House of Commons
Tuesday 18 January 2011
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
House of Lords Reform
I am chairing a cross-party Committee to look at all aspects of House of Lords reform. We plan to publish a draft Bill in the coming period for pre-legislative scrutiny by—we hope—a Joint Committee of both Houses. Then it will be for the Government to decide on the introduction of the Bill.
Given that an all-elected upper House would, in effect, double the number of MPs while resulting in hundreds of highly skilled and eminent men and women being thrown out, what effects does the Deputy Prime Minister think will be applied to the legislative process as a result of this brilliant idea? Will it lead to greater effectiveness, greater prestige or just more machine politics?
My own view, as someone who has always supported greater democracy in the other place and greater accountability to the British people, is that the legitimacy of the other place would be enhanced. There are plenty of other bicameral democracies around the world that have two elected Chambers of different size with different mandates, elected even by different systems, which work extremely well in striking the right balance between effectiveness and legitimacy.
Of course, it was the previous Labour Government who made sure that the large majority of hereditary peers were removed—nearly 700—from the House of Lords. Has the Deputy Prime Minister any words of congratulations for Members of the current House of Lords on the way in which they are defending democracy against gerrymandering?
If we needed any confirmation, this week of all weeks, that the Labour party’s commitment to cleaning up politics and political reform is a complete and utter farce—the leader of the Labour party who, sadly, is not in his place, was going around the television studios last weekend saying that he believed in new politics and that he wanted to reach out to Liberal Democrat voters—it is the dinosaurs in the Labour party in the House of Lords who are blocking people’s ability to have a say on the electoral system that they want. There cannot be meaningful political reform with such weak political leadership.
One hundred years after the temporary provisions of the Parliament Act 1911 were introduced, some of us are impatient for my right hon. Friend to succeed in achieving an elected second Chamber. Can he reassure me that the grandfathering of voting rights will not be offered to newly appointed peers under the present Government?
The specific reference to grandfathering in the coalition agreement applies to the staged way in which we want reform of the House of Lords implemented over time. We want to be clear about the end point, which is a fully reformed House of Lords, but the stages by which we get there should be subject to proper scrutiny and proper debate, and will be, not least in the Joint Committee, when we publish the draft Bill, which we will do fairly shortly.
The Deputy Prime Minister has got himself a reputation as an habitual breaker of promises. May I ask him a simple and straightforward question, to which I hope he will give a simple and straightforward answer? In his draft Bill on the House of Lords to be published shortly, will he keep his promise of a 100% elected second Chamber?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows—he is a member of the very Committee that I have been chairing—that issue is still under discussion. We will make our views clear, as he well knows, when we publish the draft Bill. He talks about promises. Is that the equivalent of the promise to hold a referendum on the alternative vote—a manifesto commitment made by his party, which is now being blocked by the Labour party in the other place?
The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill currently being considered, if somewhat stalled by the Labour party in another place, requires the boundary commissions to submit their reports before 1 October 2013. The Secretary of State or the Lord President is required to lay before Parliament an Order in Council to bring the commissions’ recommendations into effect.
The majority of this House will certainly condemn the delays not only in this Chamber but in the other place. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that demonstrates the Opposition’s contempt for equal-sized constituencies and equal votes for people throughout the country?
As I said earlier, the leader of the Labour party said this very weekend that he believed in new politics and political reform, yet he cannot control members of his own party in the House of Lords. Either he did not mean what he said at the weekend, or he is too weak to lead his own party. Either way, the Labour party cannot be relied upon to deliver political reform.
Many reform-minded Members of this House are getting fed up with the right hon. Gentleman’s attitude to electoral reform. He has broken so many promises in the coalition agreement, so why does he not separate the date of the referendum on the alternative vote from the gerrymandering that his Government are putting through?
We want to hold the referendum as soon as possible. We think that it is right to hold it when people are going to the ballot box anyway. That will save the taxpayer £30 million. We think that that is the right way to proceed. We on the Government Benches do not agree on the issue of AV, but at least we agree that the British people should have their say—something that the Labour party is now trying to block.
My constituency is one of the smallest English seats. If I adhered to the principle of naked self-interest, I would be supporting the status quo. Is it not right that we have equal-sized constituencies—equality for all voters so that each vote has equal value?
Of course it is. It has been a principle for political and democratic reformers of all parties for generations that all votes should be valued in the same way. It simply cannot be right, for instance, that right now Islington North has an electorate of just over 66,000, and yet 10 miles away in East Ham the figure is 87,000. Voters in a constituency just 10 miles away have less value attached to their votes than those up the road. That is wrong. That is what we are seeking to remedy. It is a simple principle: all votes should be worthy of the same value wherever they are found in the country.
I know that the Deputy Prime Minister gets in a terrible lather whenever anybody has the effrontery to contradict him, but may I suggest to him that he could perfectly easily have his referendum on the day that he wants it by splitting the Bill? It is perfectly straightforward. He said that the main reason for cutting the number of MPs is to save money. How does he reconcile that with the fact that it is costing £12.3 million extra every year for the 117 extra peers he has appointed, that it is costing £11.2 million extra for bringing the boundary review forward, and that he is to double the cost of the boundary commissions by making them every five years rather than every eight?
Cutting the number of MPs will save about £12 million every year, and holding the referendum on the same day as other elections saves us about £30 million. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman wants to incur greater costs for the taxpayer—
It is the choice of the coalition Government to say that we want to reform politics not in a piecemeal fashion, but in a meaningful way. To introduce both the right for people to have a say over the electoral system and to ensure that constituencies are of roughly the same size seems a perfectly sensible way to proceed. That is what we will do, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should be whipping up the dinosaurs in the Labour party in the other place to stop us from doing so.
Act of Settlement
I have had no recent discussions with ministerial colleagues on reforming the Act of Settlement.
Ministers have already accepted that the provision in the Act of Settlement might well be discriminatory, and I have already confirmed at the Dispatch Box when responding to a previous debate, not that we are doing nothing, but that discussions are under way with other countries of which Her Majesty is Queen. She is not just our Queen, but Queen of 15 other realms, and those matters have to be taken forward together in a careful and considered way. It is not as straightforward as the hon. Gentleman would like to pretend it is.
I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech introducing his Bill. Discussions are under way, as has been confirmed in this House and in the other place. He knows that the Statute of Westminster states that those matters must be amended in all the other realms of which Her Majesty is Queen, and it takes only a moment’s thought to see that that is not as straightforward a process as some who would wish to move more quickly might think.
Register of Lobbyists
My hon. Friend should know that the Government plan to carry out a wide-ranging consultation later this year and then to bring forward legislation in the second Session of this Parliament.
I do, and that is a very important point. Lobbying is a perfectly reputable industry for making sure that the voices of charities and businesses are heard, but it should be transparent so that people know who is talking to those in Parliament. That is what the Government intend to do—mainly to clean up the dreadful behaviour that we saw last year, which has resulted in some former Members having their passes removed.
The purpose of lobbying is to give further advantages to the already advantaged. Is the Minister not concerned that already lobbying has taken place between his Department and BSkyB which might have the most damaging consequences for the people of this country? Should not these reforms be brought in quickly by the Tory-Lib Dem junta?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation that all lobbying is to benefit the advantaged. Members are lobbied all the time by charitable organisations, charities and, as I found in my previous role in opposition, those who campaign on behalf of disabled people, for example. It is important, however, that such lobbying is transparent and that people know who is talking to Members of Parliament and members of the Government. That is exactly what our statutory register will achieve.
Processes are already in place to vet what Ministers and former Ministers do after they leave both ministerial office and this House. My hon. Friend makes a good point, and those matters are being looked into and kept under review. I am sure that he will continue pressing that point in his usual vigorous way.
As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on the full range of Government policy and initiatives. Within government, I take special responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.
Mindful of the difficulties that the right hon. Gentleman’s rushed proposals for the AV referendum, muddled with the equally rushed boundary changes, are having in the other place, what persuaded him to insist on an electoral system that was not in his manifesto, while abandoning promises that were in his manifesto, such as votes at 16, the 3,000 more police officers and the scrapping of tuition fees?
Order. I apologise for interrupting the Deputy Prime Minister. Let me say to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and other Members that it is not too much for the Chair to ask that Members treat the Deputy Prime Minister with courtesy, whatever they think of him or his policies.
I find it extraordinary that, as I said, just a few days ago the leader of the Labour party said that he believed in new politics, but he is now using the oldest tricks in the book in the other place simply to stop the British people having their say. That is the worst kind of old politics I can imagine.
T2. If the Deputy Prime Minister is to save the taxpayer money by holding the fairer votes referendum on the same date as other elections in other parts of the country, how much longer can the board games in the other House continue? (33939)
As I reminded the House earlier, holding the referendum on the same day that people have an opportunity to vote anyway saves the taxpayer a considerable amount of money—£30 million. If we are to have a referendum on such an important issue, it is right in principle and in practice to do so on an occasion when people are invited to vote in any event.
T8. May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister about the referendum on the alternative vote taking place on the same day as the Scottish parliamentary elections? In Scotland, the Electoral Commission says that it does not have the resources to hold both votes on the same day. Will he agree to meet the electoral commissioner in Scotland? (33946)
My team and I are more than happy to meet the Electoral Commission with regard to Scotland. We have always maintained that the two votes are very different in nature. There are, of course, practical issues with the administration of the vote, which we are addressing. However, a vote for a devolved Parliament or Assembly and a vote on a referendum of this nature can easily be separated in the minds of voters.
T3. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that to restore trust in politics it is essential that we reduce the cost of politics in Westminster, especially at a time when so many people are struggling with increasing costs? (33940)
Absolutely; that is why I marvel at the Labour party’s objection to saving £12 million every year by reducing the size of this place from 650 seats to 600. That is a modest cut of 7.6% which will bring the size of this Chamber into line with Parliaments in many other mature democracies. It is resisted only by Labour Members.
May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister about his Government’s actions on the national health service? By unleashing the biggest ever reorganisation at the very time when the NHS faces a real-terms cut in its budget, he is posing a huge threat to our national health service. How on earth can he justify that?
The only party in this House that wants to cut the NHS budget is the Labour party. The coalition Government have increased spending on the NHS. We recognise that if we want to preserve the very best of the NHS, it needs to be reformed in the years ahead. Crucially, we need a people’s NHS—[Interruption.] We need an NHS that is there to serve patients, and is not a plaything of unaccountable bureaucracies. That is why we are reducing the layers of unaccountable administration in the NHS and ensuring that the people who know patients best—the GPs—have more say in how the system works.
Yes, it is the people’s NHS, and the Deputy Prime Minister has no mandate for the changes. Even after the general election, the coalition agreement said that there would be no “top-down reorganisation”. This is a smash and grab on the NHS. Will he make the Government think again?
As it happens, in opposition we continually made the case against an over-centralised NHS that was not responsive enough to the needs of communities and patients, and insufficiently accountable to them. That is why we are giving more power, not less, to local authorities, particularly in the area of public health, and why we are giving more financial authority to GPs, rather than less, because they know patients best—[Interruption.] Hon. Members say “The private sector”, but it was the Labour party that rigged the market through the introduction of independent treatment centres to force private sector providers in the NHS. Through the reforms, we will ensure that there is a level playing field, on which public, voluntary and private providers can compete.
T4. Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my belief that the will of this House to equalise constituency boundaries and reduce the number of MPs should not be frustrated by the grotesque spectacle of former Labour Members, who have been rejected by the electorate, leading a filibuster in the other House? (33941)
It is indeed a spectacle to see on the television that former Members of this House who were virtually monosyllabic here have become so very loquacious in the other place, particularly late at night, to block a simple measure that was one of the great campaigning themes of the Chartists in the century before last—namely that all votes should be of the same value and that all constituencies should be roughly the same size. I think that everyone in the country would agree with that principle, except for Opposition Members.
It is all based on the simple principle that each constituency should represent, give or take a margin, roughly the same number of members of the public—voters—across the country. I do not think that even the hon. Gentleman would claim that Wales should somehow be exempt from that simple democratic principle.
We have already taken a number of measures. For instance, just this April, 23 million basic-rate taxpayers will get £200 in their pockets, because we have dramatically increased the personal allowance, so that people who work hard, play by the rules and want to do best for themselves and their families get more money back. We have invested significant additional money in early years and pre-school support, with 15 hours’ free pre-school support for all three and four-year-olds, and a new entitlement for the most disadvantaged children at the age of two. We are delivering the pupil premium, which by the end of this Parliament will mean a full £2.5 billion of extra money targeted at the most disadvantaged children, who were let down by the school system that we inherited from the previous Government.
The system by which we elect parliamentarians is enormously important. We should have a proper debate and discussion in this country. If the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is not passed through the Houses of Parliament, how does the Deputy Prime Minister plan to allow for a full 10 weeks of campaigning, as recommended by the Electoral Commission?
It will be passed; we are determined that it shall be passed. It cannot be right that the Opposition, having failed to make their case in this place, are now using the lowest forms of foot-dragging in the other place to prevent this Government from proceeding with the political reforms that the hon. Lady’s party used to believe in.
T6. Section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983 means that any Member of this House who is in receipt of long-term mental health care forfeits his seat. We know that, nationwide, one in five people suffers from a mental health condition. No doubt the same figure applies in this House, yet no Member has ever spoken at length about their mental health conditions. What plans does the Deputy Prime Minister have to follow the recommendation of last year’s Speaker’s Conference to repeal section 141 of the 1983 Act? (33943)
As we can hear from the reaction on both sides of the House, my hon. Friend has highlighted a very important issue, concerning a provision that the Speaker’s Conference rightly identified should be repealed. It is simply not right that under section 141 of the Mental Health Act MPs lose their seats if they are detained in hospital under the Act for more than six months. We will shortly come forward with announcements to repeal section 141.
T7. The Deputy Prime Minister’s proposed recall mechanism will apply only to MPs, and its use will be possible only with the permission of a narrow, parliamentary committee. Will he consider expanding the mechanism, to include other elected representatives, and revising it, so that recall decisions lie with constituents, not parliamentary committees? (33944)
The coalition agreement stipulates that we want to introduce a recall mechanism, as exists in parts of north America and elsewhere, for those parliamentarians who have committed wrongdoing. It is important that it should not be a completely arbitrary mechanism; it should be shown that serious wrongdoing has been committed. We have recently seen various serving or former MPs in court, with one having been convicted and been handed down a prison sentence, and the public have been reminded that they do not want to be left powerless when they see such wrongdoing occurring. They do not want to wait until the next general election to have their say; they want to be able to force a by-election themselves. We will come forward with the detail of our ideas on how to do that shortly. I hear what my hon. Friend says about wanting the mechanism to be extended to other bodies immediately, but I hope that when he sees our proposals, he will recognise that we are taking a significant step in favour of giving people that recall power.
Last week the Deputy Prime Minister spoke of “alarm clock Britain”. Given the collapse of Liberal Democrat support in the opinion polls and the complete rejection of the Liberal Democrats in Oldham East and Saddleworth, will he heed the wake-up call before his MPs and party are forced to face electoral oblivion?
It went up because many people in Oldham East and Saddleworth and elsewhere recognise that we are doing a very difficult job in difficult circumstances. Why? Because we inherited the most unholy mess from the previous Labour Government, who have now forced us—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) might just want to listen. We are spending £120 million every single day simply to pay off the interest on the debt caused by his party when it was in government. That is enough to build a primary school every single hour. What waste. What a terrible legacy.
This Government do not believe that people should be able to share content unlawfully, but we are disappointed that the industry has not made faster progress towards adapting its business models to meet consumer demand. I agree with my hon. Friend that there are legitimate concerns about the workability of some aspects of the Digital Economy Act. The Government are looking actively at those questions now, and we will make an announcement in due course.
May I suggest to the Deputy Prime Minister that the reputation of this House is being maligned during the debate on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill? That is because Front-Bench spokespersons for the coalition have continually said that we are not interested in the Bill in this place, and that we could have debated the amendments that the Lords are debating at the moment. That is simply untrue. I was one of 20 Members who was standing during the debate in Committee on the Welsh constituency boundaries, and we were not called to speak. So it is simply not true to say that people in this House are not interested in the excellent discussion that is taking place up the corridor.
I wonder whether the right hon. Lady would characterise the debate taking place in the other place as “excellent” if she were to have a look at the foot-dragging that is now taking place on the Labour Benches there. I am sorry if she was not called to speak during the debate on the Bill when it passed through this place, but, as she knows, there were eight full days of debate on the Bill, which was subject to the fullest possible scrutiny.
The Attorney-General was asked—
The appointment of specialist rape prosecutors is the responsibility of local chief Crown prosecutors, who appoint specialist prosecutors in accordance with the requirements of their area. The Crown Prosecution Service is currently unable to provide figures as to how many specialist rape prosecutors there are in the CPS. However, the CPS has trained and appointed a significant number of prosecutors as specialist rape prosecutors as part of a rolling programme in all 42 CPS areas. By the end of March 2011, all training for 2010-11 will be completed, and the information on the number of specialists will then be available.
I thank the Attorney-General for his response. May I remind him that the Stern report said that nine out of 10 rapes go unreported? Given the 25% cuts in the budget of the CPS, will he assure us that all those who have been trained by the end of March 2011 will be in jobs?
First, I can give the hon. Lady a figure: 584 delegates are shown as having attended the rape and serious assault training course between July 2008 and December 2010. That might help to give her an idea of the numbers. There is no intention that the priority that is given to this extremely serious offence should be in any way downgraded as a result of savings having to be made within the Crown Prosecution Service.
National Fraud Authority
The roles of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are distinct. The police investigate allegations of criminal conduct; the Crown Prosecution Service provides them with advice, when requested to do so, and takes prosecution decisions. The constitutional role of the Law Officers is to superintend the CPS. The Law Officers are not involved in the provision of such advice. On 14 January, the Director of Public Prosecutions announced that the CPS would conduct a comprehensive assessment of all material in the possession of the Metropolitan Police Service relating to phone hacking, following developments in the civil courts in cases taking place on this issue. The purpose of this assessment is to ascertain whether there is any material that could now form evidence in any future criminal prosecution relating to phone hacking.
Are the Law Officers confident that the CPS is giving the right advice? In particular, is it asking the Metropolitan police to examine the separate secure e-mail server used by News International executives of the grades of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade and also to examine the existing illegally transcribed phone message made by Ross Hall for “Neville”?
The hon. Gentleman may have seen a copy of the letter written by Mr Yates, the acting deputy commissioner, to the Director of Public Prosecutions. That letter makes it quite clear that he wishes to re-examine all the material collected in this matter and then to seek the advice of the CPS and the DPP in relation to it.
Does the Attorney-General agree that it is important for this matter not to be just a witch hunt against the Murdoch press, which is what the Opposition are trying to turn it into? The Information Commissioner’s report published some time ago made it plain that this habit of hacking and bad behaviour by reporters was happening across the whole of the press, not just in the Murdoch press. Will he make sure that the issue does not become concerned only with the Murdoch press, but that the investigation is carried out on a wider basis?
I am not going to be drawn into making criticisms of any individual in this matter. What is quite clear is that the hacking into telephones is indeed a serious criminal offence, that the Crown Prosecution Service will apply the code of Crown prosecutors in order to weigh up the information and evidence available, and that it is plainly in the public interest for proceedings to be brought against individuals where there is evidence that an offence has been committed.
As the Attorney-General is aware, serious concerns have been expressed about the handling of the News of the World phone hacking investigations to date. The announcement of a comprehensive assessment of all the material held by the Metropolitan Police Service is to be welcomed, but will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm whether he shares these concerns about the handling of the case to date? Will he clarify what prompted this change in direction only a matter of weeks after the CPS announced that there was no admissible evidence on which it could properly advise the police to bring criminal charges?
The hon. Lady must understand that any investigation in accordance with the code for Crown prosecutors must take account of the information and evidence available. If evidence and information become available that warrant looking further at a matter, that is exactly what happens. In this particular case, as I indicated in my first answer, information has emerged in the course of civil proceedings, which gives rise to a justification and reason for looking again at the material. That is exactly what the police and the CPS are going to do.
Judicial Review (Ministerial Decisions)
Figures for the number of occasions on which decisions by Ministers have been overturned on judicial review in whole or in part over the last five years are not held centrally, and such information could be provided only at disproportionate cost.
Well, there have clearly been quite a number. Does not the Solicitor-General’s response highlight the fact that the concept and reality of parliamentary sovereignty are often misunderstood and that, increasingly, the last word on what Parliament has decided will not be determined here, but by the judges on the other side of Parliament square, in the Supreme Court? The increase in judicial review is a reality that is now part of our constitutional fabric.
I do not think that my hon. Friend, who is an eminent member of the Bar, is at all confused about the concept of parliamentary sovereignty. Nor, if I may say so, is our right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, who responded to the debate on clause 18 of the European Union Bill last Tuesday.
Judicial review has increasingly become part of the legal armoury since the second world war. Ministers, whether of the present Government or the last, are not above the law, and it is for our independent judiciary to arbitrate, through judicial review cases, in disputes between the citizen and the state. The courts apply the laws enacted by Parliament, and Parliament can make, amend and repeal legislation as it thinks fit.
Given the increase in judicial activism and, in particular, legislative activism on the part of the judiciary, is it not important for us to examine much more closely the qualifications and background of the individuals who are making these decisions, so that we can ensure that the judiciary is much more representative of the society from which we all come?
Arrest Warrants (Private Prosecutions)
The Crown Prosecution Service continues to assess the costs of implementing the proposals to restrict arrest warrants in private prosecutions. The service currently expects any additional costs to be absorbed in current resources. I should point out that such private prosecutions relate solely to cases involving international jurisdiction.
By its very nature, the system that is likely to operate when such references are made to the DPP will involve extremely short time frames. The point has been well made in the House that it is much better to go to the police and make a complaint, because the police can arrest, interview, search and conduct forensic examinations. If an application is made through a private prosecution or through the DPP, all that is possible is for a person to be taken immediately to court. I have no doubt that the DPP will ensure that he can operate within a time frame that reflects the urgency of the matter concerned.
I welcome the fact that Ministers are dealing with the matter, and that they are doing so by using the DPP rather than the Attorney-General as the person to whom reference can be made. Will this be covered in any way by the superintendence responsibilities of the Attorney-General, or will it be clear that the DPP has an independent role in the matter?
Does the Attorney-General not agree that the reputation of the country would be better served if the current system whereby private individuals can seek prosecutions in the courts, or seek arrest warrants in the courts for crimes against humanity or war crimes, were preserved rather than taken away and handed over to public officials?
I think that the reputation of the country will be best preserved through proper and targeted work by the police and prosecutors to bring to justice those who have a case to answer. The reputation of the country will not be served if the use of private prosecutions is seen merely as a tool of harassment, and there is no proper outcome from an arrest.
Is the Solicitor-General aware that many solicitors still face many problems taking instructions from child victims of trafficking who wrongly believe that their trafficker is their friend? If the Government are serious about ensuring that there are more prosecutions for this heinous crime, why will they not ensure that every child who undergoes the gruelling, awful court process is afforded a guardian to represent his or her best interests?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing my attention to the fact that someone of that nature is not available. I had hoped that that was the case. I will make some inquiries of the Crown Prosecution Service to establish what assistance of that sort can be given, but it is fair to point out that the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service already bend over backwards to ensure that vulnerable witnesses, be they children or vulnerable adults, are afforded every possible protection so that they can give their evidence. Without the evidence, we cannot have the convictions.
I have regular discussions with the DPP on a range of criminal matters. Domestic violence is a serious crime, which has real and lasting effects on the victim, their children, their wider family and society as a whole. I support the work undertaken by the CPS with other agencies to improve the way in which prosecutions are conducted and victims are treated in such cases.
The hon. Lady raises an important issue, of which we are extremely mindful. Work is currently taking place within the court estate rationalisation programme, working in conjunction with the domestic violence national steering group, to issue guidance in those areas where provision may be affected. The detail of that will be finalised once the decisions and announcements are made. The CPS is absolutely determined to maintain the current quality of provision.
The Attorney-General acknowledges that the domestic violence prosecution rate improved greatly under the last Labour Administration. What measures will he put in place to ensure that it continues to improve against the backdrop of the 25% cut to the CPS budget?
We are doing a number of things. We are developing the recently launched cross-Government violence against women strategic narrative. For the CPS, we agreed on a number of steps to improve domestic violence prosecutions and the safety and support of victims, including specialist co-ordinators, guidance in respect of stalking, effective monitoring of cases and legislation, and ways to improve communication with victims. In addition, guidance for prosecutors on stalking and harassment cases was launched in September 2010, and a new violence against women assurance regime was launched on 1 January 2011. As there is not enough time available now to allow me to amplify my remarks further, I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with details of some of the things we are doing.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend do all he can to ensure that all Government agencies and Departments have a unified definition of domestic violence, as there seem to be alarming differences in that definition between different Departments, and that needs to be remedied at the earliest opportunity?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that to my attention. It might be helpful if I have a conversation with him so he can identify in greater detail where he thinks these current misdescriptions exist. I entirely agree that it is important that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet.
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
In the last five years, there have been 117 schemes for dealing with churches that are no longer being used as regular places of worship, 93 of which have resulted in their being provided for alternative use.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. St Mary’s church in Nelson is probably the largest church in my constituency, and it has a 170-feet high tower and spire. However, it was last used for worship in 1989, and it has remained boarded up and empty since its deconsecration. Although St Mary’s itself is now owned by a heritage trust, will my hon. Friend tell the House what the Church Commissioners are doing to ensure that redundant churches are put to good use?
Nelson St Mary was closed for worship in 1987. At that point, a decision would have been made whether to transfer it to the Churches Conservation Trust as a redundant church or to sell it. It was sold in 1989, and at that point the Church Commissioners’ responsibility for the building ceased.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many churches can remain in use while adapting to accommodate other uses? Will he commend the work of English Heritage and its field officers in trying to achieve that, and will he so organise the affairs of the Church Commissioners that they encourage and facilitate this kind of continuing useful worship?
Absolutely. Increasingly, churches are being put to other uses, ranging from post offices to shops, and from community centres to internet cafés. There are 19,000 churches across the country and in many communities the church is the most prominent public building, so we want to make sure that churches are used as much as possible, rather than just for a couple of hours each week on a Sunday.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
The Electoral Commission monitors the performance of electoral registration officers using a set of published performance standards designed to support the completeness of electoral registers. The Electoral Commission advises and works with local authorities that do not meet the standards in order to improve their performance.
My hon. Friend is on to a good point. The Electoral Commission has the power to make recommendations to electoral registration officers—after all, they are primarily responsible for concluding the registers—if they are underperforming, but it has no power to intervene and change the way that things are done. This may be something that the House might like to examine in due course.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that, peculiarly, electoral registration officers are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, so obtaining information from them if they refuse to give it is extremely difficult. Will he examine this point, because it seems that all other local authority officers are subject to this legislation, but electoral registration officers are not?
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Christians in Pakistan
It is a sad and terrible fact that Christian minorities who have lived peacefully in Muslim countries for generations are finding themselves subject to increasingly violent persecution. Churches have recently been attacked in Egypt, Iraq and Nigeria, and the assassination in Pakistan of Salmaan Taseer for defending a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death was particularly horrible. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Bishop of Lahore and, indeed, the Christian community as a whole in Pakistan are working hard to foster inter-faith collaboration in Pakistan during this time of difficulty.
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the former assassinated Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, for the work that he did on this particular issue? Will my hon. Friend ensure that representations are made to the Government of Pakistan to ensure that the excellent work of Governor Taseer can continue?
Salmaan Taseer was an incredibly brave man and his death is a tragedy for Pakistan. We would all do well to remember the words of Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, who said in terms that
“you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship”.
What I suspect every Member of this House hopes for is that there shall be freedom of religion throughout the world, and I am sure that, as a Chamber, we will continue to campaign for that wherever we have the opportunity.
Christians in Sudan
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. It looks as though there will be a new state of Southern Sudan, but it will face enormous challenges. Meanwhile, Christian minorities in the north of Sudan will face continued persecution, as organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide have highlighted during many years of work across Sudan. Will the Church of England do what it can to support and protect Christians and other minorities in the north of Sudan, while also helping, where appropriate, in Southern Sudan?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this. Minority groups in northern Sudan have faced persecution, which is one of the many problems facing people in the region. Most southern Sudanese live on less than $1 a day, the country has almost no infrastructure—there are just 38 miles of tarmacked road in an area the size of France—and people are traumatised by years of rape and killings. I am sure that the Church of England and non-governmental organisations such as Christian Aid and Christian Solidarity Worldwide will give the people of Southern Sudan all possible support. Indeed, it behoves all of us to do what we can to support what may soon be the newest member of the United Nations as it sets out on the challenging road of nationhood.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
I am pleased to learn about the cost-cutting, but can my hon. Friend reassure me that the Electoral Commission will have enough funds properly to promote the upcoming alternative vote referendum? Whatever one’s views on AV—I, for the record, am against it—we must ensure that the public are aware of the referendum and its importance.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Levels of public awareness about the forthcoming referendum on the alternative vote system are extremely low. The Electoral Commission has a budget of just over £9 million for the main referendum, which will enable a leaflet to be distributed to every household in the United Kingdom as well as a wider public awareness campaign.
With 3.5 million voters missing from the registers, will the Electoral Commission give even greater priority to electoral registration? With the difficulties faced by local government and the likelihood that it might look to electoral registration departments to make reductions, will the Electoral Commission ensure that the system is properly policed?
It is terribly important in this country that we try to achieve maximum registration of voters wherever possible. I encourage every colleague to visit their electoral registration officer and quiz them on how they are going about this important task. If any colleague is not happy with the work of an ERO in any locality, the Electoral Commission would be very pleased to hear from them.
Would the hon. Gentleman consider persuading the Electoral Commission to join the campaign for a democracy week—or democracy day—every year in March, ahead of the normal election cycle, as a very cheap and cost-effective way of raising consciousness about electoral registration and participation in elections and referendums?
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Vacancies are managed individually by each separate diocese. The last clergy vacancy in my hon. Friend’s constituency of St Michael’s, Kirklington was filled before Christmas after a short vacancy.
I am glad to say that the Church does not generally find difficulties in the recruitment of stipendiary clergy. Of course, it is for each diocese to decide how to organise parishes into benefices. I am told by the dioceses of Ripon and Leeds and of York that they do not have difficulty filling rural stipendiary posts. Clearly, the clergy find these appointments satisfying and rewarding.
Provincial episcopal visitors operate under the terms of the Act of Synod, which will be rescinded if the draft legislation to enable women to become bishops is approved and brought into force. It will on any basis be at least two more years before that stage is reached and there remain important questions about how suitable episcopal oversight will be provided under the new legislation and associated code of practice for those with theological difficulties over the ordination of women.
The provincial episcopal visitors are there under the Act of Synod. Under the Act of Synod, the archbishop is expected to take steps to secure the appointment of up to two additional suffragans in his diocese to act as provincial episcopal visitors. As I have explained, even if the Synod gives final approval to the draft legislation, the Act of Synod will remain in place for some time to come. We must keep faith with all sorts of different groups in the Church of England until there is a final decision on women bishops within the Church.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Franchise (Overseas Citizens)
The Electoral Commission has issued guidance to electoral registration officers on the checks they must carry out to determine whether to grant applications to register as an overseas elector. This includes checking evidence of the age of the applicant, their citizenship status and their relevant qualifying address in the United Kingdom.
What I want to know from my hon. Friend is what measures there are to make sure that returning officers and electoral registration officers ensure that those who are not entitled to be on the electoral register—foreign nationals and others—do not simply fill in and return the form to put themselves on the electoral register because it helps them to get other benefits and then have a vote although they are not entitled to one.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. He will be pleased to know that electoral registration officers have a range of powers to require extra information from people on the register, including evidence that they meet either or both of the requirements of eligibility. Other measures available to EROs are the ability to make house-to-house inquiries and to inspect other council records. However, my hon. Friend raises an important point and sends an important signal to EROs around the country to do their job well.
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
King James Bible
In her inauguration address to the General Synod, Her Majesty the Queen emphasised the importance of the King James Bible and the lasting impact it has had on the life of the Church and on the nation. The Archbishop of Canterbury also used his new year message to draw attention to the anniversary and enduring significance of the King James Bible. The 2011 celebrations were launched at Hampton Court and the King James Bible Trust, chaired by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), has been set up to oversee the programme of events and activities planned around the world to mark 400 years since the creation of the book that changed the world.
Hundreds of words and phrases in modern English came from the King James Bible, such as, “Eat, drink and be merry,” “Grinding the faces of the poor,” “No peace for the wicked” and “Fly in the ointment.” York minster and the trust will celebrate this event in many ways this year, but what will the Church Commissioners do to make this a truly national celebration of our language and culture?
The Church Commissioners will give every possible support to the trust because, as the hon. Gentleman says, no book has had a greater influence on the English language. It is a masterpiece of literature that unites English-speaking people everywhere. Indeed, a number of expressions are unique to the King James Bible, some of which are relevant to politics, such as, “How are the mighty fallen,” “Set your house in order,” “Be horribly afraid”, “A thorn in the flesh,” “Let us now praise famous men” and “To everything there is a season.” My favourite phrase from the King James Bible is, “My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.”
The following Member made and subscribed the Affirmation required by law:
Deborah Angela Elspeth Abrahams, for Oldham East and Saddleworth.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I know that you are always anxious that announcements should be made to the House of Commons first. I was very disturbed this morning to hear that the Department for Work and Pensions had made an announcement that voluntary redundancies affecting Remploy are to be made. There was press coverage in The Daily Telegraph and I believe that a statement is being issued by the Department. There is a factory in Wrexham that has among its staff a number of individuals, some of the most vulnerable members of our community, who will be desperately worried by such a statement being issued by the Department. Have you had any indication whatever that someone from the Department will be coming to the House so that we can ask questions about the detail of the proposals?
No. I have had no indication of an intention by a Minister to make a statement. If the hon. Gentleman is dissatisfied and he thinks that a procedural impropriety has taken place, first he may find other means through the Order Paper to pursue his concerns and to air his grievances; secondly, he might want to draw the matter to the attention of the Procedure Committee, which is looking into issues of this kind.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today we were told through the media that there would be no movement on a rural fuel derogation, which would have taken 5p off a litre in certain areas. In my Hebridean constituency, people have paid up to £1.45 a litre, which includes the recent, quickly implemented, VAT rise.
Only 100 days ago, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury told a Lib Dem conference that
“I can announce to you today that with my approval, Treasury officials have started the process of engaging with the European Commission on our detailed plans”.
Can we have these announcements in Parliament, and get the relevant Treasury Minister to the Dispatch Box, so that we have a full and clear picture of what this Government are doing and a timetable set out, so that they do not shilly-shally for four years like the previous Labour Government?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 20 December, I asked the Transport Secretary in this House about the Government’s response to winter weather in my constituency. The Transport Secretary undertook to write to me that afternoon with the Government’s reply. I have so far not received a response, and when I called the Transport Department today, the correspondence unit informed me that no letter had been sent. Can you help me understand whether I should expect a reply from the Minister?
It is possible that as a result of the point of order that the hon. Gentleman has just raised, the reply for which he is waiting may soon arrive. I can say beyond that only that the hon. Gentleman will have doggedly to pursue the matter if necessary, but of course it is right both that Members should get speedy answers to their questions and that promised letters to Members should be sent timeously.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I believe earnestly that this is a real point of order; it is a procedural matter. You may remember that in order to involve the House further in public appointments, there were introduced only a short time ago pre-appointment hearings for particular jobs. I understand today that the Secretary of State for Education has appointed a new children’s commissioner with no pre-appointment hearing at all.
Off the top of my head, it is not a matter of order for the Chair. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that the Select Committee that scrutinises the relevant Department might well be interested in the matter, and it is a Select Committee of which I think, as a previous Chair, the hon. Gentleman has very substantial experience. It may serve him well in the matter.
If there are no further points of order, we come now to the ten-minute rule motion for which the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) has been waiting patiently and without complaint.
Succession to the Crown
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to remove any distinction between the sexes in determining the succession to the Crown.
At very outset, I need to declare my interest. No. I am not one of those who is in line to the throne. However, I am a fervent monarchist. I believe passionately that the British monarchy is an institution widely respected and highly regarded in this country and greatly admired abroad and that the current occupant of the throne will go down in history as one of the greatest monarchs that we have ever had. This one-clause Bill therefore seeks to celebrate the monarchy and strengthen it, rather than to cause any mischief.
For the past 300 years, the basis for succeeding to the throne has been determined by male preference primogeniture. A product of the 17th century’s constitutional developments, the Act of Settlement 1701 enshrined men as first in line to the throne regardless of age.
At this time, the next in line to the throne is His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. He is followed by His Royal Highness Prince William. The Bill will not affect that line of succession. Only a couple of months ago, the House joined the rest of the country in celebrating the engagement of Prince William to Miss Catherine Middleton. This is therefore the right time to look at the issue.
Any daughters of Prince William would not succeed their father to the throne if they had a male sibling younger than them. Whereas that might have been acceptable in another age, I believe that at this time in our history Britain is a modern, egalitarian society and that this ought to be reflected in our succession rules. Thus, before any question arises over the heir to the throne, we need to resolve it now. History has shown us the need for absolute clarity. I have known for a long time, and the Leader of the Opposition discovered recently, that it is always better to know where we stand with respect to our siblings, royal or otherwise.
At the centre of this debate is a great principle: gender equality. In Britain, we have had a woman Prime Minister and continue to see more women in the House, though we need even more. The reality is that the public want more women to take high office. The 2001 census showed that Britain is a majority female country: 52% compared with 48% men. The success of women is nowhere better reflected than in the monarchy.
Three of the country’s longest-serving and most successful monarchs have been women. The 58-year reign of Queen Elizabeth I during that golden age, and Queen Victoria’s 64-year reign, when Britannia literally ruled the waves, are only two examples; another is our current monarch. Queen Elizabeth II has for 58 years led Britain through dramatic and significant changes in an outstanding and exemplary manner and will celebrate her diamond jubilee in 2012.
Queens have served Britain longer and, some would argue, with more stability than Kings. It might be pertinent to mention that Her Majesty may never have become Queen if her father, King George VI, and her mother, Queen Elizabeth, had had a younger son instead of a younger daughter, Princess Margaret.
Parliament has in the past demonstrated its ability to act against male dominance in the line of succession. In 1688, when James II fled the country, Parliament decreed that he had “abdicated the government” and the throne was offered to his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, as joint rulers, rather than his son, James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender.
James was not a member of the Scottish National party.
Our country leads the way in equality issues, and that should be reflected in our succession rules. Comparing our succession laws internationally highlights the advancement of our European counterparts. The House might often be wary of looking to our European partners to set the standards but, on equality in succession rules, I am afraid that Europe is ahead of the game.
Five monarchies have already eliminated male dominance and introduced equality. In Sweden, after the retroactive approval of equal succession rights in 1979, the older Victoria became Crown Princess over her younger brother, Prince Carl Phillip, and she will be the future Queen of Sweden. In the Netherlands, equal succession was adopted in 1983 under the reign of Queen Beatrix. In Norway, the adoption of equal succession rights in 1990 will not allow Princess Märtha Louise to be Queen over her younger brother, but the rights will apply to his children. In Belgium, a system that excluded females entirely from succeeding to the throne was replaced in 1991, allowing Princess Elisabeth to be second in line to the throne. The Danish public approved a referendum in 2009 whereby women could succeed equally to the throne.
Sex discrimination has been illegal in the United Kingdom since 1975. Some 35 years after the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, Britain’s employers must ensure equality between the sexes. Those who break the law are rightly punished. The Bill attempts to bring such gender equality into our succession rules.
There is clearly cross-party support for the Bill in the House, and I thank all the Bill’s supporters for backing the measure. There is also significant public support. A YouGov poll following the royal engagement highlighted strong public support for equality in succession. More than 70% of those polled felt that men and women should be treated equally in the line of succession to the throne. A poll last weekend in probably the most respected local newspaper in the world—the Leicester Mercury—also confirmed that view, with 68% of those who participated agreeing that there should be equal rights to succession.
As is required for a constitutional change of this kind, I have written to Her Majesty, the Prince of Wales, Prince William, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament and the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly. I have also written to the Prime Ministers of all 15 Commonwealth countries whose sovereign is still the Queen to ask for their support, as the right of primogeniture holds force in those countries.
Today, I received a reply from Her Majesty’s private secretary, who wrote:
“The Queen has asked me to thank you for your letter of 20th December with its kind sentiments about the forthcoming marriage of Prince William with Miss Catherine Middleton. You made reference to the Bill which you will be proposing in Parliament on 18th January to which you hoped Her Majesty would be willing to lend her support.
It was most thoughtful of you to have alerted the Queen to your interest and you can be certain that the proceedings in Parliament will, as always in such matters, be followed here with close interest. As to Her Majesty’s own views, it is of course her custom only to act in matters of this kind on the advice of her Ministers. In this particular case, the fundamental issue is one upon which the common advice of all sixteen of the Commonwealth Realms would first be required. You will…be aware of the…British Government’s position as expressed by Lord McNally in the House of Lords”.
It is therefore over to the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper)—the Minister sitting on the Front Bench—to give his advice to the monarchy.
There are many champions of the equality movement in the House and many more outside. You, Mr Speaker, have been a fervent supporter of gender equality and diversity within Parliament for many years. We have heard much about the film “The King’s Speech” in recent weeks, but let us focus today on the speeches of our future Queens. We have a 21st century monarch and we need 21st century succession rules to match. God save not only this Queen but our future Kings and Queens to come, but let them succeed to the throne on the basis of equality—a noble and vital principle that should be the cornerstone of all political and public life. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Keith Vaz, Lorely Burt, Lorraine Fullbrook, Siobhain McDonagh, Sir Peter Bottomley, Bob Russell, Valerie Vaz, Simon Hughes, Martin Caton and Nick de Bois present the Bill.
Keith Vaz accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 13 May, and to be printed (Bill 133).
Fixed-term Parliaments Bill
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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—
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—
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.
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.