Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Lord Trevethin and Oaksey Portrait Lord Trevethin and Oaksey (CB)
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My Lords, I respectfully agree with much of what the noble and learned Lord said about the drafting of this clause and agree that it should not be treated as a precedent in the future for other ouster clauses. The drafting is unprecedented, because the decision of the Supreme Court in Miller 2 was itself unprecedented. I do not agree with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and I will briefly explain why.

I regard with horror, and I suggest that your Lordships should regard with horror, the prospect of what one might notionally call Miller 3: namely, a piece of litigation challenging the propriety or legal effectiveness of a Dissolution. In Miller 1, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Reed, now President of the Supreme Court, warned against the legalisation of political issues and observed that it was fraught with danger, not least for the judiciary. There is a danger that, because the Supreme Court in Miller 2 found itself able to determine that case against the Government without getting involved in the underlying political issues, one might suppose that a similar exercise could be undertaken in relation to litigation about Dissolution without the judges having to address political questions in an objectionable way. That reasoning would be fallacious.

It is necessary to bear in mind what happened in Miller 2 in relation to the evidence. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, who is about to rise, will be able to help us with that if need be. The government evidence in Miller 2 could politely be described as sparse. It consisted of a handful of partially redacted memos and there was no witness statement, as far as I understand it, which dealt substantively with the reasons for—that is, the justification for—the Prorogation. Why that was, I have no idea. It might have been pressure of time. It might have been—though I doubt it—some kind of Machiavellian strategy on the part of the Government, who were unafraid to lose the case. It might have been because no one was prepared to make a witness statement. It might have been for the legitimate reason that the legal position was being argued for that justiciability had to be taken as a preliminary issue, as the Divisional Court held that it should be, prior to any consideration of evidence. Never mind; there was no good evidence from the Government.

That enabled the Supreme Court, when it came to apply its test as to reasonable justification, to say in robust terms that there was no evidence before the court that would begin to support the contention that there was reasonable justification for the Prorogation. In that way, the Supreme Court avoided the need to tackle a question that might have arisen if the Government had given their evidence in a different way. The Prime Minister might have said: “Look, Parliament has made Brexit very difficult. I am engaged in an immensely important negotiation with foreign counterparties, which is going to affect the future of this country for many years. I regard it as desirable to convey the message to my negotiating counterparties that I mean business. That is why I intend to prorogue for an unusually long period of time.” The Prime Minister might have said that and that might have been true—I do not know. If that had been the evidence before the court, it is inconceivable that the Supreme Court justices would have felt able to enter on to that terrain, because it was nakedly political. That is the way that it might have gone.

That indicates that allowing even the faintest possibility of litigation about the legal effectiveness of a Dissolution is a grave error. It should be unthinkable that the judges should be forced to engage with that type of issue. I respectfully agree with what I think the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and others, have indicated—that it is very unlikely that the judges would entertain litigation of this nature. They would wisely be reluctant to do so.

But we should recognise the risk of litigation of this nature being initiated for collateral reasons. We are contemplating a period leading up to a general election. All the politicians will be on manoeuvres. There are potentially collateral advantages to litigating points of this nature, so Miller 3, or something like it, is conceivable. It should not happen. That is why, even though the drafting causes me concern, the ouster clause is good and this amendment should not be agreed to.

Lord Beith Portrait Lord Beith (LD)
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My Lords, this is a new threat. We have heard of the threat of an election being called to the detriment of Back-Bench Members whose support is being sought, but the threat of Miller 3 is not one that has been produced before. I found it an unpersuasive line of argument, particularly that the Prime Minister could go to the courts and say, “In order that I should have a stronger position in dealing with foreign counterparties, I must suspend Parliament to make sure that nobody can attend Parliament and say anything in the course of its proceedings while I am engaged in these negotiations.” I cannot see any basis for that, as opposed to the contention that has come into the debate of a Prime Minister adducing in evidence, “I wish to have a Dissolution and I have a majority in Parliament supporting me in this desire”, which would be the case under the amendment that we passed previously. We would be in an absolutely clear position and the courts would have no basis for intervening.

In the preceding debate, the noble Lord, Lord True, said that the simple and proven practice of the past is what we should follow. But the simple and proven practice of the past did not include an ouster clause of this nature. The Representation of the People Acts do not contain ouster clauses of this nature, nor does most other legislation. That is a situation that might change, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, pointed out, if this is taken as a precedent. I will come back to that in a moment.

It is necessary to be clear, first, that in the event of the other place agreeing to the amendment that we passed a moment ago, this ouster clause is particularly unnecessary because no court would interfere with so clear a decision of Parliament. There are other reasons why the request to the monarch to dissolve would be protected from the actions of the courts. One is that it is, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, pointed out in moving his amendment, a personal prerogative power. It is not a matter of advice which might be challenged, as it was in the Prorogation case. It is a personal prerogative power, which results from a request from the Prime Minister. I do not believe that the courts would be in any way inclined to interfere with the exercise of that personal prerogative by the monarch.

I strongly assert that the comparison with Prorogation is quite wrong. The effect of Prorogation is that Parliament cannot meet; it cannot sit or discuss and it cannot challenge the Executive. That is quite different from the Dissolution of Parliament and the calling of an election. Indeed, it has been adduced from the quarters of those who support the Government’s position that the calling of an election, referring the matter to the people, is so clearly the right outcome in so many circumstances that it should not be interrupted in any way. In my view, the courts would certainly not want to be seen to be preventing a general election from taking place. I find that inconceivable.

My primary worry about this ouster clause is not that it has some practical effect or that it changes what would be the clear reluctance of the courts to become involved in arguments about the calling of an election. It is that the Government have form on ouster clauses; we saw that earlier this week when debating the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which has its own ouster clause. In that case, the Government have declared that it is their intention to use the wording in that Bill as a precedent for ouster clauses in other, unspecified Bills in future. That was clearly stated in a government press release.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, made the point that parliamentary draftsmen like to act on precedent. When they have found a form of words that suits their purpose in one case, they like to use it again in another, if possible. We are creating precedents for issues around, for example, purported powers that will be very unhelpful in future as we seek to defend the ability of the citizen to challenge abuse of power, which is what judicial review is about. We are doing so because of fears that are not justified and dangers that do not exist, because the likelihood of courts preventing a general election from taking place is clearly vanishingly small, to the point of non-existence, for the reasons that I and others in this debate have adduced. We would be better off without the ouster clause provision. We do not need it and therefore we support the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell.

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is right to pursue his amendment because it seems quite possible that the House of Commons will decline the invitation to accept the amendment that your Lordships’ House so recently voted in favour of. I will address a number of questions briefly, because I did have the pleasure of being here in Committee.

First, is this really an ouster clause at all? I accept that it is not easy to imagine circumstances in which a Dissolution is challenged in the courts, but the noble Lord, Lord Butler, wants at least to keep open that possibility—apart from anything else, as I understand it, to save potential embarrassment to the sovereign. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, does not want this ouster clause, if it is so described, to act as a precedent, and the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, does not like the word “purported”.

It is probably not, strictly speaking, an ouster clause at all. During the deliberations of the Independent Review of Administrative Law, which I had the privilege of chairing, we looked at this clause. We thought that there was a distinction between Parliament creating a power and, at the same time, including a provision that limits or absolutely prevents the courts’ powers from challenging that.