Moved by Lord Norton of Louth
4: Clause 3, page 1, line 17, leave out “or purported exercise”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment ensures that the ouster provision in clause 3 will not apply to the purported exercise of the powers to dissolve Parliament contained in clause 2.
My Lords, I shall also speak to my other two amendments in this group. The amendments would ensure that the ouster provisions in the clause did not apply to the purported exercise of the powers to dissolve Parliament contained in Clause 2. There are two principal arguments that I wish to develop in support of the amendments. The first is that they are necessary to give effect to the Government’s intention that the Bill restore the status quo ante. The second is that including the “purported” exercise of powers within the clause is objectionable in principle.
The purpose of the Bill is to restore the position to what it was before the 2011 Act was enacted. As paragraph 23 of the Explanatory Notes concedes, the purpose of Clause 3(c) is
“to address the distinction drawn by the Supreme Court … as regards the court’s role in reviewing the scope of a prerogative power, as opposed to its exercise.”
As the Law Society of Scotland pointed out in its helpful briefing note, that takes us further than the pre-2011 status quo ante. It considers that extending the clause to the purported exercise of the Clause 2 powers, or a purported decision in relation to those powers, may go beyond the bounds of the previous law as expressed in the 1985 case of Council of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service. As the note goes on to say:
“We take the view that the inclusion of ‘purported’ appears to be designed to address the decision in R (on the application of Privacy International) v Investigatory Powers Tribunal and others … where the absence of the word ‘purported” was treated as significant by some of the judges.”
Either the Bill restores the status quo ante or it does not. If the Government are to be consistent and achieve the situation as it existed prior to September 2011, the references to the “purported exercise” and “purported decision” of powers under Clause 2 need to be removed from the Bill.
The second and fundamental objection is one of principle. The use of “purported” means that the exercise might be beyond the power vested in Ministers. I am not in favour of Ministers having the capacity without it being open to challenge in the courts. The Minister in the Commons, Chloe Smith, said that the clause provided
“an opportunity to Parliament to be absolutely clear on whether it thinks that such things should be outside the jurisdiction of the courts.”
She went on to say that
“the check on the exercise of power is for the electorate to decide on rather than the courts.”—[
“Purported” decisions might conflict with the rule of law. The Minister in the other place was effectively saying that it was not for the courts to determine whether Ministers were acting beyond their powers. I do not think that the letter from my noble friend Lord True really engaged with that point.
It is important to stress that the clause should not be viewed as an attempt to restrict the courts from encroaching on the position of Parliament. That might be how Ministers wish to convey it, but the senior courts have been exercised by the use of powers by Ministers, not by Parliament. Indeed, the most recent high-profile cases that appear to have motivated the Government to use this wording were ones in which the courts sought to protect, not undermine, the position of Parliament in relation to the Executive. In this clause, the Government seek to confer on Ministers wide-ranging powers in a way that I consider dangerous.
The wording of the clause might also be counterproductive. There is no evidence that the courts would want to encroach on the exercise of the prerogative in dissolving Parliament and calling an election.
With these amendments, we are also discussing whether Clause 3 should stand part of the Bill. My contention is that if there is an ouster clause, it needs to be true to the purpose of the Bill, which is to restore the position to what it was before 2011, and that it should omit provisions—in this case reference to “purported exercise” and “purported decision”—that are constitutionally objectionable. If the Government persist in wishing to retain such wording, that serves to reinforce the case for removing the clause. I beg to move.
My Lords, I added my name to the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and to join the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, in seeking to remove Clause 3 from the Bill. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said in both respects. He dealt with the point that the provisions he seeks to remove from the Bill are unnecessary and objectionable in principle. I will say a few words in support of what he said.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Norton, I cannot help feeling that references to “purported exercise” and what we see in Clause 3(c) are a reaction against, or motivated by, as the noble Lord said, the decision of the Supreme Court in Miller II, although that case was about Prorogation, not Dissolution. There is a very clear distinction between the two, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, said at an earlier stage in our debates. It is also very important to bear in mind that the court in Miller made it absolutely clear that it saw its function as being to serve the interests of Parliament against the Executive. It sought to ensure that the Government did not use the power of Prorogation to prevent Parliament carrying out its proper functions, including holding the Executive to account.
We have here a remarkable paradox. On the one hand, the court saw itself as under a duty to preserve parliamentary democracy against actions taken by the Executive. On the other hand, Parliament is being used here by the Executive to deprive the court of that power. I stress that because ouster clauses may seem to be a matter of concern only to lawyers, but that is not so in this context: their use here should be a matter of concern to all of us in this House who value the part that Parliament plays in our democracy.
The word “purported” is worth dwelling on. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, whose name is also against this amendment but who has unfortunately left his place, raised this issue with the noble Lord, Lord True, at Second Reading. I am sure that noble Lords will remember that exchange quite well. The noble Lord, Lord True, explained exactly what the word meant: he said—I cannot put it better than he did—that it means an “invalid” exercise of the prerogative that is, therefore, not lawful. The question is whether, when you use the word, the power that is being exercised is within its lawful limits. This almost begs the question about whether that is a question of law that this clause is seeking to take away from the courts altogether. Like the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, I think that this provision contravenes the rule of law and for that reason is objectionable in principle.
I make it clear that I take no objection to Clause 3(b) and (c) if the references to “purposed exercise” or “purported decision” are removed. In the interests of clarity, it is quite clear to just say that the court or tribunal may not question the exercise of the powers referred to in Clause 2—that would give clarity. I take no objection to those on the grounds that they are either unnecessary or objectionable in principle. It is Clause 3(c) and the reference to “purported exercise” that concern me.
In principle, my point is that every prerogative power has its limits. Over the centuries, the courts have protected parliamentary sovereignty from threats posed to it by the use of prerogative powers. So the sovereignty of Parliament would be undermined, as a fundamental principle of the constitution, if the Executive could, by using the prerogative, prevent Parliament exercising its legitimate authority for as long as they wish. The same point can be made about the principle that Ministers are accountable to Parliament. We need to be protected against the risk that a responsible Government may be replaced by an unaccountable one. In Miller, the court said that that would be the position if there were no legal limit on the power to prorogue, so the decision to prorogue would be unlawful if it were to have those effects.
I recognise that in this we are not dealing with Prorogation, which brings me to the second part of the point of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on whether these provisions are necessary. In paragraph 4 of its judgment in Miller, the Supreme Court noted, in passing, that there are “conventional constraints” on what the Government can do during the Dissolution period. I take that as a signal that, if the issue of Dissolution were to be raised before the court, it would not entertain any argument about it. In the previous debate, we heard quite a lot about the Dissolution Principles and various constraints that would require any attempt to deprive the electorate of their opportunity to vote following a Dissolution to simply be a non-starter.
Indeed, in his letter to the Constitution Committee in December last year, the Minister developed these points. It was an admirable letter because it answered the Constitution Committee’s points in considerable detail, which is highly commendable and I hope will be followed by other Ministers in similar cases. As the noble Lord said in his letter, there are already checks and incentives for the Executive that have worked for many years, effectively compelling Parliament to be called as soon as possible after a Dissolution. Unduly and unnecessarily delaying the calling of a new Parliament is not in the interest of any Government seeking to make progress on the mandate that they have received through a general election. The Bill itself, in Clause 4, introduces an additional safeguard: an automatic Dissolution provision in the event that a Prime Minister fails to use his prerogative to request a Dissolution at all.
So where is the problem? These are draconian ouster provisions which are without precedent. I am talking about Clause 3(c) because I have not been able to find any precedent for this extreme exclusion at all. Strange things, of course, have been happening since this Prime Minister took office, but even he, I suggest, would find it very difficult to abuse this prerogative power. It seems to me that the possibility of the courts intervening in this context is remote.
Why do I object to these provisions? Parliament and, in its turn, the electorate to which it is answerable, are protected by the rule that questions of law are for the courts. It is very dangerous to undermine that principle in the way that is proposed here because of the example that this clause sets for the future. Clause 3(c), which states that a court may not question “the limits or extent” of the prerogative powers that are revived by the Bill, strikes at the heart of the rule of law. My concern is that, once used, this formula will appear again supported by the reasoning that, just because it was approved by Parliament in this case, it has become an established part of our constitutional lexicon.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord True, for a very interesting discussion the other day in which he was good enough to listen to my arguments and explain the position he is taking to resist them. One of the points, which I fully recognise, is why he has been advised that the provisions should be framed in this way. That is because the courts have said that ouster clauses must be construed strictly, and that means that, if it is Parliament’s intention to take this jurisdiction away from the courts, it must do so in clear terms. The noble Lord made it very clear that that was the advice he had received and that is why the clause was drafted in this way. I understand the point, but it does not answer my point, which is whether he should be doing this at all. I assure him that my concerns about this are very real. Prerogative powers can do much damage if they are abused. To introduce this formula into our lexicon in a different context, as I fear will happen, would be very dangerous.
The Government have nothing to fear by the removal of these provisions if they wish to be free to exercise their prerogative powers in the context of Dissolution. I wonder whether the noble Lord can assure me that, if he insists on keeping these provisions in power, they are not to be a precedent for the future. As the way things are now, that is my principal concern because I do not see the court being involved in this issue about Dissolution being improperly exercised at all.
My Lords, the Committee has shown in the debate on this Bill so far that there is common ground that this Bill should provide clarity. The use of “purported” in Clause 3 seems to be a deliberate choice by the Government and the parliamentary draftsmen. It is not a word used much in everyday speech but is found in other Acts of Parliament. It is also used in judgments when an act has taken place or a decision has been taken, but a court has concluded after the event that the decision or act has no legal effect. Any well-informed draftsman in this context would have had well in mind the decision in the Anisminic case.
In Miller II, as it is generally referred to—the prorogation case—the Supreme Court concluded that despite the fact that the Prime Minister had gone through all the appropriate formalities to prorogue Parliament and Parliament had been, as a matter of fact, prorogued, the prorogation, or purported prorogation, was unlawful and was thus deemed not to have happened as a matter of law, with the result that Parliament was reassembled.
The purpose of Clause 3 is plainly to render the exercise of the power to dissolve Parliament non-justiciable. The first question is whether, as a matter of construction, it has that effect, and the second is whether such an ouster clause should be in the Bill at all. That is an issue in the stand part amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Butler. If, for the sake of argument, the House were to conclude that an ouster clause was appropriate, why not include “purported” in the ouster clause? In its absence, a court could conclude that notwithstanding the apparent or purported Dissolution, because of the unlawfulness of the Dissolution—and the courts have shown considerable ingenuity on occasions in finding unlawfulness—the Dissolution never, as a matter of law, occurred. It would follow that Parliament would then be reassembled, campaigning might be halted, the date of an election vacated, with all the attendant chaos that would ensure, and it is even possible that the result of an election could be set aside. That seems to me to be a highly undesirable state of affairs, for two principal reasons: first, the uncertainly; and, secondly, the insertion of the courts into the political process.
I entirely appreciate the distinction between Prorogation and Dissolution, but before Miller 2 most lawyers would have considered that Prorogation was non-justiciable. I dare say that the advice was given by the Attorney-General or the Government Legal Department that when Mrs Miller and others brought their judicial review it was non-justiciable. That is not such an unreasonable point of view, given the unanimous decision of the Divisional Court, a court consisting of the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls and the President of the Queen’s Bench Division. That court concluded that, without in any way expressing approval of the decision of the Prime Minister, it was a matter of politics, not law. In other words, the power was non-justiciable.
Why did the Supreme Court disagree with the reasoning of the Divisional Court? Unfortunately, we do not know, because it made no mention of the decision of the lower court. This departure from the normal engagement with the reasoning of the lower court could certainly be regarded as something of a discourtesy, to put it mildly.
There are differing views as to whether the Supreme Court in Miller 2 came to the right conclusion. The Government’s view may well have been a factor in the setting up of the independent review of administrative law, which I had the privilege of chairing. I do not purport to speak on behalf of the panel today, but I can point out to the House that we concluded that the decision might be regarded as something of a one-off and should not of itself lead to any fundamental changes in the scope of judicial review. The combination of a minority Government, no agreement in government on the right approach to Brexit, and the rigidity of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, with its requirement of a super-majority, created something of a perfect storm.
On the one hand, the case was a magnificent demonstration of the checks and balances in our constitution working well, even if you do not agree with the conclusion. As it happens, I do not agree with it, but other views are available. I do not favour the decision because of the involvement of judges in a political matter. In conversation with constitutional experts in the United States, I have encountered considerable surprise at the decision. An equivalent challenge in the United States would fall foul of the political questions doctrine, and the claimants would not be able to establish that they had standing to bring such a challenge. In this jurisdiction, points on standing are rarely taken. We pointed this out in the IRAL and suggested that they should be taken more often, even by the court of its own motion, since it is a jurisdictional matter.
In his response to the IRAL report, the then Lord Chancellor, Sir Robert Buckland, as he now is, said that he was anxious to protect judges from politics. I think he had a point. Unlike in the US, our judges have, for the most part, skilfully avoided involvement in political matters. As a result, and in sharp distinction to their counterparts in the United States, our judges are not well known to the general public and their views are not a matter of general public interest, in the non-technical sense, and long may that continue.
This Bill would protect judges from political controversy by reason of the terms of Clause 3. I think a number of judges would be perfectly happy with that outcome, but even if they were not there would be an acceptance that Parliament is entitled to legislate to exclude the courts from considering the legality of the power to dissolve Parliament. The IRAL concluded that it was constitutionally open to Parliament to pass an ouster clause of this sort, and unless you reject the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, I do not believe that this is in any way controversial.
The other objection I have to the removal or watering down of this ouster clause is the practical effect of a challenge to the power to dissolve. Even an unsuccessful challenge would cause delay and uncertainty. There are those who make no bones about their use of judicial review as a political tool. It is possible, or even likely, that a challenge would be forthcoming if some political advantage was perceived in mounting one. A successful challenge would cause really substantial uncertainty. It is sometimes said that the Miller 2 decision, and even the Miller 1 decision, did not cause that much disruption and did not prevent the Prime Minister calling a general election, but it must be remembered, as is cogently pointed out by Professor Ekins in his Policy Exchange paper on the Bill, that it was only because the SNP and the Liberal Democrats thought that an election would benefit them that he was able to do so. Otherwise, Parliament would have continued in a form of paralysis for a lengthy period as a result of the Supreme Court decision.
This Bill will provide a welcome degree of clarity. It will restore, or rather confirm, the status quo and, with this ouster clause, keep the judges out of politics. I pause to point out that, in a sense, as we said in the IRAL, this is not truly an ouster clause, since the Bill is not creating a new power and then ousting the jurisdiction of the courts. Rather, it is confirming the status quo as acknowledged so long ago by Lord Roskill in the GCHQ case. It is doing this in the interests of legal certainty, a point made by the Constitution Committee, of which I have the privilege of being a member. Our current Prime Minister is perceived by many in your Lordships’ House and outside as having rather little regard for the law. But personal antipathy to this Prime Minister should not result in our making unnecessary and undesirable amendments to this Bill.
My Lords, I shall disagree with the noble Lord who has just spoken by opposing the inclusion of Clause 3 in the Bill, but first I thank the noble Lords, Lord True and Lord Wolfson, for extending to me the courtesy of a virtual discussion on this. They failed to persuade me, but I appreciated the courtesy.
Last week, the Minister circulated a letter to your Lordships addressing the issues arising from the Bill. In it, he said:
“Clause 3: Restates the long standing position that the exercise of prerogative power” in relation to the Dissolution and calling of Parliament “is non-justiciable”, and the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, has just said something similar. I have been around a long time, but I am not aware of any such long-standing position. There is the statement of Lord Roskill, but it did not bear directly on this. It is not surprising that this position has not been conclusively established, because no challenge to the use of the prerogative power has ever been made. Nor do I think it likely that it ever would be. If it was, I find it hard to imagine the circumstances in which a court would uphold such a challenge. So, in practice, I regard this clause as unnecessary, and dangerous.
Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that a Government misused this prerogative power by asking the sovereign to dissolve Parliament in order to prevent Parliament causing the Government some inconvenience or in an attempt to overturn the result of a recent election. What safeguard would there be against such a misuse of power in the absence of the courts? The noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition was absolutely right. She said that there were three possibilities. There is Parliament—the House of Commons—which we debated in the last group of amendments, there are the courts or there is the sovereign. Those are the only three possibilities. Again, I quote the Minister’s letter:
“The sovereign retains the power to refuse an improper dissolution and, in doing so, acts as a constitutional backstop in this context.”
Is this a position in which we would wish to place the sovereign? It would do precisely what we are all agreed we should not do: namely, to require the sovereign to intervene in what are likely to be, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, the most highly charged political circumstances. Therefore, if anyone is to prevent the Government misusing the power, and the Government are determined to oppose the House of Commons being given a vote, I submit that it should be the courts rather than the sovereign.
Of course, if the high court of Parliament—the House of Commons—has authorised the use of the power, that would put it out of the reach of the courts. That is the virtue of the amendment moved by my noble and learned friend Lord Judge and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, but the Government are opposed to that. There are dangers in leaving it to the House of Commons, which were described at length in the last debate, so it is either the courts or the sovereign. I submit that in those circumstances, it has to be the courts.
There is a more fundamental objection to Clause 3. These are the words of the clause:
“A court or tribunal may not question—
(a) the exercise or purported exercise of the powers referred to in section 2,
(b) any decision or purported decision relating to those powers, or
(c) the limits or extent of those powers.”
I find those words chilling. They amount to saying, “We will take these powers, but we will not allow any interference by the judicial system in the way we exercise them.” That is the language of an authoritarian —some might even say totalitarian—Government.
It is because the present Government have shown signs of seeking to override any challenge to the use of their powers that this ouster clause is such a dangerous precedent, as my noble and learned friend Lord Hope has said. I suggest that this House should stand against that precedent. I shall not seek the opinion of the Committee today on excluding Clause 3 from the Bill, but I reserve the right to move an amendment on Report to remove it.
My Lords, with a Supreme Court judge, the chairman of the most recent inquiry into the workings of judicial review—he did an extremely good piece of work on that—and a former Cabinet Secretary presenting views that differ in more than nuanced ways, the House will have to resolve this issue. Those of us who are deeply concerned about this clause cannot be accused of wanting to drag the judges into decisions about whether elections are being held. In my case, and in some of the other cases, we have offered two mechanisms that clearly make that very unlikely.
One is that the courts would be very unlikely to question or interfere in any way with the personal prerogative power, which we all agreed earlier is the nature of, if not the wording of the Bill, then of the re-establishment of the status quo ante. The second is that a significant number of us argued that a vote in the House of Commons is a desirable process. Were it there—were it a condition—it would entirely obviate any fear that the courts would become involved, because the courts would recognise the Bill of Rights’ prohibition on questioning the decision made in Parliament. We are not people seeking to drag the judges into this process.
The Government’s belief that they have to build a bulwark of some kind against judges becoming involved, all based on a particular recent experience that was about not Dissolution but Prorogation, has, I think, drawn them into doing something that, if we do it, we will come to regret very much in years to come. The phraseology of the clause should remind us of that: it is the
“purported exercise of the powers” or the “purported decision”. What does that take us to? It takes us to the point where the Government are trying to ensure that the courts do not question whether the Prime Minister had the power to act in that way, or, if he had the power, that he is acting in ways covered by the legislation. I find it very hard to conceive of a case that could be made, if the processes of this legislation are followed, in which that could reasonably be advanced in front of or taken seriously by any court. What I see is an ouster clause that we will not see the last of and that we will see again in other legislation. Then it will be said that it is a perfectly acceptable ouster clause, as Parliament allowed it in legislation that repealed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act; that it is just a straightforward way of making it clear that this is an area in which we do not want the courts involved.
The power of judicial review, which was carefully analysed by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and the team he led, is an essential way in which the citizen is protected from the abuse of power by the Executive. There are many kinds of Executive, not just the national Government we are thinking of today; local authorities and private sector organisations have powers of various kinds. If they act beyond those powers, the courts are the proper place to challenge that misuse of power. Once we give currency to the idea that a Minister can say in relation to a purported action or purported decision that they have decided they have the power to do this and may not be challenged, that is a reversal of the entire system of judicial review.
The process described in Clause 3 will never be engaged in relation to what we are talking about—the calling of a general election. There are so many barriers against it—not least, of course, the desire of the judges not to get into that political process at all—but once we have got this on to the statute book, we will not have seen the last of it. I think we have created a highly dangerous model for ouster clauses. I am disappointed, in a way: I think the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, resisted pressures to come up with foolish decisions in his review, and I would welcome him being on my side on the issue, which is about the longer-term importance of judicial review for the purpose for which it was intended. One can raise questions about some ways in which it has been used in the past. One can raise questions about whether there are some limitations, such as the Cart issues raised by the review by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks. It is vital in the protection of our citizens and I see it threatened by the existence of this clause.
My Lords, my core concern regarding this group of amendments is for the future generation of judges—not just in the Supreme Court, but judges who, I suggest, must inevitably be troubled at first instance and so forth before things get to the Supreme Court—if there is there is the slightest glimmer of a prospect of anybody legally challenging any decision with regard to Dissolution. I find myself in total agreement with all that my noble friend Lord Faulks said and the legal analysis here. The courts have striven mightily to remove any possibility of ouster clauses having effect. With that, in most contexts, I totally agree, but this is in the context of Dissolution and of trying, with the utmost clarity, to return as whence we were, where there was no possibility of the courts entertaining a challenge.
To my mind, the courts would be grossly embarrassed and, of course, singularly unlikely to intervene. The noble Lord, Lord Beith is absolutely right: it is the last thing they would want to do because it would be so embarrassing and destructive of the current constitutional position of judges to allow themselves to be drawn into this field. However, the temptation for others to try to involve them must be removed. I suggest that this clause, as is, tries to dot every I and cross every T.
The reason for “purported” has been explained; I need not repeat it. The court has the principle that anything that is regarded as legally flawed is a nullity. Therefore, what was thought to be a judicial review of a decision is only the judicial review of a purported decision because X hypothesis has been set aside as a nullity. I see no reason why you cannot have the absolute clarity that this clause provides, which will discourage anybody from trying, as I see it, to embarrass the court.
Finally, my noble friend Lord Butler suggested that you must have Parliament, Her Majesty or the courts supervising in some shape or form so that the Prime Minister does not exceed the legal limits of his power. I suggest that there is a fourth body to ensure that: the public, whom the Dissolution process consults on this question. Brenda of Bristol and her like will make sure that the Prime Minister does not exceed this power.
My Lords, I will speak only on Clause 3 stand part and not on the more detailed amendments, because I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will reply in his careful way about how the wording was arrived at and what it is intended to do, as he did very carefully at Second Reading.
One does not have to be an expert on the constitution, which I am not, to know that judges should not interfere in politics, and decisions on calling elections are about as political as decisions ever get. I believe the Government are right to try to draft this Bill in such a way that the courts cannot interfere in that very political decision, and that is why I support Clause 3 standing part of the Bill.
The fact that the Government feel it necessary to include Clause 3 and draft it in such a complex way speaks volumes about how the judiciary has found many ways of getting involved in areas that would have seemed unthinkable only a few years ago, ones of which we would have assumed the courts would steer clear. The clause is necessary only because of the direction of travel taken by the courts in the way they have interpreted the areas they get involved in. I, for one, believe that we need no more surprises like the Miller judgments.
Clause 3 is confined to the specific and narrow issue of whether the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament is justiciable. I cannot conceive of any circumstances in which the involvement of the courts could ever be justified, and those who oppose Clause 3 have said that they cannot think of any either. Even the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, who demonstrated the fertility of his imagination in the debate on an earlier group of amendments, could not come up with an example. We are legislating against shadows, against figments of the imagination.
The issue is about only the steps taken to allow a general election to be called. It is a very political decision. We cannot conceive of the courts ever getting involved in delaying an election, halting an election or even, as my noble friend Lord Faulks suggested, nullifying the result of a general election. It just seems too ludicrous a concept even to contemplate. However, we need it to be clear beyond peradventure in the law, and without this clause it may not be.
We need to get this into perspective. Clause 3 does not diminish the role of the courts in the constitution; it is about this one narrow area that before, when we simply rested on the prerogative, no one thought the courts could ever get involved in, but because of other developments in the law we now feel it necessary to be quite explicit about it.
We have it because it is just possible that the courts could find a way in. We have seen them getting involved in areas that we never thought they would get involved in before. That is a fact of the way the judiciary has moved in recent years, and it is why the clause is there.
I do not accept that the clause sets a dangerous precedent. It is about this one very narrow issue. It is not about an ouster clause that would be put in every statute that came before Parliament. Of course, Parliament must decide at the end of the day how it wants to frame its laws. It has the right to do that, and the courts can then interpret those laws, but I do not believe that this will be seen as a precedent for a more general use of ouster clauses. If it is, I am fairly sure that Parliament would not accept them. We should see this clause in the narrow concept in which it is drafted and not try to extend it beyond that.
My Lords, if we are talking about our tried and tested constitution, we should remember that in the 17th century it was Chief Justice Coke and his defence of the rule of law against the extent of the royal prerogative which led to the development of some of the ideas of constitutional democracy at least as much as Parliament. The rule of law is an essential part of the way we work.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that we all know that this clause is in the Bill because of the judgment on Prorogation in 2019. I was interested to hear that the Minister’s definition of Prorogation did not in any sense suggest that that use of the power came within an accepted definition. Perhaps he will change his definition next time he comes.
The Minister has said that the importance of the Bill is to restore the status quo, but this ouster clause is not the restoration of the status quo. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, that it opens a window to its use on other occasions, which would be highly undesirable. It is much more radical than Clause 2 in changing our customs and practices. If we want to maintain the status quo while changing it a little—
I find it hard to imagine a situation in which the power of Dissolution would be used in the way that the power of Prorogation was used in 2019, so I do not think it likely that the case would arise. That is my instant opinion.
The radical dimension of this is that it disturbs the balance between the judiciary and the rule of law, and Parliament and the checks that Parliament has on executive power and the Government. The conclusion of The Independent Review of Administrative Law says, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, will remember:
“The Panel consider that the independence of our judiciary and the high reputation in which it is held internationally should cause the government to think long and hard before seeking to curtail its powers … It is inevitable that the relationship between the judiciary, the executive and Parliament will from time to time give rise to tensions … a degree of conflict shows that the checks and balances in our constitution are working well.”
I strongly agree with those sentiments. It is part of the proper process of constitutional democracy that each of those elements of our constitution should have a degree of tension with each other and hold each other in balance.
That is why I am in favour of amending this Bill to provide the simpler process of powers of Dissolution that Clause 2 provides—thus making Clause 3 unnecessary —and supplementing the desire for clarity of conventions by revising the Cabinet Manual to have a more fluent definition of Dissolution principles. If we do all three of those, we will substantially improve the constitutional value of this Bill.
My Lords, I would like to think that the Minister will find this argument conclusive. If he had accepted the amendment on Clause 2 that so many noble Lords thought was valuable—to have parliamentary resolution for a general election—we would not have needed this debate on the ouster clause and could have got home much earlier. But he has rejected it and that brings us to the debate about the ouster clause itself.
In normal circumstances, when eminent lawyers pronounce on issues of law and legality, those of us who are not lawyers intervene with some trepidation. I am relaxed on this issue, however, because the ghost in the room is the debate on Prorogation, not Dissolution, and that it went to the Supreme Court. We all know the debates surrounding that and those of us who are not lawyers are emboldened by the defence that the Divisional Court thought 100% in one direction and the Supreme Court thought 100% in the other. Whichever argument you pick, you will have a few top lawyers on your side.
In my view, that whole episode relates to that dreadful Parliament I keep referring to between 2017 and 2019. All that debate, which went to the Supreme Court, derived from the background of a dysfunctional Parliament—a bad case, if you like. So much of the debate we are having now is with that and the judgments that were made hanging over us. The list of dysfunctionalities of that Parliament knows no bounds. I mention one obvious point: there was a Speaker who, on the biggest debate of the day—the referendum result and its consequences—was highly partisan on one side of the argument. In those circumstances, all sorts of other undesirable things follow.
I, for one, very much regret that the Supreme Court decided to get involved in politics at the highest level. I know there are all sorts of disclaimers that it was not doing that, but that is precisely what happened. It is difficult to imagine a more dramatic, higher-profile political issue than that of leaving or not leaving the EU, and the Supreme Court came down decisively on one side of the argument, in practical terms. As soon as the courts are involved in these kinds of highly charged political areas, we are in trouble.
I can certainly see the need for this ouster clause, but I regret the need for it because we should have dealt with this in the simple way of a parliamentary majority. We keep hearing about the three pillars of the constitution: the judiciary, the Executive and the legislature. In my book, and perhaps I am biased, one of those is greater than the other two—a first among equals—and that is Parliament, which is answerable to the public in a way the other two are not.
I regret the need for this ouster clause. I think a far simpler solution is a resolution of Parliament that would never be challenged in the courts. The example of all that happened over Prorogation was a very unfortunate set of circumstances, with the courts becoming involved in the issue, and I hope it is never repeated.
My Lords, I have been listening to this debate and it has been extremely interesting. I will not detain the House because it is late, but what I find interesting—I am talking more generally about Clause 3, although I fully accept some of the points made about the wording and mission creep—is that this Government are claiming that the Bill simply restores the status quo ante. In fact, it is rather more difficult to restore the status quo ante than you might think.
In my view, the reason why Clause 3 is in the Bill is the Miller cases. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and I disagree on what you might call the direction of travel—we can have a conversation about that some other time—but the Government cannot have it both ways. They cannot claim that they are restoring the status quo ante and, at the same time, make the argument for Clause 3. When the Minister replies, it would be helpful if he at least acknowledged that the Bill does more than restore the status quo ante. I will leave it there, in view of the late hour.
My Lords, in this debate I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with almost every speaker—agreeing with something they said and disagreeing with something they said.
I start with the point made by my noble friend Lord Stansgate. If the Bill is merely returning to the status quo ante, as was said, I am not quite clear why we need a clause such as Clause 3. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Butler, who said that it seems inconceivable to him that the courts would insert themselves into a decision about a general election. As the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said, the practical consequences of doing so are quite disastrous and it is hard to contemplate the impact that would have on a democratic decision to have a general election.
The elephant in the room that has been alluded to is that everybody, whatever side of the argument they are on, is scarred by the unlawful Prorogation. I appreciate that this is about Dissolution, which is very different to Prorogation, but because of the unlawful Prorogation the Government are concerned that the courts may insert themselves into this decision-making. So, even though they are telling us that it returns us to where we were prior to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, they still feel the need for belt and braces. Yet there is also the view that it is a step too far and would never be needed anyway.
As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, pointed out, a neater way of avoiding the courts involving themselves in a decision about a general election, and avoiding bringing the monarch into a controversial political decision—the noble Lord, Lord Butler, commented on this—is for the House of Commons to have a vote. If the Government are concerned that, because of the way the legislation is drafted without Clause 3, there would be a danger of the courts intervening—in my view, there is not a role for the courts to intervene, but the Government are concerned that there may be—they have this clause. That is the chilling effect that people are concerned about.
This highlights the fact that the Government are not confident that their own legislation does reset. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, which probably surprises her as much as it surprises me, that it is legislation that tries to deal with shadows, because it is something we all hope will not happen. We have to look at this, and we need some more explanation from the Government as to why they feel it is necessary. It is hard to understand how the courts could and would insert themselves into a decision on a general election. I come back to the amendments in group two, particularly Amendment 3, being a better way to deal with this.
Could the noble Lord also address two things when he replies? Although there are the normal checks and balances of conventions, Parliament and parliamentary behaviour, one of our concerns, which comes back, sideways, to the unlawful Prorogation, is that we have a Prime Minister at the moment who does not really stick to the normal conventions of parliamentary behaviour that we expect. The noble Lord and I have had numerous discussions on this across the Dispatch Box—his face shows no emotion at the moment; I do not want to embarrass him. For example, I think that Prime Minister is the first Prime Minister to have ignored findings on the Ministerial Code, and the first to reject the advice of the House of Lords Appointments Commission and do what he wanted to do. In the same way as the 2017-19 Parliament, which my noble friend referred to as the dysfunctional Parliament, and the unlawful Prorogation influenced our decision, we are affected by the Prime Minister’s behaviour when we look at this. It is the same consideration.
Something is still needed to restore checks and balances. I am not convinced that it is this clause, but I would like to hear some more from the Minister, because most of us would be appalled that the courts would be involved in parliamentary sovereignty, for both practical and political reasons.
Could I get the noble Lord to address one final thing when he responds? I am still not clear about the word “purported”. I looked again at the Joint Committee’s report. Various lawyers, such as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, and Lord Sumption also commented that, basically, if the Government did something that was outwith their powers, we could do anything about it. If that is the intention behind clause, that is quite damaging. I would find it helpful if the noble Lord could explain why the word “purported” is in there and why it needs to be. I genuinely do not understand why it should be. That seems more dangerous than the clause itself.
My Lords, I will certainly seek to do so. I do not wish to pre-empt the Committee in any way. We obviously have other groups to come to. I anticipate that the debates on those will not be quite so lengthy but, given the importance of this amendment, I hope noble Lords will be forbearing if I address it in some detail to place these matters on the record, mindful as we all should be that arguments put at length in Committee should not be repeated at length on Report.
I took it from what the noble Baroness opposite said that the Labour Party agrees with us that the courts should not come anywhere near this. Other people have obviously argued otherwise. She came out with that other elephant in the room, which was glinting quietly in the mists behind the argument from the noble Lord, Lord Butler. She criticises my right honourable friend Minister. The elements are mixed in my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. He has apologised for actions, and things are subject to inquiries. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister is subject to the most unprecedented campaign of personal vilification that I have been aware of in modern politics in my lifetime. Notwithstanding that, I do not think that that justifies ad hominem legislation of any sort. This point was addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks.
The noble Lord, Lord Butler, based his argument on a claim that the Government sought “totalitarian” powers, with an advised plural. This matter concerns one process, as has been pointed out by several people who have spoken, and one process alone: the Dissolution of Parliament and the precipitation of a general election. I find nothing remotely totalitarian in a Government asking the public to be the Government’s judge.
Dissolution remains one of the most fundamental non-justiciable prerogative powers. Nobody has argued that it should be justiciable; some people said, “We do not need to have an ouster clause because it is obviously not”, et cetera. Dissolution is unique for two reasons. First, the constraints on it are democratic; the judgment on a Prime Minister’s decision to call an election is the electorate. There is no vacuum of accountability, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said. What greater judgment and punishment can be meted out if a Prime Minister abuses that power than the loss of power, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, told us? It is the ultimate political reprimand. Secondly, the security of the process of calling an election, and the election itself, underpins the integrity and health of our democracy. It is critical that exercise of the Dissolution prerogative, including the preliminary steps leading to the exercise of the power, are not made insecure. This prerogative power is inherently political in nature and it is not suitable for review by the courts. There is no legal standard that the courts can usefully apply to review the preliminary steps and the Dissolution decision itself.
“depend upon the subject matter of the prerogative power which is exercised”.
He agreed that the Dissolution of Parliament was not
“susceptible to judicial review because” its
“nature and subject matter is such as not to be amenable to the judicial process.”
Furthermore, as Lord Justice Taylor noted in Everett:
“At the top of the scale of executive functions under the prerogative are matters of high policy, of which examples were given by their Lordships; making treaties, making war, dissolving Parliament, mobilising the Armed Forces. Clearly those matters, and no doubt a number of others, are not justiciable.”
However, despite these clear directions from some of the most esteemed judicial authorities, in our judgment the direction of travel in the case law makes a clear and explicit statement of non-justiciability necessary.
As the Independent Review of Administrative Law noted—and I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Faulks for his role in that and for his reasoned and intelligent approach in leading that review,
“the past 40 years or so have seen a steady retreat within the law on judicial review away from the view that exercises of certain public powers are by their very nature non-justiciable in favour of the view that the exercises of those powers are either justiciable or reviewable on some grounds but not others.”
It is this reality that makes it necessary to include this clause leaving no room for doubt. The clause has been carefully drafted, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, divined, respecting the message from the courts that only, in the words of Lord Justice Laws, with
“the most clear and explicit words” can Parliament exclude their jurisdiction. I am afraid, therefore, that when noble Lords suggest that reviving the prerogative power would suffice—this touches on the point raised by the noble Viscount—as the courts would be excluded from reviewing a prerogative power, that does not take into account the direction of travel in the case law and would be to ignore the clear message of the courts themselves. That was the gravamen of the impressive speech of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, with which, in substance, I agreed, and also the submission of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown.
Noble Lords raised concerns with the specific wording of the clause, in particular the words “purported”, “limit” and “extent”, which I will address in detail. First, I emphasise that this clause says what is necessary and no more. Each of its words is necessary, in our judgment, to preserve the non-justiciability of the prerogative of Dissolution. Drafting this clause has been a technical challenge for counsel, and it has required a response to a range of case law. The purpose of the clause is to be as clear as possible about the “no-go” sign around the Dissolution and calling of Parliament, to preserve the sphere of political decision-making that provides the context for the exercise of the prerogative power of Dissolution and the preliminary steps leading to the exercise of that power. The Independent Review of Administrative Law, which had the benefit of seeing the Government’s clause, did not find it disproportionate but rather agreed that it can be regarded as a “codifying clause” which
“simply restates the position that everyone understood obtained before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was passed”.
I can tell the noble Viscount that it was the view of the Independent Review of Administrative Law that the clause restates the position.
I turn to the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Norton. I shall explain why the references to “purported” are needed. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who questioned “purported” in Committee; as a lay man, I must say that “purported” sounds an interesting word, to put it no finer. We heard an explanation of it earlier from my noble friend Lord Faulks.
As I said, the ordinary standards of administrative law as applied by the courts are simply not a suitable framework against which to judge the exercise of these prerogative powers or decisions relating to them. That applies particularly in the use of “purported” as understood by administrative law. It should not fall to the courts to assess a request to dissolve Parliament by reference to whether relevant considerations have been taken into account or irrelevant ones have been discounted; by reference to whether the request is rational or has been made for a proper purpose; or by reference to whether a fair process has been followed or whether there has been a failure to satisfy a legitimate expectation. That would be to ask the wrong questions in the wrong forum.
The word “purported” has been included in response to two cases in particular. I know that many noble Lords will be very familiar with the cases but perhaps it is useful to consider their particular relevance to the drafting of this clause. In the case of Anisminic Ltd v Foreign Compensation Commission, the Foreign Compensation Act 1950 contained a so-called ouster clause that provided that a “determination” made by the Foreign Compensation Commission shall not be
“called into question in any court of law”.
However, the House of Lords held that the ouster clause did not prevent it inquiring into whether the commission had made an error in law—in that case, by proceeding on a misconstruction of the order. It held that a determination invalidated by an error of law was not a determination at all; rather, it was merely a “purported” determination, or a nullity. The simple reference in the ouster clause to a “determination” of the commission did not cover purported determinations and therefore did not prevent the court looking at whether the commission had made a correct determination in law on the question of eligibility to claim compensation.
In that case, Lord Reid explained that
“it is a well-established principle that a provision ousting the ordinary jurisdiction of the court must be construed strictly—meaning, I think, that if such a provision is reasonably capable of having two meanings, that meaning shall be taken which preserves the ordinary jurisdiction of the court.”
If Parliament had intended the ouster clause to cover purported determinations, Lord Reid said, he would have expected to find something much more specific than a “bald” reference to a determination. That is an important consideration to bear in mind. It is for that reason that we cannot rely in Clause 3 on a bald reference to the exercise of the revived powers and decisions relating to those powers. References to “purported” are required to make plain the intention that it is not for the courts to examine a Dissolution and calling of Parliament against our administrative law framework.
That position is underlined by the recent case of Privacy International v Investigatory Powers Tribunal in 2019, in which the Supreme Court ruled that an ouster clause in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 did not oust the court’s jurisdiction to review a judgment of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal for error of law. Here, Lord Lloyd-Jones remarked that it was a striking feature that the ouster in the 2000 Act did not mention purported decisions, given that the drafter must have been aware of Anisminic. He expressed an expectation that those drafting legislation would have regard to the case law and make it clear if “purported decisions” are intended to be outside the jurisdiction of the courts. We submit that in this context, and based on the clear views expressed by the courts, it is reasonable that the Government should seek to draft Clause 3 in this clear and unequivocal way.
In short, we have included “purported” in Clause 3 to give effect to the principle that matters concerning the Dissolution and calling of Parliament are best judged by the electorate, not by the courts. This wording is essential to achieve that point.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, and I am grateful for the detail that he is going into. I am not a lawyer, but I am not the only person in your Lordships’ House tonight who is not. Can the Minister say, in lay man’s language, what he understands a “purported decision” to be? Can he give an example?
My Lords, as noble Lords know, I am a lay man. I have read out the legal advice that I have been given that it should not fall to the courts to assess by reference to whether relevant considerations have been taken into account or irrelevant ones have been discounted. I said that earlier in my speech. I will write to the noble Baroness if the words that I have put before Parliament are not sufficient, but they are the words that I have on advice.
My Lords, I suspect that those words are sufficient for lawyers, but I think the Minister’s understanding of this might be as great as mine at the moment, so I will perhaps take advice between now and Report so that I fully understand the implications of what he saying—because I do not think he is able to give me further detail either.
My Lords, I seek to put into the record the points put to me by those who argue and maintain that this is necessary.
I will further address the specific question of bad faith that was raised. This touches on another area around “purported”. Bad faith was mentioned by Lord Reid in Anisminic as one of the ways in which a decision may be treated as a nullity. Case law suggests that, if an exercise of power by a public body is taken in bad faith, it is unlawful and will be quashed by the court. A decision is taken in bad faith if it is taken dishonestly or maliciously, although the courts have also equated bad faith with any deliberate improper purpose. Therein lies the challenge. Again, there is no suitable standard by which a court can judge what an “improper purpose” is. By what standards can the courts assess the legitimate or illegitimate purpose—
I want to clarify something. Clearly, one reason to include the word “purported” is to deal with the annulling of decisions that have begun to be put into effect. But the Minister referred earlier to the importance of protecting the political space for the particular decision involved in this legislation: the calling of an election. Is it his understanding that this is quite unlike any other exercise of executive power? If it is not, I shall be even more worried because it would bring about situations in which it is generally publicly accepted that the courts were right to annul, for example, a bad faith decision or a decision that has taken none of the processes that should go with it.
I heard what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said and I was going to, and will, come on to this point. I am trying to put a considered position on the record for the benefit of the House between Committee and Report.
By what standards would a court assess the legitimate or illegitimate purpose, or for that matter the impropriety or propriety, of a Dissolution decision by a Prime Minister? Is a Government calling a snap election because that may be to their advantage in some way an improper purpose? Where is the line to be drawn? Ultimately, these are matters that political actors and the electorate, not, I respectfully suggest, judges and lawyers, are best placed to opine on.
Therefore, although bad faith is suitable in the context of behaviour seen as, for example, commercially unacceptable or a deliberate improper exercise of an ordinary discretion by a public authority, it is not a term that is apt in the context of the Dissolution and calling of Parliament. This is something that is inherently political or, in the words of Lord Justice Taylor, a matter of “high policy”. Dissolution is simply not amenable to these legal tests.
I turn to the second part—a further amendment to delete “limits or extent” from the clause. Again, I am grateful to my noble friend and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for meeting me prior to Committee to explain their thinking. I hope that what I am about to say reassures your Lordships’ Committee of the necessity and proportionality of Clause 3(c).
As with the inclusion of “purported”, the words “limits” and “extent” are also a necessary response to case law. Clause 3 is drafted in response to the judgment of the Supreme Court in Miller II; that is clear. By reference to certain constitutional principles, the Supreme Court established a legal limit on the power to prorogue Parliament and concluded that it had been exceeded. The point we want to make is that by framing the issue in Miller II as being about the limits of the power to prorogue Parliament, the court was able to put the arguments about non-justiciability to one side.
In analysing the importance of Miller II, the Independent Review of Administrative Law observed that
“it creates the potential for the courts to circumvent the ‘no-go’ signs currently mounted around the exercise of prerogative powers in relation to ‘matters of high policy ... [such as] … dissolving Parliament”.
Therefore, Clause 3(c) seeks to make it clear that in the context of the Dissolution and calling of Parliament, the “no-go” signs should not be circumvented in this way.
My second point is about what standards or limits a court may seek to impose. In Miller II, the Supreme Court considered that two principles of constitutional law were relevant in establishing the relevant limit on the power to prorogue; namely, parliamentary sovereignty and parliamentary accountability. The Prorogation of Parliament is of course different from the Dissolution and calling of Parliament, as we have heard more than once tonight. In particular, the latter enables the electorate to deliver their verdict on the incumbent Government.
However, one might conclude that a court could look to impose a limit on the revived prerogative powers to dissolve and call Parliament, analogous to the limit imposed on the power to prorogue Parliament in Miller II, and in effect require in law a Government, of whatever persuasion and under whatever lead, to have a reasonable justification for calling an election in certain circumstances.
To paraphrase the independent review, in the case of Dissolution, deleting the words “limits” and “extent” would allow the courts to impose
“various conditions on when such a power can be said to have been validly exercised”, and then declare
“that the power has not been exercised at all if those conditions are not observed.”
The Government consider that this would be an entirely inappropriate limit on the revived prerogative powers.
As I have argued, the Dissolution and calling of Parliament are inherently political decisions that are entirely unsuitable for review by the courts. More specifically, with relevance to Clause 3(c), we do not believe that it is appropriate for the courts to impose legal limits of this sort on when a Parliament may be dissolved and a general election called.
In reply to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, we contend that this clause is not contrary to the rule of law. The Government agree with the independent review, which said:
“It is … for Parliament to decide what the law … should be, and it is for the courts to interpret what Parliament has said.”
“not inherently incompatible with the rule of law” for Parliament
“to designate certain matters as ones which” should
“be resolved in the political … sphere”.
I come now to the point of precedent raised by the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for whose conversations I was very grateful. They asked a specific question and voiced their concerns that this clause sets a precedent. It is not so. As I have explained, Clause 3 is a very specific clause drafted with a particular purpose in mind; namely, to confirm a widely shared view of the nature of the prerogative powers to dissolve and call Parliament. For this reason, it is more accurately described, to use the phraseology of the independent review, as a “codifying clause”—a clause that in effect seeks to prevent the courts in future declaring something to be justiciable that is already currently understood to be non-justiciable.
In this case, it is seeking to ensure the non-justiciability of the prerogative powers for the Dissolution and calling of Parliament, which traditionally the courts have had no role in reviewing—nothing more. This is a bespoke exclusion to address this precise task.
This may be an observation intended to help the Minister. Since the Bill was drafted, the Judicial Review and Courts Bill has been introduced. It contains an ouster clause, but one that is qualified as opposed to absolute, so the argument that this is being used as some form of basis for future ouster clauses seems to be defied by recent legislative practice.
I will come to that particular piece of legislation—definitely—since it has been raised. To complete what I was saying, the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament is the ultimate expression of humility on the part of the Executive, placing its future and power into the hands of the people. We therefore believe that Clause 3 is appropriate and necessary, as judgment on the Government’s actions in such matters should be left solely to the electorate at the polling booth. I stress that we are asking Parliament to consider these arguments and endorse this clause in this Bill—nothing more. The Judicial Review and Courts Bill, by way of contrast, contains an ouster clause to prevent the judicial review of decisions of the Upper Tribunal to refuse permission to appeal decisions of the First-Tier Tribunal.
I turn to the potential consequences of the amendments proposed. Deleting the wording or the clause would undoubtedly make the dissolution prerogative more susceptible to potential litigation. In effect, the decisions in Anisminic, Privacy International and Miller II potentially offer a route for a court, or more precisely a mischievous litigator, to derail an election process by taking the Government to court for calling an election for political imperatives with which they may disagree. The suggestion by noble Lords to delete “purported decisions” is equally disagreeable, for it would arguably provide litigators with a route to try to delay an election through a court case that could examine why an election has been called on one date rather than another. This, I think, we can all agree would be entirely undesirable.
The clause prevents political litigation about the timing of elections; litigation that I am sure your Lordships dread as much as I do and—I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood—I am sure much of the judiciary would dread. Let me emphasise what it is that we are trying to protect: it is nothing less than the legal certainty of our elections, which underpins our democracy. If the courts can vitiate a Dissolution decision, the principle of the legal certainty of our elections is violated and the courts are inescapably drawn, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said, into making decisions and weighing political imperatives that they are not equipped to do.
If there is an intervention, is the election timetable then suspended? Are the people to be informed that a court might deny them the right to have their democratic say? If the court process moves slowly, could the situation arise where a court then dismisses or questions an election result? Asking the courts to review a Dissolution decision is to ask them to weigh the political merits and imperatives of the decision; it is inherent in the nature of the question. If the courts can vitiate a Dissolution decision, the principle of the legal certainty of our elections is violated and the courts are inescapably drawn into making decisions and weighing political imperatives.
More practically, we must consider the risk that we might send a signal to mischievous and politically motivated litigators that they can disrupt the process with vexatious and frivolous claims against Dissolution. Even the threat of such a court case would be disruptive to the process, drag our judges into the political fray and cause huge expense and delay and a frustration of the democratic process. There is no surer way of risking the reputation of the judicial system among many sections of the British people, no surer way for the courts to be seen as a political institution, and no surer way to drag the sovereign into politics. These are not scenarios for which your Lordships can possibly wish. It is wise to take all the necessary steps to be absolutely certain, without a shadow of doubt, to ensure that these scenarios do not occur.
Finally, let me directly confront the case put by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, that, by removing a judicial oversight, this clause allows a licence for the Executive—far from it. The exercise of the prerogative power is a question for the political, not the judicial, sphere, and the remedies and constraints are in that political sphere.
Our constitution has for centuries proved well able to avoid extremities and has provided for accountable checks on the Executive, and these checks are both pre and post hoc. In terms of pre-hoc checks, a Prime Minister requests a Dissolution of the sovereign which, in exceptional circumstances, can be refused. In parallel, the core constitutional principle that the sovereign must not be drawn into party politics acts as an important deterrent to improper requests being made. That is an immense latent force in our constitutional arrangements. Furthermore, the Government, in response to the Joint Committee, amended the Bill prior to its introduction to Parliament so that the statutory election period will be triggered automatically by the Dissolution of Parliament. This will ensure that the theoretical possibility of a Dissolution without an ensuing election period is eliminated.
There are also post-hoc checks and incentives on the Executive that have worked for many years, effectively compelling Parliament to be called as soon as feasible after an election. The Government of the day must be able to command the confidence of the elected House. Unduly and unnecessarily delaying the calling or meeting of a new Parliament is not in the interest of any Government seeking to make progress on the mandate it has received at a general election. Most importantly, the Dissolution and calling of Parliament are powers that pave the way to a general election and a new Parliament. Again, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, reminded us, the actions of the Prime Minister and the Government are subject to the judgment of the electorate and, in due course, to that of a new Parliament.
If a Prime Minister acts—as we alleged one might—nefariously, even if a Prime Minister acts contrary to prior expectations and past practice, that will be judged by the electorate. It is also available to that new Parliament to undertake the nuclear option of passing a Motion of no confidence on the new Government, almost immediately, if it wishes, on an amendment to the Queen’s Speech. These practical constraints on the Executive have served us well for many generations. As we see, the checks on Dissolution are practical and political; they should not be legal.
I apologise for speaking at such length, but I hope noble Lords will understand the importance of putting these points on the record for your Lordships to consider between now and Report. If any other points have been raised in the debate, I will, of course, write. I sincerely hope that noble Lords will reconsider their amendments and urge them to join the view of the other place to not permit the entry of the courts and support this clause
My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beith, that it has been a very good debate in light of the quality of the contributions that we have heard. I think it demonstrates the value of this House in being able to hear and rehearse these arguments.
I noticed yesterday when the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, was presiding over our proceedings and the Minister was at the Dispatch Box that the Minister resigned. When I saw that the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, was in the Chair this evening and the Minister was at the Dispatch Box I wondered for a moment whether something might happen.
My noble friend Lord True will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with the argument that he has advanced. I retain my points in opening that this clause, particularly the use of the word purported, does not restore the status quo ante and is objectionable on principle. I have previously quoted the late Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who once opposed an amendment being brought forward for the avoidance of doubt on the grounds that there was no doubt to be avoided. I think we may be in a similar situation here. It is quite clear that the courts would not get involved in this, despite what has been claimed about the direction of case law recently. I do not think the issue really arises, in part for the reasons given by my noble friend Lord True. The problems he adumbrated a few moments ago would be reasons why the courts would stay completely clear of entertaining any case relating to this.
My objection is really on the grounds of principle. I do not think it appropriate to try to limit the power of the courts because one disagrees with particular decisions of theirs. It is objectionable on principle. The argument has been advanced that it sets a precedent; my noble friend Lord True said, “No, this does not set a precedent; it is a bespoke solution.” The problem, I fear, is that on future occasions, Governments will find a bespoke solution based on what is included in this Bill.
I maintain my position. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said about the purpose being to keep the courts out of politics, but my fear is that putting “purported” in is designed to keep the courts out of the law. So I am not persuaded by what my noble friend Lord True said. I am sure that we will come back to this on Report but, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
Amendments 5 and 6 not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
Clause 4: Automatic dissolution of Parliament after five years