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Early Parliamentary General Election Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:06 pm on 30th October 2019.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 6:06 pm, 30th October 2019

I understand the noble Lord’s concern, and I am sorry that it has not proved possible to enact the measures that I am sure we all want. However, I reconfirm the commitment that the Government have given that, if re-elected, we will bring forward detailed proposals on the scope of the new regime in the coming months for further scrutiny.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, spoke in her clear and emphatic way in favour of strengthening the powers of the Electoral Commission. I hope she knows that the Government work closely with the Electoral Commission to protect the integrity, security and effectiveness of referendums and elections. The commission has civil sanctioning powers that apply to referendums and elections. More serious criminal matters can be, and are, referred to the police and then considered by a court of law. The courts already have the power to levy unlimited fines.

However, it is important to remember that the commission is independent of the Government and accountable to Parliament through the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. Quite rightly, the Government are not involved in the decisions over what the Electoral Commission investigates or the fines that it may impose. The commission has recommended that its sanctioning powers be increased, and the Government are considering that proposal. The amendment that the noble Baroness spoke to would involve giving the Electoral Commission fining powers far beyond those of most other civil regulators. My own view, and that of the Government, is that that would not be proportionate. Even the Electoral Commission has not suggested having unlimited fining powers. Instead it has suggested that fines should be raised to hundreds of thousands of pounds so that it can punish and deter the most serious offences.

More broadly, as the noble Baroness herself said, changes to electoral law cannot be made overnight. They require extensive stakeholder engagement to ensure that they are workable and proportionate. Political parties vary considerably in size and professionalism, and it is important to ensure that their regulation is fair and proportionate so as not to undermine local democracy or discourage engagement.

The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, called for the rapid reappointment of your Lordships’ Select Committees following the convening of the new Parliament, and I recognise the importance of the issue that he has raised. The reappointment to our Select Committees is of course a matter for the Committee of Selection. They are usually reappointed early in any new Session, and I am sure the usual channels will do everything that they can to help to make that happen. Ultimately, though, these reappointments are not a matter for the Government.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, spoke powerfully about the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and the need for Parliament to reconsider its provisions, and my noble friend Lord Elton added weight to those comments. I am grateful to both of them for what they said. These are serious matters that deserve appropriate consideration. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act provides that the Prime Minister must make arrangements in 2020 for a committee to carry out a review of the operation of the Act. The new Government will be bound to instigate that review and consider its outcome very carefully.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, expressed concerns about the possible tone of the forthcoming election campaign and discussed the need to prevent candidate intimidation and maintain respectful debate across the country. Democracy is a cornerstone of British values and the key to a healthy democracy is having respectful, vibrant and open debate. However, this freedom can never be an excuse to cause harm or spread hatred. A line is crossed when disagreement mutates into intimidation, violence or abuse. The Government recognise that rising levels of intimidation in public life can prevent talented people standing for public office, particularly women and those from minority backgrounds. That is why we are taking action to confront it and will continue to do so if re-elected to government.

The purpose of the Bill is to allow the British people to have their say and to give the other place the mandate to resolve this deadlock and sufficient time to act before 31 January 2020. This is our last opportunity to hold an election in a timely way before that date—an election that has significant cross-party support in the other place. I am sure your Lordships will ensure the swift passage of this vital Bill and enable an election on 12 December.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Sitting suspended.