[Relevant documents: Second Report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2010-12, Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, HC 436, and the Government response, Cm 7951; and the Thirteenth Report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2013-14, Fixed-term Parliaments: the final year of a Parliament, HC 976]
I beg to move,
That this House believes that the Government should bring forward proposals to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.
The motion, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and other Members of this House, is to review and repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. The Act was passed, of course, in the heady early days of the coalition, with many new Members present. This is a good time, after four years, to think about it, to review it and, I hope, to determine to repeal it.
Fixed-term Parliaments were marketed to us as a restriction on the excessive power of the Executive. In reality, fixed-term Parliaments are a restriction on democracy, not on the Executive. It was claimed then that a general election called at a time advantageous to a sitting Government, or because Parliament clearly needed refreshing after, say, four years, was somehow less legitimate than a general election held at a fixed time every five years.
Leaving aside the point that a democratic mandate is a democratic mandate whenever it is held, a Dissolution is forbidden under the Act unless two thirds of the entire membership of the House, including any vacant seats, support a motion calling for an election. That means that a party or group that has just one third of the seats has the power to block a Dissolution and can prevent the Government from consulting the people. How is that democratic? I think that undermines the whole democratic legitimacy of the Government, whether it is a majority or a minority Government. The old system, of course, allowed a Prime Minister to find a route out of decisional gridlock. It permitted the Government to consult the people on developments which may have been unforeseen at the time of the last general election. Governments who found themselves hanging under a parliamentary scandal—or when the economy is going badly or something has gone badly wrong—had an easy route out, and voters could give them their marching orders or return them to power.
We have always valued the combination of the general election and the first-past-the-post system, because it is, we say, capable of producing strong sustainable Governments who can deliver on their promises to voters. That has always been our pride. To an extent, we have therefore defined ourselves in opposition to other systems which have to form coalitions after general elections. I think all of us hope that the present coalition is an aberration. Our major political parties—particularly the Labour and Conservative parties—are, of course, coalitions in themselves, formed before elections in order to present voters with real choices.
On my hon. Friend’s remarks about the coalition, I have read his piece on the “ConservativeHome” website, and perhaps he would be good enough to look at mine, because I very much agree with him. The problem is not just the question of institutional issues; it is also the practical reality of the Liberal Democrats having the capacity, in relation to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and in other respects, to frustrate the government of this country by a Conservative majority.
It is not for me to speak for the Liberal Democrats—unfortunately they seem to be absent from the Chamber. May I say that I always read my hon. Friend’s speeches with the closest possible attention? Both he and I were, of course, in coalition in our beloved Conservative party with a social-liberal leadership. I sometimes think that the Conservatives on the Treasury Bench would rather be in coalition with the Liberals than with the likes of me. If that is true, it is no surprise if party membership is under stress.
The contrary system to ours involves a host of smaller parties combining in smoke-filled rooms—although they are probably smokeless now—in order to make deals and hash out a coalition that may be contrary to voters’ wishes. That is often the continental system.
Of course, the Act we are talking about today moves against the spirit of the idea that one Parliament cannot bind another. That is rubbish anyway, because if somebody gets a majority in the next Parliament, they can simply repeal this Act in an afternoon. All the checks and balances are meaningless in any event, because one Parliament cannot bind another.
So, looking to other parliamentary democracies outside the Westminster system, we see that fixed terms are a rarity. Often they are based on the peculiarity of local circumstances, such as in Germany or Switzerland. France, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands all provide for early Dissolution more easily than is envisioned under this Act.
One highly esteemed political scientist, Juan Linz, described in 1994 the capability for an early Dissolution as a critical antidote to the temporary rigidity of presidential-style systems. Linz was wise to point out that the power of Dissolution allows for stronger Governments who are more capable of responding to emergencies or to changes in democratic expression. He wrote that the fixed tenure means that the
“political process therefore becomes broken into discontinuous, rigidly determined periods without possibility for continuous readjustments as political, social and economic events might require.”
Indeed, I think the whole idea of fixed-term Parliaments has a Blairite feel to it, in a fawning admiration of the American style of government.
While a long line of thinkers, not least Russell Kirk, have been keen to point out the British roots of the American system, in fact, as you will know, Mr Speaker, it is very different from our own. Our daughter-Parliaments in Ottawa, Canberra and elsewhere have grown up in a very different way from the American system. The United States does not even have general elections, with different portions of both its Houses being elected in fits and starts every two years.
There is also another factor in the American system which we must avoid importing to these islands—this is an important point, which we have seen in this Parliament. With America’s fixed terms, the first half is spent legislating while the second half is spent in campaigning and raising money for the coming election campaign. The fixed date of the election is inherently conducive to that kind of mentality.
Is the logical extension of the hon. Gentleman’s argument that President Obama should be given the power to decide to call an election when he feels it appropriate, rather than when the constitution states that it should take place? Does he think that the President’s internment in a prison or a mental institution would be the first thing that would happen if he were to suggest such a thing?
The whole point is that the American system is completely different from ours, so it would be unwise for me or anyone else in this House to lecture President Obama on when he should go. Actually, the United States does have a system whereby a President can be removed through impeachment, and President Nixon took that route.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I think his comment about the former Prime Minister Tony Blair was a little unfair. I cannot see that particular relationship with the United States, but does the hon. Gentleman see such a relationship in respect of the search to import other constitutional effects? I have never liked the idea of referendums, for example. Does he agree with me on that? In addition, of course, the idea of a recall is very much derived from the American experience.
I take back that cheap shot against Tony Blair—it was perhaps unnecessary—and I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Over the centuries, we have established a pretty good system. I think we are the only country in Europe never to have been a police state or had a police state imposed on it. We should be pretty proud of our slow constitutional growth.
When President Nixon and Spiro Agnew resigned, the United States ended up with a President and Vice-President who had been elected by Congress and not by a mandate of the people. It is therefore possible to have a change of power without an election there, which would not happen here.
Exactly; that is a very fair point.
Our own beloved Mark Darcy, a BBC journalist who is really an ornament of the constitution, put it very well when he said that there was a danger under the Act of Parliaments
“oscillating between hyperactivity and torpor” .
We appear to be at the torpid end of this Parliament.
I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I regret that you cannot join us and make a speech. We recollect your coruscating arguments during the passage of the Bill, but we accept that you are of course now completely neutral.
I just think that five years is far too long. We have experienced a very front-loaded Parliament. The best evidence of that has been the recent explosion in the number of Back-Bench debates, compared with the number in the early part of the Parliament. I welcome Back-Bench debates, but they are taking place not through the kindness of the Government but because there is no majority in the House to do anything that would make a real difference. In my experience, the very best Conservative and Labour Parliaments have been four-year Parliaments, and the very worst have lasted for five years—in particular, our 1992 Parliament and Labour’s 2005 Parliament. Towards the end, five-year Parliaments get weaker and weaker.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument carefully. Does he agree that, for the purposes of consistency across the United Kingdom, if we were to go back to the old system and give this power back to the Prime Minister, that arrangement should also apply to the devolved Administrations? Should the leaders of those Administrations also be able to call an election whenever they wished?
In my personal view, that is a fair point. The right hon. Gentleman has intervened at a good point, because I was about to say that our insistence on a five-year Parliament has resulted in delaying elections in the devolved Administrations. That delay was proposed because, when we had an election on the same date in Scotland, there was an unacceptable 147,000 spoiled ballot papers. I really do believe in devolution, however, and it is up to the devolved Parliaments to make that decision.
Is my hon. Friend saying not only that he is against fixed-term Parliaments but that the flexibility to go up to five years should be removed? Is he saying that, in a system in which an election could occur at any time, it should be called only within a four-year time frame?
No, I am not saying that. I think we should simply go back to the old system and the Prime Minister should be able to call an election when it is appropriate. I agree, however, that if we were going to have a fixed term, a four-year one would be much more acceptable. However, we are not here to honour fixed-term Parliaments; we are here to bury them. So I would rather go back to the old system, which worked perfectly well. Interestingly, in the previous century the average length of a Parliament was four years and 10 months—
Sorry, three years and 10 months. So if we stick with this Act, in the next century we could lose six general elections—that is six occasions on which the people are given a real choice. In short, the greater flexibility that the power of Dissolution allows is to the advantage of our parliamentary democracy. The great advantage of our constitutional tradition is that it bends rather than breaks, but fixed-term Parliaments remove that flexibility, with consequences that cannot be foreseen.
Professor Robert Hazell of University College London’s constitution unit, has said that
“Anthony Eden’s decision to call a premature election in April 1955 can be justified on a mandate basis: he had only taken over as PM nine days earlier after the resignation of Winston Churchill. Fixed terms will remove or at least limit the government’s capacity”
to renew their mandate. We all know that the decision of the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), not to have a general election as soon as he was elected—or, rather, appointed—as Labour Prime Minister was a serious mistake and his Government never recovered from it.
That points exactly to the other argument on this issue. Had the former Prime Minister gone to the country on that date, he probably would have won a general election. The Government have an enormous power in being able to choose an election date, and is that not the other side of the coin?
That is the other side of the coin, which is why the Liberal party, which always delights in its own rationality, came up with this idea of fixed-term Parliaments. It is strange that the Liberal party, which is so apparently rational in all respects, is so unpopular with the people—I never quite understand that. It is precisely the sort of point that comes from political scientists and leads to dangerous constitutional innovations that are not thought through and are, in the end, profoundly undemocratic. The old system was better, more democratic and more in tune with what the public want.
That is a good point. [Interruption.] Why be fair in politics anyway—they are not.
This constitutional change was not in our manifesto, although I believe it was in both the Labour and Lib Dem manifestos. Interestingly, the Liberals maintained that fixed-term Parliaments would
“ensure that the Prime Minister of the day cannot change the date of an election to suit themselves.”
It is telling that the Liberals speak so contemptuously of consulting the people and seeking their approbation. I believe the Liberals had previously been in favour of a referendum on the European Union before they decided they were against one—they now say they will have a referendum at the time of a treaty change. Why not have a vote on the European Union at a fixed time—they have succeeded in foisting that on us for our Parliaments? They are totally irrational, and they are arguing from different points of view on fixed-term Parliaments and on a referendum on Europe. When did their support start imploding? It was when they broke their election promises on tuition fees, and they have never recovered. That was in the heady days of the coalition, which they were determined to try to maintain for five years. Indeed, now they are apparently the main body of people who have maintained that this coalition must struggle on for five years.
How was the arrangement formed? It was a hash job—let us be honest about it. It was designed to keep both parties in the coalition from doing a runner on each other and it was never thought through properly. This was always going to be a loveless marriage, and fixed-term Parliaments were a pre-nuptial settlement drawn up between two parties that were never in love. Indeed, they had to bind their marriage in barbed wire to stop them ratting on each other. Is that the right way to make a major constitutional innovation? I do not think it is. These constitutional innovations of profound import for our democratic system should have been the result of lengthy debate and academic debate, but they were not. They were cobbled together in five days in May in secret meetings between the leaderships of the two parties. These things were put not to a vote of my parliamentary party, but to a show trial public meeting of MPs in Committee Room 14 with planted questions. There was no democratic mandate in our manifesto for the fixed-term Parliament. We should put this issue in our manifesto and repeal the Act, and think about repealing it now.
My hon. Friend is doing jolly well and I love the things that he is saying, but before he moves on, will he look for a moment at the length of time between the election and getting a winner in using the first-past-the-post system? It was five days then. Imagine the next time when it could be five, 10 or 20 days to make the Liberals happy.
This was the subject of a very good debate among experts in the Hansard Society. They pointed out that this Parliament will end on 28 March. We will have a record five-and-a half-week campaign and two weeks of negotiations, so we could have two months without a Government, which would be the longest time that this country in recent history has not had a Government. We could have a Belgian situation—I love the Belgians but they do not necessarily have the best sort of Government—with no Parliament and no Government.
Yes, that is true, but we all know—my right hon. Friend has been a Minister as have I—that the moment the election is called, civil servants do not allow Ministers to do anything. In theory, we still have Ministers in charge, but in practice we do not have a Government who can do anything. It is worrying that under this Act of Parliament we could have such a long period of, effectively, no Government.
Yes, indeed. With respect to the role of the civil service—of Lord Gus O’Donnell specifically—in putting this coalition together, an extraordinary amount of power was exercised by civil servants in relation to the coalition discussions, which included the proposals for this Act.
I did not know about that, but my hon. Friend raises a good point, and I am very worried about it. Frankly, this coalition shows us that coalitions are a bad idea. It would have been much better to have had a minority Government. We could have gone to the people after a year or 18 months to seek a proper mandate. That has been done twice by Labour in the 1960s and the 1970s. There was no constitutional outrage, debate or scandal about it. Harold Wilson did it twice and nobody seemed to worry very much. People said that it was necessary to have a coalition to deal with the deficit. Leaving aside the fact that we have not yet properly dealt with the deficit anyway, a Conservative Government could have got on with dealing with the deficit from day one. They had the mandate to do so, and they could have renewed that mandate after a year or 18 months, and we would now have a much stronger Government.
We find ourselves stuck in a lowest common denominator straitjacket, which no one voted for—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but the annunciator appears to be broken. We are on the hatred of Liberal Democrats and the coalition debate, and I am waiting for the Fixed-term Parliaments Act debate. Will you, Madam Deputy Speaker, ensure that the annunciator gets repaired, so we can carry on with the House’s business?
I am coming to an end. I have put it several times to our beloved Prime Minister that we should end this coalition, which is haemorrhaging our support, and the support of the Liberal Democrats. He says that he cannot do it because, under this ridiculous Act of Parliament, he could not call a general election, and the Leader of the Opposition might be in power by teatime. I do not know whether or not that is right, but there is a certain rigidity in the system. We should end this coalition and go to the people at an appropriate moment.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act is a constitutional aberration. It was cobbled together without pre-legislative review or proper national debate. It could and does result in zombie-government in the latter part of the term. Indeed it could conceivably lead to a Belgian situation of weak Government and weak Parliament. As is found around the world, it could and does lead to rigidity and angry calls by a disaffected public to extra-parliamentary activity. It actually leads to the growth of extremist fringe parties, as we are finding in our own country.
Indeed, and dangerous situations can often be the result of fixed-terms.
We could see, as a result of this Act, an unprecedented long period without any Government at all. This is a bad Act. It was not thought through and it is not in our traditions. It should be reviewed and repealed.
I am delighted that we can now come on to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 debate, and I am pleased to open the proceedings on that discussion. I want people to watch our proceedings in Parliament, but, privately, I hope that they are doing other things—perhaps going out with their families—because sometimes we can be incredibly embarrassing in this House. It was only three or four weeks ago that the Union nearly fell apart. I am glad that the numbers were what they were at the end, but there was a moment when all of us thought that the Union—the United Kingdom—would be split asunder. It may still do so if we do not deliver properly on the package.
One would think that everything in the garden was rosy, apart from the fact that some would like to revert to those great old days that the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) described. I am talking about those days when we had an empire, homosexuality was illegal, we could slaughter people around the globe, we always had a Prime Minister who told us what to do, and we could go hunting, shooting and fishing in the right seasons. Those were the days indeed. Of course there are many colleagues who long for that degree of exclusivity and privacy, but there are some of us for whom times have changed. We believe that we must do better, and that joining the family of democratic nations in having the people know when a general election is to take place and when the Executive can be replaced is one of the hallmarks of a modern democracy. We are not yet there, but we have made progress in some areas in recent years. One such area is having a fixed-term Parliament.
I say to the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known for many years, that this idea that somehow this Parliament, rather than the Executive, is the creature that runs the nation is the fundamental misapprehension and fundamental flaw in his argument; it is mythology. This is not the Executive. This is not even a body that effectively holds the Executive to account, so to say that things should go back to the way they were does not alter some of those truths, which we all need to consider as parliamentarians first and foremost and as members of the Executive, members who want to be in the Executive, and members who have been in the Executive. That so-called truth is a mythology, and I hope that during this debate we can explore why having a fixed term—having some openness about how long a Parliament or a Government is—will be one of the things that lead people outside to say that at least it looks like we are getting it.
I share some of the hon. Gentleman’s concern at the lamentable way in which Parliament fails to hold the Executive—of whatever Government—to account. Obviously, he supports the notion of a fixed-term Parliament, but does he think that it is right that the Act ensures that that cannot be changed? The Act reinforces this whole push towards coalition Government almost irrespective of public wishes because there has to be a two-thirds majority for getting rid of them. Does he not think that an old-fashioned straight majority would have been the correct way for a fixed-term Parliament to operate?
Sadly, one cannot always bring about democratic change through a rational process; it is often a matter of seizing opportunities. In this case a coalition Government came together and it was helpful—there is no question about this—to have a fixed term, because otherwise there would have been votes of censure and the Government could have fallen at any moment over the past four and a half years.
This might sound strange coming from the Opposition Benches, but I must say that I think history will judge the coalition, however painful and bruising it might have been for the partners, to have governed, or at least administered, in a way that will have surprised many people, particularly if we think back to 2010. There are wounds and difficulties, of course, and I do not seek to underplay them, but a coalition was formed and governance in this country, much to my regret at one level, has continued, one could argue, in a relatively civilized way.
We are where we are, and it would not be democratic to take the power away from Parliament and restore a power that allows a Prime Minister alone to decide the date of a general election. It is yet another strong Executive power that this House should stand up and say should not be restored. There are other Executive powers in this highly centralised democracy that we should be looking to next to ensure that they are made properly democratic, or at least that Governments are held to account for their use.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the argument is essentially between those who believe in rigidity, as he does, and those of us on the Government Benches who believe in flexibility? In a sense, is not that illustrated by what happened in Scotland? Had the Scots voted to leave the Union, the Prime Minister would surely have been required to call a general election, but the Fixed-term Parliaments Act would have prevented him from having that discretion.
The hon. Gentleman is known for being a rather floppy and flexible individual, and perhaps I am renowned for being inflexible in the multitude of compromises I have attempted to make over my political career to secure at least some small reforms in our democracy.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech, as usual. He is right to say that this is a restriction on the power of the Executive, but I think that he is slightly wrong to say that in this Parliament power has not become more centralised. I think his book was called “The First President” or “President Blair” or something along those lines. Surely he thinks that guillotining and the Whips Offices are doing much more to give power to the Executive than a fixed-term Parliament.
I am not saying that it is the fixed term that has helped create a lively Parliament; it is Members of Parliament who have done that, by carving out a niche and exploiting the difficulties of coalition Government, and more credit to them for doing so. However, I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, who is foremost among those pushing back the envelope—I congratulate him on that—that what the Executive giveth, the Executive can take away. Were we to return to a one-party Government, of whichever party, I guarantee that they would seek to roll back some of the gains that he and just about every colleague in the Chamber today have played a part in securing, bringing greater responsibility to Parliament. I warn colleagues here today that the tide will go out very rapidly indeed. We now have, for the first time in parliamentary history, Select Committee Chairs elected by secret ballot and by the whole House, as in my case, and that could easily become a thing of the past. In a one-party Government, the Prime Minister would instruct people to clamp down on dissent and nonconformity.
Similarly, colleagues elected to Select Committees by secret ballot and by party, such as the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), could be under threat. Difficult and awkward customers of the sort I revel in dealing with in my Committee, many of whom are in the Chamber today, will be the first casualties. I say that not because I am trying to scare them, but because I used to be in the Whips Office and had to take Members out of Select Committees and try to get compliant Chairs elected. Sadly, I have been there, done that—I am the gamekeeper turned poacher, and possibly turned gamekeeper again.
The idea that we have cracked it and that we now have a Parliament that in a one-party Government will be as frisky as this one is misleading. We have to protect the small gains we have made in recent years and build upon them, rather than regressing to the good old days when we used to allow Prime Ministers the unprecedented power in a democracy of deciding the date of an election.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the power of the Executive. Does he agree that the constitution should be established in the best interests not of the Prime Minister, but of the country as a whole, particularly in circumstances in which we are having to borrow a lot of money on the money markets to fund the deficit, which means the stability that arises from the Prime Minister not having the power to call an election anytime he feels like it is in the interests of the country as a whole?
The hon. Gentleman, who speaks from the Liberal Democrat Benches, would have been terribly blackguarded by his coalition partners in the debate this morning. He is making up for that and makes some intelligent points with which I wholly agree.
What I think the people outside this place listening to the debate would find incredibly difficult is the idea that, as the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said before leaving his place, we would not apply this to the devolved Administrations. We would not say to those who run Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, “Just have an election whenever you feel like it, for whatever purpose. We’ll happily give you that Executive power.” We have Executive power in No. 10 Downing street, and very rarely is it given away. It was not given away lightly, but on this occasion it was given away on calculation. We must retain it so that Parliament has at least some leverage and certainty so that it can fulfil its duty of holding Governments to account.
It is similar to the situation in local government. Imagine the leader of a council having the power to decide when local government elections take place. Consider the idea that the President of the United States could wake up one morning and say, “There’s some bad economic news coming down the tube in six months’ time, so I’m going to go for a snap election.” The President would then face prison or incarceration, because that would be unconstitutional and illegal. I suspect that the straitjacket would be the option of first resort were that to happen, whether in the US, France or any of our fellow democracies who figured this out a long time ago. Montesquieu figured it out in the 18th century when he wrote about the separation of powers. Given the flexibility we have created for ourselves in this House, perhaps we will come to that conclusion in the not-too-distant future.
I caution against being too obsessed with the American system, because it is held in very low regard by American voters, largely because of the amount of money involved in their politics, and one of the reasons for that is the frequency of elections to the House of Representatives and the resulting gridlock. Does my hon. Friend agree that choosing a period of five years, which was done for the convenience of the Executive, whether a coalition or not, is far too long, not least given that the average length of Parliaments in the last century was three years and 10 months? Should not we go to four years, which would also stop the clashes with the devolved Administrations?
We should of course be very careful about taking the American example lock, stock and barrel, although we should learn from other democracies. I also think that my hon. Friend should be a little careful about discussing the low regard in which politicians are held in America. Many people will have been watching the debate today with incredulity, given the way in which some Members spoke a little earlier.
As for whether the period should be four years or five, it is the first time that we have gone through this process. My anxiety relates only to practical politics. I fear that if the question of the period were opened up for review, some Members from whom we have heard today would seize the opportunity to hand power back, rather fawningly, to No. 10 Downing street. One wonders whether there would be as much enthusiasm for that if the Prime Minister were a member of a different political party from that of the mover of the motion.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could assist me by explaining what would happen if, for instance, we had lost the referendum in Scotland. In those circumstances, would there not have been an obligation to step up to the public and say, “I have failed, so someone else must take over”, and would it not be a bad thing if everyone were simply moved along one step and the job were put it in the hands of another person, with no election?
The hon. Gentleman has made a powerful case. In fact, he has unwittingly made a powerful case for a written constitution, which would prevent that from happening. What we have, however, is a convention, and, like it or not, conventions mean what the Executive say—rather than, as we are finding now in relation to going to war in Syria, creeping something through the House and reinventing the convention. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister of the day would probably find, in giving way, that the Deputy would be appointed from within the coalition or from within the individual party. The only way of putting a stop to that is to have clarity, so that everyone watching at home has the rule book, the boxing rules, as it were. I am not referring to the fighters in the ring, but there should be a framework that we can all understand, and I am afraid that that is not the case.
Ultimately, even under the current legislation, it would be possible to dissolve Parliament if a vote expressing a lack of confidence in the existing Government were carried by two thirds. After 14 days, there would be a general election. However, those are extraordinary circumstances. We are trying to build a democracy in which everyone out there knows the rules.
May I repeat the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan)? We are not going to convince the hon. Gentleman in regard to fixed-term Parliaments, but will he at least acknowledge that if we had had a proper national debate on the issue, we would obviously have decided on a four-year term, as in the case of the American presidency, rather than a five-year term?
I believe that—particularly if there is a little less game-playing and a little more consensus-building—a five-year or a 10-year Parliament and longer-term planning make a lot of sense when we are faced with issues that are not about tomorrow’s newspapers, but about the future of the planet, the future of our children and the future of our economy.
Some of our colleagues are new to the House—I except the hon. Member for Gainsborough—and assume that things have always been like this. Some colleagues, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), are very new to the House. They are probably thinking, “Why on earth are they talking about this ancient history?” Well, some of us remember the ancient history.
Having been in the House for some time, I am aware—as are you, Madam Deputy Speaker—of the paralysis that grips a Government when there is speculation about when a general election can take place. We have all lived through it. There is a long period of under-achievement, of anxiety, of shuffles, of the civil service not knowing when the general election will be, of appalling speculation in the media, and of threats by Back Benchers who say that they will do this, that or the other. That, to me, is bad governance and bad administration.
A fixed term brings clarity. It means all of us saying, “Let us get on with our job.” It does not mean saying to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the House will appoint you for a term but it may throw you out at any moment, or press speculation may end your wonderful career. Of course, no one operates like that in the real world. A degree of certainty will end much of the paralysis and speculation that has been so damaging to our politics for many years.
I do not entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about uncertainty in regard to election dates. However—this may be because there is currently a coalition Government, and because all the parties are going into the next election telling the electorate that they intend to win and have a manifesto that will enable them to win—an element of paralysis has clearly set in even at this early stage. As we know, there will be an election in May. I think that, in the event of another indeterminate election result, we should be relaxed about the possibility that we will not return for the Queen’s Speech until early or mid-June next year. There may well be an interval of several weeks. That would not necessarily constitute paralysis—it would be possible for government to continue—but Parliament would not be able to sit until we recognised what sort of coalition would be taking the place of the current Government.
The benefit of our having a final year and knowing it is a final year is that we can plan for how we can sensibly use that final year. I absolve my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) of this, but is all the nonsense of “It will be a zombie Parliament unless we pack the last year full of inconsequential legislation, so that we can we pretend that we are macho and running the country” the best that we can do?
My Committee has produced two reports on this issue. We have studied it in great detail, and have heard from highly expert witnesses. We concluded that the fifth year of a Parliament could, because we would know that it would be the last year, be very different culturally—although not this first time round, because we are not used to it. Let us return to the default position of the old dogfight! Let us all slam each other over the Dispatch Box! But perhaps we could use the last year very constructively, rather than entering a state of paralysis or conducting ourselves in our normal, conventional way—often disgracefully, in the eyes of the public.
I am afraid that I cannot remember, but Lord Norton of Louth—who is a very distinguished Member of the other place—gives evidence to us regularly, and I am confident that if we did not take oral evidence from him, he would have submitted some written evidence. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not being able to recite it. No doubt he can do so.
Let me return to the points made by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). We can plan our lives here better. We, Members of Parliament—not the Government—can plan our lives better, in the parliamentary interest. That means not being told what to do. It does not mean being told how wonderful it is to be able to have a debate of our own choosing on days such as this. Aren’t we lucky to be able to have a couple of debates every so often? Aren’t we lucky to be allowed out into the playground? That is better than being told every second of our waking day what agenda is being set by the Government, and hearing the nonsense that somehow Parliament is deciding stuff. Of course it is the Government who are deciding—but, on this occasion, we have made a little bit of an inroad on behalf of Parliament.
Those were very good points, and I shall be sure to write them up and pass them to my local Member of Parliament; so the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster can expect a letter in the morning.
Let me explain a little about the importance of what a fixed-term Parliament allows us to do, first as a Parliament, secondly as an Administration and a Government, and thirdly for the electorate. What does a fixed-term Parliament allow us to do as Members of this House, and as members of Select Committees and other institutions in the House? For one thing, it allows us to have a sensible legislative programme. Until the advent of the fixed-term Parliament—and I look forward to the legislative programme of the next one, because by then we shall have learnt a few lessons—it was the same every time. An election was won, and no one was sure how long the Parliament would last. It was a case of “Let us stuff the big important Bills through the House at the earliest opportunity.” Then there will be a ton of Second Readings before the Christmas of the new Parliament, things will be pushed through and often written very poorly, and later on we will have a period in the doldrums when things are drifting along because most of the legislation has already gone through.
That is anathema to what I suspect virtually all colleagues in the House would support me on, which is pre-legislative scrutiny. A fixed-term Parliament allows us, for the first time ever, to plan our legislative programme, because we know when the beginning, middle and end are. Things that require more work and more detailed analysis by the civil service to produce a draft can be prioritised—really important, practical things that can involve the British public and bring them with us. The Scottish example has shown what fantastic accidental glory democracy can deliver us. Imagine if we planned our next employment Bill and talked to working people and employers. Imagine if we really thought carefully about what a climate change Bill could do three years hence. Imagine if we had a Parliament talking to the electorate because it knew how it could plan its legislative programme. What a different Parliament it would be if we decided to go that way—a Parliament that might earn people’s respect.
Pre-legislative scrutiny would allow this House to present a Bill and say, “Here’s our draft, let’s have a Second Reading and agree the principles, and then we’ll give it to an expert committee of colleagues of all parties to look at for a serious period”—three, four, five or six months—“to really get to the bottom of this and get the evidence together.” A Government who were listening could then enable that to happen—not once, because we have made a persuasive argument on the Floor of the House and won a vote, but as a matter of course because that is the way we conduct our business. We would then be in great danger of producing good law that did not require our coming back the next year to put right the things that were got wrong because we did not take our time or that needed a thousand amendments from the other place because our legislative process was so poor.
South Dorset (Con): First, there was no pre-legislative scrutiny, as far as I know, of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. Secondly, in the wonderful, mythological world that the hon. Gentleman lives in, he seems to forget that there is such a thing as politics. We do not always get on in this place—we disagree—and that is extremely good for democracy. I do not think the wonderful world he is portraying actually exists in this place—thank God, because nor should it.
It is hard to pick the substance out of that intervention, but I will do my best. This is the first time that we have had a fixed term; the hon. Gentleman is a new Member, so he may not know that. When we have gone through the process once and come to it again, I hope we will have learned a few lessons. It gives us time to plan, whereas a system where there could be a general election at the drop of a hat means that we are in a state of febrile suspense about whether we are going to go to the electorate. Rightly, that is the first thing on our minds, rather than holding Government to account and perhaps developing an understanding of why Parliament is a separate institution from Government. Should the hon. Gentleman be re-elected and we have a four or five-year term, perhaps he will be able to find more time to understand some of those things a little more deeply.
Let me go back to how Parliament will benefit from this situation. Imagine a situation where each Select Committee has the power and the drive, and perhaps even the personnel, of a Committee like the Public Accounts Committee so that it could look at value for money, seriously examine Government accounts, and seriously examine accounting officers—and possibly even Government Ministers. Very few, if any, Select Committees other than the PAC can do that. Imagine what we could then do in terms of our constitutional role outlined by William Gladstone, who said that our role in Parliament is not to run the country but to hold to account those who do. It would be a massive step forward. People at home would say, “These guys are really earning their crust. They are not just shouting at each other on a Wednesday afternoon—they are figuring out how to save me, a taxpayer, a lot of money, how to make our services work better, how to involve people, and how to get ownership of the things we have in our society.”
I agree with everything my hon. Friend says about the benefits of Select Committees, pre-legislative scrutiny and all the other things that we want to develop, but the pre-supposition of his argument is that the people elect a Government who have the power to continue for a fixed term—in other words, they have a majority and can maintain it to carry out a legislative programme for a fixed term. In the present circumstances, with a multi-party system emerging and the two Government parties unevenly balanced, is that going to happen?
We do not contrive a system for each result—we have to do it on the basis of principle. The principle that we know when a Parliament begins and ends is very important, not just for us here in our own cosy little world but for people outside. It is important for the electorate to understand why we are doing what we are doing, and that principle allows that to happen.
My Select Committee took evidence from other Select Committee Chairs, none of whom said that they wanted to go back to the old system. They all said, as I did as a Select Committee Chair, “This enables us to have greater planning ability, even within our own Select Committee.” I will give one example from my own Committee. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, as one of its most important members before you came to exalted high office late on and robbed us of one of our main contributors, my Committee spent four years looking at whether we should devise a written constitution. We considered what other options there were; conducted a very detailed investigation through an external body, King’s college London; took copious amounts of evidence; and carefully produced a document that everyone can be proud of and that will stand the test of time. That is not possible if we think that in a couple of years’ time there might be a general election when Members, rightly, will want to be in their constituencies and so on. These things allow us to plan our work, as MPs and Select Committees, much more easily.
We also improve public debate if we allow people outside to see what we are doing—our measures, our policies, our options—and thereby engage with people. Rather than just being a glorified electoral college to elect a Prime Minister some time in the early hours of general election day, we can get a real role in life as a Parliament and start to produce good legislation and better law, and to do things that the public will be proud of us for in holding Government to account. We would not lose Bills in the “wash up” but be able to plan effectively. A lot of people in this House worked on the Sex and Relationships Education Bill, which, as finally drafted, had the support of most people. That Bill was lost because a general election was called. People outside who had an interest in young people growing up with fully rounded capabilities and full knowledge so that they could raise good families of their own found it inexplicable that Parliament could act like that.
The next area I want to turn to—I will try to be a little more brief, Madam Deputy Speaker, since you have glowered at me—is Government and the civil service. I had the privilege of being sent by my Select Committee to each of the permanent secretaries in Whitehall. To a man and a woman, they basically said the same thing, including the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood—that planning, long-termism and sequencing had improved markedly since people knew when the beginning and end of the Parliament were. That allows the civil service to address the comprehensive spending review and say, “We know when the next Government will be coming in, so we will have things ready for them. Perhaps they will want to do things differently, if they are not another coalition Government.” That also helps with budgeting.
That mindset goes down the pipe from the civil service and Government to local government, which then has a sense of the expenditure model it could operate over the next five to 10 years. It also gives our national health service an idea of when to plan hospitals and train doctors and nurses, which are long-term activities. It allows the civil service and Government to get to grips with those things.
The voluntary sector is also affected. I speak as someone who was plagued by not knowing from one year to the next where the next cheque was coming from or how much it would be worth. People would be fired at Christmas in the hope that we could put them back to work on 5 April. What a stupid way to run a system—making it up as you go along. Paralysis at one level means chaos at another, all because we cannot do what every business, local government and president in western democracy does as a result of knowing the beginning and the end of a governing period and how to plan life within it. Finally, this also applies to the electorate. I hope that sensible electors will view everything I have talked about as evidence that we can be more rational and more fit to govern.
At the end of the day, the key things are not those I have listed, but the fact that knowing the date of a general election, how a Prime Minister is elected and how a Member of Parliament gets the honour of the job the public give them is not a gift from an over-centralised Executive who are used to running an empire, but a right of which every citizen in our democracy should be aware. Those are the benefits of having a fixed-term Parliament.
I will talk briefly about what should happen in the last year of a fixed-term Parliament. The last year can be used not in a conventional way but in order to say, “Yes, this is the year we are going to run up to a general election. Can we involve people and have a public education drive? Can we, as parties, perhaps with the help of the Office for Budget Responsibility or other institutions, cost all our programmes?” We could have that debate a year out from a general election, rather than the mud-slinging that happens in the last few days leading up to a general election, where one party says, “You’re spending too much,” another says, “You’re not spending enough,” and another says, “We’re going to raise money, but you’re borrowing too much.” Let us try to work all that out. At the end of the day, we might surprise ourselves. Despite all the rhetoric, there can be common ground on a lot of stuff. The least we can do in Parliament—not the Government; leave them in Whitehall and No. 10 for now—is to figure out what the key problems are for the nation on whose behalf we are meant to parlay.
That is a different approach, but we also need to keep this Government to their promise of creating a House business committee to enable us to have the time to do those serious political activities, rather than have the same old dogfight. We as a Parliament could have a real impact on the main parties’ manifestos by creating an evidence base for policy, figuring out what works for that policy and making sure it is properly costed.
I hope that is a convincing argument for the need for clear planning and accurate budgeting and for involving the British people in our Parliament. We need to be confident that we are better than just doing what whoever runs the Government tells us to do or just opposing them from the Opposition Benches. We have gained a lot, but we can do even more. The Prime Minister committed to a review of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 in 2020. By then I hope we will have made progress, built on the Act and gone from strength to strength. I hope that will lead us to achieve two things that may just turn the tide and result in the electorate looking at us as something other than pariahs: better government and honest politics.
This is an important debate and I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) opened it. The subject needs to be aired by this House. I do not necessarily see the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 as the work of the forces of evil or, indeed, the Liberal Democrats. On the other hand, the alternative of the previous system is not necessarily a panacea.
In practical terms, if the coalition had fallen apart at some point, the Prime Minister would probably have come to the House and proposed a Dissolution, and I would have been extremely surprised if the Leader of the Opposition had not agreed with the proposition of having a general election to sort out the situation. The need for a two-thirds majority principally means that the Conservative party and the Labour party could conspire to have a Dissolution on a date on which they both agree. Essentially, it does not prevent a general election from taking place; it just means that there would have to be a degree of consultation between both major parties.
I do not think that fixed-term Parliaments are necessarily a good thing, for some of the reasons that have already been discussed. I think there comes a time—four years is probably long enough—when a Government ought to try to get a new mandate from the electorate. If we look back at history, we will see that at one point we had seven-year Parliaments and then the term was reduced to five years. We have always taken a pragmatic approach to general elections. We missed a general election in 1940, for the very understandable reason that we were doing other things at the time. That was quite reasonable and one must remember that that Parliament ran all the way to 1945.
Whenever the United Kingdom has had early general elections—I think we ought to focus on early general elections, rather than those that have taken place towards the end of a term after four, four and a half, or five years—it was usually because the electorate gave an indecisive result and, for the sake of good government, the political parties wanted the electorate to reconsider through another general election. At the end of the day, apart from holding the Government to account, Parliament is about ensuring that there is a Government, who have to deliver the health service, education and pensions. Of course, the 2010 Government had to manage the British economy, which has to be managed in a particular way. Those are very important issues.
Governments have gone early on two occasions in my lifetime. The Wilson Government of February 1974 went and got a small majority that October, and the 1964 Labour Government were re-elected in 1966, having initially got a very small majority.
Actually, the power to call a general election is a poisoned chalice for a Prime Minister: if they win it is great, but if they lose they generally get the chop because they made the wrong decision. Under the old system, Conservative campaign headquarters told its candidates that there were only so many Thursdays—which, by convention, we used—and only so many days of the year, because of summer days and autumn, on which we could have a general election. When it comes down to it, there are only four or five dates a Prime Minister can choose from. A Prime Minister has the seals of office from the Queen and the responsibility to discharge a Government programme. If someone has to decide, I would prefer it to be the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful speech. He has spoken of the poisoned chalice, but what about Margaret Thatcher in 1983 and 1987, and Tony Blair in 2001 and 2005? Is he suggesting that partisan considerations were not at play in the choice to go after four rather than five years in those four cases?
I am perfectly sure that, in normal politics, some incumbents have a slight advantage. Clearly, both Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair used it to the maximum. One election was delayed by foot and mouth, so events can intervene and cause a delay, if everyone agrees to it. At the time, there was consensus across the House that it would have been impossible to have a general election. I remember driving through Devon and seeing pyres of the carcases of animals being burned. That showed the British system being flexible to deal with something that emerged very quickly.
I thank my hon. Friend for his previous answer. He said the effective test of whether the Prime Minister’s decision to have an election was a good one was whether the Prime Minister got elected, and that the test was measured by the political party. In essence, such a decision is driven by the party interest, not the public interest.
There is an element of truth in that, but to go back to my earlier point, if a Prime Minister dissolves Parliament and loses, they usually end up losing the leadership of their party. Harold Wilson was unusual: he won three elections out of the four he contested, but survived after losing—by surprise—in 1970. He of course chose the date in 1970, but that was after a long period during which his party thought that it would win. In reality, most Prime Ministers go when they think they will win. Most of them hang on when they think they will lose, in the hope of something turning up, which it normally does not, and five-year Parliaments can be tortuous and difficult.
I believe we should go back to the previous system of having some flexibility in when general elections occur. In reality, they normally occur some time in the fourth and fifth year of a Parliament.
I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that a key priority of this Parliament has been to sort out the finances, but uncertainty creates greater instability in the financial markets. If we had to pay another 1%, it would cost us about £10 billion or more a year. Does he think that that is a reasonable price for the taxpayer to pay for giving back a power over general elections to the Prime Minister?
One thing on which I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, who introduced the debate in a very reasonable fashion, is that we may in future have more coalition Governments than some of us would like. If we look at the pattern of politics, we can clearly see that more people are willing to vote for a range of parties, which in itself brings challenges for the major political parties. It may well be that fixed-term Parliaments are used as a device when other coalitions are formed in future.
I hope that there will be a clear overall majority for the Conservative party when there is an election—or that there is a clear majority among the electorate—but if there is no such majority and, to return to my earlier point, someone has to run the economy, interest rates need to be maintained, restrictions on public expenditure are still needed and tough decisions have to be made, coalitions will sometimes be the best vehicle.
I have always taken a very pragmatic view of the British constitution. It has shown that it can be amended, changed and challenged by what is thrown at it. The remarkable thing about 2010 was that there was an indecisive general election but a strong Government were formed to deal with the very difficult issues we faced. Those issues will still need to be dealt with in the next Parliament.
I simply point out that it would be better to have flexibility in the system. At some stage, we will find ourselves in the situation where a general election is the solution to dealing with the problems. Given some of the current polls, with both major parties on percentage shares in the 30s, one possible result would be for each to have between 260 and 280 seats and for neither to be able to form a coalition with any other party, and that would lead us into grand coalition territory. We had that in February 1974, when the Conservatives conspired to allow the Labour party to govern until there was another general election. It would be unusual but not impossible to have a situation in which no Government could be sustained. In such a case, rather than having some absurd coalition with both major parties getting together but agreeing on nothing, it would be sensible for the electorate at some point to get the chance to decide which party or coalition of parties they wished to run the country.
The coalition has not done a bad job. It was necessary, and it has probably helped the British economy. Having fixed-term Parliaments was one part of the deal. That was perfectly respectable politics, because there was a need to reassure the junior partner in the coalition. However, being conservative constitutionally, I rather hope that we can go back to the previous system. If we do, it will be the decision of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), if he is the Prime Minister after the next election, to decide about the following election. If he then made the wrong decision, he would have to pay the consequences for that.
I support the proposal to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and his colleagues on raising the issue. It seems to me that we should have much shorter Parliaments. It is possible to have fixed terms, but there has to be a right or an ability to end a Parliament in circumstances such as war, economic crisis or disaster. We can therefore have a term that is fixed, but the period should be shorter.
The best evidence against five-year Parliaments—frankly, five years is too long—is the long, slow death rattle of this Parliament. If Members want to see a monument to the failure of five-year Parliaments, they should look at what is happening now. In effect, this Parliament and this Government did all they were going to do in their first three years. Most of that was wrong of course, but it was done during those first three years. Frankly, we are now just hanging on in this House with nothing particular to do. It reminds me of the old Bing Crosby song:
“We’re busy doing nothing,
Working the whole day through,
Trying to find lots of things not to do”.
The attendance at this extremely important constitutional debate shows that Members do not particularly want to be in the Chamber; they would rather be in their constituencies fighting an election campaign. That is what, at the end of this Parliament, we are really doing: if we are not fighting an election campaign, we are busy throwing custard pies at each other.
At this moment in this Parliament, the Government have got to the end of their tether. There has never been a better moment to use Oliver Cromwell’s words—they apply to all of us—when he dismissed the Long Parliament:
“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
But this agony now has to be prolonged, with the farce of pretending to do things when we are just electioneering and throwing trivia at each other, until the end of March, before there is a renewal in the election in May. This Parliament is conclusive proof that five years is too long.
The hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms) said that four years might be reasonable, but emphasised the need for continuity in economic policy. The usual claim for a five-year Parliament is that that gives the Government time to implement their policies, but this Parliament has given this Government time to change every policy that they started out with. We started out with “Hug a hoodie”, but that turned out to be cutting benefits for young people. We started out with “Hug a Husky” and “Save the environment”, but that ended up as “green crap.” We started out with “Support the European Union”, but we now use every possible occasion to provoke dissent and argument within the European Union. We started out with “Immigrants welcome”, but it is now, “Keep everybody out.” We started out with “We’re all in it together”, but that has ended up with putting the penalties and pains on the poor, while rewarding the rich.
Even continuity of economic policy, which is claimed to be the most sacrosanct element during this Parliament, has not been provided by a five-year term. The only continuity of economic policy to which this Government can lay claim—apart from cuts to everything, or slash and burn, which is the Government’s only long-term economic plan—has been produced not by them, but by the Bank of England. Frankly, the independent Bank of England has saved the Government. We now have a recovery, but if interest rates are kept flat to the floor, as they have been for the six years since the crisis, and if money is printed at a record rate—through quantitative easing, we have printed £375 billion—there is bound, at some stage, to be a recovery. That is not the Government’s long-term economic plan. Their plan was to cut and slash and burn everything and to roll back the state. The Bank of England’s management of the economy has produced the only successful long-term economic policy. Therefore, the argument for long-term economic policies also fails.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) is too hopeful about long parliamentary terms. He mentioned five-year and even 10-year Parliaments, which caused me to shudder in my seat. What is the best term for a Parliament? I do not want it to be thought that, now that I am leaving, I want to cut everybody else’s joy and pleasure by reducing the parliamentary term to three years, but I would like to do so. I have said that consistently. I proposed it when the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill was discussed in 2011.
The hon. Gentleman is making the case for shorter Parliaments. The question is who should make the decision. Should the term be fixed or should the Prime Minister be given back the power to make the decision purely on party interest, thereby costing everyone a lot of money?
There could be a combination of the two. That happens in Australia and New Zealand. In New Zealand, there is a fixed three-year term, but the Prime Minister can call an election earlier. The Executive has to have that right and power. Most Governments work out their three-year term and do not go earlier. Some go earlier to seize a particular moment or because of an emergency. We have to give the Government that power, otherwise we will have the situation that Germany found itself in when the Social Democratic party had to engineer its own defeat in Parliament before it could get an election.
In saying the Prime Minister, I meant the Government. It has to be a collective decision. It will effectively be a party decision, although in my experience most of the elections that have been called by the Labour party have not been party decisions, because I have not been consulted. I am not sure whether the Liberal Democrats are consulted on such matters.
I think that that would be difficult to arrange. It is a political decision that is taken by the Executive. In a democratic party, I would hope that the Executive would consult the party. That did not happen before the elections that were called by my party when we were in power, but I felt that it should have done. Jim Callaghan certainly should have consulted me, because if he had called an election in October 1978, we probably would have won. He tended not to listen to my advice, however loudly it was put. That was a failure of Back-Bench power.
I am in favour of a three-year term. At a pinch, I would accept a four-year term. It should be a fixed term, with the ability to call an early election in extreme or difficult circumstances. If we had that, we would not have to have all the silliness of the recall legislation that we were dealing with on Tuesday. I have never known a more stupid Bill than the Recall of MPs Bill. I was not given the opportunity to vote against it, because there was no vote. All parties are grovelling before the electorate by saying, “Let us sacrifice ourselves and throw MPs to the wolves.” There would be no need for recall if we had a three-year term, because by the time the machinery of recall had cranked into operation, the three years would be over and the electorate would be able to turn everybody out and make a new choice.
I am being moderate by calling for short, triennial Parliaments. I am old enough to have been a Chartist, I suppose, but I am not espousing annual Parliaments, as the Chartists did. A three-year Parliament accords with the mood of the public, as we read it in the major polls and surveys. There is an alienated mood. People want to be heard. They are angry and upset. They want to have an influence, but they feel that MPs are not listening and that Parliament does not represent them.
Will my hon. Friend just beware and look across the Atlantic, where there are two-year terms? The people in the Houses that are elected on that basis are permanently campaigning. On one level, that might be a good thing, but because it means that they are permanently having to raise money for their election, it might not be regarded as progressive.
I am arguing not for a two-year term, but for a three-year term. In any case, there is a big difference. Although my hon. Friend is right that members of the House of Representatives have to raise endless amounts of money to fight elections, that would not be necessary in our system because we provide free television adverts for the parties. The money that members of the House of Representatives raise mainly goes to the television networks to put on attack adverts about the other side. That would not be necessary here.
However, I am arguing not for a two-year term, but merely for a shorter term. That is in accord with the public mood, because the people want influence—they want a say. They feel that MPs are not listening and that we are in it for ourselves. They feel that decisions are being taken on immigration, economic matters and all sorts of things, over which they have no control. They want to be heard. The only effective way of ensuring that they are heard, that I know of, is to have more frequent elections. That is why I am in favour of a three-year term. We are too remote from the people if we have long, five-year terms.
If we had the fixed three-year terms for which I am arguing, it would be necessary to make two concomitant changes. First, we would have to limit the tenure of the Prime Minister. In recent experience, at the end of six or seven years, Prime Ministers are barmy, have delusions of grandeur or even competence, or are just brain-dead and exhausted. A seven-year limit on prime ministerial power would be a good idea.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North has much more faith in the two-party system than I have, because his argument presupposes strong government for a long period. I am worried that the days of one-party government are gone. We must not forget that in the ’40s and ’50s, 90% of people voted for one of the two parties that could form a Government; now, the proportion is only two thirds. The system is crumbling. The parties are losing membership and are hollowed out. They are controlled by small coteries and no longer represent the two great divisions in our society.
The main parties are weakening and we are developing a multi-party politics. However much we attack UKIP, it represents a point of view. Whatever we say about the Liberal Democrats—Tory Members have been scathing about the poor Liberal Democrats, who have left sulking, and about their participation in government—they represent a section of the community. We also have the Scottish nationalists and the Greens. Multi-party politics cannot work without proportional representation. The system has to be changed.
The change that introduced proportional representation in New Zealand has been very successful. It ensures that all legislation has the support of a majority of the parties in Parliament. That is desirable, because it means that the public are consulted and have a say, and through their parties they influence the legislation. [Interruption.] I am winding towards what I would hopefully call a peroration, so I would rather not give way at this moment. If we have a change of that nature for shorter Parliaments—and I think we need one—it must be accompanied by proportional representation so that we can work with the system, and so that the multiple views of society are represented in this place, rather than it being the scene for a conflict between just two parties.
I opposed the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill before it was enacted at every conceivable point during the procedure for simple reasons. First, I regarded it as fundamentally undemocratic, but I also believed that it will not stand the test of time. The reasons for that have been ably explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and others. My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) was a little more circumspect, but he indicated none the less that he is not very happy with the idea of fixed-term Parliaments. I stand by everything I said in 2010, and I believe that those of us who took a stand against the Bill before it was enacted, including in the House of Lords, have been proved right. The Act needs not only to be reviewed, as provided for in section 7, but it ought also to be repealed, and that is why I am speaking in this debate.
The Act was also conceived in very dodgy circumstances. It arose without pre-legislative scrutiny and there was no consultation whatsoever. It was not in our manifesto, but it has profound constitutional implications that I will try to touch on in a moment. It was designed to give succour and support to the coalition. Indeed, it is embedded in the whole concept of the coalition—in a moment I will explain some of the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) about that, and the bearing that it has not only on this debate but on the whole of this unfortunate episode and this unfortunate Act of Parliament.
I wrote to my right hon. Friend, the Prime Minister, on 10 May 2010, before the coalition was entered into. I urged him in the strongest possible terms not to enter into a formal coalition with the Liberal Democrats, although I explained that if there were to be an informal understanding—perhaps Supply maintenance or whatever —that would be another thing. Hon. Members have already mentioned this, but had we had a minority Government at that time, which I urged on my right hon. Friend, I think we would have won a general election quite soon afterwards, because nobody would have voted for the Labour party under any circumstances. We would have demonstrated that we had a good case by pursuing Conservative policies at that time, and that would, of course, have included not having a fixed-term Parliament.
In a letter in today’s Daily Telegraph I suggest that the time has come for the coalition on the basis that the Liberal Democrats are using their power of votes to frustrate the 304 Conservative Members of Parliament and their Prime Minister on a whole range of important matters of not only constitutional but also political significance. I understand that the referendum is still under discussion, but the Liberal Democrats have clearly indicated that they do not want one. The same applies to the question of boundary changes—the list is long. I do not mean to elaborate on those issues, but I have no faith in the coalition, and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is a vehicle by which it has been given a constitutional support mechanism that, in my judgment, is completely unjustified by subsequent events.
My hon. Friend says he is concerned about what the Liberals are doing in standing in the way of this Government and Parliament, and particularly of Conservative Members, but the Conservatives are also not allowed to agree with the Labour party on anything. The Government cannot introduce a Bill with the support of the Labour party because the Liberals may veto it.
That is an important point, and I endorse very much what my hon. Friend has said.
The arrangements in the Act are effectively a stitch-up, just as they were when we first considered the Bill back in 2010. I am glad to note that section 7 contains a requirement for the Prime Minister to hold a review, and only MPs can sit on the Committee that will review this Act. The fact that the Lords had to insist on that provision demonstrates that the Government would not have got the Bill through had they not made that arrangement. The whole thing is effectively in suspension anyway, and it is therefore a natural consequence of the limbo that this unfortunate and unacceptable enactment has put in place that the Act is up for repeal, subject to what is decided in 2020. I believe that it should be reviewed much sooner than that, and I am speaking in this debate because I very much endorse the proposals of my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and for South Dorset (Richard Drax).
On 24 November 2010 I said—and I stand by this:
“What does such innovation say about the coalition? It certainly demonstrates its determination to stack the cards firmly in favour of the coalition and the Whips.”
I said the Act was
“not modernising, but is a reactionary measure. It is not progress, but a step backwards, along the primrose path, undermining the constitutional principles that have governed our conventions and been tested over many centuries. The proposal has been conjured out of thin air, for the ruthless purpose of maintaining power irrespective of the consequences…we are supposed to be “Working together in the national interest—”
that was the theme of the moment—
“I fear that on this Bill, on this matter, we are working together against the national interest.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 318-9.]
What are the consequences of what we are now considering? The Fixed-term Parliaments Act is still in place and it should be repealed. Clearly it will not be repealed before the end of this fixed term, but I wish to dwell on a number of points that have been raised. I freely acknowledge that some of these arguments, which have not been given general circulation, were put forward by Lord Norton of Louth. I mentioned him in an intervention on the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I hope that his Committee asked Lord Norton for his views, with which I entirely agree, and I will encapsulate them.
Lord Norton makes the point that there are real problems with the 2011 Act, and that fixed-term Parliaments limit rather than enhance voter choice. That is the real problem. I tabled an amendment on the confidence motion and the 14 days—I do not need to go into that now because it was not accepted although the vote was quite close with only about 50 in it. I tabled an amendment to the arrangements that were being proposed at the time, and it certainly evoked an interesting and lively debate. My concern was that the whole parade that would take place within the 14 days, including the confidence motion and its arrangements, would be very much governed by powerful whipping to ensure that people fell into line with what the Government wanted. I was concerned that there would be a constant stream of people walking up and down Whitehall, just as we saw on television screens when the coalition was being put in place, and that the people who would make the final decision on the final wording about the holding of a confidence motion—including an affirmation after 14 days that the House had confidence in the Government—would not only be driven by the Whips, but would exclude the voters. Surely that is the real point. Why are we here? Who elects us? It is not our House of Parliament or our Government: it is the voters’. If things have gone completely awry and there is a case for an early election, as prescribed by the Act, the simple principle is that we should go back to the voters. We should not have a stitch-up within the Government, with the Whips making certain that people vote accordingly.
Fixed-term Parliaments limit rather than enhance voter choice. The outcome of one election cannot be undone until the end of the stipulated term. One Government could collapse and inter-party bargaining could produce another. In those circumstances, voters would be denied the opportunity to endorse what amounts to a new Government. That is a fatal position for us to have adopted. It is so undemocratic. Indeed, an unstable and ineffective Government may stagger on without achieving anything—we heard remarks to that effect from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell).
In 1991, the then Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Waddington put it thus:
“Is it better for a government unable to govern to go to the country to try to obtain a new mandate or for the same government to spend their time fixing up deals in which the unfortunate electorate has no say whatsoever? The people not the parties should decide who governs.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 May 1991; Vol. 529, c. 260.]
What wise words. In essence, fixed-term Parliaments rob the system of our hallowed flexibility and limit voter choice. That choice is limited by this Act.
Although the policy of the Liberal Democrats was for four-year Parliaments—I concede that—agreement was reached quickly in May 2010 for a five-year term, and the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), who has written about that period, indicated that the object of the Act was to allow time to implement plans before worrying about the timing of the electoral cycle. But five-year terms mean that the voters have fewer opportunities than before to go to the polls, and most post-war Parliaments have not gone their maximum length—now a five-year term is an absolute requirement.
Does my hon. Friend agree that by having a maximum length—which is not the norm, as most Parliaments lasted slightly under four years—the voters are denied the right to say what they think about policies and perhaps change their mind sooner rather than later?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes huge sense. These are simple questions. It is not an abstract, theoretical argument: it is about the simple question of whether, if the Government are ineffective or have gone badly wrong, they should be kept together with Sellotape because they satisfy the requirements to stay in a coalition—which is itself a stitch-up—under a provision in an Act of Parliament. As I wrote to the Prime Minister in my letter of 10 May 2010, that will work against the interests of voters and, effectively, the national interest.
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that he is making a strong argument for the direct election of the Government, just as we are directly elected? It would be terrible if he were to pay the price personally at the next election for the faults of the Government. The Executive should be for election so that members of the public have the right, which exists in most western democracies, of directly electing their Government rather than using him as a proxy.
I do not accept that proposition, but we do not have time to go through all the implications. I also completely repudiate his suggestion of a written constitution, and I suspect what the hon. Gentleman has just said has something to do with that.
The revelations by the right hon. Member for Yeovil about the coalition negotiations also implicitly accepted the argument that fixed-term Parliaments facilitate long election campaigns. That is where we are now. We are in an election campaign already, and questions arise about the amount of money that is being generated for financing purposes. That is a practical objection, the realities of which we are seeing as I speak. MPs are not expected to be very visible in Westminster during this Session, and I need only look at the Opposition Benches to see that only two Opposition Members are listening to this debate.
As was made clear in evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee, knowing well in advance when the next election will take place encourages Governments to manipulate the economic cycle to their maximum advantage. That is a not unknown characteristic of Chancellors of the Exchequer, and we will have the autumn statement soon. But that substantial question has to be addressed.
The Act was a consequence of the need to build trust between coalition partners, and that is clear from all the books that have been written about the stitching up of the coalition. There was no agreement by the Conservative party that I would regard as proper agreement. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said, we had a meeting at which we were told certain things about what was going on between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, and there was some doubt about that, if I may put it that way.
That is true. There was no consultation or any attempt to discuss the implications for the voters. The negotiators were not particularly well versed in constitutional arrangements and the Act did not do what its short title suggests. In fact, the Act provides for semi-fixed terms. It includes provisions that allow early elections in certain circumstances, so to call it a fixed-term Parliament is a misnomer. Certain procedures would allow an early election. It is just that the circumstances that would enable that early election would be stitched up—as was the original coalition. They would enable early elections, but to what extent would the voters be involved? That is essentially undemocratic, and it also gives false hope that voter choice may not be as limited as under strict fixed-term provisions.
An election can be triggered if a vote of no confidence is carried against the Government and, within 14 days, a new Government is unable to carry a vote of confidence, or if two thirds of all MPs vote for an early election. It can also be triggered if everyone agrees on the need for an early election, but that seems extremely improbable. It is difficult to imagine when the idea of two-thirds of all MPs voting for an early election could ever be employed. Parties are hardly likely to vote for an early election if the opinion polls are not propitious. A Government could seek an early election by engineering a vote of no confidence in themselves, but, for heaven’s sake, if that were to be the case—I have had that put forward as quite a serious proposal—it is hardly likely to promote the reputation of, and confidence in, the parliamentary system.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act says nothing about what happens where a Government implode and then resign but the provisions in the Act are not triggered. We would then be in what has been described as the Belgian situation—Parliament continuing without a Government being in existence. I believe profoundly that the Act is an aberration. I think it is wrong. I think it is undemocratic. I think it requires repeal. I am aware that there is provision for it potentially to be repealed in 2020 under section 7, but it should happen much sooner, and as soon as possible.
I realise I am craving the indulgence of the House. I would not normally seek to intervene in a debate when I was unable to attend the opening speeches. I understand, however, that the main protagonists have yet to speak, so I will use this brief opportunity to give my pennyworth in the hope that they may each be able to reply to one or two of the points I will make.
I have been listening to the debate, but I wonder if I could take the House back, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) did, to the beginning and to when the coalition was being formed. When it was formed, I remember it was announced that there were going to be some constitutional changes, including this one. We were told that we were ushering in a new era of the new politics that was going to transform the people’s perception of how we conduct ourselves in this place. It was going to show the parties re-engaging with the enthusiasm of the voters and that, as a consequence, this would be a much happier country. I remember having a conversation with a Minister on the stairs going up to the Committee Corridor. He said to me that politics, after five years of the coalition, would be unrecognisable—that is what he said. If we ask voters today what they think about how politics looks today compared with four years ago, I think they would say that it is all too recognisable.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone described—I understand he has had to leave the Chamber in a rush because he is attending to other duties in the House—has turned this place in upon itself even more than it was before. We are even less focused on what the voters think because we have given ourselves tenure. We have given ourselves security. We have given ourselves a fixed-term lease that cannot be challenged. And there is the idea that this was done as some selfless and noble act! I am amazed that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) —I am afraid he is not in his place at the moment—should keep raising the question of how the Prime Minister might exercise his power with regard to partisan considerations. Well, perish the thought that any Prime Minister would ever do anything with partisan considerations in mind! I look back at previous Prime Ministers and think to myself: did Gordon Brown ever act in a partisan manner? No, no, never! Did Sir John Major or Tony Blair ever act in a partisan manner? No, no! The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was obviously yet another selfless Act introduced by a Prime Minister, with no party considerations involved! I think we are being asked to stretch our imaginations a little too far.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act is one of the most partisan and self-interested Acts of Parliament that has ever been put on the statute book. It did not just provide MPs with tenure; it provided the coalition Government with tenure. It was providing the coalition with security; it was providing them with a five-year guaranteed supply of money from the taxpayer for their Administration. It was self-interested on the part of the Conservative Ministers who wanted to give themselves tenure. It was self-interested on the part of the Liberal Democrats to give themselves tenure not only in this coalition but in a future hung Parliament to guarantee that the only option would be another five-year coalition in which they, the smallest party, would once again have influence disproportionate to the number of votes they received. Even I missed the point about why the Labour party was so happy to give tenure to the coalition. The Labour party knew it was in a mess. It had a deeply unpopular ex-Prime Minister who had just been thrown out of office. It was going to have a long, protracted leadership election process. The last thing it wanted was another general election within six or 18 months. It was in no fit state to fight one, so of course it also supported the Act. This has created a politicians’ paradise. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone said, it is designed to shut the British people out of the decision about what kind of Government they should be able to choose.
I totally agree. The whole question of House of Lords reform was also being advanced for party political interests.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley asked who should have the power to dissolve Parliament. Should it be the Prime Minister? I put it to him that holding that power is part of the authority of being Prime Minister. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) described it, part of the poisoned chalice of office is that the Prime Minister holds that power. By passing the Act, we have robbed the Prime Minister of part of that authority. We have robbed the Government of part of the authority of office that the Government live on a day-to-day basis, subject to the confidence of the House of Commons. That has been taken away and represents a fundamental change in our constitution.
The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) wants not only a written constitution and the continuation of fixed-term Parliaments, but the separation of powers. Basically, he wants an American constitution rather than a British constitution, but let us look at the American constitution. First, it is paralysed. It cannot get its deficit down and it cannot elect a strong Government. It can elect a President, but the separation of powers means that Congress can defeat everything the President wants to do. I do not think that that is a very good recipe. We do not want to follow that. In any case, the separation of powers is based on a misapprehension of how constitutions work. There is, in fact, no such thing as a separation of powers in any constitution. That was what Montesquieu thought he understood about the British constitution. The need for a separation of powers was the lesson that the American founding fathers thought they had learned from him about the British constitution. However, in the American constitution the President, the Executive, vetoes legislation and appoints the judiciary, and the legislature conducts pre-appointment hearings on the senior people in the judiciary. There is always overlap between the functions of government, and ours is a system of parliamentary government in which the Executive can hold office only with the permission of Parliament.
The Act has fundamentally altered the balance of power in our constitution. English votes for English laws, which many of us, including Labour Members, want, would require only a minor adjustment to Standing Orders and the running of the House, yet people are saying, “Oh, we’ll have to have a constitutional convention.” The Act made a far greater change but without a constitutional convention or any consultation; there was absolutely no debate. It was not even explained to the Conservative parliamentary party before we agreed to the coalition. It only became apparent that there would be a Fixed-term Parliaments Bill when the coalition agreement was published. Well, we have all learned our lesson, and the Conservative party will not be forming a coalition in the next Parliament until we have seen the coalition agreement in draft, and we will want to go through it line by line to ensure that such sleights of hand are not repeated.
I hate to intrude on the private grief between the coalition partners, which this debate has become preoccupied with, but I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to paint me as just a champion of the American constitution. Unlike him, I believe that the British people are perfectly capable of organising their own constitution, and they do not need him, other colleagues or the Conservative party to tell them what the constitution should look like. I would like them to work it out for themselves, and I have faith that they are perfectly capable of doing so.
I am a little mystified by that intervention. If we are to make changes to our constitution, we need a mechanism by which to do it, and that will have to be done by elected representatives—it is called democracy; that is what we believe in—and so it will finish up here. If there was ever to be a codified constitution in this country, it would have to be debated and decided here, if perhaps subject to a referendum. I am mystified by the idea that in the estates, villages, towns and cities, the constitution is going to write itself, like some virtual programme on the internet. I don’t think so.
The Act is a fundamental and dangerous change to our constitution because it threatens the privileges of the House. I do not mean our special, personal privilege; I mean the protection of our freedom of speech from questioning by the courts. Under Article 9 of the Bill of Rights, what is said or done in Parliament cannot be questioned or impeached in any other place. However, the Act could result in the courts adjudicating on what kind of vote has taken place in Parliament, because it provides that the Speaker would have to write a certificate stating there had been a vote of no confidence or a two-thirds majority in favour of a Dissolution before the Prime Minister has the authority to go to the Queen and ask for one. It is possible that those votes could be disputed, and because it proceeds from an Act of Parliament, those disputes about who went through which Lobby and on what basis would end up being argued about in a court. This potentially runs a coach and horses through the very important question of parliamentary privilege.
Yes, I did. On Second Reading, those of us in the other Lobby were staggered at how few we were—this was in the glowy aftermath of the announcement of the new politics—and I said, “You might feel lonely today, but don’t worry. One day, this whole Parliament will rue the day it passed this Act.” It will either be got rid of or we will find ourselves in the midst of the most almighty and intractable political crisis where a majority wants to dissolve Parliament and have a general election but we cannot do so. That is the prospect held out by the Act.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone said, we still do not really know what the Act means. It stipulates fixed-term Parliaments, but then it makes provision for shortening Parliaments. We have no idea what uncertainty it will create. The Act, passed to create political certainty, could become a source of the very uncertainty, instability and crisis it was intended to avoid. In that case, I hope Parliament would have the sense to take a Bill through this place and the other place as quickly as possible to clear this off the statute book. I commend the other place for its attempt to respect the wishes of the coalition to fix the term of this Parliament but to include a sunset or renewable clause so that it would have to be renewed at the beginning of each Parliament. At least that would have put the choice in the hands of the new Parliament. As it is, if we have another hung Parliament, we could find ourselves in that crisis sooner than we thought but with no sunset clause to get us out of the crisis.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin): his was one of the many excellent speeches given in the past two hours.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and to my co-sponsor, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), for joining me. I am also grateful to those Opposition Members who sponsored the debate, although, sadly, neither of them could be here today. As a humble new Member, I say to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) that I have views too, and I feel that on this subject many of them are mirrored by those outside this place, although I entirely respect his views.
I believe that democracy is best when it is unleashed and untethered and it rampages around the country like some wild beast. If we chain it, as the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 does, we neuter democracy because we neuter debate. Interestingly, Lord Grocott is doing the same as we have done by bringing in a Bill to repeal the Act. He told me on the telephone yesterday that his views, and those of many Labour Members, mirrored ours on the Government Benches.
Fixed-term Parliaments tend to produce coalition Governments, rather than minority Governments. This being the first, we are in the experimental phase, but we had no pre-legislative scrutiny whatsoever and strong objections were voiced in the other place. I fear that next time we might have three, four or even five parties trying to form a coalition Government for a fixed term. How long would it take to form that Government, if indeed it ever was formed? We have heard today that the electoral period has been extended from 17 to 25 days. If a coalition is formed, and if we mirror what happened in 2010, we will be looking at a period of two months without a Government.
I add one further possibility. What if either coalition party leader is challenged, which is possible? The parties will have to choose a new leader and the Government discontinue in the meantime—in effect, we do not have a Government. Yet here we are saying that Parliament is important.
In forming a coalition as a consequence of a fixed term, principles are sold. Our Conservative principles or those of the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats are sold in the name of compromise, which is necessary for a coalition to be formed. As I said in a speech on Tuesday, this is why I believe this place has been so devalued. No longer do we have clear blue or red water—I will not use the other colour, which I pointed on Tuesday would be rather inappropriate—so the electorate are not so sure what each party stands for. This is where the weakness in the current coalition system lies and it is where I think a fixed-term Parliament would lead us to. I do not necessarily want to pick holes in the Liberal Democrats, which would be ungracious of me.
I refer to the quote of Lord Waddington, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash):
“Is it better for a government unable to govern to go to the country to try to obtain a new mandate or for the same government to spend their time fixing up deals in which the unfortunate electorate”—
the voters out there—
has no say whatsoever?...The people not the parties should decide who governs”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 May 1991; Vol. 529, c. 260.]
I hope that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.
I am trying to understand the logic of the argument, in which the electorate decides that no party should have overall control. If there were a second election within a few weeks, as my hon. Friend suggests, and that one produced a very similar result, would he continue to hold general elections until one party had an overall majority. What is the logic of his argument?
That is not the argument I am putting forward. There would be a period of a year or 18 months of a minority Government before that Government would go back to the country.
A fixed-term Parliament gives the junior partner in a coalition more power than it is due. If we had a Conservative Government, much more legislation would be going through Parliament. The junior party, to be fair, has its own views and principles, and it will force compromise on the senior party, potentially leading to lame-duck Governments. I believe that we have reached that point to some extent now, as other hon. Members have argued. A Government naturally run out of steam; they cannot do what they want to do, because the two parties can no longer agree.
Why, then, after the election in 2010 did we not have a gentleman’s agreement? In 2010 my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) said:
“The Prime Minister is giving up his constitutional right to request a Dissolution, and I can understand that that is very important—a matter of honour between himself and the Deputy Prime Minister. It means that the Prime Minister cannot pull the rug from under the coalition, but why do we need legislation or, indeed, a motion to achieve that? Surely the Prime Minister's word is sufficient.”—[Official Report, 25 May 2010; Vol. 510, c. 141.]
Would that not have been a wiser path to choose, with the two parties making a gentleman’s agreement? We see from the history of coalitions that they never last more than two or three years, because of the very nature of coalitions. At some point, two, three or four years in, the two parties could have agreed to disagree, and the Prime Minister would have gone to the country.
I believe that a fixed-term Parliament with a coalition Government as a consequence leads to a complacent Opposition—one of the most dangerous aspects of all. What have we heard from the Opposition about their policies, what they are going to do to sort out the economy and their approach to all the major issues and problems our country faces? They are happy, rightly, to sit on the sidelines and snipe at a fixed-term Parliament. They maintain a poll lead of 1% or 2%, so why should they stand up and say, “This is what we are going to do to sort out the deficit”? It leads, as I say, to a complacent Opposition, who can wait until the very last minute because they know the election date.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex said, it is the Prime Minister’s right to call a general election when he or she chooses. This must keep Parliament, the voters and all of us on our toes, and it keeps the Opposition on their toes. The Opposition do not know what is coming, although they can make a guess. They have to tell the British people what they stand for and what their policies are, perhaps two or three years into a Parliament. If, for example, the polls indicate that the Conservative party is well ahead, the Opposition have to tell the British public what they would do in the event of an election. If the Prime Minister and the Government are doing well and are ahead in the polls, why cannot they go to the people? The people are saying, “We are pleased with what you are doing; we like what you are doing; you are doing what you said you would do.” If we then went to the country and won, the people would be pleased; they have had a choice, without having to wait for five long years. Otherwise, a Government who are not achieving what the electorate want can remain in power, which is surely not in the electorate’s interests.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s generosity in giving way, but I am afraid that the logic of his argument escapes me again. If a party is very unpopular in power, that is precisely when it will not call a general election. Equally, it could be said that if a party were popular, perhaps by accident and not so much because of its policies as because of the vagaries of the economic climate, it might try to take advantage of that situation—quite inappropriately.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex so wisely said, perish the thought that parties are partisan or non-partisan in these events. Of course they are. If the economic climate warrants the Prime Minister going to the country in the belief that he or she will win, I find that perfectly pertinent. I see no problem with that whatever. As I said, it keeps everybody on their toes.
This tinkering with the constitution, which is what we did, was not thought through and not much debated. The electorate certainly did not have a choice on fixed-term Parliaments. I believe that we tinker with the constitution at our peril. I admit that I voted for the measure at the time, but I was green and naive in those days, and I would not vote for it now. We are, as a consequence of this Act, stuck in a situation that does not satisfy Parliament or the parties and certainly not the electorate.
Over the last two or three days of debate, we have heard many Members saying how awful they think the public think we all are. I disagree. My view is that we should stop self-flagellating and get on with our jobs. We should stand up for what we believe in and tell the country exactly where we stand on issues. Sadly, in a coalition partnership, it is difficult to do that.
Finally, I would have liked the Fixed-term Parliaments Act to contain a sunset clause, but sadly it did not. As Members have said, it is to be reviewed in 2020. When the Minister makes his winding-up speech, I would be grateful if informed us where exactly the Government stand on this issue. I am sure that the shadow Minister will do exactly the same.
With respect to the question of whether people outside know what we are doing, does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that they are now much more in a fog than they were because of the identity of the Conservative party being lost in this amorphous coalition—
I always enjoy interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone. I could not agree with him more. It is far thicker than a fog. Unfortunately the electorate cannot see what we are doing at all and they feel disfranchised. We are stuck in this place pontificating about things that we can do nothing about, whereas a single Government, Labour or Conservative, could. I do not believe in some mythical, old-fashioned system whereby we all popped off to go shooting pheasants or hunting, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North rather cynically suggested. Dare I say that perhaps one or two of us pop off to go shooting or hunting, but that is neither here nor there and has nothing to do with the constitution of our country. That is the point.
We have tinkered with the constitution at our peril. I feared when I voted for the Act that if we did it, the Opposition might do something similar or even worse. I know that the hon. Member for Nottingham North did not mean a 10-year tenure but it certainly sent shudders through my spine. Ten years of Labour would be a reason for leaving the country, in my view. No, I speak in jest. I know that the hon. Gentleman did not mean that. [Interruption.] I would have to turn the lights out.
I would be interested to hear whether the Government have any intention of repealing the Act. We will be calling for a vote and we very much hope that the Government will back us and that Labour will support us. For the sake of democracy, it is important that it does. Many Labour Members in this House and in the other place, despite their laughter now, want this Act to be repealed.
When we secured this debate I emailed about 50 Opposition Members seeking their views on the issue and asking whether they would participate. I had one reply: “You’ve had five years. We want it too.” This is precisely what I feared would happen. This is not democracy. This is a massive fix. For the sake of the electorate and this place, it must be solved with the repeal of the Act.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and the other Members on both sides of the House on securing the debate. It is a debate of great constitutional significance, as we have heard. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 repealed an important and long-standing aspect of the royal prerogative which allowed Prime Ministers to dissolve Parliament when they saw fit. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). I found myself in agreement with pretty much everything he said this afternoon and I will do my best not to repeat it.
The hon. Gentleman has just referred to the repeal of the prerogative. Does he believe that if the Act were repealed, either under the motion or in 2020 under the provisions of section 7, that the prerogative would revive? I imagine that he has had a chance to look at that issue.
I will return to that issue, which relates directly to a point that the hon. Gentleman made. He referred to the review, and I welcome the fact that there will be a review, but I am certainly not persuaded by anything that I have heard today that it would make sense to do what the motion says and repeal the Act. I would like to set out the reasons why.
The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) suggested that Labour had supported a fixed-term Parliament because of our predicament following the general election in 2010. The problem with that argument is that it was in our manifesto prior to the 2010 general election. Labour was committed to a fixed-term Parliament. Our view was to have a four-year fixed-term Parliament, and we were persuaded by our review of policy in preparing our manifesto of the democratic case for having a four-year fixed-term Parliament.
The problem the hon. Gentleman has is that I was told by a member of his party’s Front-Bench team that they were delighted that we were putting the Act through, because it meant that Labour would not face an early election for which it was completely unprepared.
Absolutely. I wonder whether the motion should have been worded, “That this House supports the repeal of the coalition agreement”, because most of the speeches from Conservative Members seem to be more about rehearsing debates about the coalition than the issue before us.
Fundamentally, this debate is about the power of the Executive in Parliament. I believe that the Act enhances the role of the House by removing the ability to dissolve Parliament whenever a Prime Minister saw fit. That seems to be the absolutely central argument in favour of a fixed-term Parliament. The hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) talked about voter choice, but the system prior to fixed-term Parliaments did not give voters more choice; it gave choice to the Prime Minister and the leader of the party in government. That is not a democratic argument at all. In a modern democracy we should not accept that form of unaccountable power. The Act imposes constraints that give more power to this House versus the Executive.
It is the pressure exerted at the point we reach a confidence motion that demonstrates what is going on outside as well as inside. Had there been a similar situation over, for example, the Maastricht treaty, I have no doubt that there would have been a resurgence of voter opinion at that time. I think it is democratic, not the other way round.
The hon. Gentleman is making a case for transferring the prerogative power to this House. What is the basis of the argument in favour of a two thirds majority requiring a Dissolution? Surely that is taking power away from the House and giving the Executive tenure?
I do not accept that. However, if the motion were to say that we should review that aspect of the Act, it would have a stronger basis. The motion says that we should repeal the entire Act. I have not heard an argument that persuades me that we should do so.
I am very grateful. If the hon. Gentleman accepts that the two thirds majority could be reviewed, is he not accepting that the Act does not work? As soon as it is a normal majority, the Government of the day have the ability to call an election whenever they want.
I simply do not accept that, because there is still the provision within the Act for confidence motions on the basis of a simple majority. We are only at the tail-end of the first Parliament in which the Act operates. It makes sense to say, “Let this run its course for this Parliament and the next and then have a review.” That is a sensible way of making constitutional reform.
No, I am not going to give way again.
The previous position gave the Prime Minister and the party of the Prime Minister an enormous advantage. Opportunistically timed elections allow Governments to ask voters to assess their performance at the time most favourable for that party. Research shows very clearly that British Prime Ministers from both main parties have made extensive use of this power, to time elections for reasons of partisan advantage. Just under 60% of our post-war elections in this country have been called early by the Prime Minister of the day.
It is inevitable under that previous system that partisan advantage played a part in prime ministerial decisions about when to call an election. When a Government party has been confident of its re-election, the Prime Minister would usually go to the country after four years, rather than five. As I said in an intervention, Margaret Thatcher did so successfully in 1983 and 1987 and Tony Blair did the same in 2001 and 2005. Of course it does not always work, as was pointed out. Harold Wilson went to the country in 1970 expecting he would make use of his lead in the opinion polls and be re-elected, and he was not. Nevertheless, his intention was to go early because he thought he would win.
Parties that are less confident of their electoral position have tended to continue into their fifth year, leaving their reckoning with the electorate until the latest possible date. We saw that happen in 1997 and in 2010. It cannot be right that the governing body, of whatever party, has this massive in-built advantage.
Research from Oxford university suggests that strategically timed elections have allowed governing parties to achieve a bonus in elections over the past 70 years of about 6% in public support. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act creates a more equitable electoral playing field among the parties of Government and those of Opposition, which can only be healthy for our democracy.
It is now nearly 40 years since Lord Hailsham warned of the dangers of an “elected dictatorship”, with powers increasingly centralised with the Executive. Fixed-term Parliaments are one—only one—of the ways we can counteract that, by taking away the Prime Minister’s greatest chip: the ability to threaten a recalcitrant minority coalition partner, their own Back Benchers, or troublesome Opposition parties with the Dissolution of Parliament. That can be done at the behest not even of the party of Government, but of the leader of that party, the Prime Minister.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North that in the longer term there is the possibility— I do not put it any higher than that, as I am a realist—that fixed-term Parliaments can help contribute to a different style of politics. A greater responsibility of the Executive to Parliament demands a more pluralist style of governance. Some, like the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), clearly do not like the idea of pluralism. The idea that not all the knowledge and wisdom lies in his own party is clearly alien to him, but I think there are many in the British public who actually quite like the idea that people can sit down together and work together in the national interest. People get very frustrated with politics when we fall into petty tribal battles, and prefer grown-up debate about the issues.
No, as I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already.
More often in this place, we can work together to try to find more common ground. Fixed-term Parliaments will make that more likely.
There is a legitimate debate to be had on the right length of a fixed-term Parliament. As my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) reminded us, in the 19th century the Chartists wanted annual elections and Parliaments; it was the one Chartist demand that was never implemented. Our manifesto in 2010 committed to four years, and, as my hon. Friend said, the length of time in New Zealand is three years. However, I think there is a good case—my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North made this case very powerfully—that a term of five years can have a stabilising effect on our politics, ensuring that Governments can make some important strategic and long-term decisions in the national interest, so I think it is right that we allow the five-year fixed-term Parliament to bed in. We can review it after two Parliaments, as the legislation allows, but it is far too early for us to consider repeal of the legislation.
Absolutely. We supported fixed-term Parliaments in our manifesto in 2010, and our policy remains one of support for fixed-term Parliaments. We are not committed to the repeal of this legislation, which is why I am speaking against this motion, and why I will vote against it if there is a Division.
Yes, let us have the review that is promised. It makes sense to have that review, but I have heard nothing today that persuades me that there is a case to repeal what is actually a very important and long overdue piece of legislation that rebalances our constitution and takes power away from the Prime Minister of the day and gives it to this House. That is a positive reform and I urge the Minister to stick with it.
We have had some great contributions from both sides of the House. There were seven Back-Bench speeches, from my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms), the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), and my hon. Friends the Members for Stone (Sir William Cash), for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and for South Dorset (Richard Drax). They all made some thoughtful and insightful points about the Act. The arguments put forward can be summed up as follows: the Act is an aberration, it is a political stitch-up and it strengthens the Executive over Parliament and the public, and that it therefore should, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, be reviewed and repealed. I will address each of those points in turn.
First, on the issue of review, which my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset explicitly asked about, it will be for the next Government, whether of a single party or of coalition parties, to evaluate how the Act has operated in this Parliament, and what, if any, lessons can be learned, and how they can make best use of their own fixed term. Not only will such an appraisal assist the next Government in their planning, but it can help to inform any amendment that might be needed to the Act.
I turn to the case that was made for repealing the Act. There has not been consensus about whether the argument is about having a shorter fixed-term Parliament or not having any fixed term at all. It is interesting to note that the right length of a Parliament has been debated in this House over centuries, which should come as no surprise in our 800-year-old democracy. It is striking how, at different points in our history, the case for shorter, and indeed longer, Parliaments has been made. In the 17th century—in 1641 and again in 1694—we had Triennial Acts requiring Parliament to be called every three years; I am sure the hon. Member for Great Grimsby would agree with that. From 1716 we had the Septennial Act, setting the maximum duration of a Parliament at seven years. That was amended in 1911, to set the maximum at five years, and finally repealed in its entirety only in 2011.
In my hon. Friend’s historical survey, has he noticed that the reason why the Triennial and Septennial Acts were passed was to suit the convenience of the Government of the time? In the case of the Septennial Act, it was also to do with the Jacobites and the rest of it, but it has always been for the convenience of the Government. That is the purpose of such Acts; there is no great constitutional principle.
I thank my hon. Friend for his point. There were, of course, many other times when Parliament has considered whether we have the right balance for our time. During the era of the American revolutionary war, a Bill for annual Parliaments was moved year after year by a small but committed core of Back-Bench supporters. In response to my hon. Friend, I would say that our debate today continues the fine tradition of probing our constitutional arrangements, and, yes, it is right to continue to probe and to ask the right questions, but he and his colleagues’ concern about the fixed nature of this Parliament is not new in our democracy.
I have a mild disagreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). I think it is worth recalling that the Septennial Act was introduced because of the cost of elections, particularly the cost of bribing the electors, and it was thought better to have it once every seven years than once every three, to lower the cost to the pockets of Members of Parliament.
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention. Parliament has had this debate several times, and there have been several reasons to alter the length of a Parliament. Sometimes it has been done in the national interest, and sometimes—some would argue—for naked political reasons. The situation that we face today is certainly not an aberration in the history of our democracy.
The genesis of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 raises a number of questions, many of which have been mentioned today, especially by Members on my side of the House. The Act had its genesis in the coalition, which was an historical anomaly. It is therefore important to separate the concept of a fixed-term Parliament and the value that it could have for the British public from the concept of the coalition, although both came together. A single party could have passed the Act if it had had a majority in this Parliament to do so. By the same logic, a single party could repeal it on a simple majority if it so wished. Fixed-term Parliaments are not inextricably bound to the idea of a coalition.
Four years down the line, it is easy for us to forget that when the coalition was formed, words such as “secure and stable government in the national interest” seemed like the punch line to a joke, but this fixed-term Parliament has been able to deliver exactly that for this country. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset said that democracy should be a wild beast that could rampage around the country. I would hazard a guess that this Parliament has been anything but predictable. It has been unpredictable at every twist and turn. The fact that it has been a fixed-term Parliament has not neutered our democracy; indeed, it could be argued that it has invigorated it in a number of respects.
I was incredibly nervous when our country was on the brink of financial and economic collapse after 13 years of a Labour Government, and we needed to take the necessary action to get the country back on track.
Having listened to the arguments today, I believe that the Government remain unconvinced of the need to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It is too early to assess the full benefits of having a fixed election timetable, but it is clear that there are advantages to a system that is transparent, consistent and fair. This Government came to power at a time when faith in our political system was at an all-time low. Political and constitutional change has been part of tackling that. It cannot be right for key decisions about our democratic process—perhaps the key decision: the timing of an election—to be decided by the Executive on the basis of political advantage.
Many have argued that the Act somehow strengthens the Prime Minister. I argue that it weakens the Prime Minister’s position, because he cannot decide the timing of an election by his own fiat. It was Roy Jenkins who said that a Prime Minister who lost an election had, ipso facto, called that election at the wrong time. By fixing the date of the general election, we have significantly weakened the Prime Minister and given strength to Parliament and the public.
There are many good ideas that were not in our manifesto; it is important that we, as politicians, are able to adapt and to reflect the times.
It is not the case that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was introduced simply to maintain the coalition. The previous system, whereby prerogative power was exercised over a democratic process for political advantage, served the wrong interests. Imagine Gordon Brown sitting in Downing street in 2007 chewing his fingernails and trying to decide whether that was the right time to call an election so that he could have another five years in government.
I meant to say “the right hon. Gentleman”. I stand corrected.
By setting out the general election timetable in legislation, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act removes a Prime Minister’s power to call a general election. Removing that power from the Executive and giving it to Parliament enhances the transparency of our democratic system and represents a significant surrender of political power. Fixed-term Parliaments also provide a number of practical benefits to both Parliament and the Government. They provide greater certainty and continuity and enhance long-term legislative and financial planning, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North said. They also afford greater political stability by giving future Governments foreseeable terms.
Some of the arguments that we have heard against fixed-term Parliaments are that they are inflexible, that they were conceived in a hurry and that the consequences were not fully thought through. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone. It is also argued that fixed terms prevent a Government from ending and Parliament from dissolving when they reach their natural end, when it would be most beneficial for a new Government to take the reins. But as I have said, there are benefits to stability, certainty and transparency, and to those inside and outside Government being able to plan.
The question of flexibility has been raised in the context of the Scottish referendum and the need to change the timing of the next general election. Under the Act, the Prime Minister of the day is able to lay an order before both Houses to extend the date of a general election by a maximum of two months to deal with unexpected developments, although they must spell out their reasons for taking that step. The Act also provides for early elections to be called if a motion is agreed by at least two thirds of the House or without Division, or if a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative Government are confirmed by the House of Commons within 14 days. I do not believe that that limits voter choice.
Prior to the Act, a party could change its leader midway through a Parliament and that new leader would become Prime Minister. In that situation, the new Prime Minister would be under no obligation to call a general election for five years. Under the terms of the Act, however, the leader could still go to the country, although a vote in the House in favour of so doing would require a two-thirds majority. It is unlikely that the Opposition would withhold their support, for reasons of political consensus.
The Minister is making a thoughtful and cogent speech. Now that we have a fixed-term Parliament and we know the date of the next general election, does he accept that that knowledge is the property of the British people? Does he agree that, if any incoming Government sought to repeal the Act and give powers to a Prime Minister who had not been directly elected by the people, that would create a real crisis of legitimacy and be seen as a power grab by the party that had won the election?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the convention in this country is that a Parliament cannot bind future Parliaments. If a future Parliament wanted to repeal this Act, made the case and had the votes in this House, it could repeal the Act. The more substantive point, which has been made a number of times, is that in a five-year Parliament the fifth year is wasted. The truth is that be it a five-year, four-year or three-year Parliament, it is always possible to make the case that the last year is spent electioneering, so that point does not necessarily follow from having five-year fixed-term Parliaments.
The final point I wish to deal with is the idea that the Government have run out of steam. In the Queen’s Speech, we announced a full legislative programme; there were 16 main programme Bills, including five carry-over Bills and three draft Bills. That compares with 13 main programme Bills, including three carry-over Bills and two draft Bills, in the last Session of the previous Parliament. Our programme includes legislation dealing with serious crime, trafficking and modern slavery, improving access to finance for small business and pensions.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby invoked Oliver Cromwell and his words to the Long Parliament:
“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing.”
I would say that the Labour Government were here too long for any good they could do and, be it on the economy, welfare, health or education, this five-year Parliament is doing a lot to get our country back on track.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that point, which comes as no surprise to me. He would agree that when we got into government we had to fix an almighty mess and rectify a big mistake—the last Labour Government—hence the legislation that we have had to pass in this Parliament.
I am very grateful to everyone who has taken part in this thoughtful debate. I am grateful to the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, who seemed to be arguing for a vigorous Parliament—we all agree with that. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) for quoting Oliver Cromwell. At least this Parliament is not going to run for 20 years like the Rump Parliament did—we are at least agreed on that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) for saying that we believe in a rampant and vigorous democracy. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr Syms) and for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) for the points they made about putting these matters to the people. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the Opposition spokesman, for reminding us that a fixed-term Parliament would ensure that we would have a five-year Labour Government if they get an overall majority.
Finally, I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that he has made a wonderful job of defending fixed-term Parliaments, but what a pity we did not argue this before the general election. We all know that this was a short-term stitch-up, and there should be a proper debate. We have started to have that, and sooner or later I hope we will make the point that it is the people who should decide when is the right time to have a general election, when a Government are weak and running out of steam. General elections should not be set at an arbitrary date, and so we will not be withdrawing our motion.