, if we are to avoid the play that goes wrong, or indeed the Parliament that goes wrong.
In recent history, I am afraid that at times some have gone off the unscripted script, if such a thing were possible, because politics is a numbers game, and the reason we had such a quagmire in the last Parliament was that the numbers did not quite add up. That going off the script was not surprising, given the testing circumstances of the 2017 Parliament, but it is also a reflection, if I can be charitable, of the constitutional short-sightedness or, if not, vandalism done by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Add to that the novel action of the Prorogation that never was, if I can put it that way, combined with the actions of the former Speaker of this House. In short, everybody went off script. Fortunately, the ultimate safety valve of our constitution—a general election—worked.
Of course, this is all my view. The House will have a chance to listen to the utterances of Chris Bryant later on, and we look forward to that immensely. He will teach us a thing or two.
I support the Bill, but I fear that clause 3, the so-called ouster clause, may be superfluous. Its inclusion could be seen by those of a cynical bent as being a hangover from the intervention of the Supreme Court in 2019. We should hold more surely to the Bill of Rights of 1689. After all, the Queen in Parliament is not justiciable—at least that is my understanding.
May I, too, say how pleased we are to see Chloe Smith back in her place? I look forward to many confrontations with her in the coming weeks and months. Let me say at the outset that the SNP will be opposing the Second Reading of this Bill when the House divides this evening. We will do so not because we are particularly wedded to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, but because we believe that the Bill is a much wider part of a fundamental attack on our democracy.
One should not view the Bill in isolation. I believe that when Members look at it in the wider picture and place it alongside the voter suppression Bill, the Government’s plan to neuter the Electoral Commission and the draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, they will reach the same conclusion that many of us have reached: this Bill is simpler another part of a brazen attempt by this Government to further centralise control, 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 them. This is an unashamed power grab by the Executive, and we believe that it will be seen as such when seen in the context of the wider picture.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. No, we are not doing that, and I will come on to exactly why we are not. Although I acknowledge that the 2019 Labour manifesto said that they would repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and I understand that they intend to abstain in tonight’s Division and amend in Committee, I would caution that any support for this Bill has to be contingent on what is coming to replace it. I say to anyone who might not like the current Act and wishes to see it repealed to be careful what they wish for. To address the point made by Mr Goodwill, let me say that although in and of itself repealing that Act might look fairly innocuous and taken in isolation might even be seen as trivial and almost unimportant, I caution that if it is viewed as part of that wider, much larger strategy to centralise power and control with the Executive, this is a far cry from a benign piece of legislation, as they would have us believe.
In this House and indeed in this Administration, there is a distinction between the role of Director of Public Prosecutions and Attorney General. I understand that in the Scottish Government the Lord Advocate combines both roles. That is a centralisation of Executive power, is it not? Would the hon. Gentleman advise his colleagues in the Scottish Government to move away from that centralisation of powers, towards the higher constitutional principles that we have here in the UK?
That is another piece of absolute obfuscation by the Minister—a ridiculous piece of obfuscation—so I will return to what I was saying. No matter how intense the 2011 Act, this is not a sufficient reason to support this Bill, because what this Government are proposing is a stripping away of one more pillar of parliamentary or judicial oversight. It is not simply a return to the position we had in 2011.
“The statement of principles accompanying the Bill appears to presume that the Queen will dissolve Parliament as a matter of course when the Prime Minister so requests, thus implying an intention, on the part of the Government, not to restore the pre-FTPA position but to usher in a regime under which its latitude is greater than before”.
As we have heard, prior to 2011 the monarch was able, in certain circumstances, to deny a Prime Minister’s request to dissolve Parliament and seek an early general election. Because of the weaknesses of having an unwritten constitution, the prerogative power of the monarch, exercised, as we have heard, through the Lascelles principles, was one that was never able to be enshrined in statute. The Lascelles principles asserted that the monarch could deny Dissolution in certain circumstances, including in relation to the viability of the Government, being detrimental to the national economy and being able to find another Prime Minister who could govern. If this Bill becomes statute, what becomes of the Lascelles principles and the monarch’s ability to deny a request for a Dissolution of Parliament? As I understand it, this place may be able to create statutory powers by enacting statutes, but it cannot create prerogative powers, which, by definition, derive from a source other than statute. So those prerogative powers that the monarch has to seek a Dissolution are not coming back, meaning that this Bill is little more than an attempt by the Executive to circumvent even the minimal gatekeeping function exercised in the Lascelles principles by the monarch and all the power will be concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister. As Professor Elliott says
“the very legal uncertainty as to whether the prerogative can be revived means that it would be irresponsible simply to legislate to repeal the Act and try to revive the prerogative without being sure that you could.”
This is more of a clarification point. If the Lascelles principles are in place and the Government were to call a general election but an alternative grouping could come together to be able to create a Government, would that not allow the Queen to appoint a new Prime Minister, under the principles that were referenced by my hon. Friend Mr Wragg?
As I understand it, and reading what Professor Elliott says, the Lascelles principles would go and therefore we are not returning to exactly the position we had prior to the introduction of the 2011 Act. The Lascelles principles, because they are royal prerogatives, are not part of statute and therefore there is nothing to say that they will remain. They will go, so all the power will be on the Prime Minister and when a Prime Minister requests a Dissolution and a general election, the monarch will have no power on which to refuse.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so patient with me on this, but on reading the Bill, I do not see where it will be rescinding or taking away the Lascelles principles.
I think the fact that the principles are not there suggests that they will not be there. I understand that there is no statute—there cannot be—and therefore there will be no Lascelles principles on which to act. Hon. Members will know that things are pretty bad when I of all people stand here discussing the right of an unelected Head of State to use prerogative powers to act as a check on the excesses of the Executive.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because this is perhaps where we see the significance of clause 3. If there is to be nothing in this Bill or no decision that would be justiciable, then surely the implication is that, in fact, there is only one decision that can be made by the monarch, and that is to grant the application.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I absolutely agree. What is happening here is that the monarch will not be able to refuse under any circumstances, although not because of that very dangerous path of going into the political arena.
Although something of a constitutional anachronism, the Lascelles principles did at least provide a degree of constraint on a Prime Minister who opportunistically may have wanted to cut and run mid-term and hold a snap general election when their popularity was on the up, or perhaps more importantly and more pertinently, when they knew future events—perhaps the result of a particularly unhelpful public inquiry—would be guaranteed to put a major dent in their approval ratings.
The right hon. Gentleman shouts from a sedentary position that that would never happen to the SNP. Indeed, the SNP could not cut and run in the Scottish Parliament because we work to a fixed term. The next Scottish Parliament elections will be on
The Scottish Government will stand by and have stood by their record, and have been accountable on the day of the Scottish elections for every Parliament. The Scottish Parliament knows when the next election will be, and every Government will be accountable on that day. If those in the Chamber want to look at the success of the Scottish Government—the SNP Scottish Government—as put forward and verified by the Scottish public just two months ago, let me say that I am sure there is not a Member of this House, particularly on the Liberal Democrat Benches, who would not give their eye teeth for such an endorsement. However, I will move on, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I can see that I am testing your patience somewhat.
I will come to the right hon. Gentleman in a moment, but I will take your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, and move on.
Clause 3 of the Bill is an ouster clause. It aims in effect to put the Government’s action beyond the reach of the law, meaning that decisions made by the Government on these matters are non-justiciable. This is clearly the action of a Government who are still smarting from the humiliation of the Supreme Court’s Prorogation judgment in 2019, which said that it was not in the power of the Prime Minister to suspend Parliament for such a long time at such a critical moment.
In January, Baroness Hale and Lord Sumption gave evidence to the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and they both expressed serious reservations about clause 3 of this Bill, which renders non-justiciable the powers given to the Government in clause 2. Those non-justiciable powers include controlling the space of time between the Dissolution of one Parliament and the general election and between the general election and the first sitting of a new Parliament. All of that would be in the control of a Government whose previous attempts to undermine parliamentary democracy through proroguing in 2019 were, as we have seen, deemed unlawful. The difference this time is that they hope that the Supreme Court could not intervene. Back in January, both Lord Sumption and Baroness Hale were unequivocal in saying that the minimum safeguard that this Bill needed in the event of such an ouster clause was to put a time limit on the moving of writs for parliamentary elections, which has not been done.
In evidence to the Committee, the Government were advised that:
“The Fixed-term Parliaments Act had a provision that limited the time within which writs for parliamentary elections could be moved, and it is the latter that I think you would be wise to introduce into this Bill.”
Lord Sumption also warned the Government at that meeting. He said:
“I suspect that if the Prime Minister was effectively attempting to rule without Parliament by simply failing to issue writs of summons, the courts might well intervene for precisely the same reasons that they intervened in the case of the prorogation…I think it quite likely that the reasoning in Miller No. 2 would be applied to that situation. But, because this is a very undesirable state of affairs, I would very strongly urge you to introduce into the Bill a provision with a time limit.”
Baroness Hale and Lord Sumption could not have been clearer, but, six months later, the Government still have not introduced anything of the sort and clause 3 remains as it was back in January, in effect allowing the Government to decide on the length of a Prorogation, the gap between a Dissolution and an election and, indeed, the gap between an election and the first sitting of a new Parliament. They were warned by learned judges that that is not an acceptable state of affairs and they have had six months to do something about it, but it still does not appear in the Bill. If the Bill is passed as the Government wish, they will be able to do all of that in the hope of not having the courts look at it.
Until now, the only vague explanation I have heard about why the Government have not taken on the former Supreme Court judges’ advice is on a basis of, “Trust us—do you really think we would do such a thing?” The obvious answer is yes, because they have form for doing exactly that and have been found to have acted illegally. When the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution responds to the debate, will she explain why the Government have not taken on their advice? Indeed, will the Government finally seek to amend the Bill?
Under normal circumstances, a debate on whether this Parliament chooses to fix a term between its general elections is not something that the SNP would get overly het up about. Indeed, we do not intend to be here much longer. Hopefully, Scotland’s participation in UK general elections will be a thing consigned to the history books and children will learn about it alongside Robert Burns, William Shakespeare, the moon landings and how England came so close to winning the European championships. I hope, and have little doubt that, when established, our independent Scottish Parliament will continue to use the current arrangement: the one whereby everyone knows that, barring the collapse of the Government and an inability to create a new one, Scottish Parliament elections will take place on the first Thursday of May in 2026. That is how it should be.
The Bill once again exposes the absurdity of the UK not having a written constitution and reveals the inherent weakness of a system which simply hopes that the Executive branch do not do the things that, as a matter of legal and constitutional theory, they are allowed to do. Unfortunately, when the Executive decide to flex their muscles at the expense of the legislature and the judiciary, the failure to have adequate entrenched legal constitutional constraints becomes all too apparent. As I have said several times, the Bill cannot be seen in isolation and must be viewed as part of a concerted and co-ordinated power grab on the part of the Executive; one which, if they are successful, will give them even greater powers over Parliament and the courts. That is why the SNP will vigorously oppose it.
First, may I put on the record how much I welcome the Bill? Indeed, having served on the Joint Committee chaired so ably by the noble Lord McLoughlin, who has gone on from a distinguished career in this House to—I hope—even greater things in the other place, I can probably own up to knowing more about the constitutional convolution surrounding this subject than it is healthy for any person to know, with the possible exception of Chris Bryant.
I was slightly confused by the points made by the shadow Minister, as Labour has a manifesto commitment to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. I am not sure whether we will see some backtracking on that. I was also confused when she said that the Prime Minister of the day could take the opportunity of the Opposition being in disarray to call a general election. I have to say that I could probably pick any day in the past five years, and no doubt in the next four years, when that particular situation could be in force.
When we started out on this journey, I took the view that we should go as far as possible to restore the situation to as it existed before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. At the end of our deliberations, I remained of the same view, but we all came to understand better the historical and constitutional context. It is important that we restore the royal prerogative. Less important is the academic discussion about whether it was merely in abeyance and could be restored or had been abolished. The Lascelles principles were discussed: the reasons why the King or Queen could refuse the initiative from No. 10 and, of course, the discretion around a request—or is that advice?—to Her Majesty. Indeed Brendan O’Hara talked about whether the Lascelles principles would still be in place. We learned about the golden triangle—the communications between the Queen’s private secretary, the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister’s private secretary—who would head off an embarrassing situation for the monarch who might have to turn down an election because it was too soon after the previous election, because an alternative Government could be formed, or because other situations might mean that it was inappropriate to call that particular election.
To emphasise the point that my right hon. Friend has just made, the truth is not that a monarch would never be put in a position where she had to say no, but that what happens in our constitution means that that question is never put until it is an acceptable time for a general election. Putting it in rules in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act got in the way of a functioning electoral democracy.
That is right. I am a big subscriber to the view that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The situation that we had worked for many years—during constitutional crises, world wars and great political events in this country. The people of this country have a great regard for Her Majesty the Queen, and I feel that if anyone was going to be put in that position, she is probably the best person—with advice from those around her, including the golden triangle, to make that decision.
Having been a member of the coalition Government, I have to say that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act worked well during the coalition period, steadying the nerves of our Liberal Democrat partners against a snap election. If the same situation were to happen again—perhaps a Labour-SNP coalition, but probably not any time soon—it could be dusted off again. I am not sure whether those two coalition partners would make very good bedfellows—certainly the image of Morecambe and Wise sat reading their bedtime books does not spring to mind, but who knows what might happen at some point in the future.
In the meantime, this Bill restores the situation as it was before 2020. It is a procedure that has stood the test of time and, most importantly, cannot be challenged in the courts. Let us remember the autumn of 2019 when, three times, Labour proved that it was frightened of the electorate and did not give the two-thirds majority for an election. Indeed, in December 2019, we discovered precisely why it was frightened of the electorate; it was brought to book by the electorate for ignoring them since the referendum decision was made. Hence I very much support the need for the ouster clause in clause 3, which ensures the belt and braces situation to which the Secretary of State referred.
Finally, there is one improvement that we should consider either for this Bill or for the forthcoming elections Bill. Currently, when an election is called after the customary wash-up, we have an election campaign that lasts 25 working days. With weekends and bank holidays, that means that we have more than 35 full days on the campaign trail. That is far too long. My view is that a campaign of that length is more likely to turn off voters than to motivate them—I suspect that Brenda from Bristol would agree with me.
I know that the returning officers will have all sorts of reasons why they need more time, and no doubt the party campaign managers will say that they do not have enough time to organise their campaigns. I know that the situation is different with overseas and more postal voters, but surely there are technical solutions to those issues. Perhaps, once every four of five years, our hard-working council officials could do some overtime at weekends if necessary. Let us have a 25-day election campaign and not a 25 working day election campaign.
Elections never used to be this long. Many people have already decided how they will vote. We should minimise the time for which the Government are possibly hamstrung during an election and cannot be scrutinised or challenged by Parliament. I welcome the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, but look forward to provisions to fix the length of the election at 25 days only.
May I first say what an utter delight it is to see Chloe Smith in her place? Cancer is a bugger, and quite a lot of us have been through it. At the rate we are going, we will have a very large cancer survivors unit here in Parliament, and we shall overcome.
I know Michael Gove is not present, but there is nothing more miserable than parts of one’s private life going through the public domain. I wish him and Sarah well.
Mr Wragg has come back. I was going to criticise him because he had just departed, having said that he was looking forward to hearing what I was going to say, but now he has returned.
I am afraid that I dislike the Bill from beginning to end. I know it was in our manifesto that we would repeal the 2011 Act, but there were lots of things in our last manifesto with which I did not fully agree, so merely saying that it was in our manifesto does not cut the mustard. Our 2010 manifesto said that we wanted to move towards a fixed-term Parliament and to hand over significant elements of the prerogative to Parliament. Indeed, I note that the Conservatives’ manifesto in 2010 said that they wanted to make
“the use of the Royal Prerogative subject to greater democratic control”.
I supported bits of the 2011 Act when I was the shadow Minister dealing with it at the time, in 2010. There were bits of the Act that we criticised but, broadly speaking, we supported it. What I object to in this Bill is that it significantly increases the Government’s power over Parliament. Indeed, when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was introduced, it was a major transfer of power away from the Executive, and a major strengthening of Parliament’s authority over its own lifetime. By definition, this Bill is exactly the opposite of that. The Bill assumes that all the players in the so-called golden triangle—why on earth do we resort to such outdated concepts?—will be good guys. I use the word “guys” advisedly, because quite often they are guys, but of course there is a danger that the Bill also brings the palace and the monarch directly into party politics.
The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case that it should not be a question of the Government against Parliament, but does he not agree that it should not be a question of Parliament against the people? That is the situation that we were nearly stuck in, because the Government, by wanting to be dissolved and have an election, wanted the people to have the final say about Brexit, but Parliament did not want the people to have the final say about Brexit. So the hon. Gentleman needs to be very careful, because there is a lot to be said for the Government not overruling Parliament, but there is not much to be said for Parliament not overruling Government when the Government are trying to give the final decision to the people.
Well, my point is simply that we need to have a level playing field in any general election. The Bill deliberately gives the Government the upper hand. It places them on the hill surrounding the territory. It means that they determine the territory on which a general election will be contested. They determine many other aspects, such as who is able to vote, who is able to register to vote, how the boundaries are constituted and so on. I start to ask myself: how much power do the Government want to have?
The hon. Gentleman is extremely kind in giving way a second time. I do not think he answered my point, which is that the key thing about Dissolution is that we are giving power to the people to have the final say.
On the hon. Gentleman’s other point, he says that the Government are able to choose a time that is to their advantage. The alternative is surely that when we have a fixed date when the election has to be held, the Government will still try to manipulate the situation so that it will coincide to their advantage at that date. We cannot really escape the question of manipulation entirely.
If there is a fixed date for a general election, there are fewer options for the Government to manipulate the situation. That is a publicly known fact to everybody, so there is a level playing field. Indeed, over the last 20 years or so we have had a set of rules in this country that mean that in the six months before a general election, the Opposition are allowed special access to the civil service. If the Opposition do not even know when the general election will be, they never have that opportunity.
Time and again, the Government get to set the rules, and there is a significant party political advantage to being able to set the date of a general election. That is why Governments never wanted to change that. They did it in 2010 for 2015 only, because they wanted to solve a specific problem. My biggest anxiety is that, while we all love the fluidity of our constitution, the downside is that it becomes the plaything of the Government of the day who want to jig and rejig bits and pieces to benefit themselves and keep themselves in power.
One instance of the kind of behaviour a Government today might conceivably think of is to hold a general election immediately after the new boundaries come in, or immediately before the boundaries come in, for their own party political advantage because that is how they will have assessed that. Alternatively, they could decide that we will not have a full judicial review producing a report on the lessons learned from the covid pandemic until after the date of the next general election. Dr Lewis is absolutely right that it could be after 2025—they could decide that it will not produce its result until 2027. My point is that even if a report is about to be produced, they could decide to have a general election.
The Minister herself gave evidence to our Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act saying that the public would punish nefarious activity of that kind. I am not convinced by that, because in a general election the public are making a whole series of decisions, and the simple matter of whether the general election should have been called is probably round about number No. 535 on the list of issues that are of concern to them. My simple point is that this is about having a level playing field. We insist on that for other countries and democracies. It is a fundamental principle of what constitutes a fair democracy.
I will deal with some specifics, if I may. First, five years is far too long for a Parliament. Over the past 200 years, they have tended to run for about four years, including when we had a seven-year term for Parliaments. It would make far more sense for us to have a four-year term—that would be more in keeping with the rest of the country. If the Bill passes Second Reading, I will table an amendment to curtail it to four years. We do not even say that it is five years at the moment—it is five years plus with the additional bits. The five years is not from the start of one Parliament to the start of the next Parliament; it is from the date of the Parliament’s first sitting until the general election.
The Government get to decide the date not only of a Parliament’s first sitting but of its first sitting to transact substantial and substantive business, which traditionally starts with the First Reading of the Outlawries Bill, followed by the Queen’s Speech. Even after the Queen’s Speech, it is for the Government to decide when we actually get into proper business and, during that period, whether there might or might not be a motion of no confidence. That means that after a general election, such as when Baldwin lost the general election, there had to be a motion of no confidence in the new Parliament, but that depended on the Government bringing Parliament to sit. We are almost unique in the world by not having any provisions in statute or our Standing Orders guaranteeing that the House will be able to transact business within a certain number of days, let alone set up Committees and all the rest.
I am very worried about snap elections, because often they mean that parties are not able to provide a duty of care towards potential candidates. I will mention only one, Jared O’Mara. If we had had a more sensible run- up to a general election, we would have served him better, because we would have gone through a proper process of selecting candidates. I could look at other instances across the last few years. As Chair of the Committee on Standards I am painfully aware that sometimes people become candidates without being prepared, briefed and given the support they need to enter into what can be a very difficult and painful place.
We have already seen that the Government have phenomenal powers over prorogation, and I simply do not understand why the House of Commons cannot have a vote beforehand. We would nearly always grant it, but if there were any jiggery-pokery, we might not. Government Members might say, “You are only doing that for a party political reason.” We could point to the Labour Government in the 1940s, who brought forward a special prorogation so that three Sessions of Parliament ran during one year, to meet the requirements of the Parliament Act 1911. Why does prorogation remain a simple act of the Executive? I think it is a mistake. Indeed, it would assist the Government simply to say that every time there is going to be a prorogation, just as there is before a recess, there will be a vote in the House of Commons.
I completely agree with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove, although when he is being sarcastic and ironic it is sometimes slightly difficult to determine which side of his own argument he is on. I think he was suggesting that the ouster clause may be a bit of an own goal. It sounds a bit like, “the lady doth protest too much”. It is as if we do not have confidence in the Bill of Rights.
The hon. Gentleman is the Mona Lisa in so many ways. I do not know what to make of that. My point is that the Government are protesting too much. I think that is counterproductive and will lead to the exact opposite of what they are trying to achieve. They virtually invite the courts to have a pop at them, which is a mistake. We should rely on the fact that proceedings in Parliament shall not be impeached or questioned in a court of law or any other place, under the articles from the Bill of Rights.
I am concerned about what constitutes a confidence motion. It should be perfectly possible to bring down a Government by virtue of refusing to allow them either money, or the basic thrust of their programme through the Queen’s Speech, or a major item of foreign policy, such as sending troops into war. In 1784 that was one of the first reasons a Government were brought down by a motion in the House. If I am honest, I was perplexed when David Cameron and William Hague—now Lord Hague—did not resign or even seem to think worthy of comment the fact that they lost a vote on sending British troops to war. In any other generation of our political history, that would have meant the Government would have fallen. This is an important principle: on big national issues, whether something is a matter of confidence should not simply be a matter for the Government. We all know that money, major policies, and issues of war and peace are fundamentally matters of confidence.
I hesitate to intervene, but the record should show that the particular motion to which the hon. Gentleman refers from 2013 was not one that committed the country to deploying troops. In fact, in specifically guaranteed that before that happened, the matter would come back before the House.
Well, the record will have to be found, won’t it. I completely agree with the comments made by Mr Goodwill about the election period being far too long. I have some sympathy with the fact that many people now vote by post, and there are issues for electoral registration officers and all the rest. Honestly, however, it cannot be beyond the wit of woman and man in this country to bring a general election in a shorter period than we currently do.
My bigger point—I will bring my remarks to a close after this—is that the Government already have phenomenal power in this country. In our system, the amount of power that Government have in Westminster is most extraordinary. They determine every single element of the timetable and, indeed, they do more so now than they did in the time of the second world war. If we think of one of the big confidence debates, in 1939, there was the debate on the summer recess, because people who were opposed to appeasement were terrified that Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister was going to use the recess to do a deal over Poland with Hitler. There was a chance in those days for another Member to table an amendment to the date of the recess. The rules now specify that we cannot even table an amendment to the date of the recess that has been tabled by a Government Minister.
The same is true of nearly every element of our expenditure. We cannot table a motion from the Opposition. Only a Government Minister can table a motion changing a tax, increasing a tax, laying a duty or a tax on the people, or increasing expenditure. We barely do a process of expenditure in our system at all. We do not really have a Budget, not in the sense that any other country would understand that they have a Budget. We have a statement by the Chancellor every year. The power that Government hold in this country is absolutely phenomenal and I do not think that simply to allow a few things such as a vote on Prorogation and a vote on Dissolution is too much to ask.
As a Welsh MP, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that one benefit of a fixed-term Parliament for this place is that there cannot be a clash with Welsh elections. Although the Bill says that there cannot be an election for the Senedd and a general election at the same time, the Library note states:
“Regulations can be made to hold” an “extraordinary general” election. The question for us, if the Bill passes tonight, is: what are those extraordinary circumstances and how will UK Ministers co-ordinate with Welsh Ministers and the Welsh Parliament?
My personal view for some time has been that it is probably for the convenience of the people to have a more or less fixed time of the year when we have elections. The beginning of May seems to work for local elections and I do not see why it would not work for most other elections. I am not personally opposed to having several elections on the same day either. I know others are, but I think that that would be for the greater convenience of most people in the country.
My biggest fear is that the present Government have a very high theology of strong government. It feels to me akin to the Stuarts’ divine right of kings, which is not to say that they feel that they have a divine right to rule, but that they think that the Government have the divine right to rule. What makes me think this is the number of times that the Leader of the House—we had it again today from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—referred to the “addled Parliament” of 1614. It was the king who called it the “addled Parliament” in 1614 because the king did not get his way. There are many ways of interpreting what happened in the last Parliament, but the Government did not get their way—we know that. I think that when the Government feel that the constitution has to change because the Government have not managed to get their way through Parliament, that is a worrying moment.
The truth is that the whole of this system depends—I mean the word “depends” deliberately—on a very, very thin thread of confidence in the Government. I think a better way of understanding politics is that Governments govern by consent, and that consent is not just earned at a general election. It is constantly earned and has to be constantly earned in this arena—in here. I worry that the Government do not feel that way. I personally do not trust any Government who abrogate more powers to themselves. It is even worse when a Government then claim to do so in the name of democracy, as we heard in the very first sentence of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s contribution earlier. Such abrogation nearly always rapidly descends into the arrogance of office. I think that there is a particular irony in the fact that the people who shouted “Take back control” again and again now ratchet up their own control over the British constitution.
It is a real privilege to follow Chris Bryant. I want to expand on his closing remarks, because I think we need to strip back to why we are doing this, and I will start by talking about faith in democracy.
The reality is that in the last six months of 2019, and certainly in the autumn of 2019, the public did not have faith in this place. That is a simple fact—we had only to look at our inboxes and at the comments being made. We were not doing anything, we were not getting anywhere and we had a Speaker who, quite frankly, acted disgracefully on many an occasion, going way beyond the remit within which he should have operated. All that that did, from the public’s point of view, was make them say, “You are pointless. We have given you an instruction in a referendum and in a general election, but two years after the 2017 general election, you have still achieved nothing.”
The reason we did not achieve anything was that we were gridlocked. Christine Jardine made a comment today that was used so many times in that period: she said that people were looking for us to come to this place and solve the issues. I heard that phrase used throughout the argument, but what it actually meant was “People are looking for you to agree with me, to do what I say and to ignore what you want to say.” It was a 50-50 Parliament, really: it kept hitting gridlock and we did not get anywhere.
As I said in my intervention on Cat Smith, for whom I have a great deal of respect—I am looking forward to debates with her in Committee—the games that were played at the time did no favours to this place. The fact that 24 hours before we finally dissolved the last Parliament we had failed to dissolve it under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, but then a one-line Bill got the two-thirds majority and got the Government to choose the date of the election, added to the sense of “What are you all playing at?”
I am sorry to do this, but I just want to push back against the words “game playing”. There were very passionately held views on both sides of the argument on every single constitutional matter that was going on. I do not think that anybody was playing a game. Everybody was in deadly earnest—we just disagreed.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s intervention about the choice of language, and I will change it. His observation is well made and he makes it earnestly.
What I will therefore say is that what happened almost showed that we should have dissolved the last Parliament much earlier. It was going nowhere. We created a situation in which passions were high about the constitutional issues, but we just never made any progress—yet for all the calls from people outside saying “Resign!”, we could not. The ultimate act of resignation is for a Government to call a general election: they do not know whether they will be re-appointed. The Government literally could not resign.
The hon. Gentleman touches on points that Chris Bryant raised at the very end of his speech. I was part of the process of discussion and eventually we did get an election in 2019, because the Government were prepared to talk to other parties and bring them along. That runs to the heart of the whole difficulty throughout the Parliament of 2017 to 2019: the Government decided on their position, whatever it happened to be on that day. It was never the same position all the time, but it was their way or the highway. Surely the point is, as the hon. Member for Rhondda and others have said throughout this debate, that it is for Parliament as a whole, and not just the Government on their own, to make these decisions.
Parliament failed, and it failed day in and day out, week in and week out. It does not matter, to go back over these arguments, whether people should have shifted to my position or gone to another position. The now Leader of the Opposition spent hours and hours in No. 10 Downing Street, and every time we thought a deal had been made, he scuppered it and moved the goalposts.
Parliament did not work. It is all very well to say that we should have taken particular positions, but the history books show that it failed at every attempt. The way out of that situation is to go back to the people and to lay it on the table. That happened far too late, and in this place we undermined several attempts along the way.
I honestly believe that we have to be very careful at the moment. It is getting better now, but we have been through a period in which the value of the democratic processes in many democracies has been questioned. We have just seen a narcissistic, arrogant now ex-President of the United States with, quite frankly, low political intellectual ability, undermine the entire system to the point he literally caused five people to die because he did not accept the result of an election. He used social media and all the other things to stir it up by saying, “I won this election.” He clearly did not, but most polling shows that a whole swathe of voters in America think that he did, which again undermines democracy.
We still have some way to go to make sure we have the ability to dissolve a failing Parliament and go back to the people. It comes back to the point, which I have used in many a speech, of trusting the people. There have been comments today about how a Government could perhaps abuse a Bill, how we might not recall Parliament, how we could choose the date of the election or how we could delay and do all these things. I promise that the public would give us a right kicking if we did that.
One of the reasons the 2017 general election was, frankly, a disaster for my party was that we were looking to cash in. The people thought, “You are just trying to take advantage of the situation. You don’t actually need to have this election,” and we were punished for it. The public are not stupid; they recognise what goes on, and they have their own concerns. Ultimately, they give their verdict on us at the ballot box. Leading up to the December 2019 general election, the public thought that things had to change. It was noticeable that, whether people were remainers or leavers, they just wanted the situation resolved, which is why the result was the way it was.
I do not think what went on over the Prorogation helped the situation in any shape or form. Lord Roskill, in Council of Civil Service Unions v. Minister for the Civil Service 1985, stated that in his view prerogative powers were not susceptible to judicial review, yet that is pretty much exactly what happened, and it was applied retrospectively. There is precedent for longer Prorogations.
Again, it all added to the view—I do not want to use the word “establishment”, and Chris Bryant might once again advise me on better language—that the establishment was against the view of the people and was trying to thwart clear instructions that had been given. And we remained powerless in this place to do anything about it, which was the fundamental problem.
I have been in this place long enough to know that, going into Committee, it is unwise to take a fixed position on Second Reading. I am over the moon to see my hon. Friend the Minister back in the House today. She looks in fine health and it is a source of great joy to us all to see her back in her place. I know she will be listening to all the contributions being made, including from the hon. Member for Rhondda. I remember being a new MP, and he and I sparring over the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and the issue of four years or five years.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right: I did indeed vote for that Bill. I think what has been slightly overlooked in these arguments is that the question of stability at a time when the markets were in disarray over what happened was very important. We had not had to deal with those parliamentary maths, I believe, for nigh on 70 years and something had to take place to calm the markets. So that is why I think it is was worth it at the time. It is worth listening to the hon. Gentleman’s views on years. I still think five years is acceptable and he thinks four years. As my right hon. Friend Mr Goodwill outlined, we really do need to shorten these elections.
Overall, the Bill is an important healing mechanism and stepping stone to starting to restore faith. If a Parliament in future ends up again in the situation we ended up in, where views were deeply entrenched and would not budge on either side of the argument, then surely, we must easily be able to dissolve that Parliament and go back to the people. We must always trust the people.
Some people might feel that this place can be a tad old fashioned, but the Bill makes the system that was abolished in 2011 seem almost progressive. It is not just the restoration of the previous prerogative powers; it is using statute to move to a system with even less accountability for the Executive.
Another chance is being grabbed by this Government, with all their centralising tendencies, to cut the checks and balances of Parliament and abandon any pretence of the separation of powers. There will be no role for parliamentarians, no role for the courts and no attempt to set out the kind of circumstances where the Queen could refuse a Dissolution request, such as the Lascelles principles. As a democrat, I believe it is right that an unelected monarch should not get involved. But even at that, this is such a bad position to be put in to have to overrule the bad decisions of Government. Apart from anything else, I am sure she would be too busy if she tried to deal with the bad decisions of this current Government. There is no longer a role for MPs, no place for the courts and the Queen is left as the last check. The type of circumstances where that might apply should at least be set out, rather than the business being done by a nod or a wink.
There were clearly problems with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and I have some sympathy with the arguments to get rid of it. Most democracies can sensibly manage fixed terms, it has to be said, including the far more modern and efficient Parliament in Scotland. The approach makes perhaps for less democratic theatre, but for better long-term planning and more sensible Government decisions, which I am sure the public would welcome. However, five years is a very long time in this place. The Government party is usually chock-a-block with power-hungry schemers keen to get the knives out on their own side as quickly as possible. The official Opposition are usually far too busy chewing their own tail to bother with distractions such as actually opposing the Government. Elections can offer a temporary relief from the pain of listening to the baying mobs on the green Benches and offer a vague hope to the electorate that something better is on the horizon. It is little wonder that, outside wartime, no Parliament in the past 100 years has lasted the five-year distance.
There may be issues with the fixed-term legislation, but that does not mean we should simply throw the baby out with the bath water and give all the power to this Prime Minister to choose when and if it suits. The interests of the nations this Parliament is supposed to serve should come before the whim or ego of anyone, man or woman. It is not so much the principle of the Bill—perhaps even the most questionable clauses can be justified—but the alarm bells that are set off, as my hon. Friend Brendan O'Hara indicated earlier, when we look at the bigger picture: the behaviour about which all democrats should be concerned, whether it is the Government challenged on their lack of accountability or transparency, or the knee-jerk response to strip power away from those who challenge them. We saw that when the Prime Minister removed the Whip from those who simply disagreed with him—loyal Conservatives every one of them. We saw it when they illegally prorogued Parliament and in the Miller-Cherry case established by the Supreme Court. Now we see it in the ouster clause making it clear that any potential questioning of the Executive through the courts will no longer be tolerated. No wonder we on the SNP Benches are suspicious of the Government’s motives. This comes at a time when there is a systematic weakening of judicial review under way and the public are having their fundamental rights to protest curbed.
We have seen evidence of the same worrying approach to challenge when it comes to the Electoral Commission. The UK Government seem determined to strip powers from the watchdog that oversees elections and ensures the integrity and transparency of party election finance. Given the very real threats to our democracy from systematic disinformation and the election-changing influences of dark money, it is very clear that this independence is needed more now than ever before, rather than being watered down. Yet at this fragile time for our structures, the Government are choosing to remove the Electoral Commission’s powers to prosecute.
It might be a coincidence, and I am certainly willing to hear arguments for that case, but that proposal was brought forward just shortly after an investigation into donors who helped the current Prime Minister to buy wallpaper. It might just be chance, or it might not be—who knows? When these things are all added together, it leads to a perception that backs up the case to give us real suspicion as to the motives behind this Bill. Then we look at the issues around those who happen to be friends or have donated money—the donors and colleagues. Perhaps the Government could do a bit more to restore trust and faith in democracy than simply taking more power into the Executive. There are unanswered questions that still sit and fester and give no confidence to the public.
Where we are just now, it seems that this Government have given up on democracy altogether. It looks as though a stash of cash and a vested interest or two, or the right school tie, is what is needed to get into the corridors of power, and it stinks. As an excuse for bypassing democracy, the Prime Minister says that he wants to “get things done”, but so do many people around the world whom this place would often seriously challenge. Getting things right might take a little bit more time, but it stops the cronyism, corruption and rotting at the heart of any democratic structure.
The problems that caused the paralysis in 2019 were not the fault of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act; they were the fault of an intransigent Government. It is like a bad workperson blaming their tools. We may have left the EU, but the tricky questions were still there to be dealt with. They were pushed away for another day because the answers could not be found. Brexit was just steamrollered through without a care for the consequences, which continue to manifest themselves in ordinary lives even today. No doubt when things get too difficult we will see a familiar picture of another Tory leader running for the hills with their and their cronies’ wealth secured and the important numbers in their pockets in case they want to take up expensive lobbying jobs. Meanwhile, we still do not know how to square the circle of having no trade border with the EU, while having secured the right to dump all the EU’s standards for trade. Nor are we getting the chance to scrutinise properly decisions taken in rushed, desperate-looking trade deals with countries such as Australia that will change the face of farming in this country.
While I agree that there needs to be change to the electoral processes, the changes need to be in the opposite direction to that taken by this Government. We need greater openness, more transparency, more power for Parliament and independent watchdogs, including the judiciary, and more chances to hold the Executive to account. It is ironic that the Government accuse my party of being obsessed with the constitution when in reality they have been endlessly tinkering with the constitutional structures since coming to power. We in the SNP have a cause to improve active participation of all citizens in Scotland, and active engagement with the electorate has got to be a part of that process. That is a long campaign that I certainly have no issues with, because actually engaging with the electorate gives a better understanding and makes sure that all can be better informed.
Elements of this Bill are just a small but symbolic part of the centralising tendencies that continue to dominate under the opaque nature of this Government. If this is the route that Westminster wishes to take, I and my colleagues in the SNP cannot stand by and watch as the Government continue to attack and undermine democracy. I recognise that both the Conservative and Labour parties had the intention to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in their manifestos, but that does not mean at any cost. As the Government travel further from democracy, we will stand as defenders of that democracy and respect the democratic decisions of the people we represent. The Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament have a clear mandate for a referendum on the future of our country, to take place during this electoral term, and if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is repealed in this way, that could come sooner than expected.
I want to put on the record what an honour it was to be part of the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which was superbly and ably led by Lord McLoughlin. Our task was to look at the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which, as history has shown, has become totally unfit for purpose.
Although there was much debate and much evidence was taken on the Committee, it is important to say that the Committee’s report was an accurate reflection of the general views of the Committee. That does not mean that we did not have a robust debate and discussion of some of the elements of the draft legislation put before us, but the end result was that everyone agreed that the legislation needed to be the change before us, and restoring the status quo prior to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act seemed to be the logical thing to do for the majority.
I want to talk today on two elements of the Bill that drew alternative views and evidence from our panels of witnesses. The first is the so-called ouster clause. That proposal brought much scrutiny, views and evidence not just from our panel but from the members of the Committee. The Committee recognises that views differ as to whether the Government’s approach on justiciability is the best one. A minority of Committee members, as we have heard today from my hon. Friend Mr Wragg , and I may say grunted quite loudly from a sedentary position by my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price, believe that a House of Commons vote on a dissolution would be a protection against impeaching and questioning by the courts because of article 9 of the Bill of Rights of 1688. Such a vote would, in their view, give us a better guarantee than an ouster clause against unwarranted judicial involvement, and would avoid setting a precedent for ouster clauses in future legislation. That was one view.
Some members of the Committee have expressed doubts as to whether the belt and braces, or sledgehammer, approach of an ouster clause is really necessary if the courts will not in practice entertain legal challenges to dissolution. Provided it is clear that dissolution and calling of Parliaments are a personal prerogative, and that the Monarch’s veto over requests is real rather than ceremonial, they are satisfied that the courts would never—almost never—grant an application for judicial review of a decision to dissolve Parliament.
The majority view of the Committee, however—I am one of that majority—accepts that the general presumption is that Parliament does not intend to oust the jurisdiction of the courts; the Executive should be accountable to both the courts and to Parliament, too. None the less, in principle, the majority believe that Parliament should be able to designate certain matters as ones that are to be resolved in the political, rather than the judicial sphere, and that Parliament should accordingly be able to restrict and, in rare cases, entirely exclude the jurisdiction of the courts. This position, of course, is not inherently incompatible with the rule of law, even if ousting the courts’ jurisdiction will often be in tension with it, so that a [Inaudible] ouster would rarely be appropriate. In this case, when the power in question is to enable the electorate to determine who should hold the power, we consider the ouster to be acceptable. It also sends a very clear message to the courts what the spirit of the Bill intends.
My second and final point on the Bill is on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which extended the length of the electoral timetable for UK elections from 17 working days to 25 working days. At the time, it was done to ensure the smooth and effective running of our elections. It also recognised the complexity of elections, in so far as the current Bill is compatible with ensuring that the register is up to date and that proxy and postal votes, including those of overseas voters, are possible. This Bill retains the 25 working day period between dissolution and polling day to ensure the supposedly continued operability of our electoral system. However, the lengthening of the election period has meant that the time between the dissolution of Parliament and its return is also lengthened. Although we consider that the country should be without Parliament for as short a time as possible, this must be balanced with the need to ensure that as many citizens as possible can register to vote and exercise their democratic right to vote in elections.
We had, if my memory serves me correctly, a unanimous feeling that we would like to see a significant reduction in the election timetable, as this 25-day period is for the benefit of the administrators rather than the electorate. Our proposal in the report is that a cross-party working party should be established by the Government to examine how the general election campaign period could be shortened from 25 days without compromising voter participation, including through the increased use of technology and increased focus on year-round voter registration. This would be a better approach to seeing how we can have a robust and transparent approach to democratic elections for the benefit of those who participate, rather than for the benefit of those who administer.
I support the Bill before us, which genuinely appears to have taken note of the plethora of robust debates and evidence from many quarters of this House, and that is before it has been subjected, from today, to the scrutiny of the House as well. My only request is that the Government look again at my final point on reducing the 25 working day requirement for the electoral timetable. I believe that, with modern-day technology and amended processes, that can be achieved quite easily, without compromising voter participation, in an open and transparent way. It would also future-proof our electoral system further around technological advances, which in my view should be embraced.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to make a contribution to the debate. I am sorry that the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, Chloe Smith, has just left the Chamber. I would just place on record—and I hope she will see it at some point on her return—that for me, as for so many others in this debate, it is a matter of genuine delight and joy to see her back in the House. Contrary to what we might read in some parts of the press, a lot of Members of Parliament are held in respect, but the hon. Lady is someone who is held not just in respect but in affection. The manner in which she has tackled her illness has been an inspiration to many, and we are delighted to see her back.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will indulge me for a minute or two while I pick over some of the history of this matter and of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. I am not quite the last man standing from that period, but I am one of the last few. It is often said that history is written by the victors. Well, not even my sense of hyperbole would allow me to describe the Liberal Democrats as the victors in that episode in our political history, but I think it is important that we put a few matters on record.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in opening the debate, said that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was a “child of its time”. I openly accept that, at the start of the quite remarkable political adventure that was the coalition Government, the necessary trust that people might have had in a single-party Government was not there and, yes, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was a necessary safeguard for both parties to ensure that the Government would last the whole term. Remember what it was like at the start of that Government. All the commentators and all the clever people said, “This won’t last a month” and then, “It’ll not last two months”. They said that that Government would not last three months, then six months and then that they would not last a year. And then, eventually, it was accepted that that Government were going to last the whole term, as indeed they did.
The coalition Government did a lot of things that were very necessary in the interests of economic rebuilding after the crash of 2008, and it was necessary that we had five years of stability to be able to take those decisions.
I agree with the point that the right hon. Gentleman agree has just made. He will recall that, just before the 2010 general election, the then Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, said that whoever ran the next Government would be out of power for a generation because of the decisions they would have to make. Actually, we were able to bring that stability to the coalition, and one of the reasons that I happily backed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act then was to bring that stability. The public saw that there were two parties from different political spheres willing to do what needed to be done. I know that the right hon. Gentleman and I are on different sides of the coin when it comes to repealing that Act, but it is important to say why we both agreed on the importance of the Act at that time.
I often say that the spending decisions that were taken—although, when they were implemented, they were actually the same as the ones that Alistair Darling had put in his last Budget in March 2010—were not taken on a whim; they were taken on the advice of the Governor of the Bank of England, and when that advice is given, any responsible politician or parliamentarian should listen to it.
I fully acknowledge what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said about that Act being a “child of its time”, but it was more than that. As I think Chris Bryant said, the fixing of the parliamentary term was in Labour’s 2010 manifesto, and the regulation of and accountability over the exercise of the royal prerogative was in the Conservatives’ 2010 manifesto. For my party, it had been a long-standing policy. We saw it as a necessary modernisation, and the logical conclusion of getting rid of it in the way in which the Government seek to do through this Bill would mean that we were risking taking significant steps backwards in terms of constitutional integrity and electoral law. I shall return to that point.
I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but the last line of clause 2(1) reads
“as if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 had never been enacted.”
The emphasis of those words means that we are going back to a point where that Act had never been enacted. Is that not the point—that we are going back to how it was, not trying to make changes going forward?
The point is that, as I said, it was a necessary modernisation; we are undoing something that, 10 or 11 years ago, was a necessary modernisation.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster spoke about the Ted Heath Government in the 1970s. The world was a very different place in the 1970s. I suspect that Anthony Mangnall is not old enough to remember it. I should place on record that, notwithstanding the imminence of my 56th birthday, I only have a child’s recollection of that time. However, the conduct of elections was very different, and, of course, the general elections in the 1970s were to the only Parliament that people could be elected.
We now have a very different situation. We have a Parliament in Edinburgh, a Senedd in Wales and an Assembly in Northern Ireland, and they operate on fixed terms. Indeed, the Scottish Parliament—as my hon. Friend Christine Jardine reminded me earlier—changed its terms in order to keep its elections in lockstep with, albeit at a different time from, the elections to this place. There was also the very different way in which campaigns were financed then.
One of the most significant and concerning aspects of the Bill is that everybody is in the same position as far as the short regulated period for expenditure is concerned, but when we do not know how long the Parliament will be and when the general election will come, the setting of the start of the long period is effectively done retrospectively. We can be caught for expenditure that we did not know we would be caught for, or, as is more likely to be the case, we can ladle money in, because every political campaigner will say that early money is what buys results. To my mind, that is one of the reasons why the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was a necessary modernisation in 2011. To take it away now actually risks a more substantial unbalancing of the playing field than anybody from the Treasury has thus far acknowledged.
I say gently to right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches that it might seem like a good idea today, while they are in government, but that will not last forever. The first election in which I actively campaigned was in 1983, when we all said that the Labour party was finished and there would never be another Labour Government. Then, in 1997, we said exactly the opposite: that the Conservatives would never again be in government. Yes, they have the whip hand today, but the day will come when they are sitting on the Opposition Benches, and they should consider how they will feel if the Government of the day treat them and their access to the playing field in this way.
I am sorry to inform the hon. Gentleman that I still was not born in 1983. If we do not know when an election is coming—I think this goes to the point made by Owen Thompson—we will find ourselves campaigning more regularly. There is a better form of direct democracy, because we are all required to be out there canvassing all the time. That has its advantages, in the sense of the engagement that we have with our constituents.
Let me just say that the pattern of campaigning across the constituencies represented in this House is far from uniform. I spent a significant amount of time in Chesham and Amersham not that long ago, for reasons that will be understood. I was a great admirer of the late Cheryl Gillan—she was another one for whom I held not just respect, but affection—but it was apparent that the Conservatives’ campaigning machine in that constituency had perhaps been left in the garage for a few years longer than was necessarily helpful. If what we are about is engaging the electorate on an ongoing basis, I am all for that. Indeed, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the best way to achieve that would be by getting rid of the notion of safe seats, which is a product of the first-past-the-post system, so I will look to enlist his support the next time my party brings forward proposals for introducing proportional representation.
I can see that your smile is becoming increasingly indulgent, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will not carry on down this route for too long, but it is surely an important principle that we should never hand to one of the runners the starting pistol that will start the race. Whatever view people take of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the principle that Parliament should be in control of its own timetable and election is surely something that all those who fought so hard to bring back control to Parliament would have found an easy sell.
There has been some talk about the Lascelles principles. My concern about the exclusion of any decision to dissolve Parliament from justiciability, as we find in clause 3, is that the debate is essentially about constitutional theory. If the Prime Minister were to go to the Queen and ask for a Dissolution and she were to refuse him, I suspect that, given the standing that the Queen has in the public’s affection, it is probably a constitutional crisis that we and the monarchy could survive. I cannot honestly imagine it ever happening, but given everything else that has happened in this country over the past six years, we should perhaps try to legislate not just for those things that we can imagine happening. The day may come when we have a different monarch—well, the day will come—and perhaps that monarch will need time to establish their standing in the way that Her Majesty has been able to do. For that future monarch, the temptation may be not to risk the instability.
Essentially, my concern—this is what the Lascelles principles were designed to avoid—is that the Bill as currently constituted risks bringing the monarchy into active partisan party politics. That is something we should countenance only with the very greatest of caution and the most careful consideration.
The truth of the matter is that our constitution does behave in a very dignified way. We know that Prime Ministers’ audiences with the monarch are, most of the time, entirely confidential—other than when Prime Ministers choose to leak them. I think we can trust Her Majesty never to utter what has been said to her in the confines of her study on those occasions. On that basis, can we actually be sure that those discussions have never taken place?
No, we cannot. That is the self-evident answer to that question. I am fairly confident that conversations will be had by, as it were, the support teams on either side on a highly theoretical and hypothetical question, such as, “Well, in the event that this were to happen…” Indeed, that was why Lascelles wrote his letter to The Times in the first place—to give a bit of necessary transparency and certainty to the whole process, which in truth, because it is rooted in convention, has neither transparency nor certainty.
Ultimately, what we show here is that the insistence on continuing with an unwritten constitution becomes more and more difficult with every year that passes. Ultimately, that is something we will have to recognise. It will be the mother and father of all tasks to get the necessary consensus to codify it, but in an age when all the constitutional changes that we have had in the past few decades are there competing with the sovereignty of this House within Parliament in particular, it is in everybody’s interests that we should find the moment to do that. This is not the moment, for the avoidance of doubt. I think Parliament would need some time to be clear of its current concerns before we could undertake that.
Finally, I want to say a few words about the conduct of the 2017-19 Parliament. It is a shame that Mr Wragg is no longer in his place, because he outlined all the various actors in these dramas and how some might be seen to have executed their obligations better than others, but it is inevitably the case that where we have a system that relies on checks and balances, every time somebody takes out a check, somewhere else we have to adjust the balance. That is why although I felt exceptionally uneasy about the way former Speaker Bercow made some of his decisions, I thought they were necessary because the Government were getting close to abusing the substantial amounts of power that an unwritten constitution based on convention gave them. That is why instead of relying on nods and winks, and checks and balances, it is better that we should write it all down, as then everyone would know where they stood.
I do not think there is any hyperbole here, and it is overstating the case somewhat to suggest that the political turmoil of the 2017-2019 Parliament was a consequence of the term of Parliament having been fixed in 2017; there were lots of political reasons for that, most of them to do with the internal splits and divisions in the Conservatives, as the minority governing party after 2017. The fact that they had a minority set the political tone of that whole Government. Somebody said earlier that the election was far too late by November 2019. When would have been the right time? Perhaps it was when the Prime Minister became Prime Minister in July of that year, but I do not remember him having any great appetite for having an election at that point.
The truth of the matter is that we eventually had an election in 2019, at probably the worst time of year to be campaigning in Orkney and Shetland—we are never going through that again. That election required the Government of the day to work with the Opposition, with us and with the Scottish nationalists, and that is how it should be. That is effectively how the Fixed-term Parliaments Act did its job, when the Government eventually allowed it to do so. That is why I deeply regret this Government’s decision to repeal it, and why my party will be opposing them in the Lobby this evening.
We now have nine more speakers, which means that, allowing for the wind-ups, we need speeches to be just under 10 minutes. No. 11 on the list has withdrawn, so we will go straight to Christine Jardine.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I can assure you that I will take much less than 10 minutes. In this debate we have gone over the constitutional law aspects of the Bill, and we have talked much about the Parliament of 2017 to 2019 and the implications of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. I wish to look at one aspect that I do not think has been discussed sufficiently, which is that as a new Member of Parliament in 2017, I came into a situation where there was constant speculation about the possibility of an early election.
Almost every week between 2017 and December 2019, we discussed the possibility of a general election and when it would be—this year, next year or next month. That causes instability, and not only within Parliament for its Members, who are trying to figure out what they should be doing; but how does one govern in a situation where the Government could end at any moment and one could be going into a general election?
We have talked a lot about the public and their perception of Parliament today, and between 2017 and 2019 they were dissatisfied with the uncertainty about where their Government were going and what was going to happen. Business was unhappy with it, and it disrupted much of the personal, commercial and industrial life of the country.
I am listening to the hon. Member intently. Was the problem between 2017 and 2019 not precisely the opposite, in that there was no way to have an election so that the Government could get on with governing and we could get business transacted in this place? Was it not the exact opposite of what she is describing that posed so many of the issues that we faced in those years?
I thank the hon. Member for his contribution, but I would say that it was actually the opposite. If we all cast our minds back to 2017 when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was in place, we will remember that we had a snap general election because the Government wanted a general election. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act allowed for that. Then, between 2017 and 2019, the Government chose to behave like a majority Government when they were not one. Alec Shelbrooke said earlier that we had an instruction from the public; we did not. We had a divided country and a divided Parliament as a result. We did not have a majority and we had uncertainty and a Government who did not accept that to get anything done, they had to find a way to work with the other parties. That was the problem between 2017 and 2019.
Ironically, as my right hon. Friend Mr Carmichael said, in 2019 we were able to come to a general election, even though it was in December, because the Government realised that they had to find a way and talk to people. In that respect, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act did not fail; it proved its worth in allowing the Government to be flexible enough to do that. Contrary to what Brendan O’Hara said, the devolution Act allows for the same possibility in Scotland: if it is not possible for the Government to govern, there will be an election. I accept that the Fixed- term Parliaments Act is not perfect, but I do think it allows for some stability. It allows a Government, an Opposition and the public to know that there will be a period of stability if there is a majority Government.
The hon. Member is being kind and indulgent of me in giving way. The simple fact is that the reason why we were able to have a snap election in 2017 was that two thirds of the House of Commons voted for it. That was never going to be the case at any point between 2017 and 2019; in fact, we had the farcical scenes of the Prime Minister wanting to dissolve his own Government to go to the country and the Leader of the Opposition agreeing, but not just yet. The hon. Member suggests that the uncertainty was brought about because the threat of an election was hanging over us, when actually the exact opposite was the case.
I am afraid I beg to differ. For me and for many people I know, the instability was because the Government did not accept the reality of the situation we were in and act accordingly. We could spend the rest of the evening debating what the Government did between 2017 and 2019 but we would not change it.
The fact of the matter remains that we had a general election in 2019 and we are now discussing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which I believe offers this country the opportunity for the same sort of stability as we see in democracies around the world and within our own democracy. If the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is repealed, this place will be perhaps the only sphere of government—local, national or devolved—in the United Kingdom that does not have a fixed term. It is not just about those elected to this place; those who work for it and for the elected representatives do not have the certainty and security of knowing what the term of a Parliament will be. That is why, as I said, I believe that although the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was not perfect, it was, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland said, a necessary modernisation and a recognition that the way we had done things up to 2011 had to be changed. We had to come into the 21st century, with a fixed-term Parliament with the flexibility to have an election but the stability that the country not only needed at that time but needs right now because of covid-19.
What happened in 2010 was not something that will never happen again. The situation that the country faced—the crisis that needed stability—was not something that happens only once in history. It has happened before and it will happen again and, as I have said, it is happening now. What the people of this country need from us is the certainty and the stability of what their future will be. That is why they elected us. We should not need the threat of a general election to be out there talking to and engaging with our constituents and listening to what they say. If we do, then we have failed.
Brendan O’Hara described this Bill as a power grab and, in that, I have to agree with him. It is taking power away from Parliament. It is taking power away from the Members of Parliament and, in doing so, from the elected representatives, and placing it in the hands of the Government and only the Government. It is making the timing of a general election the whim, potentially, of one person based on the scenario of the time. We have talked about lots of decisions about when general elections were and when they were not. In 1974, when, sadly, I was also alive—
I am sorry that I was not there to see the 1974 election. We talk a lot in this place about the precedent and the history of what has gone on before us, but actually there are not many examples, with the exception of 1974, of where early elections have been called, so this is not a precedent that has been abused. It has been done with careful consideration by the Government of the day to call an election, not always to their advantage.
I am conscious that I am running out of time. I accept that it has not always been abused. If we look at that thread, we will see something common in 1974 and 2017. If a party goes for a snap election, the country will not necessarily re-elect it, because the country did not necessarily want a snap election; it wanted stability. Therefore, I return to my original point that what we have with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is the certainty and the stability that, perhaps not the Government, but the country demands. Therefore, I will be voting with my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland.
If I could take one more second, Madam Deputy Speaker, it would be to echo the thoughts of my right hon. Friend, now that the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution is back in her place, and say what a delight it is to have her here.
I join colleagues from across the House in warmly welcoming my hon. Friend the Minister back to her place. It is a great pleasure to see her back here today.
I rise in very strong support of this Bill. It is a long overdue redress of our constitutional balance and the use of the royal prerogative. The Bill reasserts that Parliament is sovereign in our democracy over what are fundamentally political decisions.
Let me speak to clause 1. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which this Bill repeals, is a prime example of how short-term measures, necessary at the time, can have very hazardous long-term implications for our constitution. I understand why the coalition Government considered it necessary to bring in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and Mr Carmichael set out those reasons in what I thought was a very thoughtful speech earlier on. There were both political and economic considerations at the time. The reverberations of the financial crisis were still being felt, and the economic mess that was left behind by the outgoing Labour Government needed urgent and stable administration, but the election of 2010 did not deliver that. A clear outcome had not been achieved, so there was a need to show that the Government would provide stability for a full term. Whether the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was required to achieve that, or a simple Bill fixing the length of a single Parliament, is something that we could debate endlessly. However, we have to deal with what is, and the detrimental trade-offs have been shown to be patently obvious.
The Joint Committee of both Houses, established under section 7 to review the Act, found it flawed in several respects. There are still unanswered conundrums in key areas, which demonstrate why the Act should be repealed. For example, who governs after the 14-day period following the successful passage of a no-confidence vote? Is the Prime Minister still in charge? Should he or she resign immediately? Who takes over and how? What if an agreement is reached on the 15th day?
Secondly, how do other traditional confidence motions such as the Budget and the Queen’s Speech tie into the Act when statutory provisions mean that the Government could refuse to put a specific motion before the House? Thirdly, and most crucially, the gridlock, uncertainty and, eventually, utter paralysis that became the hallmarks of the bitter disputes of 2019 meant that we faced the absurd situation in which the Government could neither legislate nor go to the country. I can testify, as somebody who was a member of the general public and not a Member of this House at the time, to how that massively undermined the status of Government and Parliament in the eyes of the general public. Every single person I spoke to was tearing their hair out at what they saw as self-indulgent paralysis in this House.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster outlined the important elements contained in clauses 2 and 4 of the Bill. I will focus on clause 3, which is extraordinarily important because it safeguards due political process from interference. Events during the last Parliament showed that the judiciary can be used and abused by activists to wage political wars through the courts. One of the most dangerous aspects of the Miller and Cherry case was that not only did a group of largely unelected elites seek to thwart the democratic will of the British people—I hasten to add that the 2016 referendum result was finally vindicated when we eventually had an election in 2019—but the sovereign was drawn into a partisan dispute. It is paramount for our constitutional democracy that the sovereign must be, and must be seen to be, above party political battles.
The Bill will help to prevent such a situation from arising again by making the revived prerogative powers non-justiciable. That is wholly welcome. For those reasons, I will support the Bill, and I congratulate the Government on delivering another of their manifesto commitments.
May I say, as others have said, what a pleasure and joy it is to see the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution in her place? I mean that sincerely. I and the Democratic Unionist party are pleased to see her back to health and strength and back in her position of control as well. We wish her well. [Laughter.] Well, she has control as Minister. She has been much in our thoughts and prayers —I will leave it at that.
It is always a pleasure to speak in this House, whatever the issue may be. While my constituency staff may have a different opinion—it is incredibly exhausting for them to work their full-time hours during the day and canvass for hours in the evening, so they may long for a five-year fixed term—I believe it is right that we have the flexibility to match the requirements of Parliament and the nation as well as finding a balance and, perhaps, peace of mind for me and staff. I am a great believer in the democratic process, and I have been elected by the people to say that in this House. Coming as I do from Northern Ireland, I have endured the terrorist campaign directed against us, and that underlines why it is important to have a democratic process. I have always encouraged people to use the democratic process to express themselves. I am a great believer in it, and it has to deliver.
Anthony Mangnall, who has been active in interventions, referred to elections. I remember every election that I have done—there have been a brave few over the years—and, on the night of the count, I have always told my workers and voters, “The campaign for the next election starts tonight.” Anyone who thinks the campaign starts only as we run into an election is very much mistaken; it is from the start of the five years, four years or whatever it may be. It is always good to put that on the record. It is also, I believe, important that this House, this mother of Parliaments, this seat of democracy sent the democratic process and the methodology for that across the whole world, and how privileged we are to be here to be part of that.
I do, however, have just one real issue that concerns me. Others have spoken of it, and I want to put it on the record. Indeed, Gareth Bacon referred to it in his last comment as well. We must ensure that Her Majesty is not put in a position that is untenable. I ask the Minister—I look to the Minister—to respond to it. Will she elaborate on what steps there are to protect the institution from allegations of affronts to the position of our constitutional monarchy?
I am unashamedly a fan of royalty and a fan of the Queen. It goes without saying that I just love the institutions, the traditions and the history that we have. Boy, the whole world wants to have it, but we have it here and in our history, and I love it. However, I have to say that I was incredibly dismayed about the suspension of Parliament in 2019, which saw our Head of State receiving a backlash for doing what she is supposed to do as our Head of State in following the lead of the Prime Minister.
From the background notes, I just took one paragraph, one sentence of which states:
“The Prime Minister could choose to advise the Queen to set a polling date 6 months in the future, or later, or could delay giving any advice on the subject to the Queen at all.”
Well, how disrespectful would that be to Her Majesty the Queen, given the high respect we have for her and for the institution in upholding the democratic process in every way, including her moral stance. I just think that we really need to have that clarified. In any of these changes, we must ensure that the position of the monarch in her role as sovereign over Parliament must be crystal clear, not once again debated and challenged. It should never be in doubt, there should never be a question mark and it should not be unnecessarily highlighted.
I have read one opinion stating that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was designed to prop up a weak Government. We have no need for this. We have a democratic process that we all believe in, and the result is that the majority rules. This is sometimes a difficult pill to swallow, especially in scenarios such as the Northern Ireland withdrawal agreement, on which my party and I foresaw the dreadful position that Northern Ireland would be put in. We had a very awkward hokey-cokey of being in the EU and then out of the EU, as it suits the EU. It has been incredibly detrimental to small independent businesses that cannot import their products as they once did. I have numerous companies that are stretched and prevented from doing their normal business, as well as farmers who cannot get machinery in and nurses who cannot get the products they have had for years. Democracy has not been easy to accept.
However, when I look at an alternative, I am again drawn to the wisdom of Churchill. In my first speech—my maiden speech—in this House, I referred to Churchill. I am a fan of the Queen and of royalty, but I am also a great fan of Winston Churchill. He had an incredible ability with words, and I just wish I had even a small piece of his ability. He is one of my heroes. He said that
“it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time;
but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule…and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.”—[Official Report,
What wise words from Winston Churchill. He is not here any more, but he walked in this House of Commons where we are. He perhaps sat in these seats because he was apt to sit on both sides of the Chamber—with the Government and with the Opposition. He was a great man and a great leader at a time when we needed him. Perhaps all of us in this House need a reminder that we are here to serve the people, not to rule them. If we get such servitude into our minds, I believe we will have the right mindset. What a privilege it is to be here, in the mother of Parliaments, and to be the MP for Strangford.
I support the changes in principle, and tonight we will vote with the Government, but I ask for further information on protecting our Queen and her role as the sovereign, in conjunction with her position as head of the constitutional monarchy that we hold so dear and love so deeply in our hearts—we enjoy it every day. This information will, of course, determine the form of where we are, so I look to the Minister for clarity and assurance, which I value, on the Bill’s impact on the monarchy and Her Majesty. The Government and Parliament must avoid a constitutional crisis, and they must always be respectful to our Queen and the monarchy.
I join colleagues on both sides of the House in welcoming the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith, back to her place at the Dispatch Box. She has fought her battle with the characteristic grace she always displays, and it is great to have her back.
I have really enjoyed this debate because I am a constitutional nerd, so bear with me if I become a bit tedious. We have heard a lot about the Fixed-term Parliaments Act today, and people’s view of it tends to be informed by where they were in the debate in 2019. Some of us are perhaps more charitable about it than others.
It is difficult to view our constitutional settlement through the prism of what happened in 2019, because those circumstances were unprecedented and they would have tested the constitutional arrangements whatever they were. Fundamentally, we had a Government who were governing without a majority in Parliament, which is always testing, and they were trying to implement a policy that was not supported by a majority in Parliament, which is equally testing. There was also much dispute within the political parties, which meant the usual ways of sorting out issues were difficult. This was an issue of major constitutional significance, overlaid by a public referendum, so it was a powder keg.
Everyone was badly behaved because everyone, recognising that there was no majority for their particular position, did what they could to pursue their own opinions. It was not Parliament’s finest hour, but it was the fault not of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act but of the outcome of the 2017 general election. We can debate how that came about, and maybe it came about because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
It might be a moot point whether consent for an election might have happened at all, given the Prime Minister went to the country with a majority in the House of Commons and without having lost a vote on any significant matter of policy, but that is a question for another day, because we have before us the Government’s proposals for reforming the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
I am supportive of the proposal to return to the status quo that prevailed in 2010, but seeing these events through the prism of what happened in 2019 has led to a draft of the Bill that perhaps needs a little improvement. I am pleased the Government have already accepted some of the recommendations of the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in that regard.
It is important that the Government continue to act in that way, because these constitutional issues need to stand the test of time. If there is one lesson we can take from the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, it is that it did not stand the test of time, because it is a creature of its time. We can understand why the coalition Government wished to bake in some stability. We would all agree that messing around with the constitutional settlement in this country was perhaps not the best way to go about it, but that is easy to say in hindsight. We have to recognise there may be future coalitions, and perhaps the House could put on record that any attempt to bake a coalition agreement into legislation should not interfere with our constitutional arrangements.
We also need to acknowledge that, in delivering five years of stability in government, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was a success. Mr Carmichael reminded us of the political circumstances in which that Government came into being. For any long-term stability, following a financial crisis, we needed that Act to happen.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was not all bad, but what we have to replace it is better because it gives flexibility, within a reasonable amount of certainty. The Bill establishes a five-year maximum as opposed to a fixed term, and the expectation will be, as previously, that Governments will choose the date of an election. That is not to say that we encourage snap elections without any good reason. History tells us that the public do not like people who cheat; they expect everyone to play fair. If there was a perception that any Government were abusing their powers in that regard, the public would take a dim view. We can perhaps look to 2017 as an example of that.
As I said in my intervention on my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I am pleased the Government have acknowledged that the Prime Minister requests a dissolution from the Queen, and does not seek advice. Accepting that, however, renders the ouster clause irrelevant. By making a decision to grant a Dissolution, is the Queen acting in Parliament? That is covered by the Bill of Rights. The issues we had in 2019 were about advice. I appreciate the point made about “let’s do belt and braces, be absolutely certain and put it in the Bill”, but if we are going back to and re-establishing the status quo from 2010, the existence of the ouster clause goes beyond that.
We had vigorous debates on these issues in the Joint Committee, and there was a strong minority opinion that an ouster clause is not the best way of doing things. My point is that it is superfluous. That it is in the Bill is perhaps belt and braces—fair enough—but by so doing, it almost becomes an article of bad faith. I think we should put the events of 2019 well and truly behind us. As I said earlier, that was not Parliament’s finest hour. What happened is that our unwritten constitution—and this is the beauty of it—finds a way of flexing to get to the right outcome. Again, it was uncomfortable for the Government at the time to have their actions thwarted, but the outcome was the right thing to happen.
I am concerned—the Fixed Term Parliaments Act is a good example of this—that as romantics we believe in our unwritten constitution. I was someone who believed that the fewer rules there are, the more reliant we are on honourable behaviour by all players in the system. In many ways, having too much prescription in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act enabled people to be compliant with the detail of the law, but not the interests of good governance. As we pass this Bill, which enjoys considerable support across the House in terms of returning to the status quo, I would not like it to be undermined by quick fixes to address the situation that happened in 2019. That should not be informing how we look after our fantastic constitution going forward.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate and join many other right hon. and hon. Friends in hailing the good health of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution. I do not, however, join Members in welcoming her back, because I do not think she has ever been away. Whether by texts or telephone messages, Teams calls or ministerial meetings, she has always had a hand on the tiller, even if it was sometimes behind the scenes. It is a great pleasure to see her in her place. Democracy is a fragile thing. We are custodians of our democracy, and we should never, ever forget that. Having my hon. Friend at the centre of these discussions fills me with a great deal of confidence that they are being dealt with diligently. That is very important indeed, because elections are pivotal to our democracy. The process of dissolving Parliament and calling a new Parliament was changed back in 2011 to help make the coalition Government more stable, and it did that; the Bill is designed to return us to the tried and tested process, following what have been a bumpy few years.
In reflecting on the speeches of Mr Carmichael and Christine Jardine, I referred back to my notes, because I felt that they might be falling into rose-tinted glasses territory with respect to where the Fixed-term Parliaments Act came from. In its scrutiny, the Joint Committee, of which I was a member, took some important evidence from Oliver Letwin, who after all was one of the architects of the coalition agreement. He said that
“a fixed-term Parliament arrangement…was a product entirely of the coalition discussions.”
Any notion that it was at the back of the Conservative party’s mind could not be further from the truth. Indeed, he went as far as to say that coalition would not have worked as well with either side knowing that, to use his word, it could “crater” the Government.
The 2011 Act was legislation of convenience, as others have said. Perhaps it was not something that we should have done, or perhaps it should have been very time-limited, but in the eyes of those who put it together it was very much legislation of convenience, so it feels entirely appropriate that we are now rethinking it and looking for a different way forward. As my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price and others have said, it is highly probable that the bumps in the road that we experienced between 2017 and 2019 would have happened anyway, regardless of the Act, because our exiting the EU was a challenging process for this place—I recognise some of the criticisms that hon. Members have made of the way we behaved at the time. However, it is clear that the Act caused some delay at a time when we should have had a much slicker process for dealing with the constitutional crisis in the middle of 2019.
From the evidence that the Joint Committee took from academics and lawyers, it is clear that it can be argued that the Bill will return us to the position before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was enacted. On balance, while the Act did its job for the coalition Government, there will not be too many people crying into their beer—to put it colloquially—if it is repealed. At times, when people such as Lady Hale and Lord Sumption came before the Joint Committee, we felt as if we were having a constitutional seminar on a very grand scale. Ultimately, however, we have to make the decision on the way forward, because views are mixed at best.
It is good to see that some of the drafting has been reconsidered, particularly in the name of the Bill, which is much more apposite now. There has also been redrafting in other areas as a result of the hard work of the Joint Committee, which was ably chaired by my noble Friend Lord McLoughlin—he did a superb job.
Suggestions have been made that the Bill might bring the sovereign into politics, but the evidence that the Joint Committee took did not overwhelmingly support that position. Suggestions that the non-justiciability clause was unnecessary really did not receive overwhelming support in the Joint Committee either, based on the evidence that we received. There was, however, a wonderful quote from Lord Sumption to the effect that there are many things that academics look at in great detail that are not worthy of great scrutiny. I think that sometimes we may be running down some unnecessary rabbit holes in these discussions. At some stages, there were as many views expressed as there were academics and lawyers in the room. We as elected representatives need to decide on the way forward and I think that the Government have taken some very sensible decisions.
This Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill is entirely silent on where it is decided who actually comes to Parliament—that is, the election campaign itself, which my right hon. Friend Mr Goodwill and others have raised. If we are to consider Dissolution and the calling of Parliament, should we also consider the election and how that fits in? The Government have a further piece of legislation coming our way soon and it may be that they will look at this issue in more detail at that point. I really hope that they do, because we need to be able to look at the whole of this process—the whole of the way that our democracy works—and, at the moment, we are at risk of looking at it in a very piecemeal way.
Since I was elected, there has been a profound change in the way that our election campaigns run. Back in 2015, general election campaigns were around 25 days. In fact, dare I say it, they may have been even shorter when you were elected, Mr Deputy Speaker, which was a little way before me. You may well be interested to know that, in 2019, the general election campaign was 36 days. That is despite incredible advancements in technology and the ways that we work and despite the legislation clearly stating that elections should take 25 days—perhaps this is because, hidden in the mice type, as it were, it states that that is 25 days minus bank holidays and weekends. I have to say, nobody who has run or fought an election recognises bank holidays or weekends, so in hindsight what nonsense it was to draft the legislation in that way.
Lengthening campaigns has real consequences for our democracy, for the engagement of voters, for the period of uncertainty and for our economy and our politics. This point is borne out by academic research. We were not able to take evidence on this issue in any great detail in the Joint Committee. It is not covered in the Cabinet Office democratic engagement plan and I hope that we can rectify that omission in the progress of the Bill, perhaps, as the Joint Committee suggested, through a review of the issue either by a cross-party Committee or in other ways. I think that is long overdue.
To be absolutely clear, the actual length of elections and the trade-offs that we make in increasing the length of elections is not something that we have really debated in this place, at least not for quite a while. While I welcome the return to a much clearer and much more transparent system for the calling of elections, there is still the opaqueness of the election timetable and the increased use of postal votes. Overseas voters may well be very important, but we need to consider how that trades off against the length of campaigns.
I really welcome this Bill and a return to the transparency and the feeling of control that it gives to the way Parliament works. However, I join my hon. Friend Craig Whittaker and my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby in urging the Government to look at the issue of shorter elections as well.
I am pleased to be able to participate in this important debate. I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on his excellent speech on the reasons why we need the Bill. I am also delighted to be able to say welcome back to my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution. It is so good to see her on the Front Bench again. I am proud to call her a personal friend as well as a political colleague, so that is really good news.
I strongly support the Bill and the approach presented by the Government. I reluctantly voted for the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011 due to the political and economic consequences at that time. The result of the 2010 general election necessitated a coalition Government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, and I was pleased to serve in that Government under the premiership of David Cameron. However, contrary to the comments of some hon. Members this afternoon, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was not brought in to reform Parliament. Our country desperately needed both political and economic stability to sort out the mess left by the previous Labour Government. Therefore we needed everyone to know that the 2010 Parliament would run until May 2015, when a general election would be held, to give confidence to the people, the country, businesses and, of course, the Government themselves.
Long-term stability was provided, and therefore the fixed-term Parliament was a success. It was only a pity that the Act did not have a sunset clause so that it ceased to apply after that five-year period—but hindsight is a wonderful thing. As such, the Act served its purpose at the time. However, the political and economic landscape has changed significantly over the past decade and rendered the Act unfit for purpose and redundant.
Although the 2010 Parliament continued to term, the two subsequent Parliaments concluded early. It was never meant to be an indefinite situation, and the paralysis of Parliament from 2017 to 2019 shows how unsatisfactory the situation had become by that time. In fact it was ludicrous, unsatisfactory and undemocratic prior to the general election of 2019, and it did damage, I believe, to our parliamentary system. Although we are past that now and have to move on, the Government, we must remember, failed on three separate occasions—
The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill is a good title. It is a constitutional change, and it says what it means. It makes provision for the Dissolution prerogative to be revived, and in doing so ensures legal, constitutional and political certainty around the process for dissolving Parliament in future. It is a return to the tried and tested traditions that worked so well in the past, before the 2011 Act.
I welcome the fact that the Bill retains provision for the maximum length of a Parliament to remain at five years. I do not agree with Chris Bryant; he spoke an awful lot of sense, but I think a four-year Parliament is too short. We do not want to have a Parliament that is constantly electioneering. Five years seems to me the right time.
I hope that the Government will look carefully at another issue, though: I share the opinion of my right hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) and for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) that the length of an election campaign—25 working days between Dissolution and polling day—is too long. A short, sharp, effective campaign will get the electorate more engaged and will get a better turnout and greater interest. The 2017 general election campaign was far too long. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have had many election campaigns, and I have never known one that was as long. By the time election day came, people had had enough of the campaign because it had been too elongated. Our constituents wanted to vote and boredom had set in over a long period. Therefore I think this could be looked at, and I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister takes the Bill through Committee, she will look seriously at reducing the number of days between Dissolution and polling day.
I strongly support clause 3, which will not allow the courts to intervene in any Prorogation process. That is a vital safeguard because it should be the Prime Minister and the Government who decide when, with the Queen’s permission, to call an election, and the courts should not intervene. On the Conservative side of the House, and across the House, we believe in trusting the people. They will have their say at the polls and make their judgment on the Government, the policies and the approach. They will also make their judgment on whether they think a general election is justified and vote accordingly. People believed in December 2019 that an election was necessary, so that we could get past Brexit and look towards global Britain and the future for our country. I think it will be a successful future.
It is interesting that both the Labour and Conservative parties had in their manifestos a pledge to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. That is indicative of the difficulties we had at the time—people thought its time had come and gone.
I believe the Bill represents a minor electoral change, but it is important for the good of our democracy. I share quite a lot of the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke about other things to do with our electoral system, which need to be discussed as well. I know the Government are looking to present another Bill, which will hopefully deal with a lot of the different issues. However, the pledge in our 2019 Conservative party manifesto is being implemented. I look forward to discussing in Committee some of the Bill’s finer points because it is important that we get it right.
I strongly support the measure, and I welcome the Government bringing it forward now. It will bring back to Parliament the traditions and the tried-and-tested ways in which we run our affairs, which have succeeded for so long. This is an opportunity for us to start on the path, with another Bill on another day to discuss other issues to do with elections, but I strongly support the measure.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett. As others have said, it is an absolute pleasure to see the Minister, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith, in her place. We all welcome her back, as my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller said. The Minister has not really been away, but it is good to have the Smith vs. Smith show back, live in the House of Commons.
This is a very important Bill. It is a constitutional Bill, which means it is not necessarily box office. I do not know how many people are tuned into BBC Parliament at the moment, but I am glad that we are having the debate. We have had a full debate in the best traditions of the House and—praise be—with no time limit either, although I will ensure that my hon. Friends get their space at the end of the debate as well.
It was a privilege to serve on the Joint Committee with so many distinguished Members, five of whom have already spoken in the debate, and some of whom are still in their places. We had some very eminent witnesses, including former Clerks of the House, former Cabinet Secretaries and noble lordships, most of whom also served in this House in their time, who lent so much expertise to the proceedings—not least our Chair, the noble Lord McLoughlin, who was a fellow MP from Staffordshire in his day. I pay tribute to the Clerks of the Committee, who did an absolutely superb job in both arranging the witnesses and getting us all to a report that we could all support, which is incredibly important. When legislating in this area, we should strive to be as bipartisan as possible.
The case for change has been well made by the Government and was made by the Labour party in its manifesto. The 2011 Act, which we are repealing, was indeed a product of its time, as we have discussed. It actually served reasonably well from 2011 to 2015, as it was supposed to do. In the period between 2015 and 2019, however, it clearly showed its flaws. It was a constitutional innovation that did not really survive its first contact with any sort of difficulty, which is perhaps also because of the referendum.
Referendums are also a relatively recent constitutional innovation. When the referendum asked the House to do something that it did not want to do—previous referendums had usually been on things for which the House already had a will, such as giving devolution to Scotland and Wales—and came back with an instruction from the people that the majority of Members of the House did not support, we ended up with the situation that we had in the 2017 to 2019 Parliament, which I and other Members from the 2019 intake watched with horror from home. It was not just us; it was people who were not even interested in politics and did not know what was going on. Norms had broken down, and we need to restore those norms.
As I said when intervening on the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster during his opening remarks, any constitutional arrangement needs to be equally suitable for any parliamentary arithmetic, and given what we had under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act that was blatantly not the case. I accept that Brexit exacerbated tensions, but those tensions would have been there anyway in any minority Government situation.
I understand that future coalitions may need similar security to what the Liberal Democrats sought in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, but I suggest a simple Bill in the future, prohibiting the Prime Minister from requesting—something we said, requesting—a dissolution until a given date. That simple Bill would last only for that Parliament; after that, we could move back to the tried and tested, which is what we are trying to do today.
Conclusion 7 of our report was that a requirement for a super majority in this House cannot be enforced. It has been said sometimes that the constitution of this country is whatever commands a majority of the House of Commons. The only way to enforce a super majority requirement is perhaps through the House of Lords, but the idea that the House of Lords could prevent an election is not credible, or it would ultimately damage the credibility of the House of Lords to such an extent that it would not consider it.
Turning to other recommendations of the Joint Committee, I am pleased the Government have listened to the point about the Prime Minister requesting, not advising. As other hon. Members said, the name change is appropriate. Hopefully, this Bill will be part of our constitutional settlement for decades, perhaps even centuries, to come. The idea that it should have been called the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliament Act is simply not befitting. We have had some constitutional oddities in our time: the reason we have elections every five years is the Septennial Act, which means seven years. We can move on. This is the right title—the dissolution and summoning of Parliament is precisely what the Bill does.
The point about the 25 working day election period was well expounded by my right hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), for Basingstoke and for Bexleyheath and Crayford. We need to find a way to reduce that. We need to press the Electoral Commission further; it has been very resistant, both in its evidence to our Committee and in answers given to questions in this House. With technology, surely it should not be insurmountable to find a way to reduce the period in which Parliament is absent and to reduce the overlong campaign, which does not serve us or our constituents.
I could not put it any better than that; my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I understand the desire to make sure things are done properly, but there has to be a way to do things more quickly. We have to embrace technology, which ought to make things more possible rather than more difficult—putting in extra time for this, that and the other, for coming from overseas or to set up people’s proxy vote. We must be able to do things far more quickly than we have done in the past.
On our recommendations, the Government need to look at—we all ought to, actually, because this is probably a conventional point—the period after the election. In many cases, we have been lucky that we have been able to form Governments quickly, but that is not necessarily always the case. We need to look at the conventions around that. In fact, turning to conclusions 31 to 33, by definition we are not meant to vote on those conventions because they are conventions, but, as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said, a discussion in Committee of the whole House may help to establish conventions.
It was our Committee’s opinion that the original dissolution principles document was inadequate. We proposed a 20-point list of conventions relating not just to dissolution but to the period of time in which Parliament is dissolved and the calling and forming of Governments. I hope that we can all consider that in Committee and come to a common understanding, because honourable behaviour and common understanding is the way that we need to proceed in these matters.
Overall, the Bill does strengthen the democratic process by restoring the overriding principle that the Government should have the confidence of the House of Commons. That was the norm that was distorted over and again in 2019. We have to reaffirm that; it is fundamental to the operation of Parliament. Once again, parliamentary votes can be designated as matters of confidence. That was the essential problem: it was possible for a number of Members to vote against the Government’s absolute flagship policy one day and the next day to vote that they had confidence in the Government. That is no Government at all. We need to find a way for things to function so that there has to be confidence in the Government’s flagship policies, Budget and Queen’s Speech; otherwise, they are no longer the Government. That is how things need to proceed in this place.
The Bill would also provide greater legal constitutional and political certainty around the processes for dissolving Parliament and holding a general election, with the flexibility we need for exceptional circumstances. The one thing that contributed to the general sense of chaos that I saw watching from home, and I know others did, was the lack of certainty about how things should be operating. In particular, nobody seemed to know what was supposed to happen in that 14-day lacuna: whether the Prime Minister was supposed to resign on day 1 or day 14; whether the Leader of the Opposition would become the Prime Minister, even if they could not command a majority. It was a ridiculous position for our country to have got into, and we will get ourselves out of that by passing this Bill.
On clause 3, the ouster clause, I accept that opinions differ and they differed in the Committee, but I certainly have no problem putting into statute the very clear precedent that the exercise of prerogative powers relating to dissolution is non-justiciable and cannot be reviewed by the courts. That is a long-standing and generally accepted convention. Personally, I would of course take a dim view of a court seeking to intervene in the timing of an election. There is nothing more inherently political than an election and involving the courts—what is called “lawfare”—in the timing of an election would be incredibly uncomfortable for the public, everyone in the political sphere and, I think, the courts as well. How could the image of a Supreme Court trying to override the wishes of a Prime Minister, as enacted by the sovereign, be tolerable to the public? I cannot see any circumstance where that is better than having the election or, potentially, the sovereign refusing to dissolve Parliament.
On that point, we heard repeatedly that the sovereign would not refuse. If the sovereign was going to refuse, it would be communicated to the Prime Minister beforehand that the sovereign would refuse, so the request would never be made. That is how our unwritten constitution should work: through those sorts of understandings. That is what we need to get back to.
The ultimate arbiter of all these matters should be the voters or, in exceptional circumstances, the sovereign. If they are unhappy with how a Government have behaved with the calling of an election or the timing of an election, it is in their hands to determine the consequences for that Government and what the electoral punishment should be. I take issue with the idea we have heard a few times today that the Bill is about putting power in the hands of the Government. It takes power away from Parliament, certainly, but it vests that power in the public and the electorate, and that is where power should truly lie.
It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Aaron Bell. May I start, as so many colleagues have done, by welcoming the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith, back to her rightful place? It is wonderful to see her.
This has been a very entertaining, interesting and thought-provoking debate. As ever, it is good to see Parliament on form, with cross-party consensus on what needs to be achieved. There has been a great deal of thought and consideration about what further steps this House might take. I certainly know that my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price will be able to hold me up on anything I get wrong, as a constitutional geek, as I make my speech.
I want to agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme said. When the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 came in, the idea that it was there for political expedience was perfectly obvious. It should have been introduced with a sunset clause, so that we did not have to endure it beyond 2015.
I want to make just a few remarks, because there is nothing new I can say at this point in the debate. In 1974, we saw one election in February and one in October. I am not able to remember either of them, but I am acutely aware of the fact that that is the exception. Governments take very seriously the idea of holding general elections. It is not a power to be abused. There is not a system where Governments think they can instantly call one and find the public on their side. It takes great consideration to be able to make that decision. We have to be clear about that. Many of the arguments that have been made by the Opposition seem to be confusing personality with the politics. That is not acceptable in this debate, because the reality is that it has not been done since 2010, apart from in 2017, and, I would argue, because of the FTPA. Jim Shannon made the point that elections are won not at election time but in between elections. It is in our interests to make sure that we run as close to the full term of a Parliament and certainly history would suggest that that is what we have done.
The excellent report produced by the Joint Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee report suggests in the recommendations that any replacement for the Act should support a majority, a coalition or a minority Government. That could include confidence and supply. I think that is exactly what happens now. As far as I can understand it—I will take any interventions if I am getting this wrong—the Lascelles principles are there to allow the opportunity for the Opposition, or another grouping, to come forward with an alternative if they can supply the numbers in the House. Brendan O'Hara was saying that the Lascelles principles no longer stand and that that convention is overwritten by the Bill. That is not true. That is not the case. The fact that the convention is unwritten means that the point for the sovereign still stands and that, if someone were to approach the sovereign with the alternative model, it would work.
My hon. Friend is articulating this very well. Again, it comes back to the fact that one of the biggest issues with the Fixed-term Parliament Act was the way it interfered with votes of no confidence. It had a very prescriptive set of rules that prevented the Lascelles principles from being implemented at that stage, but now that we are going back to the status quo, they will absolutely come back.
I was worried that my hon. Friend was going to tell me that I was wrong, but that was a delightful intervention and one I entirely agree with. I thank her for that point, because the wording of the Bill ensures that it will look as though the Fixed-term Parliaments Act had never been enacted. We are going back to the status quo before the Bill, rather than trying to change things forward, and it is important that that is understood.
Parliament should be flexible, agile and able to respond to the needs of the public, and by removing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, we will go back to a stage in which we can respond to the issues of the day, and the concerns and problems that must be addressed. Governments should be held to account by the Opposition and by Back Benchers. They should fear votes of no confidence where necessary and be prepared for elections to be called, if required, because their legislative agenda cannot be pursued. After all, we are here because we set a legislative agenda that we need to see through. If we are unable to do that, it is only right and sensible that we either go back to the people or offer an alternative, and that is what the Bill will do.
As far as I can make out, the only benefit of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was that it brought the Liberal Democrats into an embrace of death from which they have not recovered, five years on. However their recovery goes, that seems to be it. They did not learn from the 1920s and they have not learned from 2010-15. The Bill offers us the opportunity to reassure our constituents that we can be on their doorsteps 365 days of the year. We can make the case about knocking on their doors and ensuring that they have the democracy and the representation that they deserve.
The last point I would like to make is on clause 3, the ouster clause, which has been referenced by many in the House. It reminds this place of the fact that the courts must not involve themselves in the way in which we call elections. The point has been made time and again about the damage that would do. I welcome the Government’s Bill. I welcome the fact that it is fulfilling a manifesto commitment, and I welcome the fact that this is a return to a good piece of legislation that will ensure that democracy is secured for many years to come.
It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall, and even more of a pleasure to know that we are going to be in the same Lobby this evening—that is not always the case. I want to join everybody across the House in welcoming the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith, back to the Chamber. It has been a lesser place without her, and although she has been joining us through the wonders of Zoom, it is absolutely brilliant to have her back on the Front Bench doing her job so ably. I wholeheartedly echo the thoughts expressed by everyone in the House today.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that today,
I am not a constitutional geek by any stretch, certainly not to the extent of my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price. I thought I was, but listening to the arguments today, I realise that I am but a rank amateur when it comes to constitutional history, the details of how this country got to the place it did, how our constitution was created and how we run the country. However, I am strongly of the view that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was, frankly, a piece of constitutional vandalism that I cannot wait to see repealed.
Governments must have the confidence of this House, and they must be able to govern. Most of us in this House who lived through the events between 2017 and 2019 will know that neither was the case in that Parliament, and 2019 is a year that I still shudder to remember. It a year—you will not believe this, Mr Deputy Speaker—in which I started with no grey hairs and ended up with plenty, and I think my hairline was 2 cm further down my forehead than it is today. It is vital that the action we are taking today goes ahead.
In the autumn of 2019, the British people had confidence in this Government and in the Prime Minister. Most wanted us to deliver on the referendum result, while others just wanted the country to move on; neither was possible. Who can forget the utter farce of the indicative votes process, when this Parliament literally voted to do nothing? It was a shambles. What arrogance for politicians to deprive the people of their will, when it was so clear that, in the national interest, we needed to go to the country and expunge that dead, or dying, Parliament. Who can forget the frankly absurd spectacle of the Prime Minister, almost on bended knee, seeking the permission of the Leader of the Opposition, then Jeremy Corbyn, a man who claimed he wanted an election, just not quite yet—was it three times he used that line?
Indeed, we could still be in that awful holding pattern of wanting to go to the country but failing to get the two-thirds majority required under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, had Jo Swinson and the Liberal Democrats not come graciously to the aid of the country and the Government. For her and their sacrifice, we and indeed the entire country will remain eternally grateful. [Laughter.] We laugh now, but I remember the debates back then about when the right hon. Member for Islington North would decide that it was right for us to go to the country—maybe it would be after Christmas; maybe it would be in spring, when the weather would be better. Knowing what we know now, imagine if we had still been in that position, with that Parliament coinciding with the coronavirus pandemic and all that it wrought on the country. Are we not so very glad that we went to the country when we did? It is a genuinely frightening thought.
It is hard now in this new Parliament—sort of new—with a functioning Government majority, to imagine returning to such a scenario, but in 2010 we were told by very clever people on TV that coalitions would be the future, and in 2015 we were told that government by a single-party majority had returned. I remember in 2017 also being told that the country was braced for an era of minority government. Now, of course, we are told that we have returned to large one-party Governments that command control of the House. It is very bad to try to predict the future. In this game, it is hard to predict what will happen in three weeks, let alone three years.
The greatest asset that this country has is the flexibility of its famously uncodified constitution not only to dignify, but to bend and adapt to, circumstance and event. It has been the habit of recent Governments since the late 1990s to meddle with that, and in many instances we have learnt the hard way that we do so at our peril. As my right hon. Friend Mr Goodwill said, the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” should be every Government’s mantra. The joy and brilliance of the previous system—whereby a House of Commons could boot out a Government if they lost confidence, or a Prime Minister could, in the national interest, go to the country—was flexible and enduring. And it worked; it did not need fixing.
Ultimately, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act failed. It expressly failed to ensure that we had fixed-term Parliaments. If it had succeeded, I would not be standing here today—some might think that would be a very good thing, but from my perspective I am very glad that the Act failed. The Act is bad law. It was ill conceived and ill thought through, with awful consequences. My hon. Friend Gareth Bacon spoke about the confusing situation that would arise in the two-week gap between a Government falling and the creation of a new Government. I am very glad that the Government are seeking to overturn the Act. I support this Bill and look forward to voting for it this evening.
I will finish by echoing the comments of my hon. Friend Aaron Bell, when he wondered whether many people were tuning into BBC Parliament to watch this debate. Shame on them if they are not, because today I genuinely think we have seen Parliament at its best—a dignified, in-depth, serious debate with no time limit. The only cry I would make is: more of this sort of thing, please.
With the leave of the House, I shall make some closing remarks on behalf of the Opposition. As the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, Chloe Smith, is now at the Dispatch Box, let me begin by welcoming her back. I am sure she has heard all the comments made by colleagues this afternoon and hope she feels appreciated. I agree with what Mrs Miller said: it almost feels like the Minister has never been away. As her opposite number, I can say that she has never been more than a text message or Microsoft Teams call away. I know that it must have been quite challenging at times, but it is a credit to her, her strength and her strength of character that she has continued to do the job in the way she has through an incredibly challenging time personally. Now that she is back, she is not going to be easing her way back into it, because we have not only this chunky piece of legislation before us but the Elections Bill to come.
This is probably a good opportunity for me not only to welcome the new SNP spokesperson on election matters, Brendan O’Hara, who made an incredibly passionate speech, but to pay tribute to his predecessor, David Linden, who was a pleasure to work with and a fully signed up constitutional geek, unlike Andrew Bowie, apparently—he claims not to be but I am sure that we can convince him otherwise.
This was a very good debate and I wish to make a few comments about what was said. I referred just a moment ago to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, who made a strong case for the argument that this legislation is a huge power grab by the Executive. Indeed, I agree with him that clause 3 looks very much like the Government are still smarting from the 2019 court judgment on the Prorogation that never was. I reach out to my SNP colleague and suggest to those on the Government Benches that one way to solve the perceived problem that the Government have, and the reason for clause 3 being in the Bill, could be a parliamentary vote on Dissolution, which would pave a way forward.
Alongside many other Members, Mr Goodwill raised the issue of shortening the election period. Indeed, election periods have got much longer—although in the most recent election, of course, the days were much shorter. I urge all colleagues to listen to their local electoral administrators, because there are significant challenges in running elections for those who are behind the scenes, not just for us who are campaigning. One of the biggest challenges we have is the processing of electoral enrolments. I suggest to the Minister that we could look again—perhaps it could be included in the Elections Bill—at a process of automatic voter registration, which would include everybody who was entitled to vote on the electoral roll and save an awful lot of time. Perhaps that would give us the freedom to shorten the election period without putting additional pressure on electoral administrators.
My hon. Friend Chris Bryant made many salient points in the debate, but ultimately he called for a level playing field, which is a concern that runs right across those of us have concerns about the Bill.
I have sparred with Alec Shelbrooke on many other constitutional and electoral matters over the years—it is always a pleasure—but I very much agreed with him when he was talking about the threats to democracy and democratic systems globally, including his point about the United States of America. However, I disagreed with his analysis of the 2017-19 Parliament, which was echoed by some of his colleagues. I think we are unfairly blaming the Fixed-term Parliaments Act as the sole cause of the difficulties that the Government had at that time. If I close my eyes and imagine that that Act was not in place in the 2017-19 Parliament, I do not see that the political path would have been much smoother for the Government, so it is unfair to blame solely that Act for the Prime Minister’s difficulties at that time. When we legislate, we should be careful not to base everything on recent political experience. Indeed, we are legislating for constitutional matters that should not only secure as broad a consensus as we can across the House but stand the test of time. We should not base everything on the specific and unique circumstances in that Parliament.
I thank Mr Carmichael for reminding us that he is, of course, one of the remaining veterans of the coalition Government. He referred to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act as a “necessary modernisation” and I agree with him. That is certainly borne out as true if we look across similar parliamentary democracies across Europe and the western world; we would be out of step by reverting to the old way of doing things—indeed, to do so is arguably a regressive step. He warned that the party that is in government today is not necessarily going to be in government forever and that those on the Opposition Benches might one day be in government. We should all be careful what we wish for and consider the fair and level playing field that we all seek to achieve.
I really enjoyed the contributions made by many Members. Aaron Bell had an awful lot to say, but his take-down of the ridiculous situation of having a super majority in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was very succinct. Indeed, it was total nonsense that there was any super-majority in the legislation in the first place. I certainly do not think that Anthony Mangnall built any bridges with his Liberal Democrat colleagues in his contribution.
The Bill before us does two things: it repeals the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and reinstates the status quo as if the past 10 years did not happen at all. On the first of those matters, the official Opposition absolutely agree with the Government that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 should be repealed. However, the Government have some way to go to have our confidence that this Bill is worthy of our support. We certainly cannot wish to drag our monarch into politics. We should ensure that Parliament has a central role to play in the process, as is right in any modern democracy, and certainly has a say over Dissolution.
I say to the Minister that if this was a Bill in isolation, that would be one matter, but there is a pattern of behaviour and a pattern of legislation coming out of this Government when it comes to constitutional and election matters. The attacks on the Electoral Commission from members of her party, the attacks on judicial review, and making it harder to vote by requiring ID at polling stations when there is very little problem to solve shows a pattern of behaviour that does cause concern. So much of our politics and parliamentary procedures rely on people being, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda said, good guys—and women, of course. If that is broken then everything else will fray at the edges.
Ultimately, this Bill is about where power lies. I would certainly argue that power should lie with the people, but this is a power grab by the Executive against the legislature. The Bill as it currently stands needs an awful lot of work if it is to have our confidence.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I thank all the very many friends across the House who have said such nice things to me today. It makes me blush but it makes me pleased and happy to rejoin you in person and to be able to lead the closing of the debate on this very important Bill.
I thank everybody who has spoken, including well-known sparring partners on the Opposition Front Benches, with a new one joining from the SNP, so I look forward to many a time speaking on constitutional matters with Owen Thompson. I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Wragg, who is nearly in his place, and the members of the Joint Committee who have spoken, as well as many other colleagues from across the House.
I will cover as many of the specific points that have been made as I can, but let me start by outlining how today’s debate has underlined how our former and fundamental constitutional arrangements work, with the flexibility that is essential to our parliamentary democracy. The Bill restores that constitutional balance. How do we restore the former arrangements? With reference to the comments by Brendan O’Hara, it is very important to be clear about how the Bill does this puzzle of reviving the prerogative power. There are two aspects: whether it can be revived, and, critically and importantly, the practical effect of doing so. I will cover both very briefly.
Our view is that the prerogative power can be revived but that express provision is needed, and clause 2 does exactly that. It delivers on its intended purpose to firmly reset the clock with as much clarity as possible. In preparing the Bill, we engaged with a wide range of stakeholders, including many academics, some of whom have been quoted but many more of whom also agreed with the Government’s approach, including Professor Mark Elliott. The drafting is therefore sufficiently clear, as the Joint Committee agreed.
Moving on to the practical effect, a former First Parliamentary Counsel also agrees with the Government’s approach, talking about this question almost as
“a red herring…because…it is perfectly plain that the intention of the Act is to restore the situation to what it was before…and therefore the law will then be indistinguishable”.
Let me turn from that into how this power works and what is being restored. Here we talk about the role of the sovereign. I note that the shadow Minister, Cat Smith was, if I heard her correctly, arguing or concerned that it perhaps was not clear what the role of the sovereign might be in the returning system. Indeed, I think the hon. Member for Midlothian made the same point. I want to be absolutely clear: there remains a role for the sovereign in exceptional circumstances to refuse a Dissolution request. I am not going to be able to speculate on that from the Dispatch Box. It would not be sensible for me to do so, but other Members of this House have already offered some examples this afternoon, such as, for example, if an Opposition already had the numbers to be able to form a Government and could demonstrate confidence and viability. That point was made by Chris Bryant. Unfortunately he is not here to enjoy me joining him in making it.
Turning to how the conventions endure, I thank the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove for bringing that point out very well. I also thank Joint Committee members, such as my right hon. Friend Mr Goodwill, who reminded us of the Lascelles principles. What I will say here is just a point about how we see the principles that accompany the prerogative power—the convention principles, or the Dissolution principles, as we named them in a document that we published alongside the Bill—going forward. That document was published to facilitate Parliament’s discussion and consideration of these very important accompanying points. We also provided a very full response to the Joint Committee, which was a further opportunity to go further in outlining the conventions as commonly understood.
I think the place for further discussion and debate on these conventions is here in Parliament—in this Chamber and the other. That will provide us with a shared understanding and the commanding of confidence— I should say “agreement”; “confidence” risks being misunderstood in the context of our debate this afternoon. It will provide us with the commanding of agreement on what provides conventions, and therefore those conventions may be able to endure.
Let me go from there to what we intend to restore and some elements that we are maintaining, although the grander scheme here is to return to a former set of arrangements. The purpose of the Bill, as I say, is to restore the long-standing arrangements that existed before the 2011 Act, but there are some exceptions, and those are where changes had already been made to enable the smooth running of elections. That brings me to, for example, the retaining of the 25 working day period between Dissolution and polling day. That ensures the continued operability of our electoral system, and I will just dwell on that for a few minutes, because a number of hon. and right hon. Members raised it.
There are three points to be made, and each is about the benefit for voters, which is a point that rang out loud and clear—that we should have such arrangements for the benefit of voters, not administrators or, indeed, politicians. The first point is that the timetable as it stands gives enough time for nominations to be received—six days—and then 19 days for those nominations to be decided upon. Let us remember that in our constitution we have a constituency-based decision going on each time. Any voter in any constituency rightly needs time to consider and decide upon the candidates in the constituency once nominated.
The second point is how much change has occurred in electoral delivery since the arrangements that we are otherwise seeking to restore were created. That is to say that the system of delivering elections is more complex than at any other point in our history. First, before 2014, there was no online individual electoral registration. That is a point of fundamental change that has enabled increasingly higher numbers of last-minute applications. That is of benefit to voters, and I would argue very strongly so. Secondly, postal voting on demand was only allowed in 2000. Again, that is the subject of debate, but I would argue that it is very strongly of benefit to voters.
My third and final point is that, in the written evidence to the Joint Committee, the Association of Electoral Administrators argued strongly that
“it would be catastrophic for everyone involved…if the… 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, particularly those voting from overseas.”
Fundamentally, that is a point that we should be concerned about, and it is a point in favour of the benefit to voters.
Let me move on to acknowledge what it is that we are leaving behind if we are moving to restore a different system. At this point, I acknowledge the words of Mr Carmichael and thank him again for his kind words to me. Fundamentally, his argument here is one for statute and one for qualification, and, fundamentally, my argument is not. We will have to agree to differ on that, and we will do so in the Lobby tonight. What we mean by moving away from a statutory system is that we do not think that it is possible to define everything. All the scenarios that could occur at the point at which a Dissolution might be needed could not possibly be codified, so statute is not adequate in this case. What we do think, though, is that there is a very important role for the House of Commons, and I want to make this point because it came up in several hon. Members’ remarks.
There is, of course, a crucial voting role for the House of Commons in indicating confidence in the Government, or the opposite of it. That is no small role at all. To swap a statutorily defined role for the House of Commons for that role is no small swap. Fundamentally, of course, having confidence is what defines the Government. There could be no more powerful role for the House of Commons in our constitution.
That takes us to the point of certainty that my hon. Friend Aaron Bell very wisely made. The certainty comes because the people will know that they then have their role. If it has not been possible to find confidence in the House of Commons in the formation of a Government, then the power flows to the people, and that is a certain understanding of what will happen.
On this point of certainty, surely all parties are entitled to certainty about the date on which the long period for electoral expenses starts to run. Under the current arrangements from the Government, only the governing party will have that certainty. Is that fair?
I am extremely glad that the right hon. Gentleman has made that point. I was going to address it in just a moment, because he raised it at the very outset, so I will come back to it shortly.
Let us be realistic. What is the prerogative power here for? It is a bit more like “break glass in case of emergency” than it is the kind of scheme that I think the Liberal Democrats are looking for. I think we can all agree that people do not welcome needless upheaval—Brenda from Bristol put it pretty well—but they do want their role in resolving a crisis. Vernon Bogdanor, in evidence to Committees along the journey of this Bill, made the point very well. Essentially, unsuccessful Governments have attempted to get to five years. Successful Governments have gone to the people at four years. Anything short of that is a national emergency. What we are talking about today is what needs to happen in the cases of emergency or crisis. I note the arguments made for fixed terms, particularly by Christine Jardine, but we have tried designing those and they have not worked, so what we are returning to here is an arrangement that did work.
I want to reassure the House on a couple of points, as I said I would to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. The long campaign expenditure controls are not changed by this repeal. Those arrangements are that if Parliament is not dissolved 55 months from its first meeting, then the long campaign controls apply. That situation continues. That has not changed. I also point out that there is a measure in the schedule to this Bill that adds to that in respect of third party donations. The schedule also provides that the trigger for the election timetable in the case of a general election is the Dissolution of Parliament. That is an important safeguard that we have built into the Bill, acknowledging arguments made on that note from the Joint Committee.
I conclude by thanking hon. Members once again for their contributions this afternoon. It has been a very good debate, and I am delighted to be back and to be part of it. My priority with this Bill is to encourage consensus, because that is what will give us the most effective operation of the conventions that must endure once again.
“at the heart of the UK’s constitutional arrangements is a fine but constantly-shifting balance of convention, principle and law, that provides clear guidance, but also flexibility… In areas of prerogative power, the Sovereign remains the constitutional backstop.”
I could not have put it better. None the less, Jim Shannon, in his inimitable style, did put it better. He said that our institutions are often the envy of the world, and I could not agree more. It is those that I want to uphold. This Bill will return our country to successful constitutional arrangements that have stood the test of time and will continue to serve the people, with the choice ultimately in their hands.
I am anticipating a Division, so could Members please follow covid regulations as they go to vote?
Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.