Amendment 6

Part of Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 8th October 2020.

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Photo of Lord True Lord True Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 3:00 pm, 8th October 2020

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. The House will not object if I say first that I thank and, indeed, congratulate my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. Whenever I hear him speak in your Lordships’ House, I realise how much I have to learn in responding to your Lordships at this Dispatch Box. He has done a service to this House and to the electoral system, along with others who have raised this point. He was also skilful enough to get into a debate about Orders in Council and aperçu on the EU negotiations, which I do not think was strictly germane—my noble friend Lord Cormack followed on that—but I also agree with his sentiments there and hope very much that they will be translated into the languages of all 27 nations of the European Union.

The Government were happy to accept this amendment. The case was clear. The Government’s intention is to put beyond reach the idea that there might be unconscionable delay in laying these orders. It is of the utmost importance to us that it should not be felt by anyone that Parliament or the Government should have the opportunity to interfere politically in that way. I was grateful to have the opportunity to discuss with my noble friend Lord Young, other Members of the House and, indeed, the noble Baroness opposite the points raised. The noble Baroness has been very gracious and I greatly appreciate the courtesy with which she withdrew the first amendment and responded here. We may not be in agreement for all of today, but I appreciate that response.

I think there is widespread agreement and welcome for this. Therefore, I do not need to detain the House at great length. One or two points were raised about a Government calling a general election. Obviously, at the moment the rules around a general election are controlled by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. So long as that obtains, we are legislating in that light. As far as the future is concerned, no doubt points have been put on the table, privately and publicly, which may be considered. There would always be a difficulty if there was suspicion in legislating on the matter. I am here to talk about future legislation, but the example of 1983 shows how difficult it would be to prevent a general election in the period before orders had been laid. That is something that people would have to wrestle with. The Government have no intention of seeking a general election. No Government should seek a general election to frustrate the presentation of these orders to a meeting of the Privy Council. The whole political world would deprecate that action and any Government that sought to do it would not be rewarded by the electorate.

Two other major points were raised. First, why is the time limit so long and why is it four months? My noble friend Lord Cormack suggested six weeks. The original amendment was three months. We believe that there has to be a prudential element in the legislation. There are two elements here. The first is the period of four months. My noble friend Lord Hayward said that things could be done much quicker: you could just photocopy something. I say, with respect, that the legislation is not prepared by photocopying other documents. Even if that were the case, we cannot legislate for the shortest possible time if we are imposing a time requirement. We have to go for a prudential time and that includes, for example, the need to accommodate the potential irregularity of Privy Council meetings, as well as the preparation time. In discussion and reflection and with the wish to place a time limit in the Bill, which the Government agree is the right thing to do this matter having been raised—it was not something that occurred to me before it was raised in Grand Committee—we believe it better to have the prudential element. A four-month period would surely accommodate anything that might arise in normal circumstances. Secondly, there should be a provision for exceptional circumstances. I will come on to this shortly.

I remind the House that there is an implied misunderstanding of how my noble friend’s amendment will operate. The primary legal obligation that remains in this amendment is to submit an order as soon as is reasonably practicable after the four reports are laid. This is certainly not an invitation from this Dispatch Box or anywhere else for anybody to be lackadaisical—to pick up a word used. The four-month period is a deadline to help ensure there is not deliberate, unreasonable delay. The Government would be in breach of a legal obligation if they submitted the order only at the end of four months when it was reasonably practicable to have done it sooner. It is important to put that point on the record. The primary expectation of this Government, all future Governments and this Parliament in passing this legislation is that all those involved should present the material as soon as is reasonably practicable and certainly not later than four months.

I believe I said something about “exceptional circumstances” at an earlier stage. In case I did not, I will say it now. If we did not have an exceptional circumstance element in the provision, were it not possible for whatever reason—and my noble friend has given one—to deliver this in the four months then it would need full-scale primary legislation to overcome the failure to meet the four-month time limit. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, invited me to give a full list of the exceptional circumstances envisaged with explanations for each one. The Government do not envisage exceptional circumstances being the norm. I point out that not all circumstances are foreseeable. The noble Lord said that it goes off like an automatic car—you start it and it moves up through the gears. My wife would rather like that her automatic car would move up through the gears at the moment. Not every contingency in life is foreseeable. Some very exceptional things, such as a war—God forbid—could arise.

I am not going to follow that invitation, not because I do not wish to help the House, or assist Parliament further; it is simply that legally I am advised that giving a whole series of examples would risk people in the future erring on the long side as well as the short one. I repeat that our expectation is that this Government and this Parliament—and, I hope future Parliaments—will ensure that they are presented as soon as is reasonably practicable and certainly within four months. The exceptional circumstance would arise only in the rarest and most undesirable cases. In those cases, the amendment provides an extra requirement that Ministers would have to come repeatedly to the Dispatch Box, in both Houses, to explain their actions in being dilatory. Were the circumstances not exceptional, and the matter concerned not grave, that would be a humiliating and devastating admission of dereliction of duty. I am sorry that I cannot go further on that, but I hope that the House will accept my assurance on this Government’s intention and my hope that future Governments would operate in the same way.

To conclude, I hope that, in backing the amendment, the Government helped to bring more certainty and confidence to your Lordships’ House, and to electors, that the recommendations of the Boundary Commissions will be implemented without political interference or unnecessary or undue delay, as soon as practicable. I hope that noble Lords will, therefore, be able to support the amendment. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, in particular my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. I urge noble Lords to support the amendment that he has put before the House.