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Early Parliamentary General Election Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:57 pm on 30th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Labour 4:57 pm, 30th October 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, who has been such a popular and respected member of the Government and of your Lordships’ House. I also commend the words spoken by my noble friend Lord Puttnam, who raised a lot of important issues that I hope the Government and Parliament will fully consider.

I fully accept that when the House of Commons decides on an election, the unelected second Chamber cannot oppose or prevent that, although I was interested to look again at the work of Walter Bagehot, the great Victorian constitutionalist, who said:

“I answer that the House of Lords must yield whenever the opinion of the Commons is also the opinion of the nation”.

I am not sure that people out there are as keen on a pre-Christmas election as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats seem to be. However, I assure my Whips that I am not advocating our blocking the Bill in this House, although I am sure that if I were still a Member of the Commons then I would have voted against Third Reading, as a number of Labour colleagues did yesterday.

I do not believe that an election is the best way to decide Brexit. There is a strong risk that we may well be back here after the election with further protracted proceedings as to the way forward. In that sense, I am very sorry that the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party came to the Prime Minister’s aid and gave way over this election.

Along with my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, I am appalled at the Prime Minister’s conduct of business since he took office. We had the illegal Prorogation and the charade of the Queen’s Speech, which I felt was close to a constitutional outrage, with a Government well short of a majority really embarking on an election broadcast rather than a realistic programme of government. Then, although the deal the Prime Minister had negotiated got through at Second Reading, the Government refused to allow it further consideration. That seems absolutely crazy. I pay tribute to those Members of Parliament, many of whom are my honourable friends, who have been trying honestly to do the best for their constituents and the country in this extremely difficult situation.

Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, I was amazed that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act could be overturned in such a speedy and cavalier way. The Liberal Democrats seem to be subverting an Act which I thought they were attached to, although it has to be said that it has not been very successful in recent years. Despite its existence, we are now facing the third general election in four years. None the less, I hope that constitutional experts in this House and the other place can assure me that this is not a precedent for lots of substantial legislation being overturned hastily at record speed. This would be particularly bad news for your Lordships’ House, whose undoubted strength lies in careful, detailed scrutiny.

I do not like referendums, but have come round to the view that if this process began with a referendum, then logically it should be completed with one. It seems very sad that, at the point that my own party made substantial movement in that direction, we now face an election rather than a confirmatory vote. It is also a great irony that, after all this time, my party seems to be the only one supporting such a referendum.

Elections are about a whole range of issues facing us and this Government may become painfully aware of this as the election campaign proceeds. My party has a number of policies that could prove very popular with those people who are reeling from austerity and inequality. We may well see that as the campaign progresses, just as we did in 2017. There was a turning point—I remember it well, campaigning on doorsteps—particularly after the then Prime Minister had announced her policy on social care. People suddenly became much more focused on domestic issues and she lost her majority as a result. We have had great difficulties ever since.

Finally, putting forward the idea of a confirmatory referendum on a deal versus remain, as Labour is doing, is actually the best way forward. I hope it will resolve the Brexit issue, which has sadly dominated our politics for far too long.