[Relevant document: The Second Report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, HC 436.]
I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her prerogative, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I should like to thank the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), for its report on the Bill. The Committee has raised a number of important issues in its report that I shall seek to address one by one in my comments today.
The Bill has a single, clear purpose: to introduce fixed-term Parliaments to the United Kingdom to remove the right of a Prime Minister to seek the Dissolution of Parliament for pure political gain. This simple constitutional innovation will none the less have a profound effect because for the first time in our history the timing of general elections will not be a plaything of Governments. There will be no more feverish speculation over the date of the next election, distracting politicians from getting on with running the country. Instead everyone will know how long a Parliament can be expected to last, bringing much greater stability to our political system. Crucially, if, for some reason, there is a need for Parliament to dissolve early, that will be up to the House of Commons to decide. Everyone knows the damage that is done when a Prime Minister dithers and hesitates over the election date, keeping the country guessing. We were subjected to that pantomime in 2007. All that happens is that the political parties end up in perpetual campaign mode, making it very difficult for Parliament to function effectively. The only way to stop that ever happening again is by the reforms contained in the Bill.
As we hammer out the detail of these reforms, I hope that we are all able to keep sight of the considerable consensus that already exists on the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments. They were in my party's manifesto, they have been in Labour party manifestos since 1992, and although this was not an explicit Conservative election pledge, the Conservative manifesto did include a commitment to making the use of the royal prerogative subject to greater democratic control, ensuring that Parliament is properly involved in all big, national decisions—and there are few as big as the lifetime of Parliament and the frequency of general elections.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that during the general election campaign the present Prime Minister said he thought it was desirable that were there to be a change of Prime Minister during the course of a Parliament there should be a general election within six months? Where has that proposal gone to?
I do of course recollect what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said during the general election campaign. What he said has been improved upon and superseded by this Bill. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but it has been improved upon because it gives the House the right to decide whether it wants to dissolve Parliament for any reason that it wishes. If the House decides that it does not want to continue to express confidence in a Government when a Prime Minister has changed, the Bill will give it the right to dissolve Parliament and trigger a general election.
Let me make a little more progress.
Although I understand that some hon. Members have expressed unease at the speed with which we are advancing, let us remember that we are not starting from square one. People have been debating the length of Parliaments since the 17th century and all the parties now agree on the principle of fixed terms.
In advancing his rather remarkable theory about improving the powers of Parliament, can the Deputy Prime Minister give an assurance—indeed a guarantee—that in order to ensure that Parliament as a whole could properly make a decision on any such motion, there would be a guaranteed free vote on it?
The hon. Gentleman is a great expert in expressing his views regardless of what the Whips say. Whipping is of course a matter for the parties. I question his suggestion that there is something unorthodox or unwelcome about giving the House more power. We have a Prime Minister who is the first in history to relinquish the right to set the date of the general election. Surely the hon. Gentleman, who has always fought so valiantly for the rights of the House, welcomes that shift of power from the Executive to the legislature.
The right hon. Gentleman has just made a statement that the Prime Minister has made on a number of occasions—that he is giving away a power that no previous Prime Minister has chosen to do. Why do the right hon. Gentleman and our Prime Minister think that they are wiser than their 40 predecessors?
As I said, the virtues of a fixed-term—[Interruption.] It is not a question of wisdom; it is a question of the weight of history. We have been talking about this for decades, the Labour party campaigned on it, as did other parties, and at a time when we are trying to restore people’s confidence in politics after the expenses scandals, one of the essential ingredients is to strengthen the rights of the House at the cost of the excessive powers of the Executive.
Was the right hon. Gentleman aware of anything else happening in May 2015? National elections perhaps? Did he consider them and reject them? Why is he holding an election on the same day as the elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly?
If the hon. Gentleman can be patient, I will turn to that issue as it is a legitimate one. We had a debate last week about the coincidence of the date of the referendum being the same as that of the elections for the devolved Assemblies, but, as I shall acknowledge later, if he can hold on, I recognise that concerns about the coincidence of two parliamentary elections are qualitatively different and need to be examined further.
Each subsequent parliamentary general election after 7 May 2015 will be expected to occur on the first Thursday in May every five years, dovetailing with new arrangements that will see parliamentary Sessions run from spring to spring from 2012, as we have just heard from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.
On parliamentary Sessions, the right hon. Gentleman heard his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House say that there would be opportunities during debates on this Bill to debate his announced decision this morning in respect of abolishing one Queen’s Speech and having a two-year Session, until May 2012. Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain how those debates on the proposals made by the Leader of the House will arise during the Bill, because there is absolutely nothing in it that relates to them? To facilitate such provision, will the Deputy Prime Minister ensure, if necessary, that the Government move new clauses providing for the dates of Prorogation and the Queen’s Speech so that we can have those debates?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is not a legislative matter so such provisions would not be necessary. As I am sure he will acknowledge, these matters are linked. If we adopt this legislation on fixed-term Parliaments, which I understand he supports—unless he has changed his mind—it will have a knock-on effect: we need to align the Sessions of this Parliament to the new fixed-term provisions. Instead of hyperventilating about the abolition of a Queen’s Speech, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that all we are doing is introducing a one-off, transitional arrangement so that those two facts are aligned.
Of course I understand why it is being done, but there is a lot of objection, and not just from the Opposition, to having a Session lasting two years. That has not happened for the last 150 years and it has implications for the power of the House. As the Official Report will show, the Leader of the House told the House just a few minutes ago that there would be opportunities to debate his proposal under this Bill. Could we know how that will arise?
The right hon. Gentleman is already doing it, so I am sure that there will be more opportunities for him and his colleagues to do so in Committee. I would like to point out a fact to him. The extension of this Session will last in practice for five months. It is a one-off, transitional arrangement to make sure that we have reliable annual Sessions from spring to spring, in keeping with the fixed-term Parliament provisions that we have introduced in the Bill.
May I remind my right hon. Friend of the comments by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who said that the whole issue of whether we should have a Queen’s Speech every year or every two years—and in fact, whether we should divide Parliaments into segments—should be considered? The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) has argued that we should not put that in the Bill, because it needs to be considered by the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform.
It is not in the Bill, but it is a consequence of it. If we have fixed-term Parliaments, we need to revisit the way in which Sessions are organised.
We must retain flexibility on an exceptional basis, allowing us to deal with unexpected crises or conditions that make it necessary to move the election—for example, a repeat of the foot and mouth crisis, which led to the postponement of elections in 2001. In such circumstances, the Prime Minister will, by affirmative order, be able to vary the date of Westminster elections by up to two months, either before or after the scheduled date. Such a move will require the consent of both Houses, thereby preventing this power from being abused in a partisan manner.
May I put it to my right hon. Friend that these proposals, whatever the merits of fixed-term Parliaments—personally, I do not support those proposals—smack of gerrymandering the constitution in favour of a particular coalition? That is definitely a bad thing. It is a subjective judgment to suggest that this is giving power to Parliament, as it can be argued that it is taking it away from it. Does this not smack of constitution making on the hoof? What we need is a proper constitutional convention to consider such a major change to our constitution.
I do not agree that this is an innovation made on the hoof, as it has been discussed for decades. I am disappointed that my hon. Friend does not recognise that taking a power away from the Executive after years in which they have been too dominant in relation to the legislature is a step in the right direction, providing more powers to Parliament that do not exist at present. It is also fully in keeping with democratic practice in many other democracies.
I am astonished by the Deputy Prime Minister’s comment that he would build flexibility into the legislation so that if something such as foot and mouth occurs, changes can be made. Is that not giving back to the Prime Minister the prerogative to call an election, although the right hon. Gentleman is attempting to take that prerogative away from him? Surely it was a political decision not to hold the election in May 2001, not a constitutional one.
With respect, the right hon. Lady is reading too much into something that is a perfectly practical, common-sense solution to what happens if, in exceptional circumstances, as we saw in 2001, the election simply cannot be held on a proposed date.
Well, the right hon. Lady shakes her head, but she would not have liked elections to be held in the middle of the foot and mouth crisis. We need to respond to such things. The decision would be made by affirmative order, so the House of Lords, too, would have a say, preventing the politicisation of that decision.
I should like to make progress before giving way again.
Some hon. Members have asked, quite reasonably, why Parliaments will run for five years, not four. That is one of the issues that has been raised by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in its report. Let me explain: five years is the current maximum length for which our legislation provides. Five years is the length of Parliaments in France, Italy, and South Africa, among others, and it is the maximum length of Parliament in India. In the United Kingdom, three of the past five Parliaments have run for five years. Leaving aside the very short Parliaments, half of all Parliaments since the war have run for more than four years, so five years is both in keeping with our current arrangements, and has international precedent.
But if the right hon. Gentleman is to give us all the statistics, he must add that since 1832 the average peacetime length of a Parliament has been three years and eight months—nowhere near five years, which has been pretty exceptional across that time. On the international comparisons, none of the other countries that he mentioned has the same structure with the Executive coming out of Parliament, so ours is a very different system. I urge him to look again at four years.
I am not entirely sure whether that last assertion is correct. The hon. Gentleman wants to give the House a history lesson, so perhaps I may refer him to the Parliament Act 1911, which introduced the current five-year maximum. The then Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, told the House that five years would
“probably amount in practice to an actual legislative working term of four years”—[Official Report, 21 February 1911; Vol. 21, c. 1749.]
That is a quote that I picked up from the Committee’s report, rightly pointing out that when a Parliament is expected to last for only four years, as is now the case, it very often ends up, in effect, a three-year Parliament. So our view is that by fixing the cycle at five years, we help to mitigate—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that that is a ridiculous decision. He knows as well as anybody else that for 12 or 18 months before an election is held, work in the House is blighted by all the parties politicking in advance of polling day. Therefore, if we want Governments to govern for the long term, we think five years is the right period of time.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions the Second Reading speech by Herbert Asquith in February 1911. I am very grateful to the House of Commons Library for drawing this to our attention. I have the full speech. The right hon. Gentleman cannot use that quotation to justify something that was never the sense that Asquith was putting across. What Asquith was suggesting was that Parliaments within the five-year bracket would normally last from beginning to end for four years. That was the Liberal party policy as late as 2007. Why is it not now?
I will not compete with Herbert Asquith as well as with the right hon. Gentleman. The wording, as I said, makes it clear that he was pointing out something that we all know: that politics becomes consumed by electioneering in the run-up to a general election, and that therefore, if we have a five-year fixed term, as we are advocating in the Bill, in reality the Government of the day have at least four years to govern for the benefit of the country.
I will go back not 100 years, but 10 years. Have the Government considered the other three nations of this country, which have decided on a four-year period? Surely four years fits, so that there will not be a conflict in the future. The current term should be either four years, or six years, moving back to a four-year cycle, otherwise there will be a conflict that is insurmountable.
As I said earlier, I recognise that there is an issue there, as the hon. Gentleman says. That coincidence of UK elections to the House and devolved elections will occur every 20 years. If he will allow me, I will return to the issue in greater detail in a while.
The date of the next election specifically—
I should like to make some headway. The date of the next election, Thursday 7 May 2015, has also raised some questions, as Holyrood, the Welsh Assembly and Stormont will all be holding their own elections on the same day. The issue of combining polls came up last week when we were debating the decision to hold a referendum on 5 May next year, as that referendum will coincide with elections in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Let me be clear. We believe that holding a referendum on the same day as a parliamentary or Assembly election is entirely justifiable. It allows us to avoid asking people to traipse back and forth to the ballot box, it is an uncomplicated event in which people are simply being asked to say yes or no to the referendum question, so it avoids any confusion or overlap with the elections to the devolved Assemblies, and of course it will save money. However, as I said, I accept that holding elections to different Parliaments or Assemblies on the same day is altogether more complex—
I shall explain. It is not a simple yes or no choice to a referendum question, but raises a host of questions about how people are governed at the UK-wide and devolved level by different parties and different politicians. With elections to the devolved legislatures every four years and to Westminster every five years, such a situation would occur every two decades. With the next occurrence in five years, we have time to plan for it, but we need to give the issue proper further thought. There is already scope in legislation to vary the dates of elections to devolved legislatures, and the Government are now actively considering whether those powers are sufficient. We have not yet reached a conclusion—we will be very interested to hear the views of others—but if we decide that further powers are needed, we will put forward proposals for an alternative.
With the Prime Minister having the power, subject to resolutions of both Houses, to vary the date of the general election, would a condition for varying that date be the date of a devolved Assembly election, and would it be for Westminster or the devolved Assembly to make the variation?
As I explained earlier, the purpose of that exceptional power is to deal with exceptional circumstances, such as the foot and mouth crisis in 2001, so that is not the intention. What I have just tried to explain is that there will be an issue, once every 20 years, with the coincidence of elections to this House and to devolved Assemblies. The devolved Assemblies, as I said, have powers to adjust that date, and we are considering whether those powers are sufficient to deal with this. [Interruption.] There is a lot of harrumphing from the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). I am trying to be very open and to acknowledge that there is an issue that people understandably feel strongly about in Cardiff, Edinburgh and elsewhere, and we want to work with him and others to find a solution.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way on this point. Is he saying that the problem occurred to the Government after the Bill was drafted? If it had occurred before the Bill had been drafted, surely some provision should already be in the Bill, but he will have to bring forward some new provision.
As I was seeking to explain, our approach is first to acknowledge that there is a legitimate issue—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady could just listen to me, she may find satisfaction in the explanation. We believe that the answer to that does not necessarily lie in this Bill, but in the powers enjoyed by the devolved Assemblies in Holyrood and in Cardiff. That seems to us to be the right way to proceed.
I note today that the Electoral Commission has highlighted that an extension to the electoral timetable would support participation by overseas and service voters, and support the effective administration of elections. The Government are considering this issue and I have already indicated to the commission that we think there is a great deal of merit in exploring the potential for a change to the timetable. As the commission said in its statement today, the matter requires a thorough review to ensure that any change is coherent with the arrangements for elections across the piece. We will set out our proposals and the timetable once that review is complete.
I want now to focus on the issue of early Dissolution. The Government of course recognise the possibility of exceptional circumstances that would make it appropriate for Parliament to dissolve before completing its full term. Currently, the House of Commons may vote—by a simple majority—to say that it has lost confidence in the Government, and there is a wide expectation that this will result in Dissolution. That is an important convention, which will be not just unaffected by the Bill but strengthened, a point that I will come to in more detail shortly.
The right hon. Gentleman may be referring to the continuation of the existing powers to prorogue Parliament, which will remain in place, particularly after the House has been dissolved for exceptional reasons. In addition, the Bill provides for a new power for the House of Commons to dissolve Parliament early by means of a motion, passed by a majority of two thirds of the total number of seats in this House, which states that an early general election should take place. This new power ensures that Parliament will be able to dissolve itself in any eventuality, regardless of whether the reasons relate to the merits or failings of the Government of the day.
As you will be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, these votes have already been the subject of considerable discussion. I shall therefore take a little time to explain to the House exactly how they will work. First, on the new power of early Dissolution, the defining principle of this Bill is that no Government should be able to dissolve Parliament for their own political advantage. So as I said, in order to secure a Dissolution motion, a vote will need to be passed by a majority of two thirds of MPs— the same threshold that is required in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Hon. Members will remember that originally the coalition proposed a threshold of 55%. That was not found to be satisfactory by many Members of this House, who feared that it would not provide a sure enough guarantee against a Government with a large majority triggering an election for partisan gain. We listened to those arguments and we agreed that the bar should be raised. At two thirds, we have settled on a majority that no post-war Government would have been able to achieve. It will be possible only if agreement is secured across party lines, thereby preventing any one party or the Executive from abusing this mechanism.
On powers of no confidence, no-confidence votes have until now been a matter of convention.
Before my right hon. Friend moves on to his next point, can he explain why, when he is putting forward a Bill of the most enormous constitutional importance, almost revolutionary in concept, there is not a single Conservative Cabinet Minister on the Front Bench to support him?
I am sure that they have other things which they need to attend to.
As I said, no-confidence votes have until now been a matter of convention. Although it has been widely accepted that a no-confidence vote would require a Prime Minister either to resign or to call an early election, there has been nothing to date to enforce this. So for the first time, the Bill gives legal effect to a motion of no confidence passed by this House. Such motions will continue to require only a simple majority.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is imperative that the courts do not end up determining issues arising from Dissolution, and is he satisfied that the Bill as drafted ensures that that awful nightmare will never happen?
I am absolutely confident of that. I will shortly explain why in further detail, because that possibility was raised in a memorandum by the Clerk of the House to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee.
Such motions of no confidence will continue to require only a simple majority. Following the passing of a no-confidence motion, there will be a period of 14 days during which a Government may seek to gain the confidence of the House. If, during the 14-day period, a Government emerge who can command the confidence of the House, then they will be free to govern for the remainder of the five-year term. We believe that a period of 14 days strikes the right balance, allowing enough time for an alternative Government to be formed while ensuring that there is not a prolonged period without an effective Government.
Earlier, the right hon. Gentleman said that this was partly about restoring the public’s confidence in Parliament, but is it not correct that we could witness a change of Government without there being a general election, which surely will not satisfy the public?
The point of this change is that if the House no longer has confidence in the Government of the day it can pass a vote of no confidence under existing provisions, but legally enforced, and that any new Government who then try to reconstitute themselves would have to enjoy the confidence of this House—and therefore also, by extension, the confidence of the people we all represent in our constituencies, until the end date of the fixed-term Parliament comes around.
At the moment, the situation is that if there is a vote of no confidence, the Queen will decide whether Parliament is dissolved, and she then has the right to look for an alternative Government. Why do we need to mess around with the constitution, changing something that seems to work very well?
We are seeking to strengthen and reinforce the powers of this House. The motion of no confidence will be passed by this House, and it will be up to this House to decide whether any subsequent Government constituted within a very short period of time—within two weeks—deserve to continue to be supported by this House. If Members of the House do not wish to provide that support to that Government, the House can say no. That seems to me to be strengthening the powers of the House.
I am obliged to the Deputy Prime Minister. Will not all we have in those 14 days just be an auction of offices and promises and the usual making of a Government? [Interruption.] No, I did not mean it in that sense.
In Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, a succession of Caesars were bought and sold by the praetorian guard. Is that what this constitutional reform programme amounts to?
I really think that my hon. Friend is reading too much into the provision. The existing arrangements on votes of no confidence are fairly similar to what we are proposing. First, the vote will be precisely as it is now—50% plus one. Secondly, a new Government can be asked to be formed after that vote of no confidence.
I would like to make some progress.
In the event of an early Dissolution, under whatever circumstances, the decision will be confirmed by the issuing of a Speaker’s certificate, meaning that there will be no ambiguity about whether the House had voted for a Dissolution with the requisite majority or whether a vote of no confidence in the Government should trigger a Dissolution. It will also mean that procedures of the House will determine whether the triggers are satisfied, rather than that being in the hands of either the Executive or the courts.
As I said earlier, I know that the Clerk of the House of Commons has expressed concerns about these arrangements in a memorandum to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. The memorandum suggests that the courts may be able to intervene in parliamentary business. The suggestion is that we would therefore be better off implementing the changes through Standing Orders rather than primary legislation. I would like to reassure the House that the Government have looked into the issue in considerable detail. We are satisfied that the provisions in the Bill will not allow the courts to question the House’s internal affairs.
The Minister for political and constitutional reform, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), has placed in the Libraries of the House a paper setting out our views. Briefly, we are satisfied that the courts will continue to regard matters certified by the Speaker as relating to proceedings in Parliament and therefore falling under the protection of article 9 of the Bill of Rights. The memorandum refers to the legal challenge in 2005 to the Hunting Act 2004 as authority that courts will interfere in parliamentary proceedings. However, that case was concerned with the validity of the Parliament Act, not the internal proceedings of Parliament.
I shall finish what I am saying about this detailed and involved point.
During that case, the House of Lords reiterated that courts cannot interfere in those proceedings, so far from leading us to believe that courts may intervene under the provisions of the Bill—
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that I have merely referred in passing to a court case, which, as I said, confirms that courts will not involve themselves in internal parliamentary proceedings.
The Bill explicitly confirms that the Speaker’s certificate
“is conclusive for all purposes.”
So the decision is for the Speaker, not the courts or the Executive.
It was not that point at all. I assure the Deputy Prime Minister that I am very much more concerned about our domestic arrangements in this House in this respect.
The Clerk of the House, a very distinguished expert and our pre-eminent expert in the House on matters of procedure, was quite clear in his evidence. Does the Deputy Prime Minister not find it, to say the least, a little curious—even bizarre—that he should be using this opportunity to repudiate the views of the Clerk of the House of Commons about a matter of vital constitutional importance, without our having had the opportunity to see the counter-evidence? In addition, does doing that in this way not undermine the integrity and standing of the Clerk of the House?
First, it is worth acknowledging, as the Chair of the Committee would do, that many other distinguished experts and academics in this field explicitly demurred from the analysis provided by the Clerk when the evidence was provided to the Committee recently. Secondly, the Clerk’s memorandum was provided to the Committee and it is therefore available to everyone in the House to examine for themselves. Thirdly, we have today placed in the Library of the House a letter from the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, that sets out in detail our reasoned views. I do not think that this is a question of scientific doctrine. It is a matter of some significant judgment, and our judgment, based on important precedent, is that there is nothing in the Bill that will invite the courts to intervene in the internal proceedings of the House.
This is a very important constitutional question. The Deputy Prime Minister has just implied that there could well be a dispute. The letter—which I have not yet had an opportunity to see—itself disputes the view of the Clerk of the House. Will the Deputy Prime Minister not concede that this matter could well be referred to the courts, even if he and his Government take the view that it could not, and that their view does not preclude the courts from intervening in certain circumstances? This is his view, and the view of the letter writer, but it is not necessarily the view of the courts.
As I have said, it is not only our view in the Government; it is also the view of a number of very distinguished constitutional experts who gave evidence to the Committee on this very point just a short while ago. As I was seeking to point out, we have looked at the court case on the Hunting Act 2005 specifically cited in the memorandum from the Clerk, and found that it arrives at exactly the opposite conclusion.
In the very limited time that we had to look at this matter, the Clerk was the only person to raise this question, and the academics who have been referred to—Professor Hazell, Professor Blackburn and others—completely disagreed with the view put forward by the Clerk. This is simply a question of whether the power exists in statute law or in Standing Orders. I should like to quote from the Committee’s report, in which we said:
“It would be a pity if the Executive gave up the power to call an election at a time of its own choosing only for the legislature to hand it back by a simple suspension of Standing Orders to that same end.”
In other words, we all know that the Standing Orders of the House can be suspended at any moment on the whim of the Executive. It would be a shame, were the Executive finally to give up that power, for us simply to hand it back again.
I am grateful for that clarification. I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and we agree with the Committee’s conclusions on this point. Given the constitutional significance of the Bill, which has been underlined by many Members during the debate, it would be inappropriate for those significant constitutional provisions to be translated into Standing Orders. They need to find their way into primary legislation, and into law.
In the event of an early Dissolution, and an early general election, the new Parliament will run until the first Thursday in May in the fifth year of its existence, unless, of course, it too is subject to early Dissolution. Questions have been asked about whether the new Parliament should run for the full time, or whether its life should be limited to whatever period its predecessor had left on the clock. Our view is that resetting that clock is a more sensible proposition. That is the arrangement that will be most natural to voters; people do not expect to elect a Parliament knowing that it will last only a short time. When they hand a Government a majority, they are giving them a mandate to govern for up to five years.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is being assiduous, and the House appreciates that. I put it to him bluntly, however, that the Bill takes away from a simple majority in the House the right to cause a general election and puts into the hands of, perhaps, himself leading a minority party the ability to withdraw his support from one party and give it to another in order to form an Administration, without the risk of a general election. Is that really fair?
First, that is precisely the position now, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Secondly, he is viewing the Bill through a prism of—how can I put it?—suspicion, which really is not justified. It gives new powers to the House, and I hope that he will come to that view himself as it is examined on the Floor of the House, as it should be. The Bill is giving new powers to the House in addition to the powers of no confidence that do not already exist, which we are also strengthening in turn.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that if, God forbid, our friends and Liberals were to walk away from the coalition and if the Bill were passed, there is no doubt that our Prime Minister could call an immediate election? Is there any doubt about that?
The Bill speaks for itself. With respect, this is genuinely not about the internal dynamics of this coalition Government. [Interruption.] I hear from the groans and the roars that that view is not widely shared. I hope that anyone who has listened to what I have said today will reasonably conclude that the Government are doing something that should be welcomed in this House—strengthening its powers, while weakening those of the Executive. We are surrendering the Prime Minister’s right to set the date of the general election—a power that has been used and abused and has become the plaything of Prime Ministers of all parties for far too long.
Is the Deputy Prime Minister not being somewhat disingenuous in stressing that the Dissolution of Parliament is a spectacular new power to be given to this House, when just a few moments ago he stressed that the very high threshold for that power would make it virtually impossible to attain?
What I was trying to explain was that the existing powers to pass a motion of no confidence will not only remain exactly as they are, but be given legal force so that they will be strengthened. In addition, to cover any exceptional circumstances that might arise, we are giving the House new powers—I stress that this is a new power, which currently does not exist—to dissolve Parliament altogether and trigger a general election. The only institution whose power is being seriously curtailed by the Bill is that of the Prime Minister.
This Bill is modest in size—it has just five clauses and one schedule. Clause 1 relates to polling days for parliamentary general elections, including the setting of the date of the next election on 7 May 2015, and sets out the five-year term. Clause 2 provides for the circumstances in which an early parliamentary general election can be held. Clause 3 makes the key necessary changes to electoral law and the law concerning the meeting of Parliament in the light of fixed days for elections. Clause 4 deals with certain supplementary and consequential matters—preserving the Queen’s power to prorogue Parliament. Clause 5 sets out the short title of the Bill and provides that it will come into force on Royal Assent. The schedule contains consequential amendments to a number of Acts of Parliament. In contrast to the previous Government, who aggressively programmed their Bills, we propose not to curtail debate on each clause, but to allow two full days on the Floor of the House for Committee stage.
Is the Deputy Prime Minister mindful of unintended consequences? One aspect of fixed-term Parliaments and fixed terms in general elections is that costs are often associated. Campaigning often starts earlier—in North America, for example, where there are seats for the Senate, the House of Congress and presidential seats. General elections and primary elections start very early, so perhaps an unintended consequence of the Bill could be additional costs for campaigning, not to mention apathy among the general public.
I would argue that the real cost is incurred by all of us when we are constantly on tenterhooks about whether or not the Prime Minister of the day is going to call a general election. That is precisely what happened in 2007. At the last general election, we all promised the voters that we would seek to provide stable, good and strong government not constantly hijacked by the ducking and weaving of the Executive trying to second-guess what people are thinking and trying to choose a date in the political calendar to suit their own ends. That is what the Bill delivers, and it seems to me that, in one way or another, we all promised that to the voters at the last general election.
Clearly, there are strong views across the House on the best way to implement fixed-term Parliaments, but everyone can surely now acknowledge that the Prime Minister has, through this Bill, become the first Prime Minister in British history to agree to relinquish his power to trigger elections.
I want to finish now.
That is a hugely important break with the past, and exemplifies the reformist spirit at the heart of our new politics. Let me finish by reminding hon. Members that although we might disagree on some of the detail of the Bill, we are united on the principle that underpins it. Fixed-term Parliaments constitute a major transfer of power away from the Executive and a major strengthening of Parliament’s authority over its own lifetime. The Bill is a major step towards the more legitimate, stable political system that we have all promised to the British people.
The Labour party manifesto contained a commitment to legislate for fixed-term Parliaments, as did that of the Liberal Democrats, as we have heard. The Conservative party manifesto included no such commitment whatever, and as the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) reminded the House at the beginning of the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech, the proposition from the then Leader of the Opposition, now Prime Minister, was directly contradictory to that contained in the Bill. His proposition was that, were there a change of Prime Minister during a Parliament, that change should trigger a general election within six months of the new Prime Minister taking over. As a direct consequence of the Bill, that solemn commitment at the general election has been not just bypassed but wholly contradicted.
I am quite sure that the process that led to the Bill, following the general election, was entirely one of cerebration and consideration of the balance of the intellectual arguments—
From a sedentary position, again, my hon. Friend prompts me to correct myself: Conservative Members in the Government have made a Pauline conversion, although it is palpable from today’s debate that, unlike St Paul, they have taken few voluntary converts with them.
If the Government and the House get the Bill right, it will be a positive innovation for our democracy. I do not share the Deputy Prime Minister’s hyperbole, but I certainly share his belief that it is a step forward, not a step back. We intend to work constructively to deliver what would be a significant constitutional change. For that reason, we will not divide the House tonight. However, let us be clear from the outset: the Bill as currently drafted does not stand up to scrutiny, even the limited scrutiny that the Government have permitted the House to date. The Bill will need substantial revision if we are to be able to support it on Third Reading, as we had wished to do.
The introduction of fixed-term Parliaments is intended to strengthen Parliament and fetter the Executive, and to make the political process more legitimate in the eyes of the public by reassuring them that the date of elections can no longer be at the whim of the Prime Minister. We have heard a lot about the power of the Prime Minister. Having known one or two Prime Ministers, I think that many Prime Ministers and potential Prime Ministers would rather not have the right and power to call a general election, as it has a brutal logic: if they win, they have made the most positive decision of their life; if they lose, they are almost always out of office, too.
Can we take it that the right hon. Gentleman has also reached a completely dispassionate judgment, and that his decision to allow the Bill a Second Reading is in no way coloured by the possibility that his party will end up in government without a general election if it is passed?
Funnily enough, I had not thought of that. Perhaps I should have. It is not that I am innocent of such considerations, but on this occasion it had not occurred to me.
The Bill does botch the job, however. It provides for a standard Parliament to be too long, at five years. It fails to clarify the procedures for confidence votes, opening up the possibility of a lame-duck Administration and constitutional limbo. It leaves a large loophole enabling Prime Ministers to use the prerogative power to prorogue Parliament, as happened recently in Canada. The mechanism for triggering an early Dissolution of Parliament may impinge—I put it no more strongly than that—on parliamentary privilege by creating the risk that courts could intervene on parliamentary proceedings.
Much of the incoherence of the Bill is a consequence of the unnecessary haste with which it is being rushed through Parliament. A week ago, the House debated the Second Reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. That too is being rushed through, with the Deputy Prime Minister breaking all previous undertakings about the importance of pre-legislative scrutiny.
If Members accept the imperative of a May 2011 date for the alternative-vote referendum—although I do not—at least the right hon. Gentleman has a fig leaf of an excuse for seeking to rush that Bill through at this early stage, but palpably no such excuse exists for rushing this Bill through. Had there been any justification, such as a packed legislative programme which might have hit the end-of-Session buffers, that excuse would have been blown away this morning by the ill-thought-through announcement by the Leader of the House that the current Session is to last for two full years.
Let me say first, for the avoidance of doubt, that I have made no protestations of virginal innocence, and would never seek to do so.
The two Bills are certainly not cognate, but they are linked in the sense that they are the price that the Conservative party agreed to pay in order to stitch together this very curious coalition. I am glad, in saying that, to receive the approbation of many right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches. In any event, the idea that this Bill had to be bashed through very quickly was blown away by this morning’s announcement.
Given that the right hon. Gentleman is giving us a catalogue of what is wrong with the Bill and what is difficult about it, how can he vote in favour of the principle of the Bill as drafted and lying in front of the House of Commons, rather than voting against it as a matter of principle? It does not strike me as amenable to satisfactory changes in Committee, even if the good will of the Government were there for the purpose. Why is the right hon. Gentleman not standing by that principle, and demonstrating that this is an unsatisfactorily prepared Bill?
It is an unsatisfactorily prepared Bill—on that the hon. Gentleman and I are in absolute agreement—but we may be in disagreement on the principle of the Bill. I have done many things from the Front Benches in 30 years to seek to justify difficult positions and have emerged upright at the other end, but with a commitment as clear as daylight in our manifesto—of blessed memory and only five months old—that said, in terms, that the Labour party would introduce legislation for fixed Parliaments, it would have been a bit tricky for me to have come to the House and opposed the Bill. [Interruption.] The Deputy Leader of the House may say that that did not worry me a week ago. But it did. [Laughter.]
There is a serious point. Had the subject of this Bill been tied up with a proposition with which we wholly disagreed—as with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, where the Government could and should have separated the alternative vote and boundaries issues—that would have been different. As I explained to the House this time last week, I would have been delighted to vote in favour of the Bill if all that it contained was part 1. The Deputy Prime Minister knows better than me why he has decided to put alongside that proposition—one that was broadly agreed—an entirely separate and unrelated proposition wholly to change the agreed and consensual way in which we have set boundaries in this country for many years, a manner last amended by this House not under Labour, but under the Conservatives.
May I put to the right hon. Gentleman an historical example of how the Bill would have created great problems in the past? In 1950, the Labour party won the general election with—if my memory is correct—an overall parliamentary majority of seven. That entitled a Labour Government to stay in power for five years. They were never defeated on a motion of confidence in that Parliament, but by 1951, Mr Attlee, a great statesman, felt that his Cabinet colleagues were exhausted and that it was against the national interest for the Labour Government to struggle on with a majority of only seven. He decided to ask the King for a Dissolution. He would not have been able to do so under the provisions of the Bill.
With great respect, I anticipate that he would have been able to do so. I am not seeking to justify in detail what is in the Bill, but let us take that as a possibility. That was an unusual circumstance; Attlee and his colleagues, the senior ones of whom had been in office for more than 11 years and all the way through the Churchill coalition Government, were completely exhausted. Some were dying; others had already passed away. Attlee was right to say that there should be a Dissolution. Under the terms of the Bill, he would have put that to the House. I cannot see that the Conservative party would have opposed it; it would have been astonishing if it had, since it thought that it was going to win. In that situation, the likelihood would be that the resolution of the House would have easily exceeded the two-thirds threshold. As a matter of historical record, that has to be the case.
My right hon. Friend is quite right in saying that we accept the principle of fixed-term Parliaments, but I do not want to lose his earlier comment that he would review that situation on Third Reading if some of this dog’s dinner of a Bill were not tidied up between then and now. Will he reiterate the commitment that we will reconsider our position on Third Reading if we do not get some satisfactory changes?
My right hon. Friend said a few moments ago that one reason why he felt inclined to give this Bill its Second Reading is a commitment made in the Labour party manifesto. Perhaps it would help if I reminded him of what we actually said in our manifesto. We said that we would have the following:
“Legislation to ensure Parliaments sit for a fixed term and an All Party Commission to chart a course to a Written Constitution.”
At least two elements which would make the Bill conform with that commitment are missing.
If I may say so, the “and” is disjunctive, not conjunctive—and I know that because I drafted that piece of the manifesto.
I simply do not understand why—and we have heard no serious explanation as to why—the Government are bolting it. This morning, the Leader of the House gave us a further example when he announced a decision—not a proposal; it had been decided, and that was the word he used—that this Session should last for two years. He then tried to excuse that, having run into something of a squall in the House, by saying—we can check this against the record—that it was a “proposition” that could be further considered in this Bill. I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will examine closely what the Leader of the House said about commitments for debate on that aspect of a consequence of this Bill.
Yes, I accept that. It will not be a pre-emptive decision for me to take, but one that will be taken in the usual way by the shadow Cabinet as a whole and the parliamentary party.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) will make his own point about this next matter when he addresses the House. He chairs the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, which is an all-party Committee with, I believe, a Conservative majority. It has been very clear about what he has described as:
“The severe lack of time which the Committee has had to scrutinise this…Bill”.
He continued by saying that this
“is not only frustrating but very disappointing.”
The right hon. Gentleman is scrabbling for excuses to oppose the Bill on the grounds that it is being rushed. Is there not a risk that if we did not rush it we might end up in the embarrassing situation of a supporter of fixed-term Parliaments who had been 13 years in government but never got round to introducing that?
I have simply explained to the House, while the hon. Gentleman has been sitting there, that we are not opposing the Bill tonight and the reason is that we agree with the principle of fixed-term Parliaments. What I disagree with is the manner in which it has been introduced. I also disagree with some very important detail, part of which needs to be amended, not least to bring it into line with Liberal Democrat policy. I will explain that, because one of the consequences of their going into this coalition has been the complete amnesia that has affected the whole of the Liberal Democrats’ policy.
Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that it is important to introduce this measure early so that we can give the country and the business community certainty that this Parliament will last five years? We will, thus, avoid the nonsense that we had in the summer and early autumn of 2007, when the whole country had no idea whether or not it was going to the polls.
We need to do it in the next couple of years, but we do not need to do it now. If the Leader of the House were true to his word, he would at least have allowed for the 12 weeks’ pre-legislative scrutiny that his Government promised would normally take place for Bills.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that were the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to have been given 12 weeks—I think that we have done an incredible job in two days, producing this report—many of the wrinkles that everyone concedes are in the Bill could have been smoked out? We could have heard from a lot of expert witnesses and we would have proposed ways in which a principle that appears to have the support of the whole House could have found consensus, as opposed to becoming a cause for bitterness and division.
I accept that entirely. Constitutional legislation is always complicated and we should always seek consensus on it. I have to say—I believe Members know this—that I can think of plenty of occasions when I brought forward constitutional legislation and then had to take it away again. With the single, terrible exception of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill—for which I have already abjectly apologised as it was a dreadful piece of legislation—I have always both provided sufficient time and quite often changed proposed legislation addressing this complicated territory in the light of what was said in this House or the other place in Committee and the Chamber.
To consider why we have ended up in this situation, we have to return to a point made by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) in an intervention on the Deputy Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman echoed a comment made last week by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who said of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill that people might have more respect for the Government if they admitted that it was about party advantage. There would have been greater respect for the Government over the timing and abject drafting of the Bill before us if the Deputy Prime Minister had said, “Yes, we brought this forward—and the Prime Minister has stood on his head on this—because we did a deal for a variety of reasons which I shall explain. That is the price the Prime Minister paid for this bit of the deal, and we are rushing it through for internal reasons.” The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex was absolutely right to say—he can correct me if I get a single preposition in the wrong place—that the Bill smacks of gerrymandering the constitution in favour of the coalition, which is what I heard him say, and that it was legislation on the hoof. That is true. The Deputy Prime Minister should have taken his time and invited the other parties into discussion, sought the advice of the Liaison Committee and others, and come forward with a much better proposition.
If I may first make a little more progress, I will then give way to both hon. Gentlemen.
The irony will not be lost on the House that had the previous Labour Administration acted in such a fashion, Members of the current Government parties would rightly have expressed outrage, and Liberal Democrat Members would have done so in unbearably sanctimonious and pious terms. Everybody knows that to be the case.
Professor Robert Hazell of University College London’s constitution unit has said:
“The legislation could still be introduced with cross-party support, if the government is willing to take it slowly. That is what the government is seeking to do with reform of the House of Lords”—
I commend the Government’s approach on that—
“It should adopt the same approach with this Bill.”
Notwithstanding the fact that the Bill has now been introduced, my very strong advice to the Deputy Prime Minister is that he should take a long time before bringing it back before the House so that the Select Committee can have a look at it. If he wants examples of Bills just sitting around for some time while Ministers have repented at leisure of mistakes they and their colleagues have made and regrouped to bring back something better, I will provide him with them.
As we know, the Bill’s primary purpose is not high-minded; the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex was correct about that. Its effect may be welcome, but its primary purpose is to serve as a form of constitutional handcuffs to prevent either of the coalition parties from assassinating the other. This is, indeed, a partnership characterised by paranoia.
The right hon. Gentleman criticises my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister for not giving time for consultation, yet even before the Bill was published he had taken on board concerns expressed on both sides of the House about a specific provision relating to early Dissolution and radically changed his proposal. It seems to me that he is listening much more intently than the right hon. Gentleman ever did when he was proposing constitutional reforms.
I was just checking with my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) whether the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) was a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat, because I was very confused after this morning’s pamphlet, but I gather from my hon. Friend that he is both. I am going to buy and distribute copies of his pamphlet in all Liberal wards—there are none in my constituency, but there are some in the borough. I shall dish out copies of the pamphlet in the borough, because one of my views about this coalition is that it made every bit of sense for the Conservative party and was total madness for the Liberal Democrats. With a little luck, the Liberal Democrats will go the same way as their predecessor party did in the early 1920s as a result of exactly the same process.
The reason why the hon. Gentleman’s right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister had to change from the abjectly partisan proposal of 55% was that it was too obvious, since they had 56% of the votes. They must have thought that we were all stupid. He had to change that before he introduced the Bill because he would not have had a dog’s chance of getting a Second Reading had that ridiculous and outrageous proposal remained. It was survival that led to the change, not high principle.
My right hon. Friend rightly touches on many of the concerns about the timing of the Bill, given the fairly scrappy nature of some of its proposals. Is the timing not really related to the fact that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which we discussed last week, and the Bill that we are discussing this week were the Liberal Democrats’ two glittering prizes in the coalition agreement, and they want to go to their party conference saying that they have already achieved the Second Reading of both those Bills? That is why we are being put through this today.
I am quite sure. I was in favour of September sittings and my hon. Friend will recall that they had to be abandoned one year so that the screen in the Chamber could be put up. When I tabled a motion the following year as Leader of the House to reinstate September sittings I was roundly voted down by an all-party alliance, including many Conservative Members. Both parties in the coalition are probably now regretting this September sitting, because it has done them absolutely no good. Long may that continue.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very unfair to our Liberal friends. Does he share my understanding that, if there were a crisis and the Liberals had to walk out of the coalition, the Conservative Prime Minister would be prevented from calling an election if the Bill had become law? If the Liberals were then to offer to join a coalition with the right hon. Gentleman, would he embrace them tenderly?
I am not going to get into too many hypotheticals, but it is a matter of public record that, speaking personally, I was not too keen on the embrace when it was offered on or about 8 May. The hon. Gentleman might wish to take some comfort from that for the future. Aside from anything else, he should do the arithmetic as to whether there could be some stability from such a coalition.
As others want to speak, let me come to the crucial issue of whether the fixed term should be five years or four years. Most constitutional experts are agreed that four years is a more appropriate fixed term and would better reflect the constitutional position, historical practice and comparisons with other Parliaments. Professor Robert Blackburn has said:
“In the UK, there can be little doubt that the period between general elections should be four years...It was the period expressly approved of as being normal in practice, when the Parliament Act set the period of five years as the maximum.”
If the hon. Gentleman will first allow me to make this point, I shall give way.
The Library alerted me to what Asquith said in February 1911, and so I asked for the whole of the speech, which I have here. As the information from the Library and Blackburn both show, Asquith was talking about the idea that a Parliament would normally last for four years. There is not a word in Asquith’s opening speech on the Second Reading of the Parliament Bill along the lines that the right hon. Gentleman who is now leader of the Liberal Democrats tried to tell us that there was. He should not busk on these points. Asquith said that the Act would lead to a normal length of four years and that was what he meant. Overall, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has pointed out, that has been the average length of a Parliament.
May I finish this point, and then I shall of course give way? Indeed, the hon. Lady might wish to answer a question that I am about to pose to her right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister.
Alongside the position adopted by a former Liberal Prime Minister—the last but one, it must be said, and look what happened to him and to his successor, although we need not detain the House on either of their fates—I want to refer to recent Liberal Democrat policy. I know that that apparently does not matter, but if the roles were reversed and if, just three years ago, the Labour party had said that there should be fixed Parliaments that should last four years, we would soon hear something about that from those on the Liberal Democrat Benches. We would hear suggestions that we were selling out and standing on our heads and that we did not know what we were talking about, and would be asked what was the point of making commitments—especially as simple a commitment as that—simply to tear them up. However, that was the Liberal Democrat position. They published a position paper—I am happy to take an intervention from the Deputy Prime Minister on this point—called “For the People, By the People”, which said that the term should be four years and not five. Let me gild that lily: David Howarth, the excellent former Member for Cambridge, introduced a ten-minute Bill to the sounds of cheering from the Liberal Democrat Benches that set a term of four years and not five. He made very good arguments that were absolutely right.
I am glad that the Deputy Prime Minister has at long last spotted that coinciding the date of a general election with that of national elections in Scotland and Wales is crazy and he is about to seek to go through hoops by which the people of Scotland and Wales and the political parties that are an essential part of the process—
I shall give way in a second.
The answer to all that is to go for four-year Parliaments. Among many others things, if we set a four-year Parliament this one would finish in 2014 and could never clash with the four-year cycle of the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Between the two sides this evening, we are having an interesting history lesson. Perhaps I might point him towards a more recent piece of history: the passage of the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, which covers the regulations for election campaign spending and also refers to five-year Parliaments. That Act was supported by many of our colleagues who are now on the Opposition Benches.
I do not know whether the hon. Lady was in the House at the time, but I was responsible for that Bill, which emerged from cross-party negotiation. It was an agreed measure. As for the reference to five years, we were not setting the length of a Parliament in the Bill. We were accepting that as a fact and then determining how we dealt with party funding within that frame. There was no commitment whatever in principle in favour of five years rather than four.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct and spot-on in his views on five-year fixed-term Parliaments. I know that it is not my job as a Scottish National party Member to give the Labour party further reasons to vote against Third Reading, but will he guarantee to me that if there is no change in the date and if these elections are to clash, the Labour party will oppose the Bill?
First, I cannot make that offer, not least because it is almost certain that it will not be me standing on the Front Bench, for reasons that the House knows. Although I keep saying that I will leave the Front Bench—and I have probably never been busier as a Front Bencher—it is my intention to do so. Secondly, it would be a matter for the shadow Cabinet and the parliamentary party even if I were to lead on this issue. As I have said to my other hon. Friends, we would weigh all these matters and come to a view.
I have listened to the right hon. Gentleman’s arguments. I am a newly elected Member, and I have spent a great number of years as a prospective parliamentary candidate wondering when the election would be. All I hear from him now is excuses why we should have Parliaments of four years, although it suited his Government rather well to have Parliaments of five years. Is this just about trying to get an election as quickly as possible?
I have long been in favour of fixed terms. I could dig out correspondence I had with Margaret Thatcher in 1983 about fixed terms. The Labour party committed itself to fixed terms in the 1992 election. What typically happens—this is why I welcome the measure and why I wanted that commitment in our manifesto—is that parties in opposition that are in favour of fixed terms go off the boil on them when they come into government. As someone who was a PPC on a number of occasions before coming an MP, I know that the speculation is difficult. It is important to have some certainty and that is why we are not opposing the Bill on Second Reading. I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will use the time available to get things right, not least on whether terms should be for four years or five.
Is not the coincidence of elections in different parts of the country just a problem of our having too many tiers of government? Would not it be better if we simplified the whole thing and did not have so many tiers of government? Then this problem would not arise.
Oh, she is—okay. I shall ensure that the Prime Minister is made aware of her views. Obviously, this is her job application for the position of Secretary of State for Scotland, as she hails from there. I am certainly in favour of abolishing one tier of government where there is two-tier local government, which does not work. Thanks to a wise Conservative decision in 1995, Blackburn and Darwen have greatly benefited from being outwith the clutches of Lancashire county council and the two-tier system. However, that is not Conservative party policy, nor is it in the Bill.
On Prorogation, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) has pointed out, clause 4(1) expressly states:
“This Act does not affect Her Majesty’s power to prorogue Parliament.”
Hon. and right hon. Members on both sides might not particularly have considered this, but it is perfectly possible for a Prime Minister who faces the prospect of a defeat on a motion of no confidence and who does not want an early general election, which would otherwise arise on a simple majority, to seek a Prorogation of the House. That is not idle speculation, because that is exactly what happened in 2008 in Canada.
In Canada, there are fixed terms, by law, of four years, but there are also procedures for early elections, as all fixed-term Parliaments have, if a Government lose confidence. The crisis in Canada arose because there had been an agreed all-party deal on substantially enhanced state funding for the political parties in return for draconian controls on donations and spending. Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister, in justifying all that against an austerity budget, decided to abandon the commitment and arbitrarily and unilaterally to reduce the amounts to be given to the other parties and his opponents. They cried foul and there was a crisis. When there was about to be a motion of no confidence against him, which almost certainly would have been won, he went to the Governor-General, in the seat of Her Majesty, and got a Prorogation so that Parliament would be suspended for quite a long time. The Prorogation was accepted and he subsequently sought, but was not successful, a further Prorogation. Given that the Bill is making significant changes, clause 4(1) has to be changed to ensure that the Bill does affect the right of Her Majesty to prorogue the House.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the ability to prorogue would also be useful to a Prime Minister who wanted an early general election? They could prorogue the House for a fortnight, preventing an alternative Government from being formed and leading straight to a general election.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. People say that such things will never happen, but I am sure that Stephen Harper is an honourable man—as honourable as any British Prime Minister. When senior politicians are up against it and are fighting for their life, they will clutch at any lawful provision, and it would be lawful to do that, so this issue must be considered.
My right hon. Friend referred to my intervention on the Deputy Prime Minister as being about clause 2(1)(c), which I said in terms it was about, but the Deputy Prime Minister is so knowledgeable about this five-clause Bill that he confused it with clause 4(1), so my right hon. Friend is right about the answer but wrong about the question.
I acknowledge the point that my right hon. Friend makes.
I want now to deal with the privilege of the House, which was much aired in the evidence that the Clerk gave the other day to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North. This issue has echoes of our debate 15 months ago about the Parliamentary Standards Bill. I recall that when I introduced the Bill there was a huge harrumph about the degree to which Parliament’s privilege would be being affected by its provisions. There was such a huge harrumph that the Government were defeated on those provisions and had to go back to the drawing board, so I have thought about this matter.
I would not dream of asking the Deputy Prime Minister to confirm this, but I dare say that the advice that he has received about the implications of this Bill are from similar sources to those from which I received advice on the 2009 Bill. I understand that the arguments are often finely balanced. I have certainly given similar undertakings to that given by him about the very long odds on the courts intervening, but this House and the other place are both highly sensitive to interventions by the courts on the privilege of the House. The hunting decision can be used in both ways: the actual decision of the courts, in respect of the Parliament Acts, was not to overturn a decision of this House, but the very fact that they entertained the argument was worrying. I ask him to think very carefully about that.
No, and that is the point. The courts will decline to entertain arguments, and actions, about what happens in the House, because they are banned from doing so; their job is to interpret legislation. The Government are inherently more vulnerable—I do not say that I share the view of the Clerk that they are very vulnerable—because they can get past the first base.
As the right hon. Gentleman probably knows, I was very active on questions about the privileges of the House in relation to the Bill he just mentioned. Just now, the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee implied that the views of the Clerk had effectively been overridden by the views of other experts. I have looked carefully at the evidence, and it is clear that the Clerk gave his view on 7 September whereas the main evidence, from all the other experts, was given on 21 August; in other words, the Clerk of the House of Commons—a distinguished expert and very knowledgeable about the House—gave his evidence in the light of the evidence that had already been given, save only for the oral evidence given by Professor Blackburn. The Committee did not ask Professor Blackburn specifically whether he repudiated the views of the Clerk of the House, so it seems to me—I hope the right hon. Gentleman agrees—that the matter remains very open and that both the Clerk and Professor Blackburn agree that there should have been a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. In those circumstances, the evidence is overwhelming that the scrutiny should be properly done.
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, it would have been difficult for me not to notice that he had taken an interest in privilege in relation to the Parliamentary Standards Bill, as he was scarcely ever not on his feet complaining about something or other that I was doing from the Treasury Bench. The Clerk was absolutely right to raise the issue and in the end we got through it. We were genuinely up against the clock with that measure, because the leaders of all three main parties had agreed both a timetable and broad outline contents.
In this case, I am not coming down on one side or the other, but the issue is sufficiently worrying that we need to take our time.
Many Members want to speak, and as I have spoken at some length I want to conclude.
Legislation for fixed-term Parliaments is a desirable objective and it could be achieved on a cross-party basis, but that requires the Government to go back to the drawing board and respond to the valid criticisms that have been made about the Bill. We want to play our part in helping them to do that and, as I said, we shall not oppose Second Reading, but we want considerable revisions, which require more time and considerably greater opportunity for scrutiny. It also—if I may say so—requires the Deputy Prime Minister in particular to adopt a more measured, considered and consultative approach than has been evident to date. I fully accept that the House’s not knowing about the note on privilege was an error and in no sense intentional, but I have to say that it is very aggravating and does not improve the environment in which the House receives such measures. I hope that we can see a different approach from Ministers. Although most Members support the principle, a huge amount of detail has to be got right before there is any chance of the legislation becoming law.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my first formal contribution to the debates of the House. As many right hon. and hon. Members are aware, Sir Michael Lord, the previous Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, and a long-standing Deputy Speaker, was gravely unwell during the summer, and I felt it inappropriate to make my maiden speech while he was so ill. Members will be pleased to know that he is now making a good recovery and I am sure they will join me in passing our best wishes to Sir Michael for his continued recovery and for his retirement.
Sir Michael Lord was first elected for the then constituency of Central Suffolk in 1983. He was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the right hon. John MacGregor in Margaret Thatcher’s Government and then, as many Members are aware, for 13 years, he served with great distinction, alongside Sir Alan Haselhurst, as a Deputy Speaker. In Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, Sir Michael will be remembered as a hard-working and diligent constituency MP.
The constituency of Central Suffolk and North Ipswich was created in 1997 from the then Central Suffolk constituency, taking in wards from what was then Suffolk Coastal and the northern wards of the Ipswich constituency. It is a constituency of great diversity. Central Suffolk boasts agriculture and a growing tourist trade. I am privileged to represent a very diverse population in North Ipswich, which includes the local Sikh temple and a Sikh community as well as a large Caribbean community.
As there are more than 100 parishes in my constituency, I shall not talk about each in detail, but I will outline some of the main concerns that affect both my constituency and Suffolk as a whole. Members may be aware that before my election to the House I was a front-line NHS hospital doctor. That experience has stood me in good stead in representing my constituents, particularly the health care concerns that they face. In the NHS we have a key battle before us to ensure that we keep front-line services at Ipswich district general hospital. Under the regionalisation agenda of the previous Government, we saw the loss of vital cardiac and cancer care services at the hospital. It is important that we fight to restore Ipswich hospital to its former glory and make sure that once again we provide the vital services that the people of Central Suffolk and North Ipswich need.
In a predominantly rural constituency, Hartismere is a vital community hospital that unfortunately was closed during the last three and a half years of the previous Government. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and his team when he was shadow Secretary of State for working with me to help reopen the hospital, which provides essential services to the older people, families and pregnant women who live in our rural communities.
It would be wrong of me not to draw attention to the fact that throughout Suffolk, thanks to the previous Government’s out-of-hours contract, we were left with only two GPs to look after 650,000 people. That is something we shall look to the new health care White Paper to put right.
Other challenges that face Central Suffolk and North Ipswich include the need to improve broadband services and access. Other Members may take access to broadband and high-speed broadband for granted—particularly if they represent more urban areas—but even if under current plans high-speed broadband is delivered to 90% of the UK, two-thirds of my constituents will still not have access to it. All Suffolk MPs will be working together to help deliver those services.
Many of my fellow East Anglia MPs believe that more attention needs to be paid to infrastructure in our area, particularly roads and rail, which have been badly neglected over the last few years. Indeed, for many years Central Suffolk and North Ipswich received only 80% of the average national spend per head of population. That has taken its toll on a road and rail infrastructure that badly needs investment.
My constituents, like many people throughout the country, will welcome the Bill. It will help us to give the country a clear legislative programme, with certainty about what the Government can do over a five-year period. There is so much to do in terms of welfare and education reform and delivering a new White Paper on health care, and in particular dealing with the profligate economic record of the Labour Government. We must make sure that we have a clear five-year programme in which to do that. A fixed-term Parliament can only be a good thing.
May I tell the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) that I have witnessed many maiden speeches, but his was up there among the best? I am sure that the House will hear much more from him in the coming years, and I look forward to his contributions. His maiden speech was certainly gracious and well constructed, and he made it with very little reference to notes. It was very good, and we all look forward to hearing more from him.
Characteristically, the Deputy Prime Minister stayed for the opening speeches, then cleared off. He described the measure as modest in size. Well, at five clauses, it is indeed modest. He managed to demonstrate that, even though it is only five clauses long, he is not totally familiar with the content of his own Bill. In fact, it is not just modest in size but squalid in intent.
Constitutional reform often has the effect of inducing an outbreak of navel gazing in the House, so I am usually reluctant to take part in these debates. That said, I genuinely believe both that the Bill is wrong in principle and that its details have not been properly tested or subjected to wider scrutiny. There was legislative scrutiny in the second report this Session by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) will give his views to the House—but it can hardly be said that that report, although helpful, gave the proposals a ringing endorsement. Quite the opposite, in fact. In its conclusion on page 8, while not ruling out the principle of fixed-term Parliaments, the Committee expressed its position:
“If the coalition wants five years in which to govern, it has the legal right to do so, for as long as it can command the confidence of the House. But we are not persuaded that current circumstances are a sensible basis on which to commit future governments to five-year terms.”
It is not just the Select Committee that has expressed concern. Indirectly, in business questions last Thursday, the Leader of the House did so, when he said, in answer to a question from me:
“However, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman understands that with a new Government, it is not possible, if one is to make progress, to put everything in draft, particularly when commitments have been made to do certain things by a certain time. Those political imperatives sometimes”—
The House should note the words, “political imperatives”—
“override the ambition that both he and I have to subject all Bills to draft scrutiny.”—[Official Report, 9 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 466.]
There we have it. The reason why the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North was not given longer and why there was not a wider consultation is that the coalition Government have decided—it would appear, by the way, without a great deal of support from some parts of the Government—that they need to deliver the measure for political reasons.
It is possible, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) suggested, to devise a means by which pre-legislative scrutiny could take place. Even with Second Reading being completed today, it would be possible to commit the Bill either to the Select Committee or to a Special Standing Committee, so that the 12 week-period that the Government regard as appropriate is fulfilled. I leave that in the air, in the forlorn hope that even at this point the Minister may take it as a suggestion.
My hon. Friend makes a useful suggestion, and doubtless he will expand on it if he succeeds in catching your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. Issues of principle are involved, as well as of detail, and that is what I intend to try to deal with.
Before dealing with the Bill’s provisions, I want to say a word about the trust that was placed in our hands by our constituents at the general election. I hope that that does not sound too pious, but it is important that we discuss these principles when we deal with measures of this kind. Regardless of our party labels, we have been entrusted by our constituents with the ability to exercise judgment as representatives of our constituencies. That may appear trite, but it is important that we do not lose sight of it. Let me qualify the point, however, as I am not so naive as to assume that the 31,000 people who voted for me in Knowsley in the general election did so wholly or even mainly on the basis that I was the best person for the job.
I have to tell my right hon. Friend that I am far too modest to consider looking at such statistics. Most of the people who voted, however, mainly voted for a particular political party. I am not trying to be unduly modest—that applies to every Member of the House, with very few exceptions.
It is important to remember why people voted for particular parties. It is partly because they agreed with the policies, but partly because they agreed with the values. As the House of Commons Library has made clear in its helpful note, my party manifesto included a commitment to fixed-term Parliaments, as my right hon. Friend said, but that was in the context of a written constitution. I have already cited the wording that was used. My right hon. Friend said that the use of “and” to link fixed-term Parliaments with wider constitutional reform and a constitutional convention was a question of my muddling up subjunctive and conjunctive clauses, but I doubt very much whether he had that in mind when he drafted that section of our manifesto. Knowing him, it is possible that he deliberately left the wording ambiguous so that on a future occasion he could make the claim that he made today. Not for nothing did the late Barbara Castle suggest that he could occasionally be devious—I do not think that she actually used the word, “devious” but that was the import of what she said—and had a great deal of low cunning. Our earlier exchange perhaps demonstrated that even though he is not standing for the shadow Cabinet, he still has a great deal of low cunning.
The manifesto commitment was ambiguous, but a further point needs to be made. How far does an Opposition party go towards deciding that it must stick to every measure in a previous manifesto when, as we did, it loses the election?
I understand that Governments and parties that contribute towards Governments are rightly judged by the extent to which they do what they say will do at a general election and in their manifesto, but it seems to me—and I hope to my right hon. Friend—that although the principles that we stand by as a party and our values as a party endure defeat and victory in a general election, specific policies, and certainly policies on such an issue, do not necessarily survive a defeat.
I was out and about in my constituency over the weekend and had many conversations about matters political, not just with Labour party members, but with voters. Surprise, surprise, not one of them said to me, “George, I want you to go down there on Monday for the Second Reading of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and vote for it.” They did not say, “Vote for it.” They did not say, “Don’t vote for it.” They have never discussed it with me at all. I have never had a letter on fixed-term Parliaments. I have never had an e-mail—no doubt I will get hundreds of them now—on fixed-term Parliaments. No constituent has ever discussed fixed-term Parliaments with me. Any belief that we have a moral obligation to support the Bill has passed me by.
There are other important things that we should take into account. I come back to the point that I made at the beginning. We are sent here to exercise a judgment about many things, one of which is the performance of any Government at any given time. One of the devices that we have at our disposal in such circumstances is a vote of no confidence. Normally, a vote of no confidence can trigger an election process, subject to the monarch and all the procedures that have to take place in those circumstances. I do not believe that our constituents want us to be in a position where we retain the right to pass a vote of no confidence if the effect of that vote is dependent on the proportion of Members who voted for it.
If a Government have lost the confidence of the House of Commons and that is manifested by a majority of one or two in a vote of no confidence, why is that wrong? Whether the Government have lost the confidence of two thirds of the House, a dozen or two or three Members, why does that make a difference? In the end, a Government who have run out of steam, run out of ideas or run out of confidence here or in the country should go.
I was sent here to make sure that whatever the political composition of the Government of the day, I had the ability on behalf of my constituents to say, “Enough is enough. Go!” That ability, which I have had for the 20-odd years that I have been a Member of the House, is circumscribed by the terms of the Bill.
There has been much talk about hypothetical situations that may occur if the Bill is passed. A vote of no confidence does not necessarily mean that there would be a general election. I am thinking back to the time when the House voted on the Iraq war. If the Government had lost that vote, and if the Prime Minister of the day had made it a matter of confidence in him and had lost, does the right hon. Gentleman envisage that there would have been a general election, or would the then Government have changed the Executive and therefore, in effect, the Government?
It is always difficult to speculate about what would have happened at a given time if the vote had gone in a different direction. I know for a fact that the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had taken the view—it is now a matter of record—that he would have had to stand down as Prime Minister. That would have changed the leadership of the Executive and the political leadership of the country. How that would have affected the imminence or otherwise of a general election is impossible to judge, because the arithmetic of Parliament would have stayed the same. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman meant that to be a helpful intervention for the Government, but I do not think it serves that purpose at all.
It is inconceivable and against our traditions that a Prime Minister who proposes a war with the support of his Cabinet is defeated and does not depart the scene. There would have to be a general election. That is our tradition, that is the convention, and that was our constitution.
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is right, and that he is right about what would have been the outcome in those circumstances, but I am not sure it would have been quite so direct. There may have had to be another vote before that became clear. We are speculating about a particular circumstance at a particular time.
I have made the points that I want to make, but I have one more thing to say in conclusion. I do not believe that the people who voted for me sent me here to vote for a measure linked to other measures which, above all, are designed to entrench the position of the coalition Government. Because I was not sent here to do that, regardless of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) says from the Front Bench, and regardless of what was in our manifesto—I am not sure that many of my constituents are remotely aware that it was in our manifesto—there are no circumstances in which I could support the Second Reading of the Bill or even just sit on my hands. So if anybody else in the House is up for it, I shall be marching through the No Lobby to ensure that there is some opposition to the Bill tonight.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak on this extremely important Bill. In the evidence that the Select Committee received, one of the distinguished experts who gave their opinion on the Bill described it as so fundamental that in other countries it would have required a constitutional amendment and possibly an entrenched majority of the House to pass.
It is a symptom of the lack of seriousness with which constitutional questions are sometimes treated in the House that the Bill is being rushed through with undignified haste, as appears to be the case, and I regret it. In the last Parliament I spent five years criticising the previous Administration and sometimes being a little harsh on the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) for the way in which he introduced constitutional Bills, but although he sometimes ignored the substance of consultation, he always preserved its appearance, and he did so with the charm and urbanity that is characteristic of him. In this case, we have had neither the substance nor the appearance. Every single constitutional expert who has given their opinion on the Bill has deplored the absence of consultation in which the House and those in the wider community have had an opportunity to participate.
I am troubled by the Bill. I do not understand why we should rush through the House so fundamental a constitutional alteration to arrangements that have stood us in reasonably good stead for generations. In this country our constitution has broadly served us well. We have had political stability for generations. It behoves the House to contemplate very carefully the wisdom of what it is doing, and to be sure that it is replacing the system that has served us well for so many generations with something better than what we had before. I do not believe that we have had the proper opportunity to consult widely and to consider carefully the Bill and the proposal that it puts forward.
Why would it not be possible, if the measure is important to the existence of the coalition, to propose a Bill that applied to this Parliament only, and thereafter to consider the longer-term question? I apply the same principle to some of the other constitutional changes that are being introduced by the Government. To my way of thinking, it is really quite likely that our constitution needs fundamental amendment. I have spoken in the House on several occasions, referring to the fact that I believe that the time may have arrived when we need to consider wholesale the constitutional arrangements of this country. But if we do that, we should do so in a way that dignifies with respect the history of our constitution; that treats it with sufficient seriousness and depth—that produces a constitutional convention, for example, or brings together men and women of good will across all the parties to decide upon the constitutional arrangements that may last 100 or more years and determine the democratic shape of our nation’s affairs. That is the way to introduce constitutional change, not in a piecemeal and fragmentary way, not incoherently, not because of immediate expediency, but because we have thought it through and because we know that what we seek to replace the former arrangements with will be better than what has gone before.
One of the things that troubles me most about the provision is that it removes the pivotal involvement of the monarch in decisions about the formation of a Government. It is not a light thing, however graciously Her Majesty may have placed her prerogatives at the disposal of the House, to remove some of the fundamental and inherent prerogatives that Her Majesty retains. In 1910, when Asquith approached George V and asked whether the King would be willing to make 300 new peers in an attempt to steamroller through a fundamental change to the constitution, the sovereign answered Asquith, “No. I will not allow you to push through so fundamental a change to our constitution in such a way unless you consult the people in a general election.” The right of the monarch to insist upon a Dissolution when some fundamentally antidemocratic change is proposed by a Prime Minister, is a fundamental safeguard in our constitution. It is something that the monarch, strong in the affections and respect of the British people, is uniquely able to do.
As Conservatives, I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends, we should think long and hard before we remove the cornerstone of our constitution—the discretion and prerogative of the monarch to safeguard our democracy. What is constitutional in this country is the Queen in Parliament, the Crown in Parliament. The mere fact that the Crown in Parliament is often silent and invisible and inactive does not mean that it is not an important cornerstone in our constitutional arrangements. The right of the monarch, either to decline a Dissolution or to insist upon a Dissolution, seems to me a fundamental safeguard. I am not saying that there may not be a case for change. What I am saying, and what I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends, is that it is not something for us as Conservatives simply to brush lightly aside, either for reasons of expediency or for reasons that are unnecessary. I say again: why would it not be possible to have a Bill that determines the length of this Parliament, if we needed such a Bill and if the good faith of the Prime Minister was not enough, and to consider the longer- term ramifications of the measure in a proper way?
The ability of the Prime Minister to seek a Dissolution is not simply the unfair, unprincipled, unattractive proposition that the Deputy Prime Minister proposed to the House an hour or so ago. The ability of the Prime Minister to go to the Queen to ask for a Dissolution can sometimes be done in circumstances very much in the interests of the nation. I am not saying that it is not sometimes abused. Of course I accept that it can be abused. But in other circumstances it may be vital. The Prime Minister may believe, for example, that it is required in the public interest that he should propose to Parliament a measure that was not in the governing party’s manifesto, but which, for reasons of principle, he believes he should put to the country. What does he do then? Let us suppose, for example, that a future Government proposed to join a united states of Europe. Let us suppose that a future Government, in the middle of its term, felt that it was necessary to put to Parliament a substantial surrender of power, so much so that it possibly placed the independent self-governance of this nation in question. Would not the Prime Minister be justified in those circumstances—I simply take that issue at random; there are many others—in asking the Queen for a Dissolution of Parliament? He has no manifesto commitment; this is a fundamental issue of principle. He is not seeking party advantage, but he believes in all conscience that he needs the approval of the British people. This Bill would prevent him from doing that unless he could gain the assent of 66% of the Members of the House. But he may believe, as a matter of conviction and conscience that it is vital that he should go to the people with so fundamental a proposal.
I will in a moment, if I may.
So again I say to the House, it is not simply a done deal. It is not an open-and-shut argument that fixed-term Parliaments are a good thing. The flexibility of our constitution, the ability of the Prime Minister to seek a Dissolution, is not always a bad thing; it can be a good thing. True it is that in recent times Prime Ministers have tended to abuse it. True it is that in recent experience they have perhaps lessened the dignity of their office by declaring elections in schools and by dithering over the timing of a general election. But that does not mean that we ought not to consider carefully a fundamental change to a fixed-term parliament. My plea today is that we do not regard this as simply a subordinate consideration. The way in which this has been introduced and the lightness with which the House is being expected to deal with this critical question troubles me.
In my submission, the existence of the Queen’s right to dissolve is in some circumstances very important. That may be why in Canada the prerogative of the Queen was preserved. Although they introduced a fixed-term parliament, the Canadians decided to retain the prerogative of the Queen to dissolve Parliament. We should think long and hard before we make a change of this kind. The role of the monarch is an important one and it is not one that we should simply discard.
I have a number of other observations about the Bill. I am troubled about the length—five years. That means that it postpones for five years, in perpetuity hereafter, the ability of the people of this country to pass their opinion upon the performance of a Government. That is potentially too long. The people of this country, who have had no opportunity to be consulted on this issue, are entitled to be consulted in greater depth than we have done hitherto, through the processes that this House has for the taking of evidence and through the ordinary channels of political communication.
I am troubled about the imprecision in what is intended in clause 2 as regards a motion of no confidence. Perhaps this can be tackled in Committee. The provisions seem to give rise to the realistic prospect that the courts may be tempted to invade on these matters. Let me say a few words about privilege. I agree with the right hon. Member for Blackburn that it is probably unlikely that the courts would wish to intrude on a matter so pivotal to the workings of Parliament as the Speaker certifying that there was a requisite majority under clause 2, but we cannot rule it out. As the Clerk of the Parliament has said, once we inscribe in statute, the courts are automatically engaged. It is their constitutional function to interpret a statute, and I cannot think of a single instance where the courts have declined to entertain an arguable interpretation in an arguable case.
It is true that the courts may say, after deliberation, and after appeal upon appeal, eventually in the Supreme Court, that they have declined to consider whether the certificate issued by the Speaker is indeed a valid certificate. However, this House has tried, on many occasions, to devise so-called ouster clauses seeking to foreclose the jurisdiction of the court on a judicial review, and I cannot think of a single case in which those clauses have prevented the court from saying, “Okay, we will get involved only in certain limited circumstances, but where it is, for example, a question of the precondition for the exercise of the discretion, we will get involved.” The Clerk gave a very good example when he pointed out that although clause 2 says that a certificate shall be “conclusive for all purposes”, that does not, in theory, prevent the court from inquiring into whether it is a certificate at all.
The courts have adopted precisely that analysis in the case of two or three statutes where the House has sought to exclude the jurisdiction of the courts and they have said, “No, it is our duty to scrutinise and to interpret the meaning of a statute, and where it is a question of whether the essential, fundamental preconditions are met for the exercise of a discretion, we will see whether they have been met.” It would be an act of voluntary self-restraint by the courts to deny themselves the jurisdiction to examine the statute to see whether the Speaker had complied. It is likely that they would exercise that voluntary self-restraint, but one cannot exclude the possibility that as time goes on—
I am following my hon. and learned Friend’s arguments with great interest. In the Parliament Acts, the expression about whether the provision is conclusive for all purposes is reinforced by the words,
“and shall not be questioned in any court of law”.
It is curious that those words are omitted from this Bill given that would provide an additional safeguard and put the courts even more on notice that Parliament had instructed them not to question any provision in any court of law.
I take my hon. Friend’s point. However, in my experience of judicial review proceedings, no form of language has been completely successful in ousting the court’s examination of a statute. This is a well-known phenomenon in administrative law. The House has, on several occasions, tried its very best, through expressions of the character that he mentions, to oust the jurisdiction of the courts, but the courts have said no. In this case, the Bill says that a certificate shall be “conclusive for all purposes”, but the courts would be likely to say, “That means ‘a valid certificate will be conclusive for all purposes’, and we are entitled to consider whether this is a valid certificate.” It would be an act of purely voluntary self-restraint if the court said, “In these circumstances we will treat this statute as non-justiciable.” I can think of no examples of where the courts have yet done that. Certainly, they have held certain things to be non-justiciable, but usually because the duty is vague and the expression of the statute is more aspirational than definitive. In this case, it is clear what conditions are set out for the Speaker to pass a valid certificate for the purposes of an early election.
In my judgment, it is not possible to rule out the courts’ involvement. If that is right, we should pause. I say this to the Minister: please let us think long and hard about further consideration of this Bill, because it smacks of undue and undignified haste. I have spoken about the duration of the Parliament, and the monarch’s integral and pivotal role in deciding on either declining a Dissolution, agreeing to a Dissolution or insisting on a Dissolution is vital. The Bill’s imprecision on the nature of a no-confidence motion is vital. Why should we not pause in relation to fixed-term Parliaments? Why do we have to make law for the long-term future? It is regrettable, and I have great trouble with this Bill, as I did with last week’s Bill about the alternative vote referendum.
As an Opposition, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives frequently criticised the then Administration for piecemeal, incoherent and fragmentary reform in constitutional affairs. Why are we repeating that error? We should be taking a long-term, coherent view of our constitution. How can it be right that we decide the electoral cycle of this House not in conjunction with a consideration of what a reformed Second Chamber would look like? How can it be right that we decide the electoral system of this House not in conjunction with the electoral system that we shall use for the Second Chamber? That would be joined-up, mature and wise constitutional law-making; this looks like something very different. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that it is embarrassing to be on these Benches having to listen to a Bill of this kind being put forward in such a way. I had hoped for better from this Government.
First, I congratulate the members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, many of whom are here tonight, on performing a brilliant job of which I hope the House is very proud. They had a mere two or three days in which to produce for the House a first-class report; I hope that colleagues will take the chance to look at it. If it does not cover all the answers, it none the less raises most of the key questions, which can be resolved through the passage of this Bill. I thank all those Members who worked so hard on pulling the document together. I took the liberty of e-mailing it to every Member of the House within one minute of its publication on Friday morning, in the hope that those who were not out campaigning and knocking on doors at the weekend would have a chance at least to look at it and inform themselves ahead of the debate. We did the best we could, but it is still not good enough in respect of the procedures of the House. We should expect our Select Committees to have a careful, long, detailed look at the legislation that is proposed by the Government and that the House is expected to pass. We can do that by having proper pre-legislative scrutiny.
The Bill flies in the face of effective pre-legislative scrutiny. We will do our best for the two days of Committee on the Floor of the House, but I hope very much that in future the Government will ensure that we all get adequate time to do what we are here for—to make better law. The Government-drafted law, good as it is, will always benefit from a careful, steady appraisal and from the answering of questions. That is what the parliamentary process is designed for.
Pre-legislative scrutiny is a valuable tool for the House across a range of legislation, and constitutional change has significant ramifications for a whole other range of legislation that the House has passed over many hundreds of years. Does my hon. Friend agree that pre-legislative scrutiny should almost have been a pre-requisite before the Bill came to the House?
As I would expect, my right hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. As we have heard today, many people support the principle of what the Government are saying. Why lose friends by rushing the process? Why not get better law by going steadily? I am sure that colleagues know that democratic change has been dear to my heart for many years. Above all, why not build a consensus in the House for the change once it has been gone through carefully and after everyone in the House feels that they have been able to be involved—rather than everyone in the House feeling that they have been cheated and that the process has been abusive to them as Members of Parliament? I shall return to that issue a little later.
This is a Second Reading debate, so we are talking about the big principles. The big principle is whether we should have a fixed-term Parliament. I speak personally and strongly in saying that such a Parliament is certainly needed; many of us have campaigned for one for many years. I think that it will become a steady, fixed aspect of what we do in this country. To quote the report,
“our expectation is that future Parliaments would run for their full fixed term, and that this will become an unremarkable aspect of our modern democracy.”
That is how most western democracies operate, and they take it in their stride. That is just how things are. They have a set, fixed system and do not get terribly excited for two or three years about whether there will be a general election. They know perfectly well when their legislature and Executive are going to be elected. The process is not all covered in mysticism, judicial archaeology and obscure Standing Orders; it is there for people to see, with every elector owning their democracy.
It was said that nobody writes to hon. Members about fixed-term Parliaments. People do not; but they do speak to all of us on the doorsteps about how they feel about politics. They feel that politics is not working and does not deliver for them. Our role is to take that general sentiment—albeit not expressed in favour of this or that clause in a particular Bill—that we must restore politics to people. That is one of the key principles underlying the idea of a fixed-term Parliament.
I have got form on this issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) talked about the 1992 Labour party decision. I was fortunate enough to have drafted that document. That was nearly 20 years ago and there has been a lot of discussion since, but the House is finally getting the chance to decide on whether the people of our country should know when the next general election is going to be. That is a really important step forward.
The hon. Gentleman is doing a great job with his Committee and I congratulate it on producing such a speedy report.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the will of Parliament can easily be subjected to the will of the Whips? On a matter of great constitutional importance, it is perfectly clear that one of the main objectives would be to use the Whip system to get whatever result the respective members of the coalition Government wanted—at the expense of the people of this country, who vote for us?
Indeed. One of the small matters of dispute that I have had with the hon. Gentleman over the years has been that somehow he feels that we can recreate some golden parliamentary age. This place is owned by the Executive and the alternative Executive; the hon. Gentleman, more than anybody, should know that. If he does not understand that, he falls into the same trap as the Clerk, who talked about the
“House’s mastery of its own proceedings”.
That is a myth and a self-deception. We must confront that issue. We imagine that somehow there are 650 individuals here creating our own rules, but the rules are created by the Executive.
The Bill seeks to put into law provisions for a fixed-term Parliament, rather than putting them only in Standing Orders, which can be changed at a moment’s notice. The 10 o’clock rule is suspended on a daily basis and Standing Orders are cast aside and suspended on a regular basis. To pretend that there is an atomised Parliament with 650 Members all exercising their consciences is a self-deception out of which, I hope, hon. Members throughout the House will educate themselves. In that way, we can take back some control for the House and strengthen Parliament, and people can elect us understanding that the House of Commons—the legislature —is different from the Executive, and should have its own independence and powers.
The hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) led me down the road of the rebalancing of powers between the legislature and the Executive, and I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister that this, for once, is the Executive actually giving away a power, for whatever reason. We can make our own judgments about the reason, but I welcome the change, because it helps to rebalance the power between the Executive and the legislature. If we seize this moment, we could use it to help to strengthen this institution rather than, as the hon. Member for Stone mentioned, just following the Whips. We could use this precedent to make sure that we can build up and strengthen our Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Bill could strengthen the standing of Parliament. However, as I understand it, the Bill does not prevent the Government from putting down a motion of no confidence in themselves and therefore, if they had a majority, getting an election whenever they wanted one. That is the ineffectiveness of the drafting of the Bill.
There are so many flaws in the Bill’s drafting. The Committee, on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf, has done as good a job as it can in pointing them out. I hope that all of them will be put right during the Committee stage, as they could be put right if we were to have a special Public Bill Committee or a proper pre-legislative process. However, that is currently not the case. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and one that should be addressed by the Government as the Bill proceeds.
The other thing about a fixed-term Parliament is predictability and continuity. Instead of permanent politics-as-entertainment, in which there is speculation about impending general elections and people feed tittle-tattle and gossip to raise or lower the political temperature, we will know that we can get on with serious business while knowing the date of the next general election and putting such considerations aside. That is something of great importance, and would lead to us as parliamentarians being able to seize greater control of what we do in this place on a number of issues, rather than being engaged, even at arm’s length, in speculation about when an election will take place.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and his Committee, and for the evidence that it has taken. However, what concerns me—one of the witnesses makes this point in a written statement—is that we are talking about piecemeal constitutional change. The Labour and Conservative parties are dedicated to an elected House of Lords, for instance. How does a five or four-year term—or whatever it is—fit into the broader picture for us? That is what bothers me, so to talk about a piece of piecemeal legislation—and to ask the question “Cui bono?”—is not good enough.
Perfection may be the enemy of the good in this case. As parliamentarians, we are feeding on the crumbs from the table, and I guess that this is as good as we can do. The choice is not between the Bill and a big-bang written constitution that solves all the problems in one go; the Bill is what is on offer, and as supplicants in the process, we can only try to make it a better part of this piecemeal change. Unfortunately, we do not have the option of something much more fundamental; and indeed, I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman would really want that. However, perhaps he does, so I will follow his speech with interest.
The other thing about predictability and continuity is that they give Governments the chance to decide their programme and work through their Bills much more effectively. This helter-skelter “throw it into the mix” way of passing legislation debilitates Governments of all parties. Let there be proper evidence-based policy making—probably for the first time in our lifetime—so that the Government can put things to the House of Commons that are almost fully formed, rather than throwing them in and saying, “We’ll hope to amend them as they go through this House and the second Chamber.” Instead of saying, “Let’s botch a few things and get hundreds of amendments down to try and get the Bill into shape,” how about having proper, considered, evidence-based policy making from the Government, which would then be immensely strengthened by proper scrutiny by the House? Who loses in that process?
Some might say, “It’s going to delay things,” but we did this. Indeed, a classic example from when Labour was in power was criminal justice Bills. We popped them out virtually once a year because we had not got it right the first time, but we also had to get something before the House and show that we were fighting crime. I think we can all do better than that. If we used the process that is readily available to us to consider legislation carefully, the Government would amaze themselves at the Bills they could produce for the House and the House would amaze itself at the contribution it could make by having proper scrutiny of how legislation develops.
We have proposed, on an all-party basis, that there should be 12 weeks of pre-legislative scrutiny. To his great credit, the Leader of the House has written to the Liaison Committee saying that Bills should normally have a 12-week evidence-taking pre-legislative scrutiny period. If we can get the so-called new politics to deliver on that, so that every Bill goes through that process, we will produce much better law. However, if we just ram things through the House of Commons, it will be business as usual and legislation will be flawed. Those who throw in the bogey of the courts coming and lurking in the corridors of the House of Commons will find their wish fulfilled, because there may indeed be flaws in the legislation. I hope we will iron out all those wrinkles this week and in the days on the Floor of the House, but if we are not careful and if we do not have the right level of scrutiny, we may get what we wish for.
Given the adversarial nature of our legislative process, does my hon. Friend agree that some of the issues to which he has alluded will be difficult to iron out in the passage of this legislation and that pre-legislative scrutiny would have led not only to a far better conclusion, but to one that would have gathered a consensus across the House?
It is not always possible to achieve a consensus, but technical issues—whether the courts might be involved; whether the proposal might be implemented better through Standing Orders or in statute; the number of days needed after a Government have lost the confidence of the House—are the sorts of things that can be decided to everybody’s satisfaction. That does not mean that everyone will be satisfied for or against a fixed-term Parliament, but that is the purpose of a Second Reading, and that is the purpose of the final reading in this House: to say yes or no to the key principles. What we in this House are failing to deliver is technically competent, thoroughly analysed and examined pieces of legislation. That is why we have Select Committees, Public Bill Committees and the Committee stage on the Floor of the House for democratic Bills. However, we as a House are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to do that work by asking our Select Committee to come up with a report, good as it is, in two or three days.
I join others in congratulating the hon. Gentleman and his Committee on the work that they have done in the short time available. Can he share with the House what discussions he has had, and what explanation he has been given, about the failure to go down the route of pre-legislative scrutiny for this important piece of constitutional legislation?
I will have to let the Minister answer that question in the wind-up. With the first Bill—on AV and boundaries—there was a desire for a referendum in May and a great rush to secure one. With this Bill on fixed-term Parliaments, which would benefit immensely from study—not delay, but getting it right—I have not really had a sensible explanation as to why it is being pushed through in the brief period when the House is back in September.
The Bill as a concept—and so without a Second Reading—could have been discussed on the Floor of the House in June or July. Without any knowledge of the Bill, we could have discussed the key principles, but it was not put before us in a way that enabled the Committee to bring sensible and serious evidence before the House. If doing things that way could become part of the process, I would be very happy, but that would really mean putting it in Standing Orders. It is no good waiting for smoke signals from Ministers or the Leader of the House; it should be the right of this House to look at legislation. That should be what we expect, not something that may be handed down with a nod and a wink.
We all very much enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s evangelical speeches on behalf of empowering the House, but there are three representatives of minority parties in the Chamber, and he will know that we do not have the same access as hon. Members in the three big parties. What is he actively doing to ensure that we are represented in all those important Committees of the House? We are not on his Committee, for example, or on the Liaison Committee, and there are so many others. Surely he could help us a bit more to get there.
I do not want to go over old ground—you might pull me up, Madam Deputy Speaker—but the hon. Gentleman will know that there are a number of us, not least among the Select Committee Chairs, working away on that issue to try to find a happy resolution. Unfortunately, what was agreed at that moment was a satisfactory compromise, but not exactly what we might all have wanted in those negotiations. None the less, that is something that the House must continue to pursue.
Another advantage of the predictability and continuity of a fixed-term Parliament would be that it would give Members of Parliament and their staff, and the staff of the House, some clarity about the House’s timetable and calendar. That would bring some stability to the way in which staff are employed, for example, and to their holidays and their terms and conditions. Such provisions in the Bill would also give electoral registration officers in every locality a greater length of time to prepare than they have when a snap election is called. We have heard, in a different context, lots of stuff about people failing to register. It would be well within the compass of election registration officers to build up a registration campaign ahead of key events such as general elections, and to plan ahead for such campaigns.
We have also heard—I think it was from the Deputy Prime Minister, or perhaps from an intervener on him—about the Electoral Commission’s report, which was published today. It talks about the importance of overseas and forces voters being registered properly, and a fixed-term Parliament could broaden our democracy by making that work. At heart, however, the Bill is about restoring policy questions to our politics, and about not being so distracted by the media blood sports relating to whether we are going to have an election, in whose favour it will be and when the Prime Minister is going to go to the palace.
Finally, I want to deal with the failure to get effective scrutiny for the Bill. That failure has meant that we have not been able to look at a large number of issues that attach to a fixed-term Parliament, including the use of royal prerogative powers and the strength of the Executive over Parliament. We have not been able to study the links between what we are proposing now and fixed-term Parliaments in other areas. We have not been able to examine prerogative powers in relation to proroguing Parliament. That has been mentioned tangentially, but why do we still have these obscure, ancient rights? No one, except those who work inside the Executive, seems to know quite where they come from or how they can be exercised. These things are not in our power; they are not part of Parliament’s mastery of its own destiny.
The power to set the date for the meeting of Parliament after a general election is not in the gift of the Members who have just been elected; it is in the gift of the Government. We are not masters of our own destiny in that regard. The power also exists for the Prime Minister to go to the Palace without any authority from Parliament. We talk about things being announced on the “Today” programme, but the Prime Minister does not even need to come to the House to announce that there is to be an election. He does not even have to come here, as the leader of the main party, to claim the right to be sent by Parliament to the palace. We see smoke and mirrors on general election night; colleagues are a passing butterfly of an electoral college that night, and they are expected simply to toe the line thereafter. That is what royal prerogative powers are about; what the term really means is Executive power. All those powers remain untouched and unlooked-at, because we were not allowed to scrutinise the Bill effectively.
I will vote for the Bill tonight. In principle, we need a fixed term for our Parliaments. We should debate on the Floor of the House whether it is four years or five. We should, however, have had proper scrutiny. That would have made this a better Bill. I say with some empathy for the coalition Government that, above all, if they want to change the way in which we are governed, and the way in which our democracy works, they cannot do it by the old methods. They have to reach out, explain and educate. If they do not, those people who would otherwise be their friends and make a consensus work, and who would make the new democracy work and give Parliament the rights that it deserves, will not be with them. It is a great mistake to push through legislation, particularly legislation of this nature, without trying to bring people with them, and the most important people to bring with them in that regard are Members of this House of all parties.
Order. There are 15 Members in the Chamber who wish to participate in the debate. As there is no time limit on speeches, we will not be able to fit all 15 Members in unless we see a little more progress being made. This is in hon. Members’ hands, but a quick calculation shows that if each takes about 10 minutes, we might have a racing chance of fitting everyone in. I want to make that clear to everyone who wishes to speak. Otherwise, we might have to reflect on whether we need a time limit.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak in this debate, and a particular pleasure to be called to speak after the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). I shall come to some of the concerns that he has raised, many of which I share. However, that does not take away my genuine pleasure at being able to speak to a Bill that, as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said earlier, takes away the Prime Minister’s power to choose the date of the election to suit his or her party. There are understandable concerns—perhaps more than I had envisaged when I came into the Chamber today—but my party and I see the Bill as a huge step forward.
We have heard about somersaults in manifesto commitments, but I support the principle behind the Bill, and the need for fixed-term Parliaments has been enshrined in my party’s policies and manifestos for many decades. I do not know when the four years became five during the negotiations between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat negotiating teams, but the principle is still there. Of course there are still details to be worked out in Committee and, yes, many questions should have been asked during pre-legislative scrutiny. In an ideal world, we would also have had more than two days to consider the Bill in Committee. Those are legitimate concerns, but I do not want to lose sight of the principle behind the Bill.
I also believe that the Government are in listening mode. Concern was expressed—and shared by some on the Liberal Democrat Benches—when the 55% threshold was announced, and a vigorous campaign was set up to oppose it. The Government have listened to those concerns and revised their position, and I hope that some of the sensible comments that have been made today will attract the ear of the Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister.
I have served on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee for the past five years. Anyone who has served on a Select Committee will know that, when such Committees work properly, the depth of their inquiries and their capacity to call witnesses over long periods of time are not taken lightly. I share the concerns expressed by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in its report. It had the capacity to hold deep and meaningful discussions over a couple of sessions. I am grateful to the Chairman for the fact that I received my copy of the report very speedily; reading it over the weekend certainly informed my understanding of the matter. However, this is not a satisfactory way to proceed.
We have also heard about the concerns of the Clerk of the House. They were articulated strongly by the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox). I shall not attempt, given my humble background, to denigrate the views of the Clerk of the House, but he has strongly held views, and a counter-view was put forward by the Chairman of the Select Committee. All those views need to be fully examined, and we need to see a balance between different witnesses putting forward their cases. I do not, however, share the view that the Bill should not proceed as a consequence of those concerns, and I welcome the principles behind it, and the common ground that is to be found across the Chamber.
One specific matter still concerns me, however, although I was reassured by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister’s comments on it earlier. It is the position in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister has talked about pursuing these matters further, and there are legitimate concerns about the prospect of National Assembly elections in Wales on the same day as the next general election for this Parliament. The consequence might be an increased turnout, but there is a genuine fear, articulated by many parties in Wales, Scotland and, no doubt, Northern Ireland as well that Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish issues—the issues of the Celtic nations—will be drowned out in a national picture.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I hesitate to agree because we are talking about national elections for countries—about two general elections happening simultaneously in the same country. That is the difference. We are talking about the relationship between the media and the campaigns and the ability of the Welsh and other Celtic nations to get their message across in the national media.
The hon. Gentleman is on to a good point. I heard the Deputy Prime Minister say that a solution would be found, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would not be acceptable to have those elections only a few months apart? We cannot be in continual election mode in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for, say, six months a year. There has to be clear blue water between the elections.
That is the debate that needs to be had. I took the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement as the opening gambit in that discussion. I think that the hon. Gentleman is right. For the First Minister in the Welsh context simply to tamper with the date and have a general election in Wales a month after a general election would be completely unacceptable. We would have two months of perpetual campaigning and the drowning out of Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish issues would still very much apply.
My hon. Friend makes a telling point. It is one thing to have a general election and a one-issue referendum. I do not mind saying that I have chosen my line on that issue; my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has convinced me that the Welsh people are perfectly equipped to differentiate between one issue on one ballot paper and voting in a Welsh general election. However, having two general elections on the same day is quite another thing, not least because of the different boundaries that are likely to apply, as my hon. Friend suggests. That will lead to a huge amount of confusion. We need to take a few minutes to reflect on it; I know it is hard for Members representing English constituencies to understand. It would be immensely confusing to voters if two general elections were held on the same day. We already have difficulty in explaining the devolution settlement and how it works, and indeed explaining the distinction between powers for the devolved nations and powers exercised by this Parliament. It is a very big issue.
I did not necessarily expect my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to address this issue, but I am very pleased that he has. We do not know what it involves—[Interruption]—yet. He has acknowledged the problem, however, and I pay tribute to him for that, but we have to go further.
May I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that that stands in contradiction to the reply he gave to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), when he said that he did not want us to be in perpetual electoral mode. Frankly, from what the Deputy Prime Minister said today, we are talking about only a few weeks’ difference—not months or even years—between one election and the other.
The right hon. Lady makes a fair point. That is why I differ slightly from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) about whether the gap should be months or years. At the moment, there is a capacity to alter the dates for a month either side of the current arrangements, whereas I would welcome an arrangement whereby the Welsh First Minister could effect a difference of months.
I enter this nationalist debate with some trepidation because, as an English MP, I have not been involved in this type of situation. Does my hon. Friend not think that the electorates in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have the ability and intelligence to differentiate between two different elections and to make their minds up appropriately on the day?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I am drawing a distinction between a general election and a referendum. Fighting two general elections on different boundaries will potentially create huge problems. I have never doubted the intelligence of the electorate of Ceredigion to make judgments on all sorts of things, but some of the concern is legitimate. Like the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), I have not had any letters about fixed-term Parliaments, but I guarantee that people outside polling stations will be very concerned if we have these two elections on the same day. There will be a lot of concern and anxiety about it. It might not have manifested itself yet, but it will if the two elections go ahead on the same day.
My hon. Friend is very generous in giving way. Before he concludes, I would like to put on record the view I share with him that, if the date of the election is to be altered, the Assembly and the other devolved Administrations, rather than Westminster, should be given the power to determine it.
I agree absolutely. As ever, I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a committed devolutionist, as am I, my party and other parties in the House. It is only right that that decision should be made in the devolved national bodies.
That is a debate to be had, as the past five minutes have illustrated perfectly. That reinforces the point made by the Select Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Nottingham North, about the extent of the scrutiny he is able to undertake. The case for pre-legislative scrutiny now seems lamentably to have passed this Bill by. These are immense constitutional issues, but I believe that there is a large—albeit not unanimous—consensus about them. I only wish we had the opportunity to illustrate it through the scrutiny work of the Select Committee and other bodies of the House.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to take part in this important debate. In the space of just seven days, we have faced a barrage of constitutional legislation and various announcements. Since last Monday, we have had legislative proposals on changing the voting system, reducing the number of MPs and new boundaries for constituencies right across the country within an unprecedentedly short space of time. Today we have legislation before us for fixed-term Parliaments. This morning a decision was announced about doing away with the Queen’s Speech next year and moving towards five-yearly fixed terms, with Queen’s Speeches in spring rather than the autumn. As I understand it, an announcement has also been made today about legislation to bring into effect the provision of a referendum whenever further powers are to be transferred to Brussels. In fact, most of the damage has already been done when it comes to transferring powers to Brussels, yet nothing is to be done about that—but that is a different debate.
I list those legislative proposals simply to show the difference between what is happening now and the September sittings of previous Parliaments, which, frankly, amounted to nothing more than a bit of window-dressing to impress the media that Parliament and MPs were busy about their work. We cannot accuse the Government of that in this September sitting, as some of the most meaty legislation has been introduced in a short space of time. I say that not to compliment the Government but to condemn them, as they have rushed through this massively important, incredibly significant constitutional legislative change, with at least five significant proposals, three of which are contained in the primary legislation.
As the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee said, the Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have not shared with the House why they felt that the normal pre-legislative scrutiny period could not be afforded for the Bill. Given that the Bill has no deadline, and we are to have a two-year Parliamentary Session, there is no reason why we could not have had proper pre-legislative scrutiny. When the Minister winds up the debate, I hope that he will tell the House why it has been denied that.
I listened carefully to the criticism made by the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) of the piecemeal approach to constitutional change. Given the items of legislation and various constitutional proposals already brought forward within a very short space of time, it is obvious that there is no overall, co-ordinated, strategic approach. I favour pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills as they come forward, but the case has been made powerfully—the plethora of legislation makes the case—for a much wider consultation and consensus-building exercise when it comes to changes to our constitution, changes to how Parliament operates and changes to how our parliamentary democracy functions. It cannot be right that such major changes are introduced in a piecemeal fashion, to suit the whims of the coalition Government.
Surely we should proceed on the basis of not just pre-legislative scrutiny, but a constitutional convention involving all parties, the wider community and the public, so that people sit down and discuss properly the way forward for the constitution of the United Kingdom. Now that we have devolved legislatures, Executives and Governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, that is all the more important. In all the debate, where have those Governments and legislatures been properly considered? That lack of consideration is only one illustration of how the Government have thus far not adhered to the respect for the devolved legislatures and Administrations about which the Prime Minister spoke when he first took office. That respect agenda has not been evident in how the Government have operated so far, certainly in relation to major constitutional issues. I appeal to the Government to build a consensus on the issues and to consult. These constitutional issues are far too important to be treated as matters of party politics, or issues to be pushed through the House as other legislation and policy issues can be at times, and should be given much wider consideration.
Last week, I put forward criticisms of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, but in principle I support fixed-term Parliaments. Many hon. Members will take different views on the different Bills. Some are in favour of the alternative vote and the boundary changes, but are against fixed-term Parliaments. Some favour fixed-term Parliaments, but are against other aspects. That shows that we need a co-ordinated approach, with a much wider, in-depth consideration of how the different pieces of legislation fit together.
On this Bill, I agree that a fixed-term Parliament is important, and I am delighted that the 55% threshold has been removed. I agree with the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) that it was removed purely because it would never have got through the House. I am also pleased that the Government have dealt with the lame-duck Parliament issue, by building in provisions for a 14-day period to allow an alternative Government to be formed. A fixed-term Parliament has the advantage of removing from the Prime Minister of the day the ability to go to the country on the basis of the best interests of his or her party, not those of the country at large. It takes away the period of intense election speculation that can arise—even in the middle of a Parliament, as we saw in 2007—and to which everything else is made subject.
Although I welcome the principle of the Bill, there are issues that need to be addressed in Committee. For instance, some of the issues that have arisen in the debate illustrate that the Bill does not provide the certainty that people thought. Under the Bill as it stands, the Government of the day could engineer a vote of no confidence so that they could go to the country at the time of their choosing. If the Prime Minister has given up the power to go to the palace to seek a Dissolution of Parliament, what is the position in relation to a constructive vote of no confidence brought about by the Government of the day? As we know, Parliament cannot bind its successors, so any subsequent Act of Parliament can, on a simple majority, overturn a previous Act of Parliament. Despite the Bill containing a 66% threshold, any future Act of Parliament introduced by the Government of the day, were they so minded, would pass by a simple majority. Therefore, the Bill does not provide, as some have claimed, certainty for ever.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) addressed the issue of the dates of the electoral cycle. I join those Members who have raised concerns about the coincidence in 2015 of the general election and elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. I listened carefully to what the Deputy Prime Minister had to say, and it struck me that his comments were perhaps made on the hoof—I do not get the impression that a lot of consideration had been given to the point prior to the debate. He said that he would address the matter, think about it and discuss it. Will the Minister reassure the House that consultation with the devolved Administrations will be genuine, and that when the Deputy Prime Minister speaks to the folk in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, he will not simply go away and then come back and impose a solution? The proposal must be agreed with the respective devolved Administrations. It will be totally unacceptable if the assurance given by the Deputy Prime Minister amounts to nothing more than the usual consultation. The consultation must be genuine and must respect the views of the devolved Administrations.