[Relevant documents: The Second Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, HC 436, and the Government’s response, Cm 7951.]
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Committee
New clause 3
Application of Parliament Act 1911 to section 1
‘(1) The Parliament Act 1911 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 2(1), after “five years”, there is inserted “or a Bill amending section 1 of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011”.’.—(Jacob Rees-Mogg.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 5—Expiry and revival of section 2—
‘(1) Section 2 expires when the Parliament summoned to meet in May 2010 dissolves.
(2) In the course of the first month of the day of first meeting of any Parliament after the expiry of section 2 as a result of subsection (1) above, the Minister may by order bring the section back into force for the remainder of that Parliament.
(3) An order made under subsection (2) above is to be made by statutory instrument and shall not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of the House of Commons.
(4) If no order has been made under subsection (2) above, an early parliamentary general election is to take place only if the House has passed a motion that there should be an early parliamentary general election.
(5) The polling day for an early parliamentary general election under subsection (4) above is to be the day appointed by Her Majesty by proclamation on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.
(6) If a polling day is appointed under subsection (5) above, the reference in section 1(4) to the polling day for a parliamentary general election appointed under section 2(6) shall be construed as if referring to a day appointed under subsection (5) above.’.
May I begin by thanking the Minister for the enormous courtesy, good manners and good temper with which he has responded to the many criticisms of the Bill? I, among others, do not think it the best Bill ever to have come before Parliament, but he has invariably answered questions kindly. I also thank the Clerks for warning me that I was, in their terminology, to “open the batting” in this debate, which I might not otherwise have known. As far as cricketing metaphors go, I am probably more of a night watchman than a Geoffrey Boycott, or Somerset’s own Trescothick, but I shall bat on with regard to the Parliament Act 1911 and my new clause in relation to it.
The 1911 Act, as the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) reminded us earlier today, was introduced, broadly, as a temporary measure. The preamble to the Act says:
“whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation”,
but “immediately” has now extended to 100 years of failure to introduce a popular rather than an hereditary form, although not all elements of heredity remain in the upper House. The 1911 Act still allows the House of Commons to get through major constitutional reforms that the House of Lords may oppose.
The reason for introducing my new clause to exempt purely the first section of the Bill—the bit that limits the life of a Parliament specifically to five years, rather than continuing with the flexibility that we have previously had—is that this is a crucial constitutional development that we should be careful about changing, willy-nilly, as coalitions come and go. Our constitution should be safeguarded and preserved; it is not something that should be treated lightly or in an airy-fairy fashion—and one thing that the House of Lords can do, and does extraordinarily well, is prevent that from happening.
By the way, it is notable that their lordships sat throughout last night, fulfilling their proper constitutional role of ensuring that a serious constitutional change is properly debated and reviewed. We in this House find that guillotines come crashing down upon our necks to prevent the detailed deliberation that some of us might like over a rapid raft of changes to the constitution, but their lordships—some of whom are not in their first youth—have stayed up overnight, battling for the great British constitution, which has served us extraordinarily well for hundreds of years. Looking upon their lordships as the guardians of the constitution is a good reason for ensuring that the measure cannot be changed without their consent and approval.
I have listened quite attentively to the hon. Gentleman’s quite interesting opening remarks. Will he clarify something for me? If a party’s manifesto—I appreciate that this is a bizarre concept for Liberal Democrats—contained a plan to reduce the length of a Parliament, should the House of Lords have the opportunity effectively to veto the will of the people?
That is a very helpful intervention, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for it. I think the House of Lords would almost certainly follow the Salisbury convention in that respect, and it would be wrong of it to go against the clearly expressed will, in a manifesto, of the lower House. The point of this measure is as a protection and a safeguard, not as a die-in-the-ditch stalling method to prevent any reform in future. It may be that, had I been around in 1911, I would have been all in favour of dying in a ditch to prevent reform, but I was not, and that is not the purpose of the new clause.
It is worth noting that the Bill is not subject to the Parliament Act 1911. The reason for that is that it extends the life of Parliament, potentially. It gives the Prime Minister the discretion—the ability—to extend the life of a Parliament from five years to a maximum of five years and two months. As we all know, the Parliament Act requires that that can be done only with the consent of the House of Lords, and cannot be pushed through if that consent were refused.
That leads me on to the reason why that was in the Parliament Act. Why was it thought sensible in 1911, when the Liberals were last in independent government—although they had some Irish help—to put in a clause that safeguarded the length of time that a Parliament could sit? It was done to prevent a tyranny of the lower House—to prevent a lower House from extending its life or changing its ability to serve for a particular time whenever it felt like it.
The relevant section is section 2, which states:
“If any Public Bill (other than a Money Bill or a Bill containing any provision to extend the maximum duration of Parliament beyond five years) is passed by the House of Commons…”
So any Bill which extends the life of Parliament beyond five years is excluded from the functioning of the Parliament Act. That is relevant to this Bill, because it changes the basis on which the lifetime of a Parliament is calculated. It would therefore be logical to say that the safeguard in the 1911 Act should be extended to it too, so that it is clear that a new Government cannot come in and play fast and loose with the new Act. It would also give clarity to the Government’s purpose.
Many of us want to know whether the Act—or Bill, as it currently is—is about coalition and about two parties which, over a weekend in early May, were deeply distrustful of each other, or whether it is about major constitutional reform that it is thought will improve the settlement and the democracy of our nation.
The reason why I mention the weekend in May when the parties may have distrusted each other is that I have a feeling that that distrust has broadly evaporated. I think there is now great fellow feeling, at least in the hierarchies of the two parties, between the two sides that they work well together and are committed to some major reforms. The Liberal Democrats have made some admirable and brave decisions, particularly in relation to tuition fees, that have shown that their heart is in the right place in terms of the coalition, and how they have been willing to sacrifice part of their manifesto for it.
Did the hon. Gentleman hear the severe criticism expressed by the Deputy Prime Minister at Deputy Prime Minister’s questions concerning the activities of the other House last night?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. I did hear what the Deputy Prime Minister said about the upper House. Most unusually—because in the spirit of coalition I usually find that I hang on every word of the Deputy Prime Minister in almost entire agreement with it—I had to divert from him on that occasion. I have always thought that Governments make a mistake when they think that they will always be in government, and therefore that it ought always to be easy to pass legislation.
I think it ought to be difficult to pass legislation, because we will not always be in power, yet we represent 40% of the electorate. Labour will not always be in power either, yet it represents 40% of the electorate. Those large minorities ought always to be taken into account—and the one power that they have is the power to delay. It was a great mistake of the previous Government to allow our proceedings to be so truncated. That means that now the present Government are, regrettably, doing the same on constitutional issues. That is the inevitable consequence of what happened between 1997 and 2010.
I would like to see the House of Lords maintain its ability to delay. “Filibuster” may be a good word. I am hoping that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) will give us a definition of “filibuster”. He has given us regular definitions of the word “gerrymander”, and it is rather an expertise of his. I hope that “filibuster” may be defined later on.
I think it important that that right to delay be preserved, and that the House of Lords should have it. As I have said, that House has the crucial constitutional function of protecting our constitution from what Lord Hailsham referred to as elective dictatorship. I do not think that we have elective dictatorship, but I do not think that it would be impossible to get to it, and that means that we must preserve some elements of the constitution on which the House of Lords will have the final say, as if on an Act prior to 1911.
I said that I thought the new clause was a test of the Government’s seriousness about the Bill, but another test of that is in new clause 5, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) will speak to shortly. It is broadly the same test, but the other way round. It says to Her Majesty’s Government, “If you think that this is really for only one Parliament and that is the be-all and end-all, so that it really is about coalition and keeping two parties that were mistrustful but are now devoted partners together, the Bill will not be needed in its current form for future Parliaments.”
It seems to me that Her Majesty’s Government are in an either/or situation; they are between a rather friendly Scylla, which is me, and the perhaps more hostile Charybdis, which is my hon. Friend the Member for Stone. If they think that the Bill is not a serious Bill but is just for the short term of coalition, they will reject my new clause, but that means that they ought to accept my hon. Friend’s new clause, as he is saying that it is clearly a short-term Bill that should last only for the duration of this Parliament. They must consider that in their response.
Does the hon. Gentleman imagine that the Government would be on such strong ground in trying to railroad things through without the support of both Houses if they had reformed the upper House before starting to tinker with this place?
The reform of the other place will be a matter of great interest, although it is worth bearing in mind that the 1911 Act specifically states that it is to be in place only until the other place is reformed. When that time comes, this House will no doubt want to bear in mind how that Act can be reformed in response to the reform, depending on what is done to the other House. Some hon. and right hon. Members, and indeed some hon. and right hon. Friends, might be concerned about the powers that this House would lose if the 1911 Act were reformed wholesale.
New clause 3 has another important purpose. Lord Justice Laws, in the Thoburn case, which was well known in the popular press as the metric martyrs case, developed a doctrine of constitutional laws, in which he included devolution to Scotland. He would no doubt also regard an independence Act, too, as a constitutional law, which will be of interest to the hon. Gentleman who represents the Western Isles—I am afraid that I must still pronounce it as such, but I hope to learn. The European Communities Act 1972 is viewed as a constitutional Act, as is the Bill of Rights. Lord Justice Laws argued that those have a special place in the legal hierarchy and cannot be amended by implication. That means that they cannot be impliedly repealed, but only specifically repealed. That was quite a constitutional leap and a novel concept, but one that I think Governments have found useful, because it eases their path when changing other laws.
If we have developed this new view of constitutional laws that are superior laws—a sort of law greater than the ordinary Bills that this House and the other place pass—it seems to me that it would be better if that were decided by Parliament, rather than by the courts at a later date. That is one thing that the new clause would at least indicate. It would say that a Bill is so important and relevant, because it will determine how elections will be carried out, that it cannot be amended except with specific approval. Clearly, it would therefore be difficult for it to be impliedly repealed.
That brings me to the nub of the matter, and of the new clause. Constitutional change is the most important duty of this House, because when we change the cycle of election we change it in a way that means that we could have very different Governments. Just think what might have happened if we had had a general election in 2007. Who might have won if that had been the electoral cycle?
The right to an election is the fundamental right of the British people, with their democratic ability to decide who forms the Government, so can it possibly be right for one Government to come in and say of a Parliament, “It’ll be five years,” the next to come in and say, “Oh, actually, four years would be better,” and the one after that to say “Six,” which would still be covered by the exemption from the Parliament Acts, and to play around with the constitution—with the democratic rights of the British people—in a way that involves no checks on them and no ability to say that that is now the settled will of Parliament and of the British people?
I think that in the House of Lords, as it currently is or in any reform of it, we have absolutely the right body to say, as the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) suggested, “Hold on. You did not have this in a manifesto. This is an inappropriate way of changing our constitution, without the consent of the British people and without a referendum, which might be a better way of doing it, so we are blocking you until you have had a referendum—until some big constitutional result has been found.” The Lords have done that before.
The House of Lords has been a block on constitutional reform, and that is a good thing. Some hon. Members might think that a peculiar thing to say, but it means that reform is properly thought through and developed. I am not going to go back to the exclusion crisis and Lord Halifax’s wonderful speech to prevent the Exclusion Bill going through, but that was a very early example of the House of Lords taking a strong constitutional stance, protecting the rights of an hereditary monarchy to follow the correct path and—the bonus from my point of view—being very pro-Catholic. Certainly, however, before 1832 the House of Lords blocked every reform, and it did so until it was clear that the whole of the British people wanted such reform to take place. Indeed, the Duke of Wellington realised that for the King’s Government to carry on, reform had to take place. After he put metal shutters in Apsley house because of the riots that had occurred, he knew that reform had to take place.
In 1911 even Lord Curzon eventually decided that the reform Bill had to go through, rather than having the House of Lords flooded with a whole new batch of peers who would have pushed it through—[Interruption.] They were Liberal peers. Most of them, however, become Conservative over the generations; it is the great advantage of the hereditary system. The Bill was deeply opposed. Lord Willoughby de Broke was one of the great leaders of the opposition to that reform, and the House of Lords has had that job and done it extraordinarily well, making sure that our constitution changes not as it has done in recent years—which is a grave error—according to the will of a small clique in Downing street, but because within it there has been some important flaw that, with the support of the whole British nation, has needed improving.
I do not think that my new clause will make this Bill perfect, because one cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but it would at least make this sow’s ear one that could not be chopped up into sausages.
Is not the hon. Gentleman’s panegyric on the House of Lords, and its great ability to defend our constitution by ensuring further discussion, really dedicated to defending the interests of the Conservative party?
I think that I am defending just as much the interests of the socialists of Great Grimsby and other places, because it is not in the interest of the voters of Great Grimsby to have Governments who come in and play fast and loose with the constitution; that is a really bad idea. The hon. Gentleman has been a most distinguished advocate of less European intrusion in our affairs. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] As is obvious, he has the respect of the whole House for that, but Governments have been able to play fast and loose with our constitution in a European context because there has been no check from the upper House, and because anything, ultimately, can be jammed through under the Parliament Act 1911.
With this Bill, I want to begin to say—I have proposed the same change to the European Union Bill before the House—that such important constitutional changes need much deeper and broader support than that of some, to use the late Sir Robin Day’s term, “here today, gone tomorrow” politicians. We need constitutional change that is in the historic continuum of our great nation.
It seems to me that my hon. Friend is very ably saying that the Government cannot have it both ways. Either they believe in a Fixed-term Parliaments Bill that requires future Governments to fix their parliamentary terms, and should therefore accept the new clause and remove the room for manoeuvre, or this is just a Bill of political convenience, they do not want fixed-term Parliaments and intend to retain the flexibility.
I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend for putting pithily in one intervention what it has taken me, I fear, 20 minutes to say. He is absolutely right that Her Majesty’s Government cannot have it both ways. Either the Bill is serious and important, in which case it should be exempt from the Parliament Act 1911, or it is simply the contract for a marriage of convenience and so should fall at the next general election.
I will keep my remarks suitably brief. I was fascinated by the introductory remarks of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). I do not think that he had the pleasure, Mr Speaker, of hearing your October lecture to the Hansard Society on the Parliament Act 1911. Had he heard it—I believe that it is repeated continually at weekends on the BBC Parliament channel—he would have a much better understanding of the purpose of the 1911 Act. I do not propose to give a blow-by-blow account of that lecture.
I was interested by a recent interview that the hon. Gentleman gave to The House magazine—a fine tome that I am sure all hon. Members read. He described himself as a Peelite:
“I believe in free-trade, sound money and the state being less onerous upon the subject than it has been in recent years.”
Having listened to him with interest, I suggest, to extend the coalition metaphor, that he is more of a Palmerstonite, because Palmerston was a great fan of the Great Reform Act of 1832, as I am sure you know, Mr Speaker. He believed that the 1832 Act was, to use the American phrase, “a perfect union”, and that no further reform was required for the Houses of Parliament or the country. I cannot help suspecting that the hon. Gentleman would regard himself as being in the tradition that believes that the Parliament Act 1911 gave us a perfect union and that no further changes should be supported.
I was particularly concerned to hear the hon. Gentleman say that unless the whole country supported a constitutional change—I think that was the phrase he used—we should not have further change. I say to him gently that, despite the immense popularity of his Prime Minister, I cannot foresee a day in which even the great Conservative party will convince the whole country to support constitutional change. I suspect that he may be setting the bar a little too high. Traditionally, if this House is given a clear mandate by the people through a general election, that is regarded as sufficient impetus for a constitutional reform.
The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed to the exceptions in the Parliament Act 1911 for money Bills—it is interesting that his forebears in the House were keen to exempt the ability of Governments to push through the raising of revenue from the people—and for the lengthening of Parliaments. It is juggling with logic to equate the lengthening of Parliaments with the shortening of Parliaments. By its nature, that would lead to more frequent elections—which would probably be a good thing, as we saw today with the introduction of my hon. Friend our new Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). When the people are given an opportunity to speak, they tend to speak loud and clear. If the hon. Gentleman’s new clause were accepted by those on the Treasury Bench, I fear that it would restrict the democratic rights of the people to hold elections to this place more often. For that reason, I fear that the Opposition could not possibly support it. Without making any further remarks, I will now let the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) speak to his amendment.
The simple reason why I am speaking to my amendment is that, as I indicated on Second Reading, I take the gravest exception to the Bill, for a variety of reasons.
Order. I am loth to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, to whom I look forward to listening, but just for clarification, as I think he knows, we are not debating an amendment; we are debating a group of two new clauses. It is to the new clauses that he is speaking.
Yes, indeed. I am seeking to amend the Bill through a new clause, and I am grateful to you for making that subtle distinction, Mr Speaker.
The point is that the title of the Bill is a give-away. It refers to “Parliaments”; it does not refer to “Parliament”. Therefore, there is an underlying assumption that the process in question—which is inevitably tied up with the concept of the coalition politics, which are increasingly regarded as a perpetual burden that we will be expected to comply with—is inherent in the arrangements for the proposals in the Bill. The use of the word “Parliaments”, in the plural, simply emphasises that.
As one who believes firmly in the idea that our constitutional arrangements have stood us in good stead for a long time, but without being obtuse about the need for reform, I would say that there are changes in our constitutional arrangements that, periodically, can be justified. However, my proposal is, effectively, a “stop and restart” provision. That is, if there is any merit in continuing the arrangements, if they were to survive for as long as the period allocated by the leaders of the parties and the coalition agreement, then there is always the possibility—to put it no higher than that—of referring to some of those outside this place who, as far as I am concerned, are the most important people of all, namely our electors, and not leaders of parties or parties themselves. The real question is: what do the public think about all this? Of course, they have not been asked; indeed, there is not the slightest intention that they should be asked.
What I am suggesting is that the very concept of a fixed-term Parliaments Bill is offensive to the hallowed principle—that simple constitutional proposition—that no Parliament can bind its successors. I have therefore decided—I am glad to be joined by a number of other hon. Members in this notion—that we should have what we describe in the title of new clause 5, namely the “Expiry and revival of section 2”. I happen to hope that such a revival does not take place, and I shall explain why. “Expiry”, certainly; however, as I was very sensibly advised, because of the scope of the Bill and its background, rather than proposing what I would otherwise have put forward, namely a sunset clause—or, as I think it would be better described, a “cast into the darkness of hell” clause—I have proposed that clause 2 be required to expire when the Parliament summoned to meet in May 2010, on that fixed and prescriptive date, dissolves. You might have an interest in this, Mr Speaker, because, if anything were to happen, there might even be the need for the re-election of a Speaker. In such rare circumstances, you might take a particular interest in this provision. I am suggesting that clause 2 should expire in those circumstances.
It is important to bear in mind the provisions in clause 2. We have moved on from the Committee stage to Report, and I remind the House that I tabled amendments to clause 2 in Committee because I took the gravest exception to certain elements in it. I am therefore anxious that it should expire, because I do not believe that it is a constitutionally satisfactory provision. Clause 2(1) states:
“An early parliamentary general election is to take place if the Speaker of the House of Commons issues a certificate—
(a) certifying that the House has passed a motion that there should be an early parliamentary general election,
(b) certifying whether or not the motion was passed on a division”—
I do not think that there would be much difficulty in demonstrating that. The clause continues:
(c) if it is certified that the motion was passed on a division, certifying that the number of members who voted in favour of the motion was a number equal to or greater than two thirds of the number of seats in the House (including vacant seats).”
I have no intention of going back to the discussions that we had on the clause. I tabled amendments to it and argued my case fairly, I thought, but the Whips got in the way—I do not know the reason—and the result was that I lost my Division. If I may say so without presumption, I do not believe that I lost the argument, but hon. Members on both sides of the House, particularly Back Benchers, are prone to believe our own arguments.
On a point of clarification, I think it is fair to say that Opposition Members do not believe that the Deputy Prime Minister has won a single argument in the House during our deliberations on the Bill.
That does not surprise me very much.
One thing that I objected to in clause 2 was the reference to “the number of seats”. We are elected as Members of Parliament, and I am not sure that “seats” are recognised in our constitutional arrangements. Seats do not speak, and vacant seats speak even less. I find the whole proposal utterly incomprehensible. As we well know, the present arrangement—not only in this legislature but in that of the United States and, I would say, all respectable legislatures—is that decisions are taken by a majority of one. So what is this new-fangled idea about a two-thirds majority? It is being introduced for one purpose only: to keep the provisions in the Bill going in perpetuity. That is why I take such exception to the use of the plural in the title “Fixed-term Parliaments Bill”.
This provision also involves an invasion of the principle that one Parliament cannot bind its successor. That is what I really object to, as that principle is central to our democratic process. The people who come in to any given Parliament are not the same as the previous people, and they are certainly not seats or vacant seats. I hope that other Members will agree that this is a very important constitutional question, on which I place a great deal of emphasis, in relation to the new clause that we are discussing.
I want to ask my hon. Friend a genuine question. Supposing there were a new Parliament and section 2 of the Act were not renewed, would we not be left with a Fixed-term Parliaments Act that made no provision for an early general election? Is that what my hon. Friend wants?
I do not deny for a minute that that is one of the consequences, but if we were to carry this new clause, it would effectively be the end of the Bill. As I look around the House and see the huge number of people attending this debate, I do not believe that there is the slightest chance of my winning the Division—
Yes, he might!
Oh, I see. I am extremely grateful to hear what the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), that fierce defender of British liberty—when it suits him—has to say. In the light of what my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) has said, it would not cause me any concern if my new clause were passed simply because it would require a rethink, when there would be a completely new situation. Does my hon. Friend want to intervene again on that? No.
The hon. Gentleman should not lack confidence about his ability to rally this House behind an important measure. Let me ask, since no Parliament can bind its successor, are not both the Bill and his new clause otiose because a new Parliament will simply wipe the plate, and if it wants to dissolve early, it will do so?
That is a noble aspiration, but I am not at all convinced that that is how it is intended to operate in practice, mainly because there are other people involved who are called Whips. Unless provision has been made for expiry, there will be a natural locomotion towards a future coalition, which I strongly resent, and towards fixed-term Parliaments, in the plural, and we will be in “a new kind of politics”. I see in their places at least one or two of my hon. Friends who, from what we read, would strongly advocate such a proposal. They have some constitutional ideas so perhaps they will elaborate on them during the debate. I rather doubt it, but we shall see.
New clause 5 is designed so that section 2 of the eventual Act will expire. It also provides for the circumstances that might obtain in the first month after Parliament has returned after a general election, when it might have a totally different complexion and composition. We have no idea who will be sitting on the Government Benches at that time. In that first month with Members reconvened for the first time—leaving aside the constitutional doctrine about successive Parliaments—would it be right for those Members to be saddled with something with which they did not agree? It is a simple as that. That provides another reason, quite apart from the constitutionality of the issue, for the new clause.
Will my hon. Friend’s new clause ensure that after the next election, the Prime Minister, instead of going through the fiction of having a vote of no confidence in himself, could simply ask for a Dissolution by a vote of the House? If the new clause were accepted, would it not provide a much more straightforward way of getting an early Dissolution?
That is a perceptive way of putting it; I congratulate my hon. Friend on his perspicacity.
I have great reservations about our movement towards what is seen as a new kind of political understanding. One of the great objections relates to the ease with which it is possible to break manifesto promises, enter into coalitions and then break them as well. Subsequently, a Parliament might emerge that embodied all the thinking of those broken promises in the form of a new politics. That next Parliament is then intended to carry on as if nothing had happened. I think that that is a very unsatisfactory way of governing, and a very undemocratic way of conducting our affairs.
New clause 5 provides that
“In the course of the first month of the day of first meeting of any Parliament after the expiry”
of the provision that governs the issue of early parliamentary elections,
—who, for practical purposes, will be the Prime Minister—
“may by order bring the section back into force for the remainder of that Parliament.”
I was advised that, within the scope of the Bill, it would not be possible for me to provide for a sunset clause, because the new clause would then be seen as a wrecking amendment and you, Mr. Speaker, would not select it. In fact it would have been a wrecking new clause, but, although I have heard the expression “wrecking amendment”, I have never heard of a wrecking new clause. Let us not worry about that, however.
We now come to the mechanics of the way in which my new clause would operate. Were such an order made, it would have to be made by statutory instrument, and there would be a requirement, or obligation, in law. The order
“shall not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of the House”.
That is the key issue. The House of Commons, as reconvened after the expiry of that Parliament and the election of a new one, would have to approve the revival of section 2, which would at least give Members an opportunity to debate the procedure and decide whether that was the way they wished to proceed. If no order were made, an early parliamentary election could take place only if the House had passed a motion allowing such an election, which puts the shoe on the other foot. The reconvened House of Commons would almost certainly be of a completely different composition, and, indeed, may have been elected on the basis of completely different principles, especially if the horrendous alternative vote provisions ever come into force.
This, and indeed all that we discuss in relation to the current spate of constitutional measures, represents a silent constitutional revolution. The Minister may well say, “You describe it as a silent revolution, but you talk about the issue a good deal, and so do many of your colleagues.” Given that the best way to keep a secret is to make a speech in the House of Commons, I can be reasonably confident that no one will have heard the arguments. However, I think it important to put on record, with no diffidence whatsoever because I am a realist when it comes to these matters, that, whether or not we happen to win the vote, following the comments of the hon. Member for Rhondda I feel a little more confident that the Opposition will support the new clause. I may discover in a moment whether that is the case. I am glad to see the hon. Gentleman nodding: that is a starter for one.
The essence of the argument is that there is no rational basis on which the legislation should be regarded as relating to any future Parliament. We should make our decision in our Parliament, along with decisions on a range of questions relating to the breaches of the coalition agreement, the broken manifesto promises, and whether we are satisfied with the progress being made over the next few years.
There are certain things, although some people may think not many, which I believe the coalition has delivered well. It is rather like the curate’s egg. That is because, outweighing that, there are many other things that I regard the coalition as having delivered less well. That is merely the opinion of one humble Back Bencher, but that fact does not prevent me from advancing my arguments as and when I feel it necessary to do so. Some will have noticed that I have not been slow in coming forward with my concerns when I think it is appropriate.
The Bill will have to go to the House of Lords, and I was therefore extremely interested in a paper by the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which was published on 16 December. It may or may not have been noticed by Members, but the majority of the Committee believed that the appropriate length of a fixed parliamentary term should be not five years, but four years. That is very interesting, because given the shenanigans that we have been witnessing in the other House, which seem to me—
It is called proper scrutiny.
The hon. Gentleman corrects me by saying that it is proper scrutiny.
The Committee stated:
“Whilst acknowledging the case made by the Deputy Prime Minister for a five year term”—
it is so nice when the authors of such reports use expressions like “whilst acknowledging the case” and “with respect to”—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) knows what is in my mind. The Committee continued:
“nonetheless the majority of the Committee consider that a four year term should be adopted for any fixed-term Parliamentary arrangement at Westminster. In the view of the majority, the shift from a five year maximum to a five year norm would be inconsistent with the Government’s stated aim of making the legislature more accountable, inconsistent with existing constitutional practice and inconsistent with the practice of the devolved institutions and the clear majority of international legislatures.”
That is quite a condemnation.
Just for clarification, is the hon. Gentleman referring to the recommended length of a parliamentary term as proposed by an upper Chamber where the length of a parliamentary term is life?
I can only repeat what that Committee has said: it states that the appropriate length of a fixed parliamentary term should be no more than four years. The position is, therefore, that that powerful Committee has given that advice to the House of Lords, which has yet to be given the opportunity to vote on these proposals. I think we are moving into territory where there will be proper scrutiny, as it has been described—although the word “filibuster” nearly slipped out—as has proved to be the case in respect of provisions in the alternative vote Bill currently before the House of Lords. There may yet be the possibility of similar activity with regard to how long the fixed parliamentary term should be.
For all those reasons, I believe that the provisions I have felt concerned to raise through tabling new clause 5 are merited. They are consistent with proper constitutional practice and good sense. The attempt to, let us say, fix the next fixed-term Parliament ought to be prevented at all costs.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) on his amendment and the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) on his amendment, which I shall address in a few moments. I should, of course, have called them “new clauses”; Mr Speaker corrected the hon. Member for Stone on that earlier. However, I think that the hon. Member for North East Somerset rather misled the House. He did not do so in any dishonourable way, but he suggested that he was not here in 1911. I do not believe that any Member of this House believes that he was not here then or, for that matter, in 1832 and 1641. If it was not exactly him, on each of those occasions it was certainly his predecessor who made almost identical speeches. So I congratulate him on his consistency, which has lasted not only for the length of a Lib Dem manifesto, but through the centuries, and I am sure he will be here for many generations to come.
The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that someone just like my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset was doubtless here in 1911, just as there was probably someone just like the hon. Gentleman and someone just like me. This House represents a continuity in this great kingdom of ours. He adverts to it with regard to only one Member, but it applies to all of us.
I am not sure that that is right because, for example, there were no women in this House or in the other House for many centuries. So changes have taken place, and change is just as important as continuity—that was going to be my argument.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset praised the House of Lords and the job of work it is doing at the moment down the other end of the building, where I hope his father will be stoutly defending not the Government but the cause of freedom and democracy—I am sure he will be. I wish to sound a slight note of caution to the hon. Gentleman. I have long supported an elected second Chamber, but over the past few years the Second Chamber has become far more partisan, because a higher proportion of its Members now take a party Whip. That applies in all parts of that House. [Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that Labour Members do, but what I said is true of all political parties in the House of Lords. I hope that there will be an elected second Chamber, and if there is the relationship between the Chambers will have to be written down in statute. Otherwise, either there will be permanent gridlock or, even more dangerously, we will face the problem of the Government having absolutely no check on them because they will enjoy a majority in this House and down the other end of the building. I can think of no other system in the world containing no such check. I say to the hon. Member for North East Somerset that although one praises the House of Lords, where Labour and Cross-Bench peers are doing a good job of scrutiny, some dangers are coming down the road.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset also relied on the Salisbury convention, whereby the Lords would not stand in the way of something adumbrated in a general election manifesto on which a Government were elected. In the previous Parliament the Liberal Democrats said that they believed that the Salisbury convention no longer held. I suspect that a convention written in a gentlemen’s club and redrafted several times during the 20th century probably will not stand the test of time and we will need something rather more secure for our constitutional settlement.
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the Bill extends Parliament’s life beyond the five-year period that, thus far, has been allowed; clause 1 allows the Prime Minister to extend or shorten the five-year fixed term by two months, although that is reliant on motions in this House and in the second Chamber. That is one of the many reasons we have argued that the Bill will lead to fewer general elections. That is so particularly because the Bill provides for a five-year term, rather than a four-year term, as the hon. Member for Stone said, but also because of the special provision allowing for the extra extension of two months. We believe that that is a problem and that the voters of this country probably want us not to have the longest fixed-term Parliaments in the world. If we are to have fixed-term Parliaments, voters would probably prefer us to adopt the policy of the Liberal Democrats before the general election and the policy that Labour has pursued ever since the Plant commission, when we were mired deep in opposition many years ago, which is for four-year fixed-term Parliaments. Unfortunately, that is not available to us in the Bill.
I am afraid that I disagree with the means used by the hon. Member for North East Somerset to answer the problem. Section 2(1) of the Parliament Act 1911 states:
“If any Public Bill (other than a Money Bill or a Bill containing any provision to extend the maximum duration of Parliament beyond five years) is passed by the House of Commons”
and it goes on to delineate the provisions, as amended by the later Parliament Act, that allow the Speaker to move straight to Royal Assent, often at Prorogation—we will come on to Prorogation later—without having to pass through the House of Lords, if the House of Lords has refused to co-operate. There is therefore already sufficient power to ensure that Parliament cannot be extended, which is the key point. One thing that successive generations have tried to reinforce is the need for frequent elections. The Triennial Acts and the various different versions that that legislation has gone through, from three years to seven years, the campaigns by the Chartists for annual elections and the return to a proposal for five years, have all been centred on the belief that there should be sufficient and regular elections for the Government to enjoy a mandate and for the people to have their voice.
I can see that the hon. Member for Stone is itching to intervene, so I shall let him do so.
I have been increasingly impressed over the months by the manner in which the hon. Gentleman has tackled these constitutional questions. He is putting the House in a far better position by the manner in which he explains many of his points. Having got over that bit of flattery, I point out that it might have been a good idea if, at this point in his speech—perhaps he is coming on to it—he had referred to the comments of the Clerk of the Parliaments. The Bill will go to the House of Lords, as I have pointed out, and we do not quite know what their lordships will make of it. Not only did the Constitution Committee come to a certain conclusion on the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) has raised, but so did the Clerk of the Parliaments. He said:
“It is...clear that the [Fixed-term Parliaments] Bill does contain provision to extend the maximum duration of a Parliament beyond five years, and that it cannot, therefore, be passed under the Parliament Acts procedure unless, before it leaves the Commons, the [relevant] provisions...are amended.”
Professors Bradley and Oliver agreed. That is an important point. Forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, for making rather a long intervention, but I wanted to get it on the record that this is not just a minor matter but something on which the House of Lords appears largely to have made up its mind.
I am always a bit reluctant to presume what the House of Lords’ final view might be, not least because three new Members of the House of Lords are being introduced every day at the moment—it is something of a moving feast down the far end of the corridor. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the Clerk of the Parliaments, and incidentally I want to pass on congratulations to Mr Beamish, who has just been appointed the new Clerk of the Parliaments. It is also true that the Clerk of this House has made it clear that there are significant concerns about clause 2, which I shall come on to when I discuss the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Stone. I am also always very grateful for any oleaginous support I can get.
The point I hope to make about new clause 3, tabled by the hon. Member for North East Somerset, is that I think that there is already adequate provision in the Parliament Act to ensure that Parliament cannot be extended. His new clause would apply to the whole of clause 1, so we would not be able to amend any of the elements of it, even if they had been adumbrated in a manifesto commitment and a single party won the next general election with a majority and legislated in that way. We would not be able to use the Parliament Act even to shorten the length of a Parliament.
If we win the next general election, notwithstanding the fact that we will have won, in a sense, the right for a five-year fixed-term Parliament—I hope we will— want to reduce the number of years from five years to four. As the hon. Member for North East Somerset has shown, historical consistency across the years is a good political attribute rather than a failing.
Does my hon. Friend agree with my assessment of the Parliament Act that the purpose of stipulating that parliamentary terms cannot be lengthened was to ensure a democratic check against the powers of the Prime Minister? Would not the hon. Member for North East Somerset’s new clause, regrettably, act as a check against democracy by stopping the right of the democratic House to shorten the length of a term? That is not the spirit in which the Parliament Act was intended.
Yes, although as the hon. Member for North East Somerset said at the very beginning of his speech, all this will become rather unnecessary once we have legislated for an elected, whether fully or substantially, second Chamber. At that point, elements of the Parliament Act, or even the whole Act, will almost certainly have to be reshaped.
I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point that a Government elected on a manifesto for four years would not want to be obstructed by the House of Lords, and I doubt whether the Lords would obstruct them in those circumstances. Does he have any sympathy with the view that constitutional issues ought to have greater protection than ordinary Bills, particularly as judges have decided that there is a category of constitutional Acts? Should we decide that rather than the judiciary?
My general approach is that we should always seek to take decisions ourselves, rather than leave them to judges to take for us, because we are elected. However, the history of English common law and the way in which it has developed is such that judges have, by the precedents they have set, elaborated on that law. We have sometimes then decided to incorporate those interpretations into statute law, so there has been a constant relationship between the two. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) is muttering about Scottish law, but I am being very careful because I know much less about Scottish law than I do about English law, which also applies in Wales, so I am going to the edge of my knowledge and not a step further.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset is right that we will need, at some point, to put into statute law the relationship between this Chamber and an elected second Chamber, as we will want to establish that more firmly. Perhaps, as has happened in every other constitution that has been written in the world, special provision will be made for changing the constitution itself. In Germany, there has to be a vote of a certain majority in both Houses both before and after a general election. That was enforced by us in the writing of the German constitution after the second world war. In Spain, changes have been made to the constitution since the death of Franco, but the Spanish, too, can proceed only if there is a significant majority within the Cortes and the Senate. In short, my answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes.
In essence, my argument regarding new clause 3 is that it is not necessary and that it could be problematic for a new Government, because they might not be able to get their way even on a manifesto commitment that had been clearly laid down. The real danger concerns the extension of parliamentary terms—something that has always worried people in relation to the freedoms and rights of the British people, or rather the people of the United Kingdom. That is already protected in the Parliament Act, which will stand until we revise all these measures. Parliament has been extended in the past. That happened during the second world war when extensions were agreed on an annual basis. I am not sure whether that was voted on every year, but the hon. Member for North East Somerset might know.
Let me move to the new clause of the hon. Member for Stone. I note that the hon. Member for North East Somerset said that we have a choice between Scylla and Charybdis—he being Scylla and the hon. Member for Stone being Charybdis. My uncertain memory of Homer is that Odysseus chose to surrender a few sailors to Scylla rather than a whole ship to the whirlpool that was Charybdis, but I am in favour of Charybdis this afternoon.
Order. We are now going to the end of my knowledge, and I think it would be very useful if we returned to new clause 5.
Indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker, although I am not sure that we really have got to the edge of your knowledge; I think your knowledge is boundless, and consequently I agree with you. [Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, is talking about the pillars of Hercules, which is a rather fine pub I have sometimes frequented in—well, north London somewhere.
The new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Stone seems quite sensible, because we believe that section 2 has a series of elements that, as the Clerk of the House has pointed out, are problematic. We think that because the provision has been put into statute rather than included in the Standing Orders of the House, there is a real danger that elements could be questioned in the courts, and one would then have a dramatic constitutional crisis. Consequently, we understand that, as the hon. Gentleman said, those elements are there entirely to bind together the coalition. We understand why the coalition would want to maintain that element, but we certainly do not believe that a future Government should be bound by it.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that no Parliament is bound by its predecessor and no Parliament can bind its successor. However, there is one sense in which it can delay its successor, because it makes it have to re-legislate if it wants to take away a part of statute law. It seems to me that since it is clear that this piece of constitutional—
I was thinking of jiggery-pokery. Section 2 is being proceeded with not on the basis of consensus across the House, but on the basis solely of an agreement between the two coalition partners, so it would seem to us to make sense to make an allowance in the Bill that the section would die at the next general election. I note that the hon. Gentleman has crafted his new clause carefully so that it does not say 2015; it simply says that section 2 expires when the Parliament that was elected in 2010 comes to its end. At that point, whatever new Government had been elected could choose whether to continue with the provisions or to let them lapse. If it were a Labour Government, I am pretty confident that we would want to ensure that the provisions lapsed. However, what other parties may want to do is for others to determine.
The key point is that we would not want to have to introduce primary legislation to repeal this element of the Bill. For those reasons I am keen to support the hon. Member for Stone. I do not think his new clause quite throws the whole of the ship into the whirlpool, but I think that the throwing of a few sailors into the mouths of the demon in North East Somerset would be inappropriate, and consequently we shall support new clause 5 but not new clause 3. I very much hope that we shall be able to divide the House on this matter.
As one of the few Members of the House who has actually sailed through the straits of Messina in a sailing boat and witnessed the whirlpool, and the rock from which the many heads of Scylla seized the sailors—
I survived, but I have to say that it is a very disappointing whirlpool, and that is no reflection on either my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) or my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg)—whichever was representing the whirlpool or the many-headed monster. However, if this is an opportunity to put some instability in the Bill, I will certainly support new clause 5 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone. I have my name on it in any case.
I would echo the sentiment that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) expressed in an interesting speech in response to new clause 3. The question of constitutional Bills is an interesting innovation introduced by Lord Justice Laws, but I would tell my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset that Lord Justice Laws was merely including in his judgments something that had been widely understood by constitutional theorists for some time, although it had never been legally expressed in such terms. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiment and, indeed, with that of the hon. Member for Rhondda that Parliament should determine which of these laws is constitutional and overrides subsequent Acts of Parliament. Clearly, the European Communities Act 1972 was expressly intended to do that, as has been recognised by the courts, and the 1689 Bill of Rights does that, but Lord Phillips concluded in a recent case that the doctrine of implied repeal applies to the 1689 Act.
For that reason, as was said in Committee by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who has just left his place, this is an extremely important matter to which the House should return at a future date. I am not sure that I want the Bill to become one of those constitutional Acts, although I fully accept that the House of Lords has a role to play in preventing a tyranny of the majority—incidentally, a role that it cannot play if it becomes an elected House.
We are, in fact, moving into very difficult and choppy waters. With respect to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), I do not believe in the so-called constitutional statutes at all. They are an invention in the first instance by Lord Justice Laws. They have a certain spurious credibility, but it does not stack up. My concern is that we will need to use a range of “notwithstanding” arrangements in relation not only to the European Union but to the so-called constitutional enactments or Bills when we want to legislate in the House. We will also need to require the judiciary to give effect to the latest Westminster enactment in that field of endeavour and to state expressly what is intended to bypass this attempt to establish a completely new regime of codified legislation. That will simply become very difficult.
That was the purpose of my referring to Lord Phillips’s recent obiter dicta, in which he implied that later Acts of Parliament can effectively repeal the parts of the 1689 Act that protect Parliament’s privileges. I do not think that that is satisfactory, and Parliament needs to think clearly about how we remain in democratic control of this country’s constitutional settlement.
Using legislative techniques, such as those suggested by my hon. Friend, is the direction in which we ought to move. Some people will say that means moving towards a written constitution, but that is to misunderstand our constitution. It is partly written and partly not written. The point is to determine who is in charge. Parliament should be in charge, with the necessary checks and balances between the two Houses. So I very much welcome the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset has initiated on this topic. This debate will run and run, even though we might not be able to agree or divide on his new clause.
I put my name to new clause 5, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, partly because it provides an opportunity to remind ourselves of how bad the Bill is. I am afraid that I am appalled that it was introduced in this way. I cannot recall any Government ever introducing a Bill to manipulate the constitution for their own purposes in such a nakedly self-interested way. Clause 2 is simply a fig leaf to ameliorate the problems that arise from fixed-term Parliaments.
Let us remind ourselves of the provisions of clause 2. The two-thirds provision is obviously open to manipulation—assuming that the mechanism does not drag us into disputes with the courts—because if the Government of the day tabled a motion of no confidence in themselves, it would hardly be likely that the Opposition would oppose it, so a general election would still be available at the initiative of the Executive. In a coalition arrangement, the smaller partner might decide not to take part in such a process, meaning that the motion would be opposed and, by arrangement with the Opposition, perhaps passed by only a simple majority. Under the Bill, we are therefore creating arrangements by which a junior coalition partner may switch horses halfway through a Parliament.
I believe that the Liberal Democrats wanted a fixed-term Parliament so that they could swap coalition partners halfway through the Parliament. Lo and behold, we now read in the papers that the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Prime Minister seem to be striking up a new friendship—perhaps that heralds the switch. Of course, I am talking hypothetically—the subject is theoretical—but, constitutionally, the possibility exists. It is extraordinary that we are contemplating putting in place arrangements that could bring about a change of Government, Prime Minister and Administration without a general election, but that is what the Bill provides for. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) seems to be looking at me quizzically.
I am looking at the hon. Gentleman quizzically, because, under the existing arrangements, there have been many changes of Prime Minister and Administration without a general election. Although I recognise that the hon. Gentleman stood at the general election on a manifesto that said that a change of Prime Minister should be followed by a general election within six months, I note that he has not tabled an amendment that would have that effect.
Privately, I can confide to the House that I always thought that that proposition was a bit daft—it seemed like ingratiation. Whenever the ruling party changes its leader, meaning that there is a change of Prime Minister, the Opposition always cough and splutter loudly, and express the view that, in all justice, there should be a general election. The newspapers usually join in the fun, because they like general elections, too, but, in reality, we all know that there is absolutely no need for an election. There is usually a degree of continuity when there is a change of party leader because the same party is in charge and it is unlikely that a lot of the predecessor’s policies would be overthrown. One or two things usually change, but generally there is continuity.
We are considering, however, the possibility of a change of Administration involving a different party. We know that the Labour party attempted to form some kind of rainbow coalition with the Liberal Democrats after the last election—[Interruption.] That was what we were told, anyway. Later in this Parliament—perhaps if the balance of power has shifted a bit towards the Opposition following by-elections—the Liberal Democrats could abandon the Conservatives in a vote of no confidence. In such circumstances, the Conservatives might be clever enough to join in that vote of no confidence to ensure that there would be a general election, but it would be far more likely that the vote would be followed by a reordering of the Executive, which might well involve the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats.
Let us suppose that the maths in the House were slightly different and the two main parties were more evenly balanced. The Liberal Democrats then could genuinely choose which partner they wanted. Through the Bill, we are creating constitutional circumstances under which the third party could change the Government at will without a general election.
I am slightly flummoxed by the hon. Gentleman’s charming naivety about what might have happened after the general election. The Bill does many things that are inappropriate, but I do not think it does that, and the truth of the matter is that there have been many changes of Administration over the centuries under the existing arrangements, not least in the first and second world wars. Having a fixed-term Parliament does not in itself mean what the hon. Gentleman has described will happen. It is perfectly possible that we will win a significant number of by-elections over the coming years, or that some Liberal Democrats or others may change their party affiliation, and—[Interruption.] It is possible; I said only that. The Minister should do the nice bit again. In such circumstances, the mathematics would change.
Inevitably, these debates always depend on speculation about what might happen, which is the one rather unsatisfactory thing about debating the future of the constitution. I have always been regarded as a bit of a pessimist about the European Union, but I did point out to a colleague that, so far, I have been proved right, and if these arrangements remain the same indefinitely, sooner or later I will be proved right again.
The point is that the Bill—except for this new measure in clause 2—is intended to remove the safety valve that allows for an early general election. However, that clause is the worst part of the Bill. As we were told by the Clerk of the House in his memorandum, before the Bill was considered in Committee:
“The Bill brings the internal proceedings of the House into the ambit of the Courts, albeit indirectly by the route of Speaker’s certificates.”
The procedures of the House, votes of confidence, Speaker’s certificates and two-thirds majorities all become potentially justiciable, notwithstanding the Bill of Rights. For that reason, I fully support the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone.
A vain attempt to remove the courts from considering those matters is made in clause 2(3), which states:
“A certificate under this section is conclusive for all purposes.”
Unfortunately, clause 2(3) is itself justiciable by the courts, because we are putting this into statute. That part of the Bill, which attempts to ameliorate the problems that arise from having fixed-term Parliaments, creates the biggest constitutional headaches for Parliament itself by inviting the courts to intervene in those matters.
On that very question, does my hon. Friend recall that the 1911 Act goes further? It does not end by saying that the certificate
“shall be conclusive for all purposes”,
“and shall not be questioned in any court of law.”
I would simply add to that the word “whatsoever” because of the very problem that he has mentioned. The Supreme Court, or indeed any other court, may seek to take control over this.
I put it to my hon. Friend that that wording in 1911 may well have been sufficient because it would not have entered the heads of the judges in those days to breach the Bill of Rights, but we know that members of the now Supreme Court—note the word “Supreme”—sincerely believe that Parliament is within their purview. We have had the debate about whether the sovereignty of Parliament is a common-law principle—that is, part of judge-made law, rather than an historical fact that exists in its own right as a result of the disputes between the Crown and Parliament in the 17th century.
I believe that it would be helpful if I spoke briefly on this matter, and I take this opportunity to commend my hon. Friend on his new clause. Future Parliaments should have the opportunity to throw out the proposals in clause 2. That would not wreck the Bill, but it would invite questions about what it means and how practical it is. It would certainly impel a future Parliament to consider at the earliest opportunity whether the Fixed-term Parliaments Act should remain on the statute book—I very much hope that it will not—or to put in place much better arrangements to provide for early general elections under a fixed-term Parliament system. The Bill as drafted is nonsense and a potential disaster. If we do not fix it in this place, I hope that those in another place will do so.
I support the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), but I shall talk about the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) invoked Homer. In the case of my hon. Friend’s new clause, I would invoke Cicero:
“Those who know nothing of the time before they were born shall forever remain children.”
That is what I feel is happening to this Chamber. We forget our past, our history and the continuity of our constitution. There was an affirmation there that was important and required addressing.
I understand the hon. Member for Rhondda being concerned about the increased politicisation of the House of Lords, and the “gridlock”, or however he described it. I grew up in an age when the Standing Orders of the House of Lords—this was before my time in the House of Commons—were not so dissimilar from the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. They dealt with, among other things, delay. Very important it is, too. If there is such a thing as gridlock, there comes a point, as we sometimes see in the United States, when the people whom we are elected to represent grow increasingly angered that the business of government comes to a halt because horns are locked. That becomes the grounds for compromise and discussion as the route forward.
As I understand it, in the Lords a proposition has been offered to the Government to separate the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill into two parts, with one part going forward. So there were grounds for compromise. At the moment that is not acceptable to the Government and there is therefore gridlock, but there will come a time when that is unacceptable to a wider public, who want Parliament and the Government to move on.
I hoped that my words supported the very argument that the hon. Gentleman is making. I would, in addition, invoke Cato the Younger, who by speaking until dusk, made sure that Caesar did not always get his way. [Interruption.] The Deputy Leader of the House says that that was a filibuster. Cato was right to use every tactic that he had, but the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) is right, too. The Standing Orders of the House of Lords were the same as they were in this place. The fact that now the Government always have precedence over the order and the timing of debates is one of the reasons why there is no check on the Executive at all.
I am always encouraged when a political opponent, in the sense of someone from the other side of the House, adopts arguments that I advanced against him when he was sitting on the Front Bench on behalf of the Labour party. It is true. Now we see the conversion of the defeated. That is why we should always be mindful that our hold on government is a temporary experience, and that one day we will be sitting on the Benches on the other side of the Chamber and hoping to be able to make the reasoned arguments that can convince a wider public out there.
The sheer disengagement of some of our arguments from those by whom we are elected, and from why we are elected, is to me the most worrying development of Parliament in recent years. We have scorned the historic balance of where the people lie in this matter; that is why I support both new clauses. I have asked the whole way through our consideration of the Bill how it will strengthen the people’s hold over the House of Commons, which is their representative instrument for ensuring that public policy bears some relationship to the desires, hopes and aspirations of our society. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset for the informed, reasoned and reasonable way in which he presented his new clause. If it is put to a vote, I will vote for it, because I would like to show that there is some support in this House for the arguments it advances about temperance in respect of the House of Lords and its doings.
I am a democrat and truly believe in the representation of the people in this House, which is what I want to see. However, the basis of the argument that I have made the whole way through proceedings on the Bill is that we know that it is about the entrenchment of a temporary coalition, and we are trying to examine, and amend, the aspiration that things can somehow be rejigged. We have heard the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is sitting on the Front Bench, advance the startling proposition that the Queen could dismiss a Prime Minister for acting “improperly”. No constitutional documents in the past two centuries, and certainly not since 1867, have stated that that was a practical reality.
In that case, perhaps the hon. Gentleman could explain why Her Majesty was able to dismiss the Government of Australia, which is part of the Commonwealth, by using the powers that she has.
The constitutional arrangements of Australia are a matter of written statute there, and I understand that the Governor-General exercised the prerogative power in the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers. However, that is not what I am concerned about; I am concerned about our own constitutional processes. I think that the statement by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary was misjudged, but he has never withdrawn it. He is a representative of the Government, and of the Crown itself, but as a Member of Parliament he has never withdrawn that statement.
My nervousness about the Bill is clear. I am nervous about the idea that two parties can mandate that their existence as a coalition should last for a term of five years. I have expressed that view before, and I think that it is shared by a number of Members. I have no doubt that the Lords will think that measure trivial in some ways, because it is a presumption; how can one mandate something that is formed by human beings with their own policies and parties? They can work together to a certain extent, but the coalition will last as long as the coalition lasts. I am not damning it; I am just saying that I do not think that they should have reached forward with a Bill of this nature. If they want to work in harness they will have the support of a great many Members of this House. We know that the nation is confronted with an economic crisis and difficult decisions have to be made. The people of this country are having to make difficult decisions on how to restore economic competence, balance budgets and all the rest of it.
We have spent a lot of time on the first matter, so I will now come to the real new clause, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, which I will undoubtedly vote for. His brevity today was extraordinary. [Laughter.] I do not laugh at it, for I think that the expression of great ideas is all the more effective for being expressed in a concentrated and condensed way. I appreciate that there is a drinks party at Downing street for Members from my party who want to attend, so I will bring my remarks to a close, as the great business of the Government must not be delayed by the musings of the House of Commons on such matters as constitutional reform.
I am standing up to support the limitations that are being expressed and the hesitations about the nature of the Bill. If there were one thing that I could argue for and effect, it would be that the Government themselves realise that they have a job. We salute them for that, but, when they fiddle with the constitution in ways that suit only their own purpose and stifle the natural functioning flow of politics, we lose something, and we lose the attention of our constituents. My argument is that we cannot march to a drumbeat like that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity at least to raise our caveats, and I am grateful to the Labour party for indicating that it will support the new clause. It is important, and I commend it.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) for his generous opening remarks and, as usual, largely excellent speech. I say “largely”, because I do not entirely agree with his characterisation of the other place, given the behaviour not, I hasten to add, of their lordships’ House, but of a small number of former Labour MPs, who are filibustering and abusing every procedure of that House to try to frustrate the will of this elected House of Commons, which passed the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill by a considerable majority. Apart from that, I very much enjoyed my hon. Friend’s speech.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Deputy Prime Minister to have abused the Members of the House of Lords in the form that he chose?
That is most certainly not a point of order for me. I am sure that there are other ways in which the hon. Gentleman can express his views, and I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister—like the Minister who is present—will be well aware of what has just been said. Please, Mr Harper, continue.
I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker. I think that I drew a distinction between certain Members of the other place and the other place in general, about which I have no complaint.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset explained very clearly the effect of his new clause 3, and he was concerned about changes to clause 1 being made using powers in the Parliament Act 1911. It is already the case—this is a subject on which I agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—that the Parliament Act cannot be used to push through legislation that extends the life of Parliaments. One hon. Member—I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash)—pointed out that because of the Bill’s provisions allowing the Prime Minister to vary the date of an election by up to two months in an emergency, we cannot use the Parliament Act to push this legislation through against the wishes of the upper House. However, the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset would, as the hon. Member for Rhondda said, also prevent this House from reducing the length of a Parliament without the agreement of the other place. It does not seem desirable to put that provision in place.
Section 2 of the Parliament Act 1911, to which my hon. Friend’s new clause refers, sets out important rules about the relationship between this House and the other place. Those rules have been in place for some time, and the Government certainly do not intend to start changing that relationship. It is already the case that we cannot lengthen a Parliament, and given what I have said, we do not want to start changing the Parliament Act as my hon. Friend’s new clause would.
I presume that the Minister is therefore confirming that the Bill does lengthen a Parliament.
Yes. The Bill sets out a five-year term, and in an emergency it would be possible for the Prime Minister to vary the length, so we cannot use the Parliament Act to enact it. That is a perfectly straightforward point. It is in the Bill; it is no great secret at all.
You denied it in Committee.
No. It is very clear in the Bill. I do not think that the issue arose in Committee.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) also put his finger on this issue when he correctly drew attention to it in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset. If my hon. Friend presses the new clause to a vote I shall ask hon. Members to oppose it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone, in speaking to new clause 5, said that the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill was about perpetual coalition arrangements. It is not about fixed-term Governments, but about the length of Parliaments. All it does is take away the Prime Minister’s power to dissolve a Parliament and bring it to an end. It replaces that right with two provisions that establish no-confidence procedures, which we have already, and give Parliament the opportunity to vote for an early Dissolution.
My hon. Friend confirmed, in effect, that new clause 5 was a wrecking amendment. He said that he could not table the proposal exactly as he had wanted, because it would have been ruled out of order. I suppose that it is a wrecking amendment in a cunning disguise.
I strongly resent the idea that new clause 5 is a wrecking amendment; it stands on its own merits, and I repudiate this Baldrick attempt to turn it into a cunning plot.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it not the case that if there was an attempt to table a wrecking amendment, the Clerks would rapidly describe it as out of order and it would not be selected for debate?
All I can say is that all the amendments and new clauses have been chosen in the right and proper way.
Exactly; it is a very cunning new clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone put his finger on the point that an amendment simply to take away clause 2 would have been a wrecking amendment. The power of revival is the cunning disguise in which the new clause is wrapped.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) described clause 2 as a fig leaf. I do not agree with that characterisation, but even if the House agreed with it, I am not sure that hon. Members would be as keen to remove the fig leaf as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex appeared to be. [Interruption.] No, that is what he said. He said that it was a fig leaf and that he wanted to remove it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone seemed to establish a new doctrine in his speech. He seemed to be suggesting that all Acts of Parliament should lapse at the end of a Parliament, just in case the new Parliament is of a different complexion and its Members disagree. He said that the House should not bind its successors. It is perfectly true that the House cannot bind its successors, because each successive Parliament can repeal Acts; that is the normal way. However, it is not the normal procedure for all Acts to lapse at the end of a Parliament, just in case the new Parliament disagrees with them.
The Government hope, although they cannot bind their successors, that the public and future Parliaments will find the arrangements in the Bill acceptable and will keep them in place. Future Parliaments are, of course, at liberty to change them. However, we do not think that there should be what my hon. Friend the Member for Stone described as a sunset clause to remove the powers. If clause 2 were removed as he suggested, it would effectively give back the power to the Prime Minister to dissolve Parliament at will. We have argued throughout the passage of the Bill that that would be undesirable.
Many of us believe that the Prime Minister has that power even under the Bill, because all he has to do is table a motion of no confidence in his own Government, to which the Opposition would almost always agree, and there would be a general election. Be that as it may, I am sure that the Minister argued and voted for sunset clauses in relation to control orders, which, I understand, will expire next Monday. Is the same provision not necessary in this Bill?
No; the Government’s intention is to change the system so that there are fixed-term Parliaments, apart from in the two possible cases set out in the Bill. We think that that is a desirable change. If the public and future politicians agree that it is desirable, it will stand the test of time. That is what we hope for and what we have argued for.
My hon. Friends the Members for Stone and for Harwich and North Essex raised concerns about the two procedures in clause 2—motions of no confidence and motions on early elections—that allow for early elections. However, the House of Lords Constitution Committee was fairly supportive of those measures.
The Committee said that it was
“sensible for the Bill to contain some form of safety valve which would allow for an early election in circumstances such as the government losing the confidence of the Commons or where a political or economic crisis has affected the country”,
and concluded that the safety valves that we had included were appropriate. The Committee also looked at the risk of the courts intervening, which my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex mentioned, and concluded:
“The risk that the courts may intervene in any early dissolution of Parliament by questioning the Speaker’s certificate is very small”,
“we do not consider the risk to be sufficient to warrant a rejection of clause 2 of the Bill.”
Based on what the House of Lords Constitution Committee has said, I, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, am confident that when this House approves the Bill, as I hope it will, and it is debated in their lordships’ House, they will give it proper scrutiny, but in the end give it a fair wind and pass it. However, if my hon. Friend presses his new clause 5 to a vote, I will urge all hon. Members to reject it and to keep clause 2 as it stands.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Order. If you wish to press your new clause, Mr Cash, you will have an opportunity to do so later, after we debate the next group, which starts with new clause 4.
New Clause 4
Prorogation of Parliament
‘(1) Parliament can only be prorogued in accordance with this section.
(2) If the House of Commons resolves that Parliament should be prorogued, Parliament shall be prorogued at that time, or by declaration of the Speaker.
(3) The Speaker of the House of Commons shall not make such a declaration unless the House of Commons has passed a resolution directing him to do so on or before a specified date and time.
(4) Where Parliament is prorogued under subsection (2) above, the Speaker may by declaration prorogue it to an earlier or later day.
(5) The Prorogation Act 1867 is repealed.’.—(Chris Bryant.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 14, page 2, line 5, clause 2, at end insert—
‘(aa) certifying whether or not the motion specified a polling day for such an election, and if so, the day specified in that motion,’.
Amendment 15, page 2, line 24, after ‘be’, insert—
‘(a) the day specified in a motion as certified under subsection (1)(aa) above, or, if no date is specified, (b)’.
Amendment 8, page 2, line 29, clause 3, leave out ‘17th’ and insert ‘25th’.
Amendment 9, page 2, line 39, at end insert
‘within 15 working days of the polling day’.
Amendment 2, page 4, line 4, schedule, leave out ‘“or dissolve”’ and insert
‘“prorogue or dissolve Parliaments nor”’.
Amendment 3, page 4, line 6, at end insert—
‘Meeting of Parliament Act 1797 (c. 127)
2A The Meeting of Parliament Act 1797 is repealed.’.
Amendment 4, page 4, line 8, leave out
‘“or dissolved” where it occurs second’
‘“unless it should be sooner prorogued or dissolved by the Crown, anything in the Succession to the Crown Act 1707 in any way notwithstanding”.’.
I wish to speak to new clause 4 and some of the other amendments in the group, which stand in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Lord Chancellor and myself.
One of the arguments that the Deputy Prime Minister, the Prime Minister, the Minister and the Deputy Leader of the House have advanced in favour of the Bill is that it surrenders a hefty part of the royal prerogative that has been enjoyed by the Prime Minister, in that the Prime Minister will no longer be able to cut and run. That is, the Prime Minister will no longer be able to determine the date of the general election or be free to run the constitution—and, in particular, the electoral timetable—according to party political advantage.
Those of us who have supported fixed-term Parliaments for some time, and who made many speeches about them before the last general election, agree that that is an important step to take. We support the idea of fixed-term Parliaments. We note that there have been several occasions in the past when Prime Ministers have been tempted to call general elections because they have had poll leads, and when they have cut and run. There have been other occasions when Prime Ministers have decided not to do so, because they were fearful of the electorate. We believe that it makes far more sense for local authorities, which have to administer elections, and for the Boundary Commission and the whole paraphernalia of electoral law to have the clarity that comes from knowing, in general, except for extraordinary circumstances, when the next general election will be.
However, one element of prerogative power that the Government are not surrendering is the prerogative power of Prorogation—I shall have to be careful with my syllables in the next section of my speech. As I am sure all hon. Members know, Prorogation is a rather abstruse element of the way in which we do our business. It is an irony that it is still true that Parliament can neither sit nor choose not to sit without the say-so of the Crown. I use the term “the Crown” because in theory it is the monarch who decides, but in practice it is the monarch in consultation with the Privy Council, which means, to all intents and purposes, the Government of the day, and therefore the Prime Minister. That is laid down in a series of different elements of our constitutional settlement, but in particular, in the power of Prorogation, which lies, fairly and squarely, solely with the Crown and the Prime Minister.
It is still true that there is no requirement that a Parliament sit—except, one could argue, in so far as the provisions in the Bill of Rights determine that no money can be granted to the Crown unless it is expressly granted by Parliament, and that Parliament therefore has to meet at least once a year to agree the estimates. Similarly, one could argue that the provisions relating to not being able to have a standing army mean that Parliament has to meet every five years. A provision also exists stating that we cannot be without a Parliament for more than three years. However, I would argue—as the Social Democratic party-Liberal alliance used to argue very forcefully—that Parliament should have a permanent existence, except during those brief moments when it is dissolved.
Of course we still support the idea of having annual Sessions of Parliament, and there needs to be a means of ending each parliamentary Session. We also need a means of dissolving Parliament before a general election. However, the amendments that we have tabled today would mean that the power to decide to sit and not to sit would lie solely in the hands of this House and not in the hands of the Government. Under the current provision, Dissolution is effected by royal proclamation under the Great Seal, and the proclamation of Dissolution sometimes follows Prorogation and sometimes follows an Adjournment. Our proposal is that that proclamation and the date on which Parliament would next sit following a general election should not be decided solely by the Prime Minister, and that they should be fixed in statute, as they are in nearly every other constitution in the world.
This is especially true if we are moving towards what are being called fixed-term Parliaments but are actually fixed general election dates. It is important that the House should always know when it is next going to sit following a general election. That is why we have tabled amendment 9, which proposes that Parliament should sit
“within 15 working days of the polling day”.
That would apply whether it is an early general election or one that takes place on a fixed date, such as May 2015—or, as we would argue, May 2014. We have used the term “working days” because that term has been used throughout the Bill. There is one tiny element in the Bill in which the Government refer simply to “days” rather than “working days”, but they refused to accept our argument on that, and our amendment to change the wording was defeated. None the less, I think that it is better to be consistent throughout the Bill in the terms that are used.
The power of Prorogation is important not only at the end of a Parliament when there is a Dissolution and a general election; it is important also at the end of a Session, in that every element of parliamentary business is suspended. There are no further sittings, and all Bills that have been commenced fall, except those that have expressly been permitted to be carried over to the next Session. As I understand it, the only other exception relates to impeachment proceedings, which are able to continue from one Session to the next.
The power to prorogue is therefore a substantial one that the Government retain. I would argue that this is particularly important in relation to this Bill because the Government could use the power inappropriately, if it were to remain solely in their hands, if there had been a vote of no confidence in them. Let us say that the Government had opposed the vote of no confidence but lost it. There is a provision in the Bill that, in the following fortnight, a new Government would have to pass a motion of confidence. However, a motion of confidence can be agreed in the House only if Parliament is sitting. If the Government had decided to prorogue Parliament, there would be no opportunity for a new one to be formed. I can perfectly easily see a set of circumstances in which a Government, having lost a vote of confidence, would want to make sure that no other Government can be formed and therefore prorogue Parliament expressly to prevent an alternative Government, thereby triggering a general election.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office who is no longer in his place, was told off earlier by one of his parliamentary colleagues for advancing the argument in a previous debate that if the Prime Minister were to act unconstitutionally, the monarch would sack that Prime Minister. I have talked this over with quite a few constitutional experts, every single one of whom said that that is complete and utter nonsense—including Vernon Bogdanor who told me that he was particularly depressed by the way in which the Minister had advanced that argument because he was one of his own students who had previously seemed to be quite intelligent, but seemed to have abandoned his sense on this point.
My hon. Friend is articulating a coherent case. Does he agree that if we have a new electoral system, the odds of having a hung Parliament will increase greatly and that if this Parliament did not have an opportunity to re-form a Government, that would be expressly against the wishes of the people, who had clearly voted for a hung Parliament?
I detect a bit of a difference of view between my hon. Friend and myself here. I hate to say this, but I am rather more with the Deputy Leader of the House on this issue. My hon. Friend is right in saying that if a proportional system were introduced, a succession of hung Parliaments would be more likely. Consensus would rule the day and coalition Governments would be formed on a fairly regular basis. That is not absolutely certain, as it has not happened in some countries that have proportional representation. However, the alternative vote, which I shall be voting for—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) shouts out, “Shame”, but it expressly points out in “Erskine May” that shouting “Shame” is unparliamentary. I would not want to excoriate him on that basis. I am not quite sure on which page it says that, but I am sure he will find it, if he looks for it. [Interruption.]
Order. It is my job to cite that authority, not the job of the hon. Member.
I am just trying to help you out, Mr Deputy Speaker. You did say earlier that you were at the edge of your knowledge and this might not be a page you have reached in your reading of “Erskine May”.
My point was that the alternative vote system does not necessarily lead to more hung Parliaments. It depends entirely on the political climate of the day. The fact that first past the post has on this occasion delivered us a hung Parliament and that we have had coalition Governments many times over the last 140 years provides evidence that it is not first past the post that delivers a particular version of government, but how people vote in the particular circumstances.
I was referring to the use of Prorogation at the end of a parliamentary Session. I believe that that should be in the hands of this House, not in the hands of the Government. Sorry, in fact I was referring to the case where a Government might choose to use Prorogation expressly to prevent an alternative Government from being formed. The Deputy Leader of the House might reassert what the Parliamentary Secretary said earlier—that the monarch would simply sack the Prime Minister in such circumstances—but I do not believe that the monarch has such a power. In fact, since statute law would have expressly stated that that power was still there, I cannot see how that could possibly happen. Alternatively, the Deputy Leader of the House might say that the monarch would refuse to grant Prorogation. That would set the monarch directly against the Prime Minister, and in such a contest there would be a real constitutional crisis, which some would want to take to the courts because the provisions would by then have been placed in statute law.
The hon. Gentleman is exploring an interesting argument, but there is currently nothing to prevent a Prime Minister from requesting Prorogation to avoid a vote of no confidence if he believes that the monarch will accede to his request. Given that that has never happened, why does the hon. Gentleman think that such a constitutional anomaly is more likely to arise following the passage of the Bill than under the present arrangements?
The Deputy Leader of the House has made a fair point. However, because we are now putting in statute significant elements of the way in which the British constitution might work in the future, rather than, of necessity, what exists at present, we are creating a labyrinth which Prime Ministers may well wish to navigate. I shall say more about that shortly, once I have given way to the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless), who is talking to a Whip at the moment.
I give way to the hon. Gentleman.
That is very kind.
I believe that there is a recent precedent in Canada, whose Parliament—if I understand the position correctly—was prorogued for two or three months by a minority Government, against the wishes of many parliamentary parties.
The hon. Gentleman has predicted almost exactly what I was about to say. The 40th Canadian Parliament, which was elected on 14 October 2008 and opened on 18 November, was prorogued by the Governor-General almost immediately, on 4 December, at the specific request of the then Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. I do not think that there is a deliberate coincidence between his surname and that of the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office.
Mr Harper expected a motion of no confidence in his Government, and a coalition agreement was established between the various parties with the support of the Bloc Québécois. As the hon. Gentleman says, that Prorogation was quite substantial, and a second Prorogation at the end of 2009 lasted for more than two months. Many complained that it too had been arranged expressly to avoid a political inconvenience. At the time, a big row was taking place about the detention of Afghans by Canadian forces.
As the hon. Gentleman suggests, there is a real danger that Prorogation could be used in a rather more assertive and political fashion. Governments in this country have tended not to use it in such a way, partly because it means losing the business on which they have embarked and having to start it all over again. That will probably continue, but given that Select Committee reports—including reports from the Standards and Privileges Committee—also fall in such circumstances, I can easily imagine that a Government might choose to prorogue a month earlier than usual, perhaps very early in a Parliament, in order to avoid a political necessity. Interestingly, the ostensible reason given by the Canadians was the prospect of the winter Olympics in Canada. They said it was imperative that the Canadian Government should be able to get on with its business, and that Parliament should not be able to meet during the Olympics.
I think it is right for the power to cease to be wholly in the hands of the Crown, and to be in the hands of the House. I also think that we should start to clarify the knitting pattern, as it were, of this part of the constitution as it currently exists. The laws governing Prorogation hang on a series of Acts of Parliament: the Prorogation Act 1867, the Meeting of Parliament Acts 1694, 1797, 1799 and 1870, and the Parliament (Elections and Meeting) Act 1943. The thrust of all those Acts is that the monarch is entirely able to prorogue Parliament, to decide when it will next meet, and to continue to prorogue with only the safeguards of the measures that I mentioned earlier in the context of the Bill of Rights.
There is a considerable lack of clarity in regard to the process in the run-up to a general election. We know when the next general election will be, at least according to the Bill, although we still hope that their lordships may enforce their will and ensure that it takes place in 2014 rather than 2015. Indeed, I hope that a significant number of Conservatives will support the 2014 date, if only to shrug off the embrace of the Liberal Democrats. However, given that we know when the next general election is expected to be, it surely makes sense for us to rationalise the process of Prorogation.
Up to 1974, there were only two 20th-century general elections in which a Dissolution was not preceded by a Prorogation: the elections of 22 August 1922 and 31 July 1964. As I am sure Members have already spotted, both those elections took place in the summer months, during long recesses when the House stood adjourned. Adjournment, of course, follows a decision by the House, not the Government. There followed a period during which the Government decided to abandon Prorogation. There were adjournments in the summer of 1974, in 1979, in 1983 and in 1987, with no Prorogation.
By 1987, the assumption seemed to have become that the House would do without Prorogation at the end of a Parliament and before Dissolution, partly because the Royal Assent Act 1967 had allowed Royal Assent to be granted by notification rather than necessarily by Prorogation. There was, and still is, no specific need at Prorogation for Royal Assent to Acts that had not yet been referred to. In fact, in 1987 there was something of a row in the House. Mr Speaker Weatherill said that he thought it inappropriate for us to abandon Prorogation. It may be apposite to discuss that occasion this evening, given that so many Members have left the Chamber to go to a drinks party in Downing street. Incidentally, is the sun already past the yardarm? It is not yet 6 pm, and Conservatives are already drinking in Downing street. Tradition has gone by the board.
I am sure that the fact that the Conservatives have had to resort to drink has nothing to do with last Thursday’s result in the Oldham by-election.
I do not think they are very happy. I also think that the Prime Minister may have needed to gather his troops as a result of last week’s result.
On that occasion in 1987, the Speaker and several Members, including Mr Faulds, expressed the view that one of the traditions that had developed over the years was that once a Parliament had been prorogued, Members had an opportunity to make final speeches, and the Speaker had an opportunity to bid farewell to those who would not be standing in the subsequent election. I believe that 86 were not standing again in 1987. Mr Speaker Weatherill said that he thought it was wrong for there to be no Prorogation before Dissolution, and several Members agreed. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) was the only one who believed that it would be good to get rid of Prorogations, because the whole business of Lords Commissioners doffing their caps in the House of Lords struck him as a ludicrous ceremony that should be abolished. A fair number of Members probably think that the quaintness of that moment should not simply be chucked away for the sake of it. My point is, however, that the decision on whether Prorogation should take place ought to lie in the hands of the House rather than in those of Government. I also think it is important for it to be known at that point exactly when the first sitting of the new Parliament will be.
As a result, I suspect, of Mr Speaker Weatherill’s views, Dissolution was again preceded by Prorogation in 1992, 1997, 2005 and 2010. However, in 2001 Parliament was dissolved without being prorogued, and was simply adjourned on 11 May 2001. Adjournment was, of course, a decision of the House, not the Government.
In summary, it is important that, just as the Government are surrendering the prerogative power in relation to Dissolution, they should also surrender the prerogative power in relation to Prorogation. They should do so for three reasons: first so as not to have the temptation of being able to use Prorogation to prevent business that they do not want to happen; secondly because we are putting into statute measures in respect of what happens in the case of a motion of no confidence that make express provision for a strict period of time during which a motion of confidence has to be passed and which could be passed only if the House were sitting, and therefore not prorogued; and thirdly because we need to tidy up the processes we go through at the end of a Parliament—not the end of a parliamentary Session—both by determining that we should have a Prorogation but that the decision on the date should be left to this House and not to the Government, and by ensuring that, as in amendment 9, there is a clear date for when the new Parliament will be sitting.
New clause 4 therefore puts Prorogation directly in the hands of the Commons and repeals several of the historical provisions in statute. It would clarify all these issues. It allows for the House to decide either immediately to prorogue, or to allow the Speaker to prorogue at a later time that is, however, fixed. It would also repeal the Prorogation Act 1867 and tidy up a variety of measures.
Amendment 2 amends the Crown Act 1707—that is important—and amendment 3 repeals the Meeting of Parliament Act 1797. Amendment 4 amends section 51 of the Representation of the People Act 1867 so that any reference to Dissolution or Prorogation is entirely omitted. Amendment 9 would require Parliament to meet “within 15 working days” after a general election. In the vast majority of cases in the last 61 years since the second world war, that would meet the needs of every new Parliament. These measures would bring the sitting, holding and closing of Parliament into Parliament’s hands.
We have further amendments in this group, to which I also wish to refer briefly. As all Members know, the length of time that is allowed for a general election has historically been 17 days. That is referred to in the Representation of the People Act 1983, as amended, which makes provision for the
“Last day for delivery of nomination papers/withdrawals of candidature/appointment of election agents”
to be on the sixth day after Dissolution, with polling day 11 days after that. That has made perfect sense over the years, when we have been completely uncertain as to the likely date of the general election—it could be in January, March, April or any time of the year. However, under the Bill we are now moving over to a situation in which general elections will nearly always be in May, and on the same day as local elections, Assembly elections in Wales and Northern Ireland, and elections for the Scottish Parliament. For each of those elections the timetable is a 25-day period, not a 17-day period. I think it makes sense to have the same length of time for all sets of elections that are being held on the same day.
Various considerations apply to this issue of course, including national expenditure on election campaigns, local expenditure, the amount an individual candidate can spend on promoting their own candidature, and a whole series of different measures in relation to electoral law. They all come into play the moment that that short campaign period has started. It therefore makes sense for the period to be the same for all the different candidates who are standing for election at the same time. I have spoken to the Electoral Commission, which has been campaigning for equalisation in this regard for some time. It is interesting that while the Representation of the People Act 1983 set a timetable of 17 days for a general election, every time a new body has been set up subsequently, the decision has been made to set the period at 25 days rather than 17 days.
Several years ago, the second speech I ever made in this House was on the Ofcom paving Bill, which was introducing Ofcom and getting rid of the various different bodies that then regulated broadcasting and telecoms. I said it would be great to get rid of lots of bodies and just have one because it would be coherent, more consistent and, to use a valleys” word—as in the south Wales valleys—it would be tidy. Unfortunately however, Hansard rendered that as to use a valet’s word. We do not have many valets in the valleys, but I would still assert—I hope that the Hansard reporters are noting this—that the proposal I have just mentioned would be more coherent, more consistent, and that, to use a Valleys word, it would be tidy. [Interruption.] I see that I have support for this amendment from one of the Conservative Whips; I hope I will see him in the Division Lobby later.
I very much hope that the Government will feel able to support these amendments. I understand that there may be some uncertainty in relation to the period of the general election campaign, but I hope that what will triumph in Ministers’ minds is a desire to see greater clarity and tidiness in our electoral arrangements as we move towards a fixed-term Parliament.
Anybody who knows me knows that my appreciation of a glass of reasonably priced white wine is second to no one’s in this House, and my appreciation of a glass of reasonably priced white wine served by the Prime Minister in No. 10 Downing street is extreme, but my love for the British constitution is greater than that.
Is he charging?
The shadow Minister asks whether my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is charging for the drinks he is serving in No. 10 Downing street. In response, I would merely point out something that seems to have escaped the attention of Opposition Members.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman seems to be claiming that the Prime Minister is using Downing street for commercial purposes. Is it appropriate for the hon. Gentleman to make such a serious allegation against his own Prime Minister?
I think we all know that that is not a point of order.
I do not want to stray from the subject of the new clauses and the amendments, but I should point out something that seems permanently to escape Opposition Members, which is that we live in a time of austerity, and our Prime Minister is doing everything he can to maximise revenue to the Exchequer and minimise expense, hence the reasonably priced wine being served and the—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Order. We are straying from the subject of new clause 4. The price of drinks in Downing street has nothing to do with the topic under discussion.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was in danger of being wholly distracted from my point, which is that my love for the British constitution, such as it is, is greater even than my love for a glass of reasonably priced white wine served at No. 10 Downing street, and there is no part of the British constitution for which I have a greater passion than that nebulous concept of Prorogation. It is the subject of the stories that my parents read to me by my bedside when I was a child. I agree that it sounds like a sad childhood, but such it was.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made an ingenious argument about the dangers of this power remaining with the sovereign. He suggested that a Prime Minister presiding without a secure majority and having lost a vote of no confidence in this House might advise the sovereign to prorogue Parliament to avoid the possibility of Parliament passing a vote of confidence in an alternative Government and thereby bringing about an election, rather than the installation of a new Government. I am second to none in my passion for the nebulous concept of Prorogation, but I am no lawyer, unlike the hon. Gentleman.
I am not a lawyer.
I withdraw that comment, Mr Deputy Speaker, which was almost certainly unparliamentary and banned by “Erskine May”. The hon. Gentleman said he felt he had a certain expertise in English law but not in Scottish law. I point out that my expertise in any law is equivalent to his expertise in Scottish law, so I am skating across boggy ground, if such a thing is possible.
The hon. Gentleman tried to argue that the power to prorogue should transfer to Parliament so that a Prime Minister who has lost his majority and lost the confidence of this House cannot use the power and the persuadability of the sovereign to remain in office and require an election to be called. He has an excessively colourful imagination. I understand that where no party has a clear majority in this House the role of the sovereign is to see whether a stable Government can be formed.
We saw a very good example of that after the last general election, when there was no clear result and no party had a clear majority in this House. The sovereign behaved impeccably in allowing and encouraging the parties, both the Labour party in government and the Opposition parties, to explore which arrangement was the most stable and to form the Government who had the most chance of lasting. Surely where a party in government has lost a vote of confidence in this House and no longer commands a stable majority here it would be an absolutely integral part of the sovereign’s constitutional role to invite the other party leaders to explore whether they could form a stable majority. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) frowns. I would be happy to take an intervention from him, but may I finish explaining my logic? He can then explain to me why, as so often, it is flawed.
The sovereign would invite other party leaders to see whether they could secure a stable majority and they would have those conversations even if Parliament had been prorogued. If a group of parties not then in the Government told Her Majesty—or His Majesty, on some future date—that they could form a stable Government and provided good evidence of that fact, and if the Cabinet Secretary were to advise that they were a stable Government, there is no reason why Her Majesty should not invite the leader of the parties putting together that constellation to form a Government. At that point, that leader would be the Prime Minister and could kiss hands—all of that can happen without Parliament being involved. That leader would then be the Prime Minister and would be able to “rerogue” or “unrogue”—I do not know what the correct term is—and recall Parliament, thus cancelling Prorogation, and put their Government to a vote of confidence. If they were successful, that would obviate the need for a further election. So I do not think that the logic of the argument made by the hon. Member for Rhondda holds.
I apologise for not being here earlier in the debate, but I am seriously concerned about what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, which is a degree of politicisation of the monarch, as Head of State, from which I would draw back. If a degree of automaticity were involved and any Prime Minister of the day who could not form a Government automatically, as a convention, asked the leader of the next major party to form one, that would be one thing. If the monarch is making political judgments about who he or she should choose, that is a very different matter. When George V involved himself in helping to form the national Government in 1931 that was pushing the monarch too far into politics. Heads of State should not have that role.
The hon. Gentleman also makes a strong argument and has much greater historical knowledge than I do. I would say only that if the Bill becomes law, it will become a clear part of our constitutional arrangements that the expectation, the desire and the will of the people is that we have fixed-term Parliaments lasting five years. Therefore, should there be an interruption that led to a vote of no confidence in a Government and the Prime Minister came to the sovereign asking for her to prorogue Parliament, it would be clear to the sovereign, who would also receive advice from her advisers, that there was a danger of frustrating the constitution and frustrating the will of the people for us to have elections every five years.
Given that the Prime Minister would have lost a vote of confidence in this House—in the old days that would normally have automatically led to their no longer having a right to govern—I do not think it would be classified as the sovereign “meddling” in politics were she then to say that she would invite alternatives if the Prime Minister could not tell her that he or she could form a stable Government without going to the people in an election. If the Prime Minister could not give her that reassurance, it would be entirely proper for the sovereign—her advisers would tell her this—to see whether the Parliament that had not run its full course did not contain an alternative stable Government who could be formed and for her to invite the relevant leader of any such Government to kiss hands, become Prime Minister and resummon Parliament to see whether they could win a vote of confidence. That is why the fear of the hon. Member for Rhondda is not justified. In fact, a reverse fear is involved.
Is not the very purpose behind the Bill and the cooling-off period after a vote of no confidence precisely to allow that to happen? The expectation would not be that Her Majesty or His Majesty would interfere in the political process. Under the Bill, such a situation would throw the game open to see whether a Government who can command the confidence of this House can be formed. People elect MPs and then, to a certain extent, they expect us to get on and govern; they do not expect us to squabble, throw our toys out of the pram and have another election because it suits us.
My hon. Friend puts it far more succinctly and better than I could. The key point is that there is nothing to stop that process happening just because Parliament is prorogued. We do not stop existing or being able to have conversations with each other, with Her Majesty’s advisers or with senior members of the civil service because Parliament is prorogued. We would still exist, we would still be MPs and we would still be able to go through that process.
“Erskine May” is quite clear about the fact that if Parliament is prorogued, all the Bills before the House fall. So it is not entirely accurate to say that there is no effect to proroguing Parliament.
Of course I accept that, but it is not really what we are referring to. We are referring to non-legislative activity associated with forming a Government.
Would that not be crucial? A new Prime Minister from another party would want all the Bills of the old party’s Prime Minister to fall. Prorogation would be beneficial.
The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong, I am afraid, much as I like him—
The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) or me?
Both of you. I am quite happy to like anybody.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) is completely wrong. A person from the same political party might want to take over. The no-confidence vote might apply to the Prime Minister as an individual rather than to the whole Government. I would agree with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) were it not for the way in which the Bill is worded, because it refers to the period of 14 days—not 14 sitting days. The House could be adjourned or prorogued during that period, or it could already be prorogued. There are many different situations in which we need to seize this power back into the hands of the House rather than the Government.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has thought about this for longer, more deeply and in a more researched way than I have, as I was invited to make this speech only a relatively short time ago.
It is a slightly odd idea that we could have a vote of no confidence and that somebody from the governing party might take up the reins. Any party that had a vote of no confidence rather than a leadership challenge to change their leader would be highly irresponsible.
My hon. Friend is right. There were moments in the previous Parliament when we all might have wished that the party in government had taken that route rather than imposing on us the rather long, drawn-out demise that we all witnessed.
Much as I like the other hon. Gentleman, whose name I do not know—[Laughter.] No, I do, but he was completely wrong. The hon. Member for North Warwickshire would be right if the Bill determined what counted as a motion of no confidence, but it does not. A motion of no confidence could be a motion of censure of an individual person. It might be tabled by the Opposition, and, if they won, they would end up unseating somebody as a party leader without unseating the Government.
I have a sense that we will probably not persuade the hon. Gentleman here and now, although I have eternal optimism that we will persuade him of everything in due course.
Let me move on to the solution proposed by the hon. Member for Rhondda, which, to my mind, is as flawed—though also as ingenious—as his analysis of what he sees as the problems with the Bill. His solution is that this House, and exclusively this House, would have the power to prorogue. I believe that the House would adopt a resolution and the Speaker would then prorogue Parliament. The problem is another circumstance that the Opposition parties have talked about. When a Prime Minister with a rather small majority in this House feels, in the middle of a five-year term, that everything is going frightfully well, they might cynically decide to engineer a vote of no confidence that they would then instruct their Members to vote for in order to bring the House down, to prorogue and, more importantly, to have a further election. I have heard in earlier discussions that that vexes and worries Opposition Members and the hon. Member for Rhondda. Surely, his solution would fall prey to that ruse far more than happens under the current circumstances, when only the monarch can prorogue Parliament.
If a Prime Minister who felt that everything was going frightfully well and that if he had a quick election he could get a better majority could engineer a vote of no confidence by getting his troops to support it, surely he could engineer a resolution of the House to prorogue just as cynically, wilfully and arbitrarily. Does not the hon. Gentleman’s proposal move the power of prorogation, which currently sits in that special, rather hallowed constitutional place of being one of the few things that the sovereign does, on to the Floor of this House where it will become subject to all the machinations and swirls of this place and of ambitious Prime Ministers trying to secure a better majority?
Prime Ministers are by definition ambitious, I think—that was otiose. No. The Prime Minister, to all intents and purposes, is the Crown and the Crown, to all intents and purposes, is the Prime Minister in the exercise of prerogative powers. Secondly, there is a significant advantage in not just being able to prorogue and close Parliament by proclamation but having to come to the House to make a speech to argue for it. That is the big difference.
Although I defer hugely to the hon. Gentleman’s greater understanding, he betrays a lack of a feel for how this constitution of ours works. The same criticism could be applied to some of his other amendments. The whole point of our constitution is that it is organic and flexible, and that it develops over time. Everything we do, every decision we make and every Bill we pass slightly shifts and changes the constitution. It is not a rules-based constitution but a practice-based constitution. Of course, there are rules—the Parliament Acts, the Salisbury convention and so on—but they develop and metamorphose as we use them.
If I may, I would like at least to develop the argument enough for the hon. Gentleman to be able to fire it down good and proper.
Once we have passed this Bill and created five-year Parliaments and the expectation that they are the norm for this country, the constitution will have changed. The way in which the sovereign uses her powers to invite people to form Governments, to see whether they can win the confidence of this House, to prorogue and to accept advice from a Prime Minister will change. We will all make the argument that it would be profoundly unconstitutional for a Prime Minister who had just lost a vote of no confidence to abuse his power as the monarch’s sole adviser to advise her to prorogue a Parliament. It would be absolutely within the monarch’s rights to say, “I am defending the constitution. I am defending this new expectation that we should have five-year Parliaments by trying to see whether there is somebody other than this loser, who has just lost the confidence of the House, who can command a majority. That does not interfere with Parliament or government—I am in fact interpreting properly the will of the people, which is that we should have five-year terms.” I believe that the hon. Member for Rhondda thinks that these rules are unchanging and unbending and that they will not shift and metamorphose in response to the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman has referred repeatedly to the will of the people, but at no point did his party leader or the Deputy Prime Minister promise a five-year term. However, his party leader did say that if there was a change of Prime Minister, there would be a general election within six months. Why has that not been considered as part of the Government’s Bill?
The hon. Gentleman is cunning, as ever. Unfortunately, in almost all his interventions in this debate—and in any other—he tends to argue that this House represents the sovereign will of the people, so it is a bit rich for him to shift ground and suddenly say that if something was not discussed in an election campaign, it did not receive the endorsement of the people. We are sufficient and entire unto ourselves, capable of representing the will of the people. If we decide, as I believe and hope we will, that we want to adopt this Bill, and if the gentlemen and ladies in the other place decide that they would prefer to have slightly more sleep and approve the Bill, we will have decided—we are the will of the people—that this is how we want our constitution to operate in future. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s ingenious objection.
Will my hon. Friend briefly explain why he feels that the change of a Prime Minister should trigger a general election within six months?
The question that has been asked does not relate to the clause or the amendments and I defer always to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, as to whether my comments would be relevant, although of course I want to be courteous to my hon. Friend.
I think we will stick with new clause 4.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, from the bottom of my heart.
As I hear in the distance the light pop of the second bottle being opened in No. 10 Downing street, I shall move on to other amendments in the group. The hon. Member for Rhondda has talked about tidying up. “Tidy” is a great word, particularly when spoken in the inimitable accent not of the valets, but of the valleys. I rather share his love of the word, but not the concept. It is an entirely classic Labour reaction to try to make everything neat and tidy. His further amendments would tidy up and specify when Parliament would return after a general election, but he has not told us why or when this has been a problem in the past. He never said, “There was that famous time when something happened in the country and we were not able to discuss it because we had not returned,” or, “There was that famous time when the Prime Minister did not want to do PMQs and avoided them because she or he was so terrified.” He has not given any reasons to explain why things are not working at the moment, so this is one of the rare occasions on which I shall associate myself with the deep instinct of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset that we should not change things unless they are demonstrably broken.
Is not my hon. Friend making a good argument for retaining the current system and doing away with the Bill altogether?
That is an even more ingenious attempt, Mr Deputy Speaker, because it is harder for me to appeal to you for succour on this point, but I reject my hon. Friend’s point because I believe that the Bill is one of principle. I believe that the idea of Prime Ministers picking the dates of elections is wholly outrageous in a modern democracy and that we must have fixed-term Parliaments. I happen to know that this argument has been raging inside the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties for years, so it is a cause of high principle.
The history of the British constitution is that changes of high principle happen only when the parties in power see political advantage in such change; that is how democracy works. Britain has been reformed when the great causes have been aligned with low party interest and I thank—I am not sure if I am allowed to say what I was going to say—the stars that in this Parliament at this time that alliance of high principle and low politics has come together and that we are putting through Parliament a Bill that will establish fixed-term elections and remove the Prime Minister’s right to choose a date that is to his or her advantage.
I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman. But I would be more convinced by his argument if the Bill were to apply after the next election, but this looks like a Government trying to perpetuate their term in office to five years.
I detect from the hon. Gentleman’s expression and demeanour that he is worried, but he should not be because we genuinely want the changes to become permanent—as much as the constitution of our country can allow that. We genuinely want there to be, at least for as long as any of us can see, a habit, norm and expectation deep in our society that there will be elections in May every five years. I hope that is how the situation will be perceived in this country after the Bill is passed—without my hon. Friends’ amendments.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman should not be afraid to mention God. A moment ago, he was going to say, “Thank God,” but instead said “Thank the stars.”
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend—may I call him that? I feel as though we are friends even though we sit on opposite sides. I am always nervous about the customs of this place: I wanted to say thank God; I meant thank God; and frankly the stars have absolutely nothing to do with it. I am happy to be corrected.
Returning to the tidiness of the amendment of the hon. Member for Rhondda, he has not demonstrated, or even provided a shred of evidence to explain why the current point at which Parliament is recalled after an election is a problem or causes any difficulties. We should reject his amendment.
The hon. Gentleman has tabled another amendment to regulate the timetable for elections and he has again made a superficially appealing argument about lining up the different election timetables for different tiers of government, but it will not have escaped the attention of Government Members that he has, as ever, lined up with the longer figure. That betrays the deep belief of the Labour party, of which the hon. Gentleman provides a good example, that what the country needs are more politics, longer election campaigns, more leaflets going through doors and more people knocking on one’s door just when EastEnders is on or when a good game has started.
The House has faced a big problem with fundraising and the increasing cost of democracy. Would not longer election campaigns lead to more expense and a greater requirement for parties to raise funds? We all know that parties get into trouble however they try to raise funds, so is this not the wrong direction to go in?
I agree entirely.
Well, the hon. Gentleman should not, because if we extended the 17 days to 25, there would be less need to raise money because the amount that can be spent in a short election campaign is much more circumscribed than the amount that could be spent across the whole of the previous year. With a fixed-term Parliament, it should be possible to restrict the amount of money much more readily, so that is a further reason—I am glad he has added another—for him to support my amendment.
I am not sure I understood that point, so, in a traditional Tory way, I am going to reject it because the hon. Gentleman said it.
The issue is whether the timetables should conform to the lower figure of 17 days or the higher figure of 25 days. My instinct, and probably that of most Government Members, is that any conformity should be to a shorter election campaign and a quicker decision. However, we must then address the issue of whether it is appropriate to determine that figure in this Bill. I believe that the Bill makes a fundamental constitutional change—to that extent I agree with those of my hon. Friends who are uncomfortable with parts of it—but that is why I support it. I want that fundamental constitutional change and I want it to remain for ever. I want it to be something that people will describe in 25 or 30 years’ time as one of the big constitutional shifts in the life of modern Britain. Because the Bill will make such a fundamental constitutional change, I do not want to hang about with all sorts of little, pernickety tidying-up exercises. I do not want to lumber the Bill with measures that might seem irrelevant in future, thereby opening the door to further amendment. I want the Bill to have as few clauses as possible—clear clauses that are based on the principled position that the timing of an election should not be up to the Prime Minister but should be a matter of rhythm and pattern defined by our constitution.
Is it not in the nature of these issues that parliamentarians will take the opportunity, when a relevant Bill comes before the House, to deal with matters for which such an opportunity might not come again for a long time? What is the hon. Gentleman’s position on the amendment? Does he agree that the election period should be the same for local, parliamentary and Assembly elections, but not that it should be extended? Clearly, there are advantages to having the same period for all elections, not least in terms of calculating election expenditure for returns.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and I agree with him. If we are to have, as I hope we will, elections falling in a regular pattern, coinciding with other elections to other important democratic bodies, it seems obvious that there should be a consistent series. Otherwise, people would find it very confusing if local election campaigns had started while the parliamentary election campaign they all knew was coming had not. In such a situation, if parties put out leaflets with councillors on one side and a parliamentary candidate on the other, they might get into trouble for jumping the gun. The point he makes is absolutely right, but we should not necessarily decide here and now, in this Bill, between the proposals for 17 or 25 days, or even that the length should be 17 or 25 days. If we want to make this change, should we not think a bit harder about what the period should be? I have only thought of it on the spur of the moment, but I think I could make a very strong case for 12 days, and if someone wants to enter into a bit of a Dutch auction and say eight days, I would be happy with that too.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong, because one major reason why we might want a slightly longer period is to allow people who register for a postal vote to get their vote in on time. The hon. Gentleman’s Government will be legislating for prisoners to have the vote; they will vote by post, as I understand it. In addition, as I heard him say earlier, people who live abroad—especially those in the armed forces—who vote by post would find it impossible to do so within a period of eight or 12 days. They already find it very difficult to do so within 17 days but they do manage to do so within the 25-day period for local elections.
The hon. Gentleman is being a trifle unkind because he knew I was being a little light-hearted and frivolous; indeed he indulges himself in such behaviour. Whereas we allow him to get away with it, he has taken my light-hearted conjectures as a serious suggestion. What he has done, however, is to demonstrate the force of my argument, which is that we should have a proper discussion, separate from the Bill, about the question, “What is the right time period?”
There are many good counter-arguments; the hon. Gentleman has enumerated some of them. My sympathies for those prisoners denied their right to vote are more limited than my sympathies for the other categories of potential postal voter that he mentioned, but I am sure that those prisoners too will have their defenders. Should we not have a separate debate on a separate piece of legislation on this question—if legislation is required? Maybe it is required, but I do not think that we should be making this amendment to a Bill that needs to stand the test of time. It needs to rest as a keystone in our constitution that lasts through the ages and is not eroded by time. I hope, therefore, that everyone in the House will choose to reject the new clauses and the amendments proposed by the hon. Gentleman.
My childhood, unlike that of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), was not peppered with bedtime stories of prorogations and other interesting matters.
Before I speak to the two amendments in my name, I want to discuss new clause 4 and some of the other amendments on Prorogation. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that anomalies left in legislation can lead to all sorts of continuing questions, and to absurdities and abuses. In so far as we are trying to create fixed-term Parliaments and trying to set out in clear and reliable terms the circumstances in which an election can be brought about early, we should as far as possible have those arrangements as tidy—to use the hon. Gentleman’s valleys word—as possible.
However, I accept the point that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford made: that the amendments of themselves would not sort out all the questions. If our real fear is that a future Francis Urquhart Prime Minister will exploit these anomalies and devices to create all sorts of problems, we should recognise that the amendments themselves would not fully prevent that, because a Machiavellian Prime Minister who was able to marshal and control votes in the House would be able to do exactly the same with Prorogation. To a degree we are in the realm of,
“There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza”.
Each time we try to solve the problem, we come back to the basic issue of trust and control—the control that a Prime Minister and Whips could have in the House, where things rest on a vote determined by the Prime Minister.
I believe, however, that important amendments tabled by Members on the Opposition Front Bench would at least ensure that there are not open and blatant inconsistencies between election spending windows for different elections that could be taking place fairly coterminously. Simply as a matter of good legislative practice, we should as far as possible try to resolve those problems and keep things squared now.
Also in response to what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said, if we are serious about the Bill being a fixed-term Parliament Bill, and if its purpose is to prevent people from being surprised into an election or an election from being called at a stroke, it could help if we had clear fixed time limits for Prorogation, such as those that are being suggested. I am somewhat like the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) in that I come from a political tradition that does not particularly like caps being doffed in the House of Lords or anywhere else, so I would prefer to avoid the constitutional eccentricity of Prorogation, but if that is part of the chosen furniture and architecture of this place, at least let us ensure that we do not trip over it in a dangerous way.
Amendments 14 and 15, which are in my name, would amend clause 2. As with some of the comments that the hon. Member for Rhondda made in proposing new clause 4, my amendments 14 and 15 are intended to question the Government’s argument that the Bill is about removing prerogative powers from the Prime Minister to call elections. It was said in earlier debates on the Bill that the significant move is that the current Prime Minister will be the first to give up that power. If that is the case, why, when an election is called early under clause 2(1) or the confidence measure in clause 2(2), is it left to the Prime Minister to recommend the election date? Clause 2(1) relates to when a vote takes place in the House of Commons for an early election date and that vote is certified by the Speaker. I believe that in such circumstances it should be entirely possible for the House, in such a Division, to specify the date rather than leaving it up to the Prime Minister.
This matter arose in debates at earlier stages. Some amendments had come from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and some of its amendments brought us into the situation where everyone in the Chamber at Committee stage was talking about the provisions of clause 2(1) and (2). They talked about the vote taking place in close calendar quarters to the calling of the election, whereas I believe that we should make clear provision relating to clause 2(1) to allow Parliament to vote a year or, even two years ahead of the due date of an election, to say, “No, for good stated reasons we are going early.” It might be that England has finally won a bid for the World cup and that tournament will coincide with the due date for an election, and people might well sensibly say in advance that they want to move it—similarly for the Olympics or another event. People seem to be very taken with royal weddings at the minute—perhaps some such event could be taking place in close proximity to the due date for an election, in which case Parliament might very sensibly agree to move the date forward. As the Bill stands, Parliament cannot do that.
If we support the notion of a fixed-term Parliament, which I do not, surely we have to accept that risk. If we support the idea of a fixed date in the calendar, it is just tough if there happens to be a royal wedding at the same time. We cannot have it both ways.
That sums up my view on royal weddings, but that is my own prejudice.
Another argument that has been made is that the Bill is about removing a prerogative from a Prime Minister and giving powers to the House. If that is what we are saying—not just that the Prime Minister is giving up some powers, but that the House is getting some—my amendment would ensure that the House gets more powers. The House should be equipped, not just to pass a motion calling for an early general election, but to specify the date—instead of leaving it to the Prime Minister to recommend to the monarch when that date should be—and there should be provision for Parliament to do so sensibly in advance. The amendments that we all debated in Committee all presumed that it would be in a matter of weeks, similar to the debate that we have just had about 17 days and 25 days’ Prorogation—in other words, in fairly close calendar quarters. I believe that we should make provision in clause 2(1) to allow the House to set a date, as amendment 14 would allow. It would provide a fourth point that could be covered by a Speaker’s certificate: whether or not a date was specified and what the date was. Amendment 15 would amend clause 2(6), so that the date could be specified.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument. I am a supporter of the Bill in principle, but having established the fixed-term principle in legislation, is not the danger of his amendments that, by resolution of the Commons proposed by the Prime Minister who rallies his troops, the principle would be effectively undermined by setting another date? So what would be the point of legislating in the first place?
I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but let us remember that the Speaker can issue two types of certificate—under clause 2(2), which relates to confidence motions, and under clause 2(1), in respect of a resolution passed by two thirds of Members—and my amendments deal only with those circumstances. If we legislate for a resolution to be passed by two thirds of Members and for the Speaker to certify certain things about that, it would be a gross oversight not to provide for hon. Members, in so voting in such a Division, to specify a date if they wished to do so, rather than to leave that up to the Prime Minister.
I do not wish to go into the constitutional twilight zone that the hon. Member for Rhondda took us into about some of the wily vagaries of prorogation powers, but if we simply leave it to a Minister, even the Prime Minister, to set a date and make no provision for the House to specify a date, we leave ourselves open to possible uncertainties and, indeed, abuses. I remind the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) that we have served in an Assembly where a Secretary of State had certain powers and obligations for setting election dates. There have been court cases about whether or not the Secretary of State had duly exercised those powers and whether he had chosen not to see things and then said that he had exercised the power to set a date by simply setting the same date that had been suggested. People have used the different devices that the law allowed.
I am simply saying that if we charge the House with the possibility of setting a different election date for its own good reasons—I assume that they would need to be good reasons if the motion was supported by two thirds of Members—we should at least allow the House to specify the date as well if we are to hold to the spirit of the Prime Minister giving up powers.
Like other hon. Members, I have serious reservations about Speaker’s certificates. My amendments would not suspend any of the qualifications that I and many other hon. Members have on that subject—the worries about the implications in terms of courts and so on—but the more that we charge the House with powers and controls in relation to the issue, the more content I would be with the Bill.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important discussion. The entire issue of fixed-term Parliaments, sadly, is in danger of becoming yet another political football to be kicked around the House, as Members seek to manufacture objections to reform, and to posture and grandstand. I fear that the new clause and amendments for the most part would not add to the Bill in any meaningful way. The issue is really very simple. I believe that the Bill will strengthen the power of the House over a key constitutional issue and diminish the Prime Minister’s power.
Before coming to the detail of the new clause and amendments, let us remember exactly what this historic Bill is about. Previously, the Prime Minister had the power to ask for an early Dissolution of Parliament at any time. Historically, that extraordinary degree of power has been used solely to the political advantage of the party in power.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that we have had a fairly settled democracy for the past 350 years? So there are aspects of the system that he can recommend to the House as well.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for alluding to an argument that I have heard time and again, when people suggest, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” but I shall come to the problems with the current situation in a moment. He also alludes to the interesting idea that we have a democratic system that works, so we should not amend or tinker with it. I have heard Opposition Members support that idea before. I have heard it suggested that, somehow, the Bill is undemocratic. With the greatest respect to my hon. Friends, I find that an extraordinary argument. That line of reasoning seems to suggest that the only truly democratic system is the one that has evolved in this country—the one that we currently use. Such reasoning suggests that it is not possible to amend our system without somehow making it less democratic, even though it concentrates power in the Prime Minister’s hands. The Bill will devolve the power to call a general election to the House, which is surely where it belongs.
If one were to follow that line of reasoning to its absurd conclusion, it would suggest that other western nations are somehow less democratic than ours, simply because they have democratic systems different from the one that we enjoy. In the United States Congressmen and women serve a two-year fixed term. The President serves a four-year fixed term. Senators serve six-year fixed terms. Clearly, that does not make the United States less democratic than we are simply because its system is different from ours. In France Members of the National Assembly are elected for five-year terms—the period that the Bill recommends. The President is also elected for a five-year term. The Senate is selected for a six-year term.
I am sorry, but Members of the Assemblée Nationale are elected for terms of up to five years, not fixed terms.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for correcting me. That was not my understanding, but I will bow to his superior knowledge. The French model has an interesting lesson to teach us about leaving the power to dissolve Parliament with the Executive, as opposed to the system that we are now considering. The President of France has the power to force Dissolution early, but that is not supposed to be the norm; it is supposed to be used only in an emergency. It has been used only twice in an emergency, in 1962 and 1968, but it has been used three times for political advantage—in 1981, 1988 and 1997—thus clearly demonstrating that if we leave such a power in the hands of the Executive, it will inevitably be used for party political advantage.
The Bill still seems to allow the Executive to do that, because they can force a vote of no confidence in themselves. Therefore, what we are achieving is simply changing the rules by which an early election can be called, not making any fundamental change to the constitution.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s typically pithy and interesting contribution. The point has been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and while my hon. Friend is technically correct, I find it hard to imagine that a Government who wished to call an early general election for their own political advantage would engineer a vote of no confidence that they would then lose on the Floor of the House, because that would be a disastrous start to a general election campaign.
When I first heard the suggestion, I thought that the electorate might consider that such a Government had behaved irresponsibly and therefore should not receive its support, but if the vote was a simple device for calling an early election that took only a few hours, the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) has a point, in that the mechanism would just be another way of calling an early election, and the position would not be very different from where we are now.
I will have to agree to disagree with hon. Members about this, but I do not think that a Government going into a general election would want to see headlines on the front pages of The Sun and other tabloids screaming, “Government falls after losing confidence vote in the House”.
Surely any legislation could be avoided if Prime Ministers were to say at the start of their term whether they intended to run a five-year Parliament. If they backed out of that arrangement with the electorate after two and a half years, they would be judged accordingly, so why on earth do we need legislation?
My hon. Friend makes a truly innovative suggestion.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I shall be delighted to find out whether the hon. Gentleman can answer the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker).
At the risk of rushing to the hon. Gentleman’s rescue, I suspect that Labour Members tried that approach in the previous Parliament, and I do not recall it ending particularly well for the former Prime Minister.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his clever and well-reasoned argument.
Returning to the question of party political advantage, why does the hon. Gentleman think that the Government have chosen to specify a term of five years, rather than four, in the Bill?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman raises that question, because I would like to address that issue, which is one of the “straw man” arguments that opponents of the Bill regularly cite. Some who oppose the Bill argue against the whole principle of fixed-term Parliaments, while others claim to support that principle, but tackle the issue of whether the term should be five years or four.
What should we make of the term set out in the Bill? I think that I am safe in saying that the term length is a key sticking point for Labour Members who accept the principle of fixed-term Parliaments yet still cannot bring themselves to support the Bill. Many of them hang their hat on the fact that five-year, rather than four-year, terms are proposed.
If we are to consider that point in detail, it is important that we understand where we are and how we came to be here. At present the maximum length of a Parliament is five years—let us make no bones about that—and I do not recall any recent cries of anguish from Labour Members that the historical five-year Parliament is wrong. Indeed, that maximum limit was established under the Parliament Act 1911, so Labour Members have had a long time to express their opposition to five-year Parliaments. The 1911 Act reduced the maximum length of a Parliament to five years from seven years by amending the Septennial Act 1715.
May I remind my hon. Friend that the reduction from seven to five years took place because the House of Lords was no longer able to block legislation, and it was therefore thought right that things should be referred to the electorate within a reasonable time? In 1911 Members thought that that period was five years, and what they thought in 1911 is a jolly good thing to think in 2011.
As ever, I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his point. He and I believe that the wisdom of our forefathers should not be lightly dismissed.
If my hon. Friend believes that the wisdom of our forefathers should not be easily dismissed, why is he supporting the Bill?
I do not understand my hon. Friend’s point at all. Our forefathers decided that five years was a reasonable maximum length for a Parliament.
But when our forefathers reached that view, they pointed out that although the maximum length of a Parliament would be five years, in practice the length would nearly always be four years.
The hon. Gentleman has advanced that argument before, but I am aware that another interpretation is that if a Parliament lasts five years, only about four years’ work gets done in practice, because Governments find it harder to get their business through in the final year as people are looking ahead to the next general election: in effect, the election campaign starts.
As the House knows, three of the past five Parliaments have run for five years, so it is not unreasonable to use five years as a guide.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) likes to cite a figure of 3.7 years as the average length of a Parliament since 1945—he does not need to jump up and do so again now—but we need to tackle that statistic head on, because it is quite disingenuous. The statistic includes the three occasions on which a Parliament lasted for less than two years. No one would suggest that Parliaments of less than two years should be the norm—they occur in unusual circumstances—so it is misleading to include them in statistics to show the average length of a Parliament since 1945.
Is not the great advantage of our present system that if a Government do not get a particularly big majority—such as in 1964 and February 1974—the arrangements are sufficiently flexible to allow us to hold another general election fairly soon afterwards so that one party or another can get a reasonable majority?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting argument, because he seems to suggest that any Government of the day should have such a strong majority that they can bash their legislation through. I believe that Labour Members referred to that arrangement as an elective dictatorship when they were on the wrong side of such figures in the 1980s. In this day and age, if a Government need to be a bit more consensual and cleverer about getting their business through the House, it is considered to be a good thing. Do we really want to say that whenever a Government do not have a huge thumping majority we should have another election?
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Bill was born out of real conviction, and has nothing to do with political convenience designed to enable the Government to keep going over five years while we get out of the economic mess that we are in?
I genuinely do not believe that that is the reason.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) pointed out that three of the past five Parliaments lasted five years, and I was developing a point about the average length of post-1945 Parliaments. If the three failed Parliaments lasting less than two years are stripped out, the average length of a Parliament since 1945 has been more than four years. Since 1974 the lengths have been even greater, so there is a clear trend that Parliaments are lasting longer.
I am fascinated by the hon. Gentleman’s logic, but does he accept that, with the exception of the Parliament between 1987 and 1992, every Parliament since the 1950s that has lasted longer than four years has ended with the defeat of the governing party at a general election? Frankly, if the Prime Ministers in those Parliaments could have gone on longer they would have done, just to avoid the electorate.
If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that Parliaments that last for five years are more likely to end with the defeat of the Government, he should be wholeheartedly embracing the coalition’s plans to make this Parliament last for five years.
If there is something so constitutionally or democratically wrong with five-year Parliaments, why on earth did we have to endure the previous Government from 2005 until 2010? If five-year Parliaments are wrong in principle, as several Labour Members seem to suggest, why did not the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown)—I apologise if I have not pronounced the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency correctly, but as I have heard him speak in the House so rarely, I am not sure how to pronounce it—do the entire country a favour and call an election in 2009? We then could have started clearing up the mess of the worst financial deficit that this country has faced since the second world war a year earlier.
Obviously there is a debate about whether the figure should be four years or five—although nobody has proposed a fixed-term Parliament of 3.7 years. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that while there is not necessarily a massive difference between four years and five years, given the total and absolute mess that the country is in, having a term long enough to enable us to get out of that mess is a good idea?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. One problem sometimes cited in relation to a democratic system such as ours is the tendency for Governments to take the short-term approach to fixing problems. If five years became the norm, that would help to create slightly more stable government, because Governments could look to the longer term when considering some of the difficult decisions that they might have to make, and not always be worried that they were only a few years from a general election.
It seems that five-year Parliaments are not a problem for Labour Members when it is their party that is clinging to power in the dying days of a Government, as was the case in 2009 and 2010. True to form, their principles changed the moment they found themselves in opposition. Now, sadly, they stand as obstacles to reform.
May I conclude the point about whether the term should be four years or five, and move on with my speech?
Is my hon. Friend not concerned about the prorogation of Parliament? Will he address that matter when he has finished his opening remarks?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am extremely concerned about that point, and very eager to get on to the part of my speech in which I shall address it. However, I want to conclude the point, which I was pulled on to by interventions, about whether the term should be fixed at four years or five. I turn again to the conclusions and recommendations in the report on the Bill produced by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which has already been quoted today by Labour Members. Recommendation 5 clearly states:
“Precedent gives no clear answer as to whether Parliaments should last four years or five.”
In recommendation 6 the report acknowledges the views expressed by some witnesses that four years might be better than five. Nevertheless, the recommendation clearly states that that
“is an important point, but not one that we would wish to see obstruct the passage of the Bill through the House.”
That is important, and I hope that Labour Members will take note of it.
Before moving on to the subject of the amendments before the House, I would like briefly to—
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. My understanding of the procedures of the House is that Members need to refer directly to the proposals on the amendment paper, not rehash or rehearse a debate that took place previously, and at some length.
First, it is for me to decide whether a Member is straying out of line. I would say to Mr Byles that he has to keep in order on new clause 4. He has drifted a little, but he keeps coming back to the matter of four years or five. I am sure that he has taken those remarks on board, and that we can continue.
I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have almost come to the end of my scene-setting remarks and will get into considerably more detail on the amendments very shortly. Before I do, I want to refer to confidence votes and thresholds, which have already been mentioned this afternoon, including by Labour Members.
Although we are moving to a system of fixed-term Parliaments, it would clearly be unusual and wrong to put in place a system that did not allow for early elections, in one of two scenarios: if the confidence of the House could not be held by a party leader, or if there were an emergency of some sort, or another exceptional circumstance that required an early election in the national interest. I believe that the Bill as it stands, unamended—
Order. The hon. Gentleman should be relating his remarks to new clause 4 and the amendments grouped with it. We do not need to drift back to other subjects; we have gone beyond them. I remind him that we need to stick to the subject in hand.
I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I apologise. [Interruption.]
Order. I say to those on the two Front Benches, can we please continue?
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I shall move on to new clause 4, which sets out new rules for the Prorogation—I have as much trouble as the hon. Member for Rhondda with that word—of Parliament. It would repeal the Prorogation Act 1867, which provides the power for Her Majesty to issue a proclamation for the Prorogation of Parliament. I think I got that right.
As the House is aware, Prorogation marks the end of a parliamentary Session and is the formal name given to the period between the end of one Session of Parliament and the state opening of Parliament, which begins the next Session. The parliamentary Session may also be prorogued before Parliament is dissolved and a general election called.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the term “prorogation” is derived from the Roman concept of prorogatio. In the constitution of ancient Rome, prorogatio was the extension of a commander’s imperium beyond the one-year term of his magistracy. Prorogatio developed as a legal procedure in response to Roman expansionism and militarisation.
In the context of the Westminster system, Prorogation or Dissolution of Parliament on the final day of the Session originally, according to the House of Lords Library, comprised four principal elements. First, the Speaker made a speech mainly concerned with the Subsidy Bill, which he had brought up from the Commons. This was followed by a speech from the Lord Chancellor or Lord Keeper replying to the points made by the Speaker and expressing thanks for the Subsidy Bill. Royal Assent was then given to the Bills passed by both Houses. Finally, the Lord Chancellor, in obedience to the sovereign’s instructions, either prorogued or dissolved Parliament. The sovereign was customarily present on those occasions, and from the 17th century onwards, usually made the speech before Prorogation or Dissolution.
Hon. Members will, I am sure, be fascinated to learn from the Library’s excellent note that
“In the early nineteenth century the prorogation was still accompanied with considerable ceremony. Thus in 1815 the Prince Regent rode in the State Coach with a cavalry escort through St James’s Park to the Palace of Westminster, and on his arrival was announced with a salute of cannon.”
A lot of Labour Members are muttering at the history lesson that my hon. Friend is giving us, but is he not demonstrating how important it is in this matter to set the scene in an historical context, bearing in mind the fact that we are overturning 350 years of constitutional precedent?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. That is exactly the point that I would have made.
The Bill is truly historic. That fact has been mentioned by numerous Members on both sides of the House, and to consider it in isolation—what it means to us now, rather than its place within the sweep of the history of our nation—would be wrong.
I agree that historical precedent is important, but I think the last time the monarch was involved directly in a speech made before Prorogation was 1851 or 1854, so we are going back some time. Since then there has been quite a transformation of the Prorogation system.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
It may interest the House to know that in the 1830s King William IV was going to come in person to prorogue Parliament, because that would bring all business to a stop and the Government did not like the business that was going on. I believe that, in the end, that turned out not to be necessary.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. Again he demonstrates why it is so important to maintain a thorough understanding of history if we are to understand exactly what our position in this place is in the context—
Is there not a danger that at times we in this place give the impression of having the clear thinking of the totally uninformed?
It pains me wholeheartedly to agree with my hon. Friend that that is absolutely the case.
In 1831 the row about Dissolution and Prorogation, which was all about the proposed Great Reform Act, led to a phenomenal row in this House between the Conservatives and the Whig Government, precisely on the basis of whose decision it should be that Prorogation should proceed.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for joining our discussion of the history pertaining to Prorogation. I am glad that he has recognised that understanding the history of how we have got to where we are today is relevant to the discussion at hand. However, as the House is clearly not in the mood to discuss history today, and as I am aware that time is pressing, I want to move on and make a final point about amendment 9 before bringing my remarks to a conclusion.
Clause 3 states:
“Once Parliament dissolves, Her Majesty may issue the proclamation summoning the new Parliament which may…
(a) appoint the day for the first meeting of the new Parliament”.
Amendment 9 would add:
“within 15 working days of the polling day”.
The issue has already been discussed, but I am concerned that the amendment remains a little woolly. I question its purpose. What does a working day mean? Does that take into account religious holidays? There has already been a discussion about whether “working day” or “days” should be used. If that is an issue that the Opposition are concerned about, the term “working days” remains vague. Are bank holidays in other parts of the United Kingdom to be taken into account?
Is it not difficult to add “within 15 working days” in such specific terms, when “working days” could mean something entirely different in another part of the United Kingdom? In particular, why is Labour adamant about 15 working days? Is there any rationale or logic behind this number? Why not 14 days or 16 days? If we believe in evidence-based policy making in this place—[Interruption.] I detect some chuckling. Perhaps that is a dangerous thought. Evidence is not always welcome in this place. I have discovered that in previous debates. Perhaps when he sums up, the hon. Member for Rhondda will explain to us why 15 days is the magic number, not 14 or 16.
The House has indulged me enough. Time is pressing and there may be others who wish to speak. I thank the House for its attention.
I shall keep my remarks brief as I understand that the Prime Minister might be rushing back to make a statement to the House about the commercialisation of Downing street following the revelations from the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) earlier this evening. I understand that the Liberal Democrats have a large campaign debt to pay off from Oldham East and Saddleworth.
May I gently tease colleagues on the Government Benches about the importance of referring to the United Kingdom when speaking about our nation state? I am sure all colleagues are aware that we are not just England or Britain; we are the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) helpfully referred to an earlier edition of “Erskine May” with reference to the shouting of the phrase “Shame!” from a sedentary position. It might help the House if I clarify that that applied up to the 19th edition of “Erskine May”. Since then, I am advised, the term has been removed from “Erskine May” and is therefore, I imagine, legitimate.
Addressing new clause 4 and the associated amendments which, as “Erskine May” says, is the purpose of the debate, I shall tackle head-on the question whether the Opposition support the principle of a fixed-term Parliament. It is well known that we did not oppose Second Reading because we support the principle of a fixed-term Parliament. Our specific objections have been not just to the length—four or five years—but to some of the technical issues, which is why my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda and for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and others have tabled a series of tidying-up amendments, as we would describe them, although I understand that not every hon. Member supports that principle.
As a matter of interest, how will the hon. Gentleman vote on Third Reading tonight?
I do not like to leave the House in suspense, but on this one occasion hon. Members will have to wait and see how many of our amendments the Government are prepared to accept. Clearly, if the Minister accepts all the considered amendments that we have offered, we would be more than happy to give strong consideration to supporting Third Reading. I look forward to the Minister’s reply shortly.
My hon. Friend is being very generous to the Government. Even if they accepted the amendments, I would be inclined to vote against Third Reading.
The Minister is a thoroughly reasonable individual and I am sure he will not hold that statement against the rest of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition when he considers accepting our amendments.
As has been outlined previously—it would be inappropriate for me to go into great detail—we do not support the principle of a five-year term, for one practical reason that has not been touched on before, which is that it would take us into a clash with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland elections that are scheduled for 2015.
As this is the first opportunity that the Minister has had to address the House on the matter since our Committee stage last year, I hope that he will be able to provide us with an update on the Government’s plans for providing flexibility to the devolved Administrations to vary the dates of their elections. That is an extremely personal matter, as I shall explain. Perhaps he can tell the House what progress has been made in his consultation with the devolved Administrations on how any such alteration of the date of their elections would be achieved.
That is directly relevant to the issue under discussion because of the different number of days of Prorogation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda outlined, we have 25 days for the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the National Assembly for Wales and local elections, and just 17 days for this place. Let me give a simple local example to show why new clause 4 and others are so important to the date.
The differing number of days will cause great confusion for parties and for the electorate in the 2015 election cycle. Part of my constituency is the Dunfermline East Scottish Parliament seat. We have an MSP called Helen Eadie. Under the current rules—we still do not have firm proposals from the Government to alter the date—some two and a half weeks from polling day it would be legitimate for the Labour party, for example, to send out leaflets saying, “Vote Helen Eadie for your Member of the Scottish Parliament and vote Thomas Docherty for Member of Parliament.” That is an unsatisfactory situation, and it is the reason why my hon. Friend and I are hoping to persuade the Minister tonight that he should change the length of Prorogation to 25 days to give us consistency across the whole of the United Kingdom.
There is also the question of how campaign finance will work. Members are painfully aware of the importance of ensuring that money is correctly apportioned to the long campaign, as it is commonly known, as opposed to the short campaign. Joint elections could give rise to difficult legal and technical disputes, as we saw in the case of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), if sums of money are inadvertently misallocated. We therefore hope that the Government will accept our reasonable amendment.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that such anomalies already exist and have existed for a long time? In England it is common for local government elections to be held on the same day as a parliamentary election. In Bristol those local government elections follow an entirely different timetable from the parliamentary election.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly sensible point, although I always caution hon. Members not to equate local elections in England with elections to the devolved Administrations. There is a substantive difference in the amount of spend that is allowed, and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolved elections use the same formulas for election spend. Perhaps it was an oversight of previous Governments not to address the valid point that the hon. Gentleman makes. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) has said, we are prepared to admit that we did not achieve all the legislation that we would like to have achieved, although if we were to ask the electorate what was the most important thing that we could have achieved, fixing that would not necessarily have been the top priority.
Reference has been made to the issue of Prime Ministers handing over power to their party or other parties. I think that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford misunderstood the difference between the House being adjourned and the House being prorogued. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, if the House is adjourned, existing legislation is not lost. If it prorogues, however, all legislation except public Bills falls and the legislative process must start again. That is why it is important that when the Parliamentary Resources Unit produces its next brief for Conservative Members it should spend some time getting those details correct.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, and several other Government Members, asked for examples of when Prime Ministers have succeeded leaders of their own party in that office. Obviously, Prime Ministers from both main parties have succeeded without general elections and without the need for the House to prorogue. That happened in 1957, 1963, 1976, 1990 and, of course, 2007.
Does the hon. Gentleman not think that that is a perfectly healthy thing to happen? We do not elect Prime Ministers here; we elect parties and the Prime Minister is simply a Member of Parliament who comes from the victorious party or the coalition.
The hon. Gentleman makes a completely sensible point that goes to the heart of some of our arguments tonight. I will give a specific example, because there has been some discussion of the fact that none of those cases was the direct result of a no-confidence vote. I remind the House that in 1940 the Government of the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, fell on what is largely accepted to have effectively been a vote of no confidence. It was a no-confidence vote by any other name. As the Parliamentary Secretary and the Deputy Leader of the House have accepted, under their proposals there could be a no-confidence motion that is not officially stamped as such. As you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, in 1940 the House did not prorogue. There was simply a change of Administration, and a short time later a coalition Government were formed involving all three parties. In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Chamberlain Government, there was no coalition, and nor was the House prorogued.
The hon. Gentleman is referring to the vote that followed the Norway debate, which the then Government won. However, they chose to change their leadership anyway as a result of the pressure of the vote. If circumstances were repeated and that was considered to be a confidence motion, it would not lead to the fall of the Government unless they chose to go.
The hon. Gentleman highlights a crucial element, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle mentioned earlier—the hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong—that was an Adjournment debate and was not even a formal resolution. That shows exactly the problem with the Bill as it is worded. It accepts the principle that there is no requirement for a formal vote of no confidence, but it does not accept those nuances that are part of the argument that, even if a Government win but do not meet a threshold that they have set beforehand, they have in effect fallen.
I can think of another example from our devolved Administrations. It was clear in 2001 that the then First Minister of Scotland, Henry McLeish, had lost the confidence of the Scottish Parliament and of his party. On the morning of the no-confidence debate he resigned as First Minister. That did not lead to the proroguing of the Scottish Parliament. It was an unprecedented event in the short history of the Scottish Parliament, but it survived. I hope that the Minister will, even at this late stage, take on board the fact that, as far as Oppositions ever are, we are seeking to be helpful to the Government, and certainly to the House, by providing some technical amendments to tidy up the Bill.
The hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) referred to France and the United States. I was not aware that he was such a Francophile, but perhaps that is the result of the new coalition spirit. My understanding—I am happy to be corrected—is that the French President has the power to dismiss the Prime Minister summarily, but I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is not advocating that we adopt the same position in this country.
As the Minister knows, I am something of a bore on the subject of the United States’ constitution. When the founding fathers of the United States were considering the peculiarities of their arrangements in the constitutional convention, one thing they desperately tried to avoid was over-lengthy terms of office. That is why they have elections every two years in their states. Votes for Congress, the Senate and the Presidency are staggered. Although I accept that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire is trying gallantly to defend the Minister’s position, I fear that it is not a straightforward example to apply in this case. I have spoken in favour of the amendments, but I am conscious that the Prime Minister will be rushing to the House and that the Minister wishes to reply, so I will end my comments.
I do not think that the House has had as elegant and extensive a debate on Prorogation since the legislation was passed in 1867. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for opening the debate and to the hon. Members for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), for Foyle (Mark Durkan), for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) and for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) for their contributions. I must say, however, that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife blotted his escutcheon as a political anorak by being four editions of “Erskine May” off the pace. To quote the 19th edition when we are now up to the 23rd is really beyond the pale.
For the benefit of the Deputy Leader of the House and of the Official Report, my point was that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) referred to the fact that up until the 19th edition of “Erskine May” the word “shame” was not allowed. My point was that we have moved on, and I have the 23rd edition in my hand.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for restoring my faith in his credentials, although he has destroyed those of the hon. Member for Rhondda.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford put his finger on what was wrong with the debate once we had prised him from his views on reasonably priced white wine, because he made the point, which I think was backed up by the hon. Member for Foyle, who mentioned an Urquhart-like Prime Minister, that many of the rather apocalyptic views of what an evil denizen of No. 10 might do seem to be founded on fancy, rather than on experience or expectation. We have been asked repeatedly to assume that every convention that applies has applied and will apply, whether the Bill becomes law, as I hope it will, or not. All those conventions would be summarily set aside.
It has been suggested that there would be confidence motions that no Member of the House, not even Mr Speaker, would recognise as confidence motions. It has been suggested that Prime Ministers who lose a vote of confidence might refuse to resign and remain in office despite the fact that they had lost the vote, or that if once they resign they might somehow give posthumous advice from beyond the political grave to Her Majesty to prorogue and therefore frustrate the intentions of the House and of the legislation. It is then suggested that Her Majesty, in a way that has never been the experience of any Member of this House or our predecessors, would be so forgetful of her constitutional duty that she would not ask another leader capable of commanding the confidence of the House to form a Government and end any temporary Prorogation.
I believe that those are fanciful concerns. I accept that they are theoretically possible, but I ask the House to consider whether any of those things have happened. Almost all of them are included in the conventions that cover our political system and our current constitutional arrangements and will persist after the passage of the Bill. I am indebted to the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which someone casually looking at our debate might imagine had been critical of the provisions in this part of the Bill, but far from it. It examined the matter in some detail, and the witnesses were unanimous in their view. Paragraph 147 states:
“Professor Bradley agreed that such a possibility, while theoretically possible, ‘would be very unsatisfactory and British politics would have sunk to a new low.’”
Professor Bogdanor was mentioned earlier, and the confidences of the tutorials between him and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) might or might not have been breached, but he suggested that the situation could reasonably
“be left to the discretion of a ‘wise constitutional monarch’”,
which is indeed what we have,
“who would not prorogue at the request of a Prime Minister who no longer had the confidence of the House.”
The Committee, having heard the evidence rather than the conjecture, concluded:
“We agree that the risk of abuse of the power of prorogation is very small. We therefore conclude that Her Majesty’s power to prorogue Parliament should remain.”
So, there was very clear advice from the noble members of that Lords Committee, and I am sure that it will colour their consideration of the matter.
We have heard from lots of people who profess to know what happened in Canada, but, just in case there are lingering concerns about the extraordinary situation of the Prorogation that apparently saved the Canadian Government, I note that the Lords Committee took evidence from an academic who probably knows a little more than any of us in this House about the Canadian political system. Professor Henry Milner, from l’université de Montréal, stated in his evidence:
“The Canadian case was unique because prorogation saved the government, which it normally should not. ... [The] circumstances [were] so unusual that you could not imagine them. I would have to give you each of the steps in the Canadian case, all of which were unlikely and all of which fitted together. Frankly, I would not worry about it.”
That is probably a safe conclusion for this House.
On the proposed changes before us, I shall deal, first, with new clause 4, tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda, and the consequential amendments 2, 3 and 4, which would give the House a new and exclusive power to prorogue Parliament. Most contributors to the debate were clear about this, but we need to make a clear distinction between Dissolution and Prorogation, because they are very different things, and the Government believe it important that the Bill provides the House with the power to decide when there should be a Dissolution of Parliament.
It is legitimate to give the House control over early Dissolution, because that will take place only in circumstances where the Government of the day have lost the confidence of the House and can therefore no longer lead the country effectively, or where a two-thirds majority of elected MPs has passed a motion calling for an early election. Those are matters directly concerned with the choice of Government and the election of Members, and it is right that this elected House should have primacy.
Prorogation, however, is a different matter. Hon. Members will know that it is a mechanism to bring to an end a Session of Parliament. It determines, subject to the carry-over procedure, when Bills must have completed their passage through both Houses so that they become law. That relates to the point that several hon. Members made, whereby, if we prorogue while Bills are still in process, they are lost. Sometimes, an incoming Government will wish that; sometimes, they will not, particularly if they are of a similar political complexion to the previous Administration.
The hon. Gentleman’s new clause places no obligation to consult or agree with the other place on the timing or length of Prorogation, even though it affects that House equally. The new clause would therefore give this House a controlling hand over the conduct of business in the other place by providing us with the power to dictate when the other House must have completed its business. That would be a significant departure from the current situation in the wash-up, and some might view it as an unwelcome extension of this House’s powers.
As I said in earlier debates, through this Bill the Government seek to make only those changes to the constitution necessary to facilitate the principle of fixed-term Parliaments. The proposed new clause seems to fall wide of that intention.
I have to draw attention to a few technical deficiencies. I am always slightly loth to do so, as Members often wish to raise and debate a principle and the drafting falls short of their intention, but we need to examine the matter, because we are on Report. First, there is some ambiguity about where the actual power of Prorogation would lie.
Proposed new subsection (3) states:
“The Speaker of the House of Commons shall not make such a declaration unless the House of Commons has passed a resolution directing him to do so on or before a specific date and time.”
So, the House would clearly direct the Speaker. In proposed new subsection (4), however, the Speaker may vary the period of Prorogation by an unlimited number of days, apparently without a direction from the House.
There is no mechanism to specify how the Speaker might make such a declaration when the House is not sitting on account of its having been prorogued. That is particularly important, given that the new clause states that the Speaker may vary the date of Prorogation “to an earlier…day,” presumably to provide for the option of recalling Parliament when it is prorogued. We can only assume, however, that the new clause intends the Speaker to have the power to decide unilaterally when Parliament may return from a period of Prorogation, and, if it is intended that the Speaker should do so on advice, the new clause does not make it clear on whose advice that would be. If the intention is that the House must direct the Speaker when varying the period of Prorogation, the proposed system will not allow that to happen, and that seems to be inconsistent with the desire to place the power relating to Prorogation with a decision of the House itself.
Further, it is not clear whether proposed new subsection (3) is intended to replace or supplement the existing Prorogation announcement that is made to both Houses and read in the other place with this House in attendance. I accept that that is not an insuperable barrier to the new clause, and we have heard differing views on the value of the Prorogation ceremony: the hon. Member for Rhondda rather likes it; the hon. Member for Foyle feels that bicorn hats are not his style. Nevertheless, that is part of our constitutional settlement and part of the procedures of the House, and a lot of people quite like to wander down the corridor to hear the Prorogation ceremony and, as the hon. Member for Rhondda says from a sedentary position, a little Norman French—which we hear so little of nowadays.
On the basis of those arguments, the Government are not able to support new clause 4 and its consequential amendments.
I have listened attentively to the Minister’s remarks. Notwithstanding his reluctance to support our reasoned amendment, will he outline where he has got to, therefore, in discussions with the devolved Administrations about how the elections will work, and outline when we will see proposed legislation? Clearly, there is a significant knock-on effect for devolved elections.
I would do so, but that would impinge on the following group of amendments, and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), will be able to respond to that point during the debate about them. It would be unwise for me to leap ahead, so, although I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s point, I hope that he accepts my response.
I shall address other issues that have been raised in relation to the Prime Minister’s existing power to prorogue Parliament, because, as I stressed at the beginning of my response and stress again, many of the arguments are based on the theoretical mischief that, somehow, a Prime Minister might prorogue Parliament for his or her own purposes, without accepting the fact that they can do so equally today. They can do so, as I said in my intervention on the hon. Member for Rhondda, to prevent a vote of confidence that they feel likely to lose. So, with the Bill we are not strengthening the hand of the Prime Minister; far from it. We are taking away one critical element, but Prorogation will remain exactly as it is.
The conventions of this House are sufficiently strong. For instance, there is no obligation in law for the business managers to find time to debate an Opposition motion of no confidence, but the strong convention is that time will always be found for that purpose, because it is a convention that has worked well over the years. I do not believe that there is any reason why it should not work well in the future. I cannot accept that the artificial process that has been described is a real danger.
Let us consider the circumstances. There are two basic scenarios during the 14-day period in the Bill. In the first, political factors mean that a no-confidence motion passes, and there is no obvious alternative Government, so the Prime Minister who has lost the confidence of the House remains in place to fight the election. There would be no need, or indeed point, for the Prime Minister to prorogue the House. The alternative is that the Prime Minister resigns after the no-confidence motion and Her Majesty appoints a new Prime Minister. Even if the new Prime Minister took office and found the House prorogued, he or she would, under the current arrangements, ask the Queen to recall Parliament. Although I acknowledge the principle behind new clause 4 and amendments 2, 3 and 4, I hope that I have demonstrated that it would be unwise and unnecessary to make them.
On amendment 9, clause 3(4) specifically preserves Her Majesty’s power to set the first day for the meeting of a new Parliament by royal proclamation. As it stands, the date of the first meeting of a new Parliament is set by proclamation and is usually agreed with the House authorities and the palace. The date is conventionally set out in the proclamation that dissolves the old Parliament. The Bill retains as much as possible of that approach by providing for the Queen to issue the proclamation summoning the new Parliament once the old Parliament has dissolved, rather than after the new Parliament has been elected. Following the last election, a date was chosen that allowed sufficient time for the large number of new Members to be inducted. It is important that such flexibility is preserved.
The purpose of amendment 9 appears to be to require Her Majesty to set a date for the first meeting of a Parliament that is within 15 working days of the general election. Again, I have a quibble over drafting, because it is not entirely clear whether the intention behind the amendment is that Her Majesty should issue the proclamation within 15 working days, or whether the first meeting of Parliament should take place within 15 working days. The hon. Member for Rhondda made it clear that his intention was the latter, but that is not clear in the drafting of the amendment. Our primary purpose in the Bill has been to establish fixed terms and set out the procedures for initiating an early election. We have made only the necessary consequential changes to the Queen’s powers. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman not to press amendment 9.
Amendments 14 and 15, which were tabled by the hon. Member for Foyle, suggest that if the House votes for an early Dissolution under clause 2, it should be able to choose the date of the ensuing general election. The Bill provides that if there is to be an early general election, the date will be set by Her Majesty the Queen in a royal proclamation on the advice of the Prime Minister. That is to ensure that an appropriate date can be found, for instance so that the poll can be held on a Thursday, as has become standard practice.
Although amendment 14 provides that the date of an early general election would be set out in the Speaker’s certificate, that would be the case only if the House of Commons had specified such a date in the Dissolution motion. That is a genuine concern with the amendment because a two-thirds majority is required to agree that there should be an early Dissolution. Under the amendment, two thirds of the House would also have to agree to the date of the election. It is quite possible that Members would agree to the one proposition and not the other. Alternative dates and amendments could therefore be tabled. That would muddy the water of what should be a clear-cut process. That is a concern about the operation of the Bill, if it is enacted, which perhaps the hon. Gentleman has not considered.
Amendment 14 would make it optional, not obligatory, that a date be specified. If the House votes a year or more in advance of the election, why should the date not be fixed then, rather than it being left up to the Prime Minister? Under the Bill, the House, by a two-thirds majority, would be handing a power back to the Prime Minister that the Prime Minister says he wants to give up.
I do not dismiss the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. I understand what he is saying. However, in purely practical terms, it is difficult for the House to receive advice from any quarter on what would be an appropriate date. The House as a whole would find it difficult to take the sort of advice that the Prime Minister, as an individual, could easily assemble. In the politically charged atmosphere of a vote of no confidence, it is hard to understand—[Interruption.] Sorry, not a vote of no confidence. I could see what the hon. Member for Foyle was thinking. In the consideration of an early election, it would be even more difficult to set.
There are always technical issues in establishing the most appropriate date for a general election, and the considerations of all parts of the United Kingdom must be taken into account. I know that the hon. Gentleman has had mixed experiences, but he knows that it is the experience of the devolved Administrations that it is useful in the circumstances that have been suggested for an individual to have this responsibility. Giving it to the House as a whole would be technically difficult, without a significant advance in the arrangements being achieved.
I move on to amendment 8, which the hon. Member for Rhondda said “makes things tidy”, in the words of his valet. I am sure that it would, and I have some sympathy with his argument. The amendment would lengthen the election timetable by requiring Parliament to dissolve 25 working days before polling day, rather than 17. The Government recognise that remaking the election timetable is a complex matter that we should consider. However, it cannot be done simply by edict and without the background work.
The Electoral Commission supports the idea, as the hon. Gentleman knows. He did not make a great deal of that in his speech, but I know that he knows the background material. The commission has suggested that an extension to the electoral timetable would support participation by overseas and service voters, and better support the effective administration of elections. We agree that it is an important issue, and the Deputy Prime Minister has indicated to the commission that there is merit in exploring a change to the timetable. However, as the commission has pointed out, it would require a thorough review to ensure that any change is consistent with the arrangements for elections across the piece.
A host of practical issues and consequential complexities must be considered. We will have to form a balanced judgment on where particular milestones would best fall within an extended election timetable. For example, there might be competing views about the deadline for nominations, and we would have to work to find the most effective compromise. Another crucial milestone is the deadline for registering to vote, which, although not part of the timetable structure, is inextricable from it. That illustrates that such changes to the timetable cannot be made in isolation. As part of the process, we would need to consider the current deadlines for postal and proxy vote applications. Additionally, different elections across the UK run to different timetables and moving to 25 days in Westminster would not, of itself, generate consistency.
As I have said, the Government agree that this is an important issue and we will set out our proposals on the timetable in due course. We have held initial discussions with the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators to identify points to address. It should be noted that the Bill already greatly enhances the ability of administrators and candidates to plan ahead, because we will know when general elections will happen, usually at least five years in advance. The various people involved in running elections will be able to factor that into their thinking and organisation. Even if the provisions for an early election were engaged, the Bill sets out clearly the steps from the Dissolution motion or no-confidence motion to the Dissolution of Parliament, and those steps will be conducted in the public eye. There will be no more snap elections, and I believe that electoral administrators and candidates can be glad about that.
The final reason for asking the hon. Member for Rhondda not to pursue amendment 8, despite its merit and the fact that the issue needs to be considered, is that the Bill is not the right place to amend the election timetable. The Bill is about fixing the date of the poll, not wholesale electoral reform, as we have said repeatedly. Governments are constantly urged by everyone to have focused legislation that deals with specific objects. This is just such a piece of focused legislation and I do not want to cloud the simple but constitutionally significant issue of fixing parliamentary terms with other electoral issues.
Having said that, I hope that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who have tabled amendments will not press them to a vote, so that we can continue with the debate on the final group of amendments.
I note that the Prime Minister’s drinks party has clearly ended, because the whole Conservative party has gathered in the Chamber. We heard earlier that the Prime Minister had been serving reasonably priced drinks, so I hope that all hon. Members paid for them.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) accused me of being far too tidy. Nobody has ever accused me of that before. He thinks that trying to tidy up legislation is a socialist endeavour, but surely that is what we do. The constant process that we are engaged in—the constant iteration of legislation—means looking at the common law and regularly updating it in statute. For instance, I do not know whether he knows what a brothel is, but—[Interruption.] I see from his face that he does. In common law, the definition of a brothel is a place frequented by men to perform lewd homosexual practices, including dancing, so sometimes it is necessary to correct the common law. Some of what we are doing in this Bill is putting convention and common law into statute. The danger is that we will end up with a series of unintended consequences, and that is what I want to tidy up.
The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted much less electioneering and campaigning, which is why he wanted shorter election campaigns—in a lighter moment he said that he wanted an eight or 12-day election campaign. I would just say to him again that there would be great advantages in having a 25-day election campaign. It would mirror what happens in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and local elections, and would allow service voters, who regularly try to vote, but whose votes do not arrive in the post in time, to have their votes counted. I very much hope that we will be able to move forward on that.
I welcome what the Deputy Leader of the House said about the measure just now, although I have never heard a Minister say at the Dispatch Box about an amendment, “This is the right Bill to do it in”—it is always another place where it should be done. However, I am afraid that we are going to hold his feet to the fire on this occasion.
The hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), who holds the record in the “Guinness World Records” for rowing across the Atlantic, took us through a fair amount of British history. He effectively argued for longer and longer Parliaments. What I would say to him—and to all Government Members—is that the provisions in the Bill will mean that this Parliament is the longest Parliament in the world, as was confirmed by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) this evening. The fixed term of five years, plus the additional provision of another two months, will make it the longest in the world. There will be fewer elections because of what this Bill will do. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), who is not in his place, said that the current special circumstances made that all the more important. That is the charge that every dictator has always advanced: that one should fix the constitution to meet the special circumstances of the day.
The hon. Member for North Warwickshire asked why we had specified 15 working days, and also asked what the definition of a working day was. If he had actually read the Bill, he would see that clause 3(5) says:
“In this section ‘working day’ means any day other than—
(a) a Saturday or Sunday;
(b) a Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Good Friday;
(c) a day which is a bank holiday under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971 in any part of the United Kingdom”.
At his next outing in the Chamber, I look forward to his reading the Bill before he takes part in the debate.
The Deputy Leader of the House—these will be my concluding remarks—said that we had created a demon in people’s eyes, with this image of an evil denizen living at No. 10. Some of us are not all that impressed by the present denizen of No. 10. However, when we start putting into statute some of the elements of the conventions that have applied in this House across the centuries, there is a danger that people will use their powers inappropriately. I believe that the right to sit and the right not to sit should be determined not by the Crown, the Prime Minister or the Government of the day, but by this House. I therefore urge hon. Members to support our new clause, which has been tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
18 January 2011
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
New Clause 5
Expiry and revival of section 2
‘(1) Section 2 expires when the Parliament summoned to meet in May 2010 dissolves.
(2) In the course of the first month of the day of first meeting of any Parliament after the expiry of section 2 as a result of subsection (1) above, the Minister may by order bring the section back into force for the remainder of that Parliament.
(3) An order made under subsection (2) above is to be made by statutory instrument and shall not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of the House of Commons.
(4) If no order has been made under subsection (2) above, an early parliamentary general election is to take place only if the House has passed a motion that there should be an early parliamentary general election.
(5) The polling day for an early parliamentary general election under subsection (4) above is to be the day appointed by Her Majesty by proclamation on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.
(6) If a polling day is appointed under subsection (5) above, the reference in section 1(4) to the polling day for a parliamentary general election appointed under section 2(6) shall be construed as if referring to a day appointed under subsection (5) above.’.—(Mr Cash.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
18 January 2011
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
Polling days for parliamentary general elections
I beg to move amendment 1, page 1, line 5, at end insert
‘save as provided for by subsection (2A) below.
(2A) If a day before 7 May 2015 has been appointed under section 2(6) as the polling day for an early parliamentary general election, the polling day for the subsequent parliamentary general election shall not be 7 May 2015, but shall instead be set by reference to subsections (3) and (4) below.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 10, page 1, line 8, at end insert
‘, no notice being taken of any early parliamentary general election as provided for in section 2.’.
Amendment 11, page 1, line 9, leave out subsection (4).
Amendment 1 was tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, who apologises for not being here in person.
I hope not to detain the House for too long. Amendment 1 is a probing amendment, which the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee agreed should be tabled to ensure that the Bill was technically sound. Clause 1(3) and (4) provide for the clock to be reset if an early general election is called, and for the date of the next scheduled general election to be shifted to four to five years after that early election. Those provisions, however, do not seem to apply to the next general election, which is scheduled to take place on 7 May 2015. The Bill seems to require an election to be held on 7 May 2015 even if an early election has been held before that date, perhaps only a few months before—although I suppose that depends on how it is interpreted. The Government have made clear their policy that the clock should be reset each time there is an early general election, and I do not suppose that they mean to make an exception for 2015.
I appreciate that the Government have already announced that the next general election will be held on 7 May 2015 and not before. Can the Minister reassure us that, in the unlikely event of an early general election during the current Parliament, the Bill as it stands would not require a further election to be held on 7 May 2015? If he cannot give that reassurance, is he prepared to accept the amendment? That would make it crystal clear that if an early election took place before May 2015, the date of the next election would be four to five years later, not in May 2015.
It is a great delight to see the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart). It is always odd when constituencies contain bits of the west and bits of the south and bits of the north, all aligned with each other. May I just notify the hon. Gentleman that I shall be in his constituency on Friday evening? Now I have got that out of the way. He will be glad to know that I shall be addressing a Labour party meeting—although I am sure he will be welcome to come along if he wishes.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s argument about amendment 1, I entirely agree with him that the drafting of the Bill is deficient in this regard. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has done a remarkable piece of work in the short time it was given to do its work, and I am glad it has been able to come up with this amendment. I had worried that there was not going to be a Committee member to move it, because neither of the two Committee members whose names are attached to it is present this evening, which is a shame.
I also want to speak to amendments 10 and 11 in the name of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Lord Chancellor my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), and myself. Amendment 10 would amend clause 1 by adding that “no notice” should be
“taken of any early parliamentary general election as provided for in section 2.”
That is basically to say that, notwithstanding that there might have been an early general election, the next general election will be on the date that had already been specified.
Ignoring for a moment the fact that one of our primary objections to the Bill is that it refers to five-year Parliaments rather than four-year Parliaments, which we would prefer, we none the less subscribe to the belief that it is good for parliamentary democracy to have an expectation about when the next general election will be, and for Parliaments to be for fixed terms, especially because our broader electoral system is now analogous to that of the United States of America in that we have local elections on a four-year cycle, Assembly elections in Wales and Northern Ireland on a four-year cycle and the parliamentary elections in Scotland on a four-year cycle. We know the dates when they will take place in perpetuity into the future, so it makes sense to have the same pattern and rhythm in elections to this House. That is why we have advanced this amendment, which, in essence, would mean that we would not start the clock again. Consequently, we would know whether elections were going to coincide with certain local elections or elections for the devolved Administrations. That is a better model than the slightly haphazard manner in which we may proceed if the Bill proceeds unamended in this respect.
There is one other advantage. The Government have written to the devolved Administrations about the fact that the next general election would coincide with their elections in 2015 unless the Prime Minister brings our general election forward by two months or delays it by two months, and the Minister has written asking them whether they think it would be better to have a new power added giving them the right to delay their elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by six months. I have spoken to various Members of the Welsh Assembly, including the First Minister, and he is clear that it would be wrong suddenly to change the date of the Welsh Assembly elections because Parliament had decided that its elections were to be at a certain point in 2015, thereby either prolonging the next Welsh Assembly by six months or shortening the one thereafter by six months. Moreover, if we are deciding that the best time of the year to have elections is the first Thursday in May, it would seem wrong suddenly to decide that everyone else should have to get out of the way and have their elections in November. Also, just shunting the devolved Administrations’ elections away by a month or two months is likely to harm those elections substantially, because I do not think that voters want to come out very regularly, within a month or two of another general election.
It is not just that it is a burden on the electorate to ask them to come out and vote twice in a short period. One of our concerns about the local government and Assembly elections that will be taking place in Northern Ireland—as well as the referendum—is that the campaigns will become blurred and people will focus less on some of them and more on others.
I think that is absolutely right, and I fear that the likely outcome of that is that most people will end up voting purely and simply according to party, rather than according to the candidate, which would be a damaging direction of travel for British democracy. We would prefer deliberately to avoid a coincidence of the Scottish Parliament elections with the general election, and we think that the best way of doing so is by having a four-year fixed-term for this Parliament and by not restarting the clock. We would thus not have constant uncertainty about the year of the general election.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Electoral Commission has written to the Deputy Prime Minister on this issue, and the right of the devolved Administrations to lengthen the period by six months? It letter states:
“the Commission believes that there remains a clear need for…research to be carried out”—
“to ensure there is a robust evidence base to inform decisions about the timing of elections in 2015.”
Yes, I am aware of that and I completely agree with the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The Government cannot just pull at individual strings of the constitutional settlement, because we will just end up unravelling the whole jumper: that is the law of unintended consequences, which we are in danger of having thrust upon us.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that four years seems to be the normal cycle. Does he agree that if the Government are intent on pushing ahead with a five-year fixed term, the natural thing to do would be to do the same thing with the cycle for the National Assembly for Wales, and change its term to five years?
I suppose it would, but I am not in favour of five-year terms. Political events change at a dramatic pace these days and a five-year term would not meet that requirement. I suspect that such an arrangement would mean that Governments both here and in the devolved Administrations would more regularly be at the fag-end of their sense of having a mandate, and a four-year provision would be much better. I am sure that we shall return to this matter on Third Reading.
I have no desire to delay the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I think that I have made my point. In essence, it is that we believe it would be better to have a four-year fixed-term Parliament, because that would help us to avoid the elections for the devolved Administrations coinciding with the general election. We need change only one other measure to make sure that that never happens; we need to provide that we do not start the clock again when there has been an early general election. The Government’s intention is to try to make us fall into the rhythm of fixed-term Parliaments and not have lots of early general elections, and such a provision would give people an added incentive not to seek an early general election because they would know that they would then have only a short Parliament before the next general election, which would fall on the previously arranged date. Without any further do, I shall conclude and I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
The amendments relate to the date of the election and it is worth touching on the points that a number of hon. Members have made about the coincidence of the proposed date of 7 May 2015 with the date of the devolved elections. It is worth saying, as we said in Committee, that it is entirely possible and, indeed, likely that, regardless of whether or not this Bill was introduced, the UK general election could have been held on the same day as those devolved elections if this Parliament had run for five years. In some sense, the Bill provides an opportunity, because it has highlighted and crystallised that fact at an early stage, when we have the chance to debate the consequences and do something about it.
As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, and as we discussed in Committee, I wrote to all the party leaders in the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament proposing to give their Assembly or Parliament the power to extend its term by up to six months. That was to go alongside the existing power to shorten the term by six months to provide a window of a year in which it could vary the date of the election to avoid that once-in-20-year coincidence with the Westminster election.
The Electoral Commission’s letter said that there was a
“need for a comprehensive research study on the implications of combining elections”
and that the Commission was “not aware” that that work had taken place up to the moment of writing. Has that research commenced?
I heard very clearly what the hon. Gentleman said in his intervention on the hon. Member for Rhondda, and I was going to refer to that point anyway. Let me finish this part of my speech and I shall come on to that.
I wrote to the party leaders. They wrote back and I think it is fair to say that they were underwhelmed by the proposal to give the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament the opportunity to extend their term by six months to provide that one-year window. For that reason, the Government did not table an amendment on Report, as we had suggested that we might if the responses were more positive. The party leaders and Presiding Officers raised some other points, some of which the hon. Member for Rhondda has raised today, about alternatives. We are considering them and will write back to the party leaders as well as keeping the Opposition and the House informed. For the benefit of Members, I should say that copies of the letters that I have written have been placed in the Library of the House today.
I am grateful for the tone in which the Minister is responding to this part of the debate. For his information, his office sent me a letter by e-mail today, apparently responding to a letter I sent him on 21 December. It was in fact a letter about something completely different, so if he could arrange for the actual letter to be sent to me, I would be grateful.
I replied to a letter that the hon. Gentleman sent to me. He might find—I can absolutely get him a copy—that the letter about the letter to the party leaders went to the shadow Secretary of State’s office today. I can make sure that the hon. Gentleman gets a copy directly and, as I said, I placed copies of those letters in the Library of the House.
The Electoral Commission’s letter made some sensible points about considering all the issues raised by combination. It seems to me that there are two kinds of issues: first, the practical delivery of elections—how we make the mechanics run—and, secondly, making combination easier. That is not just related to the devolved elections and those for the Westminster Parliament. The fact is that whether or not one agrees with the Government’s proposals, we are proposing elected police commissioners and some elected mayors, so there will be more elections and more of them will take place on the same day. Therefore, we need to make that easier. Another issue that came up in the debate, which is serious and valid, concerns the extent to which media coverage and so on means that two different conversations can be going on at the same time for different elections. That will obviously engage the political parties, broadcasters and people more widely.
The Electoral Commission’s suggestion is very good, but it has not taken place to date. The Government think there is some support for it, but given where we are in the timetable and given that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland wanted to consider the experience of the combined elections in Northern Ireland this year, it might be a good idea to consider what happens with the referendum and elections in May—in only a few months’ time—and use that experience to kick off some project along the lines suggested by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) once the Government have considered the suggestions from the party leaders. That might give us a possible route forward.
The Minister referred to elected police commissioners and more directly elected mayors. Will he confirm that they will all also be on four-year terms, rather than five-year terms? If he wanted to provide a little more tidiness—I can see him smiling, because he knows how this sentence will end—he could change this five-year fixed-term Parliament to a four-year Parliament, even if he only did it for after 2015.
Not representing a valleys constituency, I do not have the same urge for tidiness as the hon. Gentleman. I am happy with our relatively untidy constitutional settlement. I have no problem with that at all.
The Minister has said that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will monitor what happens with the elections that will take place this year. After he has done that, will there be close co-operation and consultation with the parties and the Electoral Commission to find the correct way of proceeding and learning from anything that goes wrong? Is that the suggestion?
Yes, I have discussed this with my right hon. Friend and he intends, as we have discussed in Committee and announced to the House, to consider the experience from this year. We want to work with all the parties in Northern Ireland, just as I have written to all the party leaders in the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, to reach some agreement on what works well, what does not work and what needs to change. That will be very much on a cross-party basis.
I understand that the Deputy First Minister in Wales would prefer a five-year cycle for the National Assembly for Wales. Is that on the table for the Government?
I will not start picking bits out of individual letters, but, given our debates in the House about preferences for four or five years, it is interesting that there have been suggestions from party leaders about moving the devolved Assemblies on to a five-year cycle. Given what has been said here and that the devolved Assemblies and Parliament were set up after considerable debate and have been on a settled model for some time, that would be a big jump and quite a change to the constitutional settlement.
The Minister has talked about considering the context of the forthcoming Northern Ireland Assembly elections coinciding with the referendum campaign, but a better comparison would be the impact on the local government election campaign, in which the same range of parties will fight on very different issues. We need to consider this issue in that important context because the referendum campaign will not be party political in that sense and so is not directly comparable to running party political campaigns at the same time. The issue with running a general election campaign alongside an Assembly election campaign in Northern Ireland is that media coverage will focus on the general election campaign in a UK context, looking at parties that do not garner votes in the Northern Ireland context.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. When the Deputy Prime Minister and I introduced the Bill, we said that a UK general election coinciding with a devolved legislature election would be qualitatively different from a referendum campaign coinciding with a devolved legislature election for the very reason that the hon. Lady says—there would be a narrative and a debate going on and there would be questions about whether the media, newspapers and broadcasters would fairly cover both parts of the debate and whether the public could therefore take properly informed decisions in both elections. We need to consider that issue with all the parties and broadcasters and see whether there are ways around it.
Let me address amendment 1, which my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) moved on behalf of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform. The intention of the amendment is to clarify that, in the event of an early general election—before 7 May—under subsection (1) or (2) of clause 2, the general election specified in clause 1(2) would not take place, but the Bill already makes it clear that the general election of 7 May 2015 would take place only if no intervening early general elections under the procedures in clause 2 had occurred. Clause 1 sets the date for the first scheduled general election, “subject to” clause 2—those words appear in the first subsection of the Bill’s first clause. If there were an early general election, it would replace the election of 7 May. The Select Committee has been very helpful in scrutinising the Bill and its amendments have brought about some good debates. Amendment 1 is good in that it has enabled this debate, but it is not necessary because the Bill is already clear.
Amendments 10 and 11, which the hon. Member for Rhondda spoke to, would mean that the parliamentary term following an early general election would last only for the remainder of the previously scheduled term. To use a phrase that the Committee used in its report, it would keep the clock ticking on the five years whether there was an early general election or not. There has been quite a lot of speculation among academics and others on whether that would act as a disincentive for a Government or strong Opposition to engineer an early general election because a new Government would get a term of perhaps only a few months. We did think about that, and we debated it in Committee. The flip side to that is that there is an election in which a Government get elected, perhaps with a significant majority, quickly followed by another election. That explains the Government’s choice of wording.
There is a technical problem with the amendments. An early election could take place just before the scheduled election but the scheduled election would still be held. The rules for the devolved assemblies provide a window, so that if the early election takes place very close to the scheduled election, the scheduled election does not take place. If the early election is more than six months before, the scheduled election still takes place. As the amendments are drafted, there could be an election only weeks before the scheduled election, and the scheduled election would still have to be held. That would not make a great deal of sense.
The Minister is right; that would be the eventuality. However, I think that would fly in the face of what in practice would happen politically, because some six to nine months before a general election people would choose not to bother to militate for an early general election—they would just accept that the next general election was coming. I understood that that was what the Minister was trying to achieve—fixed-term Parliaments.
The hon. Gentleman was hypothetically pessimistic earlier. Now he takes the opposite approach: he is being hypothetically optimistic. The Government’s view was that we could have that early general election and the Government could be returned with a large majority, and we think the public would expect that Government to govern.
Interestingly, the Constitution Committee in the other place agreed with the Government’s approach. Its report concludes that a newly elected Government should have a full term of office, and that the Government would present its programme to Parliament through the Queen’s Speech, which, of course, is traditionally considered to be a test of confidence. We think that in that situation the Government should have the right to carry out their programme for the full five years, and it would make little sense to ask the voters to go back to the polls when they had sent out a clear message.
I accept that that is a debatable point—we had a significant debate in Committee—but let us look at it from the public’s end of the telescope rather than our own. If we were to have an early general election, because the Government had lost a confidence vote or because there had been a general sense that we should have an early general election, it would seem a little ridiculous if the public had made a clear choice, sent a Government into office with a significant majority, and then a few months later were back doing it all over again.
I think that, on balance, the Government’s decision and the current drafting of the Bill make sense. I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, on behalf of the Select Committee, to withdraw his amendment 1 and I urge the hon. Member for Rhondda, just for once, to think about whether he really wants to press amendments 10 and 11 and potentially force the British people to undergo election after election in close succession—something which neither he nor I would want to achieve.
I am much encouraged by the Minister’s comments and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Dissolution of Parliament
Amendment proposed: 8, page 2, line 29, leave out ‘17th’ and insert ‘25th’.—(Chris Bryant.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
18 January 2011
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I am grateful to Members who have taken part in debates on the Bill, in particular the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who sadly is not in his place, and members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, who have been forensic in their scrutiny.
The Bill’s reforms are an essential part of the Government’s drive to modernise Parliament. Currently, a Prime Minister can, effectively, call an election on a whim—a situation that my colleague and friend, the late Lord Holme of Cheltenham, once described as a race in which the Prime Minister is allowed to approach the track with his or her running shoes in one hand and the starting pistol in the other. Something as important as the timing of a general election must not be determined by the whims of Prime Ministers and the self-interest of political parties. I believe that all parties agree on that. The Bill proposes the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments, bringing a new stability to our political system and, crucially, ensuring that when Parliament does dissolve early, that is a matter for this House.
Debate on the Bill has been vigorous. That is why we allowed extra time in Committee. While we may not see eye to eye with colleagues on the Opposition Benches on every detail, throughout the debates there was broad agreement on what it seeks to achieve.
Let me turn briefly to some of the issues that have attracted most attention. First, on early Dissolution, the Bill provides that Parliament will be dissolved early only if at least two thirds of MPs vote for Dissolution or if a Government are unable to secure the confidence of the House of Commons within 14 days of a no-confidence vote—passed on a simple majority, exactly as is provided for right now.
Those arrangements are complementary. They are workable. Most importantly, they strengthen the power of Parliament to hold Government to account. We are proposing a new power for the House to vote for an early Dissolution, as well as, for the first time, giving legal effect to the existing procedures for a vote of no confidence. I ask Members to note that the Constitution Committee in the other place has endorsed those two mechanisms for triggering an early election.
The Government do not accept the concern that the new right to dissolve Parliament will undermine this House’s exclusive cognisance. Such an important constitutional innovation absolutely should be laid down in statute, but we are confident that the courts will continue to regard matters certified by the Speaker as relating to proceedings in Parliament, which are, in turn, protected by the Bill of Rights. I was delighted that the Constitution Committee—a Committee that includes distinguished parliamentarians and lawyers—agreed with the Government’s assessment of the Bill’s interaction with parliamentary privilege.
On the length of Parliaments, we have looked into the suggestion that four years is preferable to five. It is true that this is not an exact science. It is a question of judgment, but, all the arguments considered, we remain of the strong view that five years, the current maximum and more recently the norm, will encourage the stability and long-term perspective that British politics too often lacks.
Can the Deputy Prime Minister give us one example in which he or another leading member of the Liberal Democrats before May last year was in favour of a five-year fixed-term Parliament?
We were in favour of fixed-term Parliaments above and beyond all else, and always accepted that the issue of whether it was four years or five years was a matter of judgment, as I said. Five years, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, is the maximum term available to us already, and of the last five Parliaments three stretched to five years, including the last Parliament under a Labour Government.
But the judgment of the Liberal party was that four years was the appropriate length of a Parliament. That is what was in the Liberals’ manifesto and what they put up to the Labour side in the coalition negotiations. They asked for four years and election by single transferable vote. Why suddenly switch to five?
As I said, the principle of a fixed-term Parliament was by far the most important thing. Whether that is four or five years—some people argue for five, some argue for four—might divide opinion and might create synthetic objections from those on the Labour Benches, but it is none the less secondary to the principle of giving the House greater power over the Executive. That is what the Bill establishes. Personally, I would not fetishise about 12 months one way or another in a term of four or five years. We have decided in the coalition agreement and as a Government—[Interruption.] It is a decision from the Government. I know that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) finds it deeply uncomfortable not to be in government. He is not. We are, and we have decided five years.
One of the consequences of the decision to have a five-year term in the first instance will be the coincidence of the date of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 2015. In the debate in Committee, we were advised by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) that there would be discussions with the devolved Administrations on that. Can the Deputy Prime Minister report to us now on the outcome of those discussions?
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady was present for my hon. Friend the Minister’s update to the House on Report, when he gave a full account of the ongoing discussions with the devolved Administrations and the Presiding Officers of the devolved Assemblies. I understand that people have different views on the coincidence of the two elections in 2015, but I hope the hon. Lady and everyone else will recognise that the Bill does not create the possibility of a clash of elections. Indeed, a clash in 2015 could easily have occurred under the existing arrangements if this Parliament had continued until 2015.
What the Bill does is alert us well ahead of time that there is going to be such a clash. It allows us to anticipate and plan for a date that coincides in that way. As it happens, such clashes will occur only every 20 years. The discussions that we are entering now with the devolved Assemblies, the Presiding Officers and the leaders of the devolved Executives are precisely to take advantage of the fact that we have advance warning of an overlap or a clash, which otherwise we would not have had.
Although I accept the argument that parliamentary and Assembly elections could have coincided anyway, as might have happened in 2015, is this not a missed opportunity to take a constructive decision on whether such a coinciding is a good or bad thing so that we could then routinely avoid it or make it happen? Instead, it is again being left somewhat to chance.
I agree that in principle a clash of elections to the devolved Assemblies and to the House of Commons should be avoided. As I have said before in debates, there is a world of difference between the potential for confusion among voters being asked to vote for two different Parliaments that will in turn create two different Executives or Governments—a wholly more serious issue—and the coincidence of such elections with a referendum on a specific yes or no issue, as will be the case with the AV referendum and the elections this May. We have always accepted the fundamental assertion that we need to find a way around that. We have had ongoing discussions and will continue to do so with an open mind. We made the suggestion that the devolved Assemblies should have the power to shift the date of their elections by six months either before or after the general election. That has not been greeted with universal approbation, but it is none the less a sincere attempt on our part to try to find a way forward.
I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister, who is being generous in giving way. Can he confirm that the provision set out in clause 1(5) will extend the maximum length of a Parliament beyond five years and that therefore it would be the longest fixed-term Parliament in the world, other than Rwanda? There is no fixed-term Parliament in the world of five years.
The hon. Gentleman has read the provisions of the Bill correctly, and I think that his point was confirmed by the Minister on Report. On the point about the coincidence of elections, Northern Ireland Office Ministers are conducting separate discussions with the parties in Northern Ireland, where the issues are slightly different. It would be inappropriate for me to prejudge the outcome of those ongoing discussions. We will of course endeavour to keep colleagues on the Opposition Benches informed.
My right hon. Friend is entirely right that the judgment about how long a Parliament should last is not an exact science. During the debates in Committee, I opted for four years because I felt that that was more appropriate. It would avoid the clashes and mean that we would engage regularly with our electorate, which we should all be doing. It would be important in helping to keep us all in touch with our constituents. Would he say more on the thinking behind the decision to have five years rather than four?
As I said before, that is the existing maximum and has been for a very long time. It has recently become the norm, as five of the past nine Parliaments stretched to five years, including the previous Parliament. The hon. Gentleman might disagree, but I hope that he will at least accept the legitimacy of the argument that a four-year Parliament, politics being what it is, would naturally incline parties in power to look towards the next election well ahead of that four-year deadline and that government would be arrested and suspended as the party in power positioned itself months or sometimes a year or so before an impending general election, which would curtail considerably the time in which Governments can do difficult and brave things. Five years, however, is clearly a period during which Governments can take difficult and bold decisions that from time to time, as we very well know now, are necessary.
My right hon. Friend was asked about clause 1(5) and the length of time between general elections, but my reading of that provision is that it does not extend the life of a Parliament. Parliament will still expire after five years, but the general election has to come within two months after that if it is extended, which is a shorter period than the current maximum.
That is not correct.
I defer to my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) on the theology of those things. The hon. Member for Rhondda says that he is wrong, but my understanding is that the Bill is fairly clear on that point, even if it a little opaque to me on that very specific point. As my hon. Friend knows, the provisions purely address highly exceptional circumstances that arise for one reason or another, such as unforeseen emergency circumstances. Foot and mouth is an obvious recent example of where it is self-evident that an election simply could not be conducted either practically or politically. That is what we had in mind when we drafted the Bill in those terms.
In conclusion, the Government believe that fixed-term Parliaments represent a simple but absolutely fundamental change: strengthening Parliament, providing stability and moving us towards the new politics that we have all promised the people of Britain. I commend the Bill to the House.
Things are desperate when the Whips have to arrange things to get most of the Liberal parliamentary party into the Chamber, but it is good to see two rows of Liberal MPs. The Deputy Prime Minister knows more about mutinies than I do, but I suspect that the situation tonight is similar to that of a football club chairman who says to his manager, “Your job is safe.” I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman’s continued contribution to debates about constitutional reform.
The Bill before us allows the Government to set in stone the date of the next general election as Thursday 7 May 2015. It also gives them time to foist a series of constitutional changes on to the country. They will reduce the size of the House of Commons by 50 MPs, redraw constituency boundaries and silence the voices of local residents through the removal of public inquiries. This Bill allows them the time to do that, and as the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who is not in his place, said on Second Reading, it smacks of
“gerrymandering the constitution in favour of a particular coalition”.—[Official Report, 13 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 624.]
Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to suggest that, by the Prime Minister giving up power and by making the votes of people in Corby equal to the votes of people in the Rhondda, we are gerrymandering in the Bill? That is an amazing use of language.
That Bill is being discussed in the other place. It starts again at 3.30 tomorrow.
The hon. Lady should be interested in my next point, however, because the Bill before us also ties the hands of the Conservative party to the Liberal Democrats. With this Bill, their respective fates and identities become inseparable. Make no mistake: the Bill is not for the good of the country; it is for the good of the Ministers on the Treasury Bench. What compounds that outrageous piece of attempted constitutional fixing is the fact they are trying to ram it through at breakneck speed. That urgency is because Back Benchers from both coalition parties are having second thoughts about the issue, so party managers need to get them super-glued together quickly, with no way out.
Throughout the Bill’s passage, we have raised a number of concerns about its content and its scrutiny. I have no problem with the Conservative party being converts to fixed-term Parliaments.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not. Not to you.
The Liberal Democrats’ policy was for four-year fixed-term Parliaments, but unfortunately the coalition has hijacked a sensible and progressive idea, amended it for its own means and tried to rush through legislation preventing a proper, wide-ranging debate on an important —[Hon. Members: “Give way!”] I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He has been in charge of timetabling the Bill, and if he had wanted to speak, he should have allowed more time for debate.
Once again, we will rely on the other place to inject a sense of fairness—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. If the right hon. Gentleman had intended to take up the first two minutes of his speech himself, one might have understood his response. If he intends to let others come in, however, why does he not let the Minister have a word?
The hon. Gentleman is very experienced and knows that that is not a point of order. It is entirely up to Mr Khan as to whom he decides to give way to. While I am on my feet, may I remind Members that there is supposed to be only one Member on their feet at any one time in the Chamber?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the debate and congratulate him on his recent honour.
I want to be clear that the criticism of the speed with which the legislation is being pushed through comes not from us alone. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the Clerk of the House of Commons, Professor Robert Hazell of the constitution unit and other academic experts, and the House of Lords Constitution Committee have all criticised not only the Bill, but the way in which it is being rushed through without consideration for the consequences on our constitution, both intended and unintended.
May I deal with an important point at the outset? It has been said that the Bill needs to go through unchanged because it is part of the coalition agreement. The new politics means that we can forget about what people voted for, about manifestos and about the promises that were made before the election. The deal that was done means that the agreement that was reached after the election cannot be touched. However, the Bill no longer provides for a general election if 55% of hon. Members believe that one is needed, as was stated in the coalition agreement. The Deputy Prime Minister made an embarrassing U-turn on that issue, proving that the coalition agreement has no constitutional significance at all. I hope that the other place will pay heed to that.
Our major concern from the beginning has been that five years is simply too long for a fixed-term Parliament. We have argued throughout the scrutiny process for four-year terms. That not only compares well with other Parliaments, but provides a better fit with our current constitutional arrangements. Moreover, we have heard the concerns of our colleagues in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland about the short-term consequences of fixing Parliaments at five years. The potential clash with the Assembly elections in Wales and Northern Ireland and the parliamentary election in Scotland on 7 May 2015 shows a blatant disregard for those parts of the Union.
The right hon. Gentleman is keen to ascribe motives that were not present in the decision to make it five years. Will he give some indication of the thinking of the previous Prime Minister in deciding that the Parliament that has just ended should last five years?
The right hon. Gentleman will accept that, like his party, we were in favour of fixed-term Parliaments and that, like his party, we thought four years was the appropriate length of time. In between the ballot boxes closing and Liberal Democrats reaching their ministerial cars, his party changed the figure to five years for the simple reason that it meant that it could gerrymander before the next general election.