Moved by Lord Collins of Highbury
4: Clause 14, page 21, line 15, at end insert—“(5) A statement designated under this section must not be published until a draft statement has been approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statementThis probing amendment would mean that a draft strategy and policy statement must be approved by both Houses of Parliament.
It is me again. Here, we are trying to better understand what the Minister means when he repeats reassuring paragraphs, not least, “This is not the Government imposing on the Electoral Commission; this statement will be subject to Parliament, and there will be consultation”—although, there will be circumstances where there will not be consultation, which is even more worrying.
We are trying to probe exactly how engagement and approval of both Houses of Parliament will work. This is important, because in the other place the majority rules, which means there is sometimes a lack of scrutiny and attention to detail. The Government have a majority and the Executive, if they take an opinion, try to force their view through the House of Commons, naturally, by the function of the majority party. So, scrutiny gets squeezed. This was one of the interesting things about the scrutiny the Commons did on this Bill in Committee. It was done in two and half hours. There were some really important clauses on funding that got no consideration at all, which is why the role of this unelected House—again, the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, is not in her place—is so vital. Our job is to scrutinise, to ensure that when legislation is passed by the majority in the other place, it is fit for purpose, does what it is intended to do and does not have other implications.
These probing amendments try to push the Government into giving clearer answers about how Parliament is going to engage in the process of this statement. We are also seeking a clear position on the role of this House in scrutinising and ensuring that the majority party of the Executive is not able to force things through, which can have huge implications. I was going to say it can have huge implications for the Opposition parties, but of course, it may also do so for the majority of the votes cast in our democratic process.
I come back to the fundamental point that many noble Lords have mentioned. Changes to our electoral system should be made by consent and in a way that all political parties can accept—these are the rules, and we are all going to follow them and abide by them. As soon as an Executive start pushing things through that favour their party and cause damage to the other parties, that is a very dangerous road to go down. We are trying to ensure through these amendments that changes in statements are not just written and approved by the Executive and forced through by the Whips of their party, but are subject to proper involvement, engagement, consultation and approval by Parliament, because we are a parliamentary democracy. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am going to start by banking an agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury. I completely agree, as I think the whole House does, that the quality of scrutiny in the other place underlines the importance of what happens in your Lordships’ House. Having banked that, I could not understand why these amendments have been tabled. Amendment 4 asks for the strategic and policy statement to be approved in draft by each House—but that is exactly what proposed new Section 4C calls for. It calls for the Secretary of State to lay a draft before Parliament that cannot be designated until it has been approved by each House of Parliament. These are standard procedures in each House, including, importantly, your Lordships’ House. I understand why the noble Lord might want to seek a way of saying that we want more than the normal procedures that apply to secondary legislation, but these amendments do not get any closer to that. They simply duplicate in a different place what is already in the Bill, both for the initial statement and for the revised statements.
I accept the point the noble Baroness is making, but I think everyone in the House is always concerned about the way in which secondary legislation is implemented. Even though we have the opportunity to scrutinise it, it is extremely difficult ever to change it; and although we have certain powers in secondary legislation, it is not clear that they will apply to this statement. I am not very keen on using fatal motions, for example. Is that going to be an opportunity for this House? That is why we are asking these questions. These are probing amendments that do not simply say that this is the position we want to see. However, the principle of proper parliamentary engagement is one we want to ensure, and doing so might mitigate some of the aspects of this proposal.
I completely understand that point, but the noble Lord is raising something much broader, which goes beyond the existing procedures we have for handling secondary legislation. I agree with the noble Lord that we should have a full and proper debate about whether there should be alternatives to the nuclear option. However, that is not a debate for this Bill.
My Lords, we can all agree that the Government are constantly overreaching themselves and trying to accrue more and more powers. It is perfectly acceptable to try to ensure that the Government do not do so in this case. The Electoral Commission must be independent of both the Government and Parliament. This is a way to avoid any sort of conflict of interest for all MPs and, at times, for us. While we normally support any efforts to subject decisions to parliamentary scrutiny, it would be a false solution in this case. The strategy and policy statement must be removed from the Bill absolutely and entirely, rather than simply adding Parliament’s conflict of interest to that of the Government. We heard from noble Lords earlier who said, “Let’s get rid of the Bill”. Let us get rid of as much as we can on the way.
My Lords, the merits of the amendment are secondary to the replies that the Minister gave on the previous group of amendments. I thought that he might like a second go when responding to this group. I sum up the Minister’s defence of the strategy statement as standing on two legs. The first leg is that it is vital to the proper conduct of future elections that the Electoral Commission has a government-sponsored strategy statement in its toolbox. The second is that any strategy statement which this Government could devise would be so bland, inoffensive and harmless that it would make no practical difference to the way in which elections are conducted. That was a phrase the Minister used in his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in the previous group. Would the Minister like to have a go at seeing which of those two legs he wants to stand on when replying to this group?
Perhaps he could also scoop up the third argument he deployed: that flexibility is essential and speed may sometimes be needed, and this would justify missing out any consultation. He further said that every Government would want to see consultation take place. I can think of quite a few Governments who very much did not want consultation to take place. It is very commonly the job of Oppositions to remind Governments that consultation is a necessary preliminary to getting good legislation. I am delighted if, somehow, he has been taken in by the idea that every Government would want to see consultation. However, I would remind him that even during the coalition’s time—when I saw behind the scenery slightly more than I was expecting—it was a constant fight within departments for my colleagues and I to persuade his colleagues that consulting properly before legislating would be a good step forward. I hope he will be able to reconcile his two conflicting arguments about why we need it, while tackling and giving a response to the circumstances in which avoiding consultation might be—at least in some way—justified, rather than simply for the convenience of a Government at the time.
My Lords, just on that point on consultation, I suggest that the Minister, when he responds, thinks of the expression “more haste, less speed”. Rushing things through without proper consultation can lead only to difficulties and the issue being revisited at a later date.
My Lords, we had a debate on the previous group. Despite the beguiling invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, I am not going to rehash that debate. I am certainly not going to accept advice from those Benches on how many legs I should stand on at one particular time. They often seem to have about five or six legs, in my campaigning experience.
The Government oppose these amendments. I understand that they are probing, but I can reassure the noble Lord that we do not consider them necessary because, under the Bill as we propose it, the approval of Parliament—the whole of Parliament, both Houses—is required when a statement is created or whenever it might be revised. That is, as my noble friend Lady Noakes said, there in the Bill. That will ensure that the Government consider its views and then gives Parliament the final say over whether a statement takes effect.
This measure, in our judgment, will improve the accountability of the commission to the UK Parliament and ensure that Parliament, in the last resort, remains firmly in control of approving any statement. That is why the Government have proposed the affirmative procedure in the Bill for the approval of a new or revised statement and I can certainly confirm for the noble Lord that any statement must be approved by both Houses, including your Lordships’ House, before it can be designated. Therefore, we think these amendments are unnecessary.
The Minister is relying so strongly on the case that Parliament would have final control over whether the statement was acceptable, he must be assuming that each House has the capacity to turn down and reject the statement. Can we take it that he will not, in those circumstances, say that it is somehow unconstitutional for this House to say that the statement is in defiance of the principles of democracy and damaging to our electoral system?
My Lords, again, I am not going to be led into a wide and potentially very interesting debate on how your Lordships would behave in regard to any legislation, including primary legislation. I draw attention to what is before the Committee, which is that your Lordships would have to pass an affirmative resolution, and that does give your Lordships a power in law.
The question has been asked better than I was trying to put it. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, acknowledged that in this House we are extremely reluctant to use the nuclear option, because we are not elected; the elected House has primacy. But we are not talking about legislation in the normal sense of the word—we are talking about a strategy statement that will influence the operation of a body that oversees the conduct of our elections, which could be issued quite close to a general election and might impede the operation of political parties. Constitutionally, I am always very reluctant for this unelected House to challenge the elected House on legislation, but I think we need to be clear and the Minister has to answer this question. This is very different and that is why we are so concerned about it: it concerns the way our general elections are conducted. If this House thinks that a statement is going to impinge on the way our political parties are able to operate, does the Minister agree that we should have the authority to reject it?
My Lords, the noble Lord confuses various things. The constitutional position is as I set out. With the greatest respect, I say to him that the precise proposition that he has put before the Committee in this amendment is that the House should have the opportunity to reject. I do not know about standing on various legs, but he is logically opposing his own amendment. For our part, we think—
Let us be clear about this. We have had the Leader of this House challenge this House when it has simply sent something back, let alone rejected it. Then we have a Prime Minister who says, “Well, we’re going to put loads more Peers in the House.” This is a separate issue. It is not a constitutional issue about the rights of the House of Commons; it is about a strategy statement for the Electoral Commission, which has statutory duties to be independent. I can see circumstances where a statement is produced, maybe even as close as four months prior to a general election, that could have severe implications for the conduct of political parties in that election. In those circumstances, even though I am in general against this House rejecting the democratic will of the House of Commons, this Bill imposes a duty on this House to consider whether it needs to operate the powers that it has.
I note what the noble Lord opposite says. I believe that I have set out the correct constitutional position. If he wishes to persuade your Lordships’ House to act differently from the way it normally operates, it is up to him to make that argument and it is his privilege at the time, but that is not the argument before the Committee. I do not believe that the statement or the illustrative example of a statement justifies the kind of language which has been used about it today. We will have a debate on clause stand part shortly, but since the effect of the amendment is simply to replicate what is already in the Bill, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw it.
Once again, my Lords, the debate has generated more areas of concern than it has put at ease. Undoubtedly, we will need to think about coming back to some of these issues, whatever happens in the debate on whether the clause should stand part. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
Amendment 4A not moved.