Amendment 7

Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 25th January 2022.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

Moved by Lord Wallace of Saltaire

7: Clause 4, page 2, line 2, leave out “If it has not been dissolved earlier,”Member’s explanatory statementThis is a probing amendment aimed at debating the expectation of how long a Parliament should be in normal circumstances.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, before I speak to Amendments 7 and 9, I want to say one or two things about the conditions for Report. Here we are, late at night. We have just listened to the Minister make what I think is the longest speech I have ever heard to sum up in Committee, at 30 minutes, and there are still some important issues to debate. I appreciate that the length of his speech reflected the complexity and importance of the issues in a constitutional Bill; that being the case, we will need the time on Report, with a full House and without the enforcement of unusually short speeches, to discuss them further.

The House of Commons went through the Committee, Report and Third Reading stages of this Bill in less than two hours—not good for a constitutional Bill. This House is going through its Committee stage in a few hours, stretching late into the night. I very much hope that, when we come to Report, the usual channels will ensure that we start in prime time and address the very important issues, particularly in Clauses 2 and 3, at length and with the House listening.

Amendments 7 and 9 are probing amendments on the balance between frequent elections and regular elections and, secondly, about what time of the year they should be held if possible. I speak as someone with experience of having fought two elections in one year, the first in February and the second in late October. Yesterday, I talked to a former Conservative MP who said that he remembered having the impression of being damp for an entire month during a winter election. It is good for democracy if we have elections on a regular basis and in good weather in the summer; that is why I suggest that, where possible, we should have elections in June.

It is also good because regular elections allow for a longer period to know when controlled expenditure should be imposed and when the Opposition are entitled to talk to the Civil Service to prepare for a potential change of government. The prime ministerial prerogative to jump elections when they think is most to their advantage—we have not yet talked about incumbency advantage—deprives the Opposition of the advantage to prepare properly for governance afterwards. Good governance matters to an effective constitutional democracy.

I am also concerned about the effective monitoring and administration of campaigns. I go and talk to my local electoral registration team from time to time; my ear has been bent on the difficulties of running election campaigns at short notice. I heard anger in Bradford some months ago about Conservative MPs saying, “There is no problem—all it requires is for staff to work harder if it comes to it”.

I tabled the amendments to test the question: how often do we want to have elections, and do we wish to leave it entirely open as to whether they are in December, January or June? In my opinion, the default should be June, not coinciding with the May elections or devolved national elections. The exceptions should be at times of the year not including winter. That is the purpose of my amendments.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 10:00 pm, 25th January 2022

My Lords, I have found the debate fascinating today. I thank the Minister for the detailed responses he has given. I have not changed my mind on any of the issues, and I very much support the noble Lords, Lord Norton and Lord Butler, and my noble friend Lord Grocott on the issues they have raised.

I looked around the House and realised I was probably the only person present who fought and won both the elections in 1974. I have been sitting here thinking what the weather was like. I know what it was like. On 28 February, it was snowing as I was still knocking up at 9.30 pm out in the constituency; it was a very important period in my life. My noble friend Lady Taylor asked me during one of the debates whether I would have supported a quick election a month after I had won in 1974. I was physically whacked at that point. Therefore, I was quite content, because the message came through after we all assembled that there would have to be another election later in the year. But that is not really what I want to raise.

I am going to devalue the debate; I am sorry about that. In respect of the length of a Parliament, I accept that the Bill restores the status quo; that is probably the least important part of the Bill. But in my view that is no excuse not to put the issue on the record for the future. I am going to repeat much of what I said on Second Reading. Five years is not the norm for general elections in the UK, to start with. I am no academic and no expert, but I know in the past that there was a legal maximum of three years, and there was a period where there was a legal maximum of seven years. I think the maximum has been five years since the Parliament Act 1911, but five-year Parliaments are rare.

Going early is a clear advantage to the sitting Government. That is why, during the 1970s, 1980s and probably 1990s, I became convinced that I was in favour of a fixed-term Parliament, because I could see the manipulation that was going on and the temptation for Governments to manipulate the economy, basically. In some ways, I regret that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 failed. It was designed to fail, almost. I accept it is going, and I am not trying to bring it back, but there are some difficulties with going back to the status quo ante.

There have been 20 general elections since 1945. Thirteen have been early, and the sitting Prime Minister won 10 out of those 13. Those 20, between 1945 and the last general election, were within 74 years, so we are talking about an election just under every four years. My experience in the other place was of seven general elections, and I sat for 27 years, so we averaged just under four years.

It was worse, in a way, not knowing when elections were going to be. My party was not a rich party. We had no offices in the city. Each time, I had to find somewhere for a headquarters, not knowing when the election was, and get phones in. It was difficult in those days, but nevertheless it was a joy to be in the other place for so long.

Giving the Prime Minister the choice of date is an advantage in the electoral system, and that is what I am against. I realise that building the checks and balances is not easy, because for every check there are disadvantages either way. But I do not think that it should be built into the system. As I said, I accept that we are abandoning the fixed term that we brought in in 2011. What I object to is the maximum length, which should be more like what we are actually used to, which is four years rather than five. There is some support for this view. People think that Governments run out of steam after four years, and there is some evidence for that but my point is not about it. My objection is quite different. Governments that seek to rig the electoral system, as this one is attempting to do, should be more limited as to how long it is before they meet the electorate. I want to shorten the time. I almost put an amendment down for three years to strengthen the point that I wanted to make—which I made at Second Reading, but when you have a good story to tell it is worth repeating.

This is nothing personal to any of the Ministers either here or in the other place, but there is a pattern whereby the Government are attempting overall to rig the electoral system. There is a succession of Bills and regulations before Parliament or due to come before Parliament, and I have a little list, which is not exhaustive, of their intentions: voter suppression, straight out of the Trump playbook, which we are about to get; action against the courts, shrinking their ability to hold the ruling party to account—that is the reality— curbing citizens’ right to protest; restricting the freedom of the press by removing the public interest defence; moves against election monitors and the referee in a concerted attack on the Electoral Commission, whose powers have never been as strong as I thought they should have been; widening the scope of the Official Secrets Act; and open attempts before our eyes to control the media via Ofcom.

There is a pattern here. We deal with each little bit as it comes along and have debates like we have had today, of a very high quality and forensic in looking at what is a very small Bill with massive implications—but the debate is in the context of this Bill. We have arguments already flattened by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, who said, “No, the ouster clause won’t be used as a precedent, because there’s another Bill that hasn’t got the same ouster clause in.” This can make the point, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, did, that the draftsman will find a way. I am very disappointed that the draftsmen have co-operated with all this, because they have operated under instructions. There are all these issues and others, which I will not go over. I quoted Lord Puttnam at Second Reading, who gave a couple of further examples.

It all makes it harder for a Government to lose power. That is what the pattern actually creates. Would a four-year limit stop this? No. I am just trying to shorten it from five. Would it limit the damage? Well, maybe. Is it worth raising? Oh yes, because I intend to raise it at every possible opportunity; not just on this Bill, but on all the others as they come. I am not alone. There are the Select Committees that were mentioned earlier, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. We have had two incredibly powerful reports published just before Christmas from this House—the unelected House—about the threats to our democratic process, which is really important.

This is where the tragedy is in some ways. I would love to be able to switch off from what I have now and pop back to the other place for a couple of years and say, “By the way, it’s not quite like we think it is. Things have got bad—it’s a little bit back in time.” That is not possible, however, because I came to this place ignorant of its powers, even though I had been down there and was a Minister as I swapped over. There is massive ignorance among the Members of both places about our roles and what we are doing.

I do not have a solution to this because the argument is always, “You’re unelected, you don’t count.” But because we are unelected and we do not have a vote in a general election, we are disinterested in some ways. I see no problem in this place saying to the other place to think again, because we are only a sub-committee of the other place. All our powers are to ask it to think again. At every opportunity, the House of Commons rightly has the last word. It does not matter what happens—it has the last word in every case.

I know that in extremes the Parliament Act can be used, but it been used only twice in my time. It is still the case, however, that the Commons has the final word. That is the case I always put across when doing the Peers in Schools programme. Our powers are incredibly limited, but they mean we can say, “Think again”. Sometimes we say, “And again”. I think there are a couple of examples where it was three times, then this place—obviously, as it is unelected—said, “You’ve had a good think about it, we’ll leave it alone.” That is our function. The fact is that they did not change that in the Bill.

There is an interchange sometimes when Ministers talk about Parliament but are actually talking about the Government. Government and Parliament are interchangeable—well, to Ministers they might be, but to the rest of the population they are not. Ministers say that Parliament has decided, but they mean that the majority controlled by the Government in the other place has decided. It is the Government who have decided. The whipping system and the timetable system have decided. In some ways I greatly regret the timetabling system used down there, but we had good reasons. I have lived through guillotines and I know what the rules were. What was it—100 hours to get a guillotine for wasting time upstairs in Committee? That is why timetabling was brought in.

The fact is that we receive Bills in this place that have not been thoroughly examined in the elected Chamber and that is a tragedy. There was a time when I tried, as a Minister, to suggest that we ought to have Bills with the bits that had not been discussed highlighted, but it is incredibly complicated to say which sections were not debated or looked at; you just cannot do it. We have to use our common sense and gumption.

The fact is that they are not doing their job in the Commons. That is the reality. Their job is to keep an eye on the Government and to question what the Executive are doing—and they are simply not doing it. They are distracted by other things, such as trying to do the job of local councillors for a start. It is easy for me to say that because it was not like that. I do not want to say that those were the good old days and throw back, but the House of Commons is not doing its job of scrutinising the Executive and we are receiving legislation that has not been properly scrutinised. Then, unfortunately, the Government say, “Oh, it’s the House of Lords, always defeating the Government.” We are not; we are simply saying that we want the Commons to do its job. That is what we are asking them to do.

In this case, I would be astonished if Clause 3 is still in the Bill when it leaves this place. There is the amendment supported by the Cross Benches and the noble Lord, Lord Butler, about letting Parliament decide on Dissolution; if you have one, you do not need the other. It is simple. Keep the judges away—I absolutely agree with that—but there is an easy way to do it: let the elected House do it.

I have made my point, but I shall keep coming back. For each Bill and regulation that comes along, I will recite the same list, because there is a pattern and the penny has to drop at some point.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour 10:15 pm, 25th January 2022

My Lords, I very much enjoyed the speech of my noble friend, for whom—I hope he will allow me to say—I have a great deal of affection. I am very interested in the list that he has and will use again; there is great merit in much of it.

I remember the weather on 28 February 1974, and it was shocking—appalling. I think my noble friend said that there was snow where he was; in the constituency where I was working it was solid rain, but I will say that the turnout improved compared to the previous election because it was an election that people thought mattered. The other thing about the weather, referred to by a noble Lord when he talked about the time of year that he would like elections to be held, is that I remember the weather in June 1970—it was gorgeous where I was. As I am about to tell the House on Friday, I cast my first vote in the election of June 1970. It was wonderful weather and it was an election called early by the then Prime Minister—and he lost. That was my first recollection of general elections: you can be very disappointed.

I hope my noble friend will not press his Amendment 8 to a vote, but I would find it difficult to join him if he did, because there is an element of flexibility in this. For more than 100 years, five years has been the standard length of a Parliament, and there is no reason to go beyond that. As he says, in his own experience—he has had a great deal of experience in another place in here—the period between elections averaged about four years. Therefore, without legislating, I think you will find that if you keep the period of five years, in practice events will unfold in such a way as to make it an average of about four years over a period of many Parliaments.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues)

My Lords, I rise briefly, if only to remind your Lordships’ House that the Labour Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and I were not able to vote in 1974, but that is probably not a good reason for rising to the Dispatch Box at this time of night.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Rooker for raising a number of issues that have concerned this House as a whole. I think it was my noble friend Lord Coaker who, during the debate on the police Bill last Monday, reminded the House that we were discussing measures to curtail protests that even Margaret Thatcher would not have contemplated during the worst times—as she would have seen it—of the miners’ strikes. We have moved a long way in what we think of as acceptable.

I point out that in 1838 the Chartists had six demands. All have been met, and we have gone beyond on some, such as the universal male suffrage that they wanted—we have improved on that—except for the one demand of theirs that has never been met, which is for annual elections. I am not making that case.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank noble Lords; I am very grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Rooker, for tabling these amendments, which have initiated what has been an interesting short debate, if not necessarily always on the amendments. In 1974, I remember pushing a pushchair and delivering literature, though not necessarily for the Labour Party of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker.

If noble Lords do not mind, I will stick to the amendments and not answer any further questions. The Bill makes express provision for Parliament to automatically dissolve five years after it has first met. This is the most straightforward way to calculate the five-year term. It also remains the case that your Lordships’ House has an absolute veto on legislation to extend the life of any Parliament.

I first turn to the question of the length of parliamentary terms. I have heard the argument for a four-year term, and I heard from the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, that he does not necessarily agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on this. However, the Government remain of the very strong view that five years is the right maximum length for any Parliament.

A maximum five-year term allows the Government time to undertake and implement their programme without having to start any electioneering. This is an important issue that I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, took into account as he did not mention it. Any Government have to deliver on the programme that is in their manifesto. Five years is a maximum period which I and the Government believe balances sensible, long-term government with ensuring that a Government and Parliament are accountable to the electorate in a timely manner.

In fact, we can that see parliamentary terms have developed their own effective and flexible rhythm. A strong Government seeking a fresh mandate might seek a Dissolution after four years. Anything less than four years is usually a sign of some political crisis or emergency. Often, Parliaments are dissolved for political necessity rather than choice, to put a policy or political question to the electorate or to resolve a political crisis. Moreover, shorter maximum terms invariably mean earlier speculation about whether a Parliament will see out its full term. This speculation does not serve Parliament, the public or businesses well. The former Cabinet Secretary noted in evidence at PACAC that longer-term Parliaments and longer-term tenures for both senior civil servants and Ministers would all be very good for Governments, who are increasingly having to face up to very long-term issues, as we have seen recently.

Finally, this question was reviewed by the Joint Committee, which did not question the starting premise that five years is the appropriate duration for parliamentary terms and the life cycle of a Parliament.

I will now address the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on the timing of elections. The noble Lord has reflected on the experience of the electorate in December 2019 and observed that winter elections are not desirable. I hope your Lordships will allow me to relate Stanley Baldwin’s comments on the impossibility of finding a time for an election that suits everyone. On 23 October 1935, when seeking a Dissolution, Mr Baldwin observed on the timing of elections:

“Therefore I have long come to the conclusion that you must rule out the spring and summer months because of financial business. You must rule out August and September because of the holidays. You are left with the autumn, but in no circumstances must you run into any interference with the Christmas trade.”—[Official Report, Commons, 23/10/1935; col. 154.]

Those light-hearted remarks contain an important kernel of truth.

Certainly, outside times of political tumult when exceptional elections are necessary, it may well be the case that a Prime Minister would prefer not to call on the public to venture out to cast their vote in the depths of winter. I share the noble Lord’s sentiment that winter elections do not provide the most ideal conditions for queuing at a polling station or canvassing from door to door. The election in 2019 was, of course, exceptional and was called to bring an end to a period of extended parliamentary deadlock.

Nevertheless, the purpose of the Bill is to provide for a system that will serve successive Governments. As the 2011 Act has taught us, we should not draft our constitutional arrangements in response to one event. There is no guarantee that, in the future, an election will not again be required in December—or February, as in 1974, which we have heard about. So it would not be wise to legislate in the long term for an event that was an exception to the rule. Our arrangements need to be adaptable. That is the important point.

The challenge of the approach set out in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is that it prevents the flexibility necessary for a Government to respond to particular circumstances. As such, I suggest to the noble Lord that to subject the timing of elections to this particular constraint—even if Parliaments do not normally run their full term—would run counter to that objective.

The purpose of the Bill is to revive arrangements that have stood, and will continue to stand, the test of time. I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Rooker, for stimulating this fascinating discussion but I hope that your Lordships’ Committee will agree with me that Clause 4, unamended, is the most suitable approach to achieve that aim. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, noting that we may return on at least one of these amendments on Report. That remains to be discussed.

Amendment 7 withdrawn.

Amendments 8 and 9 not moved.

Clause 4 agreed.

Clause 5 agreed.

Clause 6: Extent, commencement and short title