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2: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out from "be" to end of line 8 and insert "on the day appointed by Her Majesty by proclamation on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, and subsequent parliamentary general elections shall be every four years thereafter"
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I do not think that the House has any appetite for long debates on any of these next votes, but they are alternatives to the vote that we have just had. This next vote, which is on Amendment 2, involves the following: instead of this first Parliament being fixed for five years, the position should be left as it is. In effect, if the Government want to go on for five years, they can do so and the arrangements should be left as they are, and a fixed-term Parliament can be introduced for the future. I detect some support for the view that, this first time around, the Government should be able to last for five years if they want. If that is the Government's position, they do not need to amend the law to do that; they can just do it by agreement and all that is required is trust.
I do not intend to go through the arguments about four years or five because the basis of this proposition is that we end up in a situation where we do not change the law for this Parliament but leave it as it is, which would allow the Government to go for five years if they wanted to, but then I will be arguing that it should be four years for the future when we come to those votes. I therefore invite the House to reach a compromise position of no change for the first Parliament and four years for the subsequent ones.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, in the spirit in which the amendment was moved, I do not wish to detain the House. We have had a full debate about the arguments about four years and five, but I shall simply talk about how the Government would prefer the position to be determined with regard to this Parliament. I think that I indicated in my reply to the previous debate that if we are going to have fixed-term Parliaments, it makes sense if we oblige this Parliament to move into the same rules as those governing what will happen in future Parliaments. I understood the noble and learned Lord to say that he thought there was some merit in that consistency.
While I have no doubt that this Government will carry on in our measured fashion up to an election in May 2015, if something is not fixed at that date it is inevitable, as one knows only too well, that speculation can start running rife, and the measure not being in place would perhaps give more grounds for speculation. That would actually hinder the productivity of this Parliament in its latter years when there might be more focus on opinion polls than on the legislative programme, something that the Bill is intended to avoid. We would be far better knowing definitely when the next election would be-namely, the first Thursday in May 2015. I therefore invite the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
"( ) Following the next parliamentary general election after the passing of this Act, the polling day for each subsequent parliamentary general election is to be the first Thursday in May in the fourth calendar year following that in which the polling day for the previous parliamentary general election fell."
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the final amendment in this sequence is the only combination left, and although it proposes five years for this Parliament-I have been cruelly rebuffed in my two attempts to avoid that-it proposes four years for the future and will, I think, unite the House on my side, apart from a very few noble Lords who I regard as outliers. There is no point in debating the amendment again, because we have done so for the past two hours. I beg to move.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, this is what the noble and learned Lord, in earlier discussions, described as the "five-four-four" amendment. The Government are opposed to it for reasons that have been advanced and I do not propose to repeat. I am
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Lord Pannick: My Lords, the amendments are in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and the noble Lords, Lord Butler of Brockwell and Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. The noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, regrets that he is unable to be in his place because he is chairing a Joint Committee.
The purpose of the amendments is to address the deep unease on all sides of the House, as expressed at Second Reading and in Committee, as to whether it is appropriate to confine the circumstances in which a general election may be called within a five-year term. The amendments would ensure that the coalition Government will have their way as to the criteria governing this Parliament, but would leave future Parliaments to decide for themselves whether to apply the provisions in the Bill. That sunrise provision would thereby limit what many noble Lords regard as the constitutional damage which would be caused by this unhappy Bill. The amendments do not touch on the distinct question of the length of any fixed-term Parliament, which we have just debated.
I want to make four points. First, the Bill would not in fact introduce fixed-term Parliaments. There is general agreement on all sides, and it is embodied in the Bill, that it is essential to allow for early general elections in some circumstances. The dispute concerns in what circumstances and by what means. Many noble Lords believe that it is impossible satisfactorily to define in legislation the circumstances in which an early election is appropriate. Such matters are far better left to convention and practical politics than to legalistic constraints. Your Lordships' Constitution Committee heard compelling evidence to that effect, in particular from Professor Vernon Bogdanor. It is easy to envisage circumstances in which an early general election may well be appropriate, whether or not the criteria in Clause 2 are satisfied-for example, a change of Prime Minister; a change of coalition partner; or a new
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Clauses 2 and 3 are worthy but necessarily cumbersome attempts to allow for early general elections in some circumstances. Such is the splendid unpredictability of politics that no one can foresee all the circumstances that justifiably lead to an early general election. That is the first point.
Secondly, many noble Lords on all sides of the House have doubted the premise of the Bill, which is that the power of the Prime Minister to call an early general election is a political advantage for him or her. The evidence is very weak that this power has assisted Prime Ministers who would otherwise have lost subsequent general elections. Many noble Lords have spoken from experience of the agonies of decision-making caused to Prime Ministers with whom they have worked closely. Our political system has worked well; people can and should be trusted to decide whether to penalise a Prime Minister who calls what the people regard as an unnecessary or inappropriate early general election.
Thirdly, it is of special importance-we heard discussion of this earlier-that a constitutional measure of this sort should be grounded in public consultation and in pre-legislative scrutiny. There was none. The Government should recognise that one reason why the referendum campaign on AV-I say nothing of the result-was so unsatisfactory was that there was no process of prior analysis of the options for change and of the merits and demerits of different voting systems. The absence of public consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny in this Bill is even more troubling, because there will be no opportunity for the public to express a view by way of a referendum. Unless and until there is proper public consultation on the issue, in a referendum if appropriate, we should do no more than legislate for this Parliament.
Fourthly and finally, we should identify why this Bill is before Parliament. No one could seriously dispute the conclusion of your Lordships' Constitution Committee, which stated in paragraph 20 that,
I recognise that the Liberal Democrats have been arguing for fixed-term Parliaments for some time. However, they could not dispute seriously that the inclusion of this measure in the coalition agreement is due solely to the desire of the two parts of the coalition to ensure that their union lasts for five years and does not end in tears before then. That is a short-term political need. I do not deprecate it, but it does not justify a long-term alteration to the constitution of this country.
What should the House do? I suggest that we should accept, with more or less enthusiasm, as noble Lords wish, the political reality that the coalition wants a binding commitment for this Parliament, but that we should stand firm in our belief-held on all sides of the House-that the case for general constitutional reform simply is not made. Indeed, the case for opposing the long-term constitutional reform contained in the
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Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and his hugely distinguished co-signatories, on the amendment. It is elegant, precise, effective and clever. I am very attracted to it, because I take the view that the principle of fixed-term Parliaments is misguided. The more I have listened to debates on the subject in your Lordships' House, the more convinced I have become that the course on which the Government have set themselves is ill judged and will be damaging. Fixed-term Parliaments are anti-democratic and reduce accountability. Moreover, there is no evidence of public dissatisfaction with the state of affairs that we have. It is a good maxim in constitutional matters that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
In this unelected second Chamber, we accept-often with reluctance-that we should not oppose the central purposes of government Bills and should not vote them down at Second Reading, particularly if they are sent to us after being endorsed by the elected Chamber. Therefore, this House has conducted itself with restraint and responsibility. The beauty of the amendment that the noble Lord moved is that it would allow the coalition to achieve its political purpose of providing an arrangement whereby the two parties are handcuffed together for the duration of this Parliament, giving themselves a five-year term or a very good chance of one. The noble Lord spoke of the possibility of the coalition ending in tears. It has already reached the stage of curses and maledictions such as I can rarely, if ever, recall in politics, but we cannot be certain that it will not totter through the full five-year term. However, it is not respectable for the coalition Government to hijack the constitution for their political convenience.
The amendment provides the opportunity for a subsequent Parliament to prevent the constitution being damaged in perpetuity. It would allow the next and subsequent Parliaments to reconsider the principle of a fixed term, or to reconsider particular features of the legislation such as whether four years or five years is the right length for a fixed term, or whether the two-thirds or 14-day provisions should be retained, in the light of the experience that by then we as a country shall have had, and not just in the light of preconceptions or deals put together for short-term political advantage. In that sense the amendment offers the possibility that the whole experience of this Parliament-here in both Houses of Parliament, and the experience in the country-would effectively provide an opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny, because the opportunity would be provided for the legislation to be revisited and approved or not approved at the beginning of a subsequent Parliament. I think that the amendment would not permit future amendments to the legislation: it would either have to be accepted as a whole or rejected as a whole for the Parliament to come. However,
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I do have a worry that it would be too tempting-too attractive-to an incoming Prime Minister armed with a good majority, or to a coalition which had patched together a majority, to seize the opportunity to assure themselves of another five-year term. That possibility would be fairly seductive. So I worry that the vote at the beginning of a Parliament which would be provided for by the legislation if it were amended as the noble Lord has proposed, would become like other ritual Motions which are passed in the opening Session of a Parliament. None the less, I think that this is an attractive and a good amendment. To me, it is preferable to the options that we have considered in the three previous debates this afternoon. I very much hope that the House will pass it.
Baroness Boothroyd: My Lords, this is the Bill's first outing in this House since last week's referendum, so I think we are entitled to take stock of the coalition's position in the light of the electorate's aversion to radical reform. Clearly, as the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Grocott, strongly said before we opened the Report stage today, the referendum casts fresh doubt on the wisdom of persisting with major constitutional measures that lack popular support. Ministers have changed tack on the timetable for this Bill before, and I suspect there would be few tears shed on the Conservative Benches if they took another look at it even at this late stage. However, we have to proceed and we have to deal with what is before us this afternoon.
I imply no criticism when I observe that the new politics that the coalition claimed to represent in its early days has lost a bit of its sheen. Ministers would be wise to take account of reasoned objections in this House to some of the Bill's more doubtful features. It is in the light of this that I support and commend the amendment moved so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. The amendments in this group do not challenge the Government's intention to hold the next election in May 2015 or 2014, whatever may finally be decided. Nor do they challenge the Government's proposal to introduce legally binding procedures to make an early election unlikely. However, as currently written, this legislation goes much further than the lifetime of this Parliament in a way that I believe is unwise and unjustified. This legislation seeks to bind future Parliaments to the same legal restraints intended primarily for the lifetime of this coalition Government and this Parliament. These restraints are destined to last "henceforth" according to Mr Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister.
I understand perfectly the coalition's wish to serve for a fixed period of years, to tackle the current economic situation and to see that its programme is enacted. However, I reject the same imposition being placed on the freedom of action of future Parliaments, and this will be the situation without these amendments. Without them, the constitution is being blighted permanently and unnecessarily. The amendments allow
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He argued that it would be "bizarre" to confine it to one Parliament. These amendments do not propose that it should be left to one Parliament only. Importantly, they propose that future Parliaments should decide for themselves.
We know that countries with written constitutions have the kind of entrenched laws that the Deputy Prime Minister appears to want-but Britain is not one of those. The Government would do well to remember that. As far as I can recall, at the last election the country did not exactly clamour for fixed five-year Parliaments. If I interpret the public mood correctly-as did the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Cormack, with whom I entirely agree-people in this country want honest politics. They want good government and greater scrutiny of what Governments are doing in their name. They do not want an assortment of ill considered proposals to turn Parliament upside down to suit a political elite.
Your Lordships will not be surprised to know that I do not regard this legislation with great affection at all. In fact, I believe it is quite unnecessary. This House is charged with the responsibility and the role of examining legislation and scrutinising it. As a Member of this House, I reckon I have to make the best of what I think is a very bad job. The amendments before us today would preserve the freedom of future Parliaments to face their own challenges in their own way and in the circumstances of the time. I strongly support them and hope that many of your Lordships will do likewise.
Lord Tyler: The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and his distinguished collaborators have, as ever, tabled very interesting, very seductive, amendments. I examined them with great care because I respect their expertise. Reluctantly, I believe the amendments are flawed. The purpose of the Bill is to do one very simple thing: to remove from the Prime Minister-the leader of a political party-and, by extension, from the governing party, the right to time elections for their own political convenience. I give credit to the present Prime Minister: he has been the first Prime Minister to accept the logic of that position.
Hitherto, Prime Ministers-leaders of political parties-have been able to look at the polls and see if they look good in order to be able to say yes to an early general election or no to postponing it. The Government's objective is to remove that question of when elections should be held from routine partisan political advantage and its consideration. After all, that is already the case in local government; it is the case in the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments throughout the United Kingdom. This Parliament has insisted that that should be the case, and clearly that is right.
This Parliament has recognised in primary legislation time and again that elections are the mechanism by which political parties are held to account. It surely
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I invite your Lordships to look very carefully at Amendment 25 in this group. This would undermine the central objective of the Bill by setting up a routine for Governments to instruct their newly elected majorities in the Commons after 2015 as to whether they particularly fancied a fixed-term Parliament or not-for their own party advantage, not in the interests of good governance. There would be an immediate return to the worst feature of prime ministerial prerogative. If the Bill were amended, it would be not a fixed term but a semi-fixed term, subject to the machinations and inclinations of the Prime Minister and party leader of the day, the exact opposite of what the Bill seeks to achieve and what the other place has already voted to do. This Bill is already more flexible than some of us would like. I would favour a superglue fix in the fixed-term Parliament, without extensive opportunities for early Dissolutions, but I accept that a sensible middle way has been achieved.
There are already, as we have previously debated, two substantial escape hatches in the Bill allowing for early elections: one where there is a two-thirds majority in the Commons for an early election and one where there is a simple majority vote of no confidence, but no alternative Government come forward within 14 days and receive the confidence of the House of Commons. We have already downgraded the fix to something no more adhesive than Sellotape.
The amendments take us even further down the scale. They would turn the Bill into the Blu-Tack Bill or the Post-it note Bill and would not be a fix at all. If we favour fixed-term Parliaments-I was very interested to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, say earlier that he and his party still do-we should reject these amendments because they simply put the status quo, where there is no fixed term and it is left to the party leader, back into law.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, quite rightly reminded your Lordships that no Parliament should be able to bind its successor, and I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, joins me in thinking that that is absolutely right. If there is a completely new situation in a new Parliament, of course the long-standing current position will continue, and it continues under this Bill. This Bill does not wipe that away. The position is still exactly as it has been for many hundreds of years. We cannot restrict future Parliaments in that respect, and therefore I suppose it could be said that the amendment is superfluous because in due course, if another Parliament decided to take a different view, it could legislate so to do. The principle of parliamentary sovereignty is not to say that one Parliament cannot make law which will continue to have effect after it has left office. In the past, as we all know, Bills have very often set targets for future Governments. I recall that the previous Government wanted to legislate for future Governments to reduce the deficit by 50 per cent in four years. That was, in a sense, trying to commit a
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This Bill is similar in its effect in that it takes power away from the Government and leaves it with Parliament. In that sense, it binds Governments, and Prime Ministers in particular, by giving power and flexibility to Parliament. This group of amendments does the opposite, in that it allows a Government to veto a fixed term which does not suit its party advantage. That would surely be a retrograde step. Allowing such a veto is not necessary to maintain the principle that Parliaments do not bind their successors because Parliament could not and will not be bound by this Bill in perpetuity. A future Parliament could amend the Act if it wanted. Surely we should not legislate now for Governments to be able to wriggle out of fixed terms just because it is in their party-political interests to do so. That is the crucial distinction between the Bill as brought forward by the Government and this group of amendments.
Parliament should set out now what we think are the constitutional principles now and in the future. Surely in this House we are not seriously arguing that Governments should be given the opportunity regularly to manipulate Parliament, after every election, into choosing whether or not to be subjected to a fixed-term rule. The Bill as drafted provides for a constitutional lock on the length of Parliaments, to take politics out of election timetables. That is its purpose, and it is a purpose I strongly support. By contrast, I fear that the amendments add more politics to election timetables. Imagine the party pressures immediately after a general election when the country and the parties have been subjected to extraordinary partisan argument and controversy. We would be right back into the simple party-political advantage game immediately after that peculiarly partisan situation. On that basis, however seductive the amendments and however distinguished the authors, the amendments, though doubtless very well intentioned, are flawed and I hope your Lordships will reject them.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: Before the noble Lord sits down, will he help me with the force of his argument about the imposition of party politics on the kind of provision that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and his associates have suggested to the House when that will take place, as I understand it, immediately after a general election? It is not, as it was in the circumstances which he describes, something that Prime Ministers could calculate towards the end of a Parliament was to their party advantage, or was not, as the case may be.
Lord Tyler: The noble Baroness may recall that I was elected on 1 March 1974, and given the convention-it was referred to earlier-that normally it is six months before another election is agreed to by the monarch, that would have been precisely the situation. It was entirely wrong that the Prime Minister of the day decided for party advantage that he would ignore all the big economic problems of the summer of 1974, did nothing to disturb the popularity of his Government,
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Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, as a Conservative, I am extremely reluctant to see Parliament at any stage fiddling about with our constitution, and I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, that if it is not bust, why fix it? Having said that, the coalition quite clearly finds it necessary as part of its agreement to have a five-year fixed Parliament, and if that is what it wants to do, so be it. I have a little trouble in understanding how a Government continue to govern when they no longer have a majority in the House of Commons, but that is another issue. I do not think there is any strong reason why this legislation should go through in perpetuity. I do not see what is wrong in returning to the status quo ante. There seemed to me to be nothing wrong in the way the system worked, and I do not know why we should therefore be trying to commit future Governments to five-year fixed Parliaments just because it is convenient for this coalition Government to have a five-year Parliament this time round. Therefore, I will be more than happy to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, I strongly agree with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton. I want to make a pretty brief point. The trouble is that when I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, he almost tempted me to a Second Reading observation. I was astonished by his last argument, as I understood it-he must stop me if I am factually wrong at any point-that he was elected in February 1974. Did he lose his seat in October 1974?
Lord Grocott: I thought so, so his view is that after the February 1974 election there should have been a fixed, five-year Parliament. I can see where he is coming from, but I know he is a Liberal Democrat, so I know his argument will be based on deep principle rather than on any short calculation. I think he needs to think again about the repeated mantra that this measure strengthens Parliament, weakens Governments and strengthens the people. I cannot understand that argument. How on earth a Government who are guaranteed five years, except in the very tightly drawn exceptions, can in any sense be said to be weakened in respect of Parliament, much less weakened in respect of the public as a whole, by this Bill is beyond me.
Surely we can agree on one factual point, and I would beg the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, to concede this. The Bill will obviously reduce the number of general elections. By law, it certainly cannot increase them. The possibility for the public to express their opinion on the Government will be reduced; that
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You are subject to paranoia quite early if you are a lifelong member of the Labour Party, but I cannot help being a little paranoid about the commentariat, if that is the right word, who had only one story in town under the last Labour Government, which was: "This Government are too strong. We must strengthen Parliament and the public. Governments these days are too domineering and powerful". But on the day of the general election, the whole argument suddenly shifted and the chatterers were absolutely convinced that the crucial thing was strong government. "We must not have too much of this democratic stuff. We need a strong Government so we will bring in a Bill to guarantee them five years, barring some convoluted exception in Clause 2". Those exceptions include the absurd one that even if the Government lose a vote of confidence, they can still chatter on for another 14 days to see whether they can survive.
I want to make a simple point. As far as I can see, the objective behind the Bill is that, somehow or other, over the years Prime Ministers have been abusing the power to call general elections. For those who like looking at tables, as I do because in this House we are all anoraks to varying degrees when discussing issues of this kind, I refer them to British Electoral Facts by Colin Rawlings and Michael Thrasher. On page 139, there is a table headed:
It is pretty comprehensive. Looking at the list indicating when Prime Ministers have determined to hold general elections, I defy anyone to find a frivolous or absurd reason why they called an election when they did. Let me quote briefly from the list. In 1931, we had an early general election:
Finally, I shall say why I strongly support this amendment. I would have much preferred that the Bill had not been introduced. I would have much preferred that we could at least have agreed on four years, but this is a compromise in the classic tradition of the Cross-Bench Peers. It simply provides that if after the next general election, which obviously I hope will
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This amendment is a clever proposal. It gives the Government what they want, which is something I do not find easy to accept, but it requires every subsequent Government to make a conscious decision to stick by this piece of legislation as a requirement of our new constitution. I strongly support the amendment.
Lord Cormack: My Lords, not for the first time today I find myself very much in sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. I cannot say that I share his aspirations regarding a future Labour Government, but apart from that, he has spoken very persuasively and sensibly, as he always does. The noble Lord is a constitutionalist and thus, in the constitutional sense, a true conservative. As I listened to him, I thought of my dear friend, the late, great Jack Weatherill. He used to say, "I am all in favour of progress so long as it does not mean change". I think that Members from all sides of the House to some degree view this Bill in that spirit. I have never been totally opposed to the concept of fixed-term Parliaments, and indeed I made that plain in my maiden speech. But I must say that the more I have heard of the debates as they have gone along, the more I am convinced, as I said earlier today, that this is unnecessary legislation which is taking up a lot of our time and need not do so.
Some exceptionally distinguished Cross-Benchers-I pay tribute to them all, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, a former Speaker of the House who has unparalleled experience-have put down an amendment that, in a sense, saves us from ourselves. It is a wise and sensible amendment in the best traditions of this House because it accepts, however reluctantly, that it is the will of the Government to have a fixed-term Parliament Bill. I have never for a moment challenged the right of a Government to serve for five years and have said repeatedly that I applaud that desire. I do not think that this legislation is necessary for it, but I applaud the desire. I am pleased to support the coalition Government and I hope that they do survive for five years. I hope that, as the years go by, they become more and more politically mature, less and less bent on messing up the constitution, and then more and more inclined to concentrate on those issues which truly concern the people of this country, wherever they may live.
What the amendment does is recognise the right of the Government to do what they are seeking to do, but enshrines in the legislation one of the principles of our unwritten constitution, which is the right of every new Parliament to determine which way it will go. That does not in any way inhibit future Governments. If, after the next general election, there is a majority Conservative Administration, which I personally would like to see, or a majority Labour Administration, which the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, would understandably like to see, it matters not. If the Government wish to continue with the fixed five-year term, they can do so, but they have got to say to Parliament, "Let us look at this", as one of their very first acts after the election.
I can imagine that in 1974, because I was there, it would have been difficult for Prime Minister Harold Wilson to have got through the necessary clause to create a five-year Parliament. I am exceptionally sorry, of course, that that would have prevented the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, or Paul Tyler as he was then, serving out the five years which he had hoped to serve, but to have a Government with a tiny majority or, in that case, no majority at all, enshrined for five years would have been a legislative and constitutional nonsense. Of course, Harold Wilson had the right to go to the Palace in the late summer/early autumn of that year, to ask for Dissolution and to have another general election, which had as a catastrophic by-product the loss of the services of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, but was nevertheless the right thing constitutionally to do.
All that this amendment does is to recognise reality and it ought to command a degree of support from those of us in all parts of the House who truly treasure our constitution. I said earlier today that it is the most important part of our democratic heritage. The Government are not damaging it irrevocably by producing this Bill, but we are putting in a safety clause. We are giving an opportunity for future Parliaments not automatically to be saddled with this but to have to face up to the question: do we want it? I was delighted that my noble friend Lord Hamilton made the brief and telling speech that he did. I think that he spoke for many who share our views and our prejudices-because we all have them. This is an amendment which ought to commend itself to my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace, for whom I have a genuine regard and who has always handled matters in this House extremely sensitively and considerately. I hope that he will say that he can commend the amendment, just as he has put his name to another amendment lower down the Marshalled List.
The amendment paves the way for the important debates next week when we have to decide the circumstances in which an early election can be called, all of us having recognised that there must be a proper, comprehensible and simply expressed formula which can provide for that. For the moment, we are dealing with this amendment and it should command widespread support.
Lord Butler of Brockwell: My Lords, I and, I am sure, my noble friends are very grateful for the generous things which have been said about this amendment. They have been said so well that I need speak only
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I do not question or doubt for a moment the sincerity of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and his colleagues who believe in a fixed-term Parliament. I do not agree with them, largely for the reasons that were so well put by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, because there are circumstances in which it is in the national interest for a Prime Minister to seek an early general election and a new mandate. The circumstances which the noble Lord described bear that out. I simply do not think that it is true that all Prime Ministers who go for an early election do so for their party advantage. There are very often national circumstances, as there certainly were in my experience, which make that desirable.
Perhaps I may state some propositions on which I think we can all agree. The first is that to go from flexible-term Parliaments to an arrangement for fixed-term Parliaments is a constitutional change. As the noble Lord, Lord Owen, said, it is a major constitutional change; arguably, it is more important than the change to the alternative vote system on which the country had a referendum. Secondly, I think that it is unarguable that the Government do not have a mandate for this proposition. It was in the coalition agreement, but it was not in the Conservative Party manifesto and it is not something on which the public voted at the last general election. Thirdly, as was said, there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. It has been introduced very quickly; I think that one could say that aspects of it were not properly thought out. That is not the way that a major constitutional change of this sort ought to be introduced.
As has been said, the Government have a perfect right to commit themselves to a fixed term for the present Parliament, provided that they continue to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and others have said, it is not necessary to have legislation for that purpose, but if the Government want such legislation, to bind themselves with hoops of iron, I regard that as their business; I do not challenge it. What I do challenge is their right by making a permanent constitutional change to bind future Parliaments. Certainly, they do not have the right to make a permanent change to our constitution to meet the convenience of a temporary coalition.
As has been said, this amendment seeks to deal with this situation in a reasonable way. It does not defeat the Bill. It allows it to apply to the present Parliament, which is the Government's wish. It allows the legislation to remain on the statute book in case a future Government or coalition wish to bind themselves similarly. However, while giving a future Parliament that choice, it avoids a permanent change to our constitution. I urge noble Lords in all parts of the House, whether they agree with a fixed-term Parliament or not, to uphold the principle that we do not make permanent changes to our constitution without more consideration than has been given in this instance and that we do allow future Parliaments to apply this legislation to themselves if they choose it.
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames: My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Tyler, I agree that these amendments are clever and elegantly drawn, and the quality of the speeches in favour of them supports that. However, upon analysis, one sees that the effect of the amendments is to undermine the entire Bill from the next election. Having listened carefully to the speeches that have been made in support of them, it is plain to me that that is the desire of those who have made them. The effect of the amendments is that a resolution of both Houses would be required to make any subsequent Parliament fixed term. As has been rightly pointed out, this and any Government already have the power to decide the date of the next election, which they can, if they wish, fix. That being the case, with these amendments, this Bill would add nothing to the existing law.
The Bill, which has been extensively debated, is intended to legislate for the principle of fixed-term Parliaments for the long term. To the extent that it is enacted and stays in force, it will ensure that the power to dictate the timing of elections is removed from the Prime Minister of the day. That is, however, subject to the provisions in Clause 2 for early elections. Much humour has been made of the loss to the House of Commons of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, in October 1974. It is likely that this Bill would not have saved the noble Lord's career then, because the House would probably have been dissolved in any event pursuant to the early election provisions had this Bill been in force.
The real fallacy of these amendments is the suggestion that by this legislation the Government seek to bind future Parliaments. Parliament cannot bind its successors. That is the fundamental principle, but it is expressed in the practice that any subsequent Parliament can legislate to amend or repeal existing legislation. That is how we work. The law stays the law until it is amended or repealed. These amendments seek to derogate from that principle. If a subsequent Parliament wishes to change this Act, it may do so. There is no attempt in the Act to entrench the legislation in any way.
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames: My Lords, that is an important point, but the answer is that if you legislate on the principle, as this Bill when an Act will seek to do, the electorate will be entitled to know what it is voting for at any election. Will it get a fixed-term Parliament unless the legislation is amended or repealed, or will the Government and the Prime Minister retain the right to choose when to go to the country? If the Government decide to repeal the legislation or amend it, they are likely to put that in their manifesto. On the basis of these amendments, the Government will have the right after the election to determine what the electorate has given them. That, in my respectful submission, is wrong in principle.
Furthermore, the amendments are inconsistent with the Parliament Act 1911. By that Act, the House of Commons can insist on legislation that does not extend the life of a Parliament and this does not extend the life of a Parliament, with the exception of the possible two-month extension, and we do not know what will happen to that. This House can only delay legislation. By these amendments, because of the provision for a resolution of both Houses, the power of this House would be there to deny passage to a resolution that the House of Commons wished to pass. That again is contrary to the principle and militates against these amendments.
The so-called sunrise clause in Amendment 25 would cause chaos. By way of example, under Amendment 25, the schedule would come into force only to the end of the first meeting of the next Parliament, but that schedule is the one that would repeal the Septennial Act 1715 among other things. Would that suddenly come back into force after the next election?
The amendments are understated in their presentation. They hand straight back to the Prime Minister and the Government of the day, with no need for legislation, the power to choose the timing of the next election. That is the answer to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, when she intervened on my noble friend Lord Tyler.
Lord Gilbert: I have listened very carefully to the noble Lord's speech. Over and again I heard him say that the Prime Minister would have total power to choose the general election date. Has it never occurred to him that the monarch has a say in that?The noble Lord finds that funny, but I do not.
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames: We plainly take a different view of the constitutional arrangements. The monarch has a say in certain very limited circumstances but, by and large, in a constitutional monarchy she takes the advice of the Prime Minister and is very careful to avoid becoming embroiled in constitutional disputes of this sort.
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames: Noble Lords will have heard me say that her discretion is very limited and that she seeks to stay out of controversy of this sort where she possibly can. Plainly, sometimes, the monarch's role is to get involved and sometimes that is unwisely exercised, as with the dismissal by Sir John Kerr of the Government of Gough Whitlam in Australia. That was not the monarch directly, but it was the monarch's representative and that shows the danger of the monarch becoming involved. Controversy has raged ever since in Australia and elsewhere about that exercise of the royal prerogative. It is a dangerous one.
My point is that if you read these amendments carefully, a resolution of both Houses would be required for this legislation to survive beyond the first meeting
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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, as I indicated earlier, I support this suite of amendments. They are important in relation to the position of Parliament and this Bill for three reasons. First, such a series of clauses might well be appropriate in any constitutional legislation that makes a significant change. I do not think that anybody doubts that, because that is how the Government are putting it. I agree with other noble Lords who have said that this is potentially a significant constitutional change. In my respectful submission, before we commit ourselves irredeemably to this change it is sensible to see what happens. For that first reason, I support the amendments.
Secondly, we broadly know-there is no real dispute-the provenance of these constitutional changes. There is no suggestion that there is a widespread desire among constitutionalists or the public for this particular change. It is an insider's deal in relation to politics, which suits two political parties. As far as one can see, it has no broad political support beyond the two political parties. I venture to suggest that, if the public's interest could be engaged in this and one explained to the public that we might have a situation under the Bill where the Government could be defeated on the Finance Bill, then defeated on a vote of confidence that they put down and they would still not have to have a general election-or that the Government could be defeated on a vote of no confidence put down by the Opposition and they would still not have to leave because they could spend 14 days bribing a variety of rebels and other small parties to join them, so they could hold on in Government-the public might not find this Bill worth supporting. It is an insider's Bill, which does not feel particularly attractive to me.
There is a third reason of importance. I have found in the course of these debates in the Commons and in your Lordships' House that people think that, in relation to a significant constitutional change, there should be public consultation, a desire to find consensus and pre-legislative scrutiny. Indeed, on 25 May, David Heath, the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons said that he favoured pre-legislative scrutiny for this Bill. His only concern was that such scrutiny might lead to the Bill being forced into the next Session of Parliament. Noble Lords will remember that the coalition in the Commons then extended this Session by approximately nine months thereby making it clear that there could be no clash. There was still no pre-legislative scrutiny.
Therefore, I think most people who have debated this would agree that this Bill has not gone through the appropriate procedures for a Bill of this importance constitutionally. Is there no price to be paid for this? Is Parliament to be absolutely supine in relation to this? It is a big opportunity for the coalition Government to put their money where their mouth is. They say they believe in new politics and they say they believe in reaching out for consensus; I cannot see any reason why the noble and learned Lord cannot say, on behalf of the Government, that he agrees with what has been said and that we should see whether the way that the
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Lord Rennard: The noble Lord is of course a very clever lawyer, so perhaps he could just explain to the House, for the purposes of clarification, how he considers supporting an amendment that says that each Parliament, after each general election, should meet to consider how long the Parliament should last, is compatible with the Labour Party manifesto commitment a year ago, which said that if the party returned to government, it would legislate for fixed-term Parliaments?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: With respect, the Parliament Act is a total red herring. The noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, says that by allowing the decision to depend on a resolution of both Houses, we-Parliament-are giving the power back to a Government with a majority. Of course we are, but we are doing that anyway because they could pass a repealing Act. Surely it must be right for this House to express its disapproval of the way that the Bill has been brought forward by supporting the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd and the noble Lords, Lord Butler and Lord Armstrong, and to say, "Yes, you can have your Bill, but let us see whether or not a major constitutional change like this-which is very much an insider's Bill-works, let us see whether or not it is something worth continuing and let the next Parliament decide".
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames: I do not understand how what the noble Lord has said answers my point that in order to revive the Fixed-term Parliaments Act after the next election, you would have to have a resolution of both Houses, while ordinary legislation could be insisted upon by the House of Commons after a delay of a year.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Parliament could use its majority to get the repealing Act through, just as it could use its majority to pass the resolution. In my respectful submission, there is no difference between the two.
Lord Turnbull: Can the noble Lord explain my one reservation about a provision I otherwise support, which is about the point in the next Parliament when this option has to be exercised. Can it be exercised at any time through that Parliament, or does it have to be
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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I understand the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick and the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, to be governed by Amendment 25 in this respect. What happens is that this Bill continues only up until the first meeting of the next Parliament, and I assume that the resolution can be passed at any time thereafter. I hope that satisfies the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I would have thought it is sensible for Parliament to decide when it wants to consider the resolution-it might well want to consider it early on, or it might well want to consider it later on. I do not see any purpose, as far as the amendment is concerned, in restricting the time as to when the resolution needs to be considered. In my respectful submission, the key point in relation to this is that this is a bad piece of constitutional legislation, in the sense that the process used is agreed by all to be a bad process. Putting aside the argument that says all constitutional legislation should be subject to a sunrise clause, it is right, if we are going to make a change to our constitution of this importance, that there should be some protective measures. This seems, with respect, to be a very sensible protective measure. If we see our role as being to protect the constitution, and we can do that without denying the Government what they want politically, then I respectfully suggest we should take that opportunity. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and the other co-signatories to the amendment for giving us that opportunity.
Lord Tyler: The noble Lord has made a very important point about protecting the constitution. Has he considered the consequences, in terms of a very considerable constitutional crisis, if, under the wording of this amendment, one House votes in one way and the other House votes in the other way? That would raise huge problems in terms of the primacy of the other place.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: In the situation where you have a proper constitutional arrangement, whereby we protect the constitution here, if you took the view that we were not going to support such a resolution, that is the way that our constitution works. We have been good as a House in determining when we defer to the other place. We do not defer only when we think a real constitutional principle is in issue; if we did not defer to the other place on an issue like that, we would be assuming-I would be assuming-that an important constitutional principle was at stake. What is wrong with that? What is our purpose if a part of it is not to defend important constitutional principles?
This is an important opportunity for the Government to show their sincerity in relation to the way that constitutional legislation should be done and to accept the amendments. If they do not, I will support the movers of the amendment if they put it to the vote.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, as we have heard, Amendments 4, 5 and 25, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, with the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and the noble Lords, Lord Butler and Lord Armstrong, provide that the Bill's provisions would be subject to a sunset clause combined with a potential sunrise clause after the next general election. As my noble friend Lord Tyler said, these amendments are both interesting and seductive. It is also fair to say that they are somewhat complex.
I want to take a moment to set out what the amendments seem to be designed to achieve. They would enable the next parliamentary general election to be on the date set out in the Bill, namely 7 May 2015. After this parliamentary election, however, the apparatus in the Bill-the date of general elections after the 2015 election; the process for calling early elections, and it is important to remember that there is a process for calling early elections which has sometimes been overlooked; and the consequential matters in the Bill-would all cease to apply unless revived. It could be revived by a resolution of each House of Parliament-a sunset clause combined with a sunrise clause. I think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, gave an accurate and factual answer to the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, when he said that that resolution could take place at any time. It could add to the uncertainty, and I do not think that that is a particularly happy arrangement.
In bringing forward this Bill the Government sought to put in place a provision that we hoped would become part of our constitutional arrangement-fixed terms for the United Kingdom Parliament, just as there are fixed terms for local government, for the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies and for the European Parliament. Two of the Bill's key provisions are: to deny the Executive the ability to choose a date for a general election to suit their own party political ends, and to deliver certainty about how long a Parliament should last. On Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, remarked on the importance of these provisions. I think that he also called them a collector's item, not least because the Executive, and specifically the Prime Minister, were surrendering a long-held power.
If these amendments were accepted, the position would not be clear not only in the Parliament elected after May 2015 but, indeed, in subsequent ones. Again, the political parties would be able to choose whether Parliaments should have a fixed term, in which case all the arrangements would be in place, or whether to return to the default position of the Prime Minister of
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It has been suggested not just in this debate but in a number of debates that the whole purpose of the Bill is to make arrangements for this Parliament. However, it is clear that it is intended that the fixed-term Parliament should, as I said, become part of our constitutional arrangements. That is what the Labour Party said in its manifesto and my own party has argued that for some time. I thought I heard the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, say that that was still the Labour Party's policy but I fear that supporting this amendment, as he does, puts that into question. It would allow the Government of the day elected after 2015 to decide, if they had a majority, whether to table the Motion or resolution to re-establish fixed-term Parliaments or whether to revert to the situation that existed prior to this Bill.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, in spite of all the criticisms that the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House made of these proposals, it thought that the architecture of Clause 2 and the double triggers for Dissolution were suitable and appropriate. However, if it were felt that other mechanisms were required, clearly amending legislation could be brought forward, and later I shall say something about the importance of using legislation.
If this amendment were passed, we would allow the situation to revert to the status quo and, as a number of my noble friends have indicated, it would mean that the fixed term would apply only to this Parliament. When this Parliament established fixed terms for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, a sunset clause was never suggested, and indeed no one in any of the devolved institutions has ever suggested that we should revisit the idea of fixed-term Parliaments. No one is suggesting that Mr Alex Salmond should be able to choose to call an election to suit the best interests of the SNP some time over the next five years. I accept all the caveats that it is not possible to make a complete comparison between this Parliament and the devolved institutions; nevertheless, fixed-term Parliaments for legislatures have worked and no one is suggesting that that should change.
A fixed-term Parliament will deliver certainty. We debated earlier whether better planning is achieved over four or five years, but we believe that a fixed term
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Noble Lords may say that that is stating the obvious but that is what the Bill tries to change. There will be a fixed term and it will not be possible for the Prime Minister of the day to choose the moment that will be to the party's partisan advantage.
I should be interested to know how the proposers of the amendment would react if the change were made by repealing legislation rather than having an affirmative order. How would they react if a Minister came to the Dispatch Box of your Lordships' House and argued that the Government wanted to return to the Prime Minister of the day being able to make a decision to suit his party interest rather than sticking with fixed terms? Perhaps in his reply the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, will tell us how he expects all this to work. The schedule of consequential amendments contains quite important and weighty matters-for example, the repeal of the Septennial Act, changes to the Regency Act 1937 and provisions relating to the demise of the Crown. Does he see those being revived, having been repealed? He will know that there are provisions in the Interpretation Act concerning the revival of an Act that has been repealed. However, I think that there is some uncertainty about whether these would be revived.
The other point that has been made is that not much has changed from the present situation, in which a Government have come to power and introduced a maximum fixed five-year term. I do not think it is fair to say that that is analogous to the situation that would be in place after 2015. The present system is uncertain for the voter and we think that that uncertainty should be removed by introducing fixed terms. However, these amendments would add an entirely new layer of uncertainty for voters. Not only would they not know, when voting, when a subsequent general election might be but they would not even know the legal system under which the next Parliament would operate and how the next general election date would be chosen. I do not believe that that is fair or sensible for the electorate.
It has also been pointed out that the Bill alters the apparatus for calling elections. The crucial difference is that the Government propose moving to fixed terms
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It is not the case that this Parliament, through this Bill, is trying to bind its successors. That point was made forcefully by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, but it was answered by my noble friends Lord Tyler and Lord Marks. We do not seek to entrench these provisions. We cannot bind a future Parliament. However, we can say that this important constitutional change has been brought into the law of our land through an Act of Parliament-by First Reading, Second Reading, Committee, Report and Third Reading in the House of Commons and by the procedures that we know in this House of First Reading, Second Reading, Committee, Report and Third Reading and by Her Majesty giving Royal Assent. That is how we change our constitution-by Act of Parliament.
Surely, if we were being true to our constitutional heritage, we would say that any change to that heritage should also be carried out through an Act of Parliament. It would have to have the same scrutiny as this Bill has clearly had and Ministers would, in the other place and this place, have to argue their case for making the change. I do not think that we can just sweep aside the concerns raised by my noble friend Lord Marks. With the exception of amendments to the Parliament Acts, with this amendment a resolution of the House of Commons could be overturned or at least thwarted by a resolution of this House. It is a unique situation and we should think long and hard before going down that route. If we do go down it, one can imagine the tensions there would be at some stage if the other House had voted for a fixed-term Parliament but this House decided it would not. I fully understand and associate myself with the concerns about our constitutional procedures and heritage, but we change the constitution by Act of Parliament and not by simple resolution. A very new venture is embodied in these amendments.
I accept and fully anticipate that there will be scope for post-legislative scrutiny. I am not sure whether the right time to do it would be at the end of this Parliament, because we did not start on the basis of a fixed-term Parliament and the Government did not come in with a five-year programme that they had planned beforehand. I am therefore not sure how we can-to use the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer-see what happens after just one Parliament. As I said, there has been no suggestion that the fixed-terms should be changed in any of the devolved institutions. There will be an opportunity for post-legislative scrutiny, and if some of the mechanisms for early elections are found not to have worked, there will be an opportunity, through legislation, to reform them.
I do not think that the uncertainty inherent in this amendment or the unusual constitutional solution being proposed will improve the Bill; nor will it increase
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Lord Mackay of Clashfern: Can my noble and learned friend tell me whether he knows of any mechanism by which an Act of Parliament which has come into force can have its force suspended for a given period?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I cannot readily think of one off the top of my head. However, there are enough people in the Chamber and, if there is such a mechanism, I am sure that one of them will be able to tell us. My noble and learned friend, who has wide experience, might be able to think of one, but I cannot. However, the "sunsetted and sunrisen" approach is very novel.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My recollection is that we put sunrise or sunset clauses into a significant amount of the terrorist legislation, the result being that they would continue to have an effect only if there had been a resolution in both Houses of Parliament to carry on with them. I think that that is an answer to your Lordships' question.
Lord Mackay of Clashfern: With respect, that is not an answer to my question. The terrorism provisions end the Act of Parliament unless it is continued by a resolution, whereas this proposal, as I understand it, would suspend the operation of this Bill, supposing that it becomes an Act, for a certain period without repealing it. At the moment-I am willing to be taught-I cannot think of that having happened before. However, novelty is perhaps the watchword of the season.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: The noble and learned Lord is right. There is a difference between an Act lapsing and not being revivable and the situation under this provision where if it lapsed for the first Parliament because it was not passed in resolution, it could be revived for the second Parliament. In practice, however, the difference may not be that great.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I stand to be corrected, but as far as I am aware it is a novel approach. Not only could it lapse and be put in suspension; it could be revived, lapse again and be revived again. We are not switching on and off light bulbs. There are quite important issues here and I am not sure that these procedures are designed to give them proper weight. That is why we argue that primary legislation should be the way of dealing with the issue, if it is felt that the provisions for a fixed-term Parliament are not working and should not be the basis for the future.
Lord Pannick: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this interesting debate and for the support that has been expressed on all sides of the House. My answer to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, is that we are dealing with an exceptional Bill which is being brought forward by the coalition Government to deal with a particular
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I respect the views expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Marks, and by the Minister. I respect their views because they and the Liberal Democrats strongly believe in fixed-term Parliaments as a matter of principle. However, their difficulty is that large numbers of noble Lords on the government Benches do not agree with fixed-term Parliaments as a matter of principle. They are rightly concerned about the constitutional implications of such a measure, as so eloquently expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Hamilton and Lord Cormack, in this debate. They are particularly concerned about this matter in the absence of any public consultation on this issue, in the absence of any pre-legislative scrutiny and given the lack of any evidential basis for the new constitutional principles we are about to enact.
The inescapable reality is that the Government and large numbers of noble Lords on the government Benches are supporting the Bill not because they believe in the constitutional principle but because it is part of the coalition agreement, and it is part of the coalition agreement because of the political needs of this coalition Government to remain together for five years. I repeat: I do not deprecate that; it is a perfectly proper political position to adopt as a basis for legislation which applies to this Parliament. However, it is not an acceptable basis for general constitutional change, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, has pointed out.
The noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, asked whether under the amendments a future Parliament could approve a resolution at any time during that Parliament. The answer is yes, and the reason the amendment is so drafted is that it would be inappropriate to limit the events and the circumstances that may occur during a future Parliament. It is quite possible that a coalition Government might be formed part of the way through a future Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, and the Minister were concerned about the Parliament Act, but of course a future Parliament could at any time enact primary legislation on this subject.
The Minister asked a fair question-all his questions were fair, of course, but he asked me to address this one in my reply-about how this will work in the future. My belief, my expectation, is that no future Government will want to apply the provisions in this Bill as they are unless there is another coalition Government with similar political demands to this one. I hope and expect that after the next general election, if there is a desire in principle for fixed-term Parliaments, the relevant responsible Government will bring forward new primary legislation that will be based upon proper consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny and in the light of experience.
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames: I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but what is his answer to my point and to that of the Minister that there should be proper, full parliamentary consideration of primary legislation to amend or appeal this Bill rather than the odd mechanism proposed in his amendments.
Lord Pannick: If this amendment were to be approved by this House and if it were to be approved by the other place, that would be the parliamentary consent to the provisions of this Bill. That is no different in principle from any other circumstance where both Houses approve a particular procedure.
The issue before the House is very simple. Accepting, as these amendments do, that the coalition Government can have their way for this Parliament, should we as a House enact constitutional change for the future on a permanent basis when, to put it at its very lowest, the case for permanent constitutional change has not been made out? I wish to test the opinion of the House.
That this House regrets that it has been given insufficient information to understand the policy objectives of the Jobseeker's Allowance (Mandatory Work Activity Scheme) Regulations 2011 (SI 2011/688), how the scheme will work and whether claimants' prospects of obtaining employment will be improved.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, in moving this Motion I may cover some of the ground to be covered by the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, in his Motions. The 27th report of the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee draws our attention to the fact that:
The committee makes it plain that it has asked for clarification on the regulations from the Department for Work and Pensions and that very little has been forthcoming. The committee points to several inconsistencies between the Explanatory Memorandum and the departmental memorandum to the Social Security Advisory Committee. Like the SSAC before it, the Merits Committee is particularly concerned because,
Noble Lords have always been assured by Ministers that primary legislation lays down the framework and that the detail would be provided in secondary legislation. In this statutory instrument, we have little detail. We are told that the Department for Work and Pensions does not intend to provide detailed guidance on the criteria within the regulations, as it believes the best way to select participants is via adviser discretion. It admits that it has limited evidence for the effectiveness of the four-week placement in mandatory work activity and that that activity is a new scheme. In other words, it is making the rules on the hoof-rules for which there will be no scrutiny and no appeal for the claimants.
I have the greatest sympathy with anyone not versed in legislation who may need to refer to it for a particular purpose. I feel that I almost fell at the first post when I tried to find Section 17A(10) of the Act for the meaning of "jobseeking conditions", as referred to in the last footnote on page 3 of the statutory instrument. I have a copy of the Jobseekers Act 1995 with a Section 17 but no Section 17A, let alone Section 17A(10). There is no indication of when or under which legislation Section 17A(10) was inserted. I would have thought that I would find Section 17A on the internet, but no
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Regulations 4 and 5 are clear in so far as they go. Noble Lords will be aware that I am concerned with a number of charities that represent people with CFS/ME, but may not know that this week is ME Awareness Week. The Department for Work and Pensions seems to be singularly unaware of and indeed determined to ignore the disabling symptoms of this fluctuating condition. It seems odd to me that the World Health Organisation and the Department of Health recognise it as a neurological condition, while the former Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, told the BBC online on 11 January 2002 that CFS/ME should be classified alongside multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recognises it to be as disabling as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, congestive heart failure and other chronic conditions.
I note from a Written Answer that the Department for Work and Pensions refers to chronic fatigue syndrome when my Questions relate to chronic fatigue syndrome/ME. The two are entirely different conditions, defined by different sections of the International Classification of Diseases in ICD-10. It is high time that the department recognised this, for its failure to do so by applying unjustifiably harsh sanctions which seek to force people with CFS/ME back to work before they are ready could be counterproductive, resulting in a deterioration of their health or delaying their recovery.
I have recently been sent correspondence from a person helping claimants with CFS/ME who are being transferred from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance. She explains that the claimants are first sent a letter, as outlined in Regulation 4 of the statutory instrument, and states:
"When the claimants get the 'phone call they are read a statement outlining the process. This appears to be read from a script. The claimants are also given the opportunity to ask questions. I'm aware of several claimants who say the statement is lengthy and due to their cognitive problems, they have been unable to remember the content of it. One claimant asked for a written copy of the statement to be sent to her but was told this wasn't possible as 'they were doing it this way' i.e. verbally".
"I feel this highlights the inadequacy of the DWP in catering for those with conditions that involve cognitive problems and further underlines just how these problems are being ignored and poorly understood by this Government department".
Regulation 4 deals only with what must be done in writing. There is no mention of any verbal statement given over the telephone. There is no indication of the procedure for dealing with a person who cannot understand or take in what has been read to them and my example would seem to indicate that, far from being a flexible and tailor-made service, the process is designed to catch the innocent and the unwary. Action for ME has commented for some time that the DWP does not properly understand the impact of ME on the individual's capacity to work. In its response to the call for evidence for the independent review of the work capability assessment, it reported that there is unfounded scepticism towards the diagnosis of ME, set within a broader cultural perception within the benefits system that applicants are fraudsters until proven otherwise and that the system lacks recognition of barriers to work which are not patently visible, including cognitive problems and fatigue, particularly when the applicant "looks well". There is insufficient understanding of and training in up-to-date data on ME by assessors and decision-makers, including medical staff, and unrealistic expectations on claimants with ME to find and sustain work over time.
"My anger is growing because I can see no reason why this group of patients is being singled out other than deliberate removal from benefits because the DWP staff do not believe the condition exists, or they recognise many will not appeal due to the stress and illness it will cause them".
I understand that claimants will be given placements that last up to four weeks and will be expected to work for up to 30 hours a week. We are not told the type of work they are to be given. There is no indication as to what will happen to a person with a fluctuating condition who has been found by Atos doctors to be fit for some work, but who finds they cannot sustain the work allocated for the number of hours expected, except that they will fail to meet the jobseeking conditions and suffer sanctions. After all, is it not the case that those with CFS/ME need to change their attitude and behaviour-nothing a little cognitive behaviour therapy won't cure?
I find it extraordinary that so much is left to the discretion of DWP personal advisers and private providers. I wonder whether the Minister saw an article in the Guardian of 1 April 2011-not a joke, I understand. It details how, in order to meet targets, vulnerable jobseekers are being tricked into breaching the rules so that benefits can be held back. A Jobcentre Plus adviser is quoted as saying:
We know that we must not believe everything we read in the papers, but if there is so much as a grain of truth in the contents of this article, it is extremely worrying. I would be grateful if the Minister will categorically assure the House that there are no targets applicable to the DWP, Jobcentre Plus or private providers.
The Social Security Advisory Committee and the Merits Committee are highly critical of the sanctions system. They appear sceptical that sanctions will achieve the results they are designed to achieve. The Merits Committee points out that the department's own research indicates that,
unless conditions are as close to work as possible. The DWP admits that it has not even asked bidders to specify the placements that they propose to find. The reasoning behind this is that contractors will be allowed as much flexibility as possible to consider what will best support customers. If I place a contract with an individual or a company, I expect to know in detail exactly what they propose to do. I expect my Government to do the same for me and my fellow citizens.
The Merits Committee tells the House that these regulations bear similarities to the Work for your Benefit regulations considered last year but not implemented, and which are revoked by the current regulations. It explains that:
"One of the key concerns at the time was that the providers should not exploit participants as a source of cheap labour and that participants should gain relevant skills from the experience. These concerns remain for the replacement scheme set out in the current regulations. The Work for your Benefit Scheme differed in that it was based on a randomised selection process and was a small pilot scheme with a clear evaluation plan aimed at examining whether mandatory work activity had demonstrable benefits".
I readily acknowledge that there is a small proportion of benefits claimants who are work-shy and lack the disciplines required to obtain and sustain viable employment. I contend that sanctions are probably unnecessary for people with CFS/ME. A survey by Action for ME in 2008 found that people with ME want to work, and that when people with ME do not work it is because they are physically and mentally unable to sustain paid employment. Action for ME would prefer to see a system based on incentives and support, rather than sanctions. I recognise that there are also others in the population with mental and physical health problems that may not be immediately obvious and who are, in fact, very vulnerable. How does Her Majesty's Government propose to ensure that their policies will not do irreparable damage to minds and bodies?
I would like to see these regulations taken away and returned to us as a complete picture, rather than a sketch, but of course that depends upon the flexibility of the Minister. I regret that he has ignored the advice of the SSAC and the Merits Committee. I beg to move.
Lord Knight of Weymouth: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Countess and I am very supportive of what she has said and of her Motion, but I am now
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I am only too aware that it is exceptional for your Lordships to agree an annulment. In this case, I am not opposed in principle to the subject of the regulations, to mandatory work activity-I was a Minister when we proposed a pilot of something similar, just referred to by the noble Countess. I was therefore very reluctant to seek to annul these regulations. What I was after was a mechanism that required the Government to take back the regulations and return with them, in improved form, with the necessary evidence to support their introduction on a national scale, much as the noble Countess has said she would like. In this, I too was informed by the 27th report from the Merits Committee that she referred to.
As I understand it, the regret Motion in the name of the noble Countess effectively reprimands the Government, but does not prevent the regulations from proceeding. Given the extent of criticism from the Social Security Advisory Committee and then from the Merits Committee, it seems appropriate to offer your Lordships the option of requiring the Government to address the concerns of those committees and come back with sufficient information before the instrument is agreed, but giving an indication orally that if they have such evidence the instrument will of course be passed. I was therefore delighted to discover a 2006 report from a Joint Committee on conventions to your Lordships. On page 63 of the report, at paragraph 232, it says:
"In the absence of a power to amend SIs, the most constructive way for the Lords, as the revising chamber, to reject an SI is by motion (or amendment) incorporating a reason, making it clear both before and after the debate what the issue is".
I therefore tabled such an amendment in this spirit, incorporating a reason, and it was initially accepted. It was quickly then unaccepted, because such a Motion was without precedent. After further discussion, it was then accepted again before finally being rejected by the Clerks. The Clerks were then very helpful in splitting my Motion into the two we have before us tonight. The first is a traditional annulment and the second regret Motion is the explanation. I am most grateful to them for their assistance, but I have to say to your Lordships that I think the current situation a little odd. The way my two Motions sit on the Order Paper is not in the interests of transparency and has elicited a number of media enquiries as to what I am up to. I am therefore writing to the Procedure Committee to suggest that the recommendation of the 2006 committee be accepted so that we can be clearer in future on the Order Paper.
I turn to the substantial issue. As we have heard, the regulations allow the Secretary of State to introduce mandatory work activity for customers in receipt of jobseeker's allowance from April of this year-that is, last month. Each placement consists of up to 30 hours' activity per week and lasts for up to four weeks. Participants will at the same time be expected to be actively seeking work, attend fortnightly interviews
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While there is an appeal process for the sanction, there is no appeal for being mandated on to the scheme. There will be around 10,000 places per year and customers will not be able to volunteer to take up these places. An enthusiast would therefore have to persuade their adviser to make them go on the scheme. The DWP does not plan on issuing detailed guidance, as we have heard, but wants to give flexibility to Jobcentre Plus in how it uses this new weapon in its armoury. I was an early evangelist for local flexibility but I worry that this is all left a little too vague, given the seriousness of the sanctions that I have set out.
As I have said, I am not against the general principle; when in government, we legislated for a pilot to mandate Work for your Benefit. However, I am concerned about proceeding with a national scheme without evidence. If this Government had proceeded with the pilot for Work for your Benefit, they would have that evidence on whether this will work.
In the light of that clear statement from the department's independent experts, how does this four-week work activity differ from the work done on, say, community punishments? How will advisers be trained to tailor it to the individual's needs and timed to be most effective?
As the Merits Committee said, the purpose of the mandatory work activity is not clear. Is it, as the Explanatory Memorandum says, to require extra support to help customers refocus their approach to job search? Or is it more, as the department's memorandum to the Social Security Advisory Committee says, to give jobcentre advisers another intervention to deal with those doing only the bare minimum to comply with the requirement to seek work? The SSAC is concerned about the,
Why not delay the regulations and proceed with the pilot to ensure that the 10,000 work experience places are an effective use of taxpayers' money in helping people into work? How would the Minister respond to those who suggest that this is going to end up just being a way of parking 10,000 customers and generating a few headlines in the Daily Mail, but not actually helping anyone?
Then there are the concerns about certain groups being able to do the activity and fulfil the other conditionality rules. I shall quickly run through those,
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What about participants with children? According to the SSAC report, their childcare has to be funded from their benefits. Can that be right? Does that not put them in a position of choosing to use all their benefit for 30 hours' childcare leaving nothing to live on, to lose a benefit sanction of three months, or to take risks on the reliability of informal childcare, which might mean that they were unable to get to work? What will that do to their experience of work as a positive activity? Remember, they have no appeal on the mandation. The Minister could assist greatly by being clear now that advisers will put the interests of children first in applying these regulations, and that parents will be mandated on to the scheme only if the childcare arrangements are adequate and affordable.
What about ethnic minorities, those with caring responsibilities, those with disabilities, those with ME and those with learning difficulties? DWP evidence shows that these are the people most likely to be sanctioned for not actively seeking work; they are therefore those most likely to be mandated on to this scheme and therefore at greatest risk of these punitive sanctions.
As ever, I have asked a lot of questions. I apologise. I know it is a better tactic in Opposition to stick to just one or two in the hope that it forces the Minister to answer them. However, there are a lot of questions. That is why everyone who has looked at these regulations wants more information. I found it shocking to discover just this evening on the Merits Committee website that it has published an exchange of letters between itself and the Minister of State in the department, Chris Grayling MP. In the first letter on 11 April, the committee said:
"The Committee felt strongly that your letter was an inappropriate response to legitimate concerns expressed by a Parliamentary Select Committee ... It is for the Department to give a coherent explanation for the legislation it proposes-the Committee's task should not be to undertake research to piece information together".
The committee goes on to say that if it is not satisfied, it will invite the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, together with the most senior officials from the department, to give oral evidence to the committee. It is clearly very unhappy with the way that Parliament is being treated by the Minister of State.
In conclusion, I know the Minister takes his work here very seriously. Perhaps, by speaking in this debate tonight, we will help him to persuade his colleagues in the department that getting secondary legislation right is essential and not just an irritant. I look forward to his response and urge your Lordships to send a strong message to Ministers about the importance of Parliament, the Merits Committee and accountability by supporting at least the Motion of the noble Countess, Lady Mar.
Baroness Thomas of Winchester: My Lords, I, too, am glad to have the opportunity to debate briefly the thinking behind this order, which raises some important questions. I am not unsympathetic to the whole scheme. It has been introduced, we are told, because Jobcentre Plus staff wanted a tool to enable them, in the words of the Minister, Chris Grayling, when he gave evidence to the Merits Committee, to refer someone on JSA for a period of full-time activity to instil the discipline of work, and re-energise, refocus and remotivate them to enter or re-enter the world of work. This sounds reasonable until one looks at the process. It is very rare for the Merits Committee, of which I used to be a member, to draw the special attention of the House to an order using the following words:
"The Committee considers it unacceptable that the House has been given insufficient information to understand the policy objective of the scheme; to determine how the scheme will work; and effectively to assess whether the outcome will help claimants to improve their prospects of obtaining employment".
It is important to say that this mandatory work activity scheme is not work-related activity, which is a very different scheme for those on the employment side of ESA. However, there is a similarity between the two schemes-not just between their names, which is unfortunate. Both are supposed to help unemployed people prepare for the world of work and both carry a sanctions regime, although neither is a sanction in itself.
The two sanctions regimes are very different. Work-related activity for ESA claimants carries a relatively mild sanctions regime, whereas this scheme-although placements under it last for only four weeks-has a much tougher regime. As we have heard, if someone defaults without good cause there will be a fixed sanction of 13 weeks. If this happens twice within 12 months, the sanction will be of 26 weeks. No wonder the SSAC considered this disproportionate. It was also critical of the fact that the sanction could not be overturned or shortened by a claimant re-engaging
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One matter I am puzzled about is the nature of the placements under the scheme. The Minister in his evidence said that placements would be in the not-for-profit sector. He cited the examples of work in a charity shop or on a conservation project. However, nowhere is it spelt out in the regulations that these placements will be in the not-for-profit sector. Clearly there are all kinds of implications if placements are to be made in ordinary businesses, including the danger of exploitation. I wonder why this is not stated in the regulations. Many other questions are raised by the order. Perhaps two, crucially, are: is the balance right between what the Secretary of State lays down and what is left to local determination; and what will success look like?
All in all, Parliament is being asked to buy a pig in a poke with these regulations, framed the way they are. As I said at the beginning, I am not against the policy of trying to engage perhaps recalcitrant jobseekers with the world of work, but the lack of information we are given in these regulations leaves me with no option but to vote for the regret Motion of the noble Countess.
Lord Rix: My Lords, this is the first time that I have been in your Lordships' House since the debate on disability last Thursday, when it was announced that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, had had an unfortunate accident. I am glad to see him back in his place and I hope that he is fully recovered.
I start by stating that I am, of course, in support of the principles behind universal credit-namely, making work pay and helping more people into employment, if they are able to work. I doubt that anyone in the Chamber opposes that. However, the means by which this is achieved must be sensitive to the wide-ranging needs and abilities of potential jobseekers. It is within these parameters that any assessment of the fairness and value of the Mandatory Work Activity Scheme must be considered to ensure that people are not disproportionately disadvantaged. I intend to focus on the impact that this regulation would have on disabled people and, as President of Mencap, especially on those with a learning disability, because I fear they stand to lose most as a consequence of these regulations.
Recently, the Employment Minister claimed that three-quarters of incapacity benefit claimants have now been found to be fit for work. Coupled with the removal of the exempt group, which means that people with a learning disability are not automatically exempt from the work capability assessment, this could result in a significant number of disabled people being found
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This holds many challenges-primarily the risk of imposing unreasonable demands on people who might struggle to fulfil them because of their disability or those who might not fully grasp the requirements made upon them. A failure to attend a mandatory interview, for example, may be as a consequence of an individual's lack of understanding of what was expected of them, rather than a deliberate act of non-compliance. Indeed, the Social Security Advisory Committee has warned that:
"Evidence from the Department's Equality Impact Assessment and DWP research shows that ethnic minority claimants and those with a learning difficulty tend to be disproportionately sanctioned for not actively seeking employment. This, alongside other societal factors, could lead to these groups being disproportionately referred to this scheme and, as a consequence, at even greater risk of sanction".
I seek assurances from the Minister that the correct protocols will be put in place to ensure that people with a learning disability fully understand the obligations they must meet. It is also vital that these obligations are reasonable and that individuals are provided with appropriate support. This is particularly important because disabled people are statistically more likely to live in poverty and will often be unable to cope with the sanctions.
Additionally, I am very concerned about the precedent being set to punish people for having the "wrong attitude" when it comes to job seeking. It is imperative that the Government are clear about the intention of the scheme. If the aim is to incentivise work, I would suggest that there are better ways of monitoring how proactive people are being when in search of employment, rather than penalising them if someone determines that they are not looking hard enough. The truth might be that an unsuccessful passage into work might not be as a result of a lukewarm motivation but because of a lack of available opportunities to work.
People with a learning disability have very specific and individual support needs when seeking employment. With the increased likelihood of disabled people moving onto jobseeker's allowance come the increased responsibilities to ensure that these people are properly supported in getting a job and are not given the added onus of unfair sanctions or conditionality if they are unable to do so. Equally, there seems to be no detail about a complaints procedure in the event of this support not being available. Given the significant evidence of prejudice that befalls many disabled people when seeking a job, what assurances can the Minister provide that this will be adequately addressed in the scheme?
As I said before, my concerns arise out of a lack of clarification from the Government about the details of the scheme and I hope that the Minister will be able to allay my concerns by assuring me that disabled people, especially people with a learning disability, will not lose out under these regulations; but, frankly, I fear the worst.
Baroness Lister of Burtersett: My Lords, being new to the House, I am no connoisseur of Merits Committee reports, but on reading its 27th Report over Easter, it
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I am rather more familiar with the reports of the Social Security Advisory Committee, having read many of them over the years. Its report on these regulations, to which the Merits Committee refers, is at the more critical end of the spectrum of SSAC statements. Its key recommendation was that mandatory work activity should not proceed. Nevertheless, it is proceeding on the basis of regulations deemed inadequate by the Merits Committee for their lack of clarity of purpose. As the committee underlines, these are important regulations, the effects of which could have serious implications for the livelihood of thousands of unemployed people. As we have heard, where sanctions are imposed, JSA will be withdrawn for 13 or 26 weeks and, if further primary legislation is passed, we could be talking about loss of benefits for 156 weeks for a third so-called offence from April 2012.
The evidence suggests that it is often the most vulnerable who are subjected to sanctions. Both the Merits Committee and SSAC comment on the ambiguities surrounding the scheme's purpose. The department denies any punitive intent, emphasising how the scheme is supposed to help customers develop behaviours and attitudes required to get and keep work, yet it is adamant that sanctions must be applied to those who do not comply. I do not find the department's response to SSAC's concerns very convincing. The velvet glove and warm words about support surrounding the iron fist of sanctions look rather threadbare.
I am reinforced in that view by my reading of a recent systematic review of international evidence on the impact of benefit sanctions published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The review questions the efficacy of sanctions in changing claimants' motivation or attitude towards work. It suggests that although sanctions may have a short-term effect in shortening unemployment spells, the longer-term effects can be counterproductive in jobs and earnings progression. It is worth citing the report's conclusion:
I fear that, in a moral crusade against the supposed welfare dependency, Ministers read the evidence through a distorting lens. As the TUC warned in its submission to SSAC, these regulations seem to move employment policy further away from an evidence-based approach. The SSAC report comments:
Personally, I was unhappy about the previous Government's work-for-your-benefit proposal, but at least, as the Merits Committee notes and my noble friend pointed out, it was to be a pilot scheme with a clear evaluation plan aimed at examining whether
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That makes all the more important the monitoring of placements to ensure that, among other things, participants are treated properly and are not used to replace waged workers. I am pleased that the department has accepted SSAC's recommendation on that point, and I would welcome more information from the Minister about the placement monitoring system. However, as the Child Poverty Action Group points out-I declare an interest as its honorary president- there are no guarantees of minimum standards that can be expected from employers. I regret that the department has rejected SSAC's recommendation that detailed guidance should be given to employers about placements.
My other main concern, which was also picked up by the Merits Committee and SSAC and was commented on by the noble Countess, is the question of discretion. The Merits Committee questioned how the scheme can be delivered with any degree of consistency given the degree of flexibility and discretion built into it. In its 28th report, drawing attention to oral evidence provided by the Minister for Employment, the committee observed that,
"The targeting of the Mandatory Work Activity Scheme is to be left almost entirely to the discretion of Jobcentre Advisers, and the Minister is sanguine that there will be local variation and a lack of consistency in the way that the Advisers apply their judgment".
Flexibility sounds very positive, but its flip side is a lack of clear rights and the danger of arbitrary and inconsistent decision-making and lack of transparency. Moreover, the JRF review suggests that the administration of sanctions is not rational or equitable and can lead to bias, including racial bias. Important decisions with implications for a claimant's livelihood will be taken on the basis of what SSAC refers to as the
views and opinions about attitudes and motivations that will require considerable skill to interpret correctly. I would be grateful if the Minister would tell us about the kind of training that advisers will receive to make these decisions, and whether all advisers will have received this training by later this month when the scheme is introduced.
In its response to SSAC's report, the department says that it accepts the recommendation, but in explaining how it accepts it the department does not state explicitly that potential participants will be told the criteria for selection. I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm whether they will be told.
Another extension of discretion lies in the refusal to prescribe in regulations factors to be taken into account when deciding whether someone has good cause for failing to take part in the scheme when
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In conclusion, the Merits Committee complains about the vague and insubstantial basis on which we are expected to assess whether the regulations will achieve their objective. On the basis of research evidence, I fear that the regulations will do more harm than good. I support my noble friend's prayer that they be annulled, and the Motion of Regret tabled by the noble Countess.
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, the House owes a debt to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for raising these regulations this evening. As always, it also owes a debt to the Merits Committee and the Social Security Advisory Committee for their excellent work. The debate highlights very important points, many of which have already been made.
The first thing that I will say relates to the initial observations about procedures made by the noble Lord, Lord Knight. I would support him in pursuing the clarity that we need to enable the House to demonstrate and exhibit displeasure to the department without necessarily seeking to completely torpedo and annul regulations. The Motion in front of us in the name of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, is well judged. It is not always a Minister's fault-indeed, I completely absolve my noble friend from some of the worst excesses of this order. However, we should have the ability to make it clear that if there is insufficient detail, and if we do not feel that it is safe to endorse proposals that are brought to the House by the department via Ministers, we should have a method of expressing that in a grown-up way, and we should be able also to test opinion in the Division Lobbies. I encourage the noble Lord to pursue that line of thought.
Secondly, my noble friend must have bigger fish to fry. I have spies everywhere and they tell me that this is an £8 million scheme. That does not mean that it is not important-there are important principles here-but he has much more important things to worry about, such as universal credit and the work programme, which are both crucial. I also understand that we have managed to get such a keen price out of the contractors that we have been able to double the number of places for the mandatory work activity scheme and are now thinking about 19,000. That raises questions about the quality of the schemes that will be provided. I have a calculator, and I can divide 19,000 into £8 million and see that it works out at something like £430 per four-week placement. These figures need to be confirmed; otherwise, we will all be confused. The point I am making is that, if we have four-week schemes that are costing £430 to provide, one wonders about the disproportionate sanctions referred to by colleagues earlier in this debate of £1,800 or thereabouts, being equivalent to 26 weeks' benefit at £67.50. There is a disproportionality about some of this, as well as the question of whether the
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First, if I understand it right, contributory JSA benefit claimants are covered by these regulations. Contributory benefit claimants are different from means-tested JSA benefit claimants. They have been paying national insurance contributions to enable them to be entitled to this benefit, at least in the first year, before they go into the work programme, as I understand this scheme as it is going to be rolled out. They are going to be tapped on the shoulder by some Jobcentre Plus personal adviser and be told that they are going to be subject to the mandatory work activity scheme. People who make contributions through the national insurance system should be in a different place from those on a means-tested JSA regime. I would like the Minister to comment on whether that is correct.
I also worry greatly about the way we are potentially interfering with the well-established legal definition of "actively seeking work". The way I read this-and again, I would like to be corrected if I am wrong-being able to do just enough to satisfy JSA legal entitlement requirements is not going to be enough anymore under this scheme, because if you are only undertaking activity that is just enough to satisfy your personal adviser, you can still be mandated to be put on this mandatory work activity scheme. So I think we are stretching some of the well-established concepts. What people really clearly understand about "actively seeking work" has been built up over years in case law. We interfere with that at our peril, and I hope the department is thinking carefully about that.
I also concur with the comments made about adviser discretion, which is unappealable, to nominate candidates for this scheme. Obviously, the decision about a sanction is appealable and that is understood, but the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, was right to draw attention to giving discretion to advisers, as other colleagues have done in terms of local flexibility to contractors.
Part 6 of these regulations causes me some concern because I do not know that I have ever seen anything like this, but I may be wrong. Part 6 talks about "contracting out certain functions in relation to the scheme". If we are starting to contract out certain functions of the scheme-I understand that does not include sanctions-that is new territory as far as I am concerned. We have to be very careful about what Jobcentre Plus staff and personal advisers can do, as well as some of the providers of these schemes.
Local flexibility for contractors raises questions about quality, and I agree with them. I think there are disproportionate levels of sanctions, and I agree with my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester about good cause suddenly being undefined. Good cause has always been defined ad longam in legislation before. I understand that the department is suddenly saying, "Let's look at it. Let's be more flexible because we can deal with clients better", but I remain to be convinced about that. That is one of the biggest omissions in
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Benchmarking was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett. The guidance should be public. Although it may be technical, I understand that it will be searchable under freedom of information, and if it is, I do not know why it has not been made public. It will be kept within the department unless people ask for it. Benchmarking and targets become interchangeable, and staff in Jobcentre Plus offices will start making sure that they achieve the targets. I do not think they have been worked out. I am not convinced that we have had enough discussion about when a benchmark is a target and when it is not. There are all sorts of problems in some of these things.
Finally, coming from a rural area of south-east Scotland, I am really concerned about how transport costs and childcare costs are dealt with in rural areas. My honest opinion is that the £8 million would have been better spent on training schemes, but if we are going to do this, we are entitled to seek more detail. I think that as things stand, these schemes are of doubtful value. The sanctions are very severe, and I will need some persuasion by the Minister not to support the Motion moved by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, if she presses it to a Division this evening.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud): My Lords, thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify the objectives of the mandatory work activity scheme and to explain further how the scheme will operate.
Before I go into that, I want to say that the department takes the concerns raised by this House very seriously. The concerns raised here and by the Merits Committee tell the ministerial team in the department that something has gone wrong. I am aware that this is not the first time in this Session that the department's instruments have been called to the attention of this House, and we find that very serious. The full ministerial team is in agreement that providing the Merits Committee and the House with all the necessary information is of central importance, and we all regret-I particularly regret-any occasion when the Committee felt it received inadequate information. We are working hard to improve on this. We have arranged for senior officials to meet with the committee's advisers this week in order to take a serious look at how we are falling down, and they will work with the committee team to ensure that the House is in future supplied with all necessary information. I can assure noble Lords that I am going to make sure that there is a process in the department that makes sure that the right information goes to the committee. This will not continue in this way.
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