Amendment 10

Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 25th January 2022.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

Moved by Lord Wallace of Saltaire

10: Clause 6, page 2, line 13, leave out subsection (3) and insert—“(3) This Act comes into force when a revised Dissolution Principles document has been laid before Parliament and—(a) the revised Dissolution Principles document has been approved by a resolution of the House of Commons; and(b) the House of Lords has debated a motion to take note of the revised Dissolution Principles document. (3A) The Dissolution Principles document under subsection (3) must be revised to refer to a “request” from the Prime Minister to the Sovereign to dissolve Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment seeks to implement a recommendation from the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act to revise the Dissolution Principles document.

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

My Lords, the purpose of the two amendments in this group is to draw attention to recommendations made in the Joint Committee report and in a number of other parliamentary reports to which the Government have responded weakly and inadequately.

Paragraph 15 of the Joint Committee report states:

“The move to reduce executive dominance in key parts of the UK constitutional arrangements … was accompanied by a desire to clarify and make public the understanding of constitutional conventions.”

It then references the White Paper, The Governance of Britain, of 2007, and the drafting of the Cabinet Manual. The Constitution Committee’s report, Revision of the Cabinet Manual, published last July, stated at paragraph 35:

“We recommend that a draft update of the Cabinet Manual should be produced as soon as possible, and not later than 12 months from the date of this report.”

Paragraph 44 states:

“We note the open and constructive engagement which took place between the then Government and parliamentary committees on the first draft of the Cabinet Manual in 2010–11.”

Paragraph 45 goes on:

“We recommend that future drafts, including draft individual chapters, should be shared with our Committee and the relevant committee in the House of Commons for comment. This can help to achieve consensus”— a word the Government do not seem fully to understand—

“on the text.”

It added that the next draft should commit to regular revision at the beginning of each Parliament—a summary of conventions, so that there is clarity and these things are understood.

On Dissolution principles, the Joint Committee at paragraphs 227 and 228 says that

“legislation—by definition—does not create or restore conventions … there needs to be a political process to identify, and to articulate, what those conventions are … The overwhelming consensus of those who gave evidence to the Committee is that the Dissolution Principles document falls short.”

Given that the Dissolution document as produced by the Government has received fairly universal criticism and very little approbation, it is quite remarkable that the Government have not yet provided a draft. I hope that the Minister will be able to say that a draft is now well under way and will shortly be provided. I say this with particular emphasis because we may well come out of the next election without a single-party majority. It is quite likely that there will be at least four parties which have two dozen MPs and another two parties which have perhaps a dozen, so there could be a very complicated outcome. At that point, we will need some clear guidance, understood by all those likely to be involved, about how government will be formed in a difficult situation.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in July 2021 pressed the Minister to issue a revised Dissolution principles document, which has not yet been provided, and the Minister in the other place, Chloe Smith, told the Commons on 13 September that there was

“ongoing dialogue to be had”—[Official Report, Commons, 13/9/21; col. 751.] on Dissolution conventions. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us how that dialogue is going on, when it might conclude and whether he thinks it is appropriate for this Bill to become an Act before those necessary documents to mark and clarify our conventions, which should accompany it, have been published and agreed with Parliament. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 10:30 pm, 25th January 2022

My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord about the need for a revision of the Cabinet Manual. It is long overdue. I see the point of his amendment is to try to spur that, so I put on record the importance of bringing it up to date and incorporating quite a lot of material that needs putting in.

I am a bit wary of the noble Lord’s amendments, particularly Amendment 10, because he is trying to get Parliament to approve something which is really in the gift of government. The Dissolution Principles are those which would govern the Prime Minister in requesting a Dissolution, and that really is a matter for government and the principles that will govern that. It might be laid before Parliament, but there really should not be a requirement for it to be approved by a resolution of the House of Commons.

There should be an update of the Cabinet Manual, but it is important to remember that the Cabinet Manual is not something that needs to be endorsed by Parliament. It is distinct from Parliament and draws together the provisions, as we understand them, and the conventions, but it is a manual for government to which we can have recourse. Yes, there should be dialogue with committees and consultations so that we can feed into that, but at the end of the day it is within the remit of the government. It is a government document, not one to be endorsed by Parliament.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that it does not have to be agreed by Parliament, but the Cabinet Manual is a really interesting document. I remember when it came out; other noble Lords might remember it as well. I believe it was triggered and inspired by the then Government and the then Cabinet Secretary, who is a Member of this House. It is a pity that he is not here because he could play a big part in the short debate that we are having on this question.

For those who have never seen it, it was a fascinating document because it encapsulated the conventions that had existed for many years but had never been codified in any way. It was very useful. I feel very sorry, incidentally, that, for a debate such as this, the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, is not here to take part. Our debates would be hugely enriched by having him here; of course, he coined one of the phrases of recent times, the “good chaps theory of government”. Many of the things that we have been discussing have illustrated ways in which people feel that we are departing from that theory and we are discovering that our constitution is capable of being abused. I do not want to go back over history, but we would not have had the discussion that we had about Clause 3 and references to the Miller case without that being an obvious example, and there are others.

Of course, this will not be pressed to a Division tonight, but a great deal more attention should be paid to the Cabinet Manual. I am rather unclear as to how it could be revised and who would be involved in doing it. A noble Lord said earlier that we were talking about where power lies in our constitution. When I visited a school recently, I recommended that the students read the Cabinet Manual, or at least have it to hand, because if they wanted to understand our constitution, that was an essential part of it. The sixth-formers looked at me rather blankly and I do not blame them in the slightest. That does not mean to say that I was wrong, because it still is very important. I am not sure how it could be updated, but it would be a very good thing. It is rather like when Gandhi was asked what he thought of civilisation in Britain and he replied, “Well, I think it would be a very good thing.”

Nevertheless, I support the spirit of the amendment and I would be interested to know whether we are going to come back to this on Report. If so, I hope to play a modest part in the debate at that stage.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Chief Whip (Lords), Deputy Chairman of Committees

I just want to say how much I enjoyed my noble friend’s speech. I very much agree with his points and those of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. The Cabinet Manual is an important document. It is a government document, not a parliamentary one, but we need to ensure that it is used properly and respected. That is a very important point to make.

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 think that we have had a slightly longer and more interesting discussion on this than we anticipated at the start. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, made a very valid point, not least because we have spoken a lot tonight about the normal conventions and practices of parliamentary politics. It remains to be seen whether the actions of this Government and this Prime Minister, in ignoring so many of them, will become the norm or whether, once he has gone, whenever that might be—it might be sooner than he anticipates—we will return to the normal way of abiding by the conventions.

I wonder whether the Cabinet Manual will be amended to say what happens or what should happen. I was amused earlier today when I read the section on the principles of collective Cabinet government. Paragraph 4.2 says:

“The Cabinet system of government is based on the principle of collective responsibility. All government ministers are bound by the collective decisions of Cabinet”, which seems a remote concept at the moment, but perhaps we will return to those days as well.

Even though it is not within the power of Parliament to say that these documents should be updated, as with the Ministerial Code—the introduction to which now seems so dated and irrelevant in many ways because what is referred to in it has largely passed—there should be this regular updating. If we are to have a dynamic Parliament and a dynamic constitution, we need to update as appropriate.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee, Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has frequently looked forward to that fabled day when the Liberal Democrats will again have, as he sees it, a balance of power in government. Perhaps a manual could be published on what would be the likely behaviour of the Liberal Democrats in the event they had such constitutional authority.

Jokes apart, I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising these points. They are two fundamentally important documents, which, as my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, pointed out, are government documents. We published a Dissolution Principles document because we are aware that principles can operate effectively only when they are commonly understood and, yes, when there is tacit agreement that they should be respected, irrespective of the particular political challenges and circumstances of the day. There has been substantial discussion and scrutiny of the principles, including by the Joint Committee chaired by my noble friend Lord McLoughlin, by PACAC in the other place, and in dialogue back and forth.

As others have said, Amendment 10 proposes that there should be a process for Parliament to scrutinise a restatement of the principles in the form of a vote in both Houses, which has the difficulties that my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and others referred to. The Government have reservations that this would be a step towards a codification of principles and conventions, just as we saw that the 2011 Act, which we have discussed, was not necessarily helpful because of the need for flexibility. In fact, Lord Sumption recognised in principle the challenges of codification when he gave evidence to the Joint Committee. He argued:

“One should be careful not to start codifying conventions, because their practical value is that they represent experience and practice … what is required to make Parliament work is not necessarily the same today as it was half a century ago.”

That will be so in the future. The Government believe that a careful balance needs to be struck between ensuring that there is a tacit agreement that these principles should be upheld—I acknowledge the duty to be mindful of the views of people inside and outside politics—and leaving space for these conventions to move in line with the political context.

In practical terms, on this and the next amendment, the Government would be concerned that this amendment means that the provisions of the Bill would only come into effect once both Houses had considered and voted on a Dissolutions principle. That risks creating uncertainty around the coming into force of the Act and, therefore, the arrangements for calling any election, which we have all agreed today should be avoided.

The same applies to Amendment 11. As noble Lords have emphasised throughout the debates today, constitutional conventions have a vital role to play in our parliamentary democracy. I am conscious that the separate tradition of the Liberal Democrats, which I respect, is that they wish more and more to be written down. The Cabinet Manual, alongside other authoritative texts such as Erskine May, is an important point of reference and reflection for how conventions are understood—but iterations enable evolution.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is quite right to say that it will be necessary to revisit these sections of the Cabinet Manual once the 2011 Act is repealed. The Cabinet Manual recognises that conventions continue to evolve, and the Government will in due course respond to the report of the Constitution Committee and set out their intentions with regard to updating the Cabinet Manual. We are grateful to the committee for its considered review of the manual and its thoughtful identification of the key issues that ought to be considered in terms of any update. I am acutely aware that the Government’s response is long overdue, and I have humbly apologised for this to the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor. We are carefully considering those recommendations and will respond in due course.

To continue on the amendment, the Government agree that the Cabinet Manual should be an accurate reflection of our constitutional arrangements, but we are of the view that this amendment for a parliamentary vote is unnecessarily restrictive, for the reasons given by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and others. But the Government are particularly concerned that the provisions of the Bill would only come into force once a revised version of the Cabinet Manual has been published. Such an undertaking would necessarily require a considerable amount of work. Tying the provisions of the Bill to such a project risks creating uncertainty, which, again, we wish to avoid.

Both these amendments would run the risk of fixing our understanding of these conventions at a point in time—that is point one—undermining the flexibility that is essential to our constitutional arrangements. On the matter of the Cabinet Manual, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment, which would add complications because of the Catch-22 situation: the Cabinet Manual draws its authority from its ability to accurately reflect our arrangements, but we have not yet determined in Parliament what the successor arrangements to FTPA should be.

While obviously accepting the importance of both the principles and the manual as well as their relevance across party, beyond party and beyond this Parliament, I hope that the noble Lord will be content to withdraw his amendment.

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

My Lords, the question really is: where are these documents and when are they going to be published? There were some very critical comments from various committees of both Houses, including the Joint Committee, about the lack of quality in what is currently provided in the Dissolution Principles and about the outdatedness of the Cabinet Manual, particularly the part of it that deals with Government formation.

There may be an overall majority for one party at the next election, which would be easier, but we need to future-proof the Bill as we take it through and to prepare for other eventualities. The Joint Committee marks that we are more likely to have non-majoritarian outcomes from elections in the coming years than we have had in the last 50. Perhaps the Minister will be prepared to talk between now and Report about being able to provide some statement on Report about a rather more definite timespan than “in due course”, which, as we know, means “kicked into the long grass for the next year or two”.

We need to have, as far as we can, some shared assumptions, some cross-party agreement, about these crucial conventions in our constitution. That requires trust. Trust is currently in very short supply; trust in this Government and this Prime Minister, if the opinion polls are correct, is currently going through the floor. Where trust is lacking, one needs written rules. Where written rules are challenged, we end up requiring statute. Yes, we would perhaps prefer the flexibility of shared assumptions, but in that case we need to talk about what they are and make sure that we all share similar assumptions, before we slide into a situation that could be another critical outcome or contested set of procedures around the next election.

I look forward to talking further with the Minister, and I may or may not wish to bring these amendments back in some form on Report. For the moment, I am happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment, and I wish all your Lordships a very pleasant evening.

Amendment 10 withdrawn.

Amendment 11 not moved.

Clause 6 agreed.

Schedule agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported without amendment.

House adjourned at 10.47 pm.