Amendment 2

Part of Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 8:00 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 8:00 pm, 25th January 2022

My Lords, there is a conditional in that: a “would”. I believe that people must be presumed to intend the consequences of their own actions, and the consequence of Mr Corbyn’s actions was to thwart a general election three times. The figures I have given to the House are there in the book.

I want to move on because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in the gravamen of the argument—although I think the matters I have covered are a flaw in it—used the argument, which I think was taken up by my noble friend Lady Noakes, that the votes of millions of people should not be overturned by Dissolution. A number of noble Lords have addressed this. By implication, the noble and learned Lord argues, per contra, that the chance to vote for millions of people should be denied by a vote of the House of Commons. It seems to me an extraordinary concept that a House of Commons that does not wish to go should, in his words, prevent or overturn the votes of millions. I respectfully disagree. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, who chaired your Lordships’ Constitution Committee with distinction, put some political practicality into the equation, as did the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. This is very serious. I simply do not accept the argument that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, put forward.

A simple majority vote, for the reasons I have given, would not necessarily prevent deadlock in certain conditions—my noble friend Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury spoke to this—such as when the Government of the day held only a small majority, no majority at all or depended on a small party with a particular regional or country-specific interest. The procedure that is proposed would, in my submission, fail the test of clarity and the absence of loopholes, as the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, put to us. The Joint Committee itself noted on the matter of a vote in the Commons before Parliament was dissolved, that, “The majority”—there were conflicting views, as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, put to us—

“considers it a change which would only have a practical effect in a gridlocked Parliament, which could mean denying an election to a Government which was unable to function effectively, and which might therefore be counter to the public interest.”

I agree with the submission of the majority that this would be

“counter to the public interest.”

In short, far from making things simple, the very thing that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said he wished to achieve, it could still lead to stasis.

The most detrimental aspect of a vote in the other place, and potentially allowing that to be used to frustrate an election, is that general elections are sometimes called when the existing Parliament has proven to be unviable. The statutory requirement for a vote in the other place would only compound that problem, and in such a case, as we have discussed or I have submitted, with part of his own party potentially voting against a Prime Minister—circumstances that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, suggested could happen—even a simple majority would be too high.

Past Governments, and potentially future Governments, have often worked within turbulent political and economic contexts, trying to deliver ambitious and significant agendas and sometimes with small majorities. It is in these circumstances, above all, that the flexibility of the system which the two major parties in this country pledged to revive and which we are seeking to revive through this Bill matters most. In these scenarios, a Prime Minister should be able to be decisive and request a Dissolution to try to resolve a parliamentary stalemate or test their mandate to govern.

My noble friend Lord Lansley asked by what authority a Prime Minister might act. I think my noble friend and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern answered that. The Prime Minister, acting as the Sovereign’s principal adviser, is able to request a Dissolution by virtue of an ability to command the confidence of the other place. In the case of a minority Government or a confused House of Commons, the agreement to a Dissolution might be difficult to secure—as it proved three times in 2019. I submit that not many new MPs—some noble Lords have been slightly disrespectful of what might be the motives of people in another place—would rush to face the electorate in a matter of months if given the chance to have a say.

It is by no means certain, as noble Lords have suggested, that past minority Governments would have secured opposition support for an election had this system operated. I agree with the powerful interventions of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, and my noble friend Lady Noakes on this point. Some noble Lords seem to forget the experience of 2017-19. A vote in the House of Commons might have meant other minority Governments and similar ones having to limp on like that one, unable to deliver their priorities. The revival of the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament is, in our submission, the most effective way for a Government to be permitted to put important questions to the people, resolve stasis and secure the mandate to govern effectively. It is a system of constitutional practice that has worked; I urge noble Lords not to seek to add complexity where previously, before 2011, there was none.

I must address briefly the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. It would go further in the development of a statutory process by making express provision that, when Parliament stands prorogued, a Dissolution cannot be sought. The amendment seeks to set a condition that a Parliament must be “recalled”—or rather summoned—for the purpose of the passage of a Dissolution approval Motion.

Prior to the Dissolution of Parliament, a short Prorogation may be necessary to allow the swift conclusion of business; of course, it should be as short as possible. This has happened on several occasions, most recently in 1992, 1997, 2005 and 2010. In 2010, Parliament was prorogued from Thursday 8 April until Monday 12 April, whereupon Dissolution was proclaimed. Among other things, this enabled the general election to take place on a Thursday, as has been usual practice. Although the concepts of Prorogation and Dissolution may be superficially similar in that they are both prerogative acts, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, said, they are distinct. Prorogation is the formal ending of a Session; Dissolution provides an opportunity for the electorate to give their verdict.

I have heard the arguments in favour of a Commons vote on this matter in the circumstance of a Prorogation also but, respectfully, the Government believe that this is undesirable and risks repeating some of the worst aspects of the 2011 Act. In our submission, providing for the requirement that a prorogued Parliament must be summoned serves only to build in additional delay and undermine the ability of the Prime Minister to act decisively. The risk that the noble Lord alluded to in seeking to strengthen the role of the Commons raises that fundamental question: who should be the ultimate judge on the Government’s decision to call an election? As many noble Lords have said, the answer is clear: the electorate. As the Joint Committee said, they are

“the ultimate authority in a democratic system”.

Like my noble friend Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, I simply do not understand the idea of a rogue or outrageous Dissolution because it is the fundamental act of humility by the Executive to place their future in the hands of the electorate, who should be the final arbiter of whether a Prime Minister has called an election legitimately. I acquit the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, of this but I have found it strange to hear noble Lords say that they want to repeal the FTPA but return to some of the worst aspects of it. I think that there is a further complication in what the noble Lord suggested.

I am sure that the House wishes to move on. We will have further opportunities in the debate on the next group to discuss sovereignty and controls on Parliament, but I ought to say in preamble that noble Lords have suggested that a Commons vote increases parliamentary accountability and acts as a check on the Executive. It is not our view that the prerogative system diminishes parliamentary sovereignty and the Executive’s accountability to Parliament. Rather, by reviving the prerogative powers, we are restoring the link between confidence and Dissolution. If a Prime Minister loses the confidence of the elected House, they can either resign, seek a Dissolution or seek to recover the confidence of the House. The other place has the nuclear option of a Motion of no confidence and a plethora of means of holding the Executive to account. It does not require further prescriptive statutory measures to do so effectively.

Notwithstanding the gentle chiding of the noble Lord, Lord Newby—I am grateful to him for taking the time, or wasting it as he seemed to argue, to read the letter that I sent to noble Lords—I ask your Lordships to consider carefully the potential, unknown, long-term consequences of this amendment, which flow out of some of the problems that we have discussed in this debate. A vote in the Commons would disrupt the equilibrium in finely balanced, historical constitutional arrangements and could have an impact on the role of the sovereign. In reviving the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament, the Government have clearly acknowledged that this power is exercised by the sovereign on the request of the Prime Minister, as we discussed in the first group.

There remains a role for the sovereign in exceptional circumstances to refuse a dissolution request; the noble Lord, Lord Beith, made this point. This is a powerful incentive to ensure that improper requests are not made of the sovereign, irrespective of the Government’s majority in the House of Commons. However, a House of Commons vote in effect removes the role of the sovereign as the constitutional backstop. Some of your Lordships avowedly wish to do that; it is the Government’s strong opinion that that would be unwise.

The Bill as drafted will provide constitutional arrangements that deliver significant benefits to this country and clarity on the way forward—a clarity that has been well known, understood and trusted, and served successive Parliaments and Governments of different parties for generations. The Bill has been through rigorous parliamentary scrutiny. There has been a good deal of scrutiny of the 2011 Act by the Constitution Committee and PACAC. The Joint Committee also undertook outstanding pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, which has informed our approach.

The careful scrutiny that your Lordships rightly expect has been provided. To construct this novel constitutional scheme which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, is suggesting, building on the remnants of a piece of legislation that did not stand up in the political turmoil of the previous Parliament, would perhaps be to act with a little haste. That is not the way to ensure that our constitutional arrangements will stand the test of time as the previous arrangements did. This Bill returns our country to its best constitutional traditions, and I urge your Lordships to withdraw the amendment.