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European Parliamentary Elections Etc. (Repeal, Revocation, Amendment and Saving Provisions) (United Kingdom and Gibraltar) (EU Exit) (Amendment) Regulations 2019 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:47 pm on 23rd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Constitutional and Political Reform) 6:47 pm, 23rd October 2019

My Lords, I am particularly delighted that it is the noble Earl who has brought this measure to the House for a reason that I will come to in a moment. However, I am not sure whether he is adding to his already substantial portfolio of responsibilities, because I do not know whether he is now permanently accountable to the House for the Cabinet Office. If so, he is of course warmly welcome, but he already carries a great many responsibilities. It might be that he is only temporary.

I and, I think, many other Members of the House feel that the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, is truly irreplaceable. Nobody could compete with his command of the issues that the Cabinet Office deals with. He was in the House only a few minutes ago, but perhaps he will read Hansard in due course.

We are in urgent need of a Minister with particular responsibility for these issues. The Cabinet Office has some important jobs to do at the moment. I am not clear whether the noble Earl is now permanently taking up residence there, or whether some other Member will be given full-time responsibility. Maybe, since the noble Earl is Deputy Leader of the House, he will be able to tell us when there might be a Cabinet Office Minister responsible to your Lordships for the exercise of the many important duties that department has.

We think that this SI is very necessary and very appropriate. In its relative clarity, it is perhaps rather easier to understand than some of the SIs that the House looked at earlier. I pay tribute to the noble Earl’s clear exposition and to the excellent Explanatory Memorandum. Like many other Members of your Lordships’ House, I always go there first rather than to the SI.

I want in particular to draw attention to paragraph 9.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum on consolidation, because it goes beyond the SI’s particular area of responsibility and has incredibly important significance for the work being done by the Cabinet Office and the Law Commission. It says:

“The Law Commissions have conducted a review into the desirability and feasibility of reforming and consolidating electoral law. The Government is continuing to work with the Law Commissions, as well as other stakeholders such as the Electoral Commission, to consider ways to streamline and clarify our electoral system in order to make elections easier to administer and therefore more resilient to errors or fraud. We will consider their proposals in full once we receive the Law Commissions’ final report”.

That paragraph has much wider significance because it relates not just to recent elections, but to any future—perhaps near future—elections. As I keep reminding Ministers, there is an urgent need to make our electoral law fit for purpose. It would surely be irresponsible to trigger an early general election before many of the defects identified have been attended to. For example, it would leave candidates and their agents at the mercy of a legal minefield if the Electoral Commission’s new codes of practice had not been considered and approved by Parliament. The same is obviously true for the lack of effective transparency for online political campaigning, its origin and funding, particularly over whether some of that is from foreign shores.

I know that the Cabinet Office must be well aware of the authoritative warnings—there were more this very morning—of the threat to the integrity of our elections in this respect. In the run-up to the poll in May this was an issue, too. I welcome the point made in the Explanatory Memorandum that reviewing what took place in May is a critical aspect of the opportunities given to the Electoral Commission under this SI. Paragraph 7.3 states that it will be,

“able to investigate any potential offences in relation to breaches of the rules in electoral legislation”.

It will not be just breaches; it will be whether the integrity of the election in May was at risk and whether it has important lessons for any future poll, be it a general election or indeed a referendum.

The SI very properly reminds us that the process and outcome of those parliamentary elections on 23 May require appropriate examination, analysis and follow-up. As the Minister said, that will take a bit of time, and I welcome the fact that the SI sets a reasonable period for that to take place.

It is rather nice to have an opportunity quickly to look back at the events of May 2019. I am reminded that the Conservative Party came fifth in Great Britain, with just a 9.1% share of the poll; the Labour Party had 14.1% and the Liberal Democrats 20.3%. Some of the Minister’s colleagues have spent some time in recent months—the noble Earl certainly would not have been guilty of it—teasing us on these Benches that we were perhaps not terribly representative of our support in the country. I gently remind them that the boot may now be on the other foot. They were temporarily converted to the issue of proportional representation. Not only does a procession of new Conservative Peers rip up the No. 10 agreement to the Burns scheme for reducing the size of the House but, on the basis of the most recent national poll, they must surely recognise that they are totally disproportionate.

The extensive references in the Explanatory Memorandum —I emphasise, in the memorandum rather than in the SI—to “exit day” as taking place on 31 October 2019 are now likely to be totally irrelevant. That is good news, but I would like assurance from the Minister that the fact that the date appears in the Explanatory Memorandum does not mean that the SI could be in any way defective. I am sure he will place on record unambiguously that the current “pause” in the progress of the Brexit Bill does not invalidate the terms of this statutory instrument.

Of course, we recognise that the effect of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 makes it necessary to preserve and implement various ongoing responsibilities. These are helpfully spelt out in paragraph 7.3 of the memorandum. This may also provide an opportunity for co-operation with both the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office on the transparency of online campaigning, which undoubtedly became an issue in the run-up to the 23 May poll. I know that important advice on this has been given to the Government and Parliament. I hope that the Cabinet Office, which has consulted widely on this matter, will now take action to ensure that the lessons are learned.

Paragraph 7.6 of Explanatory Memorandum is a statement of the obvious:

“Once the UK leaves the EU, there will be no obligation for the UK to hold European Parliamentary elections and we will no longer have MEPs”.

It was interesting in the previous debate to learn of the extent to which MEPs and Ministers from this country—I see one before me—made a major, positive contribution to important developments in the EU on plant health and other issues where we were looking for protection, which could have been achieved only on an international basis.

It is a sad day where we have to record that, in future, that contribution will not be made. However, just as a reminder that it is impossible to completely future-proof legislation, we should perhaps note that it is still just possible that Parliament could decide to support a confirmatory referendum on Brexit and that the current opinion polls—from today—show that the remain cause has a 10% lead over leave. For those who say that this SI is a realistic, completely up-to-date, factual presentation to your Lordships, I simply note that it relies in detail on very substantial and significant personal assurances from the right honourable David Lidington CBE MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office. Whatever happened to him?