Amendment 2

Part of Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 25th January 2022.

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Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Conservative 6:45 pm, 25th January 2022

My Lords, I am very pleased to contribute to this debate. I signed Amendment 3 together with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and other noble Lords.

I do not come to this as a constitutional expert—far from it—but I think I bring to it two objectives. One is to think about it from the practical, political point of view. In this House we have encountered, and will continue to encounter, the prerogative power being increasingly clarified by statute. I start with that point, which I think the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, referred to. When we see the prerogative being clarified by statute, my view is that we should try to make it a watertight statute. We should try to make it absolutely clear. In this particular respect, we are looking at something that is clear only in so far as it reasserts that there is the status quo ante. However, the status quo ante itself is not necessarily clear. We have a set of principles which—as we have discovered, and I have discovered, by listening to the debates and reading them in the other place—are themselves debatable about how they would be applied and in what circumstances they would be applied. Even in the first debate this afternoon, we heard the assertion that it would be inconceivable for the monarch to refuse a request for a Dissolution but equally, there may be circumstances in which such a request may be refused, otherwise what is the point of calling it a request?

It is not certain. My view is that when we encounter prerogative whether we were debating the Trade Bill and looking at the prerogative to make treaties—I have a Private Member’s Bill which would clarify in statute the circumstances in which the Government could enter into a prolonged and substantial armed conflict or declare war—or here, I think we should be prepared to be more specific about the circumstances in which this prerogative is to be used.

I come back to the practical and political. First, there is a manifesto commitment. The Conservative manifesto said:

“We will get rid of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act”.

Amendment 3 also enables that to happen. That is not the issue.

Secondly, the Joint Committee put forward the proposition that constitutional change should secure

“as wide a degree of cross-party agreement as possible”.

My personal view is that Amendment 3 would enable that to happen. It is supported by parties in this House. Although it will not commend itself to my noble friends on these Benches, it would be supported by the Scottish nationalists, who are not represented here; they said so in the other place. However, I was rather disappointed that when the Government responded to the Joint Committee, they did not address that point; they did not say that they were looking to secure as wide a degree of cross-party support as possible.

What we have to do, which the Joint Committee asked for, is expose the Bill to the fullest possible scrutiny. Looking at the debate in the other place, I do not think that this issue, which seems central, received that, so I am pleased that we are giving it an opportunity to be thought about very carefully.

I recall that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and its implementation fell down on the two-thirds majority. We should remember that there were three occasions in 2019 on which a Motion was presented in the other place and secured a simple majority but not a two-thirds majority. That immediately begs the question: was that the extent of the problem? Certainly, a simple majority enables us to start to think about how crises should be resolved and by whom, but it is that fundamental point about “by whom” that I come back to. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, put it extremely well, but I shall put it in my own terms.

If a Prime Minister were requesting a Dissolution of Parliament and calling an election in circumstances where that would not be supported by a majority in the House of Commons, on what authority would he or she be doing that? If people cannot tell me what that authority is, we should put into the statute now that a Prime Minister should act with such authority. In all normal circumstances, based on our past experience, a Prime Minister will command a majority in the House of Commons and be able to secure a simple majority for such a Motion, and they would be able to have a Dissolution of Parliament at a time of his or her choosing.

However, I do not think that we can turn the clock back to past conventions and assume that they will be readily or easily applied to future circumstances. For example, coalitions have happened and may do so again, and they may be quite complicated. If we were in circumstances where a Prime Minister did not have a majority based on his or her own party and we were in the relatively early stages of a Parliament, by what authority would they circumvent the fact that an alternative Government was available?