My Lords, I am pleased to open the Second Reading debate. While this Government did not want an election, this Parliament has not been able to agree a way forward on the major political issue facing the country. The purpose of this Bill is to allow the public to have their say and to give the other place the mandate to resolve this deadlock.
Earlier this year, the other place voted three times on the withdrawal agreement negotiated by my right honourable friend Theresa May and, on each occasion, rejected it. Subsequent cross-party talks to seek a compromise also failed to agree a way forward. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister negotiated a new Brexit deal, which did win the support of a majority in the other place at Second Reading. However, MPs were unable to agree a timetable for the passage of the withdrawal Bill so, once again, this has meant that the other place has been unable to progress the required legislation.
I share the frustration of many around this House. We have sat and watched over the past few months while the House of Commons has repeatedly been unable to achieve consensus on a way forward. However, a December election has now been supported by the leadership of all major parties in the other place. This presents a chance to resolve the impasse that this country has endured for too long. The Government have tabled this short Bill to set 12 December as the date of the next general election. If it passes, this Parliament will dissolve 25 working days before the date of the poll. The Bill sets the date of the election in law and removes the discretion to set the polling day which otherwise exists under the early elections provisions in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The date of 12 December allows time for the Northern Ireland budget to pass before Dissolution, which is necessary so that the Northern Ireland Civil Service can access the funding it needs to deliver public services. The date also maintains the convention that general elections are held on a Thursday, which this country has followed since the early 1930s.
As noble Lords will be aware, only one amendment to the Bill was passed in the other place yesterday. The Government tabled an amendment to address the concern raised by the Scottish National Party, which was to ensure that the registration deadline for the election in Scotland was the same as that of the rest of the country. The effect of the amendment is to remove the St Andrew’s Day bank holiday from the calculation of time in relation to the deadline for registering to vote. It will instead be classed as a normal working day, but only for this election and only for limited purposes in relation to the electoral register. This will allow for a comprehensive UK-wide communications campaign by the Electoral Commission to advertise the deadline and ensure that all those in the UK who are eligible to register can do so within the same time period.
This Bill passed Third Reading in the other place by a majority of 418, and I think we can agree that the level of cross-party support for it there at this time was significant. Having an election will allow us all to put our case to the public, to give them the opportunity to decide how they want to move forward, and to ensure that the new Government have time to act before 31 January 2020.
I may ask my noble friend to cover that point in his wind-up speech. I know that a number of conversations have been had, and I think that the Prime Minister has said something, but I do not want to put words in his mouth that are not accurate.
He is here!
Oh dear. This might be the last time you see me here anyway, after that. But we will respond to the noble Lord.
I hope that noble Lords will reflect, in their usual measured and considered way, on the manner in which this Bill was passed yesterday in the other place and replicate that in your Lordships’ House today. I beg to move.
My Lords, when the Prime Minister was standing for election as leader of his party—and, therefore, Prime Minister—I asked an esteemed Conservative Minister and parliamentarian of some integrity whom he was voting for. I was surprised when he said Boris Johnson. I suspect he had his misgivings, but his reason was that he thought he was a winner. I countered that Boris Johnson would see Parliament as an inconvenience, and I regret that I am being proved right.
First, we had the unlawful Prorogation, when the Prime Minister attempted to shut down Parliament for five weeks. Then, last week, having gained parliamentary support for the Second Reading of his withdrawal Bill, he pulled the Bill only because MPs would not agree to an unreasonable programme Motion—not, as the noble Baroness said, to any kind of timetable; they would indeed have agreed to a timetable, just not that timetable. All that was being sought on that occasion was the normal and reasonable process of consideration and scrutiny. Then, having won the vote on his Government’s programme for the forthcoming year, he demanded a general election—thus again trying to avoid the normal and reasonable process of scrutiny of his legislation. Then, having failed to get a two-thirds majority for an election at a time of his choosing under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, he was obviously relieved and delighted when the Liberal Democrats and the SNP threw him a lifeline and offered to support an election. The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, joked during the Queen’s Speech debate that these days fact is certainly more unbelievable than fiction; he is right. This is a book that nobody would have dared write.
When the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was introduced by the coalition Government, we were told that it would create strong and stable government, even from a minority Government. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who introduced the Bill for the Government, said that this would ensure that election dates would no longer be picked for a narrow, partisan, political advantage. We were given lots of high-minded, constitutional reasons why it was so important, yet our own Constitution Committee admitted to some scepticism, recognising that the Bill’s origins and content,
“owe more to short-term considerations than to a mature assessment of enduring constitutional principles or sustained public demand”.
Basically, the Conservative-led coalition Government sought to bind Parliament to give it a five-year term in power. Having succeeded in that, neither party now sees any further use for the legislation.
I think the noble and learned Lord will find that, at the time, we proposed several amendments to the Bill that the noble and learned Lord rejected. Even in my wildest dreams, I did not suggest that it would be strong and stable government. I think the contradiction is that, at the time that the noble and learned Lord was taking the legislation through, he said that it would stop the politicisation of elections—nobody would call an election for political advantage. What do we think is happening at the moment?
I need to confess that I was the Member that the noble Baroness referred to, and I was right about Boris Johnson—he is a winner, as she is about to discover. She is making a very devastating criticism of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, so can we assume that in the Labour Party’s manifesto there will be a commitment to repeal it at the earliest opportunity?
The noble Lord tempts me, and I have to say I would argue that case. Whether my party would fully accept everything I want in the manifesto is another matter, but I would certainly argue for it, because what is happening at the moment is that every time the Fixed-term Parliaments Act becomes inconvenient, the Government and their supporters could bring forward a Bill such as this in order to do away with it. Already, the Act has become nonsense.
During the Queen’s Speech debate, I joked that the first Bill in the Government’s programme would be a “Fixed-term Parliaments (Repeal) Bill”. I thought I was being clever—I have to say that my grandmother would have said I was being “too clever by half”. It was a joke, but I think it would have been a lot more honourable and honest to bring forward that kind of legislation. Perhaps the noble Lord and I could have a conversation afterwards, because if he wants to bring a Private Member’s Bill, I think it would find a fair amount of support in the House.
In that speech, I also joked about not having had a Queen’s Speech or Prorogation for more than two years, and then expecting two or even three in quick succession. I really was only joking, but some might now suspect I have a crystal ball in my office. The programme for government that we heard less than three weeks ago was, as we said at the time, a test run for the Conservative Party election manifesto rather than a serious programme for the coming year, but even we did not imagine that the election would be quite so blatantly soon. I have to say that the Tory Party’s enthusiasm for a general election every time it changes leader is proving to be rather expensive for the taxpayer. With a general election, a new Parliament and yet another Queen’s Speech all within a matter a months, perhaps the normally Conservative-supporting TaxPayers’ Alliance, with its diligent examination of public spending, will be sending an invoice to the Tory Party for the October event. If not, I might just be tempted to do so myself.
So much seems to have changed since 19 October. As we sat on a Saturday to consider the Government’s Brexit deal, I reflected that time and patience was running out for everybody: the public, the politicians and the EU. A situation without resolution was unacceptable to everybody. The bungling of Brexit has fractured our nation and divided friends, families and our politics. If MPs were unable to reach a conclusion on the slightly revamped but inferior deal, I conceded that the way forward would have to be to ask the public to consider the issue. The stalemate in Parliament has made me think again about a confirmatory referendum. A bit like in The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes,
“when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
As I said then, if this was the best Brexit, one that a Brexit-supporting Prime Minister said was “a great deal”, then we should all have the confidence to ask the public if they agree. At the time, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, speaking for his party, agreed with me. He said—and I am sure that he will not mind me quoting him—that his party was,
“absolutely sure that an early general election would deliver it many more seats. The same cannot be said for the Conservatives or Labour”—
we will see about that—
“yet we do not believe it is in the national interest to have one”.—[Official Report, 19/10/19; col. 289.]
As my hero, Harold Wilson, would have said: “A week is a long time in politics”.
I said that my party will not stand in the way of this election: our doubts have been only about the timing, rather than the event itself, which we have been calling for and planning for for so long. I was sorry that our amendment in the other place for an earlier date was rejected. I wonder how tolerant a politics-weary electorate will be about interrupting their Christmas preparations to consider party manifestos. I hope that no party will be tempted to dress their leader in Santa costumes.
Let us be clear, first, that a general election is not just about Boris Johnson’s pledge to “do or die” or “Get Brexit done”. Those soundbites are about as meaningless as Theresa May’s “Brexit means Brexit”. A referendum would have been about the single issue of Brexit, but a general election is about so much more. It is about a vision for the direction of this country, and the Conservative Party will have to stand on its record. By contrast, we have an offer that will make a real difference for the people of this country in health, education, the environment, with a new generation of affordable homes and renters’ rights, free personal care for our loved ones who are most in need and a genuine transformative vision to support our economy and workers in creating the green future that we need. Inevitably, it will also be about the damage that a Johnson Brexit or a crash-out Brexit would do to our country.
Secondly, I make a plea for decency and integrity in campaigning. To hear a Conservative MP say that the country needs an election to “drain the swamp”, and other such inflammatory and disgraceful comments, is both sickening and dangerous. A general election based on the denigration of MPs from any party or all parties, who have been charged with the most difficult decisions and negotiations for a generation, would further undermine any public confidence in our politics. We expect our candidates and leaders to behave with the dignity that office demands, and we must pledge to do all we can to uphold that. If this election is truly to resolve the divisions largely caused by the bungling of Brexit, all parties must seek to heal as well as to win.
My Lords, I have probably made more speeches than any other Peer arguing in favour of a referendum rather than a general election to reach a resolution on Brexit, so I am sure that many noble Lords find it rather perverse that I and my colleagues are supporting the Bill today. I last spoke in favour of a referendum, as opposed to a general election, as recently as 19 October, as the noble Baroness helpfully reminded the House. I did so in the belief that securing a referendum before the passage of the withdrawal Bill was possible. I was being assured by Members in the Commons from across the parties that that was so and that, by being patient, a pro-referendum majority would emerge.
However, to secure such a Commons majority, at least two out of three things would have to happen and, by the end of last week, it was crystal clear that none of them would. First, the DUP could have supported a referendum. It made it clear that it did not. All experience shows that when the DUP has adopted a firm position, it does not easily shift from it. Secondly, the bulk of the 21 Conservative rebels, who had at that stage had had the whip withdrawn, could have supported a referendum. Instead, with barely a handful of exceptions, they swung firmly behind the Bill. Many of them have now had their reward by getting the whip back. Thirdly, Labour could have united behind a referendum. It did not. From my conversations with Labour Back-Benchers, it became clear that people were so dug into their positions that they could not find a way to justify changing tack, even if they were minded to, which they were not.
By the weekend, it was clear to me that my long-held hopes and expectation that, at the last minute, there would be a majority in the Commons for a referendum, had been dashed. This view was shared by my colleagues in the Commons and by all serious commentators, and it was time to face that reality. If a referendum was off the table, only two courses of events were then possible. First, the Government could have secured an amended timetable Motion for the Bill and sought to get it through the Commons and the Lords in coming weeks. I believe that, had the Government pursued this course, they would have prevailed and a substantially unamended Bill would have passed. We would have been out of the EU by Christmas.
Secondly, we could indeed have an election that, imperfect as it might be, at least gives the people the chance to express a view on Brexit, as well who is best fitted to lead the country. To me and my colleagues in the Commons and your Lordships’ House, this is by far the better of these two evils. It is why we gave the Bill our support at Second Reading in the Commons yesterday. There are undoubtedly ways in which it might be improved, whether relating to the exact date of the election, the franchise or detailed election rules. There are also broader issues about the future of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, to which I am sure Parliament will wish to return after the election. However, I believe it would be a mistake to seek to delay the Bill today. The Commons has given it overwhelming support as it stands. Now that a decision in principle to have the election has been made, we should simply get on with it. I suspect the rest of the country shares that view.
It is indeed open to a Government to do that. In the unlikely event of there not being a majority Liberal Democrat Government, I heartily hope that that happens.
This will be the 10th general election in which I have been closely involved, since the formation of the SDP in 1981. In virtually every case, politicians argued at the start of the campaign that it was the most important election in decades. Of course, it was not and, in some cases, the election simply took the form of a rather fractious procession, but this election could be the most important in my political life.
At the end of each of the last nine elections and many more, the framework of party politics emerged fundamentally unscathed, but Brexit has been like a seismic shock to the system. This was most obviously seen in the European Parliament elections, where both Labour and Conservative did so badly. The conventional wisdom is that voters revert to type in a general election and, like a holiday fling, their infidelity in June will be forgotten under the harsh winds of December. But I am not so sure. The million people who marched 10 days ago in London, in opposition to Brexit, and the millions of others who could not make the journey, but shared their views, rightly see Brexit as the defining issue of the age and it will define their votes. Behind their determination to vote to stop Brexit lies a broader view of the kind of society they want: one that sees the positive value of working together to deal with the huge challenges facing humanity, be they climate change, migration and human trafficking or how to harness the potential of artificial intelligence; and one that embraces the future, rather than recoils from it. It is to those millions that the Liberal Democrats will direct our appeal over the coming six weeks, and it is a prospect that we relish.
My Lords, at last this depressing saga is coming to an end—this very depressing failure of the parliamentary system to address a major political crisis.
“even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea”.
I wish that I had written that myself, but I did not. It was written by a Victorian poet who presumably had no idea that there is a river that does not run somewhere safely to sea, and that is the Okavango. We have been in our Okavango time. Parliamentary processes have dried up in the middle of a political desert, so at last I can strongly support this Bill and we should get on with it.
However, I am going to add something else. We should get on with it unamended in any way, shape or form. But I want to express one reservation that goes back to something I go on and on about: let us be honest with ourselves and not be blind to the reality. We have once again tinkered with constitutional principles. There is a perfectly clear and unequivocal Act of Parliament that is extant and in force as I speak—the five-year Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011. What we have done is to find a creative political device to get around it, but we are leaving it in force. The Act will remain in force whatever we may do with this Bill.
We have spent all the time we have spent because of the existence of the 2011 Act. There should have been a general election when Mrs May lost the major plank of her electoral process when she invited the House of Commons to agree her deal, and she had a humiliating failure. She was turned down flat by the House of Commons, so there should then have been a general election. That is how our constitution is supposed to work, instead of which, we and the other place have been sitting in paralysed impotence doing nothing except arguing about whether we should argue again. Using constitutional devices in this way can, as I have said to the House before, come back to bite us. I know that of course all noble Lords cheer for their sides and that I am lucky not to have a side. I will not even have a vote in the next election any more than will any other noble Lord. But who in this House can honestly say that at the end of this election, we will not end up with a minority Government? That is a very serious possibility.
If it is a possibility, that paralysed Parliament will be governed by the five-year Fixed-term Parliaments Act and we will have the same Parliament until December 2024. There will be a way around it because we will find another device or we will repeat the device we have used this time, provided the minority Government can get a few people on side to push a majority through the House so that, at some stage which is convenient, it may come to an end. That is not the right way to legislate because it is wrong in principle. We should address the five-year Fixed-term Parliaments Act by amending it, repealing it or by doing something to it which means that it will not be in force until 2024. For me, this is a very serious reservation. We have found a way to tinker with the constitution. I welcome that because this shambles has to come to an end, but I do not welcome the fact that we have had to achieve it in this way.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, but it is always slightly daunting as well. I believe that the House should expedite this business as simply and as quickly as it can. While I have much sympathy with giving the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds, that should be done with full due consideration and process at another time. Perhaps such a Bill could be introduced by the next Government. I also have sympathy with giving EU nationals the vote, but since that would be an example of the UK offering fuller and better rights than any current EU nation, it too would require proper scrutiny. Rushing it now would be inappropriate.
Whether a general election is the best way to take us out of our current impasse is certainly debatable. Whether doing so in December is good timing is, likewise, an interesting question. Will it tie us to another election in five years’ time? That question can surely be handled by the review of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2020 or, in view of the comments already made, rather more quickly. However, it is the way that has been decided by the elected Members of the other place and I am sure that it is not our place to stand in the way of such a decision.
We all recognise that there is an impasse; a way forward has to be found. I hope and pray that, somehow, an election will break this impasse. If, however, the outcome were a House of Commons without a clear majority for a way forward, those newly elected MPs will have to consider very carefully how they handle such a situation differently from the history of these past months. They must not repeat it, if that is what occurs. We cannot afford a repeat of such a period.
I hope we will pass the Bill as it stands today. I trust that there will then be a campaign from all sides that is about seeking the best for the nation and is conducted with care, thoughtfulness, kindness, respect and generosity, and not with vitriol or false representation of the other. Then, once we have a new Government, let us all look to rebuilding trust, relationships and harmony beyond the general election.
As we pray at the outset of every day in this place the prayer displayed in the corridor on the other side of the Chamber, I hope that,
“the result of all our counsels may be … the publick wealth, peace and tranquillity of the Realm, and the uniting and knitting together of the hearts of all persons and estates within the same, in true Christian Love and Charity one towards another”.
My Lords, I think we should all say “Amen” to that, in our hearts as well as with our lips, as we do every day.
I strongly agree with those who have already said that the Bill, having been passed in another place by a huge majority, should go very quickly through this place with no attempt to amend it. We are the unelected House and the elected House has expressed itself emphatically in favour; we should go along with that.
Having said that, I agree most strongly with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in what he said about the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. We had quinquennial Parliaments before the Act came about, but we were able to shorten them in a number of circumstances, such as a defeat on the Queen’s Speech or the passing of a Motion of no confidence. We should go back to that condition. I hope that, whoever are in government after 12 December, they will make that an early priority and put it in the next Queen’s Speech. It would be serving Parliament to do so.
Like my noble friend the Leader of the House, I wish we were not here at the moment. I was one who supported the Theresa May deal from the word go, and I would have supported the Boris Johnson deal, even though, in some respects, I do not think it quite as good. I wish that, after the Second Reading vote and the majority of 30 last week, we could have allocated more time. We could have then gone to the country after Brexit had been done—some time towards the end of November, I suspect—and had an early spring election. Things would have been much smoother. On a party point, I say to colleagues on this side of the House that we would have also put our party in a much stronger position had we done so. But we have not, and we have this Bill.
There is one thing I really hope we will do, and it builds on the remarks made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. Our country has been torn apart; families and communities have been divided. We have to seek to come together and it would be no bad thing if the Conservative Party took a lead in this. Some of the servants of our party, who have collectively given decades of service, have had the Whip restored—they should all have had the Whip restored. I felt very sorry this morning when I learned that Amber Rudd, who announced that she would not seek re-election, had requested the Whip and had her request turned down. That is not acting in the spirit of generosity or magnanimity and I urge my noble and right honourable friends in the Government to think again. These are people who have given long and distinguished service. We owe them a great deal.
I fought my first election in 1964 in the neighbouring constituency to the Father of the House, Kenneth Clarke. He has rendered long, loyal, conspicuous service and that should be properly recognised. It is deeply unfortunate that it has not yet been so recognised. I very much hope that it will be.
I end with another plea to the Government. The last time that we had a general election, in 2017, we had the longest, most turgid manifesto in our party’s history. I think it was worse than the longest suicide note in history, which the party on the other side produced. Can we please all have, as a collective Christmas present, a short, emphatic manifesto, preferably on two sides of A4, but certainly not running to more than a couple of thousand words? That would also help the healing process. May it now begin.
My Lords, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, I think that the most important issue in front of us is the restoration of trust between us and the electorate. I first declare an interest as chair of this House’s Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee. As such, with the date of the general election seemingly in place, it seems only right to ask the Minister how prepared he feels the country really is to hold a free and fair ballot. Surely this House will agree that nothing could be worse than a contested election result.
For a number of years, it has been clear that our election laws have failed to keep pace with technological change. As we are all aware as a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal—and it was a scandal—messages can be placed online with no information about who paid for them, which candidate they support and why. It has become increasingly easy for campaigns to use microtargeted messages to fan the prejudices of individuals, safe in the knowledge that the wider electorate will not be aware of them.
The Government have promised that they will introduce proposals for imprints on all online political advertising, as is the case offline. The Government launched a consultation in July 2018, but have as yet failed to put forward any proposals. Earlier this year, they also committed to hold a consultation on measures to protect electoral integrity, including measures to increase transparency in political advertising. However, that also is yet to appear.
When the Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee questioned civil servants on when this consultation would take place, we were told that the decision was still sitting with Ministers. The sense of government inaction is incredibly worrying. The Electoral Commission put forward perfectly sensible recommendations for updating electoral law almost a year and a half ago, and the Government have yet to respond to them. The written submissions to our committee are all but unanimous in agreeing with the Electoral Commission’s suggestions that all political advertising should, first, come with an imprint, and secondly, be recorded in real time on publicly available databases so that the electorate can see the nature of claims being targeted at different audiences. There must be greater transparency. This failure to act risks undermining voters’ faith in democracy as a whole.
There is a real danger that, following the coming election, the losing side could plausibly claim the result to be illegitimate due to dark messaging having been used to subvert the democratic process. That in turn would undermine the legitimacy of whoever was elected—precisely the goal of every malign foreign actor wishing to influence the outcome of our elections.
The objective of dictators across the world is to spread the idea that democracy is a chaotic process that fails to lead to stable government. Government inaction in allowing this election to go ahead without the minimum recommendations of the Electoral Commission being in place can only help those foreign actors achieve their aims. There are enormous and unresolved questions over how digital technology should be regulated to ensure that, over time, it can support rather than undermine our form of representative democracy.
The immediate changes that need to be made are obvious, and have been for a good while. For too long the Government have failed to act, to a point at which there are entirely legitimate questions to be asked—and indeed answered. We cannot go into this election without the degree of transparency that the public deserve if we are to maintain trust in our democratic system. In “getting Brexit done”, we could all too easily inadvertently destroy long-term trust in British democracy itself.
My Lords, I shall follow the points that the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, has just made in a moment but, first, I want to deal with the specific timing of this election.
In the winter election of 1974, polling day was on 28 February. I paid my morning visit to the polling station for the scattered parish of Temple, in the wilds of Bodmin Moor, with snow and bitter winds developing. I asked the staff about turnout. They told me that 17 of the 18 on the electoral register had already voted. I asked whether I should collect the final voter. They said, “No, Mr Tyler. That would be difficult because he’s dead”. However, as he was still on the register, they had to stay there until 10 o’clock at night and could not go home, because that was how the law applied then.
The point I want to make is that even that very bad weather and the short amount of daylight produced an 83% turnout in that constituency, because the wise electors knew that it was going to be very close, and they were right. I had a majority of just nine votes, and the Liberals scored a post-war record of 19.8% of the GB share of the poll. The point is that it is not the weather or the time of year that is important; it is whether people feel that their votes will be important, valued and matter.
Indeed, the great reforming Liberal/Whig Government of Lord Grey were elected on 10 December 1832, so there is a good precedent.
Such is the present uncertainty and volatility of public opinion that there will clearly be very unpredictable local contests, and, as Professor Curtice has pointed out, there is a strong likelihood that no party will have a majority. It may be that our political system is at last catching up with public opinion. It is several decades since a majority of the electorate supported one political party, and they have long since departed from the bipolar, bilateral choice between the old parties. Therefore, every vote should count and should matter far more than in recent elections.
As my noble friend Lord Newby has already said, we would have preferred a people’s vote confirmatory referendum. Our MPs have urged this on no less than 17 occasions but they were thwarted by the vacillation and indecision of the Labour leadership.
Members of your Lordships’ House may recall that I convened a group comprised of colleagues from all parts of the House—cross-party and non-party—to supervise the drafting of legislation for a new referendum. We could have passed that legislation relatively quickly if we had used the very brief paving Bill that we drafted. That would have made it possible for the other, fuller Bill to correct the defects in the 2015-16 legislation without holding it up, and meanwhile the Electoral Commission could have undertaken the consultations that were required.
However, it was not to be. Both the then Conservative Ministers and the Labour leadership chose to ignore the growing clamour for the public to be given the final say, and the time wasted after January contributed to the collapse in support for their parties in May.
I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues would have preferred the public to complete this process, since they began it in 2016. We believe that it would have seemed more logical and more clear-cut, but we are realistic. As I have said before, there should have been a political will; then there surely could have been a parliamentary way. However, I accept the inevitability of this Bill and this election timetable.
As the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, has just emphasised, Ministers have also said in recent months—to me and to others—that our electoral laws are not fit for purpose. The fallout from the Supreme Court judgment last year has not yet been properly addressed because the Electoral Commission’s excellent codes of practice have not been approved by Parliament. Similarly, the lack of effective regulation, reporting requirements and transparency of funding for online political messaging remains a potentially damaging omission. In our debate last Wednesday the noble Earl, Lord Howe, gave me specific assurances on this. Where are those assurances now?
Meanwhile, whatever the Prime Minister may now promise, this election is very unlikely to “get Brexit done”. With his deal there will still be many months, if not years, of complicated and significant negotiation. The public do not understand that; they have a nasty experience to look forward to. The only way to bring this to a halt is to stop Brexit— and that is what we Liberal Democrats will be inviting the public to vote for.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who spoke with his usual energy—and colour; I say that while noting his tie. I will make only one substantive point, and that is about the speed of reappointment of all committees following the election. The European Union Committee is now scrutinising the withdrawal agreement, the political declaration and the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. Indeed, we have had two recent evidence sessions on those, and we are expecting to produce two outputs to inform the debate on the Bill, assuming that that will take place after the election.
The first output, the report on the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, is an update on our report of December last year, which was 60 pages long—and it is, I think, full of interesting stuff that the House would want to have. The second output I expect to be a letter that I shall write to the Leader of the House tomorrow about aspects of the withdrawal Bill concerning scrutiny.
Many other committees of the House are working hard on Brexit-related matters. I note that the Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee are working particularly hard. All this work will pause on Dissolution. In 2010, after the election, it took seven weeks to reappoint the European Union Committee, and that was four weeks after the Queen’s Speech. In 2015 it took only five weeks to reappoint that committee. In 2017, admittedly, it took 19 days—but time is exceptionally short here, with the Christmas period and the necessity of including the processes for ratification in the European Parliament.
The issue of the speed of the reappointment of committees is common to all committees of this House. In the light of that, may I ask the Minister what comfort, speaking both as a Minister and as the Deputy Leader of the House, he can provide that there will be an expedited reappointment of all committees after the election, so that we can resume our work as soon as possible and continue apace?
My Lords, for many of your Lordships there will be a “Brenda from Bristol” moment as we receive this Bill. However, I welcome it as a method of breaking the logjam. It gives the Prime Minister the opportunity to do what has until now been denied by Parliament both to him and to his predecessor, Theresa May, and to provide a means of delivering Brexit. Politics is a learning process, and recent history contains many useful lessons to us all, on whichever Benches we sit.
Despite Parliament’s best intentions, the referendum result pitted the people’s vote against many parliamentarians. Devised to unite Parliament and country, it ended up dividing them. It divided parties and it still does. This was the background against which I conducted my previous role in this House—a role in which I found myself trying to deal with the consequences of the Government’s rightful commitment to respect the leave vote in the referendum and deliver Brexit. Only to a degree was I successful but it became clear that, although this House learned to live with its differences of view, we failed to influence events in the other place. Regrettably, for a number of reasons, the House of Commons failed to provide the necessary forum where conflicts of views and interests are reconciled by debate and accommodation.
Some noble Lords may think me hopelessly idealistic about the parliamentary process, but we all come to this place driven by ideas and wish to get things done. I turn to the Spiritual Bench and am sorry that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham has gone, because I too went into the Not-Content Lobby and read the prayer that we have every day. In addition to the quotation that he read, I add the part that asks that we,
“lay aside all private interests, prejudices and partial affections”.
The ethos of Parliament lies in those words. If Parliament, and the House of Commons in particular, is to achieve its commitment to honour the referendum, it is surely right to accept that in passing this Bill the electorate have a right to be represented by a Commons that can get Brexit done. This Bill is part of that process.
The uncertainty over Brexit has meant that millions of families and businesses cannot plan for the future. This paralysis and stagnation cannot continue. It is not in the national interest. If we do not have an election, this Parliament will continue to delay and we will not be able to concentrate on the other things that matter to people. An election will return to Parliament a fresh mandate and the ability to deliver on things like the NHS, police numbers and increased funding into schools.
Meanwhile, despite successfully hindering the Government’s agreements, never in the hours of discussion has the House of Commons as it stands been able to agree on what it wants on Brexit. Do we remember those indicative votes? Now, however, after last week’s abortive attempts to pass agreements under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, it has passed this short Bill without amendment. We should do likewise.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, who has been such a popular and respected member of the Government and of your Lordships’ House. I also commend the words spoken by my noble friend Lord Puttnam, who raised a lot of important issues that I hope the Government and Parliament will fully consider.
I fully accept that when the House of Commons decides on an election, the unelected second Chamber cannot oppose or prevent that, although I was interested to look again at the work of Walter Bagehot, the great Victorian constitutionalist, who said:
“I answer that the House of Lords must yield whenever the opinion of the Commons is also the opinion of the nation”.
I am not sure that people out there are as keen on a pre-Christmas election as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats seem to be. However, I assure my Whips that I am not advocating our blocking the Bill in this House, although I am sure that if I were still a Member of the Commons then I would have voted against Third Reading, as a number of Labour colleagues did yesterday.
I do not believe that an election is the best way to decide Brexit. There is a strong risk that we may well be back here after the election with further protracted proceedings as to the way forward. In that sense, I am very sorry that the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party came to the Prime Minister’s aid and gave way over this election.
Along with my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, I am appalled at the Prime Minister’s conduct of business since he took office. We had the illegal Prorogation and the charade of the Queen’s Speech, which I felt was close to a constitutional outrage, with a Government well short of a majority really embarking on an election broadcast rather than a realistic programme of government. Then, although the deal the Prime Minister had negotiated got through at Second Reading, the Government refused to allow it further consideration. That seems absolutely crazy. I pay tribute to those Members of Parliament, many of whom are my honourable friends, who have been trying honestly to do the best for their constituents and the country in this extremely difficult situation.
Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, I was amazed that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act could be overturned in such a speedy and cavalier way. The Liberal Democrats seem to be subverting an Act which I thought they were attached to, although it has to be said that it has not been very successful in recent years. Despite its existence, we are now facing the third general election in four years. None the less, I hope that constitutional experts in this House and the other place can assure me that this is not a precedent for lots of substantial legislation being overturned hastily at record speed. This would be particularly bad news for your Lordships’ House, whose undoubted strength lies in careful, detailed scrutiny.
I do not like referendums, but have come round to the view that if this process began with a referendum, then logically it should be completed with one. It seems very sad that, at the point that my own party made substantial movement in that direction, we now face an election rather than a confirmatory vote. It is also a great irony that, after all this time, my party seems to be the only one supporting such a referendum.
Elections are about a whole range of issues facing us and this Government may become painfully aware of this as the election campaign proceeds. My party has a number of policies that could prove very popular with those people who are reeling from austerity and inequality. We may well see that as the campaign progresses, just as we did in 2017. There was a turning point—I remember it well, campaigning on doorsteps—particularly after the then Prime Minister had announced her policy on social care. People suddenly became much more focused on domestic issues and she lost her majority as a result. We have had great difficulties ever since.
Finally, putting forward the idea of a confirmatory referendum on a deal versus remain, as Labour is doing, is actually the best way forward. I hope it will resolve the Brexit issue, which has sadly dominated our politics for far too long.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. With her experience and expertise, she has been a pleasure to work with on a cross-party basis in the last three years, although I cannot fully agree with all her remarks just now. I endorse her warm comments on the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and thank him publicly for a kind note he recently sent me.
This general election will decide the future of our country for generations. It is an opportunity to build a fair, inclusive, liberal and internationalist Britain that will flourish inside the European Union, compared to an obsession with delivering a Brexit that will impose a huge hit on our economy and therefore jobs, and will affect the country in so many other ways. That this Conservative Government want to deliberately deliver a knock-out blow to our prosperity is dismaying, to put it mildly. As my party leader Jo Swinson said yesterday in the other place, people’s identities of remain or leave run deep, because this is about not only whether we remain in or leave the EU but who we are as a country. It is about our values and whether we are open, inclusive and internationalist in our outlook, facing the future, or closed and insular, wanting to pull up the drawbridge and look to the past. That is the key question that we as a country need to resolve.
The UK is in a mess and needs to be rescued. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, failed to meet his 31 October do or die, die in a ditch deadline to wrench the UK out of the EU. There was no early prospect of a referendum. The Prime Minister paused the withdrawal agreement Bill and there was still a risk that he would try cunningly to effect a crash out no deal, given his form since July and, indeed, for much longer.
The Liberal Democrats, with SNP support, decided that we had to take the initiative. I am proud of our role in unlocking this gridlock, in Parliament and over the Article 50 extension. Several commentators have confirmed that the Lib Dem/SNP initiative for an early election unblocked the hesitation in Brussels, and specifically in Paris, about an extension to 31 January. We would not have chosen to start from the 2016 referendum result, nor to arrive where we have, but there was an absence of full support from other parties for a people’s vote with the option to remain in the EU. The numbers for that in the Commons are simply not there.
I realise that some of our friends were taken aback. I was a bit myself, but the more I saw what was happening, or not happening, in the other place and with Brussels watching and waiting, the more I realised that our leader, Jo Swinson, had done exactly the right thing.
I could never get bored of listening to my leader, my noble friend Lord Newby, or to other colleagues, but it is true that he has made many speeches on Brexit, all of which contained a call for a people’s vote. That bears repeating often. Liberal Democrats want to stop Brexit, to get Brexit gone, so if we form a majority Government—anything could happen—we will have a mandate to revoke Article 50. If not, we will continue to campaign and press for a people’s vote, working across party, as we have since 2016, and with even greater intensity in recent months.
Many MPs, especially women, have been subject to hate speech, bullying, intimidation and worse. We all remember Jo Cox. The parties, of course, have to ensure that their own houses are in order. Ours is talking to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and to the Jo Cox Foundation about how best to do that, but could the Minister tell us what the Government and the police will do to give protective security to MPs and candidates?
Lastly, I thank the outgoing European Council President, Donald Tusk, for his friendship and support for the UK, and Michel Barnier for fairly and honourably conducting the Article 50 negotiations. It is not the fault of the European Commission or the EU 27 that we are in a gridlocked mess, but they, as well as we, will be glad to get out of it.
My Lords, I shall not be following the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, with partisan remarks about Brexit. I will concentrate on the Bill before us. I shall not detain the House long because I am keen that the Bill should make rapid progress to the statute book.
We must rejoice that the other place has spoken in favour of something with a clarity not seen from that place for some considerable time. It voted overwhelmingly for the Bill at Third Reading yesterday and this House should be wary of disturbing that happy alignment. While your Lordships’ House has the power and the right to amend any Bill other than a money Bill, I hope noble Lords will not be tempted to break the spell and ask the other place to think again about any aspect of it. We will not enhance the standing of your Lordships’ House if we are seen to intervene in the calling of a general election that is desired, and indeed much needed, by the other place.
The Bill has a very narrow purpose. It is to allow a general election to take place on 12 December, and nothing else. It is not about wider issues, such as the definition of the franchise. I hope noble Lords will respect the Long Title and not seek to introduce amendments that go beyond the scope of the Bill. If they do, I hope that the excellent clerks in the Bill Office will be robust with them.
Lastly, I appeal to all noble Lords to be brief and efficient at all stages of this Bill. We should return it to the other place unchanged and as rapidly as possible. We must then let the country decide who should govern us, and thereby determine the future of Brexit.
My Lords, our image externally has not been enhanced, with some bemusement over how we have reached this point. Other noble Lords have underlined what is needed: reaching out, being magnanimous and healing wounds with those of differing Brexit persuasion. Mending differences and closing divides should be the order of the day.
I rise briefly with one or two personal reflections on what has been a traumatic process that has certainly taken its toll. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, who is not in his place, together with the respective shadow Front-Benchers who collectively have advocated their positions with effectiveness and good humour.
The debate in the UK has been domestic in nature. However, the EU side has, understandably, also stuck to its core principles, and I suspect has, on occasion, accommodated the United Kingdom. Future decision makers might wish to reflect on such contributions, remembering that Brexit should not be a winner-takes-all circumstance. This election will give the electorate the opportunity to express their preferences, but this is where I register my personal regret that the political class has been unable to deliver on Brexit. I accept that the Government have had no choice but to call the election, but it would have been preferable to determine the real will of the electorate in isolation from unrelated grievances.
Finally, there is one point that I wish to belabour. Amid all the talk of extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds and EU citizens, there has not been sufficient consideration of UK citizens living in the EU, who lose the right to vote in general elections after 15 years outside the UK. This group, among the most adversely affected by Brexit, will be anguished not to be able to vote in December, and that includes many thousands in Portugal, where I am resident, and elsewhere on the continent. That said, if I were to offer any suggestion to UK citizens living on the continent, it would be, “Go register with your local immigration authorities in order to spare yourself angst post Brexit”.
My Lords, I cannot but agree with the noble Viscount about the failure of the political class over the past two years to resolve this issue. Nevertheless, I have severe reservations about the Bill and the context in which it is being put forward. I was hoping to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, which would have been interesting, as I have a couple of points on casting in political plays. Boris Johnson likes to portray himself as Winston Churchill but acts more like Oliver Cromwell, who noble Lords will recall was the last person to try to prorogue Parliament against its will. He needed an army to do it. I also recall Cromwell’s words in relation to the rump Parliament—
I would be surprised if our successors agreed to that, but stranger things have happened. There might be a statue to the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, before there is one to Boris Johnson.
My reservations are partly constitutional and partly concern the effectiveness of this election on Brexit. My first constitutional point has largely been covered by my noble friend Lord Puttnam. There is a real danger of our political process being corrupted by nefarious forces engaging in digital intervention. We know of various groups who intend to do so, and I have not even spoken to Moscow yet. There is a danger, therefore, of this being the first really seriously disputed election because of unlawful intervention.
My second constitutional point is the more profound one also made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I always had my doubts about the Fixed-term Parliaments Act but, in the end, I went along with it. Since then, however, we have had two elections within two years, and a more honest description of the Bill would be “Delete the title ‘Fixed-term Parliaments Act’ and substitute ‘Two-yearly Elections Act’”. That is where we are. When Oliver Cromwell spoke to the rump Parliament, it had been there a decade, if not more. This Parliament has sat for precisely one Session. It is not a precedent that I hope we follow. The House of Lords has a reputation for being the guardian of our constitution, and we should at least put down a marker that this should not be seen as a precedent for future Governments and Houses of Commons. We should look, perhaps in a broader constitutional convention, at the length of our parliamentary Sessions.
My political point relates to the designation of this election as a Brexit election, and the slogan that the Prime Minister is apparently likely to use: “Let’s get Brexit done”. We all know that it will do nothing of the sort. Even this stage of Brexit is not clear. Parliament has not yet fully debated the withdrawal agreement arrangements or the Northern Ireland protocol, or indeed the political declaration. The issues raised by businesses and citizens around the country about our future relationship, trading and security arrangements with Europe will not be resolved by this election; they will not be resolved by 31 January; and they stand a good chance of not being resolved at the end of the transition period. If the public are expecting Brexit to be resolved by this general election, or by returning Boris Johnson and his manifesto, they will be very sadly disappointed. That will not resolve the conflicts in our country—it will make them worse.
I am not sure of the best way to resolve them. My preferred solution—which, I recall, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, also proposed a few weeks ago—is to have a referendum and a general election on the same day. We would then know where the parties and individual candidates stood and, at the end of the election, you would know where the public stood. We are, however, not going down that road. We will be none the wiser about what Brexit will really bring us on the important issues that matter to citizens and businesses in this country on 12 or 13 December than we are today—or have been at any time in the past year.
I recognise that the Bill will go through. I regret that. I regret much of the past two years. I have a terrible foreboding that, if we are not careful, we will move into yet another area where statesmanship and leadership are absent from our Parliament. I shall deeply regret that.
My Lords, I am truly delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, on the very points that he underlined in his concluding remarks, which I will address shortly.
I make three brief points. First, my party, Plaid Cymru, does not believe that a general election is an appropriate mechanism for resolving the problems that the Government apparently see in delivering their Brexit policy. We do not quite understand why the Government abandoned the Brexit Bill, for which they secured a Second Reading only earlier this month and which could easily have been on the statute book by 31 January. If the Government at long last recognise what many of us have steadfastly argued, that the Brexit issue has to revert to the people before it is implemented, a confirmatory referendum is the appropriate device for that purpose, not a general election. As it is, all the other vital issues that should dominate a general election campaign—pensions, jobs, the health service, police and crime, education and taxation—will now be subservient to the blasted Brexit demands that will dominate the coming election and are throttling all the other matters that people have a right to expect all potential Governments to address comprehensively during the campaign.
Secondly, this leads me to ask whether the Government have some devious purpose in having an early general election. I believe that is the case. If we were to stick to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, we would have the next general election in June 2022, five years since the last one. I believe that it has dawned on the Government that the Brexit issue is, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, underlined, not going to go away. It is not going to disappear, and it is not going to be a quiet, tidy end, with the UK leaving the EU on the basis of the Government’s recent agreement with the European Union. All through 2020, the Brexit arguments will persist through the transition period. The Government will argue their case for a free trade agreement, but there is next to no chance of that being agreed by late 2020, so we will again in 12 months’ time be facing the danger of crashing out of the transition phase into a no-deal scenario. Even if transition is extended, the invidious search for a free trade area agreement could run into 2021 and even 2022—in other words, into the 2022 general election. That is what the Government recognise as the timebomb awaiting them just down the road and it is why they are cutting their losses and going for an election now. This is not fantasy scaremongering. The experience of Canada, whose free trade negotiations with the EU went on for year after year, is a warning to us all. That scenario for the next general election in 2022 is one that it is clear the Government just cannot countenance.
However, for whatever devious reason, we are having an election. My party, Plaid Cymru, will campaign unequivocally on a revoke mandate and will co-operate with other parties and candidates in Wales who are also committed to a revoke referendum to maximise the anti-Brexit presence in the next Parliament.
I remind this House that I was first elected for Plaid Cymru in the Caernarfon constituency in our last mid-winter election, in February 1974. Yes, it was dark; yes, it was wet; and, yes, it was very cold, but when the good people of Caernarfon saw dozens of young people committed to a cause, knocking three or even four times on their doors, they realised how much it meant to them and they swung to our cause. Let no one believe that today’s young generation is not equally committed. They will walk through rain, snow and darkness to turn every stone to achieve a Parliament which will, with the people’s consent, retrieve for Wales and for Britain a rightful place as part of Europe. That faith in the good sense of the younger generation to kick out this disastrous Government and seek a new relationship in these islands is what allows me to accept the challenge of an election on 12 December and to turn every stone to secure an outstanding outcome for Plaid Cymru, for Wales and for Britain.
My Lords, the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, illustrate how deeply entrenched views are and how three and a half years’ debate has not made the slightest difference to them. I think that the country is just weary of this—nobody, I suspect, more so than the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, who has done a fantastic job throughout the proceedings on these Bills.
Until recently, I did not want an election; I thought that we should deal with Brexit before moving on to other, more serious national matters, but recent events, the obduracy and intransigence of some of the parties to the Brexit arrangements, have made it inevitable. We must have a new House of Commons. The nation is weary of it and it has become deeply damaging in so many ways; we simply must start again.
I feel sure that your Lordships’ House will not stand in the way of this Bill and the general election. Having served in both Houses of Parliament, I am well aware of the delicate balance between the two. It is our job to revise and not to block. The Bill carried in the other place by 438 to 20 could not be clearer. During these many debates, I have warned that by blocking Brexit in this House we were not just damaging the nation’s future but putting in jeopardy our reputation and the future of your Lordships’ House. It remains to be seen just what the different party manifestos say about our future now.
The time has come to resolve so many issues and for each one of us to stand up and be counted. My personal belief is that, in Boris Johnson, we have someone who, in a few short weeks, has transformed the atmosphere in the country and shown his ability to be a truly great Prime Minister for the whole of the United Kingdom. He has my total support in the enormous task that lies ahead to carry out the will of the people and lead the nation to a confident and bright future.
My Lords, like many noble Lords, I have sat through, or read the report of, many lengthy debates in your Lordships’ House about whether we remain in or leave the European Union. Hitherto, I have not made a direct intervention in the Chamber but, like many Members of this House and the British public at large, I have been utterly depressed by the inability of Members of the other place to provide the leadership, clarity of thought and good governance required to guide this country of ours through the turbulent times created by the outcome of the referendum in 2016. Worse than that, I have been further embarrassed by friends and colleagues in Europe and elsewhere who completely fail to see why a mature democracy such as ours has totally failed to meet the challenges that we set ourselves in June 2016. Therefore, if it is to be an early general election on 12 December that presents the opportunity to end this period of drift and embarrassment, I am totally in support of this Motion and hope that it passes through your Lordships’ House speedily and without further amendment.
As a Cross-Bench Member of this House, I quite properly express no public view on who should win the election, who should be Prime Minister after the election, nor indeed which party or parties should form the next Government, but I can properly state that my overriding priority for the next Government is that everything possible is done to preserve the unity of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. Fifty years ago, I joined the British Army and swore an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, as the crowned head of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. Much of my active service was spent combating those who sought to take Northern Ireland away from the United Kingdom by force. On Remembrance Sunday, which is coming up shortly, I will once again reflect on friends and comrades who gave their lives for that cause. When you have carried the remains of your company commander in a plastic bag away from a field in south Armagh, you do not change your opinion lightly. More recently in 2015, I campaigned publicly to keep Scotland within the union, attracting most welcome criticism on the Radio 4 “Today” programme from Alex Salmond himself. As for Wales, I am a quarter Welsh, so that speaks for itself.
We need this election and, in the popular vernacular, we need it now. We need it to resolve the Brexit issue and to restore good governance to this country but, above all, we need a Government totally committed to preserving the integrity of this United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. Brexit may be important, but the territorial and constitutional integrity of this country is vital. In the language of military campaign planning, the maintenance of the integrity of this country is the centre of gravity. If we lose sight of that, we lose our identity, our purpose and our strength, and we risk diminishing ourselves at home and abroad.
My Lords, the point has been made, but I would like to put it in a slightly different way: I think it is scandalous that something called the Fixed-term Parliaments Act can be used in this way, where we have a Bill with a clause that more or less says that, notwithstanding the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, we will have an election right now and, by the way, does not say in Clause 2 “and hereby repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act”. That makes no sense. It was said right at the start of this debate by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, that this was an extraordinary way to proceed.
Secondly, I would like to reflect on the same point that was made by my noble friend Lord Whitty. Unless one believes in miracles—most people do not—the idea that a general election will now help bridge the divide between the two halves of our split country is not credible. To bridge the divide, something substantive would need to be on the table: for example, that we would leave the EU but stay in the single market with an arrangement, which is not impossible because some of the EFTA countries do exactly that under the EEA; that we would carry on with the free movement of workers, perhaps with some change to the boundaries of that; and that we would keep to the dynamics of regulatory alignment for technical standards, which we need because Europe is the biggest economy in the world—bigger than the United States and bigger than China—and it is a single factory floor. Those of us who worked in the trade union movement and people in the Labour Party at the moment often make this point and are generally solidly, certainly in the private sector, in favour of staying in the EU. How can that come over in a general election when the big lie, in the era of Trump, not only will not bring the people together but increase the amount of anger.
Something has to change fundamentally. I think the man in the moon—or the woman in the moon—would say, “You have to find some substantive agreement in the middle, or this will lead to more and more cynicism”. This will already be an election based on doubling the level of cynicism of any previous one. There are the two money trees. One side says, “We will spend £500 billion on this”; no, we will not. The other side then says, “We will spend £600 billion on this”; well, jolly good. I know that in Brazil and Argentina elections are always like that, but since when are our elections like that? The best are being driven out in this way, in which the electorate are treated as lacking in intelligence. This destroys public trust and confidence. Those people who believe what is being said along these lines have to get up and keep on saying it.
By the way, with reference to the statue of Oliver Cromwell, I am one of those campaigning for a statue of Jo Cox to be put outside on College Green. Very few women are represented in the stonework around the Palace. As she was in campaigning mode—as I am now, as it were—she was murdered for doing that. Of course, she was very firmly committed to our staying in Europe, but it could have happened to either side. We need more recognition that this is how British politics should be. We should not be tearing ourselves apart, so we have to look to that outcome.
Finally, I would like to reflect on the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach. On this side, I add my thanks to him for his courtesy—not deserved by some of us—in the course of his time as Chief Whip. We should build on that sort of good will, as was called for by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham.
My Lords, I strongly support the Bill. Parliament is currently deadlocked; we need to break free from this political paralysis. The country—and above all, business—needs stability and certainty. By the way, to echo the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, I hope that the Bill sounds the death knell for the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Above all, and this is the main point I want to make this afternoon, I hope that this election will restore confidence in representative parliamentary democracy. We had a Scottish referendum in 2014, a general election in 2015, a European referendum in 2016 and another general election in 2017. And the result? Paralysis, uncertainty and at times a very toxic political atmosphere. I see this election as a real opportunity to clear the air.
We have to understand that this election will not be a single-issue election. No election ever is or can be. It is voters who decide what an election is about, not the politicians. All of us who have trodden the streets and knocked on doors know that there are a thousand reasons and more why people vote for a particular party or candidate. For example, there will no doubt be some natural Labour supporters who will vote Lib Dem or Conservative just to keep Jeremy Corbyn out of Downing Street—there may be quite a lot of them. There may also be strong remainers who will, in the end, vote Conservative because they want Boris Johnson to be Prime Minister. Only the voter knows why he or she voted the way they did; nobody else really does, and we should not pretend to know.
I say this because occasionally some noble Lords try to reinterpret an election result by saying, “I know that’s how people voted, but you know, they didn’t really vote for this to happen, or that to happen”. The only evidence of what people voted for will be the election result itself and the MPs who are elected. It is then the job of each Member of Parliament to honour their election promises and to represent the interests of their constituents: the voters will have delegated to their MP the responsibility for taking these complicated decisions. This is how effective parliamentary representative government works, and if that is what we want—and I believe it is—then it is goodbye to referendums. Please, no more referendums.
My Lords, five minutes is not a long time to speak, so I will not give a long history lesson, but I must observe that the history of winter elections is not very bright. The last one fought in December was fought by Stanley Baldwin, who lost. The last election fought on the question of who governs Britain was fought by Edward Heath and the answer was, “Well, we’re not sure, but definitely not you”. So the precedents are not that good. Even in 1910, the January and December elections produced stalemate; they did not move anything forward. None the less, I live in hope that this election will get it done, because we need to break the logjam.
In the referendum three-and-a-half years ago, it was argued that people did not know what they were voting for. That could be right: a lot was said and a lot passed under the bridge, but this time, no one can say that. Although I strongly believe in remain, I think the fact that Boris Johnson has made his position very clear is a good thing, because it means that when the result comes in, if he has won, he has a clear mandate for Brexit. I will not be arguing any longer for a referendum; I will say, he has put the matter to the people and he has won a majority for what he wanted to do. I call on all my colleagues to respect that. Similarly, if we get what I am going to call a coalition Government, they must be committed, in some way or another, to a confirmatory referendum. There has been a little too much point-scoring between the Lib Dems, the Labour Party and the SNP. They have to reach a common position, and part of that common position has to be what they will put back to the people and how long before it is done.
As many noble Lords will know, I have a dual role, doing some jobs in Brussels. The frustration there is about the inability of the political class in Britain to decide what it wants. If a coalition Government went back and said, “Look, we’re going to have a referendum”, it would have to be a referendum that led not to months of wrangling but to a clear decision. Either we are staying on the terms we had before, or we are leaving on the basis negotiated. We cannot carry on and on with this division.
I make one reflection. We hear a lot about stable government. For a long time, I have advocated proportional representation. I was always told that it would end stable government. My answer has always been that if you had PR, you would not have Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party and you might have a different leader of the Conservative Party. Yes, we would have to put up with the equivalent of Die Linke, the left in Germany, and the equivalent of the AfD. I remind your Lordships that the Norwegian first party and the Finnish now party, as right-wing parties, have played a more constructive role in government than they would have done as outliers within the main parties. I put it to your Lordships that part of the solution might still lie in a reformed electoral system.
Finally, picking up on something that my good friend, my noble friend Lord Cormack said—I first knew him when I was dealing with the trade unions—I deeply regret the treatment of, in particular, Ken Clarke, with whom I worked closely when the Conservatives were in opposition; even more so David Lidington, who became a personal friend and was, to my mind, probably our best Minister for Europe, widely respected and liked there and able to put an often difficult case across without alienating people; and finally, Patrick McLoughlin, one of the few working men who got on to the Conservative Front Bench and who played a distinctive role in keeping the party’s feet on the ground. They have been treated disgracefully, and it does our party no credit not to readmit them and put them up for membership of this House, which they have all justly earned through their service.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord’s celebration of proportional representation. I note his comments on German politics, although he did not note that the German Greens are currently in pole position to provide the next Chancellor—one impact of proportional representation.
I do not plan to use this speech as a party-political broadcast. Your Lordships’ House can judge who might or might not have chosen to use their speech for that purpose. I shall tell you why, were this to come to a vote—it is fairly clear that it will not—the Green group in this House would be voting against the Bill as it stands.
We would do that not because we think that this unelected House should not block the Bill. That is not the reason for our choice. It is interesting that so many of your Lordships have referred to that fact as a reason to support the Bill. That is a powerful argument for a modern, functional constitution with an elected upper House, for us to be in a position to make stronger judgments. Were this House to be sitting for longer, your Lordships could have seen the Bill that I tabled for that purpose.
I am not saying that we would vote against the Bill because, as Caroline Lucas said in the other place, a general election is just that—on general subjects. The sensible, logical, democratic way to solve the Brexit chaos is to give the people the final say, even though that is obviously a fact.
The reason we would vote against the Bill, were there to be a vote, is the huge number of barriers to a free and fair election on 12 December. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, made many references to the huge problems that we have with technological change and how our electoral laws have failed to keep pace with them. Lots of the things to which he referred would require complex legislation and changes, and we do not have time for that, but the Green group, following Caroline Lucas in the other place, proposed a small amendment to the Bill. We were told by the Public Bill Office that this would be out of scope of this Bill, but I will now read this on to the record, so noble Lords can see how simple, quick and easy it would have been.
The title is “unlimited fines for electoral offences”. It reads:
“The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums (Civil Sanctions) Order 2010 is amended as follows: schedule 1, paragraph 5, leave out ‘£20,000’ and insert ‘unlimited’”.
The Explanatory Statement says:
“The new clause would allow the Electoral Commission to impose unlimited fines for electoral offences”.
That reflects a request from the Electoral Commission, the independent arbiter, that was made to the Government in May 2018, 18 months ago. This would be a simple change. As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, showed earlier, this House can act very rapidly and show its direction to the other place. It is a grave pity that we have not had the chance to do this here, now, with this proposed amendment.
The current £20,000 maximum fine is peanuts to many of the people who are able to buy the rest of the politics that we all get. An unlimited fine, which would allow the Electoral Commission to act in proportion to the level of the offence, is a simple change and would make the coming election, on 12 December, free and fair—a little freer and fairer anyway.
Finally, I will reflect on just how broken our politics is and how I fear this election is incapable of fixing it. On Christmas Day, it will be five months since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, should he still be Prime Minister then. Over that period, the House will have sat for less than one in five days. In those five months, the Prime Minister will have attended Prime Minister’s Questions three times. That record is unmatched by any Prime Minister in history and we all hope it will not be matched by any future Prime Minister. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, suggested that the next election will be in December 2024. That is very optimistic, under the circumstances. Our current politics is broken; we need far more changes. Let us all work towards them together.
My Lords, I have not spoken on anything to do with Brexit before, but I have listened to interminable speeches from Peers on all sides of the argument. I feel I know how noble Lords think. Yesterday, the elected House passed the Bill to this House, so I believe it is now the duty of all noble Lords in this unelected House to pass the Bill in its current form. Failure to do so would be intolerable and do long-term damage to this House.
My Lords, we need to learn from our experience. It seems to me self-evident that a House of Commons which has lost not only the respect but the confidence of the nation is something that needs to be replaced. I think that a House of Commons in which the Government no longer actually control the business is something that needs to be displaced. It is also self-evident, although I have no knowledge of the dynamics of what goes on in this House of Commons, that in any House of Commons the difficulty of securing a majority for a Dissolution, if a majority is required, increases with the number of people in that body who are likely to lose their jobs and their places. So when there is an urgent need to refresh the House of Commons and it is faced with a Bill which dramatically increases the majority needed until it cannot be reached, the only conclusion I can reach is the same as that of the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, who I caught as I was going out, and certainly that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, which is that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is actually an anti-democratic piece of legislation and should be repealed swiftly. I am speaking now only in order to put on the record that I, and I think many others, would urge the incoming House of Commons to address this problem as quickly as possible.
My Lords, there has been a remarkable consensus around the House in this debate. My party would prefer a confirmatory referendum. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats in the Commons put down 17 amendments for a people’s vote and voted seven times on amendments to promote it. As my noble friend Lord Newby said earlier, we have come to the conclusion that the Commons lacks a majority for that. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, said that the Labour Party is moving towards a confirmatory referendum, but there is a deadline—the third deadline. After two extensions, now to the end of next January, the member Governments of the European Union are beginning to lose patience with us and the question of whether we should have a further extension has been raised by several of them. Sadly, we cannot wait for the Labour Party’s position gradually and slowly to evolve further.
We would also have preferred the extension of the franchise to 16 year-olds and to EU citizens who are settled in this country, but we recognise that our electoral law is a collection of imperial and historical anomalies. Irish and Commonwealth citizens resident in this country have the vote, while American and EU citizens who are long-term residents do not. These are important issues that we need to address, but in the next Parliament.
There has also been some discussion about the extent to which we are facing a constitutional crisis. A number of noble Lords do not like the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, but underneath that there are some large questions about the relationship between the Executive and Parliament. I note that our current Prime Minister, that wonderful democrat who was vigorously campaigning three years ago to restore parliamentary sovereignty from subjection, as he put it, to the European Union, was last week quoted as calling for the people—by which I think he meant himself as the proclaimed representative of the people —to be freed from their subjection to Parliament. That sort of language is part of our problem, as he follows the path of Cromwell from great parliamentarian to great authoritarian.
We have an unwritten constitution, which depended on honourable men accepting its conventions. I recall that the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, when answering a Question on the resignation of the then Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, on his ability to ignore the Ministerial Code in three different places by announcing, two days after resigning, that he was to become once again a highly paid columnist with the Daily Telegraph, said that, “There are no penalties for breaking the Ministerial Code. It depends upon honour”. Unfortunately, that is of course part of what we have been losing in our political life.
We have a crisis of our political system. We are supposed to have a two-party system in which, when the Government weaken, the Opposition are in a fit state to take over and become the Government instead. But what we now have are two entrenched parties, both deeply divided. We have suffered a long crisis of conservatism in the last 20 years, between one-nation conservatism and the libertarian free market right, with a Prime Minister now who pretends that he can somehow straddle the gap, as he uses inflammatory nationalist language at one point and then talks about the need for one-nation conservatism at another. The Labour Party is similarly split, between the centre left and radical socialism. We now know that single-party government does not provide strong and stable government. We perhaps need to begin adjust to a much more diverse electorate—in attitude and origin—and to multi-party politics and a stronger Parliament.
We need also to talk about the language and practice of politics. I ask the noble Earl, Lord Howe, when replying, to give us some assurances on this. The extent to which violent language has come into our politics in recent years is deeply damaging and one explanation why so many Members of Parliament are not standing again at the end of this Parliament. We know that our Prime Minister himself and the right-wing media have used inflammatory language. I find the demonisation of Dominic Grieve and Philip Hammond, for example, by senior official sources in No. 10 as well as by the right-wing media, to be deeply shocking. Here are senior members of the governing party being demonised by the person some now call “Demonic Cummings”. I hope the noble Earl will say that there are those within the Government who are very concerned to make sure that, in an election campaign, dialogue and respect for alternative opinions are maintained. What the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, called the “ethos of Parliament” also needs to be the ethos of democratic debate.
A number of noble Lords talked about digital campaigning and spending. We know that our electoral law is in much need of reform, but we are not going to get it. I therefore hope that the noble Earl will be able to say something about the care with which the Government will encourage the Electoral Commission to monitor behaviour throughout the coming campaign.
Responsible politicians are needed on all sides if we are to regain popular trust. I remind noble Lords that, if we come to a result in this election in which a number of parties are elected to Parliament and none has an overall majority, that will also require responsible behaviour after the election—co-operation among parties and politicians, and respect for those of different opinions.
My Lords, this is an unusual procedure for a Bill. A whole Bill, with far bigger consequences than the Benn Bill—which required only the sending of a letter—is to be taken in one day, at one sitting. And it has been done without a murmur from those—I am looking not just at the noble Lord, Lord True—who found the Benn Bill’s passage so very outrageous. By comparison, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act had one day at Second Reading, three days in Committee, two days on Report and a tiny 10-minute day at Third Reading: 29 hours in all.
Today’s Bill was conceived by the Liberal Democrats and then taken over by the Conservatives—the two parties that pushed through the very Fixed-term Parliaments Act that the Bill now upends for what they see as their own electoral advantages. The Act that they wanted, to prevent a Prime Minister calling an election whenever he or she felt like it, is to be cast aside so that this Prime Minister can call an election at a time of his choosing. Indeed, the Lib Dem Minister who took that Act through this House, resisted attempts to include a sunset clause, which, ironically, would have saved Mr Johnson a lot of trouble, as he could then simply have called the election whenever he wanted. That Minister also ignored the sage advice of our Constitution Committee, which, while unpersuaded of the need to overturn,
“an established constitutional practice and moving to fixed-term Parliaments”,
thought that there should be,
“some form of safety valve”,
to allow an early election.
I had hoped that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, might have spoken today to explain his volte face, because this Bill drives a coach and horses through the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, bypassing both the required supermajority as well as the unpleasantness of a no-confidence vote—“a political device”, in the words of noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, or “cavalier”, according to my noble friend Lady Quin.
Essentially, in 48 hours, between the two Houses, the Bill repeals the Act, with no forethought, debate or any of the consideration we would normally give to a major legislative and constitutional change. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, urged, we should undertake such a task in a proper and thoughtful way.
However, I guess this unconventional route is only one of the Liberal Democrats’ embarrassments, given that they have, in the words of an arch remainer, “thrown the referendum campaign under a bus”, having triggered the Bill before trying to add a referendum to the withdrawal agreement Bill. Indeed, they have promised that they will use any influence they have after the election to revoke without a second referendum. Those who slogged so long for a referendum must rue the day that they trusted the Liberal Democrats.
But that is not all. We and the Liberal Democrats had prioritised removing any chance of a no-deal exit from the EU. They have now handed this possibility to the Prime Minister. He may not get the WAB through Parliament before 31 January, given that we will now lose six weeks of legislative time with the election, swearing in, the Queen’s Speech and its debate—and I look forward to the answer from the noble Earl when he replies to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, about the earliest date of our return. We now risk a crash-out at the end of January or at the end of next year, if the Prime Minister takes us out at the end of the transition period without an agreement. Well done, Liberal Democrats; I bet a glass is being raised to you in No. 10. As it happens, we are confident that there will be no such outcome, that it is Labour who will have the keys to No. 10, and we will put an end to a no-deal exit.
As for the Government—in case noble Lords thought that this was all about the Liberal Democrats—we know why they want an election. National debt is rising; the true figures of their preferred deal are appearing—£70 billion over 10 years, we hear today from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research; a winter NHS crisis beckons; schools are still on short measures in some places; Northern Ireland has been sold short, and Johnson rumbled on that; and, vitally, the impact of a hard Brexit has yet to be felt, or even the arguments over it, as the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, said.
So the Conservatives, for electoral advantage, which the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was meant to prevent, want an election while the fruits of their ham-fisted policies have yet to bite. I urge them not to be complacent. The public might just see through them and grasp why they are being sent out to polling stations in the run-up to Christmas. It is not really to “unclog” Parliament, the Commons having given the withdrawal agreement Bill a Second Reading. As my noble friend Lady Smith said, had there been a decent programme Motion, which needed only for the Prime Minister to swallow his pride over the totem 31 October date, he could have got the withdrawal agreement Bill through well before 31 January, and negotiations on our future relations with the EU could have begun.
Of course, the Government might feel complacent because they know that they may not be playing absolutely fair. Having an election before we have sorted out the regulation of targeted digital campaigning will probably play into the hands of a certain Dominic Cummings. I am not saying that it is the dark arts, but I know that it is neither transparent nor regulated, as my noble friend Lord Puttnam made abundantly clear. When he responds, the Minister needs to spell out what steps the Government and the Electoral Commission will take to ensure a fair and open contest.
For Labour, we look forward to being able to take our challenge to the Government to every street, village, town and city of the country. We will show what damage the Government are risking—to the car industry, to farming, to the environment, to consumers and to our vibrant service sector—with their approach to Brexit. We will highlight the impact that their policies have already had on the poor and disadvantaged, on those living with debt and insecurity, on those dependent on social services, on working families torn between jobs and paying for childcare, on students graduating with massive debt, on young couples no longer even able to dream of owning their own house, on people on zero-hours contracts, on the elderly finding it hard to see a GP or dentist any time soon, and on teachers and nurses who, at the end of the month, cannot find the money for any luxuries after years of pay restraint.
It will become clear over these coming weeks that the Prime Minister is not a man who can be trusted. He owes no loyalty even to his own MPs, let alone to society. He is a man with only one person’s future at heart, and that is his own.
I confess that I never wanted a winter election —I hate cold dark mornings and early sunsets—but I want the chance to rid this country of this Government. So here’s to this Bill—and the election that it now brings.
My Lords, this has been a very constructive and focused debate, and I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to it. Unsurprisingly, we have heard a range of views expressed on all sides of the House about the Bill and the reasons why we find ourselves debating it, so I think that a helpful place for me to start is to return briefly to first base by re-emphasising the key points made earlier by my noble friend the Leader of the House.
Why do we believe that a general election is now necessary? The hung Parliament that we are in, complicated by the divergent views of elected Members across all parties on the most significant political and constitutional issue of our day, has created an impasse. It is an impasse that the Government are clear cannot be allowed to continue.
The withdrawal agreement negotiated by my right honourable friend Theresa May was rejected on three separate occasions earlier this year. The Prime Minister has successfully negotiated a new deal and the other place passed the revised withdrawal agreement Bill at Second Reading. However, by also voting down the Government’s programme Motion, they prevented the progress of that Bill and, hence, this country’s departure from the European Union by 31 October. Then, despite the extension of the Article 50 deadline, conversations held in another place made it apparent to the Government that there could be no certainty, or anything approaching certainty, of the withdrawal agreement Bill receiving parliamentary approval through all its subsequent stages. Therefore, contrary to the contention made by the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition, it was not rejection of the programme Motion that brought about this Bill; it was the Government’s realisation that even the three-month extension to 31 January left the fate of the Bill wide open.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said that she accepted that there should be a general election. I wish that she had done so with as much good grace as the noble Lord, Lord Newby. All the main political parties now agree that a general election is needed in order for the British people to have their say, and we earnestly hope to provide a new Parliament with a way forward. So this is a short and simple Bill, which sets the date of the election as 12 December. The general election timetable allows the Northern Ireland Budget Bill to pass before Dissolution, to ensure that the Northern Ireland Civil Service can access the funding it needs to deliver public services and proper governance in the Province.
The 12 December date is important for another reason: it is critical that we do not miss this opportunity to have an election, and a new Parliament sitting, before Christmas. An election on the following Thursday—19 December—would not allow time for the new Parliament to sit before the start of the new year. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, in his intervention, asked me for the earliest date on which Parliament could first sit following the poll. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has stated that if our party were to win the election, he would aim for both Houses to reconvene before 23 December. However, the exact date cannot be set until after Dissolution, when the Sovereign issues a proclamation, so I regret that I cannot more specific.
I am grateful to the noble Earl for that, but surely the Queen cannot reopen Parliament before Christmas, on 23 December. That would be an absurd time to have a reopening of Parliament. Surely the answer is that the Queen cannot reopen Parliament until 6 January. We would then have a Queen’s Speech debate, so proceedings on the Bill are unlikely to start before the week beginning 13 January. We will then be getting into just as difficult a position, in passing the Bill before 31 January, as we were previously.
I cannot agree entirely with the noble Lord. The House will have followed his train of thought, but it is nevertheless possible for Parliament to convene before Christmas for swearing in and so forth to take place, and we can get that part of things done. As I have said, I am not in a position to speculate in advance of the Sovereign’s proclamation the exact timetable following that.
I think the House would like a bit more information. When the noble Earl says that the House could reconvene before 23 December, I think that most Members of your Lordships’ House, and indeed of the other place, would expect that some business would be undertaken. If the election were on 12 December, I see little reason why the House could not reconvene the following week. He will appreciate that legislation will be required before the end of January. Surely the Government do not intend not even to start tabling business until the middle of January.
Before we have a new Government in place, it is certainly not in my gift to specify the date on which Parliament will return, or indeed what it will do when it does return. However, I am sure the noble Baroness, if and when she is elected to office, will see to it that there is a rapid reconvening of Parliament.
I listened with care, and a great deal of sympathy, to the noble Lords, Lord Puttnam and Lord Whitty, on the critical issue of transparency in electoral campaigning. I also read the noble Lord’s article in the Times today. His criticisms of the Government are noted, but I hope he will accept that the Government are committed to increasing transparency in digital campaigning, to maintain a fair and proportionate democratic process. As both noble Lords will know, to this end, on 5 May the Government announced that we will implement an imprints regime for digital election material. The aim of that is precisely to ensure greater transparency, and to make it clearer to the electorate who has produced and promoted online political material.
We had some exchanges on this point last Wednesday, and as the Minister has now repeated to your Lordships, that commitment was given as long ago as May. What exactly is he proposing should now take place to ensure that those very urgent controls are implemented before the poll takes place?
I understand the noble Lord’s impatience for moving faster in this area but I am sure he would acknowledge that nothing would be worse than getting this wrong. If we were to proceed in haste, we could find ourselves either unintentionally stifling democratic debate with overly restrictive regulations or rushing through a regime that would mean people were unknowingly committing an offence, and we would not want that either. It is a much more complex area of the law to get right than it may at first appear.
I thank the noble Earl for giving way. All I am trying to get at is that nothing could be worse than a contested election result, and the rules that we are applying at present make that almost inevitable. If it is a very close election, as I suspect it will be, it does not matter which party wins; it will be contested. Given the fragile state of our democracy at the moment, I cannot think of a worse outcome.
I understand the noble Lord’s concern, and I am sorry that it has not proved possible to enact the measures that I am sure we all want. However, I reconfirm the commitment that the Government have given that, if re-elected, we will bring forward detailed proposals on the scope of the new regime in the coming months for further scrutiny.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, spoke in her clear and emphatic way in favour of strengthening the powers of the Electoral Commission. I hope she knows that the Government work closely with the Electoral Commission to protect the integrity, security and effectiveness of referendums and elections. The commission has civil sanctioning powers that apply to referendums and elections. More serious criminal matters can be, and are, referred to the police and then considered by a court of law. The courts already have the power to levy unlimited fines.
However, it is important to remember that the commission is independent of the Government and accountable to Parliament through the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. Quite rightly, the Government are not involved in the decisions over what the Electoral Commission investigates or the fines that it may impose. The commission has recommended that its sanctioning powers be increased, and the Government are considering that proposal. The amendment that the noble Baroness spoke to would involve giving the Electoral Commission fining powers far beyond those of most other civil regulators. My own view, and that of the Government, is that that would not be proportionate. Even the Electoral Commission has not suggested having unlimited fining powers. Instead it has suggested that fines should be raised to hundreds of thousands of pounds so that it can punish and deter the most serious offences.
More broadly, as the noble Baroness herself said, changes to electoral law cannot be made overnight. They require extensive stakeholder engagement to ensure that they are workable and proportionate. Political parties vary considerably in size and professionalism, and it is important to ensure that their regulation is fair and proportionate so as not to undermine local democracy or discourage engagement.
The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, called for the rapid reappointment of your Lordships’ Select Committees following the convening of the new Parliament, and I recognise the importance of the issue that he has raised. The reappointment to our Select Committees is of course a matter for the Committee of Selection. They are usually reappointed early in any new Session, and I am sure the usual channels will do everything that they can to help to make that happen. Ultimately, though, these reappointments are not a matter for the Government.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, spoke powerfully about the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and the need for Parliament to reconsider its provisions, and my noble friend Lord Elton added weight to those comments. I am grateful to both of them for what they said. These are serious matters that deserve appropriate consideration. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act provides that the Prime Minister must make arrangements in 2020 for a committee to carry out a review of the operation of the Act. The new Government will be bound to instigate that review and consider its outcome very carefully.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, expressed concerns about the possible tone of the forthcoming election campaign and discussed the need to prevent candidate intimidation and maintain respectful debate across the country. Democracy is a cornerstone of British values and the key to a healthy democracy is having respectful, vibrant and open debate. However, this freedom can never be an excuse to cause harm or spread hatred. A line is crossed when disagreement mutates into intimidation, violence or abuse. The Government recognise that rising levels of intimidation in public life can prevent talented people standing for public office, particularly women and those from minority backgrounds. That is why we are taking action to confront it and will continue to do so if re-elected to government.
The purpose of the Bill is to allow the British people to have their say and to give the other place the mandate to resolve this deadlock and sufficient time to act before 31 January 2020. This is our last opportunity to hold an election in a timely way before that date—an election that has significant cross-party support in the other place. I am sure your Lordships will ensure the swift passage of this vital Bill and enable an election on 12 December.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.