This morning, I issued a written ministerial statement to the House in relation to parliamentary Sessions. It set out that the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill, which has its Second Reading this afternoon, proposes that parliamentary general elections will ordinarily take place on the first Thursday in May every five years. I decided that it was important to set out to the House at the earliest opportunity the Government’s proposal that, subject to the successful passage of the Bill, it would be appropriate to move over to five 12-month Sessions over a Parliament beginning and ending in the spring.
One of the benefits of this proposal is the greater certainty it brings to the parliamentary timetable. It also has the advantage of avoiding a final Session of only a few months, when—as we saw with the last Administration —Parliament is forced to consider a lame duck legislative programme of little significance.
Under this proposal, Her Majesty's Gracious Speech on the occasion of the state opening of parliament will, in future, ordinarily take place in the spring, rather than in the autumn.
In order to ensure a smooth transition, the Government have proposed that the current Session of Parliament will run until around Easter 2012. The next state opening of Parliament will therefore take place shortly afterwards. Dependent on progress on the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill, we envisage that the House would then move to a pattern of annual state openings in the spring, consistent with the new statutory provision for general elections to be held in the spring.
Following the announcement of the proposals this morning, the Government intend to listen intently to right hon. and hon. Members’ views, particularly during the passage of the Bill, and to work with the authorities of both Houses to implement the necessary changes.
I am not able today to announce the specific date of the next Queen's Speech, as requested by the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane). As he well knows, the date can only be announced, as it usually is, nearer the time and only after proper consultation with the Palace. I am sure he would not want to short-circuit that process today. I intend to give the House as much notice as possible of future proposed recess dates and will issue a calendar of the future sitting days as soon as is practicable.
This is a sensible response to a Bill in the coalition Government's programme that the Opposition support. It is announced in good time and subject to parliamentary scrutiny, under the Bill that will be debated this afternoon. Today's announcement will also ensure that Parliament has adequate time in this Session to debate and scrutinise the Government’s legislative programme, which, as the House will be only too aware, was something consistently denied by the last Government. Far from being an affront to Parliament, it is one way in which this Government are empowering it.
The Leader of the House is an MP’s MP and by far the nicer of the two Georges in the Cabinet. But this is not Eton, we are not his fags and he should not be the Prime Minister. It cannot be acceptable that a decision to abolish next year’s Queen’s Speech was not made in person to the House. Will he confirm that the Government have not discussed this constitutional change with Opposition parties via the usual channels, but that instead that he made his announcement in a wholly unilateral manner? This represents a major shift of power to the Executive at the expense of the people. Time is power in this or any democratic Parliament. This constitutional change allows the Government two years to extend their legislation, unlike the normal constitutional convention that a Bill not made into law within the year falls. Yes, there are carry-over provisions, but pushing the Queen’s Speech back to 2012 is a major power grab by the Executive—I would have thought that the Lib Dems, above all, would want to have something to say on this. Does the Leader of the House agree that as we will now have to wait until May 2012 for the next Queen’s Speech, we have plenty of time to debate the boundary changes Bill and we no longer need to rush the alternative vote referendum Bill through in just a few days?
As Hansard will confirm, on 25 May, the Deputy Leader of the House—our favourite bearded Lib Dem wonder—promised that the House would be at the centre of all constitutional change. That promise was broken this morning. He, at least, should resign and become a Liberal Democrat again, and I urge the Leader of the House to withdraw the written statement, and bring it back for a full debate and a vote in the House of Commons.
May I return the compliment, by saying that of the two Denis’s that confront me the right hon. Gentleman is by far the nicer?
May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I totally reject his accusations that somehow this is taking power away from people? This is a wholly sensible proposition and it is right that the House should know the Government’s intentions before it begins to debate the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill—that debate follows in a few moments’ time. There are opportunities to carry over at the end of one Session, which he appeared to ignore, and we have allowed ample time to debate the constitutional Bills to which he has referred. Far from this being an insult to the House, at the earliest opportunity I made a written ministerial statement to the House, and the proposals that I have referred to will be debated in respect of the Bill that the House is shortly to address.
The Leader of the House has, in effect, announced today that the Government have abolished next year’s Queen’s Speech and given themselves an extra year to get through their legislation, including some very controversial Bills. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) said, time is power. Of course any Government may expect a reasonable time in which to get their legislation through, but if they are unable to do so, that legislation must fall. Will the Leader of the House confirm that no Session of Parliament, whether in wartime or peacetime, over the past century and a half has lasted for two years?
May I, like my right hon. Friend, ask the Leader of the House to explain why he, as a Minister whose responsibility is to protect this House, chose to make such an important announcement in a written ministerial statement? His statement said that
“it would be appropriate to move towards five, 12-month, sessions over a Parliament”.
So why has he not implemented that by the simple arrangement of having the first of those five Sessions finishing in May 2011? Is it that the Leader of the House wanted to protect the rights of this House but was simply overruled by those who wanted simply to protect their legislation? Is this what happens if the Leader of the House is not in the Cabinet speaking up for the rights of this House? There has been no consultation with other parties and with Parliament on this. He says that he will enable time for consultation, but his statement says that
“the Government have decided that the current session of Parliament will”
continue; it did not say that consultation will take place on this.
The Government have made much of their “new politics” and of giving away power from the Executive to Parliament. So why is one of their first acts to give the Executive huge power by extending the time in which to get their legislation through? Does the Leader of the House not see that this is, in effect, an abuse of power? Will he, as my right hon. Friend asked him to do, withdraw his plans, consult Parliament properly and come back with proposals that respect Parliament and respect our democracy?
If we were to do what the right hon. Lady has just proposed and were to end this Session in May next year, we would have to guillotine all the Bills in the programme, and I suspect she would be the first to object if we were to rush the programme through on that timetable. Secondly, I laid a written ministerial statement before the House; I did not make this announcement on the “Today” programme, which is something that we grew used to in the last Parliament. I think the right hon. Lady should welcome the extra time that is now being given to this year’s legislative programme, which contains some serious Bills and which will now get enough time to be debated.
May I also just remind the right hon. Lady and other Front-Bench Members of what they did when they came into office in 1997? Without any consultation or discussion, they told the House they were changing the frequency of Prime Minister’s questions from twice a week to once a week. We should contrast that with the 18-months’ notice I have given of this proposal, which is also subject to the passage of a Bill.
Is the Leader of the House encouraged by the synthetic anger of Opposition Members, who have had 13 years of losing control of Government business, guillotining Bills and not giving anything like enough time to consider important business? Will the Leader of the House confirm that when we come to the Committee stage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, which we are about to discuss on Second Reading, the House will be able to examine the proposals he has just made in greater detail, thereby ensuring that the right balance between the Government and the House is maintained?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support, and she is right to point out that there will be more time to debate important constitutional reform under this Government than there was under the last one. Her point about raising this matter during the passage of that Bill is also a good one, and it was heard by both the Ministers who will be responsible for the Bill’s passage and the Members who will be speaking on its Second Reading. I know that they will want to address the concerns she has just mentioned.
May I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman calls “the greater certainty” this proposal “brings to the parliamentary timetable”, but object on behalf of my Select Committee, which was elected by all Members of this House to scrutinise such matters? We have had two weeks to scrutinise the AV and parliamentary boundaries Bill, one week to scrutinise the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and now, it appears, at best one week to look at this proposal announced today. Will the Leader of the House stick to his word in writing to the Liaison Committee, and give every Bill that comes before the House 12 weeks of pre-legislative scrutiny? That way, the House will be able to do exactly what it should do: make sure we get better laws from this place.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the support, albeit a little qualified, in his opening sentence. He has raised this issue with me before, and I say to him that the Government are grateful to his Select Committee for the work it has been able to do on those two Bills, which were published on 22 July, and whose Committee stage will be taken in, I think, October. I hope that will give the Select Committee some headroom in which to conduct an examination, which I know the House will find worth while. I hope he also understands that in the first Session of a new Parliament it is not possible to publish as many Bills in draft as it is in the later years of a Parliament.
My hon. Friend asks a good question. Clearly the announcement I have made will have consequences, and we will need to discuss with the House the allocation of Back-Bench days for the Backbench Business Committee and the allocation of days for private Members’ Bills.
While the Government have been innovative in introducing so much constitutional change at breakneck speed, most of it not in the manifesto of either party in government, will the Leader of the House care to be more innovative on the idea of consensus building and seeking consultation with other parties more widely, and on, for a change, seeking to involve other parties represented in the House before decisions are made or proposals brought forward that involve major changes to the parliamentary system and our constitution?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. My view is that if a Government have a serious policy proposal, they should share it with the House. That is what I have done by publishing a written ministerial statement. I have also made it clear that it is subject to the passage of legislation. That legislation will be subject to scrutiny by the House, when the right hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to make his points in Committee.
Is it not clear that if the previous Government or an Opposition party had put forward a proposal to have four—or possibly even five under this new system—Queen’s Speeches in a Parliament they would have been able to knock away any criticisms on the grounds that it would help Parliament to give consideration to the business in front of us, especially in its first year, when some progressive and even radical Bills need serious scrutiny both here and in the other place?
Does the Leader of the House agree that dividing Parliament into five segments is an anachronism, irrational and in fact wastes a huge amount of money? It also acts as an obstruction to good government. It costs millions to cover the time of the police and military when we open Parliament each year. Although the Government are probably doing the right deed for the wrong reason, does he not appreciate that this will be a great help for the next Labour Government when it is elected in 2015?
May I congratulate the Leader of the House, first, on making this written statement to the House of Commons and not leaking it in advance? That is a great benefit for the House.
On the subject of private Members’ Bills, 13 days are allocated and Standing Orders imply that that should be for each year. We must address that now. We already have an extended Session without an extension in the number of days and if we are going to go through an extra extension, we really must have more days.
I shall let the Leader of the House into a secret: when we were in government, we did not introduce perfect legislation all the time. Just about the only thing that managed to make us drop particular bits of Bills or individual clauses or bring in and support amendments was the fact that we might lose the whole Bill because the end of the Session was coming along. In all honesty, I think that although it might be absolutely right to have proper annual Sessions when we go over to a fixed-term Parliament, having one two-year Session is a problem and he ought to reconsider.
I am grateful for the admission at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks that the last Government did not get everything right. One mistake we are determined not to make is that of giving inadequate time to the House of Commons to debate serious Bills. We are proposing more days in the current Session in order to give longer time for the consideration of the Bills that we have introduced. He also totally overlooked the provision, which all Governments have if they find that they are reaching the problems that he has just outlined, of carrying over Bills.