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Early Parliamentary General Election Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:57 pm on 30th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 5:57 pm, 30th October 2019

My Lords, this is an unusual procedure for a Bill. A whole Bill, with far bigger consequences than the Benn Bill—which required only the sending of a letter—is to be taken in one day, at one sitting. And it has been done without a murmur from those—I am looking not just at the noble Lord, Lord True—who found the Benn Bill’s passage so very outrageous. By comparison, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act had one day at Second Reading, three days in Committee, two days on Report and a tiny 10-minute day at Third Reading: 29 hours in all.

Today’s Bill was conceived by the Liberal Democrats and then taken over by the Conservatives—the two parties that pushed through the very Fixed-term Parliaments Act that the Bill now upends for what they see as their own electoral advantages. The Act that they wanted, to prevent a Prime Minister calling an election whenever he or she felt like it, is to be cast aside so that this Prime Minister can call an election at a time of his choosing. Indeed, the Lib Dem Minister who took that Act through this House, resisted attempts to include a sunset clause, which, ironically, would have saved Mr Johnson a lot of trouble, as he could then simply have called the election whenever he wanted. That Minister also ignored the sage advice of our Constitution Committee, which, while unpersuaded of the need to overturn,

“an established constitutional practice and moving to fixed-term Parliaments”,

thought that there should be,

“some form of safety valve”,

to allow an early election.

I had hoped that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, might have spoken today to explain his volte face, because this Bill drives a coach and horses through the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, bypassing both the required supermajority as well as the unpleasantness of a no-confidence vote—“a political device”, in the words of noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, or “cavalier”, according to my noble friend Lady Quin.

Essentially, in 48 hours, between the two Houses, the Bill repeals the Act, with no forethought, debate or any of the consideration we would normally give to a major legislative and constitutional change. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, urged, we should undertake such a task in a proper and thoughtful way.

However, I guess this unconventional route is only one of the Liberal Democrats’ embarrassments, given that they have, in the words of an arch remainer, “thrown the referendum campaign under a bus”, having triggered the Bill before trying to add a referendum to the withdrawal agreement Bill. Indeed, they have promised that they will use any influence they have after the election to revoke without a second referendum. Those who slogged so long for a referendum must rue the day that they trusted the Liberal Democrats.

But that is not all. We and the Liberal Democrats had prioritised removing any chance of a no-deal exit from the EU. They have now handed this possibility to the Prime Minister. He may not get the WAB through Parliament before 31 January, given that we will now lose six weeks of legislative time with the election, swearing in, the Queen’s Speech and its debate—and I look forward to the answer from the noble Earl when he replies to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, about the earliest date of our return. We now risk a crash-out at the end of January or at the end of next year, if the Prime Minister takes us out at the end of the transition period without an agreement. Well done, Liberal Democrats; I bet a glass is being raised to you in No. 10. As it happens, we are confident that there will be no such outcome, that it is Labour who will have the keys to No. 10, and we will put an end to a no-deal exit.

As for the Government—in case noble Lords thought that this was all about the Liberal Democrats—we know why they want an election. National debt is rising; the true figures of their preferred deal are appearing—£70 billion over 10 years, we hear today from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research; a winter NHS crisis beckons; schools are still on short measures in some places; Northern Ireland has been sold short, and Johnson rumbled on that; and, vitally, the impact of a hard Brexit has yet to be felt, or even the arguments over it, as the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, said.

So the Conservatives, for electoral advantage, which the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was meant to prevent, want an election while the fruits of their ham-fisted policies have yet to bite. I urge them not to be complacent. The public might just see through them and grasp why they are being sent out to polling stations in the run-up to Christmas. It is not really to “unclog” Parliament, the Commons having given the withdrawal agreement Bill a Second Reading. As my noble friend Lady Smith said, had there been a decent programme Motion, which needed only for the Prime Minister to swallow his pride over the totem 31 October date, he could have got the withdrawal agreement Bill through well before 31 January, and negotiations on our future relations with the EU could have begun.

Of course, the Government might feel complacent because they know that they may not be playing absolutely fair. Having an election before we have sorted out the regulation of targeted digital campaigning will probably play into the hands of a certain Dominic Cummings. I am not saying that it is the dark arts, but I know that it is neither transparent nor regulated, as my noble friend Lord Puttnam made abundantly clear. When he responds, the Minister needs to spell out what steps the Government and the Electoral Commission will take to ensure a fair and open contest.

For Labour, we look forward to being able to take our challenge to the Government to every street, village, town and city of the country. We will show what damage the Government are risking—to the car industry, to farming, to the environment, to consumers and to our vibrant service sector—with their approach to Brexit. We will highlight the impact that their policies have already had on the poor and disadvantaged, on those living with debt and insecurity, on those dependent on social services, on working families torn between jobs and paying for childcare, on students graduating with massive debt, on young couples no longer even able to dream of owning their own house, on people on zero-hours contracts, on the elderly finding it hard to see a GP or dentist any time soon, and on teachers and nurses who, at the end of the month, cannot find the money for any luxuries after years of pay restraint.

It will become clear over these coming weeks that the Prime Minister is not a man who can be trusted. He owes no loyalty even to his own MPs, let alone to society. He is a man with only one person’s future at heart, and that is his own.

I confess that I never wanted a winter election —I hate cold dark mornings and early sunsets—but I want the chance to rid this country of this Government. So here’s to this Bill—and the election that it now brings.