Amendment 2

Part of Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 25th January 2022.

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Photo of Lord True Lord True Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee, Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee 7:45 pm, 25th January 2022

My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken in what has rightly been a lengthy debate. Perhaps my concluding marks too will be lengthy; I trust not. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. Your Lordships will divine that some of those who have spoken I agree with, and some I found less persuasive, but I have welcomed the opportunity to discuss these matters and others with many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness opposite, whose courtesy I always so much appreciate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. I very much appreciate that.

I have listened very carefully to all the arguments, not least the compelling concluding remarks of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. I was a little puzzled by the position of the noble Baroness opposite because she seemed to say that when the Labour Party told the electorate in 2019 that they would repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, what they actually meant was that they would not repeal it, but they would keep the chance of the very zombie Parliament that the public so overwhelmingly rejected in the 2019 election. I suggest to your Lordships that, notwithstanding some speeches that have been made, the risk of that occurring if these amendments are supported remains high.

I respectfully suggest to all noble Lords that retaining a revised version of the failed 2011 Act, which this amendment would do, in effect, by keeping the Commons veto in a revised form, is a highly problematic suggestion. It would not achieve what it is intended to do; it certainly would not secure clarity. I was on the Constitution Committee a long time ago when the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, became chair, and I say to her how much I admired and respected the work that was done by that committee while she was chair; I am sure I speak for the whole House on that. In her compelling speech, she spoke of the need for some degree of clarity and the need to avoid loopholes. We must guard against repeating one of the fundamental errors of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which, in the words of our manifesto, led to “paralysis”, or, in the words of the Labour manifesto, has “propped up weak governments”—Governments without the authority to govern effectively.

I submit that the first problem is that this is not the simple solution that some noble Lords have implied. In fact, a vote in the other place on Dissolution would be complicated and challenging to effect. To highlight one area of difficulty, what will be the likely consequences for constitutional conventions, including the conventions on confidence? Some of your Lordships will recall that this was a question that very much exercised this House in the debates on the 2011 Act.

The amendment would undoubtedly repeat the mistakes of the 2011 Act: it would undermine the fundamental conventions on confidence—by virtue of which a Government hold office—by divorcing them from practical effect and, even worse, making the consequences of a loss of a confidence vote ambiguous. The amendment is dangerously silent on the status and practice of the conventions associated with confidence. That silence is unclear and ambiguous, and could undoubtedly lead to fractious debate, uncertainty and delay at a time when timely action might be needed. In particular, in the event that a Prime Minister lost a vote on a Motion designated as a matter of confidence, they would not be able to request a Dissolution without the prior approval of the House.

It is unclear, therefore, how the amendment would interact with conventions on confidence in practice. Does it mean that the Prime Minister would be expected to table the Motion provided for in this amendment straight away, or would they be able to try to regain the confidence of the House? Would some other Member of the House be able to table the Motion? What happens after the loss of a vote on confidence? We saw with the 2011 Act, which tried to codify what would happen after the loss of a vote of no confidence, that efforts to partially prescribe how essentially political processes are played out leads only to ambiguity and uncertainty.

With respect, rather than introducing a process that would arguably preclude the Prime Minister reflecting on the view of the House after a defeat on a designated issue, the amendment does not provide a clear and unambiguous process, yet it also serves to restrict the ability to flexibly respond. The amendment is silent on these fundamental points of principle and practical implementation and therefore risks us repeating the mistakes of the 2011 Act. I agree with my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston: lack of clarity is risky.

Your Lordships have suggested that a simple majority is the silver bullet, preventing deadlock and stasis. However, I submit that, with the benefit of history—from not so long ago; we do not have to have grey hair to have lived through the disastrous Parliament of 2017-19—we can see that the real risk of a vote, even a simple majority one, as I will argue shortly, is a repetition of the deadlock and paralysis of the 2017-19 Parliament.

In my party’s manifesto, when we pledged to repeal this Act we made absolutely clear that its purpose was to prevent

“paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action.”

The Government, in submitting their manifesto to the country, had no doubt that the procedures that led to that paralysis should be done away with.

A vote in the House of Commons, by hindering the ability of the Prime Minister to call and to request an election at the time of his judgment, could mean that a Government are held hostage and lame duck Parliaments limp on. We have seen it. We have heard many fanciful scenarios in this debate, including the one of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell—which I thought very fanciful—but this has happened and could happen again.