Considered in Committee (Order, this day)
[Sir Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
Early parliamentary general election
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government amendment 14.
Clause stand part.
Clause 2 stand part.
Amendment 3, title, line 1, leave out “12” and insert “9”.
This is a consequential amendment.
The Prime Minister came to office promising to deliver Brexit by 31 October, and he has failed. He has shown his utter incompetence, and he simply cannot be trusted. We have consistently said that we will support a general election once a no deal is absolutely off the table and when a date can be fixed in law. After lengthy denial by the Prime Minister, we have now reached that point, which is why the time is right for a Labour Government and real change.
The purpose of any general election is to allow the largest possible number of people to participate and have their say on the future of the country. Up to 9.5 million people in Great Britain are not correctly registered to vote. Young people are less likely to be registered, with almost a third of people aged 18 to 34 missing from the electoral roll. This means their views and interests are being under-represented.
The Government know they are less likely to do well in elections when lots of people are registered to vote, which is why they have done nothing to tackle this issue. The Prime Minister even tried to fix the date of the general election in October to make it harder for students to take part. Students must not be disfranchised by an election date that will not allow them to vote at their term-time address—the address at which they live for the majority of the year, and at which they rightly should be able to vote. Labour’s amendment to fix the date of the general election for 9 December is the best possible way of ensuring the next election is accessible.
We can do better than that, which is why we would have supported, had they been selected, the amendments to expand the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds and to EU citizens with settled status. We recognise their contributions to our society, and they should have a right to vote on their future as well.
Whatever date the House decides the election will be held on, the Labour party is ready to get rid of this Tory Government, who have pushed our public services into crisis. We are ready to put forward our vision for a different kind of country: a country where people get the care they need, from a properly funded NHS; a country where everyone, regardless of their family background, gets the education they need to do well in life; a country where regions that have been held back get the investment they need and a chance to rebuild after a decade of neglect; a country where homelessness is a thing of the past, and everyone can access safe and affordable housing; and a country that is led by a Prime Minister that puts the control of Brexit back in the hands of people in a new referendum, with a real choice between a leave deal and remain.
Labour is the only party that can, and will, let the people decide on Brexit. This is a once-in-a-generation chance to rebuild and transform our country, which is why I urge this House to support this amendment, to ensure that this election is as accessible as possible.
It is a pleasure to speak in Committee on this crucial Bill. As I said in my closing remarks on Second Reading, this is a short, sensible Bill, setting out the date of the next general election. The Bill provides transparency on the date of an election and ensures that it can be conducted in a timely way so that Parliament can meet in good time ahead of the 31 January deadline.
Clause 1 provides for a parliamentary general election to be held on 12 December 2019. I will shortly set out why that is the preferred date and why the Government will resist the Opposition amendment.
Clause 2 deals with the Bill’s short title and provides that the Bill will come
“into force on the day it is passed.”
I wish briefly to touch on the subsections in clause 1, to provide reassurance to Members; these are minor, technical points. Subsection (3)(a) removes the requirement for Ministers to review the welfare cap in the current Parliament. Subsection 3(b) ensures that the reporting requirement placed on Ministers does not need to be completed in this Parliament. Both measures ensure that these requirements will align with the new parliamentary Session, following the election.
On the principal amendment standing in the name of the Opposition, we have considered the date of the poll and I wish to set out why 12 December is the best date, for two reasons. First, it gives Parliament enough time to progress essential business—specifically, the Northern Ireland Budget Bill, which is necessary to access the funding that the Northern Ireland civil service needs after 31 October. If that Bill does not receive Royal Assent, the delivery of public services and proper governance in Northern Ireland would be put at risk.
It would be helpful for this House to consider that Bill in good order, as it is an important measure to ensure that nurses, teachers and police officers in Northern Ireland get paid. If we do not pass that legislation, there is a real danger that such people will not get paid. I urge hon. Members to think carefully about moving the date. The issue at hand is whether to move the date to 9 December, which would preclude our passing that Bill.
Did my hon. Friend note that the Opposition spokesperson’s principal reason for opting for 9 December and not 12 December was that they felt that students would somehow miss out? Students are perfectly able to apply for a postal vote or a proxy vote, and three days will make absolutely no difference to that process.
Yes, my hon. Friend and neighbour, who represents St Albans, raises an important point: there is no substance to the point about students being disfranchised. That is because, first, 70% of students choose to vote at their home address, so this would not apply to them; and, secondly, because all the 40 largest universities will be sitting on 12 December. So I do not believe there is any danger of disfranchising.
I remember the leader of the Scottish National party saying last Thursday that we could not have an election on 12 December because it would be cold, dark and wet. Has my hon. Friend been in touch with the Met Office to find out how much warmer and how much lighter it will be three days earlier on 9 December?
It does not matter in the Humber if it is 9 or 12 December—I can guarantee it will be a bit windy and probably a bit damp. More importantly, will the Minister dismiss the Opposition’s amendment for what it is—a shameful attempt to divide? That is what it is about. The Opposition are trying to build resentment in a group of the electorate that they think are susceptible to their message. It is disgraceful and shameful to try to separate students from the rest of the population, when everyone knows that people can vote by post and by proxy in every election. The Opposition will divide, divide, divide throughout the election campaign, because that is what they do.
If hon. Members will allow me to elucidate on this point, it may satisfy them. The other reason to have an election on 12 December is that it is a Thursday. By convention, Thursday is the day on which we have such elections in this country. There does not seem to be a strong argument to the contrary to move it those few days earlier.
I point out to the Minister that there is no convention to have elections every two years, but we seem to be content to do that.
I want to take the Minister back to his important points on the Northern Ireland Budget Bill. We all want to see people get paid—we do not want a Republican-style shutdown of government in Northern Ireland—so will he answer the question I asked? Could we not resolve this dispute by sitting this Friday?
I again make three points to the hon. Gentleman. First, Thursday is the usual date for such an election. Why change it? I have yet to hear an argument advanced to change it—the hon. Gentleman is essentially making a case to change it from Thursday to Monday. Secondly, we need to have time properly to consider the Northern Ireland Budget Bill. Thirdly, if hon. Members wish to move the election to the earlier date, they need to come up with a compelling reason to do so, other than daylight, which I have yet to hear.
Order. We cannot have everybody on their feet at the same time. It is for the Minister to give way.
I will make some progress and then I will consider giving way.
There are principled reasons why we wish to have proper scrutiny of legislation for the Northern Ireland budget. It is essential for teachers, doctors and nurses in Northern Ireland to be paid.
There is a convention that elections are held on Thursday. Once again, the Opposition are trying to move the goalposts. Initially, the argument was that they did not want a general election on 12 December because they were concerned that the Government would somehow seek to ram through the Bill giving effect to the Prime Minister’s deal. Yesterday, at the Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister give an assurance on that. Now, they seek to contrive another reason artificially to create divisions in this House over moving the date by three days.
We have had three years to consider this matter. Will three days really make that much difference? That is in tune with a wider point. The public are getting more and more frustrated at this House endlessly coming up with procedural reasons that prevent us from getting on and doing the thing we want to do, as set out in this Bill—to have a general election to allow us to resolve the issue. We will resist the Opposition amendment to move the date of the general election.
This is just a technical question. If the general election is on 12 December, when will the new Parliament sit and when will we have a Queen’s Speech? When this was last done in 1923-24, with the general election on 6 December, the Queen’s Speech was not until 15 January, which would make it difficult to get any serious business done by the end of January.
I hope I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. The reason the Government wish to have a general election is to ensure that we have a sustainable majority to pass the Bill that implements the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement. Therefore, the impetus on us is to get that done as quickly as possible. I do not think that he will find delays from those of us on the Government Benches.
I wish briefly to touch on amendment 14 that stands in my name. The Scottish National party has raised a concern that the amendment seeks to address. Its concern was to ensure that the registration deadline in Scotland for a 12 December election was the same as for the rest of the country. The Government support the intention of the SNP amendment in relation to this election to ensure that we have an across-UK approach to the registration deadline. This will allow a comprehensive UK-wide communication campaign by the Electoral Commission to advertise a deadline and to ensure that those who want to register are able to do so in a timely manner. The Government’s amendment would achieve the consistency in registration deadlines that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) and his party desired without any longer term, unintended consequences.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I think that it is clear that the contentious area in this part of the discussion is about whether the election is on 9 or 12 December. No. 10 had previously suggested that it is willing to pull the Bill if the amendments regarding EU nationals and 16 and 17-year-old are selected and passed, so my question to the Minister is this: are the Government willing to die in a ditch over whether the election is on 9 or 12 December? What is their intention if this amendment passes?
I believe that I have set out two sensible and compelling reasons to have the date on 12 December, and I have yet to hear to the contrary an argument about why we need to move it by three days. I really think that we have dealt with this point. I know other hon. Members wish to speak, so if the Committee will forgive me I will conclude my points on amendment 14, which stands in my name.
The Government’s amendment removes St Andrew’s day 2019 only from the operation of regulation 29(4) and 8(3) of the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations. This both restricts the change to this election only and leaves the subsequent register intact. The effect of the amendment is to remove the bank holiday from the calculation of time for registering for the voter deadline. It would instead be classed as a normal working day, but for this election only. We feel that the amendment, as we have drafted it, will, I hope, address SNP concerns, but will limit any unintended consequences of amending the relevant provision of the regulations.
In summary, we are trying to achieve straightforward, simple legislation that ensures that we can have a general election in short order. I urge all hon. Members to resist the temptation to complicate and amend this to allow us to have the general election on 12 December so that we can get a sustainable majority to deliver the Prime Minister’s deal and finally move on.
I want to make some comments generally on the Bill as a whole and then to discuss the individual amendments that have been selected.
I must start by saying that, clearly, it is not ideal for anyone to have an election a couple of weeks before Christmas: the nights are fair drawing in, it will be cold and dark, and many of the people in this country will, quite understandably, be looking forward to Christmas and spending time with their family and relatives. So it is hardly an ideal time, but from our perspective in the SNP, we think that this is a necessary requirement now, because we have reached a situation of impasse in this Parliament where it is incapable of resolving probably the biggest political issue that has divided the United Kingdom in my lifetime. There are competing views as to what the end point of the Brexit process should be, and parliamentary democracy in this country, it seems to me, has now reached a point of stasis where it is incapable of adjudicating between those outcomes. It is therefore right and proper that we should go back to the electorate and allow them to reflect on what can happen.
This will very much be the Brexit election. I am pleased that we have moved the Government from their position a few weeks ago, when they did not actually want a Brexit election in which the people would be allowed to cast their views about different outcomes. They wanted to get Brexit done and go to the electorate afterwards. That would have been a travesty because it would have said to the people, “We’re going to have a general election. Brexit will be one of the big topics of conversation, but there is really no point in you expressing a view, because we’re going to conclude the matter before the first ballot is cast.” That would have been a ridiculous and anti-democratic situation. I am glad that we have moved the Prime Minister and the Government away from that approach, even if it does mean that the Prime Minister might be looking for a ditch on Thursday.
Many people have lamented the fact that Parliament has not resolved this matter, three and a half years on. In my view, that is simply because it is without any reasonable resolution. The promise of Brexit has turned out to be a lie. In 2016, people were told that they could vote to leave the European Union and would be better off as a result. That is not true, and hardly anyone in this Chamber would now argue that it was. In fact, it is a matter of how bad the different Brexit options are. That is why, quite understandably, there is now a large body of opinion in this country for whom the conclusion of this process should be to say, “That’s it. It has gone far enough. Stop it now; we want to get off.” An election will allow that view to come to the fore.
The election will also allow the Prime Minister to put his deal before the electorate. And hon. Members should be under no illusions—the Prime Minister has taken an extremely flawed deal by his predecessor and made it immeasurably worse. This series of proposals that the Prime Minister has agreed with the European Union will impoverish people in this country, very much remove the standing of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world and leave it a much worse place. I do not want that for the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and I certainly do not want that outcome for the people of Scotland. That is why it is right and proper that the Prime Minister should put his case before the electorate. I look forward to him being challenged—not just by Opposition parties, but by Nigel Farage so that we can see whether the deal he has come up with satisfies the real hard-right Brexiteers, for whom nothing will sate their appetite.
As many people have remarked, the situation in Scotland is quite different; 62% of the people of Scotland did not vote for this mess. Had teenage voters and most people in Scotland born elsewhere in the European Union been allowed to take part in that decision, the figure would have been far higher still, as it would if the question were asked again today. It is my responsibility to represent the people who elected me.
On the issue of votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, I believe that all men and women are born equal and that everybody in this place should be equal. Amendment 10, which fortunately was not selected today, would have given 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland and Wales the vote, but—
Order. The hon. Lady is out of order; amendment 10 is not debatable.
I am confused as to why that particular intervention should have been made at this point in my speech, but I will mention the issue when I come to consider the amendments before us.
I think it was the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) who said that the outcome of an election could be another hung Parliament, without a majority one way or the other. That, of course, is true. But an election will allow us all the opportunity to refresh a mandate. I for one believe that there are far too many people in this Parliament who are imprisoned by an out-of-date mandate from 2017 that is against what they would do now, having considered the matter. It will give colleagues, particularly those in Her Majesty’s Opposition in seats where a majority voted to leave the European Union, the opportunity to go there and argue, if they so wish, for a rethink and for this matter to be put back to the public before any final decision is taken. That mandate was not present in this Parliament; it could be present in a new Parliament. That is another reason why an election would be welcome.
It is a fact that in the 2016 referendum electoral offences were committed by Vote Leave—the campaign that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and their chief adviser were actually involved in. Is not this general election an opportunity to highlight their role and for a new Government to investigate that properly—something that has not been done under this Government?
Indeed, there would be the opportunity to do that. Those transgressions should be investigated and they do undermine the result of the 2016 referendum. That is yet another reason why the electorate should be allowed to look at this matter again.
I want to be very clear that with regard to mandates in Scotland, we will be fighting this general election with three objectives: first, to stop Brexit, not to rubber stamp it; secondly, to get rid of the most right-wing Tory Government in my lifetime; and thirdly, to demand that people in Scotland have the right to choose an alternative future—an alternative path for doing things— and should not be dragged along against their will. We will put that case to the people in Scotland, and if we win that mandate and win that election, then I demand that other people in this Chamber respect that decision and do not stand in the way of the people of Scotland when they next seek the opportunity to determine their own method of governance.
Let me turn, in closing, to the amendments. I will not discuss amendments that have not been selected, but I simply say that it is a matter of regret that, at this time of political crisis when we are discussing how to get out of it, we are not able to seize the opportunity to extend our franchise and allow two very important groups of people in our community who have a vested interest in the outcome of this decision—more than we do—the opportunity to participate.
On voting age, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman appreciates—I am sure he does—that those who were 17-year-olds in 2016 were 18-year-olds and of voting age in 2017, when 56% of voters in Scotland voted for either the Conservative party or Labour, both of which, if only at the time in the case of Labour, were committed to delivering Brexit.
I entirely concur with the hon. Gentleman’s point; indeed, I made it more widely on Second Reading. It is a shame that we are not doing this—although obviously we are not able to discuss amendments that have not been selected.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I think there is actually a broad level of agreement among Members across the House, including the odd one over on the Conservative Benches as well, that the time has surely come to extend the franchise. I hope we do not end up in a situation where we have a general election in December and it will be another five years before we can even consider this possible enfranchisement. It would therefore have been a timely opportunity to seize the issue, but we have chosen not to do so.
On the amendments that have been selected, we are very much in favour of the one suggesting that the election should move to 9 December, and we shall vote for it tonight. The Government said that they wanted an election as soon as possible, so why would they not wish to have it three days earlier than the date—
No, thank you. [Interruption.] No, thank you. Which part of “no” don’t you understand?
A 9 December election brings a number of benefits. It enables more of the electorate to participate and it puts an extra little bit of distance between the election and Christmas. Furthermore, it does not inconvenience our ability to conclude our business in this Parliament in any way. We could get our business finished and have Dissolution at the end of this week, so it is entirely doable. I do not understand why the Government, who have been so determined that there must be an election as soon as possible, are so resistant to doing it three days earlier. Let us do it as soon as possible, in order to get this lot out as soon as possible.
Finally, and uncharacteristically, I would like to thank the Government for their technical amendment, which simply eradicates the disadvantage that there would be in the electoral registration process in Scotland, occasioned by the fact that we have a bank holiday on 30 November for St Andrew’s day. I hope that the Committee will pass the amendment and put us all on a level playing field. With that, I shall conclude my remarks and look forward to the general election to come.
On the last point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), I should declare an interest: St Andrew’s day will also be the day of my 60th birthday.
By 30 November, I shall no longer be a Member of Parliament, because I am not standing at the forthcoming election. I have been here since 2001, and I have to say that the last few years have not been Parliament at its best. It would be difficult to find a rare statement made by any one of us over the past two years. It has been like groundhog day every day, and the public are getting extremely fed up with our behaviour. In fact, I have never known such a disconnect between the body politic and the public, and I believe that any device or attempt to frustrate our having a general election now will be viewed extremely badly by the public, who, as I say, are extremely fed up with our behaviour.
We all understand why the Scottish nationalist party wants to have an election—because it knows that the court case starting in January will lay bare the divisions between those who support Alex Salmond and those who support Nicola Sturgeon. SNP Members know that if the election is delayed until next year, they will suffer at the polls. It is strange for a party that prides itself on looking after one of the devolved parts of the United Kingdom to play party politics with Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) laughs in rather a tinny way.
No, I will not give way. As a former Minister of State for Northern Ireland, which I do not believe the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) is, I care passionately about Northern Ireland, and I am concerned about some aspects of how the proposed legislation affects Northern Ireland. That said, it is my understanding that if the date of the election is brought forward, that will prevent much of the legislation we need to empower the civil service in Northern Ireland to do their job. Why are the Scottish Nats prepared to play politics, and to what end, with the people of Northern Ireland if they care about Northern Ireland, or perhaps they wish to cast them to one side?
I am extremely glad and relieved that the wrecking amendments have not been selected, such as the one giving EU nationals the right to vote in British elections. I ask again: where can British citizens vote in national elections in the EU? The answer is nowhere. In terms of the sudden discovery that votes should be given to 16-year-olds as a matter of course, everybody realises that that cannot be done in the timetable available; it is another wrecking amendment.
The British people are watching our deliberations this evening. They want an election. They understand that the date for the election is partially informed by the desire to have good governance and good government for the people of Northern Ireland. It is worth remembering that the institutions are not up and running there. It would be foolhardy to bring the election forward by a matter of days and frustrate that, and therefore amendment 2 should be resisted.
My intervention was somewhat long, so I thought I would make a speech to make a small contribution to this debate.
I absolutely welcome the fact that we are going to have a general election. It is a sadness, in a way, that this Parliament has not been able to run its full term, particularly given that the last one also ran for only two years. This Parliament has not been able to run its full term because, very sadly, people in this place did not do what they said they were going to do in the 2017 election, which was to honour the referendum result.
We have heard some of that in some of the speeches this afternoon. What has gone on since that election in 2017, in which the overwhelming majority of us were re-elected to deliver Brexit? I accept that the SNP Members had a different position, and they have consistently followed the line they took in the general election, but that is not the case for most of the rest of us. What has happened is that we have seen the belittling of the referendum result and talking down to the people who dared to vote to leave the European Union.
We have heard some of that again today. Indeed, the contribution of the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), did the same, implying that Brexiteers and people who voted leave did not really know what they were voting for.
If the hon. Gentleman will give me a moment to let me finish my point, I will then give way to him.
We have seen consistently throughout that people who did not vote for Brexit and are on the other side of the debate consistently tell Brexit voters what it is that we voted for, and they think they have the right to interpret what—
Order. No, it is not a debate about Brexit; it is debate about the clauses and amendments. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman is trying to widen the debate from where we are. We are on the clauses and amendments. Has the hon. Gentleman now finished?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because I just want to clarify this on the record. At no time has any of us ever said that people did not know what they were voting for in the Brexit referendum in 2016. What we do say is that they were wilfully lied to in that campaign.
We hear what it believes to be the voice of Scotland, but the SNP is the voice of some of Scotland. What SNP Members do not often say is that more people voted in Scotland to leave the European Union in 2016 than voted for the SNP at the general election in 2017—and that is a fact. A lot of people in Scotland voted to leave the European Union.
Indeed, that is absolutely true, but, as I have said, in fairness to SNP Members, their position on wanting to cancel Brexit is at least a consistent one, and one on which they stood in the 2017 general election.
We also heard this in the intervention by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), who again suggested that there was some sort of fiddling in favour of leave. This is why this Parliament is so broken, and why this Parliament is—
No, I am not giving way because I have not finished my point. All I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that, after the 2015 election, his party was fined for election expense failings—I think over the Ed stone, as it was called—and Momentum received the biggest fine that any political group has received in the UK. I do not question the hon. Gentleman’s mandate from either the 2015 election or from 2017 because his party was responsible in one election for technical breaches when it came to expenses law, or, in the case of the 2017 election, because one of the groups within his party—
We are talking not about technical breaches, but about collusion to break electoral spending limits: collusion in which the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Dominic Cummings were involved. That is important. I voted for article 50 and I was misled by a campaign that I found out about after I had voted. I take that seriously. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman does not. I believe in keeping the law.
I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman has done nothing to deliver on his 2017 election manifesto since that vote, which was to deliver Brexit. It is a prime example of why this Parliament is so broken. Never mind the £1 million that was funnelled to various remain groups towards the end of the referendum campaign; never mind the millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money used to campaign for remain; never mind all the institutions of the state that were used—
I am going to deal with the point myself. We are not broadening the debate. Others wish to speak and we are getting bogged down in something that is not relevant to the clause and the amendment. You have answered the question at least five times already, Mr Percy, and I would love to hear from Michael Tomlinson who is next to you. He is desperate to get in.
Order. You are a former member of the Panel of Chairs. You know exactly what I am relating my comments to. We have allowed a little movement away from the clause and the amendment, and I now want you to speak about them. If not, other Members wish to speak.
I am responding to points that were made in other speeches and interventions in the debate, but I will of course—[Interruption.] Opposition Front Benchers need to calm themselves. I know they are not looking forward to an election because they broke their promises from the 2017 election, but they need to calm down. I will of course follow your ruling, Sir Lindsay, because after all you did me the honour of putting me on the Panel of Chairs.
This Parliament is broken precisely because the votes of the majority of this country—17.4 million people—in 2016 have not been respected. That is why we have to have a general election.
My hon. Friend says that Parliament is broken. It is not just broken; it is as dead as a dodo. This Parliament cannot do anything—there is constant dither and delay. The public want us to get on and deliver, and a general election allows us to do that.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is why we must bring this Parliament to a close. On the amendment, and whether the date is 9 or 12 December, I am not particularly bothered. I just want my constituents and the people in the constituencies around mine, who I am afraid have been let down by their Members of Parliament who have not kept their promises from the 2017 election—all the constituencies around me voted by a huge margin to leave the European Union—to have a say for exactly the reason that my hon. Friend stated.
This Parliament has not kept its promises to the people. I am not especially bothered about whether it is 9 or 12 December. All I would say is that if we are worried about voters being confused about an election or unable to vote, changing the day is one way in which people could be confused. We have always voted—I do not know for how long, but certainly in my short years on this planet—on a Thursday. A change in the day could be confusing. If we have to vote on 9 December, so be it, but 12 December should be the date because Thursday is the day we normally vote.
No, I will not give way any more.
I want to make a final point about the tone of the forthcoming general election campaign because it will be important. We have heard a lot of attacks on the Prime Minister in the last few days in the Chamber. An analysis out today said that the person who has been on the receiving end of the largest amount of bile and personal attacks is the Prime Minister. We will see more of that in the election campaign.
The 2017 general election campaign was the worst I have ever been involved in when it came to behaviour. I have fought eight election campaigns in my short life. As the Leader of the Opposition is here, I hope he will reflect on the words he uses in the campaign. What happened at the last election was in his name. My staff were spat at in his name and I was attacked in the street by people chanting his name at me on his behalf because of the divisive language he consistently used in the run-up to that election. I will take him at his word that in this election he will encourage his supporters and party members to engage in better behaviour. The 2017 election was, for many of us, an appalling campaign to go through, with abuse, threats, damage to property and damage to constituents’ property perpetrated, in some cases, in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. I hope the campaign in December is a more civil one on all sides. This is not a matter that one side owns. I hope we will all conduct ourselves somewhat better in the forthcoming election.
I will conclude, but I have to say that I will oppose the 9 December amendment. If we end up with 9 December so be it, but it is so much better if we stick to the tradition of always voting on a Thursday, which is something that constituents very clearly understand.
I am going to make a change in tack from the previous three speakers and actually speak to some of the amendments that have been tabled. However, I first want to pick up on the really important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) at the end of his speech. We all heard about a “kinder, gentler politics”. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and, like him, I look forward to fighting a positive campaign on the issues, seeing that kinder, gentler politics on the doorsteps and in the conduct of each of us. Perhaps that is a pledge that we can each make right here and right now.
I am also following the contribution from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire). It was a great pleasure to hear him speak. I hope he heard the cheers from the Back Benches, effectively crying for more. We cannot believe that he is retiring at such a young age and that this House will be deprived of his voice in future Parliaments. I say that with all sincerity. It was a great pleasure to hear him make a small contribution to this particular debate, following such a distinguished career in this place. It has been a great pleasure working alongside him in a number of campaigns.
I join the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who I think welcomed, very briefly, the technical amendment tabled in the name of my right hon. Friend the Minister. I, too, welcome that technical amendment and will be supporting it. I hope it will not be pressed to a Division.
I want to turn to amendment 2, which relates to the date of the election. We eventually heard the hon. Gentleman, after a 10-minute speech, turn to the clauses and the amendment. He gave what I thought were rather weak reasons for why he preferred 9 December to 12 December. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, I am perfectly prepared to fight an election on a Monday as much as a Thursday, but it seems to me that that is perhaps not the key point.
There are two key reasons why 12 December is to be preferred. The first is in relation to Northern Ireland business. It is incredibly important that the Northern Ireland Executive budget can complete its stages, so that the civil service can be in good shape and ensure that nurses, doctors and teachers are paid.
I was listening very carefully to the speech my hon. Friend is referring to and I was struck that there was no real explanation why it makes a difference where a student casts their vote, whether at home or at university. They can do a postal vote if necessary.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. Evidence shows that 70% of students cast their vote in their hometown in any event. It seems to me to make no difference whether it is during term time or not. In fact, that seems to miss the point. Most terms end on 13 December, not on 12 or 9 December. Most close on either 13 December or the week after. Therefore, this wheeze—it does seem to be a wheeze and a point of division, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole said—does not even work at face value, because students will still be in place on 12 December.
As a school governor, I know about the disruption caused to schools used as polling stations on a Thursday. If the school has to close, that often means that children will miss not only the Thursday but the Friday, because parents will keep them off for an extended weekend. That situation would be circumvented if the poll took place on a Monday, because parents would bring their children in from Tuesday to Friday—[Interruption.] I am being told by Government Members that that is a load of nonsense, but as a school governor with about 37 years’ experience I know, unfortunately, that kids have missed important days of education on many occasions. If the amendment prevented that from happening in some schools, it would be good for that reason only.
Order. Before the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) responds, there is a lot of chatter going on, which makes it difficult to hear the speaker and interventions from others. If colleagues want to have conversations, perhaps they can leave the Chamber. This is obviously a fascinating debate and we all want to get the most out of it.
The fact that you are listening to me, Dame Rosie, makes me so pleased. It makes me smile.
I take very seriously the intervention from the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns). I, too, have been a school governor, although my experience is not as great as his. I bow to him for the number of years he has been a school governor. However, as to whether the poll is on a Monday or a Thursday, it seems to me that his point does not make a difference. I would prefer it if no school days were disrupted and if local authorities could find alternative venues, which from time to time they can. Temporary polling stations can be put up at short notice. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point seriously, but I do not see that it makes a difference, as to whether the poll is on a Monday or a Thursday. I do not see that that particularly has an impact on the schools: it seems to me that, if a school is going to be interrupted, it may as well be interrupted on a Thursday as on a Monday. I heard his point about the Friday but, in my experience, which is more limited than his, I have not witnessed schools extending the weekend. I understand the point he was trying to make, but I really do not think that it makes a difference whether it is the Thursday or the Monday. My view, for what it is worth, is that schools should not be disrupted, if at all possible, and that we should find temporary polling stations.
On the issue of access to polling stations, my hon. Friend may wish to consider the fact that my electoral registration officers in Suffolk tell me that it is particularly challenging to get access on a Sunday to village halls and many of the other places where votes will take place on a Monday. Will he reflect on that, the importance of holding the election on a later day in the week, and the need to stick with Thursdays, which is the convention?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, because I had not considered that point before. It is a live issue, given that polling stations have to open early in the morning. In Dorset as much as Suffolk, who is going to hand over the key to the village hall? When will it be collected? There are practicalities involved. He has made a powerful point and given a third reason, in addition to my previous two, why Thursday should be preferred to Monday.
My hon. Friend is making some important points. I reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). The halls would need to be prepared on a Sunday for a Monday, and we would also potentially have to pay double time for wages, which would involve extra expense. Frankly, however, we should not be using schools as polling stations. We should not be interfering with children’s education. Some years ago, my constituency gave up using schools and found alternatives. The most popular polling station we now use is in a pub. There are alternatives that do not deny children their education, whether on a Monday or a Thursday.
The pub is the hub—I have heard that somewhere before—and why should not it be used as a polling station? I often hold surgeries in different pubs across the constituency of Mid Dorset and North Poole. It seems to me that that is a perfectly reasonable place to hold them.
Concerns have been expressed on Mumsnet that nativity plays and the like may be interfered with. If that can be avoided, I would certainly support that.
Again, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention; as ever, he is thoughtful and he has made a considered point. Although those two issues have just been pointed out to me—about Sunday tipping into Monday and using alternative provision—what my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said still stands: if at all possible, we should avoid using schools as polling stations so that they can stay open, whether that is for nativity plays, Latin, maths, or whatever. I would not be against using a public house, as I am not for surgeries, but I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns).
The hon. Gentleman’s point is mainly about polling stations, but is he aware that there are big issues in booking a large enough venue to hold an election count? Many local authorities may struggle to find a venue at this time of year.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. I had not considered that but I do not think that it is a distinguishing feature, when voting on this measure, between whether the election is held on the Monday or the Thursday. I take that serious point on board but, in my view, if there is pressure on accommodation in December, it would be no different on a Monday than on a Thursday.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we have cast aside many traditions over the last few years and that this place has got rid of what we hold dear? If we are to have a debate about the right day for an election, surely that should be done soberly and decently, at the right time. I understand that many of our EU friends hold elections over the weekend. We should have time for a debate in future and not do this on the back of a cigarette packet today.
My hon. Friend is reinforcing my primary point about why I believe that the Thursday should be preferred: it is the traditional day. I do not have the precise figures, but I am sure that the Minister will when they respond to the amendments. It is traditional that these votes happen on a Thursday. It has happened on other days, but in Mid Dorset and North Poole, that is the routine and we are used to voting on a Thursday.
I echo what my hon. Friend is saying. It seems absolutely clear that the will of the House is that elections in this country should always be on a Thursday—always on a Thursday! But the silver lining—it is a small one—to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is that this is the first time that we have had a debate in this Chamber about elections, and there are lots of interesting ideas. My best polling station is a garden room in Woolstone. Where should we have our polling stations? More and more people are voting by post, and what about voting on an app for our young people when they are at university? [Interruption.] You see? Already a lively debate has started, so after the Tories win the election on 12 December, let us resolve, as one of the first things we do, to have a proper, full day’s debate on the manner and practice of elections in the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Gentleman is right: there is time to have a debate on the lines that he suggests, but this afternoon, we are discussing the date of the election. We are not doing that well on the chatter front, by the way, so can we revisit the fact that we need to listen very carefully to the speeches that are being made? A big effort.
Thank you, Dame Rosie. My right hon. Friend has great expertise in telecommunications and he makes an interesting point about technology—I take your point that it does not really take us further forward in terms of the date and this amendment, but he makes an intriguing point. I note that the Leader of the House is sitting in his place. Doubtless if my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage revisits that point on Thursday during business questions, perhaps that can be taken forward at a future date. He has certainly hit upon something. We all have an interest in this and, dare I say it, a small amount of amateur expertise on it as well.
The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that the political editor of The Sun has just tweeted that the Government have conceded on the 9 December election date. If that is the case, does he agree that we should just get on with the vote?
I want to make a couple of points. First, next week is Parliament Week, and many schools already have arrangements to talk to their pupils about Parliament. That could be enlivened if by then we are in the middle of a general election. Secondly, in Rayleigh we recently experimented with establishing a polling station in the Travellers Joy pub. We had a by-election there recently against the Liberals, and we won, so I am all for it.
If the news is that a deal has been done about 9 December, it would be instructive if we were to be told, because clearly it would influence our contributions in this relatively short debate. Has my hon. Friend had any indication of whether a deal has been done? I have the same reservations as he does. I have fought a lot of parliamentary elections in my life since 1987. Up until the Ribble Valley, I had lost them all. [Laughter.] Times have got better since then. Elections have always been on a Thursday. I cannot remember them ever being on anything other than a Thursday. Does he agree that, if it is switched to a Monday, a lot of publicity will be needed? People must know it is on a Monday. It is also vital that postal and proxy votes are applied for.
I will take your comments very seriously, Dame Rosie, and bring my remarks to a close shortly.
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point. I have not received information directly, from the editor of The Sun or anyone else, about the rights and wrongs. Quite often they are whispers in the wind with no truth attached. They might be true on this occasion, but I have not heard. I agree, however, that it would be incredibly helpful to know if that were the case, because then speeches may be curtailed or changed. I repeat my point: whether it is on a Friday, a Monday, a Thursday—whatever the day—we will be prepared and ready. It does seem that there are advantages to a Thursday as opposed to a Monday, but if it happens to be a Monday, so be it. We will get on and fight it.
I understand that moving the election date to 9 December would imply a Dissolution this Thursday, which would greatly constrain those of us who have made arrangements on Friday and early next week for Parliament Week. There are all sorts of protocols with respect to schools about having Members of Parliament visit them, but we would no longer be Members of Parliament and they would be obliged by those protocols to invite all the candidates, which is very difficult to arrange at short notice.
That was a rather longer intervention than some of my right hon. Friend’s interventions, but he makes a very good point. During the campaign, we will no longer be Members of Parliament, which has a bearing not just on schools and school visits, but on events such as Remembrance Sunday. I understand we are expecting a ruling or some guidance from Mr Speaker on that point.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, quite apart from the consequences for constituency activities, a crucial consequence of an early Dissolution would be for the business of the House and the threat of losing crucial legislation, such as the Northern Ireland Budget Bill, which is essential if Northern Ireland civil servants are to be paid and a Government shutdown avoided?
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye. I intend to make a very short contribution to this important debate. I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson). He is one of the up-and- coming Members, and he has made some useful and telling points.
This is the fourth time Parliament has been asked to hold a general election. The nation has been in schism, unable to do anything worthwhile as the dreadful problem of Brexit hangs over us. I should have infinitely preferred this Parliament to have sorted the Brexit problem out so that we could have left the EU on 31 March, before holding a general election, but the fact is that we have not sorted it out, and we are now in this position.
We are in this position because the coalition Government, under my right hon. friend the then Member for Witney, passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which the Bill seeks to amend. That Act was passed in a very different time. It was passed with the purpose of ensuring that the coalition could not end early, and it was passed in undue haste, without proper consideration of what the consequences might be in a situation in which there was no overall majority in Parliament. I think that one of the first things that whoever gains a majority in the House after the election will want to do is revisit the Act to see whether we want to alter its provisions so that we never get into this situation again.
As I have said, for too long this Parliament has been paralysed. It has been three years and four months since we held the referendum.
I think that it seems an eternity.
Indeed, 80% of Members voted to trigger article 50, and most Conservative and Labour Members produced manifestos in 2017 in which they pledged to honour the result of the referendum, yet Parliament has still not resolved the matter. I am therefore delighted that we appear to be moving to the likelihood that the House will pass this Bill tonight. The only question that remains—posed by the Opposition’s amendment 2—is whether we will have an election on 9 or 12 December.
My marginal preference is for a Thursday election. As many Members have already said, Thursday elections are a long tradition for a number of very good reasons. Mention has been made of problems with booking halls and rooms that would be big enough for the count, but I think that most competent authorities can deal with that. Indeed, I know from discussions with my local authorities that they have already booked the venues. Those in charge of the schools, halls, libraries, garages, pubs and community centres in which the polling stations will have already been warned and will have already agreed that they can manage an election some time in December.
I take the point about the need to complete Northern Ireland business. I should have thought that we could do that on Thursday if we are to prorogue on that day, but it is vital for it to be completed, because it gives legal authority for public funds to be drawn down.
We can all discuss the pros and cons of the 9th and the 12th, and that is an important part of the debate. I think that there are some pros and cons. The 9th is marginally farther away from Christmas; however, although the venues have already been booked, an election on the 12th would give electoral registration officers a little more time to confirm those bookings, put their staff in place and make other preparations.
The staff do a terrific job during elections. We could not run an election without them. I have talked to them often during the seven elections that have taken place since I was first elected, and I know that they work incredibly hard. They often arrive at 6 in the morning and do not leave until well after the close of the polls at 10 pm. Often in my constituency—I hope no village or parish will take offence at this—the village hall is very draughty and cold, and I have seen them there pretty cold, and I would think they could be, in December, in a pretty cold situation, so I hope that they will have plenty of heaters to keep them warm.
An election now is absolutely essential. We need to resolve by a general election, through a full franchise, and by electing a new Government, a new Parliament, a new Executive, who will have the authority of that general election to resolve the Brexit question once and for all. I sincerely hope that we re-elect a Conservative Government with a good majority, so we can get it resolved.
I will preface my remarks about the choice between Monday 9 and Thursday 12 December by simply saying, “Thank God that this House now appears to be resolving the issue.” I say, “Thank God,” as the co-chair of the all-party humanist group, so I perhaps do not have quite the same certainty about the deity as many hon. Members and friends will have, but I think it is incredibly important for us, in our responsibility for all public servants in the United Kingdom and the national interest of the United Kingdom, to resolve the problem between the legislature and the Executive. We have got to a place where ordinary public administration is now extremely difficult to effect because of the uncertainty in this place and the impossibility of the Government actually carrying a coherent programme. So I say, “Thank God” advisedly.
I also say, “Thank God,” Dame Rosie, because of the selection made by you and your colleagues under the Chairman of Ways and Means for this debate, to ensure that it is properly focused on the in-scope issues of the Bill, because obviously the temptation for any piece of legislation to then have attached to it any number of different issues in a Parliament as incoherent as this one in terms of its make-up is self-evident. The discipline brought to our proceedings today is enormously welcome.
I also say, “Thank God,” because of what the selection means for the amendment passed earlier to the programme motion. I managed to miss that vote as I was engrossed in conversation with Baron Williams of Oystermouth about drugs policy and other issues. I was so engrossed in the conversation, and so grateful for getting hold of him after four months to be able to have a conversation with him, that I literally screened the bells out of my mind and so missed that vote. I confess publicly my error and, having thought missing an important vote is impossible for any competent person to do, I put that on the record with due appropriate humility for being so distracted. So there is a godly reason for having been so distracted: the former Archbishop of Canterbury.
I want to put in a word, however, for the poor old electoral registration officers, who will be faced with the challenge of doing an election in pretty short order at a difficult time of year. To ask them then not to go on the customary day of Thursday, and to do it on a Monday instead, will produce all sorts of challenges in terms of their normal availability and polling stations and anything else that would be available on a Thursday customarily. A point was also well made—I have forgotten which colleague did so, but I think that it was made by an Opposition Member—about the need to engage on Sunday to prepare for Monday. Again, we should think to at least some degree about the burden that they will have to carry in preparing for all this.
Then we come to the whole issue of advancing this election by three days. I am as anxious as anybody else to get our governance in the United Kingdom back on a sound footing, so that there is a sound coalition arrangement if a majority is not secured, although I am confident that we would win a majority at a general election. That is obviously part of my enthusiasm for us getting on and getting it done, but no one can take that for granted, as we learned from 2017.
We need an Administration that can normally rely on a majority in this House, so if the electorate gift us the need for another coalition, at least we will have the opportunity for the numbers to play out in such a way that we can have a programme for government that is sustainable and can be done on a proper basis.
We have seen the difference between what we were able to do between 2010 and 2015, with a full five-year programme in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and the instability that ensued as a result of the numbers that came out in 2017. We have seen enormous difficulties, given the importance of Europe as an issue. We have seen people in all parts of the House wrestling with their conscience over the division between their loyalty to their belief in the European ideal and their loyalty to their party.
I have just heard reference to the European ideal, and I would be grateful if my hon. Friend told me whether he has any evidence of what that really means. Has he ever heard anyone properly justify why they would want to remain in the European Union, which is utterly undemocratic and dysfunctional?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, but I suspect I might get into a deal of trouble if I were to follow him down that rabbit hole, Madam Deputy Speaker, although I would love to. If you will allow me briefly to reply to that point, I think it is actually about an attachment to internationalism and values that we can convince our young people can be carried out on a global scale as well. If the term “global Britain” is to mean anything, it must mean the values that motivate people with the European ideal of co-operation with our neighbouring states. Britain is big enough to do that on a global scale and to make our young people proud of their country, proud of its international standing and proud of its attachment to the rule of law and the defence of human rights. We are now tantalisingly close to being able to scope a new vision for Britain, and that is one of the reasons that it is terribly important to get on with this election.
My hon. Friend was trying to remember who made the point about Sundays and the potential difficulties involved in holding an election on a Monday. It was my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), rather than an Opposition Member. Perhaps that will help to jog my hon. Friend’s memory and take him back to the date, which is the point of the amendment.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend.
Those three days will be extremely important to the electoral registration officers and their teams who are faced with an election in short order, in exactly the same way as they are important to us for the sound discharge of our business here. I heard the business of the House statement yesterday, in which the Leader of the House pointed out the importance of getting a Northern Ireland Budget Bill passed before we dissolve. There is obviously a Northern Ireland interest involved. There a central divide over the Brexit agreement that the Prime Minister has secured and over our role in upholding the Good Friday agreement. Tensions have risen in Northern Ireland over the treatment of Northern Ireland, and that will of course be a proper subject for discussion in the general election, particularly in Northern Ireland. It would be a pity if good administration in Northern Ireland were further affected by us accelerating our Dissolution so fast that we cannot get the Northern Ireland Budget Bill passed in good order.
It is absolutely essential, in the absence of a functioning Assembly and without any prospect of having the Assembly up and running any day soon, that this Government take their responsibilities extremely seriously. I understand that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is determined to do that and to get the Northern Ireland Budget Bill through all its stages in short order, but it is also the responsibility of this Government—I do hope the Justice Secretary is listening—to honour their commitment to the victims of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland and to get the compensation scheme and the legislation through this House before we rise, if we rise and dissolve for a general election. It would be morally irresponsible of the Government to allow those victims to go uncompensated until the far end of a general election. That prospect is appalling.
The hon. Lady makes an extremely powerful point and speaks to the general thrust of my argument, which is that we will be better able to deliver sound public administration if we give ourselves these three extra days. In terms of parliamentary procedure, if there are unconventional measures that the House is agreed upon, it should be possible to get some of them through with an extra 72 hours, but that would not be possible if we curtailed ourselves with an election date of 9 December.
One of the pieces of legislation that my hon. Friend talks about is the Domestic Abuse Bill, on which there is widespread agreement across the House. Does he agree that it should be perfectly possible to agree to get the Bill through either before we dissolve, in the wash-up?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. If we have non-contentious legislation, the three extra days will be of enormous help in assisting the tidying up of our processes than would otherwise be the case.
There has been a discussion about students and about whether their being at university on 9 December or 12 December would make a significant difference, and that was dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson). The bulk of universities break up after 12 December anyway. We also know that the National Union of Students ran an extremely successful exercise to mobilise and register the student vote at university, which saw seats come into play that no one could have conceivably expected, such as Canterbury.
The fact that students are in university must mean that they are quite bright, so they can work out whether they are registered at home, if it is different to their university town, and that they have the choice of designating only one location. They can then vote there in person, or if they have gone back home, they can have a postal vote or, indeed, a proxy vote. The Conservative party should not fear young people voting in these elections. In fact, we should welcome the fact that they are voting, because our manifesto will be far more attractive to young people than Labour’s.
I sincerely hope that is the case. I have made submissions that I hope will make our manifesto more attractive to young people and much more forward looking.
We also ought to remember that there will be three extra days—or five, given that we will drift over the weekend—for people to get their postal votes sorted, which is important if we are to have a December election. I think it is now agreed that the absolutely overriding national interest is to resolve the strategic incoherence of the legislature and the Executive, and we will all need to mobilise people and be part of the campaign to assist people in registering for postal votes if the weather or light will affect their being able to get to a polling station.
All that will also be an additional burden on the electoral registration officers and their teams. For electoral registration officers trying to cope with the demands that we are about to present to them, the three days will be extremely important. There is a good case for widening the take-up of postal votes, not least for students and others who will be able properly to exercise the franchise to which they are entitled.
In conclusion, I hope that the House will consider my arguments. Having the election will resolve the incoherence of good public administration in the circumstances we face today. Dame Rosie, you and your colleagues have prevented us from disappearing down a rabbit hole in order to enable yet further delay and obfuscation by trying to change the nature of the franchise at very short notice. Goodness knows what problems that would then present unto the hard-pressed electoral registration officers on whose behalf I have trying to speak. I hope that the Committee will vote for sound public administration and to support our poor officials who do great work in enabling our democracy to function.
On a point of order, Dame Rosie. I seek your guidance on the selection of amendments. Am I right in believing that, although there has rightly been an enormous amount of concentration on the figures “9” and “12” in amendments 2 and 3, there is ample opportunity for us to consider the issues of clause stand part? The questions of clause 1 and clause 2 stand part are both important in their own right, and I would be glad to know whether you are able to confirm that—I noticed the Clerk nodding her head.
I can indeed confirm that. I noticed that the hon. Gentleman might be trying to catch my eye, so no doubt at that point he will address the very clauses he mentions.
[Interruption.] Somebody said “too long,” and I think he has a point.
Let us be fair: neither 9 December nor 12 December is ideal. I have not fought a general election in December. It last happened in the 1920s, and I am not that old, even though I may look it at times. The timing is not ideal because, yes, it is close to Christmas and, yes, people’s minds are on other things, but the fact is we are not in an ideal situation.
The referendum was in 2016 and, three and a half years on, we still have not left the European Union because of all the wranglings of this place. There has been paralysis on this issue. We have had extension after extension, and the public have just about had enough.
I recently did a tour of about 12 villages in my constituency over two days, and I talked to a lot of people. They told me, “If we can’t get Brexit done, let’s have an early general election.” They did not specify whether 9 or 12 December is the best date. In fact, there was speculation that the general election might even be on 10 or 11 December, but that has clearly been taken out of play because we are now talking about only 9 or 12 December.
My constituents told me, “If Parliament can’t get Brexit done, at least give us the opportunity to look again at the composition of Parliament.” A number of our colleagues will be leaving anyway. Some of them were going to leave in 2020, but of course the previous election came early. They decided to hang on, probably expecting this Parliament to go five years, which no longer looks likely.
If, for whatever reason, we do not have an election on 9 or 12 December, who is to say the paralysis we have experienced over the past 12 months on this one issue will not spread to other legislation? I know people argue that we should have gone on after the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill got its Second Reading, but the fact is that 217 Labour Members voted against Second Reading. They did not want any scrutiny at all. They did not care, they were just totally opposed to the Bill going into Committee to see what amendments would be tabled. It is not as if we did not have a chance.
I understand those MPs who say, “Well, we do not like 9 or 12 December, because it is too dark and too wet,” but I just think people want it over. There was an opportunity to have had the election on 15 October. We offered that date, and whoever got elected could have decided to ask for an extension to article 50 or could have continued with the withdrawal agreement Bill, and we would have left on 31 October. That has not happened, so it is either 9 or 12 December.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman to add his support to the important reason for having those extra three days before Dissolution, which is so that we can get the business relating to Northern Ireland through, not just the finance bit, but the bit about historical institutional abuse? Northern Ireland people are feeling very neglected by this Parliament, and doing this would make them feel that at the last minute we did something to satisfy everyone in Northern Ireland who really wants that legislation to go through.
Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and the hon. Lady is right to say that we need to ensure that we have time to get the legislation that pertains to that wonderful part of the UK through properly. We must make certain there is sufficient time for that, and that the legislation is not dropped and Northern Ireland has to wait until after the next general election for that to be dealt with properly.
There are lots of other reasons involved in this. We all have staff working here as well, and they need to have proper notice for all the plans they need to make for when we have Prorogation and they leave. A lot of people outside do not realise that when Prorogation comes and this place closes those of us fighting elections are pretty well banned from the parliamentary estate. I made the grave error once of having left something in my office, and I had to arrange to come to my office during an election. I was met by a security clerk, who walked with me to my office, let me into my room—all the rooms were locked—and then stood over me watching what I was taking out of the drawers. People do not appreciate all of this. So having an extra three days—[Interruption.] I can see the Opposition Chief Whip laughing, but it was proper stuff that I had left behind. [Laughter.] Yes, addresses, telephone numbers—who knows? So there is merit in having this time, as some people, particularly those elected in 2017, may not quite understand what is about to befall them when this place closes down.
It is therefore appropriate to have that lead-in and I am still persuaded by 12 December, because Thursday is the traditional day. It was probably chosen because it was the old market day. I know that lots of people have elections on a weekend. Clearly, we could have the election on a Sunday. I am a member of the Council of Europe and a lot of Council of Europe countries have general elections on a Sunday, but I can understand, from a religious point of view, why that might not be totally appropriate. I am even persuaded of having early voting, as whether it was 9 December or 12 December would not be as important for those who all of a sudden are told by their works that they have to be away. They may not know until a day before that they have to be away from their town and they may be away for two or three days, so it is too late for them to get a postal or proxy vote. I therefore rather like the idea of people being able to turn up to the town hall with proofs of identity—yes, photo ID—to prove that they are who they say they are and they live where they say they live, and then being able to cast their vote. Such an approach would mean that the ninth or the 12th, if we had this in play now, would be so important.
I hope that, no matter who wins the next general election, we can have a proper, considered debate about elections and the way they are held. We have heard all sorts of ideas about how schools should not be used, and I fully appreciate this—
My hon. Friend uses the word “proper”. Does he agree that, as we head into this general election, it is vital that we have the firmest possible debates, but that they need to be done with civility and respect? In 2017, I had the worst campaign against me by my Labour opponent. On election night, a Labour group assistant on Medway Council said to an elected Member of Parliament who was giving his acceptance speech, “Fuck off back to country X.” My country is this great country and Gillingham is my home town, so do I fuck off back to Gillingham? That kind of—
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. We all know that, whether it is the 9th or the 12th, it is going to be a lively, vigorous campaign. We need to show respect, whatever the date. I was pushed by some people during the last general election campaign. A lot of people were quite surprised about that. It was outside a pub, after I had done a hustings, and all I can say is that a number of people were shocked.
My hon. Friend referred to the possibility of holding elections in schools. He might know what I am about to say. In his great constituency, there is a school called Stonyhurst College, which I happened to attend. Can he recall any occasion when Stonyhurst’s premises were used for elections?
I do not believe so. It was used as the venue for the count for the by-election and the subsequent general election, which was fortunately only 12 months after, because I lost the by-election, but then won the general election in 1992.
We do not want to lose any school time. Nativity plays have been mentioned. We do not want to lose nativity plays, either. It has been said that losing some nativity plays at least brings to an end the farce that has gone on here. I fully appreciate that, but we do not want to inflict any sorrow on children who have been rehearsing for their nativity plays. If the election is on 12 December rather than 9 December, it will give schools the opportunity to plan ahead and to make sure that the rooms that are used will not conflict with any nativity plays.
Whether the election is on 9 or 12 December, people who are listening to this debate ought to take the opportunity now to ensure that they have postal votes or proxy votes. I have already bumped into a number of people who told me that they are going trekking in the Himalayas and are going to be away for five weeks. People are going on cruises and all that sort of stuff. I hope that people take precautions now. The most important thing at a general election is for people not to lose their vote and to be able to participate in helping to vote for the next Government of this country. Whether the election is on 9 or 12 December, I hope people vote Conservative and ensure that we deliver the Brexit that they voted for at the referendum.
I do not know if it is just my easy-going charm, but the worst I have ever heard in Pontypridd, West Bromwich and the New Forest is, “Sorry, mate—I’m Labour.” I hope that the Hansard reporters will not feel the necessity to record verbatim some of the words that we have heard this evening.
When the Minister replies, I would like him to comment on the implications of the difference of the three days between the two dates that stand before us and how that will impact on the date for nominations, and whether those days will fall either side of the publication of the new electoral register. When the new nomination form is filled out, the electoral numbers have to be recorded, and those numbers will undoubtedly have changed after 1 December. Is that going to present a problem? If so, I wonder if the Minister could draw attention to that.
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. There is an essential democratic process that needs to be conducted before a general election, which is the selection of candidates. I suspect quite a large number of constituencies have not yet selected candidates. Members of local associations need these extra few days to have time to go through that process, and to avoid having candidates imposed from the centre.
We have had two Divisions in recent weeks on whether there should be an election, so I would have thought that those associations ought properly to have attended to the question of getting on with selecting candidates. I am sorry to hear that they have not, but there is not much that we can do about that. Certainly, the additional days would be of some assistance.
My right hon. Friend should understand that, of course, central parties have a role in overseeing the selections in constituency associations. Therefore, a timetable has been applied to associations, which are anxious to select their candidates, but they have not been able to do so. I know that because of my engagement with East Surrey, which is not keen to have a selection shortlist of the kind that it had in 2010.
I can assure my hon. Friend that the independent members of my New Forest association would not tolerate anyone imposing a candidate or superintending the process, and I would hope that other constituencies would follow a similar line.
I will, if I may, come to the question of students. We have heard that, overwhelmingly, students choose to vote at home, that postal and proxy votes are available, and that 40 of the top universities will still be sitting on 12 September.
I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) was quite mistaken in an earlier intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson). He implied that students could be registered at only one address. That is not the case. Students are entitled to register at both addresses. Of course, it is important that they vote at only one of them. When I was the chairman of the Saint Andrews University Conservative Association—a former friend, Alex Salmond, will remember these events well—I saw it as my duty to ensure that all members of the Conservative Association were registered at both addresses, so that, in an election, we would be able to inform them as to where their vote would count for more. I undertook that task. Unfortunately, on the evening of the referendum, I think, in 1979, I was visited by members of Special Branch and charged with 53 offences against the False Oaths (Scotland) Act 1933. I got off the charges, but nevertheless it was certainly a very frightening experience. In those days, universities and university political associations went to great lengths to ensure that all their members were registered at both addresses. If that has continued, then it should not be a problem.
I conclude by saying that, having heard the speech—the very impressive Second Reading speech—of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), I can assure my hon. Friends that I would not be voting for this Bill with any great enthusiasm if she were the leader of the Labour party.
The clause stand part provisions raise very important questions of principle, which we must consider very carefully. It all goes to the question of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 itself. On Second Reading, I made the point very clearly—for those who are interested in looking at how that disgraceful Act was put through the House—that I was very, very strongly against it. I looked through the Division lists earlier on. I see my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) in his place—I think that he was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister at the time. I incurred the wrath of the Prime Minister by my absolute determination to do everything possible to ruin the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. In fact, I am afraid to say that we managed to muster only 10 Members of Parliament, and not always that. On one occasion, I found myself with just one other person—the then Member of Parliament for Aldridge Brownhills, Sir Richard Shepherd. He and I ended up as the only ones who voted on that. That is why I am specifically thinking about the manner in which this important Bill is being brought through the House. There was a particular amendment that I took the gravest interest in during the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and we are now dealing with an amendment to make provision for a parliamentary general election to be held on 9 December as compared with 12 December—the date in the Bill itself. It has already been ruled that clause stand part is an integral part of these proceedings, and I have every intention of making the points that I want to make on that, having had the ruling that I did from the previous incumbent of the Chair.
I refer to a very important website called the Public Whip. When I got my information from the Library today, I noticed that the Public Whip said that I—the Member of Parliament for Stone—was very “strongly against” the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. I can tell hon. Members why, and it is very simple. I was against it because it gave the Whips an undemocratic power and created the shenanigans of upsetting the rule regarding simple majorities for general elections; and that is why we are in the mess we are in now.
I was a member of the Government at the time of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and was therefore bound to support the proposals. However, I recall that one of the discussions that took place was that there should be a sunset clause, meaning that the provision’s short purpose, which was to do with sustaining a Government at the time, would have gone away and we would have returned to the other method. I did make the point, as I am sure my hon. Friend has, that when we fiddle with the constitution without proper checks and balances, there will almost invariably be very heavy consequences, but that point was never quite taken.
Indeed. It is when sunset comes to an end that Dracula comes out of his crypt. I am not referring to my right hon. Friend, of course. What I am saying, however, is that the consequences of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act have been abominable for the proceedings in this House.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the perspicacity that he showed during the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, as he has done on so many other occasions? He might recall that the then leader of the Liberal Democrats advocated the Fixed-term Parliaments Act on the basis that it would give much greater political stability to our system in future years. Does my hon. Friend agree that that was about as accurate a prediction as all other Liberal Democrat predictions?
Absolutely, and of course that legislation was cobbled together for the very simple reason that they wanted to keep in with the Liberal Democrats. That was the real purpose of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and it was one of the most pernicious aspects of the coalition.
I understand, by the way, that part of the coalition deal included a plan to get rid of the 1922 committee. The coalition wanted to bring Ministers into that committee, which would have destroyed it. I fired what could be described as an almighty Exocet, and guaranteed that Ministers would not be allowed to vote—on the pro bono advice that we received from a very eminent QC whom I instructed.
A book by Matthew d’Ancona was brought to my attention a few months ago. On reading it, I found—to my astonishment but great interest—that the then Prime Minister, in a conclave with his closest advisers before the coalition began, was talking about the coalition and how he was going to conduct his Prime Ministership, and he said to those advisers, “I have a choice to make. Am I going to go into a coalition with Nick Clegg or Bill Cash?” I found that most interesting.
That is why this clause stand part debate is highly relevant. We have this extraordinary situation in which the whole issue of an early general election is, largely speaking, the product of all the shenanigans on the Opposition Benches and the other shenanigans with our own colleagues in the House, some of whom lost the Whip and all the rest of it. I strongly believe that this business of having a general election, which, but for this Bill, would not have been put through, is connected with the very reason why people wanted a coalition back in 2010, which was to stop people like me banging on about Europe—I remember the then Prime Minister saying that—but they did not have a chance. That point has to be made.
My hon. Friend is making the most excellent points about the drawbacks of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which he was opposed to. Does he think that there is a salutary lesson here that this place should not legislate in haste at any time? Does he share my concerns about the rapidity and danger of the Benn surrender Act, which will stain this House for many years to come? Its effects are being seen today and will be with us for a very, very long time.
That is absolutely right.
Over the centuries, Parliaments have acquired their own names. For example, we have had the Barebones Parliament, the Rump Parliament and the Addled Parliament, and there has been the Mad Parliament. This Parliament ought to be called what it has now become—the Purgatory Parliament, with the shenanigans from the Opposition and from those who have been determined to remain in the European Union at any price. I have often had to upbraid them. I remember saying:
“I have heard of rats leaving a sinking ship but never of rats trying to sink a leaving ship.” —[Official Report, 18 July 2018; Vol. 645, c. 503.]
That remains on the record from some months ago. I say it again for this reason: I believe very, very strongly that it is unconscionable that we should not have this general election. We need it because, above all else, we had the referendum which was itself put into effect by virtue of this House deciding, by six to one, that it would have it. That was in the parties’ manifestos. Opposition Members voted—some of them did and a few did not—by 499 to 126 for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017. Every single Conservative Member of Parliament, even the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), voted for the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which received Royal Assent on 26 June 2018.
Ha, ha—well, I must say I find that very amusing, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying it.
The name that this Parliament has now acquired and deserves—the Purgatory Parliament—is, I believe, appropriate and right in the circumstances. I would say this to the Committee, as I did some weeks ago on another occasion: in the name of God, go. I believe that this is the moment for this Parliament to depart, in the words of Oliver Cromwell all those years ago. The Speaker has quite frequently referred to 17th-century precedents, so I say again to this Parliament: in the name of God, go. Let us get on with a general election and let us get Brexit done.
Amendment 14 has the effect of aligning the registration deadline for Scotland with the registration deadline in the rest of the United Kingdom, by removing the need for the St Andrew’s day bank holiday in Scotland to be taken into account. I congratulate the Minister on his wisdom in bringing forward that sensible amendment, but I wonder whether he could confirm that Scotland is being treated fairly with this amendment. On the Conservative Benches, we are most concerned to ensure the fair treatment of Scotland. We are very proud that Scotland is in the United Kingdom, and we are determined to ensure the fair treatment of people throughout the great country of Scotland.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has just proven to me that, contrary to the remarks we hear so often from those on the SNP Benches, sometimes the British Government listen to the voice of Scotland, respect the voice of Scotland and act on the voice of Scotland. I am very proud of those on the Treasury Bench and grateful to the Minister for doing just that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who reminds me that he is one of the most powerful champions of the voice of Scotland. Though I wish to pay tribute to him for a little longer, I should move on to amendments 2 and 3, which seek to change the date of the election. Why anyone would wish to move the date from the traditional day of a Thursday to a Monday, I cannot imagine. I am rather concerned that it is based on some perceived advantage of holding the poll on a Monday, which obviously would not be appropriate.
Dame Eleanor, I hope you will forgive me if I dilate a little on some of the other amendments. I received some constituency correspondence today asking me to back amendment 1, which relates to citizens of the European Union. Whatever our love for the citizens of the European Union who are in the UK, and however willing and delighted we are to embrace their work and welcome them to stay in the UK, it would be quite wrong to expand the franchise—
Order. I understand why the hon. Gentleman is taking this opportunity to speak to amendment 1, but as that amendment has not been selected, it is out of order for him to speak to it. However, if he were to make his remarks in the context of amendments 2 or 3, he would be in order.
Thank you, Dame Eleanor. I will just say, in the context of amendments 2 or 3, that any attempt to gerrymander the poll to try to produce a particular result would be wrong and outrageous. Some of the other amendments tabled, which went beyond amendments 2 and 3, were quite blatant attempts to produce a particular result. That is wrong, and I am grateful that they have not been selected.
I think Conservative Members are quite comfortable with the notion that Scotland is a nation, but the United Kingdom is the basis for the electorate for this House, and it is quite right that the franchise should therefore be in citizens, or perhaps subjects, of the United Kingdom.
I do feel, Dame Eleanor, that I should now draw my opening remarks to a conclusion. I will simply say, on a serious note, that this Bill of course has to go through the other place. If the other place were to insert amendments in this simple and straightforward Bill that sought to produce a particular outcome, we would have to say that it has no right whatever to do that and that it would be quite unconstitutional. I think its Members would be playing with fire and, indeed, they would be playing with their own futures in that House were they to seek to amend the Bill to produce a particular outcome.
Thank you—perfect timing.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
More than six hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Chair put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83D).
Amendment made: 14, in clause 1, page 1, line 12, at end insert—
“(4) For the purposes of regulation 29(4) of the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001 (S.I. 2001/497) (which sets out a period for objecting to applications for registration), regulation 8(3) of those Regulations applies as if 2 December 2019 were not a bank holiday.”—(Jeremy Quin.)
This amendment has the effect of aligning the registration deadline for Scotland with the registration deadline in the rest of the United Kingdom, by removing the need for the St Andrew’s Day bank holiday in Scotland to be taken into account.
Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was hoping to move my manuscript amendment on Report. If the Bill has been amended, it should be reported to the House, and therefore I would like to move the manuscript amendment standing in my name.
I could not hear the hon. Gentleman very well, but is he suggesting that he would like to re-table or put in some other way an amendment that he had previously tabled and that had not been selected for discussion and a vote earlier today?
Now that the hon. Gentleman has raised the point, I am aware that he has tabled an amendment. I now have his amendment before me and am reading it. Because the knife has fallen, it is not suitable for discussion at this time.
Bill, as amended, reported.
Question put forthwith (Order, this day), That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Bill read the Third time and passed.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today’s vote lays down precedents which override the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, thus overriding one of Parliament’s checks and balances against excessive Executive power. Can you advise how to protect democracy in this place from further such government by fiat?
We are in unusual times; there have been many examples to evidence that over the last few months. Very specifically, what I say to the right hon. Lady is that the will of the House determines what happens in these matters, subject to the overriding principle of adherence to a clear rule. The right hon. Lady strongly objects to what has happened, but nothing that has happened today has been in any way disorderly: a Bill has been introduced; there has been a Second Reading; there has been a Committee stage; and there was a business of the House motion, in amended form, accepted by the House. The right hon. Lady has registered her discontent, which I was very happy for her to do, but beyond that the matter cannot be taken further tonight.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] I know that it is sometimes uncomfortable to speak truth to power. Mr Speaker, would it be in order to record that, in private, many of us have come to the conclusion that the majority of Back Benchers on both sides do not want a general election? As the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) has said, fear, from whatever quarter it may come, will be an abiding thing that will come out of this Parliament, and history will record that. A lack of courage from too many is also a mark of the end of this Parliament. Would it also be in order to record that I know from the conversations that take place in private—as you understand, Mr Speaker—that it is undoubtedly a fact that the majority of Members of this Parliament support a people’s vote rather than a general election?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady, who always speaks her mind, and I respect that. I know, however, that she will accept that that was a case of the right hon. Lady wanting to tell me and the House what she thought, rather than having any particular interest in me telling her what I think. But I will tell her what I think. What I think is that we do not work in this place on the basis of what people may or may not say to each other in private; we work on the basis of the decisions that are made by the House, and the House has made a decision in a perfectly orderly way. She has registered her objection to it, and we will have to leave it there. I hope—I sense that there is an appetite for this—we can now proceed with the business statement.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. For three and a half years, the Liberal Democrats have campaigned for the people of this country to have the final say. We would have preferred that to be in the form of a people’s vote, and we would now have preferred the general election to be on 9 December. But, Parliament having decided, we are ready to take this issue back and give people the chance to say whether Brexit is something they want to stop. [Interruption.]
Somebody has said from a sedentary position that that was not a point of order, but I must say, for the benefit of members of the public, that that does not distinguish it from the overwhelming majority of what I will call purported points of order that are, in fact, not points of order. The hon. Lady has made her point, and we must now proceed with the business statement by the Leader of the House of Commons, Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg.