With this it will be convenient to consider the following:
Clauses 2 and 3 stand part.
The intention of this amendment is to require that the last date for a general election is five years after the previous general election.
Clauses 4, 5 and 6 stand part.
New clause 1—Election timetable not to disregard Saturdays and Sundays and bank holidays—
(2) In rule 2 (1), omit sub-paragraphs (a) and (b).”
The purpose of this new clause is to reduce the time between dissolution and the next meeting of Parliament, by including weekends and bank holidays within the parliamentary general election timetable.
New clause 2—Early parliamentary general elections—
‘(1) An early parliamentary general election may take place sooner than the automatic dissolution under section 4 of this Act only in accordance with this section.
(2) An early parliamentary general election is to take place only if the House of Commons passes a motion in the form set out in subsection (3).
(3) The form of motion for the purposes of subsection (2) is—
(none) “That there shall be an early parliamentary general election.”
(4) Subsection (5) applies for the purposes of the Timetable in rule 1 in Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983.
(5) If a parliamentary general election is to take place as provided for by subsection (2), the polling day for the election is to be the day appointed by Her Majesty by proclamation on the recommendation of the Prime Minister which must be no later than 30 days after the date on which the House of Commons has passed the motion in the form set out in subsection (3).”
The intention of this new clause is to make dissolution subject to a vote of the House of Commons.
New clause 5—Calling of Parliament—
‘(1) The date for the first meeting of a new Parliament must be specified in any proclamation for the dissolution of a Parliament.
(2) The date specified in accordance with subsection (1) may not be later than the 14th day after polling day.”
The intention of this new clause is to require Parliament to meet, and a newly elected Commons to sit to elect a Speaker, within two weeks of a general election.
Amendment 3, in the Schedule, page 4, line 22, leave out “19th” and insert “12th”
The intention of this amendment is to shorten the period between dissolution of one Parliament and the first meeting of the next Parliament by reducing the general election campaign from 25 days to 18.
Amendment 4, page 7, line 15, after “subsection (2)” insert “and”
This is a drafting amendment consequential on Amendment 5.
Amendment 5, page 7, line 17, leave out from “(ii)” to end of line 19 and insert “omit paragraph (b)”
This amendment would ensure that the Secretary of State could not make regulations to combine a UK General Election and an extraordinary general election to the Senedd.
Schedule stand part.
May I initially seek your guidance, Chairman? Would you like me to cover all the clause stand parts and to respond, as it were, in advance to amendments? Or would you like me to return to respond to hon. Members once they have spoken to their amendments?
That is a perfectly reasonable question from the Minister. As all matters are grouped in one group, she may, in her opening remarks, refer to all amendments and clauses standing part, but of course she will have an opportunity to answer points made by Members when they introduce their amendments and new clauses. Or should I say “he”—[Interruption.] I should say “they”, as Mrs Miller has a new clause as well. It is perfectly in order for the Minister to now address everything that is on the amendment paper.
Thank you very much indeed, Dame Eleanor. I shall endeavour to do that, and I hope you will bear with me while I ensure that I cover all that material.
Let me begin at the beginning, with clause 1. There is consensus throughout the House that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has proven to be not fit for purpose and has been damaging to effective and accountable government. The experience of 2019 in particular showed us that the Act was flawed and ran counter to core constitutional principles, and was therefore damaging to the flexible functioning of our constitution. It was unique legislation and it did not work. We saw how, in 2017, a Government who commanded a majority in the House of Commons were able to call an early general election with ease, irrespective of the Act’s intentions.
The events of 2019 then demonstrated how the 2011 Act could obstruct democracy by making it harder to hold a necessary election. The Act’s prescriptive constraints, such as the threshold of a supermajority requirement for a general election and the statutory motions of no confidence, created an untenable situation in which the Government could neither pass vital legislation through Parliament nor call a new election. The result was parliamentary paralysis at a critical time for our Government. The introduction of bespoke primary legislation that circumvented the Act and let us hold a general election in 2019 was the final indictment of the Act.
The Bill therefore repeals the 2011 Act and returns us to the tried and tested system whereby Parliament will automatically dissolve after five years, if it has not been dissolved earlier by the sovereign exercising that prerogative power at the request of the Prime Minister. The key argument is that in doing so it will help to deliver increased legal, constitutional and political certainty around the process for the dissolving of Parliament. Clause 1 repeals the 2011 Act and in doing so delivers, as I have already mentioned, on both a Government manifesto commitment and a Labour manifesto commitment to do so. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.
Clause 2 makes express provision to revive the prerogative powers that relate to the dissolution of Parliament and the calling of a new Parliament. That means that Parliament will, once more, be dissolved by the sovereign at the request of the Prime Minister. By doing this, the clause delivers on the Bill’s purpose, which is to reset the clock back to the pre-2011 position with as much clarity as possible. The clause is clear in its intention and in its effect. As the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act put it, the drafting of clause 2 is
“sufficiently clear to give effect to the Government’s intention of returning to the constitutional position” that existed prior to the passing of the 2011 Act.
Will my hon. Friend help the House in respect of whether the Government acknowledge the existence of the Lascelles principles? If they do, what is the impact of clause 2 on those principles?
Of course the Government and I acknowledge the existence of those principles; they are a historical fact in and of themselves. I refer my right hon. and learned Friend to the fact that we have said consistently throughout the Bill’s preparation and progress so far that we believe that now is the time for the underpinning conventions of the prerogative power to be debated and, indeed, restated. The Government have contributed to that by publishing some Dissolution principles at the beginning of the Bill’s journey. We think those principles form part of a dialogue that continues not only between the Government and Parliament but with the wider public as well. I hope that the work of this Committee today and the work in the other place will together form part of the continuation of that historical tradition of there being an understanding of the conventions that underpin the prerogative.
Does not the fact that the Prime Minister requests that the monarch take steps so that an election can happen show an understanding of the Lascelles principles? Indeed, there could be other circumstances, yet unforeseen, in which a request is refused.
Yes, we believe that that is the case; that is the flexibility inherent within the constitutional arrangements that we seek to revive. That brings me back to the express purpose of clause 2, which delivers on the Bill’s purpose, which is, as I said, to reset back to the pre-2011 position with as much clarity as possible. We believe that is clear in our intention to revive the prerogative.
Naturally, I recognise that the revival of the prerogative has been subject to academic debate. For example, as Professor Mark Elliott, professor of public law at the University of Cambridge said:
“Given the scheme of the Bill, it is perfectly clear that the prerogative will be revived and that, from the entry into force of the Bill, the prerogative power of dissolution will once again be exercisable.”
Furthermore, even if any doubts remained from some of the academic debate that has taken place, as the former First Parliamentary Counsel, Sir Stephen Laws, said in his evidence to the Joint Committee, the academic debate is something of
“a red herring, because…it is perfectly plain that the intention of the Act is to restore the situation to what it was before the 2011 Act, and therefore the law will then be indistinguishable from what it was before”.
The Government are, then, confident of the intention and practical effect of the clause. A letter that I sent recently to my hon. Friend Mr Wragg sets out why we believe that there is a sound legal basis for that position; I hope that Members may have had a chance to see that letter, which I publicised to right hon. and hon. Members. By making express provision to revive the prerogative powers, clause 2 returns us to the tried and tested constitutional arrangements, so I commend it to the Committee.
Clause 3 is necessary and proportionate for the avoidance of doubt and to preserve the long-standing position that the prerogative powers to dissolve one Parliament and call another are non-justiciable. Those prerogative powers are inherently political in nature and, as such, are not suitable for review by the courts. Any judgment on their exercise should be left to the electorate at the polling booth. That was the view of the courts, as expressed by, for example, Lord Roskill in the landmark GCHQ case in 1985: he considered that the courts are not the place to determine whether Parliament should be dissolved on one date or another. That position was recommended more recently in the independent review of administrative law, published in March this year, which noted that clause 3 can be regarded as a “codifying clause” that
“simply restates the position that everyone understood obtained before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was passed”.
As I mentioned earlier, clause 3 has been drafted with regard for the direction of travel in case law. Over the years since the GCHQ case, some of the prerogative powers previously considered to be non-justiciable have been held by the courts to be justiciable. The purpose of the clause is therefore to be as clear as possible about the no-go sign around the dissolution and calling of Parliament. It is carefully drafted to respect the message from the courts that only
“the most clear and explicit words” can exclude their jurisdiction. This is a matter for Parliament to decide; that view accords with the majority of the Joint Committee, which said that
“Parliament should be able to designate certain matters as ones which are to be resolved in the political rather than the judicial sphere”.
We have made our intentions clear so that the courts will understand that that is the clear will of Parliament. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one benefit of clause 3, as well as highlighting all the issues that she has just mentioned, is that it makes it abundantly clear that Parliament is supreme?
Yes, that is right. I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to all hon. and right hon. Members who served on the Joint Committee and spent a considerable amount of time looking at these issues. That is the kind of consideration that we ought to give to our constitutional affairs rather than taking them in a hurry—a point that I was making earlier. Let me acknowledge my hon. Friend’s point and thank him and others for the work that they did.
On clause 3, may I take the Minister back to the inclusion of the word “purported” and, in particular, draw her attention to paragraph 166 and the comments of Baroness Hale in relation to the Joint Committee report? She says that
“it looks as if it is saying, “Well, even if what we did”— that is what the Government did—
“was not within the power that you have been given by the statute, the courts can’t do anything about it.”
She goes on to say:
“If that is the case, the courts would be very worried about that, because it would mean that the Government—the Prime Minister—had done something that was, at least arguably, not within its powers.”
There is some force and logic in the argument of Lady Hale, is there not?
This is a good opportunity for me to be absolutely clear about the reference to the word “purported” in this clause. This has been included to take account of previous judicial decisions—in particular the cases of Anisminic Ltd v. the Foreign Compensation Commission 1969, and Privacy International v. the Investigatory Powers Tribunal 2019. In the latter, the expectation was expressed that the drafting legislation would have regard to the case law and ensure that the drafting made it clear if “purported” decisions—that is decisions that would be considered by a court to be invalid—were intended to be outside the jurisdiction of the courts. What clause 3 does is present an opportunity to Parliament to be absolutely clear on whether it thinks that such things should be outside the jurisdiction of the courts. It is the Government’s position and presentation that they ought to be, and I hope that hon. Members will join me in that.
In the interests of clarity, is the Minister telling the House that the Government are asking Parliament to give them the power to do things that exceed the powers given to them and that nobody should be able to gainsay them?
I am proposing that the House understands the use of the phrase “purported”, which, clearly, the right hon. Gentleman does—I have no dispute with him on that point—and that hon. Members join us in acknowledging that it is right to be aware of the case law and to respond to it. The decision in front of us is whether purported decisions relating to this area should or should not be included in clause 3. It is our contention that they should be, because we believe that the entire area of dissolution and the calling of Parliament is intended to be outside the jurisdiction of the courts. That is a perfectly legitimate question to put to Parliament. It is for us here in this Chamber to decide on that, and the reason for doing so would be that we think that such decisions are political rather that judicial in their nature. Fundamentally, the check on the exercise of power is for the electorate to decide on rather than the courts. Therefore, as I have said, the function of clause 3 is to set that out very clearly. I will now move on to clause 4, which deals with five-year maximum terms.
The purpose here is to ensure that a Parliament lasts no longer than five years. We do that by providing that Parliament will automatically dissolve five years after it has first met. In doing so, the clause returns us to the general position before the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill was enacted. We are confident that five years is the appropriate length for the maximum parliamentary term. Our Parliaments have seldom lasted a full five years, and, in practice, they have often been dissolved sooner. In fact, we can see that parliamentary terms have very often developed their own rhythm. For example, from the history books, we can see that a strong Government seeking a fresh mandate might seek a Dissolution after four years. Anything less than four years is usually a sign of some political crisis or emergency. Often, Parliaments are dissolved out of political necessity rather than choice, to put a policy or political question to the electorate or to resolve a political crisis.
But it is not actually five years; it is five years and a bit, is it not? As the Septennial Act 1716 did, it goes from the date of the first sitting of the new Parliament. It means that, if we stick with this, we will have the longest period from election to election of any democracy in the world. Would it not be better for the period from election to election to be at most five years?
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my remarks in respect of his amendment, which I will endeavour to come to after I have worked through all the clauses.
The scheme that we are proposing is the right one and I will come in a moment to why I think that that is the case when compared with other technical methods of achieving a five-year term that the hon. Gentleman is thinking of. This clause provides for a maximum parliamentary term of five years from the date that Parliament first met, so we measure five years from the date of first meeting to the Dissolution of Parliament, and that is the Government’s proposition. We think that that provides the right balance of stability, flexibility and accountability that is entailed in returning to the arrangements that allow for a general election earlier than that. On that basis, I recommend that clause 4 stand part of the Bill.
I shall speak very briefly to clause 5. It introduces the schedule to the Bill, which makes provision for the consequential amendments that are needed to ensure that other legislation operates effectively once the 2011 Act has been repealed and we return to the status quo ante. The consequential amendments primarily reverse or alter legislative amendments made by the 2011 Act. They remove references to the Act in legislation and ensure that, after the repeal of the 2011 Act, other legislation that links to it still works. For example, in repealing the 2011 Act, they reflect the fact that there will no longer be fixed-term Parliaments, so the concept of an early general election would no longer exist in law.
Clause 5 also provides that the repeal of the 2011 Act by clause 1 does not affect the amendments and repeals made by the schedule to that Act. This ensures that essential provisions are not lost. It allows us to modify changes made by the 2011 Act and ensure the smooth running of elections by retaining sensible improvements made by that Act or subsequent to that Act. I know that those are some topics that we will come back to a little later as we progress through our debate this evening.
The schedule also makes a small number of minor changes to ensure the smooth running of elections. In short, this clause is necessary to ensure that electoral law and other related parts of the statute book continue to function smoothly. As such, I recommend that clause 5 stand part of the Bill.
Clause 6 is the one that we all know and love that deals with extent, early commencement and short title. It confirms that the territorial extent of the Bill is the United Kingdom, except for a very small number of amendments in the schedule where the extent is more limited. The clause ensures that the Bill has an early commencement, meaning that it comes into force on the day on which it receives Royal Assent, and it provides that the short title of the Bill will be the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2021.
That gives me an opportunity to explain that the Government have agreed with the recommendation of the Joint Committee that a Bill of constitutional significance that seeks to put in place arrangements that deliver legal, constitutional and political certainty around the process of dissolving one Parliament and calling another should be titled accordingly. The short title now reflects the purpose of the Bill and will help to ensure that it is clearly understood and that successive Parliaments are able to discern the intended effect of the legislation. I therefore propose that this clause stand part of the Bill. Mr Evans, would you like me also to make a remark about the schedule and then turn to the amendments?
In that case, Mr Evans, I am going to carry on until you tell me otherwise. There is an amount to get through, but I hope to do so.
The schedule provides for a number of changes to primary and secondary legislation to ensure the effective operation of the statute book when the 2011 Act is repealed. These amendments primarily reverse or alter legislative amendments made by the 2011 Act. The schedule works with clause 6. As I have explained, we want to make sure that references to the 2011 Act work elsewhere in other legislation. There are some key changes in the schedule to draw to the attention of the House.
The first is to rule 1 of schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983, which sets out the election timetable. The Bill amends that rule to ensure that the trigger for the election process in the case of a parliamentary general election is the Dissolution of Parliament, following the recommendation of the FTPA Joint Committee.
The second change provides additional certainty in relation to the election process. The election writ is deemed to have been received the day after the Dissolution of Parliament. This will allow returning officers to begin arrangements the day after the election writs are issued, enabling all constituencies to begin making the necessary preparations, even in the event that the physical delivery of the writ is delayed. Similar deeming amendments are included for by-elections.
The third update is to section 20 of the Representation of the People Act 1985. Under the existing legislation, in the event of the demise of the Crown after Dissolution or up to seven days before, polling day is postponed by a fortnight. The 1985 Act provides no discretion or flexibility to further alter the date of the poll. This Bill provides limited discretion for the Prime Minister to move polling day up to seven days either side of this default 14-day postponement, by proclamation on the advice of the Privy Council. This is beneficial because it ensures that enough flexibility is built into the system should such specific and unlikely circumstances ever occur. There is also flexibility to move the date set for the first meeting of Parliament in such circumstances—again, by proclamation on the advice of the Privy Council.
The last key change that I will highlight in this section is to the Recall of MPs Act 2015, which is amended to ensure that there continues to be provision to prevent or terminate recall petitions close to a general election to avoid redundant by-elections. This means that there is no requirement to trigger a recall petition if the last possible polling day for a general election, based on Parliament running its full term, is less than six months away, and a recall petition is to be terminated when Parliament is dissolved. For the reasons that I have set out, I recommend that the schedule be the schedule to the Bill.
If it remains convenient to you, Mr Evans, I will now start to work my way through the amendments that have been tabled, but I remain at your disposal to return to the clauses if hon. Members would like me to respond after they have spoken to their amendments.
New clause 2 has been tabled by Chris Bryant. As I understand it, it seeks to provide a role for the House of Commons in approving an early general election by simple majority vote. This would adjust the arrangements that exist under the 2011 Act by removing the two-thirds majority requirement. It would in itself be a departure from the prior constitutional norm, whereby the Prime Minister could request an early Dissolution of Parliament in order to test the view of the electorate. As we have already begun to touch on in this afternoon’s debate, the deadlock and paralysis created by the 2011 Act did rather demonstrate why a prescriptive statutory approach does not work. Instead, what we are doing in the Bill is returning to a set of widely understood constitutional conventions and practices. Those tried and tested arrangements are the right ones, and this new clause would run against the grain of those arrangements.
It is, after all, a core underlying principle that the authority of the Government and the Prime Minister, as the sovereign’s principal adviser, are derived from the ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons. The 2011 Act attached confidence and the decision of the Prime Minister to call an election to statutory motions, which gave the Commons a direct say in Dissolution, but it is also possible to argue that those arrangements hindered the function of democracy by making it harder to have necessary elections. Instead, the House should indeed be able to express its view on confidence, but in a much freer manner. We do not need the prescriptive statutory approach of either the 2011 Act or, I fear, this new clause.
New clause 2(5) would require the Prime Minister to advise the sovereign on the date of the election within 30 days of the House approving a motion for an election. I would argue that this is not necessary. Under the Bill, once a general election has been called and Dissolution takes place, the election timetable in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 makes the provision for the timing of an election very clear. Again, rather than introducing prescriptive arrangements, we believe that we should return to tried and tested standards whereby it is a core principle that the Prime Minister must be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons. New measures around that concept are not needed.
Yes, that is precisely the point, and that underlies a number of our considerations. In the place of a prescriptive statutory scheme, we can place our trust instead in the ability of people to choose against the behaviour that they observe from parties in Parliament.
Let me turn to new clause 5, which is also in the name of the hon. Member for Rhondda. It would require the House to start sitting 14 days after a general election. Although I agree that Parliament should meet as soon as possible after polling day, it is not necessary to codify that in legislation. Fundamentally, this is a similar type of argument. It is difficult to reconcile more extensive codification with the scheme of the Bill, and I shall set out the reasons why.
First, we think it is unnecessary to allow for such a 14-day period. Before and under the 2011 Act, the date of the first meeting of Parliament was set by the sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister. In practice, Parliament has met within one to two weeks of a general election on all but two occasions since 1950. There are compelling practical reasons for a new Government to call a new Parliament as soon as possible. As I put it earlier, no Government can manage without supply. As the Joint Committee put it,
“without…the authorisation of the Commons to spend money…a modern administration could manage months at best”.
Ultimately, having won an election, any new Government would want to assemble Parliament to pass their Queen’s Speech at the earlier opportunity, and be able to move on to legislation and supply.
If the largest party was trying to get a coalition, that might take more than 14 days. Is there provision in the legislation to cover that?
The hon. Gentleman makes precisely the point that goes to the new clause, which is that a Government would, I would have thought, want to assemble faster than 14 days, but there can be occasions when more than 14 days may be needed. Therefore, both these arguments point to flexibility, and that is my principal concern about the new clause.
We have already referred to amendment 2 and the discussion that we should indeed have about how we set the clock on the parliamentary term. As I understand it, the amendment, again tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda, would mean that the clock on the parliamentary term would start from the date of the general election. By contrast, under the Bill, Parliament would dissolve automatically five years after it had first met. Those are the two rival designs that we might debate this evening. In practice, what we are putting forward in the Bill represents a return to the tried and tested arrangements. It is also the clearest and simplest way of calculating the parliamentary term—from the point at which Parliament is actually sitting. Under the amendment, the clock would instead begin while Parliament was still dissolved.
With respect, that is not the right quiz question—the right quiz question is whether, under the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, the period would be five years plus 25 days. That would, I believe, arise from his amendment, because he is not counting the length of the election campaign, whereas our provision is five years from first sitting to last sitting, so we are trying to measure the life of a Parliament. I am not trying to engage in maths problems; I simply think that this is the most sensible way to measure it, and I hope hon. Members might agree. [Interruption.] I am really not going to engage in maths questions beyond that. We need a clear and easily understood scheme. I think we are all agreed that it ought to be five years, and we are dealing with how to achieve that. The Government’s proposition is that it should be, as I say, from five years after Parliament has first met. That is important.
Let me turn to the pair of amendments that relate to the shortening of the election timetable: new clause 1 in the name of my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller and amendment 3 in the name of the hon. Member for Rhondda. I am absolutely sure that there will be some very strong arguments put in this area. To try to help the Committee, I will set out why we have our current timetable and then seek to address what I would anticipate to be some of the core arguments that right hon. and hon. Members will raise.
The current timetable was introduced in 2013 through the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which absorbed fundamental shifts brought about through having postal votes on demand and individual electoral registration. As I have explained, the Bill seeks to return us to the status quo ante while retaining sensible changes that have been made since 2011 to enable the smooth running of elections, which are, in my view, of benefit to voters. The current timetable is one of those changes. It provides a balance between allowing sufficient time to run the polls effectively and for the public to be well informed, while not preventing Parliament from avoiding sitting for any longer than is necessary, which is a very important consideration.
On the requirements for running polls effectively, the 25 days working days are necessary to deliver elections, which are now often more complex than at any other point in our history, for reasons, as I mentioned, to do with postal voting on demand, but also online individual electoral registration. That was a fundamental constitutional change that enabled increasingly higher numbers of last-minute applications. To illustrate that, at the most recent general election almost 660,000 applications were made on the last day possible. Before 2000, as I said, there was no postal voting on demand, and it has since grown in numbers to represent nearly 20% of registered electors. Both things increased the complexity and demands of an election timetable.
The amendments refer to weekends and bank holidays in the election period. Local authority electoral services teams who do this work are already often working weekends and overtime to make elections work successfully. I also note that elections do not just rely on local authorities and their staff; there is a significant commercial element to their delivery through many suppliers, including, but not limited to, the software for maintaining the registers, and the printing and postage of paperwork such as the poll cards, ballot papers and postal votes. There is very little room for error on all that. Creating and maintaining the capacity to deliver it can be extremely challenging, especially at short notice. Weekends and bank holidays are not necessarily in our gift.
My hon. Friend is of course making an excellent speech. The intent behind the new clause, which I will explain more fully when I go through it in detail, is to do exactly what she was calling for earlier, which is to have a clearer and more easily understood scheme. At the moment, it is not clear and not easy to understand, because it states that election periods are 25 days when they may not be: the last election was 36 days. We need more transparency, and that is part of what the new clause is calling for.
Absolutely. This is a good opportunity to remind ourselves that we have not necessarily observed a 25 working day timetable. For example, the 2017 election, known to have been rather a long one, was considerably longer than that minimum statutory period. It is important, as my right hon. Friend says, to be as clear as possible on this point.
Does my hon. Friend feel that the debate on this presents the opportunity for a further piece of work on the period from when a Prime Minister dissolves Parliament to when the 25 days should start? I appreciate that this Bill is not really the appropriate moment for that, but does she agree that there should be further study and work to decide whether the timeframe should be tidied up more before we get to the 25 days?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Some of what he refers to is not necessarily within a statutory scheme but within, for example, the processes of this House, but he makes a valuable point. We do need to look at the evidence in this area; that will clearly help us. There is already some written work that I would commend to right hon. and hon. Members. They could look at the most recent report of the Association of Electoral Administrators, which said, in July, that less time would be significantly problematic and that there was only so much that could be done at once. It made the point again in written evidence to the Joint Committee, saying that
“it would be catastrophic for everyone involved…if the statutory election 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”.
Just for clarification on those comments, are the electoral services referring to the 25 working days, not a period leading up to that, and saying that they are confident that they can always achieve their work in the short campaign as defined, not relying on any period of time before the short campaign starts?
I believe that to be the case, although of course I would not wish to speak for the AEA. I really do commend its report to the Committee to enable it to see in much more detail the challenges that there are in delivering elections within the timetable that currently exists. To answer my right hon. Friend’s question, broadly yes—that set of comments is referring to the statutory timetable rather than any time before it.
We would all wish to maximise participation in elections, and the practicalities of overseas voters, postal voters and voter registration are very important, but do we also need to look at the possibility that as campaigns go on and on, we might get campaign fatigue, which might well result in fewer people casting their ballots because they are sick to death of the election going on for what seems to be forever?
I am always sympathetic to that point. There is always a risk when any of us have to bang on too long that we simply get boring, and I can already apologise to the House for having taken 50 minutes of tonight’s Committee in trying to make my way through the material I am obliged to cover. My right hon. Friend makes a wise point, and it is one of the balances that have to be looked at in this discussion. That is one reason why he and others have tabled amendments.
If only I had the ability to give the hon. Gentleman that promise, I think I would have promoted myself to Chief Whip and other positions in a single move. I do not think I should be drawn on the dark ways of the Chief Whip and the usual channels. Instead, I will take an intervention from my hon. Friend Craig Whittaker.
I want to take my hon. Friend back to the point about 2013 and why the period became 25 working days. She mentioned postal votes and electronic registration, but surely the clue is in the title: electronic registration. Anything done electronically is supposed to be much quicker and clearer. Does the legislation also take into account future ways of voting, particularly for overseas voters who may want eventually to do it electronically?
Again, some incredibly thoughtful points are being put. My hon. Friend is right to observe that the introduction of online registration has enormously sped up how people can register, and he draws me to talk about two things. The first is to acknowledge what needs to be done to ensure that overseas voters can cast their ballots more easily. There is an entire field of working going on there, which we will discuss more in consideration of the Elections Bill—I look forward to seeing him in the debate—but a general point sits in the discussion of these amendments, which is how we ensure voters are getting what they need out of the election process.
My hon. Friend said a moment ago that she could not speak exactly for the AEA, but she will know from the open letter that it wrote to her that it wants even more time. It is proposing an extended 30-day timetable to
“increase capacity, introduce resilience and ensure electors are put first.”
That is all very well, but the point of an election is not to have the most perfect election imaginable, but to get the right result efficiently, so that everyone can cast their vote, but the country can be allowed to move on and resolve whatever tensions led to the election. The ever lengthening timetable is not in the national interest, let alone the interest of individual electors or individual candidates.
I am happy to confirm from this Dispatch Box that the Government’s position is to maintain the electoral timetable as it stands—I am not proposing an extension or reduction—but I draw the threads together as follows. We need to ensure that the system works for voters, and that includes them having enough time to register to vote, to receive their ballot papers, to return their ballot papers and to decide on the candidates in each constituency—we have a constituency-based system, after all. We also need to be able to make the same point about supporting candidates to fulfil their part of what needs to happen in an election timetable, both those who stand for parties and those who stand as independents. We have to think through these things if we legislate here.
In response to right hon. and hon. Members who have tabled the amendments, I suggest there is perhaps a space here for looking further into these issues. There would be an opportunity to have some research drawn together on the tensions between voter engagement, the resilience of polls and the needs of the country for a period when it does not have a Parliament or MPs able to help constituents. Although the Government continue to hold the powers needed to carry out essential business and respond to sudden, unexpected or distressing events, none the less the Government do after all need Parliament to be sitting. If needed, I will return to those points after right hon. and hon. Members have spoken, but I will leave new clause 1 and amendment 3 there.
I think I have covered all but amendments 4 and 5, tabled by Jonathan Edwards. Please correct me, Mr Evans, if there are any others I have missed, but I think I have covered the set. These amendments highlight a matter that I have been considering carefully, and their tabling gives me an opportunity to update the House on the consideration that the Government have given to how elections to this place, the Senedd or the Scottish Parliament work. I have been engaging for a long while with my devolved counterparts on this matter.
As hon. Members will know, in the event that a UK parliamentary general election is called on the same day as the scheduled poll to the Senedd, those scheduled polls must be moved. That change was introduced following the recommendations of the Smith and Silk commissions and enacted later through legislation. The position is different for extraordinary elections in the devolved legislatures, which reflects the requirement for flexibility in those circumstances in particular. Under those Acts, the relevant Secretary of State is able, by recommendation and only with agreement, to make provision for the combination of extraordinary Senedd elections with all types of UK parliamentary general elections and by-elections.
Amendments 4 and 5 would prevent the making of regulations for the combination of polls. In doing so, it would remove the ability to make provision for the orderly conduct of the combination of polls, if the Prime Minister were to call an election on a day there was to be an extraordinary election to the Senedd. It is worth noting that the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises is not necessarily a product of the Bill. Even under the 2011 Act, extraordinary elections to the devolved legislatures could be combined with all kinds of parliamentary elections, both scheduled and so-called early ones. What is more, the amendments are not necessary, as they seek to address an issue that is highly unlikely to materialise: the confluence of two unexpected elections. It may be that the hon. Gentleman’s amendments are intended in effect to place limits on the ability of the Prime Minister to call a general election on a day on which there is to be that extraordinary election to the Senedd. I encourage the hon. Gentleman not to press the amendments, because they could fundamentally restrict the flexibility that is an essential feature of our democratic arrangements, which the Bill seeks to restore.
What I can be clear about today is that when deciding to call an election, the Prime Minister will take account of a range of factors, including elections to the devolved legislatures. I am well aware of the challenges of holding elections simultaneously or in close proximity, so the UK Government would therefore be mindful of any elections due to take place for the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Senedd and encourage the best kind of close working between the administrators of each types of election.
I am afraid I have not got time to give way; I need to draw my remarks to a close. I look forward to the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr being able to say more about his amendment, which he has not yet had a chance to do. It would be rather good at this point if the Committee heard from others, rather than me. I draw my remarks to a close. I hope I have covered all the points on the new clauses, the schedule and the amendments. I commend the Bill as a whole, unamended, to the Committee.
The Bill does two things: it repeals the Fixed-term Parliaments Act; and reinstates—or attempts to reinstate—the status quo that existed before 2011. The Labour party supports the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which we committed to in our 2019 manifesto, because the Act undermined motions of no-confidence and removed conventions around confidence motions. The concept of fixed terms, however, is not a bad one, and we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. When the Act was introduced, the then Prime Minister was clear that it transferred power away from the Prime Minister and to Parliament. By virtue of that, the Bill is clearly a power grab by a Prime Minister who thinks that one rule applies to him and the rest of us can just wish for it.
New clause 2, tabled by my hon. Friend Chris Bryant, would make Dissolution subject to a vote in the House of Commons. At the heart of the new clause is the question whether a Government should have the power to decide when an election takes place or whether elections should be fixed. The democratic position to take is that terms should be fixed. Indeed, that is what happens in our local councils in England and in the Parliaments in Scotland and Wales. In fact, in most parliamentary democracies, Dissolution is controlled by the legislature with varying degrees of involvement from the Executive.
In the UK, with our strong tradition of parliamentary sovereignty, Parliament should be central to any decision to dissolve, for three main reasons. First, there is the electoral advantage. If only the Prime Minister knows when an election will be held, only the Prime Minister will know when spending limits kick in. That plays to the advantage of the incumbent political party. It is also possible to bury bad news by calling an election before such news hits. If, for instance, there was to be an inquiry on covid and they felt that would be bad news for them, they could choose to go early to avoid negative headlines. Secondly, a vote in Parliament for Dissolution would remove any possibility of dragging the Crown into the politics of the decision. I am sure no Members of the House would like to see Her Majesty dragged into that. Thirdly, it would render the Bill’s ouster clause unnecessary, whether that clause is effective or not. The easiest way to keep the courts out of Dissolution decisions is to leave Dissolution in Parliament’s hands. It is impossible to imagine the crack through which the courts could intervene in a duly recorded decision of the House of Commons on that matter.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the new clause is a much more effective way of keeping the courts out? The ouster clause is a bit like a red flag or saying to someone, “Don’t think of an elephant”—they will think of an elephant. It is saying to the courts, “You can’t touch this,” which would be a charter for clever lawyers and clever judges to start to think, “Where can we start to look at this?” rather than using the long-established, age-old way of deciding matters: a vote here in Parliament.
I agree. In fact, it is probably like dealing with a toddler: if we tell them not to do something, we know fine well that they will do it.
I will not debate the points of politics with the hon. Lady. On her comments about using Parliament for Dissolution, we have had all of that. There are probably few Members of the public watching us in the Chamber tonight, but they certainly watched what happened in 2019. Surely when we have a Chamber in stalemate, the Government should be able to resign. She will recall how her then leader stood on Parliament Square to say that the Government should resign but then came in here and stopped them from resigning, which was incredible. Surely when Parliament is deadlocked, as it was then, the Government should be able to resign and that should just happen, not be stopped by Parliament.
I agree with the heckling from my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda. I think Alec Shelbrooke is quite wrong and that the public are watching the debate with deep fascination. He underestimates the passion for constitutional legislation in this place. The point is that the new clause would remove the possibility of the courts being involved, and I think there is consensus across the Committee that that would be desirable. It strikes me that new clause 2 would be the most straightforward and easy way to do that. Of course, we know fine well that if the Government of the day can carry the House—in most cases, they can—there would be no issue in having a Dissolution. It would also avoid dragging the monarch into politics and remove the governing party’s electoral advantage. The new clause therefore strengthens the Bill, so I support it.
I turn to amendments 1 to 3 and new clause 1 on the length of an election campaign. It is impossible to look at the Bill without considering how it would move us to a position in which pretty much all elections will be unscheduled. I say “unscheduled” rather than “snap” because I recognise that an election period is very long; it certainly does not feel very snappy for candidates, voters or anyone campaigning. Unscheduled elections cause a problem for our electoral administrators. From having spoken to many of them and heard representations from the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators, it is clear that many close misses happen on the timetable, and a reduction of the timetable alongside the Bill, which could lead to more unscheduled elections, risks the public’s confidence in our democratic elections. For that reason, although it would be desirable to have shorter elections, I cannot support those amendments.
The Bill is not in a vacuum—we also have the Elections Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill before the House—and taken together, it is clearly part of a political power grab with a movement of power away from Parliament. It is a movement away from 650 Members to the hands of one man or woman who is Prime Minister, who will decide when the starting gun will be fired on an election. The Bill is, frankly, an overreaction to and misunderstanding of the causes of the gridlock in the 2019 Parliament. The principle of fixed terms is not wrong, although the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was clearly flawed. Prorogation should be in the hands of Parliament, not the Executive.
I rise to speak in particular to new clause 1 in the name of my right hon. Friend Mr Goodwill, my hon. Friends the Members for North West Cambridgeshire (Shailesh Vara), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) and for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) and a number of others. It is well supported. As the Minister set out, this is an important Bill. I had the privilege of serving on the Joint Committee on the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, where we heard the most extraordinary body of evidence about the last 10 years. I must say that it was overwhelmingly in support of the Government’s direction, which should take us back to the status quo ante position so eloquently outlined by the Minister. However, the evidence sessions also revealed a number of gaps—things that the Bill might do but does not—particularly on general campaigns and their lengths.
The Minister talked about the importance of a clear and easily understood scheme, and I completely agree. Elections are incredibly important parts of our democratic process—the pillar of the process in many ways—and should be clear and easily understood. However, as I alluded to in my intervention, the length of general elections is neither clear nor easily understood, and one must dive into the mice type to find out what the rules are.
The legislation says that elections should be 25 days in length, but that is not actually what it means: it is 25 days plus high days and holidays, and in essence that means an awful lot longer.
If I could finish this point, I will then allow the hon. Member to intervene.
Another of the pieces of legislation deployed under the coalition Government was the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, section 14 of which extends the timetable of a general election from 17 to 25 working days. That neatly carves out bank holidays, weekends, high days and holidays, and anything else that might get in the way, when in fact all of us sitting here know that once the starting gun is fired, everybody—just everybody—is working their socks off in electoral offices up and down the country to make sure that we deliver the election on time. The provision is just not truthful, and it needs to be a better reflection of what goes on.
Is not the essence of what my right hon. Friend is saying that it is exceptionally difficult to get elected to Parliament—we have all been through it—and it costs a lot of money? We tend to forget that candidates who have not been elected to this place more often than not give up work. Coming back to the point I made to my hon. Friend the Minister earlier, is there not a body of work to be done on the period between our Prime Minister calling an election and the short campaign starting? We must try to make it fair for those standing for Parliament for the first time, which can have an enormous financial cost.
My right hon. Friend makes a really important point. New clause 1 deals with the particular issue of the election campaign itself, but there is also the additional period of time that we colloquially call the wash-up, which can last for days or weeks, and it feels like months sometimes. Such a body of work could look at not only what is prescribed in legislation, but more broadly. I will go on to some of the issues I think we face by having overly long campaigns, of which I do not think there has been sufficient scrutiny.
However, before I do that let me say—and I am struggling to remember when you were elected, Mr Deputy Speaker—that I was elected in May 2005, as I am sure you remember, and when that general election was held the total length of the campaign was 23 days. It felt a lot longer for some of the reasons pointed out by my right hon. Friend Alec Shelbrooke. At the last general election it was a total of 36 days, and indeed in 2015 it was 37 days, so almost two weeks longer than when I was elected. My right hon. Friend talked about some of the issues facing new candidates, who have perhaps had to give up their work and are not being paid. It is not without an impact, yet so little work has been done to consider what the impact is.
I was a new candidate at the last election, and I can absolutely attest that it was a wearying experience, as it is for the electorate. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that that piece of work also needs to study the effect on the likelihood of people to turn out to vote? I think Brenda from Bristol spoke for us all when she said, “Oh no, not another one”.
Of course, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has a wealth of knowledge on these issues, as I know from having served on a Bill Committee with him.
We are talking not only about the impact on people standing for election. By lengthening our campaigns by almost two weeks, a number of other issues start to come into play. There is two weeks less scrutiny of Government by this place, which is not an inconsiderable issue that we should look at, yet it is not part of a scheme of work to consider all of these different issues. There is the fact that purdah gets longer not just at national level, but at local level, so fewer decisions are being made by local government for longer, and in stifling decision making that also has an effect that is not being captured. There are not inconsiderable impacts on our economy with the potential risk to our economy, depending on the economic circumstances we face at the particular time. Indeed, there is the risk of an outside actor interfering in our democratic process. The length of elections matters to returning officers—that is for sure—but there are many other issues that we should be considering that it is not clear are being brought into play at the moment.
My right hon. Friend has given an excellent list of some of the reasons why a long campaign is not desirable, but the simple fact is that voters are without their MPs. If, for example, Operation Pitting had taken place during an election campaign, Members across the House who have been deluged by casework would not have been able to take up that casework in the midst of an election campaign. The longer the campaign, the more likely it is that something will occur during that campaign.
My hon. Friend has put his finger on something that is probably more inequitable than he has realised, because constituents who have a re-standing Member of Parliament can deal with casework, but those where such an individual is not standing again do not have that access to casework. He raises an incredibly important point that needs to be taken into account.
There is emerging academic research in the US and Sweden that recommends shortening the length of campaigns for some of the reasons that have been made in interventions about increasing voter turnout, yet the Cabinet Office, in the excellent work it does with its democratic engagement plan, is silent on this issue. I was really pleased to hear the comments made by the Minister from the Front Bench today. Indeed, I thank her enormously for the way she has engaged on this and for the meetings she has had with colleagues. It is clear that she is not silent on the issue—she has views and thoughts—but there is no formal assessment of the link between the length of an election, voter engagement and all the risks I have talked about to our broader democracy.
New clause 1 is very much a probing amendment, but it needs a very clear response from the Minister today. She is quite rightly concerned about things such as engaging overseas voters in participating in the electoral process in a much more comprehensive way through other pieces of legislation that she is bringing before this place, and that is laudable and an important objective. However, the issue there is not the length of campaigns, but the awareness of the need to register annually. In some ways, the length of campaigns is sometimes being used as a solution for what is not necessarily the problem we face.
Does this point not really get to the heart of the matter of the performance, whether of local government or of other bodies, in always being prepared for an election? Many have elections in thirds, and they may have mayoral or police and crime commissioner elections. Local authorities ought to be prepared and to make sure that their ability to hold an election is always up to date?
That is a very important point. If one of the pillars of our democracy is elections, we should be prepared to have an election within a specified period at any point in the year. It should be mission critical, and I am surprised by some of the comments that have been made showing that that is not the case. Gone are the days when we ran out of salt because there was too much frost on the road. Hampshire County Council makes sure that we have a very large stock of salt to avert such a crisis. We should make sure that some other issues that have been a problem are dealt with as well.
I am very grateful to the Minister again for listening to these concerns so intently. Rather than my pushing new clause 1 to a vote, I hope she might indicate in her comments that the Government will be commissioning research about the impact of the length of general elections on our democracy—not just on voter participation, but on the broader democracy—so that we in this place can keep a close eye on how longer campaigns affect the quality of the democracy in our country. Perhaps this will form a foundation stone for the modernisation of UK elections more broadly—a thorny issue, I know—and perhaps she will report on the findings of that research as we start to discuss further legislation, including the Elections Bill in this place.
That is the nub of these issues. Instead of extending elections because of their complexity, surely we should be considering alternative ways to allow people to vote differently to the way they currently vote.
My hon. Friend makes points that I am sure those listening to that debate will be pondering. In a day and age when electronic mail, not postal mail, is the norm, they will be asking what the Government are doing to ensure that our electoral system is modernised. I applaud the Government for all they are doing on voter identification. It is such an important thing but it has been sadly lacking. This is a reforming Government in that area, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will do all she can to continue that reforming zeal in her work.
Let me pull together two other points that are allied to what we have been discussing. I think a great deal will be needed in returning to the status quo ante. The vast majority of Members do not remember the status quo ante—some of us do, such as my hon. Friend Craig Whittaker and perhaps one or two others such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell, but there are not many of us left. Ensuring that the House and Members understand those conventions that are not formalised in law will be something of a challenge. I am sure the Minister is up to that challenge, but it is something we need to address. She has rightly made a number of comments on this issue—she has written a letter to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and there are pieces of correspondence and an opportunity for debate—but as we move forward we need a settled view of the conventions.
Finally, on the wash-up, the day that a Prime Minister announces a general election is not the start of the general election campaign, and hon. Members need to take a much closer look, perhaps through colleagues who sit on the relevant Committees, as to how we can get better control over what is considered in that wash-up session. There are often a few deals regarding what legislation will pass through Parliament before the election campaign, and perhaps that would be better done after the election, rather than before. We should be considering such matters, with a focus on shortening the election campaign to something that is not just best for one set of people, but best for our democracy.
I will hopefully delight the Committee by trying to speed things up a little, and I will not detain Members for long.
I agree with Cat Smith that the Bill smacks of a Government who are still smarting from the events of 2019. I suggest that perhaps anger and revenge are no way to govern, and hopefully the House will help the Government to look beyond their bruised pride and get to a situation far beyond this Bill. Although in and of itself clause 1 may look fairly innocuous, and when taken in isolation might even be seen as trivial and almost unimportant, I caution the Committee that when viewed alongside other legislation currently going through this place—the Elections Bill, for example, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—we are witnessing a strategy on the part of the Government to centralise power and control with the Executive at the expense of this House. Some clauses in Bill, including clause 1, give more power to the Executive, strip parliamentarians of their powers, and deny the judiciary the ability to scrutinise what they are doing, while at the same time eroding the public’s right to protest against it. As has been said, this is an unashamed power grab by the Executive at the expense of this House, and we believe that that is how it will be seen in the context of that wider picture.
However intensely hon. Members may dislike the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, simply voting for the Bill this evening will not automatically return us to our position prior to 2011 when that Act was introduced. The Scottish National party has said it will oppose the Bill all the way through, and we will oppose it again tonight. New clause 2, and the idea that a general election could be called to dissolve Parliament and that that motion must be agreed by this House, is correct. It appears to me that if the Bill passes without new clause 2, the Prime Minister of the day will have full and unfettered control over the Dissolution of Parliament and the timing of any general election.
I wanted to make this point to the Minister. Not only will the Prime Minister have full power, but some of the clauses and consequential amendments in the Bill will have a profound effect on other aspects of the constitution. It specifically amends the Referendums (Scotland) Act 2020 as a consequential amendment. That Act states that a referendum in Scotland cannot be held on the same date as a UK general election, but it is not the referendum that takes precedence; it is the UK general election. So if the Scottish Government set a date for a referendum, say in May 2023, under this Bill, it would be entirely within the Prime Minister’s power to set that date for a UK general election and consequently shift the date of the referendum in Scotland. We are handing a gross power to the UK Government as a consequence of the Bill.
I do not believe it was my hon. Friend’s speech, Mr Evans, but if it was, it was a perfectly good one and I thank him for it. The points he makes are absolutely valid.
I guess that, like me, my hon. Friend finds it a bit perplexing, when sitting in this debate and looking at Conservative Members, who advocated for Brexit in their constituencies and for Parliament to take back control, that they will walk through the Lobby tonight to neuter Parliament. Do he and his constituents who voted against Brexit see the irony in what the Brexiteers will do tonight?
I am sure I am not the only person in this House who can see the irony of how taking back control supposedly has led us to a position where Parliament is being neutered by the Executive, and the people who were most loudly proclaiming “Take back control” are the people holding the scissors and doing the neutering—if that is not too much of an image, Mr Evans.
If the Bill passes, as well as there being no parliamentary or legal scrutiny, an active debate will still rage about whether the monarch’s prerogative powers would return to exactly as they were in 2011. I notice that, in her letter to the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the Minister acknowledged that
“there remains a role for the sovereign in exceptional circumstances to refuse a Dissolution request.”
But the monarch’s prerogative powers are now being enshrined in statute, having been removed by statute; they are now being restored by statute. So what exactly are the exceptional circumstances in which the monarch can refuse a Dissolution request? How can the Lascelles principles, which we heard earlier were prerogative powers, now be statutory powers? I cannot see how this returns us to the position we were in in 2011.
Therefore, we have been and will continue to be extremely uneasy about the insertion of the ouster clause making the Government’s action in relation to the dissolution of Parliament non-justiciable. As I said, we share the concerns of many Members across the Chamber that the repeal of the Fixed-terms Parliaments Act would not automatically take us back to the position of 2012 and we need a lot more clarity about exactly what legal position we would be in.
The Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee pointed out in a letter to the Minister:
“The Fixed-terms Parliaments Act was passed and the consequences of this cannot simply be wished away.”
I note that, in her response to the Committee Chair, the Minister accepts that there is an academic debate about the issue, but she seems to believe the opinion of her academics that the courts
“will be required to act as if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act had never been enacted” and that they will be
“required to pretend that it never happened.”
It is a ridiculous situation and an extremely unsatisfactory position in which we find ourselves. For years, as my hon. Friend David Linden said, we have heard this Government talk about taking back control and the importance of parliamentary sovereignty. This is an early test of how this Parliament takes back that control, and the Executive are legislating to prevent it from happening. If the Bill is passed as it stands, Parliament and the judiciary, and arguably the monarch’s traditional role, will no longer be in play, and the decision to dissolve this place and call a general election will be entirely in the hands of the Prime Minister, who may call one when it is politically expedient so to do. That is not how a modern liberal democracy should function, and that is why we will not be supporting the Bill.
Back in January, both Lord Sumption and Baroness Hale were unequivocal in their evidence that the minimum safeguard required in the event of an ouster clause being put in place was the inclusion in the Bill of a time limit on the moving of writs for parliamentary elections. However, as it stands, there is no such provision in the Bill; six months on, the Government have not produced anything of the sort, and the original clause remains. In effect, that allows the Government to decide the length of a period of Prorogation, the gap between the Dissolution of Parliament and an election, and indeed the gap between an election and the first sitting of a Parliament. That is deeply worrying. The Government had an opportunity to take the advice of many learned people and improve the Bill. They refused to take that advice, and I fear that it is sinister and troubling that they did not.
It is a great pleasure to follow so erudite and intelligible a speech from Brendan O'Hara.
I have an experience that is very rare in my political career—a sense of complete vindication. I voted against the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011, when it was brought in, and I seem to recall saying then what I hear the Minister saying from the Front Bench now: that it would not work and that it was an abominable intrusion and distortion of our constitution. I see this Bill as a welcome correction that brings our constitution back to the fundamental principle, which has existed for many years, that, with the important exception that the monarch has the right to speak his or her mind at the time the Prime Minister requests a Dissolution, and in the last resort even perhaps to decline it—although it would not be known for many years that he or she had—it should be the case that the Prime Minister can advise Her Majesty to dissolve the House. We are at last returning to sanity and, with the pardon of Chris Bryant, to normality when it comes to the constitution.
However, I say to the Committee and the Minister that there is an issue that troubles me. It seems to me that, when we presented our manifesto to the country in 2019, we did not only promise that we would restore the balance of our constitution by repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. We presented the country then with a constitutional programme, or at least the willingness to look fundamentally at our constitution and to consider deeply whether we should restore to a more Conservative and a more traditional basis other aspects of our constitution, too.
In welcoming this Bill, therefore, I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I hope that it is not the last measure that we will introduce in the portfolio that she occupies. At the moment, I look at our offering and I see this Bill, which I fully support, I see the Elections Bill, which I also support, and I see the Judicial Review and Courts Bill. I hope we are not going to be quite so timid as to present that as our sole offering to the country. In 1997, the Labour party was elected. One thing one can say about that Government is that they came in with a coherent, radical plan for the constitution, and they then enacted it with complete ruthlessness, and with complete disregard for Opposition voices. I was in the House some years later, and I recall vividly how the Labour party steamrollered its constitutional changes, including the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, through this House with very little by way of consideration and regard for alternative voices.
We now have a majority comparable to that, and I hope that we will not squander that opportunity. There are important things that we should now be doing. I have some sympathy with the plea this afternoon by the hon. Member for Rhondda that we should be considering Prorogation. So we should. We should be considering whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller No. 2 should stand. We should be considering whether other decisions of the Supreme Court should be allowed to stand. There comes to mind, for example, the Adams case, in which Mr Gerry Adams was effectively acquitted of his convictions in 1975 because the Supreme Court held that the Carltona principle in effect did not apply to the decision then taken. That, in my view, is a matter that this House ought to be reviewing.
I say to right hon. and hon. Members and to my friends on the Government Benches that we must not regard the constitution as an area that is too complicated for us to go into. We must not accept the liberal consensus, as it is no doubt called, upon which the new Labour Government in ’97 traded. We must not accept that these things are permanent features of our constitution. They were not introduced with our consent, and we have every right, with the mandate from the people that we now have, to reconsider them.
I say to the Minister that I applaud this Bill, and I applaud her particularly. I was impressed, if I may say so, throughout the course of her presentation by how deeply competent and how completely on top of her brief she was. Thank heavens for such a Minister.
It is stand part that I am addressing, Mr Evans.
This Bill should warmly commend itself to those on both sides of the Committee. My only caution—my only plea—is: let this not be the last word we say upon the British constitution.
It is a delight to follow that Third Reading speech.
I have enjoyed today, not least because it is such a delight to be vindicated. I feel as if I have been saying the same things for 20 years. Some of what the Minister said today, if we put the word “not” in, was what she said 10 years ago, which is kind of entertaining but rather irritating.
I am not going to speak at length, but we have to go back to fundamental principles when we are talking about the constitution. I like Parliament sitting. It is good for Governments to face the scrutiny of the Commons elected. Long interruptions are a bad thing. We take a long time to get a Parliament going after a general election, and now, with a long general election, as Mrs Miller referred to, it can be several months that parliamentary scrutiny is effectively out of action, before Select Committees are fully set up and all the rest of it.
The Executive and the Parliament need to be in balance with one other. There is a real danger that we are moving in the direction of what I call an over-mighty Executive. The Leader of the House in particular has what I call a high theological understanding of government—the Government are always right, by definition. In our system, the Government have considerable power. That is why some have called it an elected dictatorship.
The constitution should always stand the test of time and the test of bad actors. We always presume we will have a good monarch. We have had bad monarchs in the past. We presume we will always have an honourable and good Prime Minister. We might have a bad Prime Minister, who might choose to—[Interruption.] I am being ironic here. We might have a Prime Minister who deliberately chose to subvert the constitution and use it to subvert democracy.
My final point on principles is that the constitution should never give a political advantage to the incumbents. That applies both to us as individual MPs and to Governments. My anxiety about this measure is that it gives a significant advantage to Governments. Being able to choose the date of a general election without publishing it in advance undoubtedly gives a significant advantage to the Government. That is why they want to have it.
New clause 2 rebalances slightly the relationship between the Executive and Parliament. It simply says that a dissolution can happen only if there has been a vote in the House of Commons. That solves many of the problems we have. It deals with the potential bad actor situation. I can conceive of a situation in which a Prime Minister would first of all demand to prorogue Parliament for perhaps one or two months and then, during that time, dissolve Parliament to avoid a vote of no confidence. The only way to get around that is to require for the Dissolution of Parliament a vote in the House of Commons. This is not the same as returning to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, because it should be a simple majority. Obviously, by definition the Prime Minister of the day should enjoy the confidence of the House and therefore be able to secure that vote in a fairly simple way. I am not sure that this is a very onerous point.
Dr Andrew Blick spoke to the Joint Committee, saying that a vote on Dissolution in the House of Commons would insulate the monarch from being placed in a position of choosing between refusing an appropriate Dissolution request and refusing the advice of a Prime Minister. Anyone who values the role of the monarch should vote in favour of having a vote in the House of Commons. It is also, of course, the simplest way of obviating the ouster clause, which, as my hon. Friend Lloyd Russell-Moyle said, is a red rag to a bull. I know lots of judges who look at it and just go, “Yeah, well, we’ll have fun with that one.”
New clause 5 simply says that Parliament must sit within 14 days. I would prefer to be able to say that Parliament must sit to transact substantive business, rather than simply the election of a Speaker. By the time all Members have been sworn in and so on, it can be a considerable period of time before Parliament properly functions again. If it comes around the time of bank holidays and all the rest of it, one can feel that Parliament has been stymied for the best part of six months.
The only requirement in law for Parliament to sit at all is because of the Meeting of Parliament Act 1694 and associated measures relating to the granting of supply, but the House should be able to determine more its own future and agenda. Theoretically, that is why we start with the Outlawries Bill straight after the Queen’s Speech has been read. It is a way of saying to the monarch, “Sorry, but you don’t get to decide what we are going to debate.” The irony, however, is that the modern version of the monarch is the Government, and the Government get to decide we are doing the Outlawries Bill and every other piece of legislation, what day we are going to sit, when we are going to start, how long the debate will go on for and so on. New clause 5 would simply mean that Parliament would have to sit within 14 days of a general election.
Amendment 2 tries to shorten the period. I note that the Minister did not know the last possible date for the next general election. I think it is
I would prefer a four-year Parliament. I tabled an amendment to that effect in 2011, during the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. That is a more natural timescale. Governments tend to have run out of steam by the time they get to four years. They only end up not having an election at four years when they think they are going to lose, so they keep on running and running and running until they hope things will improve and something will come along. If we look around the world, many countries have elections after either four years on a fixed basis or three years. I think three years is too short. The idea that we should have the longest parliamentary term of any democracy in the world—any democracy in the world—is extraordinary and we should amend that, even if it is only to take an extra week off. I am grateful for Members’ attention.
Not yet. I am sure it will come in time.
I will not repeat my Second Reading speech—this is the Committee stage—but I still welcome the Bill for all the reasons I gave on that day. I welcome the Government’s continued engagement with all of us who have an interest in it, in particular members of the Joint Committee on which I served with the hon. Member for Rhondda and many other Members, with whom I made friends and now sign amendments with. Perhaps the Whips will regret putting me on that Committee in the fullness of time.
I will turn to new clause 1, in the name of my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller, in a little while, but first I want to discuss the overall principles relating to Dissolution. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend Michael Gove said on Second Reading that the right place for a proper discussion of the principles was in Committee, so I think it is probably right, with your indulgence, Ms Winterton, that we have a little discussion about them. Perhaps the Minister can reflect on them in her closing remarks, too.
We heard about Tommy Lascelles and his principles from 1950. Younger viewers will remember him from “The Crown”, played by Pip Torrens, as the private secretary to Her Majesty, but at the time he was the private secretary to His Majesty. He was talking about the principles in another closely contested election period—1950 and 1951. Those principles are relevant today, but the second one about the national economy was widely considered to have fallen into abeyance. There are other principles that we should perhaps consider. It was the opinion of the Joint Committee that the Dissolution principles document issued by the Government did not go quite far enough and did not cover other aspects of Dissolution—the calling of the new Parliament and so on. I therefore ask the Minister to comment a little on the 20 principles in our report: on the overall paramount confidence in our system, what it means to lose the confidence of the House and how to determine that, and what the Prime Minister ought to be doing in certain circumstances, whether to offer the resignation of the Government or to request a Dissolution from the monarch, and when it would be more appropriate for the Prime Minister to resign. We said that it would be more appropriate if there had recently been a general election, if there was a new Prime Minister from that Member’s party, or if it appeared that another person might command the confidence of the House—that was, of course, the third of Lascelles’s principles. The work of the Committee in putting together a more complete list of principles around confidence ought to be reflected in the debate and I ask the Minister to reflect on that in her closing remarks.
Turning briefly to new clause 1, since I am a signatory to it with my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, I am grateful for the comments the Minister made from the Dispatch Box. I am also grateful for her engagement with those of us who signed new clause 1. I welcome the additional research we ought to see. As I said in my intervention on her earlier, the purpose of an election is not simply to have the most perfectly admirable election in the world, but to resolve things. The longer we take, the more people we can register and persuade to vote, but as my hon. Friend Chris Clarkson said, eventually they might get bored and not vote. The point of an election is to resolve things. We want to make sure people vote—once and once only, as I said in my speech on the Elections Bill the other day—but the key purpose of an election is to let the country move on from a moment of tension, contest and electoral joust between opposing candidates in our constituencies. I do not think it serves anybody for that to go on a day longer than is truly necessary. That is why I was happy to put my name to new clause 1.
I listened to the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators. I understand that there are complications with going back to the status quo ante of 17 days as things stand, but I reflect on what my hon. Friend Craig Whittaker said. Rather than saying it cannot be done with the rules as they are, we should look at which rules we could change to get back to the status quo ante. The Bill takes us back to the status quo ante in so many ways and I welcome that, but the real key is to get everything back to how it was before. I remember, as a teenager, watching elections that were short, sharp and got the job done. It did not work for us in 1997 when I was a teenager, but it got the job done and let the country move on. That is what we should have with our elections. They should not be dragged out for months. For the reasons I have given and for the candidates too, we should look at ways to make them shorter, notwithstanding the arguments that have been made by the administrators.
Diolch yn fawr, Dame Rosie; it is a pleasure to contribute to this debate, to serve under your chairmanship and to speak to my amendments 4 and 5. I welcome the provisions in the Bill that put certain safeguards in place to protect against a clash between ordinary Westminster and Senedd elections. My amendments go one step further and would remove regulations from the Government of Wales Act 2006 that allow the Secretary of State to combine a UK general election with an extraordinary general election to the Senedd. Although these are probing amendments, I would like to set out why the possibility of even an extraordinary election to the Senedd taking place at the same time as a Westminster election is a cause for concern.
The introduction of the Elections Bill has put Wales and Westminster on a rapidly diverging path when it comes to empowering and engaging citizens in the democratic process. In Wales, 16 and 17-year-olds are allowed to vote in Senedd and local elections, rightly having a say over critical issues that affect their future. In Wales, any legal citizen, no matter their nationality, can vote in Senedd and local elections. It is telling that as Wales and, of course, Scotland extend their franchise, this place seeks to do the exact opposite. In Westminster elections, the introduction of mandatory ID cards risks placing an additional barrier between voters and democratic engagement, especially for younger people and minority groups.
This all comes at a time when the Conservative Government here are intent on slashing the number of Welsh MPs from 40 to 32. Not only is this part of a relentless anti-devolution power grab from our Senedd, but it will cause practical confusion, as many will find themselves living in different boundaries for the Senedd and Westminster. In addition, if both elections were held at the same time, headlines would inevitably be dominated by the Westminster election, prejudicing the national debate in Wales. Despite the fact that we will celebrate a quarter of a century of devolved Welsh governance in a few years’ time, there continues to be a lack of understanding about which tier of government is responsible for which policy area. Simultaneous elections would therefore only increase confusion, a phenomenon probably encouraged by some political parties.
I gladly admit that there has yet to be an extraordinary Senedd election to date, but it is not completely out of the realms of possibility. Indeed, further reforms to the Senedd may make this outcome more likely. For example, the expert panel report on Assembly electoral reform, chaired by the formidable Professor Laura McAllister, made a strong case for the introduction of the single transferable vote system—a system that could vastly improve how connected voters feel to the democratic process but which would make coalition Government in Wales inevitable. Although I believe such cross-party governance to be a good thing, it could increase the likelihood of an extraordinary election.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point in his speech and with his amendment. It is not entirely clear from the answer that he got from the Minister why the Government would not simply accept the proposal, for the same reason that I cited in my intervention on my hon. Friend Brendan O’Hara—the potential of a UK general election being used to manipulate the date of a referendum, the date of a Scottish election or the date of a Welsh election. Once again, it is the power grab that Jonathan Edwards spoke of.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and his point about the pre-eminence that Westminster would have over these major democratic events in Wales and Scotland.
Although these scenarios are currently hypothetical, we cannot but be vigilant when living in an age where the British Government had no shame, only a few years ago, in unlawfully proroguing this House to avoid scrutiny and parliamentary debate on the biggest political decision that the UK has faced in generations. I would appreciate it if the Minister, in closing, could shed some light on why the Secretary of State needs to retain the powers to combine extraordinary general elections to the Senedd on the same day as UK parliamentary general elections when provisions in section 5 of the Government of Wales Act allow the Senedd to dissolve itself and the Presiding Officer to propose a day to hold an election.
Before I bring my comments to a close, I would like to speak in support of other amendments and particularly new clauses 2 to 4, which would empower the legislature over the Executive and give a semblance of balance to a Bill that is inherently about enabling the Executive to dominate this House. A healthy democracy requires checks and balances between the Government and Parliament. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which the Bill would repeal, was good for democracy as it strengthened the hand of this House in the governance of the UK.
The excuse for this Bill is the events of the 2017 to 2019 Parliament. Although I acknowledge that the current Prime Minister and his team skilfully used the deep deliberations of that time to present a Parliament in paralysis, I firmly believe that future historians will look very kindly on the role of this House during that period. Members of a legislature should never offer unequivocal support for the actions of an Executive. Our job is to scrutinise and challenge. During the period in question, this House was dealing with a hugely complex issue and carefully, through detailed deliberation, working its way through the various options. The tragedy of the events of the last Parliament is that the Opposition fell into the trap set by the Government by agreeing to the early election.
What we saw towards the end of the last Parliament was a Government willing to thrash parliamentary democracy to achieve their political goals. The amendments put forward by Chris Bryant seek to insure us against such similar acts in future. If he chooses to divide the Committee on his amendments, he will have my support.
I wish to speak against new clause 2, Dame Rosie, and it is a pleasure to be called to speak after having served on the Joint Committee that examined the Bill. At its heart, the Bill resumes a position in our democracy that has served us well, restoring the process for dissolving Parliament to the situation that existed before 2011. I am therefore pleased to support the Government this evening as they seek to deliver on their manifesto pledge.
The measures that the Bill delivers will ensure that the Government must always have the confidence of the House of Commons while restoring the trust between the electorate, Government and the Commons. Political events of recent years have made it clear to all of us why this confidence and trust is so important. With the unprecedented events of Brexit and now covid-19, it has become increasingly clear that we must have flexibility on the timing of elections with the restoration of prerogative power to call elections as a result of crisis and change.
To my mind, the Government have clearly set out the legal argument for the source of power to dissolve Parliament. Professor Mark Elliott of the University of Cambridge observed in his evidence to the Joint Committee that clause 2 requires the courts to act as if the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act had never been enacted. I have spoken to many hon. Friends who served in the 2017 Parliament and they were incredibly frustrated with the dither and delay that covered this House in little glory in the run-up to the 2019 election.
During its 10-year existence, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 caused damage to our parliamentary democracy, undermining the confidence of the electorate, and brought about persistent parliamentary paralysis. Fundamentally, the Bill is a return to the tried-and-tested method that has defined our parliamentary democracy for centuries—one that our constituents will be able to trust. It was a pleasure to serve on the Joint Committee on this important Bill and I look forward to its passage through this place tonight.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Peter Gibson, who captured many of the points so clearly and effectively. I welcome the Bill and fully intend to support it and the reversal of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. That Act was designed to deal with the short-term problem of a coalition, which is a relatively frequent occurrence in our democracy but is certainly not something that we would wish to have generally, because it causes a great many problems, with accountability being one of the most significant concerns. Following a coalition Government, there is always a question about blame and who is responsible for what actions. One side claims all the good things and blames all the bad on the other. We do not want legislation that reflects those problematic times and deals with that situation as a permanent feature. People across the country understand our political system and actually quite value the way we do politics, including first-past-the-post and having a majority Government, as we have recognised over many years.
Elections are wonderful occasions for a whole range of reasons. They are a festival of democracy and, in many ways, are uplifting, although I recognise the negativity of long election campaigns. My right hon. Friend Mr Goodwill made a very good point by referring to election fatigue. I am therefore very sympathetic to new clause 1. Even though I and many others quite enjoy elections and the campaign trail, we have to reflect on the concern that my hon. Friend Aaron Bell highlighted so well about the exclusionary qualities of a long election campaign: it is very difficult for many people to engage in it if they are not already in Parliament or do not have wider financial support to be an active candidate throughout. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the new clause even if it is not pressed to a vote at this stage.
The hon. Member says that there is election fatigue and that people are worried about when election campaigns begin, but surely the effect of the Bill will be that the next election campaign will start now because nobody except the Prime Minister will know the date of the next election.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but I fundamentally disagree. In countries with fixed-term Parliaments, such as the United States of America, they legislate for two years and then campaign for two years, whereas if we do not know the time of the next general election, we do not know when we will start campaigning. Often, even Prime Ministers of the day do not know when the elections will be, because they are not fixed in time, so it is difficult for the Government to start campaigning. Actually, I think the Bill will reduce the campaign period.
There is a strong sense that once electors have made their decision, they have given their judgment not only on the political parties but, more importantly, on the candidates themselves. In constituencies, we are elected as individuals and then we form a Government among ourselves. It is not necessarily the largest party that will form a Government, because we might be in a coalition situation and other parties might seek that. With a fixed term, however, a party that is in the majority at the beginning of a Parliament may find, whether because of death, defection or fragmentation, that it is no longer able to function. Arguably, we have seen that recently.
I oppose new clause 2 because for Parliament to make the decision to permit an election would, in a sense, enable the House of Commons to hold the Government of the day to ransom. We saw that recently when the Government ought to have fallen and we ought to have had a general election. The British people ought to have been in a position to make a decision not only about the fundamental issue of Brexit but, more broadly, about how individuals here had represented the interests and concerns of their constituents, and then to return us to enact whatever manifesto we had come up with.
The idea that we could be in a position where the Opposition and perhaps fragments of the governing party could say, “No, we will just carry on as long as we see fit” would bring Parliament more and more into disrepute. We have to have the Prime Minister making these decisions. Fundamentally, who would fear facing the verdict of the people? It would be those who were doing a bad job, whether they were in opposition or in the Government of the day. I believe that the Prime Minister ought to make that decision within the five-year period.
I apologise, Dame Rosie, that I have been bobbing up and down this afternoon wanting to speak and not wanting to speak, but I think that some of our discussion on the new clauses needs to be teased out a little more. First, I would like to hear from the Minister in response to the point on which I tried to intervene on her, which was about the consequential effects, particularly with regard to referendums. Jonathan Edwards made a similar point about the ability of the UK Parliament essentially to take primacy over decisions already made by the devolved assemblies about the dates of elections and particularly of referendums.
Why could not the Bill have been structured in such a way that it simply stopped the Prime Minister from choosing a date on which a poll or plebiscite of some kind was already scheduled? Forcing polls or plebiscites in the devolved areas to be rescheduled instead entirely diminishes or takes away the idea that we are in some kind of union of equals and fundamentally reasserts the primacy of this place above all else. If that does not make the argument for the outcome of the referendum that I will be campaigning for, I do not know what does.
The point about setting the date of the election, which also relates to new clause 2, is particularly important. The effect will be not only that the Prime Minister alone will know the date of the next election, but that he will know all the consequent dates that fit alongside it, particularly the regulated periods, the short campaign and the long campaign. It will therefore affect the ability of parties and individual candidates—as Chris Green said, we are all individual candidates for election—to spend money and to decide when and how to do so.
That point relates to the Elections Bill, which is about to be considered in Committee, and speaks to the piecemeal approach that this Government are very slyly taking to what is actually a very serious package of constitutional reforms that undermine democratic protections and positions that people have enjoyed across these islands for some considerable time.
That was a bit too long for an intervention, Dame Rosie, so I have taken advantage of the fact that the Committee still had a bit of time to run. As the Minister was not willing to take my intervention, I hope that in her summing up she will be able to reply to some of my points.
As I was advised by the Chairman of Ways and Means at the time, I endeavoured to respond to all amendments at the beginning of the debate, so I have given what I hope was the bulk of my remarks. It remains for me to thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, which have been comprehensive and thoughtful.
I assure my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller that I will look at commissioning research. I say to my hon. Friend Aaron Bell that, as set out in the response to the Joint Committee’s report, there is ongoing dialogue to be had on conventions. I suggest to Jonathan Edwards that we might meet if he would like to go further over the detail that he requested; I will even extend that invitation to Patrick Grady. I assure them both that I am already discussing these matters with colleagues in the devolved Administrations.
I urge the Committee to agree that the clauses should stand part of the Bill and that the amendments are not necessary. I commend the Bill to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.