Amendment 2

Part of Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 25th January 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative 7:00 pm, 25th January 2022

My Lords, I do not often agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, as he knows, but I did agree with his closing remarks on Second Reading:

“We should never take democracy for granted: it needs to be defended.”—[Official Report, 30/11/21; col. 1332.]

I absolutely agree, which is why it is important that the amendments in this group are not passed.

Sometimes, when people talk about democracy, they talk in terms of the role of Parliament or the separation of powers. But we must always remember that democracy is about the people—demos—who have power at the apex of our constitution and whom we have to defend. The most important players in our democracy are not Members of Parliament at Westminster but the voters up and down the land. The possibility of Parliament standing in the way of asking the people for their views on the way forward is fundamentally undemocratic, in my view.

These amendments are capable of depriving the people of their say in the future of the country. Furthermore, they could do harm at the very time that the views of the people, as expressed at the ballot box, are most needed and could have the greatest impact. Of course, if the Government of the day have a whopping majority, whether or not they have to pass a resolution in the other place will make very little difference to the outcome. It might perhaps add a few days of delay to the timing of a general election, but it would otherwise simply be a tiresome detail. But the amendment will make life difficult for minority Governments or Governments with small majorities, if they feel that they need to call an election.

At Second Reading, I spoke about the events of 2019 being one of my key reasons for supporting the Bill. It was plain that Parliament was dysfunctional. The Government could not get their chosen policies through the House due to a combination of the actions of the opposition parties and of some of our own Back-Benchers. A majority in the other place and indeed in your Lordships’ House—although that is not relevant to this amendment—was set upon frustrating the Government’s Brexit policies, but the Government could not call an election to settle that issue because they could not meet the two-thirds threshold of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

Of course, the Government eventually got their Early Parliamentary General Election Act through and, by then, the Labour Party had decided to support it. But we will never know whether it would have been possible for the Government to have reached the simple majorities required in these amendments at an earlier stage—but it is entirely possible that they would not have done so. A number of my party’s MPs had lost the Conservative Whip during those unhappy days and would not, therefore, have been able to stand as Conservative candidates if an election had been called. Would the turkeys really have voted for Christmas? I think not.

Many noble Lords in this House might choose to forget the result of the 2019 election because it was not to their taste, but I remind them that it was a resounding thumbs up for the Government’s Brexit policies, which Parliament was seeking to harass and destroy at the time. These amendments could well have prevented that decisive view of the country from being expressed at the time, and we would have been the poorer for it.

Minority Governments with small majorities but fractious Back-Benchers capable of frustrating a vote on a general election are not figments of my imagination; they are a real part of our political system. I say this especially to the Benches opposite because, if they have any hopes of again forming a Government, they need to reflect on whether a zombie Parliament could affect them as well. They might also reflect on whether the minority Wilson Government in 1974, which the noble Lord, Lord Beith, referred to in the debate on the earlier group of amendments, would also have resulted in an election. Is it absolutely clear that the Wilson minority Government could have called the second election in that year if he had had to cope with what this amendment would have landed him with? These amendments could be a very dangerous part of our constitutional arrangements and should be rejected.