Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 1:15 pm on 9th February 2022.
Moved by Lord Norton of Louth
2: 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, on the assumption that the Government invite the Commons to disagree with the amendment we have just passed, I move Amendment 2 and speak to my other two amendments in this group. I pursued these in Committee and believe their importance is such as to merit returning to them on Report.
As I argued in Committee, the provisions of Clause 3 that are covered by my amendments conflict with the Government’s aim to restore the constitutional position to that which existed prior to the enactment of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. They are also objectionable in principle. It is this point I wish to pursue.
In Committee, the Minister, my noble friend Lord True, sought to justify both the use of “purported” and the inclusion of paragraph (c). He advanced a “thin edge of the wedge” argument: the clause is necessary because
“the direction of travel in the case law makes a clear and explicit statement of non-justiciability necessary.”—[
The courts are viewed by the Government as having encroached in certain cases on the exercise of the prerogative where vested in Ministers. Because the courts have gone beyond what the Executive wished, they wish to prevent them straying further in respect of the Dissolution of Parliament. As my noble friend emphasised, the use of “purported” is to make it plain that it is not for the courts to examine a Dissolution and calling of Parliament against our administrative law framework.
My contention is that the fear underpinning the provision is unfounded. The cases cited by my noble friend are not sufficient to show that the courts would ever go near the exercise of the prerogative where the Dissolution and calling of Parliament are concerned. As my noble friend reminded us in Committee, Lord Roskill said, in 1985 in the GCHQ case, that the Dissolution of Parliament was
“not susceptible to judicial review”.
Indeed, Lord Roskill identified what he referred to as “excluded categories”, comprising prerogative powers that by their “nature and subject matter” were
“such as not to be amenable to the judicial process.”
“the dissolution of Parliament and the appointment of ministers”.
I regard the powers not exercised on advice as the ultimate excluded categories.
In Committee, I moved an amendment to put on the face of the Bill that the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament and call an election was a personal prerogative power of the monarch, not exercised on the advice of Ministers. There would therefore be no advice for the courts to consider. The prerogative powers not exercised on advice are such as to put them in a class of their own as there would be no purported exercise or purported decision. If the personal prerogative is revived, the use of “purported” has no relevance. This is not addressed in the letter from my noble friend Lord True to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon.
If the argument is that the prerogative is now a statutory power and that is the route through which a challenge may be mounted, the problem with the use of “purported” is that it enables Ministers to go beyond their powers. Let us be clear as to the meaning of “purported”: it means that something has been stated to be true or to have happened, even though that may not be the case. My noble friend Lord True argued that the use of the word would not constitute a precedent—we have seen evidence already this week of its use in another measure—but I am not persuaded that it is desirable in principle to embody such a provision in statute. As he said, it may be a bespoke solution, but it is a bespoke solution in plain sight. It is constitutionally objectionable, as potentially it conflicts with the rule of law. That should concern us all. It should certainly concern everyone on this side of the House. It is a fundamental tenet of Conservative belief that institutions are subject to the rule of law, which regulates definitively the relations between citizens and applies equally to the governors and the governed. A stable social order is dependent on the maintenance of the rule of law.
Furthermore, there is nothing to suggest that the courts would ever wish to entertain interfering in the process given the repercussions that my noble friend Lord True outlined in Committee. Those scenarios would be as unpalatable to the courts as they are to your Lordships. As he recognised in Committee, there are political checks and balances at work, and, where there are, the courts stay clear. That was apparent in respect of the so-called Sewel convention, when the Supreme Court declared that
“policing the scope and manner of its operation does not lie within the constitutional remit of the judiciary.”
The provisions before us are unprecedented. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, said in Committee, the objection is to the use of “purported” and the words in paragraph (c). As he made clear, there is no objection to say that the court or tribunal may not question the powers referred to in Clause 2.
As I said in responding to the debate in Committee, when my noble friend Lord Faulks argued that the clause was necessary to keep the courts out of politics, I take the view that the clause, or rather the words that I seek to delete, are designed to keep the courts out of the law. Take out “purported” and paragraph (c) and the problem is solved. One is then keeping within, and indeed promoting, the rule of law.
The provisions of the clause cover a situation that is so unlikely to ever occur for the reasons I have given—indeed, if it is a personal prerogative power of the monarch, it cannot occur—that it does not justify conferring powers that are so objectionable. The remoteness of it ever occurring is such that it would be better to wait and deal with it at the time. The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is not in doubt. As the late Lord Bingham argued, it is immanent in our constitution. As one of the measures being repealed by this Bill—the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019—demonstrates, Parliament can move with some speed to achieve the outcome it wishes. That is beyond doubt. There are precedents for Parliament enacting within 24 hours a Bill to overturn a court judgment.
Parliament by the very doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is entitled to enact the provisions of this clause. What it can do is not necessarily what it should do. Retaining the purported exercise of powers and any purported decision within the clause, along with paragraph (c), is either redundant or it clashes with a basic tenet of the constitution. If the latter, it is objectionable in principle and unnecessary in practice. I would hope that a Conservative Government would take the high road and accept these amendments.
My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment 5, to exclude Clause 3 entirely from the Bill, which has been grouped with the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Norton. I do not need to take much of your Lordships’ time. We have just passed an amendment that would provide a restraint on the Executive in calling an election, so for that reason Clause 3 becomes unnecessary. It may be thought, therefore, that I should not move to have it excluded, but I will, because I anticipate that the House of Commons may remove the clause that we have just inserted in the Bill, and at ping-pong I would still like the opportunity to come back to get rid of the ouster clause, which I regard as objectionable.
My first contention is that it is unnecessary. In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who I am glad to see in her place, did not agree with me on all aspects of the matter, but she said that she could not imagine any circumstances in which the courts could be involved in a petition to dissolve Parliament. Her phrase was that this clause is
“legislating against shadows, against figments of the imagination.”—[
I agree. So why is the clause there? We all know why: it is because of government pique that the courts were involved in the application to prorogue the last Parliament, and the courts ruled against the Government. That is why the Government have thought it necessary to put this clause in the Bill. This is a Government who do not like restraints on their freedom of action and, in that respect, I suppose they are like all Governments, but, in a democracy, restraints on executive power are necessary.
If, in real life, it is unthinkable that this clause could have any practical effect, does its inclusion in the Bill matter? I think it does, and I will explain why. My submission is that it is wrong in principle for the Government to take an important constitutional power and to say that they will not allow any challenge to its use. This was a point that we debated in a debate on the previous amendment.
We all recognise that there are three possible sources of restraint: the courts, the House of Commons and the Queen. We are all agreed that it is undesirable to put the sovereign in the position in which she has to make a highly political decision to refuse a Dissolution, so either Parliament or the courts must exercise control. We have just passed an amendment that gives Parliament the power to exercise that control, but at the same time we have recognised that there are some dangers in that. The danger is the situation in which the Government are hamstrung, unable to govern and unable to seek a fresh mandate. The amendment we have just passed is a solution, but it is a second-best solution, in my submission.
I anticipate that the Minister will say that there is one more source of restraint—the electorate, who will punish a Government who call for an improper or unjustified Dissolution. That may well be correct, but with great respect that is not the point. What we are discussing is the power to dissolve Parliament. By the time the electorate have a say, the power will have been used, so it amounts to trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted. It is like giving an irresponsible person a gun and saying that it does not matter because that person will be punished if the gun is used. The person needs to be restrained before that situation arises.
This is my case: in practice, this clause is unnecessary. To go back to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, it is legislation “against shadows”, but, at the same time, it is wrong in principle, and it is a bad precedent. It should be omitted from the Bill.
My Lords, I supported these amendments in Committee and I should like to do so again today. I cannot help feeling that there is just a hint—as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, put it earlier—of the generals fighting the last war, because it is very obvious why Clause 3 is there: it is to head off what was seen to be a trend at least in the decision in Miller 2.
I will make two points, if I may. First, following my noble friend Lord Butler of Brockwell, I agree that the clause is unnecessary. One of the things that was said by the Supreme Court at the beginning of Miller 2 was to distinguish the Prorogation issue with which it was concerned and Dissolution. It was made quite clear in a very few words at the start of that decision that decisions about Dissolution were nothing to do with the courts. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, made that point very clearly when he said that this is the most political of decisions that could be taken. That is a very clear warning to the courts that it is nothing to do with them. It is unnecessary, because I cannot see the courts engaging with a Dissolution issue in addition to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton.
The second point that I would like to say a little more about is the unwise precedent. The problem here is that the language of paragraph (c) in Clause 3 removes entirely from the courts the possibility of determining the limit or extent of the powers. The reverse of the coin is that it is the Executive who are the determination and who decide the limit or extent of their own powers. Earlier today, the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, said that this was the basis for a dictatorship. My noble friend Lord Butler referred in Committee to a number of examples not very far away from us in Europe, where there is perhaps a trend moving towards that. We have to be extremely careful not to give a signal to a Government that they can get away with an exclusion clause of this kind. The question is how far the clause should go, and it is paragraph (c) of Clause 3 that is completely objectionable, leaving it to the Executive to determine the extent and limits of their own powers.
The question of precedent is worth dwelling on. I admire greatly the skills of the parliamentary draftsmen. They have their own skills and traditions, one of which is that they are very determined to follow precedent in the way in which they engage with legislation. This has great value, because it means that there is constancy in the way in which issues are expressed in our legislation, which is of a very high standard. My concern is that, whatever may be said today about this not setting a precedent, it will nevertheless be there in the books, and the draftsmen will, some years ahead, say, “That is what was done in 2022. It is an example that we can follow.” That is danger that I fear in this clause, which is unnecessary. It is unnecessary, so we should not risk the creation of a precedent that, in future years, we may deeply regret.
My Lords, I respectfully agree with much of what the noble and learned Lord said about the drafting of this clause and agree that it should not be treated as a precedent in the future for other ouster clauses. The drafting is unprecedented, because the decision of the Supreme Court in Miller 2 was itself unprecedented. I do not agree with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and I will briefly explain why.
I regard with horror, and I suggest that your Lordships should regard with horror, the prospect of what one might notionally call Miller 3: namely, a piece of litigation challenging the propriety or legal effectiveness of a Dissolution. In Miller 1, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Reed, now President of the Supreme Court, warned against the legalisation of political issues and observed that it was fraught with danger, not least for the judiciary. There is a danger that, because the Supreme Court in Miller 2 found itself able to determine that case against the Government without getting involved in the underlying political issues, one might suppose that a similar exercise could be undertaken in relation to litigation about Dissolution without the judges having to address political questions in an objectionable way. That reasoning would be fallacious.
It is necessary to bear in mind what happened in Miller 2 in relation to the evidence. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, who is about to rise, will be able to help us with that if need be. The government evidence in Miller 2 could politely be described as sparse. It consisted of a handful of partially redacted memos and there was no witness statement, as far as I understand it, which dealt substantively with the reasons for—that is, the justification for—the Prorogation. Why that was, I have no idea. It might have been pressure of time. It might have been—though I doubt it—some kind of Machiavellian strategy on the part of the Government, who were unafraid to lose the case. It might have been because no one was prepared to make a witness statement. It might have been for the legitimate reason that the legal position was being argued for that justiciability had to be taken as a preliminary issue, as the Divisional Court held that it should be, prior to any consideration of evidence. Never mind; there was no good evidence from the Government.
That enabled the Supreme Court, when it came to apply its test as to reasonable justification, to say in robust terms that there was no evidence before the court that would begin to support the contention that there was reasonable justification for the Prorogation. In that way, the Supreme Court avoided the need to tackle a question that might have arisen if the Government had given their evidence in a different way. The Prime Minister might have said: “Look, Parliament has made Brexit very difficult. I am engaged in an immensely important negotiation with foreign counterparties, which is going to affect the future of this country for many years. I regard it as desirable to convey the message to my negotiating counterparties that I mean business. That is why I intend to prorogue for an unusually long period of time.” The Prime Minister might have said that and that might have been true—I do not know. If that had been the evidence before the court, it is inconceivable that the Supreme Court justices would have felt able to enter on to that terrain, because it was nakedly political. That is the way that it might have gone.
That indicates that allowing even the faintest possibility of litigation about the legal effectiveness of a Dissolution is a grave error. It should be unthinkable that the judges should be forced to engage with that type of issue. I respectfully agree with what I think the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and others, have indicated—that it is very unlikely that the judges would entertain litigation of this nature. They would wisely be reluctant to do so.
But we should recognise the risk of litigation of this nature being initiated for collateral reasons. We are contemplating a period leading up to a general election. All the politicians will be on manoeuvres. There are potentially collateral advantages to litigating points of this nature, so Miller 3, or something like it, is conceivable. It should not happen. That is why, even though the drafting causes me concern, the ouster clause is good and this amendment should not be agreed to.
My Lords, this is a new threat. We have heard of the threat of an election being called to the detriment of Back-Bench Members whose support is being sought, but the threat of Miller 3 is not one that has been produced before. I found it an unpersuasive line of argument, particularly that the Prime Minister could go to the courts and say, “In order that I should have a stronger position in dealing with foreign counterparties, I must suspend Parliament to make sure that nobody can attend Parliament and say anything in the course of its proceedings while I am engaged in these negotiations.” I cannot see any basis for that, as opposed to the contention that has come into the debate of a Prime Minister adducing in evidence, “I wish to have a Dissolution and I have a majority in Parliament supporting me in this desire”, which would be the case under the amendment that we passed previously. We would be in an absolutely clear position and the courts would have no basis for intervening.
In the preceding debate, the noble Lord, Lord True, said that the simple and proven practice of the past is what we should follow. But the simple and proven practice of the past did not include an ouster clause of this nature. The Representation of the People Acts do not contain ouster clauses of this nature, nor does most other legislation. That is a situation that might change, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, pointed out, if this is taken as a precedent. I will come back to that in a moment.
It is necessary to be clear, first, that in the event of the other place agreeing to the amendment that we passed a moment ago, this ouster clause is particularly unnecessary because no court would interfere with so clear a decision of Parliament. There are other reasons why the request to the monarch to dissolve would be protected from the actions of the courts. One is that it is, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, pointed out in moving his amendment, a personal prerogative power. It is not a matter of advice which might be challenged, as it was in the Prorogation case. It is a personal prerogative power, which results from a request from the Prime Minister. I do not believe that the courts would be in any way inclined to interfere with the exercise of that personal prerogative by the monarch.
I strongly assert that the comparison with Prorogation is quite wrong. The effect of Prorogation is that Parliament cannot meet; it cannot sit or discuss and it cannot challenge the Executive. That is quite different from the Dissolution of Parliament and the calling of an election. Indeed, it has been adduced from the quarters of those who support the Government’s position that the calling of an election, referring the matter to the people, is so clearly the right outcome in so many circumstances that it should not be interrupted in any way. In my view, the courts would certainly not want to be seen to be preventing a general election from taking place. I find that inconceivable.
My primary worry about this ouster clause is not that it has some practical effect or that it changes what would be the clear reluctance of the courts to become involved in arguments about the calling of an election. It is that the Government have form on ouster clauses; we saw that earlier this week when debating the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which has its own ouster clause. In that case, the Government have declared that it is their intention to use the wording in that Bill as a precedent for ouster clauses in other, unspecified Bills in future. That was clearly stated in a government press release.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, made the point that parliamentary draftsmen like to act on precedent. When they have found a form of words that suits their purpose in one case, they like to use it again in another, if possible. We are creating precedents for issues around, for example, purported powers that will be very unhelpful in future as we seek to defend the ability of the citizen to challenge abuse of power, which is what judicial review is about. We are doing so because of fears that are not justified and dangers that do not exist, because the likelihood of courts preventing a general election from taking place is clearly vanishingly small, to the point of non-existence, for the reasons that I and others in this debate have adduced. We would be better off without the ouster clause provision. We do not need it and therefore we support the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is right to pursue his amendment because it seems quite possible that the House of Commons will decline the invitation to accept the amendment that your Lordships’ House so recently voted in favour of. I will address a number of questions briefly, because I did have the pleasure of being here in Committee.
First, is this really an ouster clause at all? I accept that it is not easy to imagine circumstances in which a Dissolution is challenged in the courts, but the noble Lord, Lord Butler, wants at least to keep open that possibility—apart from anything else, as I understand it, to save potential embarrassment to the sovereign. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, does not want this ouster clause, if it is so described, to act as a precedent, and the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, does not like the word “purported”.
It is probably not, strictly speaking, an ouster clause at all. During the deliberations of the Independent Review of Administrative Law, which I had the privilege of chairing, we looked at this clause. We thought that there was a distinction between Parliament creating a power and, at the same time, including a provision that limits or absolutely prevents the courts’ powers from challenging that.
However, this is not really that sort of situation at all. It is not, truly speaking, an ouster clause; it is simply restoring the status quo. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, pointed out—and Lord Roskill so long ago expressed the view—it is simply a no-go area for the courts, so that we are not ousting anything that they would normally consider but simply saying that this is the position.
If this is an ouster clause, and I doubt whether it is, is it justified here in order to preserve the status quo? Why leave open the possibility, however remote, of the courts challenging a Dissolution? Potential chaos would follow a challenge—campaigns might be halted and results might even be overturned; even a threat of a legal challenge or an unsuccessful challenge could cause some serious temporary chaos. We all know that the courts are astute at identifying what has been described as politics by other means, but applications might be made, as the noble Lord pointed out, for collateral reasons. There are those who, quite frankly, say that they would be prepared to weaponise judicial review for political advantage.
Will this ouster clause be a precedent? The argument in Committee was that this will simply be followed by the parliamentary draftsmen and by a Government eager to restrain executive power. Of course, the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which we were debating on Monday, contains a different ouster clause; it is a qualified ouster clause. Surely our job as Parliament is to look very carefully at any ouster clause in any Bill; they need justification. I entirely accept an ouster clause but it is not appropriate for the Executive automatically to oust the jurisdiction of the courts. I have faith that Parliament will be vigilant about this. Parliament has a vital role to prevent the Government routinely using such clauses.
Dealing with the question of “purported”, Boris Johnson plainly purported to prorogue Parliament. He went through all the customary processes and, as a matter of fact, Parliament was prorogued. Frankly, if you as a Government or parliamentary draftsman had read the decision in Anisminic or Privacy International, you would be negligent not to include the word “purported”, otherwise you are simply inviting the courts in.
Finally, the House generally agrees that it is very unlikely that the courts would want anything to do with this, but that might well have been the view that the Government took in relation to Prorogation, and that might have been the advice that was given to the Prime Minister and the Government. After all, a divisional court declined to accept the beguiling submissions of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that this was justiciable and decided unanimously that it was not. It is not inconceivable that these situations may arise.
In my respectful submission, this has been very carefully considered. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, very kindly referred to some of the conclusions of the Independent Review of Administrative Law and said that Parliament should think “long and hard” before ousting the jurisdiction of the courts. That is what we thought, and I entirely adhere to what we said then. But the position is that there has been careful consideration by us—I hope—the Joint Committee, the House of Commons and your Lordships’ House. We have looked long and hard at this ouster clause. In my respectful submission, it is one that stands the analysis we have given it and should remain in the Bill.
My Lords, I suppose I should declare a professional interest in the possibility of Miller 3.
I support the amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Norton and Lord Butler. I do not suggest that the courts would today never entertain a judicial review in relation to Dissolution. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, mentioned the words of Lord Roskill in the GCHQ case in 1984—the law has moved on a long way in the nearly 40 years since then. Like other noble Lords, I find it very difficult to envisage a case in which the courts would entertain a challenge to the Dissolution of Parliament and the calling of a general election. However, I support the amendments because I think it would be wise, in this context, to proceed on the basis of never say never.
One of the vices of a provision such as Clause 3 is that it seeks to remove the possibility of the court exercising jurisdiction, however exceptional the circumstances may be or however grave the abuse of power by a future Prime Minister. I would much prefer to leave it to the judgment of a future Supreme Court whether the circumstances then existing justify exceptional judicial involvement and whether there is an abuse of power, rather than confirm a blanket immunity from legal challenge whatever the circumstances.
I also agree with the noble Lords, Lord Butler and Lord Norton, that there is a point of principle here: the Prime Minister would be exercising a very important power. It is wrong in principle that there should be an immunity from the rule of law—it is a very basic principle. That principle does not depend on whether the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, is correct in saying that, as a matter of description, this is or is not an ouster clause. What it purports to do is prevent the court saying, “What you have done is unlawful”. We should not be allowing the exercise of public powers to enjoy such immunity as a matter of principle.
We then have the argument the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, deployed, and which was raised in Committee, that the mere existence of this possible jurisdiction to entertain a judicial review may cause delay, expense or inconvenience. That seems to me to be entirely unrealistic. I looked to see whether there have been any cases analogous to the possible cases we are talking about. There is one. The Press Association reported on
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord in the middle of his flow, but I think his point was that the law has moved on greatly since Lord Roskill. So does not citing a decision from 1992 rather defeat his own argument?
No, because my point is that hopeless or frivolous applications will be dealt with speedily by the courts. This was plainly an application with no merit whatever, and my noble friend’s point, as I understood him, was that the mere existence of the jurisdiction could cause delay. I am giving an example of how the courts then, and today, would deal with a frivolous application.
The judge decided, unsurprisingly, that this was not a matter for the courts and that there was no basis for the application. The general election went ahead and it was entirely untroubled by the litigation. There was no delay, expense or inconvenience. The court dismissed a hopeless application speedily and effectively, as it usually does. For all these reasons, if my noble friend Lord Butler wishes to test the opinion of the House, he will have my support.
My Lords, I too attempted to darn this Bill in Committee and, indeed, spoke at Second Reading, and I too am opposed to this group of amendments. My core concern here is to safeguard my successors on the Bench and to avoid the risk of constitutional crisis, which would arise were there to be some future attempted legal challenge not as frivolous as that just indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, but something dressed up as an altogether more coherent attack on a Dissolution, such as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, himself would be adept at managing.
Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Howard, but in common with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and the noble Lord, Lord Beith, I do not think for an instant that the courts would ever actually reach the point of upholding such a challenge, even though, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, also says, things have undoubtedly moved on since the CCSU case. That, as it happens, was my very last case at the Bar, decades ago. Although it is very unlikely that such a challenge would succeed, it is very important to put in the Bill a provision that would provide the greatest possible discouragement to any mischievous person, instructing whosoever it may be, contemplating a challenge.
Clause 3 seems to me to be admirable for that purpose; it enables the courts to say, as Mr Justice Macpherson—a very old friend of mine, with whom I shared a room in chambers for decades—said in that case, “Chuck it out without more ado.” That is really the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey. That is the practical effect of Clause 3. It is not there, I would suggest, as revenge for Miller 2; nor does it—and this is the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks—create a risk that this will be a template or precedent for the future. Its relevance here is purely in the context and to underline the fact that Dissolution is essentially a prerogative act, preserved even since CCSU. We should leave it there, discourage prospective litigants and reinforce the courts in a robust rejection of any attempt that would delay and disrupt, to some degree, a Dissolution process. Leave it there.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, was kind enough to quote me from when I spoke in Committee on this. I want to underline that what I said was:
“I cannot conceive of any circumstances in which the involvement of the courts could ever be justified”.—[Official Report, 25/1/22; col. 227.]
That is the important point. What Clause 3 is trying to do is to put this question beyond doubt.
Without Clause 3, we potentially do not rule out the courts trying to get themselves involved in challenging the use of the royal prerogative, doubtless with the help of very clever lawyers such as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. Indeed, in the noble Lord’s remarks just now, he rather wanted to keep the door open for noble Lords such as himself to encourage the courts to get involved in cases such as the use of the royal prerogative.
Our understanding before the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was that the courts would not get involved in the use of the royal prerogative. Since then, there have been some surprising judgments—perhaps not surprising to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick—such as Miller 2, which have made many people doubtful about whether or not the settled understanding of where the courts would go was indeed that settled. That is what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has underlined for us today.
I believe Clause 3 is necessary to put this issue beyond question. Judges must not get involved in politics, and there is no more political decision than when to hold an election. I do not think that judges should ever stand between the people and the ballot box.
I wish to underline what other noble Lords have said about whether or not this is a precedent. If this ended up on the statute book, it would, in a technical sense, be a precedent for a future parliamentary draftsman to put into a draft Bill. But that is all parliamentary draftsmen do: they draft something into a Bill, they do not make it law. Parliament makes laws, and it will be for Parliament to ensure that there was not an inappropriate use of ouster clauses. I do not think that it has ever been asserted that ouster clauses are unconstitutional; they are certainly permitted in specific circumstances where justified and should be justified on their merits in each case. In this case, Clause 3 is there to ensure that we can go back to the prior understanding in relation to this one specific example of the royal prerogative.
My Lords, as a layman and an unashamed politician, I want to make a couple of layman’s/politician’s observations in what has been a largely legal argument.
Much of this discussion—in fact, the whole of this Report stage—has been considered with the ghost of the 2017-19 Parliament at its back; the cloud over us, one could say. It was a very unfortunate Parliament—in the past I have called it poisonous—and we need to be careful about drawing all sorts of long-term constitutional conclusions from that period. This relates to my observation on the debate about the ouster clause: it is, as others have said, trying to solve the problem of Miller 2.
To me, as a layman, Miller 2 did present some problems. One is unarguable—and I am cautious about saying that—in that it did massively involve the courts in an intensely political situation. I know it tried to give disclaimers in its judgment, and all the rest of it, but I can tell you, as a politician, it is hard to imagine a more intense, political, biting debate than the one that existed in relation to Britain’s membership of the European Union, and the courts went slam dunk right into the middle of that debate. In my view this is not a good precedent.
I would also say—and I am sure I will be stopped if I trespass here—that it involved the courts in arguments which I know are legal arguments, doubtless very good legal arguments, but they do not make much sense to the layman. Part of the Miller 2 judgment was to say that the Prorogation had not happened. Although I understand the lawyers’ argument for saying so, it does not make much common sense to an observer. It is like saying that the sun comes up in the morning, and it is up there now, but the law says that the sun has not risen. I say, “Look, it is up there now,” but the law says it is still where it was before. That kind of ugly language and reasoning is—at least to me—something that we do not want to see employed too often. It is employed in the Bill itself; it is as though the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 had never happened, but both those things—the Act and, unfortunately, the Prorogation —had happened.
I simply make the following observation. If I am right that we want to make things intelligible to both lawyers and non-lawyers, if I am right that 2017-19 was a really bad patch, and if I am right in saying that we really do not want the courts—however exceptional it might be—telling the people when they can and cannot have a general election, then I have offered a solution. I am sorry I keep coming back—actually I am not going to apologise at all, because it is right—to the amendment by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. If only the House of Commons would apply its mind to the arguments that have been deployed in this House during the consideration of previous amendments, that would solve all the problems. If there were a resolution of Parliament then the courts would not intervene, the monarch would not have decisions to make and there would be no need for the ouster clause.
Let us lift up our eyes and hope that the Commons weighs the merits of the amendment that we have sent back to them, recognises those merits, votes not on a purely partisan basis but on the basis of the strength of the arguments, and retains the change that we have already made to the Bill.
My Lords, I must also apologise for not being here in Committee, although I have followed your Lordships’ arguments with great interest.
One point is abundantly clear to me: the idea of not using the royal prerogative to call for an election is, at its very best, curious. The concept that a Government should limp on without the confidence of the Commons, when that Government no longer have the wish, or possibly the ability, to conduct the affairs of the nation, can do only harm to the well-being of this country. I have listened to a lot of erudite and hypothetical—indeed very hypothetical—arguments today. We cannot get away from the fact that, if a Government feel that they no longer wish to govern, then it is not only pointless to keep them in place but potentially very damaging.
In line with what my noble friend Lord Bridges said, restricting people from voting is anti-democratic. There should be no impediment to the freedom to allow the electorate to express their opinion at any time at the ballot box. Allowing the courts to interfere with that and to have a say may have unknown effects and cause serious harm, as the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, and others have pointed out. After all, the courts can produce some very weird results.
My only other thought, standing here among so many noble and learned Lords, is that I wonder what the collective noun for lawyers is. Do your Lordships think it is “a bear pit” of lawyers?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, asks whether the sun has risen. Yes, it is still up there, but for those who lived in the Mexican desert during the testing of the atomic bomb, the sky was so full of light that nearby farmers woke up and started working, but three hours later the light had gone. Of course, at the usual time of 6 am, the sun rose. They said, “We saw the sun rise twice”, but it had not. Physical things may help us, but also they may not.
For myself, I find phrases such as
“A court or tribunal may not question” very difficult. Putting that in statute sets a bad precedent. The courts are restrained in the way that they approach many things; they would never simply say out of hand, “We are not going to look at this”. That is why my friend Sir William MacPherson, when someone did not want the election to take place in 1992, looked at that and then dismissed it. Now there is the idea that he should not have done so. I have always had great admiration for the British Parliament and for the Civil Service and the way that it works, which is just really lovely—some of your Lordships who were born here and live here may not appreciate it, but I do—but this measure worries me.
I was in the judiciary when we questioned Mr Amin for expelling Uganda citizens who happened to be Asian. There were two kinds: those who were Ugandan Asian citizens and Asians living in Uganda who were British. We questioned whether he had the right to do this. He did not like it. What did he do? He passed a decree that no court in the land could question the expulsion of Asians. That caused me a lot of problems. This measure sounds almost like that.
There should be no Act of any sort which is not subject to the possibility of challenge in the courts, because they are the custodians of the rule of law. We cannot say by statute, “You should not challenge this particular prerogative”; if it is not done according to the rule of law, they should be able to look at it. I have a lot of confidence in judges, lawyers and the people, because they are the guardians of the rule of law. If they do not guard that, the likes of Mr Amin will have a field day. I support the intention the noble Lord, Lord Butler, that the clause should be deleted.
My Lords, very briefly, I would like to respectfully adopt the arguments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, and others, including the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, and my noble friend Lord Faulks, in this matter.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said, I think, that he could not see the courts getting involved in a Dissolution case, and I think the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said similarly. But, as my noble friend Lord Faulks has said, very many people, including many lawyers, could not see the courts getting involved in a Prorogation matter because, until the Supreme Court and Miller, that was considered to have been unarguably a political matter. But in a paradigm example of judicial activism, the Supreme Court in Miller did get involved, despite the unanimous decision—which some people find curious—of a strong divisional court below. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, referred later to the rule of law. My point is that, until the Supreme Court and Miller, as held by the divisional court, Prorogation was considered to be a political matter.
Does the noble Lord allow for the possibility that the reason why there was no precedent prior to Miller 2 was because no Prime Minister prior to that had abused, in the view of the court, the power to prorogue Parliament in order to frustrate his views in relation to Brexit?
The use of the word “abuse” is somewhat tendentious. As I was saying on the question of the rule of law, and as held by the divisional court, until the Supreme Court decision on Miller, Prorogation was thought to be an entirely political matter and therefore not subject to the jurisdiction of the courts. I suggest that the risk remains, and pray in aid the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in this regard, because he jokingly referred to his possible involvement in Miller 3.
I rest my case. The Government are entitled for these reasons to insist on Clause 3.
My Lords, I will start where I started in the previous debate, with the parliamentary TARDIS: the Government say that we can set things back to where they were before. Ministers in the other House and in your Lordships House said that this Bill brings clarity, but it is clear that it does not bring clarity. That is why the Government have insisted on Clause 3.
The elephant in the room, as has been mentioned, is Prorogation, but Prorogation is different from Dissolution. The unlawful Prorogation has had an impact on many people—I still think of it. I agree with the assessment of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that that was an abuse of power, but I would not extend that in the same way to a Dissolution.
As we listened to the debate, many noble Lords who are lawyers—the Minister recognised that he and I made the pages of Private Eye for not being lawyers and trying to make sense of the legislation—spoke on the premise that this would never go to the courts anyway and they would not intervene. I can think of no worse situation for the courts to intervene in than the calling of a general election. While one noble Lord called Clause 3 admirable, I cannot go as far as that. The Government may think it necessary; I would say that it is possibly understandable but a neater, more acceptable and more democratic way of dealing with this issue is the amendment that we have just agreed, whereby the House of Commons, the other place, should have a say in whether a general election is called. That would put the matter beyond legal action.
I should say two more things. I am grateful to the Minister because, as he and I know but others who were not in the Committee do not realise, we had a non-lawyerly debate about the meaning of the word “purported”, along with the noble Lord, Lord Norton. I am grateful to the Minister for his letter to me. It seems that the Government are looking for a belt-and-braces approach. On the one hand they say that the legislation is clear, but on the other they make it clear that it is not clear because Clause 3 is there. However, involving the courts rather than the House of Commons is not the right way to proceed. As I have informed the noble Lord, Lord Butler, we would be unable to support his amendment.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords again for an interesting debate and their many contributions. Like others who have never been called to the high profession of the law, I bow to the expertise of so many of your Lordships in this matter. However, as a lay man, I notice the diverse opinions put forward by those eminent enough to have the title of noble and learned, and other learned speakers versed in the law.
The underlying point here is what a pleasure it is for me, after the previous debate, to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others who said a similar thing. There is an underlying political point here, and a point, which I will come to, regarding the degree to which the public would simply not understand what would happen if there were interventions by the courts—a point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown. It could not redound in any way to the credit of the courts for there to be an intervention.
I submit to your Lordships that the concerns of those who have them are misplaced. We believe that this clause is proportionate and required, considering the direction of case law—a point underlined by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, when he talked of the way in which the law had moved on. That is a matter that people in another place will want to notice when they consider the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, should your Lordships, to my regret, approve it. The Government are seeking to confirm the long-standing position that the Dissolution of Parliament should remain non-justiciable.
I explained the Government’s rationale behind the drafting of the clause in detail in a lengthy speech in Committee, which I promise not to repeat at length. However, I said to the Committee that I wanted to put the legal position on the record. I commented further in a letter, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, opposite for her interest in and reference to that. The letter has been laid in the Library and I hope it will be of assistance to your Lordships. I shall not repeat all the arguments but in the Government’s view, which I hope most noble Lords will agree with, it would be highly undesirable for the courts to be permitted to intervene in the Dissolution and calling of Parliament. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, and my noble friend Lord Faulks made devastating interventions on this in Committee. We heard similar arguments repeated today.
Just imagine the scenario. A Prime Minister requests a Dissolution, which is granted. The BBC news starts—“dong, dong, dong”; I do not know what music it has these days, but it fades away to a dramatic headline: “There will be a general election on
Such a situation would be absolutely incredible to 70 million people in this country, even if it might be understandable to a couple of people trying to get a court case going. We really must avoid any risk of this happening in the interests of the country, of politics and of the courts. It would be inappropriate for them to become embroiled in what many have said is the inherently political matter of when an election is called. We must avoid the practical risk of the uncertainty concerning the general election that would follow. Even the possibility of such a court case would be disruptive, drag our judges into the political fray and frustrate the democratic process.
There are checks and balances, to which I referred in Committee. Ultimately, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, has said more than once, the check on any alleged abuse—whatever that might be—of calling an election is the decision of the people. The noble and learned Lord referred again today to Brenda from Bristol.
I understand everything that the noble Lord has said, but is there not a contradiction there? One wants to say that the matter should not be taken to court but, in that case, where is the confidence that something could not go badly wrong with the process? Scenarios ought to be spelled out. Is there not a scenario in which this could go badly wrong? People would say, “Well, it was not conducted in the right way.”
Once the general election genie is out of the bottle, it should stay out of the bottle. The decision lies with the electorate. There is no question of a dodgy scenario. It is then down to the electorate. The ultimate political reprimand is available to them, as my party discovered in 2017. You can go backwards, as well as forward.
I cannot accept the amendments of by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for the reasons I explained at length in Committee. He argued that this clause conflicted with the rule of law. The Independent Review of Administrative Law, chaired by my noble friend Lord Faulks, said that it was ultimately for Parliament to decide what the law on non-justiciability should be and for the courts to interpret what Parliament has said. The majority of the Joint Committee agreed that a non-justiciability clause was compatible with the rule of law in a case such as this, where the power is to enable the electorate to make a decision. As my noble friend Lord Faulks said in Committee, unless you reject the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, there is nothing constitutionally objectionable to the clause.
The Government see a strong argument for its principled and pragmatic case that the courts do not have a role to play in the issue of dissolution. That our sovereign Parliament should be able to make provision for this is entirely consistent with the rule of law. For the reasons I gave at length in Committee—and will not repeat here—we believe that the entire wording of Clause 3 is necessary to secure against the risk of an intervention by the courts.
On precedent, I am happy to repeat the reassurance I gave in Committee that we do not see this as setting a wider precedent. Speaking at this Dispatch Box, I repeat that this clause is very specific and has been 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. 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. It is a bespoke exclusion to address this precise task. I stress again that we are asking Parliament to consider these arguments and endorse this clause in this Bill—nothing more.
In conclusion, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, whom I consider my noble friend, that he cannot have his cake and eat it. He tells us that there is no chance that the courts would intervene, but then puts before us an amendment that would enable them to do so. I am not sure which is his argument. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth made the same argument: that it is unlikely that the courts would intervene. In that case, why are we having this argument, with this point put forward?
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, told us explicitly that such a challenge might come. So the purported, or in fact actual, intention of this amendment, were it to be passed, would be to procure the circumstances that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, envisaged: namely, that the courts might one day intervene on a Dissolution. That is what I assume the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is wanting: that the courts should have that opportunity—although at the start he said he did not really envisage or like the idea.
I agree very much with the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey: it is vital that we maintain this clause. Deleting or altering it, as proposed by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, would be, in my submission, like building a fence around a field only to leave the gate open—or having an umbrella with holes in it. It would not be completely effective in the light of past judgments by the courts. Desiring to avoid the involvement of the courts and to secure absolute certainty on this point, and on the basis that this does not provide a precedent for the future, I sincerely hope that noble Lords will withdraw or not move their amendments and join with the other place in supporting this clause.
My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have spoken. This has been a very valuable debate which indeed shows the value of the House of Lords. I am especially grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, as well as the noble Lords, Lord Beith and Lord Pannick, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, for their comments.
My noble friend Lord True will not be surprised to hear that he has not persuaded me. For the reasons I have given, I regard the amendment as necessary to remove the words that are either redundant or constitutionally objectionable. This is not about keeping the courts out but about the use of certain constitutionally objectionable words within the clause. My noble friend did not address adequately—indeed, did not address at all—the point that, if we are dealing with a personal prerogative power of the monarch, there is no advice to challenge. I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and my noble friend Lady Noakes did not pick up on the distinction between the prerogative powers that are exercised on advice and those that are exercised not on advice. That is the fundamental distinction that has not been recognised or addressed.
I normally agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, but on this occasion I think he is totally wrong. He argued that he was seeking to protect future members of the Supreme Court. I regard it the other way round and consider that we would be protecting future members by removing the provisions in this clause because, although my noble friend Lord True said that this was not intended to set a precedent, the point is that it will be on the statute book. It will be available to parliamentary draftsmen in the future when other measures come along and they will think, “Oh, let’s keep the courts out. There’s a remote chance they might get involved”. Therefore, there are dangers in this.
We have had a very good debate, but my view is that it would have been better if this clause had not seen the light of day in the first place. We need to avoid constitutional tension within our system of government. As Professors Mark Elliott and David Feldman have written, the possibility of such tension
“demands a form of institutional comity that requires legislative respect for fundamental constitutional values as well as judicial respect for Parliament’s legislative authority.”
Clause 3 does not facilitate such comity.
I do not intend to press the matter. I have made my points and have got them on the record, which is what I sought to achieve. I leave it to the Government, even at this late stage, to reflect on what has been said and to adopt a mature and informed approach to constitutional issues, and especially the relationships at the heart of our constitution. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Amendments 3 and 4 not moved.