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Early Parliamentary General Election Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:42 pm on 30th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 5:42 pm, 30th October 2019

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord’s celebration of proportional representation. I note his comments on German politics, although he did not note that the German Greens are currently in pole position to provide the next Chancellor—one impact of proportional representation.

I do not plan to use this speech as a party-political broadcast. Your Lordships’ House can judge who might or might not have chosen to use their speech for that purpose. I shall tell you why, were this to come to a vote—it is fairly clear that it will not—the Green group in this House would be voting against the Bill as it stands.

We would do that not because we think that this unelected House should not block the Bill. That is not the reason for our choice. It is interesting that so many of your Lordships have referred to that fact as a reason to support the Bill. That is a powerful argument for a modern, functional constitution with an elected upper House, for us to be in a position to make stronger judgments. Were this House to be sitting for longer, your Lordships could have seen the Bill that I tabled for that purpose.

I am not saying that we would vote against the Bill because, as Caroline Lucas said in the other place, a general election is just that—on general subjects. The sensible, logical, democratic way to solve the Brexit chaos is to give the people the final say, even though that is obviously a fact.

The reason we would vote against the Bill, were there to be a vote, is the huge number of barriers to a free and fair election on 12 December. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, made many references to the huge problems that we have with technological change and how our electoral laws have failed to keep pace with them. Lots of the things to which he referred would require complex legislation and changes, and we do not have time for that, but the Green group, following Caroline Lucas in the other place, proposed a small amendment to the Bill. We were told by the Public Bill Office that this would be out of scope of this Bill, but I will now read this on to the record, so noble Lords can see how simple, quick and easy it would have been.

The title is “unlimited fines for electoral offences”. It reads:

“The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums (Civil Sanctions) Order 2010 is amended as follows: schedule 1, paragraph 5, leave out ‘£20,000’ and insert ‘unlimited’”.

The Explanatory Statement says:

“The new clause would allow the Electoral Commission to impose unlimited fines for electoral offences”.

That reflects a request from the Electoral Commission, the independent arbiter, that was made to the Government in May 2018, 18 months ago. This would be a simple change. As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, showed earlier, this House can act very rapidly and show its direction to the other place. It is a grave pity that we have not had the chance to do this here, now, with this proposed amendment.

The current £20,000 maximum fine is peanuts to many of the people who are able to buy the rest of the politics that we all get. An unlimited fine, which would allow the Electoral Commission to act in proportion to the level of the offence, is a simple change and would make the coming election, on 12 December, free and fair—a little freer and fairer anyway.

Finally, I will reflect on just how broken our politics is and how I fear this election is incapable of fixing it. On Christmas Day, it will be five months since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, should he still be Prime Minister then. Over that period, the House will have sat for less than one in five days. In those five months, the Prime Minister will have attended Prime Minister’s Questions three times. That record is unmatched by any Prime Minister in history and we all hope it will not be matched by any future Prime Minister. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, suggested that the next election will be in December 2024. That is very optimistic, under the circumstances. Our current politics is broken; we need far more changes. Let us all work towards them together.