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Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

Volume 820: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2022

Commons Reason


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That this House do not insist on its Amendment 1, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 1A.

1A: Because the Commons do not consider it appropriate that the dissolution of Parliament should be subject to a vote in the Commons.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will briefly remind your Lordships of where we find ourselves. Your Lordships’ House amended the Bill, which had been passed by the other place, to give the Commons the right to a veto on dissolution and invited the other place to reconsider its decision. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, told us, the amendment would offer the House of Commons an opportunity to reflect again on this highly important constitutional Bill.

It has now been considered by the other place again, and the Commons unsurprisingly maintained its previous decision. During the discussion in the other place, Members noted the flaws of a prescriptive system and feared that it would recreate the paralysis of the 2019 Parliament—something that the manifestos of both major parties at the last general election said they wished to avoid. Furthermore, the importance of retaining the flexible nature of the constitution was emphasised.

Your Lordships asked the other place to consider its role, as is your Lordships’ right. For a second time it has done so, and it has decisively rejected a Commons veto, placing its trust, as do the Government, in the constitutional practices that served this country well for generations before the failed experiment of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The Government agree with the view of the other place: the amendment would undermine the rationale of the Bill.

We are now within reach of securing important and historic legislation and delivering the manifesto commitment of two political parties—and notably, from my point of view, of the Government. The Bill returns us to the status quo ante, revives the prerogative powers for the Dissolution and calling of Parliament, and preserves the long-standing position on the non-justiciability of these powers.

I thank all noble Lords for their important engagement in the passage of this Bill, which was valued by me and the Government. It deepened reflection on the Bill and the principles behind it. However, I would be grateful if your Lordships now accepted the clear decision of the other place, which, as the reason before us today notes, is that

“the Commons do not consider it appropriate that the dissolution of Parliament should be subject to a vote in the Commons.”

That is a very clear message from the other House, and I urge your Lordships not to insist on their amendment.

My Lords, after a short debate in the other place, the amendment proposed by this House was disagreed, and here we are today. There is still an issue: we believe the Dissolution of Parliament should not be based on the revival of the prerogative, but the other place takes a different view. The other place is the elected Chamber. As I made clear during the debate, this issue was to be decided not by Parliament as a whole but by the other place because that is the elected Chamber. It has spoken. I stand by the undertaking I gave during the debate, and therefore this must be carried.

In doing so—I think I am allowed to say this—I very much hope that, in the long march of the future, it will turn out that the decision of the House of Commons is vindicated. I really do hope that. I would like to think that I will be right, but I still do not have confidence that we can be sure that no future Prime Minister will misuse or abuse this power. We will therefore have to wait for the future to decide who, in truth, was right on the issue.

My Lords, I hope we are all agreed that we should not insist on the amendment that we passed on the previous occasion. However, we were right to ask the other place to think again. Indeed, even though it was a relatively short debate, and programmed as such, it was an opportunity for a number of Members to think again—if not necessarily to change their minds, at least to reflect on the nature of the decision that was being made. For example, Jackie Doyle-Price said:

“In building legislation that will last, we need to ensure that we have sufficient, adequate checks so that any Prime Minister will not abuse their position.”

Kevin Brennan asked a very interesting question, which we raised here:

“What would happen where the Prime Minister of a minority Government wished to call a general election, but there was the possibility of an alternative Government being formed? Would that Prime Minister be able to dissolve Parliament by prerogative in those circumstances, or would another person be given an opportunity to form a Government and a majority in the House of Commons?”—[Official Report, Commons, 14/3/22; cols. 647 and 643.]

Of course, the answer is that such a person may be given such an opportunity but that would be by the exercise of the discretion of the sovereign, which would draw the sovereign back into decision-making—something we were all agreed that we wanted to avoid.

The point is that our amendment was intended to raise these issues but not in any sense to undermine the manifesto commitments of the two main parties to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. However, the manifestos did not say how the Act was to be replaced.

The Government have settled to their satisfaction that the constraint of Parliament upon the prerogative power is to be removed, but they have not settled the question of whether the sovereign might continue to be drawn into Dissolution decisions. It is unfortunately likely that, if there were to be another coalition—I speak as a former Minister in a coalition Government—this issue will resurface; it is bound to do so. Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, I hope that we will be proved wrong and the Government proved right.

In such important constitutional legislation—the Government are fortunate in having my noble friend on the Front Bench to steward it in this place—we should be looking for consensus and certainty. I am not sure that this Bill has achieved that. None the less, I hope that the Bill will succeed in its objectives.

My Lords, we should not let this moment pass without reminding ourselves of precisely what a bizarre set of circumstances we find ourselves in. I remind the House that the Lords amendment that we sent to the Commons says:

“The powers referred to in subsection (1)”

—that is, the power to dissolve Parliament—

“shall not be exercised unless the House of Commons passes a motion in the form set out in subsection (1B).”

In other words, very simply, this unelected House is saying to the elected House that, while it is none of our business, we think the House of Commons should have something to say about whether the House of Commons should be dissolved and the electorate consulted. I hope that, at some point in the future, the Commons reason for disagreeing with this House will be printed word for word in Erskine May, as follows:

“The Commons disagree to Lords Amendment 1 for the following Reason—Because the Commons do not consider it appropriate that the dissolution of Parliament should be subject to a vote in the Commons.”

Imagine if we substituted “the Dissolution of Parliament” for, say, something that we are going to debate in another Bill tomorrow—“the electoral system”. This is our constitution. It is not any old Bill but the rules of the game. Could we have an amendment in future saying that the Commons disagrees with the Lords in an amendment on the electoral system, on the basis that the Commons does not consider it appropriate that the electoral system should be subject to a vote in the House of Commons? That could apply to any other aspect of our constitution.

I feel pretty confident in saying that there has never been anything quite like this. As we have said time and time again, the whole development of our parliamentary democracy has been a slow transference of power from the monarch/Executive to the elected House of Commons; yet this particular Commons, elected just two years ago, is saying that whether or not there is an election is not anything to do with it. Ultimately, this entrenches the possibility of the monarch becoming profoundly and deeply involved in politics and in an acutely political decision: whether there should be a general election—there is no bigger decision than that. The House of Commons feels that it should not have any say in that whatever, and it should ultimately be a decision for the monarch.

I encourage those who revise Erskine May to make sure that this stunning reason on Dissolution appears somewhere in the text of that great tome. I am sure that it has never happened before. I think it is absolutely bizarre of the Commons to say that it does not want anything to do with this.

My Lords, I have mixed feelings on this occasion. As the House may remember from my remarks on Report, I always thought that our amendment to the Bill that we passed back to the Commons was a second best. I also regret, as the noble Lord has just said, that the monarch should be left as the only protection against the misuse of the prerogative power to ask for a Dissolution of Parliament. I wish that we had decided not to pass the amendment that we did but instead had removed Clause 3 from the Bill, but we did not. I hope that no trouble will come from this, but I fear that it could.

My Lords, I fear that if we had removed Clause 3, although I was very sympathetic to that line of argument, as the noble Lord knows, we would have had the same result. The Commons, whipped, would have sent back the Bill with Clause 3 reinserted. We should not delude ourselves.

Both noble Lords on the Cross Benches performed a signal service. It was right that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, should take the initiative that he did. I supported him then, and I would support him again, but not tonight, because we both made it plain, as did others, that this had to be the decision of the House of Commons. I think Members have made an unfortunate and potentially dangerous decision, bearing in the mind the delicate position of the monarch. I am very sorry they have deleted the wisdom that we inserted into the Bill. But it has, and there for the moment is an end to it.

My Lords, I echo the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. This is a bizarre situation, in that we said to the House of Commons, “We think, O House of Commons, that you ought to have a bit more power on one of the most important acts of the political calendar; namely, the calling of an election.” It is an act, of course, which affects every one of them intimately whereas it affects us not at all. They have said, “It’s very kind of you to suggest that we have more power, but, actually, we don’t want it.” That seems bizarre and surprising, but if the Commons in their collective wisdom decide that they would rather the Queen retain a power than that they be given one which we have very generously offered to them, it seems churlish of us to insist on it. Therefore, I do not propose that we do.

My Lords, we laugh, and in some ways, it is amusing. It is also extraordinary—I am not sure that it is amusing. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was an Act of its time whose main purpose was to protect the coalition Government, and it succeeded in that to a degree. I was very disappointed to read the response of Ministers in the other place. It seemed to focus on the argument that because all parties agreed that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act must go, there was only one way of doing it. That seemed an extraordinary proposition to make. On the points made by my noble friend Lord Grocott and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, this House had no vested interest whatever in the amendment that it passed. It sought to do so in the interests of the democratic system. The Government’s preferred option was one that we found quite extraordinary.

We enjoy in our Parliament a system of checks and balances in the democratic system. For those of us who do not consider that the Prime Minister alone should decide on the election, there seem to be three alternatives: first, that the courts intervene, which the majority of your Lordships’ House found unacceptable, although I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Butler; secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said, that the monarchy would be drawn into that decision-making process, which we would all seek to avoid—I was glad that he quoted both Jackie Doyle-Price and Kevin Brennan, because I thought the points they made in the House of Commons were very pertinent; finally, that Parliament should have an opportunity to be engaged in that decision.

Those of my age who remember Wolfie Smith in “Citizen Smith” will have heard “Power to the people”; the Minister said, “Let us hand power back to the people”, but the Government are actually handing power back to the Prime Minister. There was never any difficulty in the election process—there was always going to be a general election—it is about who decides on the election. The Minister probably watched too much bad TV in his younger days. I find it extraordinary that the House of Commons was prepared to give up that power so easily.

I agree that, as the other place—albeit its majority being the Government’s majority—does not wish to pursue this, there is little point in our asking it to reconsider. However, I repeat a question that my noble friend Lord Collins asked the Minister in Oral Questions yesterday, which he sort of answered in the affirmative. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was a prime example of legislation being passed for one particular purpose without a great deal of thought, and it has had to be undone for all the reasons we know. Legislation made too quickly for a specific circumstance does not protect the constitution in any way. I hope the Minister will agree with me that constitutional change needs much more careful examination of long-term and unintended consequences. We have got ourselves into a right pickle over this one. Does he accept that, when looking at any significant constitutional change, a period of pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation would provide for better legislation at the end of the day?

But for now, bizarre as the decision made by the other place may seem, we do not intend to pursue this further.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I say to the noble Baroness that this Bill did receive detailed pre-legislative scrutiny; it was considered by a Joint Committee of both Houses and Ministers were scrutinised by committees in both Houses. Ministers in both Houses—I have had some small endeavour in this—have engaged actively with interested Members during the Bill. That is a contrast—perhaps this was the point the noble Baroness was making—to what happened in 2011 when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was cobbled together in back rooms, as we learn about in the memoirs of Mr David Laws.

Just to help the Minister, that is exactly the point I was making about the Fixed-term Parliaments Act not having proper scrutiny and getting us into the position we are in now.

I was agreeing with the noble Baroness on that. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was an aberration from 2011 to 2022. Some noble Lords have expressed shock that the House of Commons would wish to return to an arrangement which endured for generations. I do not share that shock.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who was a ferocious opponent of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act—I agreed with him profoundly on this—said he was surprised that the House of Commons responded in the way it did. I read out to the House its reason in my opening remarks. Your Lordships asked the Commons a specific question on the Dissolution Bill: did it want a veto on this Dissolution measure? The House of Commons has replied specifically to that question in its reason. That does not in any way detract from the powers of the House of Commons either to bring down a Government through withdrawing confidence or to sustain one. That remains one of its fundamental powers, which can promote a Dissolution and a general election.

I agree with those who said there is an abiding need to avoid the sovereign being drawn into politics. That principle is accepted by all people, I think, at every level of politics; it has been and will remain the case, as was set out in the Dissolution principles.

It was proposed that the Commons should have a vote, and the Commons has clearly rejected the proposal. I am grateful that noble Lords—albeit it in a mildly chiding way in some cases—have accepted that. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, for not pressing his amendment. I did not chide the House in any way on the role it played—I respect that role—but I think we should show respect for the decision of the Commons in our words and deeds now.

I thank noble Lords for all the points made in the debate. I hope we can now proceed, and I beg to move.

Motion agreed.