My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, has consented to place her prerogative, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of this Bill. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill delivers a key strand of the ambitious political and constitutional reform agenda which this Government have pledged to deliver. The importance of these issues of political reform was reflected in the prominence given to them in the campaigning of all the major political parties at last year’s general election. There is now a consensus across the country—dare I say brought to a head by the expenses scandal but which had been forming for some time—that the political system in this country needs to be reinvigorated.
It has been my experience over many years in active politics that the overwhelming majority of people who come into politics—of all parties, and indeed in this House of the Cross Benches—do so out of motivation for public service. Nevertheless, sadly, politics has increasingly come to be perceived to have become more about protecting vested interests than about political representation of the electorate.
Let us not forget the backdrop to many previous general elections under the current arrangements when it was often widely anticipated that the election would be held at some stage during the third or fourth year of Parliament and the country was left on tenterhooks. On those occasions, the question was when the most advantageous date to call an election would be. From our own memories, I am sure we can think of Conservative or Labour Prime Ministers who made that calculation. Regrettably for my part, no Liberal Prime Minister in living memory has been in a position to make that calculation. However, the question is: advantageous to whom?
The question that the Prime Minister of the day considers then is not necessarily whether that date would be most advantageous to the country or the electorate; it is, more often than not, whether that date would be most advantageous to the incumbent party of government seeking re-election. This is an example of what people have grown tired of: a political system geared in favour of the Executive and used for partisan advantage. Fixed-term Parliaments will provide stability as it will be known from the beginning of the Parliament how long it can be expected to last. We already have fixed-terms for the devolved institutions, local government and the European Parliament.
We are not saying in the Bill that all Parliaments must last for five years no matter what happens, but there must be a significant and pressing reason for early Dissolution, and it is right that the other place, whose support is essential for the continuation of any Government, should be able decide when that should occur. This should not be a decision for the Government to take for themselves. That is why the Bill provides that Parliament should ordinarily last five years. It transfers from the Prime Minister to the House of Commons the power to bring about an early general election.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and members of the Constitution Committee of this House for the careful scrutiny that they have given the Bill. As a former member of that committee, I know the important role that it plays and I believe that its report will aid our debates during the Bill’s passage through your Lordships’ House.
I acknowledge that most of those on the committee decided that the case had not been conclusively established for fixed-terms. However, let us not forget that this debate has been going on for some considerable time. As I noted, fixed-terms already exist for our devolved institutions, local authorities and the European Parliament. Moreover, there were commitments in the 2010 manifestos of the Labour Party and my own party, the Liberal Democrats, to establish fixed-terms for the UK.
I was pleased to note the committee’s endorsement of significant elements of the Government’s proposals, particularly the two mechanisms in Clause 2 that provide for an early general election to be held. It seems to me that the committee has said that, if the principle of fixed-terms were accepted—I have acknowledged that that is not what it said—this Bill sets out very much the way in which one would seek to achieve that principle. The Government have responded to the committee’s report in a Command Paper, copies of which are available in the Printed Paper Office.
The Bill is modest in size. It has only five clauses and one schedule, but we can be in no doubt that its effect would be significant. Clause 1 relates to polling days for parliamentary general elections. It sets out that the polling day for the next parliamentary general election will be 7 May 2015. Each subsequent parliamentary general election will be expected to occur on the first Thursday in May every five years.
As I said earlier, we of course recognise that there may be exceptional circumstances in which it would not be appropriate for Parliament to continue to run for its full fixed-term—I will come to the arrangements for those shortly. When such an early election is called, however, Clause 1(4) clarifies that Parliament will run for five years from the preceding first Thursday in May. This provision has been endorsed by the Constitution Committee and will provide that a Government elected at an early general election will have a full term, allowing them to deliver a full legislative programme.
Is the Minister now able to answer a question that he was not able to answer at the informal meeting yesterday? Why was the month of May chosen when more general elections have taken place in October in the past? Local elections are normally in May and general elections in October.
I think the last October general election was in 1974, which was some 36 years ago. I have no doubt that the noble Lord remembers it well. However, it is difficult to say that they have generally been held in October when the last one held in October was over a third of a century ago. In more recent times, elections have been held in May. In 2001, it would have been held in May but for the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. It was held in June. This present Parliament was elected in May, and the natural course would be to go through to May 2015 if it was to have its full five years. That is why May was proposed in this Bill.
Clause 1 includes a power for the Prime Minister, by affirmative order, to vary the date of the polling day by up to two months either before or after the scheduled polling day. This power is intended to accommodate short-term crises or other conditions that might make it inappropriate to hold the election on the scheduled date: for example, a repeat of the foot and mouth crisis, which led to the postponement of the local elections in 2001. Although the general election was within the five years and nothing was needed to change the date, that is the kind of circumstance that is anticipated.
This is where your Lordships’ House will have an important role to play in the procedures set out in the Bill. Any instrument made under the Bill to vary the date of a scheduled election by up to two months will require the agreement of your Lordships’ House, thus affirming this House’s role as guardian of that particular principle of the constitution. It reflects an existing provision of the Parliament Acts: that your Lordships’ consent is required for any Bill that extends the maximum life of a Parliament beyond five years.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the members of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee for its report on this Bill. I was glad to see that the committee felt that the delegated power taken in Clause 1 of the Bill was justified. I can assure the noble Baroness, her committee and indeed the House that we will give careful consideration to the report and its recommendations and I will respond very shortly.
There has been much debate over whether the length of Parliaments should be four years or five. It is not an exact science; it is a question of judgment. However, all arguments considered, the Government remain of the strong view that five years—the current maximum set out by the Parliament Act 1911 and more recently the norm—is the right length for a Parliament. Three of the last five Parliaments have lasted almost five years, and 44 countries out of 77 in the Inter-Parliamentary Union have five-year terms for their lower house, with only 26 having four-year terms. Indeed, there are five-year fixed parliamentary terms in Italy, South Africa, France and Luxembourg, and there is a five-year non-fixed term in Ireland and India.
My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has spoken about the need for Governments to work for the long-term advantage of the country rather than simply to pursue policies for the short term. Not only will the five-year fixed-term help facilitate better planning within government, but it can help facilitate better scrutiny of the Government by Parliament. With a fixed term, Parliament will be able to plan better their scrutiny of the Government’s legislative programme, and Select Committees will have more certainty when planning their inquiries. Indeed, this point was recognised by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place.
Noble Lords might well argue that the recent experience of five-year Parliaments is that the Government are unpopular and have had limited ability to make use of the extra fifth year. However, I contend that that occurs in the current political framework and would not be a foretaste of what would happen under this Bill. The five-year Parliaments of recent years have been a somewhat self-selecting sample; they existed only because the Government in question did not believe they could win an election at the end of four years and were possibly waiting for something to turn up. Of course, in these circumstances, the Government tend to be tired and lacking in ideas. However, under this Bill, it will be possible for a Government to plan properly for a full five-year term.
There will be more certainty with fixed terms, and, with our proposed change to begin the Sessions of Parliament in May, the last Session would be a full one. As long as the Government retained the confidence of the other place, they would be able to deliver a full programme in their fifth Session. We would not have a situation in which the fifth Session began perhaps in the last week in November and by the last week in March we were engaged in a wash-up process. The Government can plan for the longer term, knowing that they will have time not only to introduce measures but to see them to fruition and begin to produce results.
I anticipate, too, that it might be argued that this Bill is part of some plot to reduce Parliament’s power over the Executive by extending the period between elections. However, we are not extending the potential period between elections. That remains, as it is now, five years. However, the certainty of five years means that not only the Government but Parliament can plan properly. It can plan its scrutiny programme and Select Committees can plan their inquiries. It will lead to more and better scrutiny, not less.
I turn to the interaction of the proposals in the Bill and the timetable for elections to the devolved institutions: an issue that has led to some considerable discussion and debate, not to say controversy. Under the proposals in this Bill and the respective devolution Acts, elections to the House of Commons and the devolved institutions will coincide every 20 years. Concern has been expressed about that. I ask your Lordships to recognise that this Bill has not brought about the possibility that the elections to the House of Commons and the devolved institutions coincide. It was inevitable at some point under the existing variable arrangements for Parliament that that could happen. The Bill has merely given us prior notification and an opportunity to consider the issue.
On the interplay and the coinciding every twentieth year, which might be at the end of the first cycle in this instance, is it not desirable that there should not be such clashing, that the elections to the Scottish Parliament and to the National Assembly for Wales should be in their own right, thereby ensuring that the electorate are aware of what they are addressing, particularly where manifestos of parties in relation to the devolved Assemblies might be different from their manifestos in relation to Parliament? Is there any mechanism whereby we can ensure that whatever the cycle—whether it is a five-year cycle as the Government propose, or a four-year cycle as many might wish—there is the same cycle for the devolved institutions to avoid any clash at all?
I readily understand the point made by the noble Lord. He is right to point out that, although it would happen once every 20 years, the first time would be in May 2015. It has been recognised that there are issues. That is why, as I shall come to explain, efforts have been made to address the issue with the devolved Scottish Parliament and the devolved National Assembly for Wales.
The Government are committed, as I have indicated, to working co-operatively with all three of the devolved Administrations. We have been consulting the respective party leaders and the Presiding Officers in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. I can confirm that my colleague and honourable friend Mr Mark Harper wrote to the Presiding Officers of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly on 17 February proposing that if the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly passed a resolution, with the support of at least two-thirds of all Members, agreeing that the 2015 Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly general elections should be moved to another date no earlier than the first Thursday in May 2014 and no later than the first Thursday in May 2016, the Government would then be willing to table an amendment to this Bill that would, if accepted, make this change. Copies of these letters to the respective Presiding Officers have been placed in the Library.
A resolution with the support of at least two-thirds of all MSPs or Assembly Members would be a clear indication of cross-party support for such a move and would be consistent with the existing requirement in the Scotland Act and the Government of Wales Act for a two-thirds majority in a vote for early Dissolution. In any event, we will carry out—I think this also addresses the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley—a detailed assessment of the implications of the two sets of elections coinciding at a later date. In the light of that, we would consider whether to conduct a public consultation in Scotland and Wales on whether the devolved institutions there should be permanently extended to five years.
The situation in Northern Ireland is different. Northern Ireland Office Ministers are conducting separate discussions with the parties in Northern Ireland on this issue and have concluded that it would be better to await the outcome of the combined polls scheduled for May this year before deciding whether special provision would be needed for Northern Ireland.
On Clause 2, it has been recognised that if we are to establish fixed-term Parliaments there must be a mechanism to deal with the situation in which a Government have lost the confidence of the House of Commons or where otherwise there is a consensus that there should be an early general election. Clause 2 therefore provides for the circumstances in which an early parliamentary general election can be held. There are two ways in which this can occur: through a traditional vote of no confidence in the Government, passed in the other place by a simple majority of those voting; or by a Motion, passed by a majority of two-thirds of the total number of seats in the other place, which states that there should be an early general election. As such, the Bill will provide the House of Commons with a new power to vote for Dissolution, which is not currently within its gift.
As many noble Lords will be aware, these votes have been the subject of some discussion and controversy. I wish, therefore, to explain to your Lordships exactly what the two votes are about, what they mean and why it is necessary to have two separate mechanisms for two separate circumstances where Dissolution might be required.
First, the defining principle of the Bill is that no Government should be able to dissolve Parliament for their own political advantage. That is why the threshold for passing a Dissolution Motion, as set out in Clause 2(1), that would trigger an early general election should be set at a majority of two-thirds of the number of seats in the other House. This is a majority that no post-war Government would have been able to achieve. In short, this means that we are the first Government to surrender to Parliament the power to call an early general election.
Some have questioned the rationale for giving the other place the power to vote for Dissolution. However, if there is a clear consensus that there should be an early general election, it would be nonsensical to force the other place to engineer a vote of no confidence. That is why Clause 2(1) provides the House of Commons with a new power to vote for Dissolution following a process that we believe is robust and transparent. The absence of such a power in other countries has meant that no-confidence Motions have sometimes had to be engineered to trigger an early general election in circumstances in which there is widespread consensus that there should be one.
I am not in a position to confirm that because it is highly speculative as to whether that would have happened or not. One does not know what kind of campaign there would have been if there had been an election on AV.
Clause 2(2) recognises the traditional right of the House of Commons to pass a Motion of no confidence in the Government on a simple majority of those voting. No-confidence votes have, until now, been a matter of convention—although it has been widely accepted that a no-confidence vote in the other place would require a Prime Minister to resign or call an early election. However, there has been nothing to date to enforce this. For the first time the Bill gives legal effect to a Motion of no confidence passed by the House of Commons. Such Motions will continue to require a simple majority.
Clause 2(2) provides that, following the passing of a no-confidence Motion in the other place, there will be a period of 14 days during which the Government may seek to gain the confidence of the other place. If, during the 14-day period, a Government emerge who can command the confidence of the House of Commons, it will be free to govern for the remainder of the five-year term since the previous general election, and the country would not have a general election. However, if no such Government emerge at the conclusion of the 14-day period, Parliament will be dissolved. As the Constitution Committee concluded, a period of 14 days strikes the right balance between allowing enough time for an alternative Government to be formed while ensuring that there is no prolonged period without an effective Government. We must bear in mind that a Government who are known to have lost the confidence of the House of Commons will continue to be the Government during the campaign period.
A Motion for an early election will be confirmed by issuing a certificate by the Speaker of the House of Commons. A similar provision is set out in the Parliament Act 1911, which provides for the Speaker of the House of Commons to issue a certificate confirming that a Bill has been certified as a money Bill. In the case of a no-confidence Motion, the Speaker’s certificate will confirm that the Motion has been passed, and that the 14-day period has ended without the House of Commons passing any Motion expressing confidence in any Government. Such a certificate will mean that there is no ambiguity about whether the other House has voted for Dissolution in the requisite majority or whether a vote of no confidence in the Government should trigger Dissolution.
Clause 2 sets out that the Speaker’s certificate, in these cases, shall be conclusive for all purposes and that the Speaker must, as far as is practicable, consult the Deputy Speakers before issuing the certificate. While it has been argued that the requirement for a two-thirds majority should not be set out in statute, I was pleased to note that the Constitution Committee shares the Government’s assessment of the Bill’s interaction with parliamentary privilege. It provides the House of Commons with a new power—one that is to be transferred from the Prime Minister to the House of Commons. We believe that such a fundamental constitutional change should be laid down in statute.
However, in doing so, the Government do not believe that the provisions in this Bill will undermine the other House’s exclusive cognisance. I have made available in the Library a copy of a memorandum that the Government placed in the House of Commons Library on 13 September setting out their view that the Bill does not affect the relationship between Parliament and the courts.
This is the point in the Bill with which I have the most difficulty. Why on earth should a Government who have lost the confidence of the House of Commons be given, in effect, a second chance to cobble together another coalition that might have the confidence of the House of the Commons? The present situation is terribly simple and very clear, and is the way in which Governments have operated almost exclusively in the past. If you lose a Motion of confidence, there has to be an election. That is simple. Why on earth can we not stick with it?
My Lords, the opportunity will be there for Parliament—to those elected to the other place—to see whether another Government can be formed. That may well be possible, but it would require the Government to have the confidence of the other place. If they have the confidence of the other place, there is no reason why they should not see out the term of the Parliament for which they were elected, subject to the provision that we are discussing. The provision places the power in the hands of Members elected to the other place and not to the Government of the day.
My Lords, if there is a period of 14 days in which discussions are taking place, you may end up at the end of those 14 days with a Government who are not the same Government as at the start of the 14 days. You may have a different Prime Minister and different Ministers; you may have different policies—all sorts of things may happen. I come back to the central point. Why on earth should we give a Government that period of additional opportunity to try to preserve a position that the House of Commons has rejected?
My Lords, that Government will require a confidence vote of Members of the House of Commons. It is the House of Commons that will determine the matter. That is an important point. If you have a fixed term but there is a clear consensus for a dissolution, there is a provision to trigger that. But if the House of Commons wishes to place its confidence in a Government, that is a matter for the House of Commons.
I am grateful to the Minister. This is an intrinsically important point. In all our experiences, a vote of confidence in the House of Commons is a rare event of crucial importance. We all know what it means: we are summoned back from the end of the earth to take part in it. As has been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, why should a Government, having lost a vote of confidence, have a second chance at all?
My Lords, the House of Commons would determine this. As the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, the Government might then be of a different composition, but they would come from those who have been elected to the House of Commons for a term of five years. If they cannot form a Government and no Government can command the consent to a majority in the House of Commons, there would be an election. If that could not be done within 14 years—I mean, within 14 days. [Laughter.] That is probably wishful thinking on some people’s part. If that could not be done within 14 days, there would be an election.
Clause 3 makes the key necessary changes to electoral law and the law concerning the meeting of Parliament in light of fixed days for elections. It provides that Parliament dissolves automatically 17 working days before the polling day, which has been fixed for the general election under the Bill. It means that Her Majesty the Queen will no longer be able to dissolve Parliament in exercise of the prerogative. This is a safeguard against a Prime Minister deciding that he wishes to ignore the requirements of the Bill and advising Her Majesty to exercise her power to dissolve Parliament.
Clause 4 deals with certain supplementary and consequential matters. It preserves the Queen’s power to prorogue Parliament. Subsection (2) preserves the traditional way in which the sealing of a proclamation summoning a new Parliament under the great seal of the realm is authorised, which is by Order in Council rather than by warrant under the royal sign manual.
Clause 5 sets out the short title of the Bill and the schedule contains consequential amendments to a number of Acts of Parliament. I do not intend to go through them all, but included among them is the Septennial Act 1715, which, after amendment by the Parliament Act 1911, set the current five-year term for Parliament.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill will be seen as a stabilising measure. It will reduce opportunities for partisan game playing. In a situation where we are so often told that the Executive are trying to gather power to themselves, under the Bill they will give power to Parliament, and it is right that they do so. I look forward to the debates that we will have in your Lordships' House. The points raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, will undoubtedly be ones to which we can return in Committee. I look forward in the course of this debate to hearing a maiden speech from my noble friend Lord Cormack, with whom I was privileged to serve for many years in the other place.
It was quite obvious from reading the record that the Bill was the subject of some lively debates in the other place, where—I should put on record—extra time was provided for consideration in Committee.
It is absolutely true, the Bill was given extra time at Committee—a Committee of the Whole House. I am certain we will not all see eye to eye with the noble Lords opposite, although I recall that they supported the idea of fixed-term Parliaments in their manifesto. There is therefore some broad consensus on what this Bill seeks to do.
This Bill demonstrates the commitment of this Government in bringing forward much needed political and constitutional reform. It will go a long way to restoring trust in our political institutions and I therefore commend this Bill to the House.
My Lords, I welcome the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, as the lead Minister on this important constitutional Bill. The noble and learned Lord gained your Lordships’ trust and respect—in the end almost alone—in his handling of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I very much look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who I am sure will be an important contributor to the proceedings of this House in years to come. I genuinely congratulate the Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, chaired by my noble friend Lady Jay of Paddington, which has produced a penetrating and extremely helpful report on the Bill that has helped to resolve a number of issues which would not have otherwise been resolved.
The Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have agreed that they wish to govern together until 15 May 2015. That is an agreement which, in practice and under our existing constitutional framework, is open to them to make. In the context of the healthy majority they enjoy in the Commons, it requires only one thing—that they abide by the promises that they have made to each other. It requires nothing more. In particular, it does not require a binding resolution of the other place and it does not require this Bill. There is very much to be said for fixed-term Parliaments; and there is very little to be said for this Bill, which dresses up as a piece of high-minded constitutional reform the chronic mistrust which the two parties in the coalition have—in my view correctly—for each other.
The legislation, practically everybody except them agrees, damages the constitution merely to give effect to an agreement that does not require the Bill. Our aim in your Lordships’ House should be to demonstrate the damage done by this Bill, to try to improve it as much as possible by amendment, and then to consider the overall effect of the amended Bill in the context of a Bill not caught by the Parliament Act 1911. The noble and learned Lord was right when he said that we are the guardians of the sanctity of the term of Parliament.
As regards the damage done by this Bill, first, it gets the period of the fixed term wrong; it should be four years, not five. The consequence of this is that the voters will find themselves even less able to hold their Executive and legislators to account. Secondly, this Bill probably allows the Prime Minister, as long as he retains a majority in the House of Commons, to have a general election whenever he wants by relying on one or other of the exceptions to the fixed-term provisions. It constitutes very little, if any, inhibition on the executive power of the Prime Minister. Thirdly, the drafting of the Bill is such that it might well prevent there being a general election when a Government genuinely lose the confidence of the House of Commons, either because the lack of confidence is not demonstrated by something which is described as a “motion of no confidence”, or because of the 14-day provision referred to in interventions on the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness.
The damage done by this Bill will be less accountable Parliaments, because they will last longer, a Prime Minister unchecked in his ability to have an election whenever he wants and a legislature with a more limited ability to evict a Government who have lost the confidence of the Commons.
This important constitutional Bill has—inevitably with this Government, I say with a heavy heart—not been the subject of a Green or a White Paper, of public consultation or of pre-legislative scrutiny. Its roots are in the coalition agreement. The terms of that agreement provided for the introduction of a binding resolution in the Commons to hold the next general election on 15 May 2015 and, after the passage of that resolution, to introduce a fixed-term Parliaments Bill with a provision which would allow there to be a general election if 55 per cent of MPs voted for such an election —the picture being: lock people in with a binding resolution, then lock them in further with the Bill.
On 25 May 2010 in the other place, its Deputy Leader said:
“Unlike what happened under the previous Administration [the Bill] will not be guillotined”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/5/10; col. 146.]
He also said:
“There is a strong case for pre-legislative scrutiny, but I do not want to extend the consideration of this legislation into the following Session, because that would not be appropriate”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/5/10; col. 152.]
No binding resolution was ever put to the Commons; the 55 per cent was changed to two-thirds without consultation—unsurprisingly, when one learns that the coalition has 56 per cent of the MPs; a guillotine was applied on the second Committee day in the Commons; and, despite the fact that the parliamentary Session was extended until May 2012, after the Deputy Leader of the Commons had indicated that he was in favour of pre-legislative scrutiny as long as it did not extend the consideration of the Bill into the next Session, there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny.
The unanimous view of your Lordships’ Select Committee, in its report on the Bill, is that the Bill’s origins and content,
“owe more to short-term considerations than to a mature assessment of enduring constitutional principles or sustained public demand”.
The short-term considerations driving this Bill are obvious; namely, to cement this particular Government into power for five years by making the holding of a general election earlier than five years as difficult as possible. To suggest that the purpose of the Bill is to introduce constitutional change beneficial to the nation is not credible when its provisions are examined for their effect and the evidence of what is generally perceived to be the right changes to introduce on fixed-term Parliaments. Perhaps I might make those assertions good.
First, on four years not five, the aim and likely effect of the legislation is to change our system from one where the maximum term of a Government has been five years, although the normal length has been much closer to four years, to one where the norm is five years with exceptions. That change will be damaging to our constitutional arrangements. By extending the period between elections by around one year, it will distance the people from the politicians. It will make the politicians less accountable to the public and intensify the feelings of alienation between those who govern and those they govern. Herbert Asquith, the then Prime Minister, when introducing the current arrangements with the five-year maximum, as opposed to the seven-year maximum, accurately predicted that they would produce an actual legislative working term, in practice, of four years. When he was introducing these provisions, he said that four years,
“will secure that your House of Commons for the time being, is always either fresh from the polls which gave it authority, or—and this is an equally effective check upon acting in defiance of the popular will—it is looking forward to the polls at which it will have to render an account of its stewardship”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/2/1911; col. 1749.]
That was in the context of Asquith saying that four years would be the norm.
Until the coalition agreement, no party and, as far as I can find, precious few academics were urging that the fixed term—that is, the norm—should be five years. The Conservatives, far from supporting a fixed term, argued through their leader in the general election campaign that there should be a mandatory requirement for a general election within six months of any change of PM. The Liberal Democrats’ position was that indeed there should be a fixed term. They did not say how long in their manifesto. Until the coalition agreement, they had always previously said that it should be four years. In 2007, their conference adopted a paper which said:
“Liberal Democrats have long argued that parliaments should last for a fixed term of four years”.
Since 1994, three Private Members’ Bills have been introduced in the Commons for fixed terms by three admired, independent-minded Members of Parliament: the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who I am happy to see in his place today, Mr Tony Wright and Mr David Howarth. Each one of those Private Members’ Bills specified four years. The Plant Commission—I am happy to see my noble friend Lord Plant in his place—which reported in 1993, said four years. All three of the devolved Assemblies or Parliaments in the United Kingdom set up in the past 13 years adopted four years. The academic position has been summed up by Professor Blackburn, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of London, as follows:
“In the UK, there can be little doubt that the period between general elections should be four years. The proposal for fixed-term Parliament as a whole should fit as closely as possible into existing constitutional expectations, and the idea that four years is about the right length of time between elections is very prevalent”.
There have been four five-year Governments since the Second World War. I include anything over four years and eight months. Those fifth years of five-year Governments, 1963-64, 1991-92, 1996-97, 2009-10, have tended to be demoralised years; very different from the fourth years of the Governments where the expectation is an election at the end of the fourth year; 1950-51, 1954-55, 1958-59, 1982-83, 2006-07, 2000-01, 2004-05. That is partly because the country may be waiting for change in those fifth years, but significantly because the democratic mandate is so obviously exhausted in those fifth years and legitimacy for the Government lacking.
This issue is of central importance to this Bill. It is the big change that this Bill will bring. There will be more fifth years; more paralysis waiting for change. Most of the evidence that dispassionate observers have brought to this issue supports the view that making five the norm—lengthening the period of our Parliaments —will damage our constitutional arrangements.
Perhaps I may give just two examples. Professor Dawn Oliver, Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law at UCL, thought that the cumulative effect of successive five-year terms would be to produce a democratic deficit. Democratic Audit expressed alarm that a five-year term would present,
“a reversal of a long struggle for more accountable government”.
The justification given for five years by Mr Clegg is that it is a length of time with which people are familiar and which will reduce the politicking because the politicking starts, he alleges, at the beginning of the fourth year. In fact, as a nation we are more familiar with a term of around four years, and in a shorter cycle, with four years fixed, the electioneering tends to be shorter and the period of paralysis shorter. My noble friend Lady Jay’s committee stated:
“Of all the issues arising from the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, the proposal for a five year fixed term has created the most unease”.
Your Lordships’ House has the power to stop the five years and we should certainly use it.
However, there is much wrong with this Bill apart from its cynical adoption of a five-year term. It is hardly a fixed-term parliaments Bill at all. It specifies two circumstances, other than the expiry of five years, in which a general election must take place: where two-thirds or more of Members of Parliament vote for one or where the Commons passes a vote of no confidence and another Government do not obtain the confidence of the House of Commons within 14 days of the passage of a vote of no confidence. With those two exceptions, it is likely that any Prime Minister who wants an early election can get one whenever he wants. Would, I ask rhetorically, the main opposition party have objected if either Gordon Brown in 2007 or John Major in 1990 had said that they wished to go to the country in the aftermath of their selection as PM by their parties in those years? I doubt it, so the two-thirds exception could have been relied on. Would the main opposition parties have objected in January or February 1974, when Mr Heath went to the country early, or in October 1974, when the Wilson Government did, assuming that this Bill had been law? I doubt it.
However, let us suppose that in January or February 1974 the main opposition party had objected to Mr Heath going to the country. Under the wording of this Bill, I can see no objection to Mr Heath having proposed a vote of no confidence in the Government, not on the basis that he did not believe that they were the right Government but on the basis that, without a democratic endorsement of the Government’s position, it was wrong for the Government to continue, as I conceive Mr Heath’s view to have been at the time. The way to have achieved that under this Bill would have been to propose a vote of no confidence in the Government as long as there was no election. Alternatively, let us take October 1974, when a minority Government needed to do things to put the economy straight. Again, would there have been any difficulty in proposing that it was necessary at that stage to have an early election? I conceive not. Or let us suppose that in 2000 or 2005 the Labour Government of Mr Tony Blair had said, “We think the right course now is to allow for driven public service reform, which can be achieved only by a new mandate from the country”. On the basis of the Bill, would it have been improper in those circumstances to seek a vote of no confidence with a view to having a general election? I do not think that there would have been any problem.
In each case, the question to be asked under the Bill is: does the Motion which has been passed satisfy the Clause 2(2) test; namely, on a specified day did the House pass a Motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government? Under the terms of the Bill, the question of whether it did or did not would fall to the Speaker to decide after consulting the Deputy Speakers. Any conclusion that the Speaker reaches is described in Clause 2(3) as being “conclusive for all purposes”. In my view, his conclusion would not be challengeable in the courts, although I am aware that the Clerk of the House of Commons, Mr Malcolm Jack, for whom I have the greatest respect, has expressed anxiety that the courts might consider that they had jurisdiction to consider on judicial review whether the Speaker had come to the correct view. I have very little doubt that the courts, having regard to the subject matter of the Bill, to the fact that the decision was to be made by the Speaker and that there was a conclusiveness clause, would consider that this matter had nothing whatever to do with them, and they would conclude that parliamentary privilege preventing any interference by the court meant that they could make no orders. Therefore, I agree with the Government in that respect.
Therefore, it would be for the Speaker to decide, and I do not see anything in the Bill which either allows or requires him to inquire into why the no confidence vote was passed. If it was passed, that is sufficient. The Bill says “passed”, not “lost by the Government”. It must be envisaged by the Bill that the Motion that leads to no confidence is not necessarily one that is proposed by the Opposition. Let us take, for example, the Queen’s Speech being defeated by the House of Commons or the Finance Bill being defeated at Third Reading. Would there be any doubt that those constitute votes of no confidence in the Government? Both would be votes proposed by the Government, not by the Opposition.
In practice, on the wording of the Bill, the Prime Minister, as long as he retains a majority in the House of Commons, can satisfy the first part of the vote of no confidence requirement. Inevitably, in those circumstances he could also satisfy the second—preventing any new Government emerging in the 14-day period after the vote of no confidence has passed. If that analysis is correct, which I believe it is, this Bill in effect provides no real inhibition on a Prime Minister with a majority from having an election whenever he wants. The vast majority of witnesses who gave evidence on this point before the Lords Constitution Select Committee said that it would be open on the current terms of the Bill for a Government to manipulate the position to have a vote of confidence and then lose it in order to have a general election. I am sure that that is right, although for the reasons I outlined I do not think that any real manipulation would be needed.
Mr Clegg gave evidence to the Lords Select Committee that he could not exclude the theoretical possibility but he went on:
“Can you exclude it in practical political terms?”
He answered his own question by saying:
“I think you pretty well nigh can”.
He went on to say that,
“if a Government sought to do that it would be so transparent and so evidently grubby and self-serving that it would not do that Government any good at all. The final court of opinion, of course, is what the electorate would do, and I think they would be very unforgiving”.
I do not think that the electorate would think that. If Mr Heath in 1974 had said, “Assume this Bill was passed so I am not entitled to an early Dissolution but I will do it by getting a vote of no confidence”, that does not feel grubby at all to me. Equally, if John Major or Gordon Brown—in 1990 or 2007—had said that they should be endorsed by the public, I do not think that people would remotely regard that as grubby. In any event, it does not appear right. Canada introduced a Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2006 which specified, as this Bill does, that the election should take place every five years on a specific day. The Canadian Prime Minister, Mr Harper, said in support of fixed terms at the time he was introducing the Bill:
“Fixed dates stop leaders from trying to manipulate the calendar. They level the playing field for all parties”.
That was said by Stephen Harper on 26 May 2006.
Like our Bill, his Bill had a safety valve in the sense that it did not affect the powers of the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament at the Governor-General’s discretion. Two years after the Canadian Parliament introduced that Act, the Prime Minister, Mr Stephen Harper, who swore blind that he was giving up his power to call the date of the general election, ignored the Act and asked the Governor-General for a general election, which was duly granted, correctly in my view because the Governor-General was obliged to accept the advice of her Prime Minister. I am not sure whether Mr Harper got a majority but he did better in that general election than in the previous one.
On that material, the Lords Select Committee chaired by my noble friend Lady Jay concluded:
“We conclude that, if the Bill is passed, it would not be possible to prevent a government using a vote of no confidence to bring about an early election. To do so would be seen by many as an abuse of the Act’s provisions and would undermine the fixed-term principle”.
The last part of the Select Committee’s view might be right—namely, that it would be seen by many as an abuse of the Act’s provisions—but I would not advise your Lordships to invest trust in this Government sticking to anything they have said about how they will treat Parliament. I draw the attention of noble Lords to the series of broken detailed assurances given to Parliament in relation to the Bill. If the two members of the coalition do not trust each other, without a binding resolution and this Bill, to stick to their commitment to govern until 15 May, why should this Parliament? The crucial point is that the Bill deprives the Prime Minister of the right to call a general election on the date of his choice only where he loses his majority in Parliament. Only then does he lose control over whether a no confidence vote passes, but then, of course, he would be vulnerable to being thrown out in any event by a no confidence vote.
Ironically, moving from the ease with which the Prime Minister who does want a general election can circumvent the fixed term where he thinks he can win an election, the Bill, at the same time, appears to provide a legal basis to prevent there being an election when the Government have, in reality, lost the confidence of the Commons in the traditional sense. The Bill allows for an early Dissolution only where there is a vote for one for which two-thirds of MPs have voted or where the House,
“passes a Motion of no confidence”.
What happens when the Government lose a vote on the passage of the Queen’s Speech or the Finance Bill? Does there have to be a subsequent Motion of no confidence in order for the Speaker to be satisfied that there has been a Motion of no confidence? If there does—which it would be in the interests of a governing party that wishes to stay in power to say that there would need to be—then the party’s MPs would, having, perhaps, rebelled in some numbers on the Queen’s Speech or the Finance Bill, rally to the party on the vote of no confidence, and the Government, unlike today, would get a second shot.
There have, since 1895, been four successful votes of no confidence in the Commons. In 1895 the vote of no confidence took the form of docking a proportion of the Secretary of War’s salary. In 1924 it took the form of an amendment to the terms of the resolution on the Queen’s Speech. There was another one in 1924, which took the form of an amendment to a vote of censure of the then Labour Government. A fourth one was the only one that was in the form of a vote of no confidence. I can see nothing wrong with the leader of the governing party, the Prime Minister of the day, saying, “This is not a vote of confidence, whatever it may be”, thereby, in effect, tying the hands of the Speaker and requiring the Motion of no confidence to be brought forward.
It is critical to tighten up the definition of the phrase,
“passes a vote of no confidence”,
to cover a number of situations over and above those that I have already raised. These situations include those cases where the Government lose a vote of confidence, as opposed to one of no confidence, and those cases where there would be no doubt that the vote was one in which confidence in the Government was at issue, albeit not expressly a Motion of no confidence—for example, the Queen’s Speech, the Finance Bill or an issue where the Prime Minister had expressly designated the vote as one of confidence.
The Bill should also deal with the position where the Government have never obtained the confidence of the House of Commons; for example, where, after a general election, in a minority government situation, the Government lose the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Is the position then that there needs to be a new Government? Do the new Government have to be found from the House of Commons then and there, or do they get only 14 days? Is that what is really envisaged by the Bill? Putting aside the situation where you have no Government after a general election who have obtained the confidence of the House of Commons after it has met, should there really be a norm that the House of Commons has 14 days to try to find a new Government? Should we not stick to the current norm, which is that, where there is a vote of no confidence, there should be a general election?
All of these issues are important, as is Prorogation and the extent to which it may be used to circumvent losing a vote of confidence, as it was recently in Canada. There are also issues about the timing of Westminster elections clashing with the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections, which we will wish to probe when the Government’s consultation with those two bodies is reported to us. If the report comes too late, we may have to proceed without it.
What do we have in this Bill? We have a Bill that gets the wrong number of years; provides no real inhibition to the Prime Minister of the day having a general election whenever he wants one; and restricts, by making hard, the circumstances in which a Government who have lost the confidence of the Commons can be removed. The Bill is an utter disaster. It has been put in simply to provide glue to hold the coalition together because its parties do not trust each other. I respectfully suggest that the Government think of ways to find that glue other than by messing up the British constitution. We will do our best in this House to amend the Bill to make it work and to make it do as little damage as possible to our constitution. It is a Bill to which the Parliament Act does not apply and, as the noble and learned Lord said, we are the guardians of the right length of parliamentary terms.
My Lords, this is the first time for many years that I rise to my feet recalling that I am formally to be described as “noble and learned”. I find myself following two gentlemen who are equally qualified for the second epithet but infinitely more competent in demonstrating their ability to cherish it. I find that the issues so ably presented by my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness, and so ably destroyed or eroded by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, make me even more worried about where we are going next.
I am now so antique myself that I have become more sceptical about fundamental changes to our constitutional structure. I have been taught that lesson by changes already made in the past 10 or 12 years. For example, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, was the last man to hold the office of Lord Chancellor in anything like the significant way in which it was long held and should have gone on being held. It is not simply a piece of tearful legal reminiscence that makes me say that. The fact that my former Parliamentary Private Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, is now Lord Chancellor but also Secretary of State, which office no longer assimilates, emulates or coincides with the office of Lord Chancellor as one used to know it, disturbs me. We are now living in a period in which, increasingly often, politicians and judges denounce each other. We find ourselves facing the terrible burden of “non-elected judges”, as though they have no qualifications because they are not elected. There is an upsurge of affection for democratic structures.
The fact that such conflict is developing is a consequence of the disappearance of the office of Lord Chancellor—an office that, if I remember correctly, was criticised by a select committee of the Council of Europe many years ago. It said that we had such an odd officer defying the laws of separation of powers because Britain had not experienced the reforms implemented throughout the rest of the continent by Napoleon Bonaparte. What sort of judgment is that? It is not just a fashionable thing to bewail dispensing with the Lord Chancellor or—this may seem more controversial—the transplantation of the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary from these premises to the supremely superb, manifestly impressive and expensive buildings on the other side of Parliament Square. I am more worried than pleased by that change, which may have had a theoretical academic justification but has not been beneficial. I point to a feature that makes that point. We now have the senior judge—the presiding judge—in the Supreme Court having to protest personally and complain about the inadequacy of the financial resources available to the Supreme Court. For the first time the Supreme Court has to go cap in hand to the Treasury. Chancellors—I say this as a former Chancellor —are benign men, but it is very unattractive that the Supreme Court should have to go cap in hand to the Treasury. In the old days one could say that the Supreme Court existed under the benevolent blessing of Parliament through the Judicial Committee of this House. This is a serious change. Those two factors make me apprehensive, and certainly not persuaded by the case being made for this Bill as it stands.
Both the preceding noble and learned Lords have presented cases with skill, expertise and clarity, as one would expect. However, I confess that I felt rather like the person who some years ago attended a conference on local government reform in that I was confused when I arrived in the premises and I am more confused now that we have heard these two competing speeches. I recall—I do not think that he is in the Chamber at present—the Joint Committee presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, which discussed the wisdom or otherwise of respecting conventions rather than formality. Conventions have shaped the framework within which we have lived for many years. People understand whether the Prime Minister does or does not have the power to do something and whether or not he has the wisdom to do the right thing. To be now transplanted from that situation and confronted with a bundle of difficult to understand subsections in the Bill, giving scope for analyses of the kind the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, has already presented, does not give me greater confidence in the proposed future system than in the continuation of our present system. I say that with nostalgic respect for the way in which the system treated me in my university days long before I sought to be a candidate for Parliament. We had the 1950-51 sequence of elections. We saw the erosion and disappearance of the Attlee Government and the restoration of a Churchill Government. I stood twice as a candidate in the constituency of Aberavon. Lord Morris of Aberavon and Lord Howe of Aberavon would make a very good partnership. I should not say that, should I? I was not being serious when I fought against the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, because he was bound to win.
In 1964, I was delighted to be elected to the constituency of Bebington. I inherited a majority of 9,861 and saw it reduced to 2,200, which was a bit of a let-down. The Government lost office, but only by a small margin did the Wilson Government arrive in office. In 1966, I had to go through the struggle all again to find that the Labour Party had a majority of 2,200. The point I am making is that in each of those cases—1950-51 and 1964-66—by a gradual process of application of the conventions that then existed and still do, the nation made a change, first rather nervously and then more decisively, and a change of government was achieved as a result of the votes cast by the electorate in the light of the decisions taken in the Houses of Parliament. However, I am wary about the wisdom of taking away the structure that we have come to know and which has served us not too badly.
There is one other piece that I would like to say, which causes me some concern. That is the huge volume of legislation we are having to grapple with since the arrival in office of the coalition. Of course, for all sorts of reasons, I have the most enormous respect for the coalition—it has a Conservative Prime Minister of great distinction, and one is bound to be cheerful about that, not to mention distinguished Front Bench spokesmen such as the noble and learned Lord who has presented this case. However, it is a coalition that is running this torrent of legislative change through this House and through Parliament. I am not going to make a speech about the Public Bodies Bill now save to mention it, but when the Minister was first in charge of it I said that it struck me as something like a self-inflicted tsunami of constitutional destruction and it still has that flavour. It was an enormous number of different identities being bundled together in a semi-destructive fashion.
I plead guilty to the fact actually—I only rediscovered this the other day—that when I first arrived as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1979 I also called for a bonfire of the quangos and some casualties there ought not to have taken place. That is by the way. I think the coalition—more than the Government of which I was a member under the leadership of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher—is constructed rather like the way I put wood on the fire before I light it. Bits of little wood lean on other little bits of little wood and big logs can go on them and gradually it is all assembled in such a way that I can apply the firelighter to it. The coalition had to do all that. One can imagine the negotiations in which the two party leaders said, “If you do this, then I can do that”, and then, “Perhaps we can both do this together”. So we have this assorted menu of constitutional change touching almost every institution in sight. That is what worries me and why I speak with such disloyalty to the Government, which I of course support. I think that it is important to draw attention to these anxieties.
I have one last thought. One of the topics on which the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, and I agreed from the outset in the course of our long-standing relationship was one when I made a speech—I think to the Society of Conservative Lawyers—saying that above all,
“we must make fewer laws and make the laws fewer”.
In a short time the noble Baroness echoed that triumphantly. We were both absolutely agreed upon it. As a matter of fact, we did not do too well in the end. It was quite remarkable. The Labour Government between 1975 and 1978 enacted an average of 1,177 pages of primary legislation a year. The Conservative Government that followed between 1980 and 1989 enacted an average of 1,788 pages. We managed 2,170 pages in 1988 and no less than 2,581 in 1989. It was at that point that we surpassed the record hitherto held by the Attlee Government of 2,288 pages. That shows how difficult it is to achieve. Lo and behold the present Administration, this marvellous coalition, have already enacted 687 pages of statute and 2,084 pages of Bills are on their way through the system. One can give the prize to them, with 2,771 pages of legislation.
That is a firm foundation on which to base my anxiety. I am not persuaded that we should be making this change. I am not persuaded that it is necessary to make the change. I am not persuaded by the experience of Canada. I respect the Canadians who have been able to function on the same basis as ourselves and without the firmness of four-year fixed terms of the kind south of the 49th parallel. I would rather we stayed as we always have been and rather we stayed as the Canadians had been until quite recently. I make those points as I am anxious but do not wish to tear down this marvellous coalition, on whose success we all depend.
My Lords, we had quite a substantial discussion on fixed-term Parliaments in the debate on the gracious Speech in May of last year. That discussion, I recall, was particularly difficult in the aftermath of the election, as perceptions of the coalition agreement clouded the debate on the principles of fixed-term Parliaments. It is already clear from the tenor of today’s debate that some of those difficulties remain.
Fixed-term Parliaments are not a short-term political fix but a long-term and overdue democratic reform. The idea that Parliaments should last for a fixed term is one to which the Liberal Democrats have subscribed for a very long time. It is also one which Labour supported in its general election manifesto only last year and which the Conservative Party accepted in the coalition agreement.
The Government have improved their proposal since last year, not least by dispensing with their original plan to set a threshold of only 55 per cent for the Dissolution of Parliament, which would have worked perhaps for this Parliament but not for most Parliaments. The Bill now provides for greater clarity to distinguish between votes of confidence and votes for Dissolution.
In order to have a fixed-term Parliament, there must be some form of mechanism to hold it in place. A substantial threshold for early Dissolution is clearly required. Without it, the legislation would be simply a statement of aspiration and a reiteration of the status quo whereby a Parliament lasts for five years unless a Prime Minister decides otherwise. The proposed threshold for Dissolution of the Westminster Parliament, a two-thirds majority, now closely reflects the arrangements set up by the Scotland Act 1998, introduced by the last Labour Government. Those arrangements have been shown to work very well since their introduction. Sadly, it was not a reform that the Labour Government extended to Westminster in their 13 recent years in office. However, Labour sought to rectify that in its last manifesto, in which it promised to legislate to “ensure” that there would be fixed-term Parliaments, although it did not say of what duration. I look forward to hearing from noble Lords opposite exactly how they intended to legislate to ensure that there were fixed-term Parliaments.
Labour’s pledge to legislate for fixed-term Parliaments was first made in 1992 by the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, whom I am very pleased to see in his place today. In its manifesto of that year, the Labour Party criticised,
“months of on-again, off-again dithering which damaged our economy and weakened our democracy”,
after John Major delayed a much anticipated 1991 election. The Labour Party said then:
“No government with a majority should be allowed to put the interests of party above country, as the Conservatives have done”.
Labour promised fixed-term Parliaments in 1992 and again in 2010.
A fixed-term Parliament is accepted without controversy in most developed democracies—indeed, I believe that it exists in about two-thirds of democracies. It also exists for every single local authority and devolved Government here in Britain. It was introduced for all those devolved Governments during the 13 years of the Labour Government and each of them now operates a fixed-term Parliament principle. It is now the right time for the House of Commons to catch up with that principle.
I turn to the question of whether a fixed term should be of four or five years. The Government acknowledged that there is a genuine dilemma on this issue in their response to the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place. They recognised that there is no monopoly of merit in the cases for four or for five years; it is a question of judgment. However, on balance, I am persuaded that setting the term at five years is right, because a four-year fixed term would mean Governments having a non-election-fighting life—a period of governing without immediate electoral pressures—of three years at most, which would not be sufficient.
There are other practical reasons for considering why five years is the right period. The previous Labour Government legislated in the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 for a period covering party-political expenditure that works only in a five-year Parliament. Under the Act, the pre-election campaign period for regulating party-political expenditure starts 55 months into a Parliament—in other words after, and only after, four years and seven months—and it runs for up to 60 months after the previous general election, but for no longer. A few noble Lords may recall that I opposed those provisions at the time because they would work in practice only if there was a five-year fixed-term Parliament. That is now what is proposed and it would make those regulations on party-political controlled expenditure, introduced by the last Labour Government, actually work. The campaign expenses legislation that we approved only two years ago will now work in future.
I do not wish to repeat the debate that we had recently during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill—to do so would of course take a very long time—but I remind your Lordships that we approved legislation to review the constituency boundaries every five years. The first review of the constituency boundaries under the legislation that we so recently approved will be conducted by October 2013 and each subsequent review will be concluded on a five-year cycle from five years thereafter. To hold a general election in 2014, only four years after the previous one, would mean that the next general election would be fought only six months after the new constituency boundaries became known. If we have system of individual constituency representation, then that, I think, would be madness. Parties need time to find, select and promote candidates. Voters need to be able to assess them and their relative merits and to make informed choices. Even a period of 18 months between knowing the new boundaries and the general election may be too short to do this effectively, but anything less than a five-year Parliament will mean less than an 18-month period from knowing what the constituency boundaries will be to the Dissolution of Parliament and the commencement of the next general election.
I am interested in what the noble Lord has just said. He has made a specific and direct link between the five years in this Bill and the legislation that the House has just passed. He has done it in such a way as to suggest that basically you could outlaw any amendments for four years on the basis that the House has passed previous legislation for five years. The fact that he has made a direct connection between the two almost amounts to blackmail. If he had not said that towards the end of his remarks, I would tend to agree with most of what he said, but that direct link will be used to attack anybody who wants to move from five years to four years or four and a half years, if that is the desire. It cannot be a fair argument to use the kind of legislative trick that he has just played on us. My question to the noble Lord is this: during our Committee stage, will he be prepared to accept the good faith of those who want to promote four years or four and a half years and not suggest that they are seeking to go back and debate the previous Bill? If he will not spend time accusing people of that, I will withdraw the imputations that I have just made about his speech.
My Lords, early in my remarks I said that there is merit in the case for four years or for five years. The noble Lord should accept that and withdraw his remark that my suggestion that there are strong reasons why we should have five years rather than four years amounts to blackmail. Also, comments from a sedentary position that this sounds like blackmail are rather offensive and over the top in the circumstances of a genuine debate on this issue.
I want to address a couple of issues if I may. I note that the noble Baroness is due to make her remarks later on in the debate.
I want to draw the Minister’s attention to an area of the Bill where I think that work is still required. The Bill rightly sets out to remove the starting pistol for an election race being held by one of its principal competitors and to implement the coalition agreement, which states:
“We will establish five-year fixed-term Parliaments”.
There is a real danger that the Bill could fail in that objective under Clause 1(5), as it effectively provides for a Prime Minister with a majority in Parliament to be able to alter the date of the general election by two months either side of the five-year norm. The coalition agreement commits to establishing five-year fixed-term Parliaments, not nearly fixed-term Parliaments of between 58 months and 62 months.
Countries such as Norway, Sweden, South Africa and the United States, along with all our local government and the devolved Assemblies established in recent years, manage to exist on a fixed-term basis without such a provision. I accept that some elections may need to be delayed in exceptional circumstances, such as the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001, but that could be dealt with in legislation relatively easily, just as the fixed-term council elections during May 2001 were postponed until June of that year. I cannot see any merit in the special power for the Prime Minister to bring forward an election. If unforeseen circumstances may conceivably delay an election by two months, how can unforeseen circumstances require an election to be brought forward by two months?
There is, however, a strong case to say that the Bill could be amended to allow a few days’ flexibility over polling day, sufficient so as not to preclude the possibility of voting taking place over a weekend. Perhaps polling day in the next general election should not be on the first Thursday in May but on the Saturday and/or Sunday following that day. There is a good case for proper consideration to be given to voting over a weekend rather than on a weekday. It would be a mistake for the Bill to preclude that possibility.
The Bill is long overdue. It was never right that one of the runners in a race also held the starting pistol and was able to fix the start of the race depending on his or her party’s convenience. The Bill sets out healthy, democratic reform to our political system. As the first Prime Minister to accept this principle, David Cameron deserves considerable credit. I also think that the Labour Party should adhere to the principle that it set out to the country in its manifesto last year. This House should support the Bill.
My Lords, I rise in a state of some trepidation. It is almost 41 years since I last made a maiden speech and almost a year since I made my valedictory in the other place. I am delighted that the custom here is to begin on a totally non-controversial topic and to thank all those noble Lords in all parts of the House who welcomed the new Member. I genuinely do that. I also couple with that all those officials and members of staff who have been so unfailingly courteous, helpful and kind.
I feel this particularly because I have been welcomed twice. I took my seat on 21 December and then had the misfortune to go into hospital. I did not get back here until 8 February, when I was welcomed again. I assure noble Lords in all parts of the House that I did not retreat to hospital in order to escape those late-night sittings, which were so reminiscent of my early days in another place.
When the Prime Minister told me that he would like me to come here, I accepted his invitation with great gratitude, enthusiasm and alacrity. I did so for one very simple reason: I believe passionately in this place—in its functions, in its composition and in its powers. That belief is founded, after 40 years in the other place, on the conviction that there is a more unambiguous democratic mandate if it is held by one elected Chamber rather than divided between two. I have always seen this House as an assembly of the experienced, which has a duty to give advice but no power to impose its will. It is because of my admiration for the delicate system of checks and balances that sustains our constitutional monarchy, in which the ultimate power rests with those who elect Members of the other place, that I approach any constitutional measure, produced by any Government, with a degree of caution and trepidation.
I am of course aware of the convention that a maiden speech should be non-controversial. However, I do not take that as an instruction to be anodyne or as an excuse to be irrelevant. I have advocated the merits of fixed-term Parliaments in the past and I believe that it is entirely proper and right that the Bill before us should have an unopposed Second Reading tonight. However, as always, the devil is in the detail and it is incumbent on this House to subject this short Bill to proper scrutiny.
The logical case for fixed-term Parliaments has often been rehearsed and, indeed, has been referred to in this afternoon’s debate. By fixing the term, we remove the manipulative power of the Prime Minister of the day, we create a symmetry with other parliamentary, assembly and local government elections and we become similar to many other democracies, although by no means all. Yet it is essential that we should not deprive the elected House of the power to turf out a Government who have lost its confidence. The Bill before us recognises this, but only up to a point. No one who was in the other place at the time of the last vote of confidence when a Government fell will ever forget that March night in 1979 when the late Michael Foot made that wonderful speech as he looked at the serried ranks of the nationalists and said, “These are turkeys going to vote for an early Christmas”. It was a memorable evening. The vote was carried because Frank Maguire came from Northern Ireland to abstain in person. The Government of the day fell because immediately after the vote was announced the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, for whom I still have the greatest affectionate memories—he was one of the greatest gentlemen ever to occupy that office—came to the Dispatch Box and immediately said that he would be going to see the Queen.
Under the terms of this Bill as it stands, that vote in itself would not have triggered an immediate general election. It might instead have led to 14 days of horse-trading, perhaps resulting in a lame-duck Administration, or perhaps in another vote, in which two-thirds of the Members of the other place would have had to vote for an early election. Perhaps by then some of the turkeys would have changed their minds and thought that the prospect of having their necks wrung in December was better than having them wrung in March.
Two other provisions in this Bill need especially careful examination. Is it right to replace a royal prerogative with a Speaker’s edict? I suggest that we should reflect on what the Clerk of the House said about that and about the possible role of the courts in any subsequent dispute. It has been referred to this afternoon and is a matter that must be addressed at least by probing amendments in this place. Also, is the prescribed length of the term better fixed at five years or four? We should consider what the Constitution Committee of this House has said on that issue and, in doing so, we should bear in mind what has already been referred to several times as the proliferation of elections that are fixed at the moment for the late spring of 2015. Is that proliferation of elections, in the words of 1066 and All That, a “Good Thing”? It is for us to decide.
I am sympathetic to a move to fixed-term Parliaments. I strongly support and admire the coalition Government and I am proud to support them from these Benches. However, I cannot but ask whether everything in this Bill, which received no pre-legislative scrutiny and which was subject to a strict timetable in another place, is not capable of improvement. In recent years, there has been a tendency—no, a habit—for Governments of all persuasions to rush into constitutional reform. It might have been no bad thing if successive Governments had remembered that old Latin tag, festina lente.
My Lords, it is a pleasure and an honour to be the first to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on his superb maiden speech. It demonstrated the noble Lord’s special feel for Parliament, its practices and its history, for the magic and mystery of the British constitution and for its constitutional legislation. So subtle and insightful is his understanding of the constitution that I have long believed that the noble Lord is actually part of its warp and woof. He served as a hugely distinguished chairman of the History of Parliament Trust and his distinction has been very much in evidence this afternoon.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has been a much valued friend and mentor of mine for several years. He has sustained the gifts of the history teacher he once was; he has followed Albert Einstein's words:
“Never lose a holy curiosity”.
He is a natural transmitter of that curiosity to others. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, gave the other place long, distinguished and devoted service as a dedicated and natural parliamentarian. I am confident that he will do the same as an enormously welcome addition to your Lordships' House.
The Bill before us today is a collector's item for a combination of reasons. First, if passed, it will be a rare example of a Prime Minister relinquishing a power which his predecessors possessed: the power to request the sovereign to dissolve Parliament, thereby triggering a general election. In the unusual circumstances of the coupon election in 1918, after the sudden armistice that brought the Great War to an end, David Lloyd George took that power unto himself as coalition leader. Previously, such requests had been a decision for the Cabinet.
Secondly, as other noble Lords have pointed out, the Bill proposes that Her Majesty the Queen be stripped of a sizeable chunk of one of her two remaining personal prerogative powers: that of dissolving Parliament, although summoning Parliament or proroguing it will remain a matter for the sovereign. Her other personal prerogative, that of appointing a Prime Minister, will remain entirely untouched.
Thirdly, this is a very rare example of a government Bill originating in the other place that, as currently drafted, is entirely beyond the reach of the Parliament Acts, creating an unusual stretch of legislative turf on which your Lordships can frisk. The Clerk of the Parliaments has attested that:
“It is ... clear that the … Bill does contain provision to extend the maximum duration of a Parliament beyond five years, and that it cannot, therefore, be passed under the Parliament Acts procedure unless, before it leaves the Commons, the … provisions ... are amended”.
Not since November 1944, when your Lordships’ House agreed to extend the Prolongation of Parliament Act 1940 until the Second World War had ended, has this been true of a government measure sent to your Lordships’ House from the other place.
Fourthly, and of the greatest concern for your Lordships, the Bill seeks to change the biorhythm of our national politics by creating a statutory norm for the timing of our general elections. The question—several other noble Lords have raised it already—is whether five years captures our natural biorhythm. There is a strong case for arguing that it does not. The fine report by your Lordships’ Select Committee on the Constitution on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill published last December calculates that the average duration of the 17 Parliaments between the general election of July 1945 and that of May 2010 has been three years and 10 months.
As well as the biorhythmic arithmetic, we need to consider the quality of government and political life in the fifth year of Parliaments that have gone to the wire. They have rarely been shining patches in the life of Administrations. Ministers are often tired and accident prone. The palette of the electorate becomes progressively more jaded. A kind of pre-electoral blight sets in. Of course it could be argued that the final year of a fixed-term four-year Parliament would be similarly blighted. Certainly, the press would succumb to its customary pre-election frenzy as the last year deepened. However, the blight is likely to be less pronounced towards the end of a four-year span than a five-year one, and accountability is more likely to be enhanced by a four-year cycle.
On balance, your Lordships’ Select Committee, and the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform in the other place, came down for four-year Parliaments. I plump for the tariff that they recommend. Four years not only fits with the UK-wide biorhythm but, as other noble Lords have pointed out, with the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies. The second question to which your Lordships’ Constitution Committee has drawn attention is the pair of safety valves for use if, for emergency or other reasons, the other place decides that an election is necessary before the fixed term is expended. For the valves to operate, either 66 per cent of the membership of the other place has to vote for Dissolution, or the Government have to lose a confidence vote and, over the subsequent 14 days, fail to conjure up an alternative Administration or be replaced by another one that can demonstrate command of the other place.
It would be highly undesirable if these provisions became the political equivalents of “get out of jail free” cards in the game of Monopoly. The British constitution is not a Stradivarius to be played—or indeed fiddled—for reasons of narrow electoral advantage by the party or parties in government. A number of safeguards, therefore, are desirable. First, the Bill needs to contain as precise a definition as possible of what constitutes a confidence Motion. Secondly, the ticking clock must be so arranged that a general election following Dissolution sooner than the expiry of the fixed term does not restart the clock from scratch. Instead, the refreshed Parliament should sit for the remainder of the original fixed term and no longer—as is, so far, the untested arrangement for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.
Finally, I share the regret of your Lordships’ Select Committee, and the one in the other place, that we have before us yet another substantial constitutional Bill that is without the benefit of a Green or a White Paper, or pre-legislative hearings. For, to pinch a line from PG Wodehouse, it is always easy to distinguish between a ray of sunshine and the coalition bearing a statute prepared in haste.
My Lords, not for the first time in this Parliament do I find myself urging the Government to take care of our constitution, which I regard as a precious mixture of documents and conventions that need looking after. I think I know something about the basis on which this Bill was put together. It has very much the fingerprints of the Deputy Prime Minister on it. I know the base from which he operates, because he has told us frequently enough; it is to describe our parliamentary system as involving “broken politics” and to say that we have a “broken constitution”. I am paraphrasing what he has said, but the word “broken” frequently appears in his speeches.
I simply do not accept that our political system is broken; nor is our constitution. If you want to look at broken politics, where the word “broken” really applies, there are plenty of parts of the world where you can find it—not least in the Middle East. Politicians, and particularly Deputy Prime Ministers, need to be careful about the language that they use. We, on the contrary, in my view, have a constitution and democratic system of which we can be proud. I cannot be the only Member of this House who has travelled to various countries in the world, including those recently emerged from dictatorships, where they tell us that they admire our political system. They want to know more about it and about how we reconcile the differences between the two Houses, when they occur, as well as how our elections take place and how our electoral law operates. A whole range of things that we have developed over many years, often with great difficulty, are not viewed by countries overseas as being part of a broken political system—absolutely on the contrary. So I simply do not start from the same premise as the Deputy Prime Minister.
This is the only party political point that I shall make, but I think that the Prime Minister needs to be careful about dressing up in grand constitutional argument a political arrangement that guarantees that he will be Prime Minister for five years and about putting a Bill before Parliament to ensure that it lasts for five years. That comes not very convincingly from a Prime Minister who in arithmetic terms has a weaker parliamentary base of his own party than any Prime Minister since the Second World War. If he stays there for five years, he will be one of the longer-serving Prime Ministers, as I think the average for the 20th century was five years. It will not be a bad stint for someone without a parliamentary majority of his own party.
I have two sets of questions. The first is surely the most important, and I do not think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, addressed it. What are the faults that this Bill tries to rectify? The strongest argument—and I can see it—is that it stops the Prime Minister from starting the race, and that it gives undue power to Prime Ministers over Parliament—and, if you like, over the country—to decide when a general election should be. Rather than look at the books on political theory, let us look at the facts. Of the 18 general elections held since the Second World War—and I shall assume that determining the date of the general election is a huge political advantage and that, if the Prime Minister wins the election, he or she has made a good judgment and that, if the Prime Minister loses, he or she has made a bad judgment—10 general elections were won and eight lost by the Prime Minister who called them. Of the 10 where the victories occurred, four of them were either by Mrs Thatcher or my great friend, who also seemed to keep winning elections. Mrs Thatcher is the best example; Tony Blair and Mrs Thatcher between them account for four of those 10 elections—and you get the feeling that whenever they called an election they would probably have won it. It therefore does not seem to me that as a matter of historical fact it is a colossal advantage to be able to determine the date of a general election.
The second fault it is alleged this Bill will put right is that flexibility in determining elections is wrong in principle. I cannot accept that. I could give any number of examples, as could other Members of this House. When an early general election was called in 1951 by Clem Attlee, would it have been better if he had been forced to have a fixed term that saw that Government continue for the full five years, or was it not entirely proper—although sad from my perspective as a lifelong member of the Labour party—that, because he felt his Government was tired and that some of the great characters had died or were unwell, it was right to ask for a further mandate from the public, which actually he won but was then beaten by the electoral system?
Would it have been right to have prevented Mr Heath from calling his election in the middle of the miners’ strike when he judged that that was the right time to call for an election to renew his mandate in a most difficult set of circumstances? I do not think that that was a failure of our constitutional system; it was a strength of it.
I am not at all convinced that flexibility in the way in which we hold general elections is a bad thing. The system whereby a general election is immediately held once a Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence is nothing other than a splendid part of our constitution. That is the most telling point of all and one mentioned in the splendid speech by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. It is far from broken.
For reasons of nostalgia I read what Jim Callaghan said—and those of us who were there will never forget it—after he lost a vote of confidence by one. He said, in the simplest and shortest of speeches:
“Mr. Speaker, now that the House of Commons has declared itself, we shall take our case to the country. Tomorrow I shall propose to Her Majesty that Parliament be dissolved … and I shall then announce … the date of Dissolution, the date of the election and the date of the meeting of the new Parliament”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/3/1979; col. 589.]
Those are splendid words. They almost bring tears to my eyes because shortly after that I was unemployed. I would go as far as to say there was majesty in the simplicity of those words. I dread to think what he would have had to say if this Bill had been an Act of Parliament at that time. He would have said, “The House of Commons has now spoken. I therefore invoke Section (2)(1) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act”—or whatever Act it would have been. I suggest that the kind of detail involved in this Bill diminishes our constitution.
The Minister’s speeches are splendid and very persuasive most of the time, but it took him quite a long time to explain Clause 2 and the circumstances in which Dissolution on a vote of no confidence would take place. Why change it? What is wrong with the system? It has not only worked well, it has worked absolutely perfectly and majestically, so for heaven’s sake leave it alone. I do not think there are any serious problems to which this Bill provides a solution.
I want to make a couple of specific points about what is bad about this Bill. A couple have been mentioned before but it will do no harm to rehearse them briefly. Many of us here have either been in Parliament during four or five-year Parliaments or, in my case, have watched from outside when the electorate made their decision. There is no doubt that the fifth year of a Parliament, in our constitutional history and experience if not in theory, is nearly always a completely unsatisfactory year. It is one in which everything is winding down, and it is ludicrous to suggest that a Government in their fifth year of a five-year Parliament would be doing anything other than providing for the general election, the date of which they knew, both in their legislative programme and in the decisions that they made. Importantly, it extends the whole period of electioneering. I do not want to overstate the case, but again do we really want a system like the one the United States has in which the preparation for an election takes at least a year? That is what would happen if everyone knew in advance.
I have already demonstrated that this does not give a Prime Minister a huge advantage. Do we really want a 12-month period in which expenditure presumably had to be controlled and in which everyone knew that we were simply waiting for the date to come? I remember, as many others here do, that we have only once had a six or a seven-week election—I think that was the 1997 one. There was pretty universal agreement that that was too long for an election period. The public get bored rigid if it goes on for too long. The present period is pretty good: four or five weeks between the calling of an election and the public making their decision.
I sit on an institution that has a four-year cycle, and I assure the noble Lord and the House that in the past months as we are now approaching our four-year deadline, the pre-election process creeps into that four-year cycle. However, in trying to find a balance and to know the right thing to do we also have the example of the European Parliament, which is on a five-year cycle. It is very hard to discern or divine what the right time is, because I assure the noble Lord that, even in the devolved regions, the four-year cycle produces a period when people are obviously preparing. I suspect that that is inevitable in any democracy. Let us hope we do not have a Bill that proposes a two-year cycle, like the House of Representatives in Washington.
I would certainly prefer a four-year cycle to a five-year cycle, but my strong view is that there is no need to change the present arrangements, which provide for a short sharp election in which the public are focused and where colossal sums of money will not need to be spent to extend it over 12 months, or however long the preparation period for the election would be.
My final point on what I dislike about the Bill is that it inevitably weakens Parliament. Part of the drama of Parliament and the Commons is knowing that almost any Division on any Bill—certainly, if the numbers in the Commons make it possible—could precipitate a drama that could result in a general election. Parliament needs to be dramatic and it is important that it is. It is not nine to five, for however many months per year, within fixed terms or within fixed Sessions of Parliament within those fixed terms. That makes for boring tedious politics, and we all know how difficult it is, even under the present system, to make it of interest on a wider basis.
To conclude, this Bill weakens Parliament. It weakens the House of Commons and makes it more predictable. It does not solve any problems that have been identified in any satisfactory way. I hope that my party, when it comes to draw up its manifesto for the next general election will, assuming that this Bill becomes an Act, at the very least say that we should revert to four-year Parliaments, but I would like it to abide by the oldest maxim in the book; if something is working, there is absolutely no need to fix it.
My Lords, as we set out today on proceedings on this important Bill, those on the Pensions Bill set out in parallel in Grand Committee in the Moses Room. At Second Reading on that Bill, I averred that I was batting much too high in the batting order, but that misgiving was as nothing compared to my similar concern about overpromotion today, given the wealth of batting still to come. However, it gives me the unwarranted opportunity to be the first from these Benches to welcome the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Cormack and to congratulate him on it. The debate might have been made for him on this occasion.
It is also the greatest of pleasures, with one caveat, to follow the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. He always speaks with such uncommon good sense on these matters that my one caveat must necessarily be that if I find myself disagreeing with him, I shall spend the rest of the debate asking myself how I could have got it so wrong. Fortunately, I shall give so few hostages to fortune in what will be a brief speech that I shall enjoy the rest of the debate even more. My first observation is based on the symmetry arising from the repeal of the Septennial Act 1715. That Act was preceded in the reign of Queen Anne by paving legislation in 1706; that in the event of the Hanoverian succession, Ministers should cease to sit in the House of Commons. That Act was then repealed in 1708. I had always wondered why the repeal occurred. My only likely conjecture has been that the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 had overtaken the need for the 1706 legislation. I was greatly reassured when I found that my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern agreed with me. Interestingly, the great historian GM Trevelyan, in his magisterial four-volume history of the reign of Queen Anne, draws attention in a footnote to the fact that Montesquieu, writing in 1739, had alluded to the passage of the 1706 Act without apparently realising it had been repealed. After paying a warm tribute to the great understanding of this nation in these affairs, he prayed the 1706 paving legislation in aid of his own argument for a separation of powers, which Trevelyan believed had affected American and French thinking on their own constitution building at the end of that century.
If I fast-forward three-quarters of a century to the last two decades of that century, and concentrate for a moment on the Americans and ourselves—the French Revolution not being exactly conducive to a Speaker’s Conference—it is interesting that while the Americans were soberly, if a little informally, going about their own constitution building, Charles James Fox, who beats me into fourth place in terms of longevity as MP for Westminster, was embarking on his dedicated campaign, born of his own brief experience in Cabinet, to remove the royal prerogative in the calling of elections; the story which is in the very context of this Bill still gripping us today two centuries later.
The reference to the Bill encourages me—and perhaps your Lordships’ House—to cover the next two centuries in a single sentence and to bring me straight to today’s proceedings. We are much in the debt of the Constitution Select Committee in your Lordships’ House for providing us in its eighth report with an energetic canter over the issues. It was admirably and reassuringly assisted by the UCL Constitution Unit—even if one piece of briefing sought to translate that acronym into the disguise of a “University of Central London”. I must remark that, although the Mediterranean littoral is currently seized of a massive political upheaval, in the western democracies less is happening than two centuries ago in terms of constitutional reform—although the recent inability of the Belgians to form a Government runs counter to that universality of peace and quiet. There is, therefore, a general absence of external infectiousness towards reform here.
Of the three major parties, the essence of this Bill contained in its title “Fixed-term Parliaments” uniquely did not appear in the Conservative Party’s manifesto last year. This is clearly a coalition measure and very much in the care of the Deputy Prime Minister. I mean no disrespect either to him or to our coalition partners if I say that I had some difficulty in parsing Mr Clegg’s reply before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee when he said,
“Do I think that in practice 12 months makes an earth-shattering difference in terms of the length of time of a fixed-term Parliament?”,
and he answered his own rhetorical question,
“No. I do … ”.
If the trumpet sounds an uncertain note, who will gird himself for battle?
I understand that several national polling projects have reported that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the nation are in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, but I have not seen any qualitative evidence of why they hold that opinion. For myself, I find the arguments for one side or the other remarkably evenly balanced. I do not propose to draw up a personal balance sheet but shall listen closely to the rest of the debate.
In the mean time, as I am speaking from the government Benches, perhaps I may say that I approve of the argument that a fixed-term Parliament would make for better planning of parliamentary business; nor am I disturbed by the alternative contention that a fixed-term Parliament would enable Her Majesty’s Government better to manipulate the economic cycle. Given that any Government hope to succeed themselves, I do not have such unyielding confidence in Her Majesty’s Treasury so to conduct itself as to achieve the optimal result.
I also think that there is much to be said for the final sentence in lighter print—not the heavy print of a recommendation—of paragraph 43 of the Constitution Select Committee’s report:
“There is a case for saying that any new Prime Minister should at least have the opportunity to seek a fresh mandate in a general election”,
as Eden did in 1955 and as Mr Blair’s delayed retirement prevented his successor from doing, had he wished, prior to the Summer Recess in 2007.
For myself, I am left a little agnostic about the balance underlying the Bill. Where I may be in a gang of one—as my noble friend Lord St John of Fawsley once described the then Mr Hattersley, now the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, in his winding-up speech in the Queen’s Speech debate in 1979—is that, despite the coalition’s rapid resolution of the post-election crisis of last year, I doubt whether the crisis of February 1974 would have been resolved as rapidly without the benefit of the Queen’s prerogative in the background. Together with my noble friend Lord Taverne, I have spent many happy hours explaining British politics to young American students at the start of their semesters abroad in British universities. The students’ curiosity about the Queen’s position in the British constitution always prompts me to allude to February 1974.
It is in part because of the abolition of the prerogative—and, were this the subject of polling, I doubt that a national majority would be found for its abolition—that I regret that a move towards more constitutional consultation or scrutiny on these issues has not found favour with the coalition. There are enough loose ends lying around on the quarterdeck, as the Bill now is, to prompt resort to the memorable conviction of that tersest of American politicians, President Johnson’s great Texan ally, Sam Rayburn, that the wisest words in the English language are, “Wait a minute”. On St David’s Day, I am encouraged by the speech of my noble and learned friend and fellow Welshman Lord Howe of Aberavon to believe that the remaining stages of this Bill are going to be interesting.
My Lords, perhaps the wisest words in the English language are those of Oliver Cromwell, which we can now address to the government Front Bench:
“in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”.
There is no agnosticism but a firm absolutism in the way in which these proposals have been put forward when they are clearly matters of judgment and not matters of utter rigid determination.
It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, with his historical sweep. I was musing on the fact that, if Montesquieu had it wrong and that was translated into the US constitution, nevertheless the US constitution has lasted and it has been rather difficult to amend, so perhaps there are some lessons to be learnt from that. However, I follow the noble Lord in congratulating someone whom I can call my noble friend, Lord Cormack, on his most felicitous maiden speech. I served with him for 30 years in the other place and believe he is an outstanding parliamentarian and—dare I say it—a natural for this place. He would have glided down the Corridor to this place and I welcome him warmly.
I begin by saying that I was most impressed with the report of the committee presided over by my noble friend Lady Jay. When I chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place, I had enormous admiration for the foreign affairs reports of this place. I cannot honestly say that I said so at the time but I certainly had that admiration, and this report is very much within that same tradition. Indeed, that is the case to the point where I wonder whether political science professors such as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, will ever again ask their first-year students to write on fixed-term Parliaments because they can only harmonise on the themes in this report. I look forward to his contribution and to that of my noble friend Lord Morgan, at whose feet I sat for some time. Indeed, I also very much enjoyed the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy.
I was astonished—this is my initial point—at the letter of 16 February from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who I dare say was one of the few on the other side who improved his reputation very much during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. The letter of 16 February was one of the most selective letters I have ever seen. It says that the Constitution Committee published a report on the Bill on 16 December and that the committee,
“endorsed significant elements of the Bill”,
specifically X and Y. The committee indeed endorsed one or two details. However, from reading that letter and the introduction to the response to the report of the Constitution Committee that the Government published last month, which states that,
“The Government was pleased to note therefore the Committee’s endorsement of significant elements of the Government’s proposals”,
who would have thought that the all-party committee’s conclusion was the most devastating indictment? The committee’s report states:
“We take the view that the origins and contents of this Bill owe more to short-term considerations than to a mature assessment of enduring constitutional principles or sustained public demand”.
Why was that not mentioned? It was such a selective letter. In short, the all-party committee concluded that this is no way to run a railroad and certainly no way to change our constitution. Equally, no one can deny the lack of public debate; so much of this has been drawn out of a hat.
As to the proposal’s origins, the Conservative Party traditionally has a tremendous reverence for the constitution and is wary of change—a tradition reflected in the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and in the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack—but that reverence was abandoned to give free rein to the Liberal Democrats and to give them free rein on economic and social policy. The Liberal Democrat Party has again shown an obsession with constitutional change. It was clearly part of a deal and lacked consultation. I cite evidence of the lack of consultation when the Deputy Prime Minister said that he would consult the devolved Administrations about the details that affect them. Would it not have been better to have had that consultation with the devolved Administrations beforehand rather than to do it on the hoof? The context is ill thought through and it smacks of partisan calculations. On page 39, the committee’s report states:
“There is strong evidence to suggest that the Government’s proposals have not been properly thought through”.
On page 41, the committee concludes:
“the constitutional relationship between the provisions of this Bill and the Government’s other proposals for constitutional reform have not been adequately thought through”.
The charge is clearly that the Bill is partisan, ill judged and piecemeal.
The Government’s argument essentially is that the Bill removes powers from the Executive and gives power to Parliament and the wider electorate. The point has been well made about the vote of confidence—my noble friend Lord Grocott made the point about 1979. While he was speaking, I was musing on the recent election in Ireland. Clearly, as a result of the awful mess of the economy made by Fianna Fáil, there was an enormous revolt of public opinion against that party. Had that dramatic drop in confidence taken place halfway through the fixed term and had there therefore been a vote of no confidence in Fianna Fáil, under this provision there would have been 14 days in which Fianna Fáil, with its substantial numbers in the Dáil, could have cobbled together a new coalition with some elements who would not otherwise have found their way into Government. That new coalition could have been formed in spite of the enormous public rejection—so much for public accountability.
The point has been well made that the Government can, in any event, manipulate the economy. The broad principle, in my judgment, is that the less frequent are elections, the less accountable Parliament is to the electorate. I would not go quite as far as the Chartists in arguing for annual elections, nor do I agree with the two years of the House of Representatives, because there is constant electioneering within that branch of the US legislature, but five years means, effectively, that there is less opportunity—the French have a phrase, “sortir les sortants”—to get rid of the rascals, to bring accountability.
There is clearly a correlation between the length of a fixed-term parliament and accountability to the people. A Government can bring in all the unpopular measures within the first couple of years of a five-year term and therefore seek to feed the great beast and give the Government what they want. Equally, there have been allegations of inconsistency on the part of some of my friends on this side, but in 2007, when there was a change of Prime Minister without an election, the Conservative Party called for an election. That would not be possible under the proposals which the coalition is now bringing forward. In my judgment, there is much grounds for the unease which the committee talks about.
Should it be four or five years? I have not heard any, or any sufficient, case for a length of five years. Nowadays events seem to move far more speedily. On the international scene, one thinks of the year of revolutions in 1989, or the current troubles in the Middle East. Equally, in terms of the financial crises, the whole context of a Parliament can change very speedily. The Conservatives have not mentioned any particular date; the Liberal Democrats have argued in the past for four years, which is the pattern for devolved Administrations, and there has been little serious argument in favour of a longer period, which, as I have sought to submit, would make the Parliament less accountable. Will it last? My noble friend Lord Grocott said no. I fear that it may, because the Executive have such a vested interest in continuing. There is real concern that a Government may well be content with the five years; any Executive would like to have the certainty of five years rather than four.
If your Lordships will allow me one final reflection, I share the sense of unease, but I am prepared to accept the case for a fixed-term Parliament, which I will support, even though I would argue for greater flexibility. It is clearly not a matter of absolutes, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, has argued very persuasively, a matter of judgment. Therefore, the response to the debate will provide a clear test of whether the Government are listening and open to persuasion; or whether, as we saw with the constituencies and AV Bill, the Bill will be brought down to us like tablets from the mountain, with no possibility of serious change, however well the argument is made against it. The danger is that, rather as with the AV Bill, we will be faced with coalition sclerosis—the inability of the two coalition parties to reach agreement on the changes.
The debate has only just started. Surely the proper course is to debate first and then enshrine in legislation. The Government have chosen to do otherwise. The Deputy Prime Minister told the committee:
“We want to make sure that it”—
that is, the Bill—
“is subject to the greatest possible scrutiny, which it rightly deserves”.
Surely this is not an academic matter but one, as I have argued, of judgment. The Government may well have an argument, but at least let them concede that, if they are not wrong, there may be a better view on certain of the matters. I end, as I began, by quoting Cromwell: the Government should think that they “may be mistaken”.
My Lords, I, too, express great appreciation of the maiden speech of our new colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I had the privilege of serving with him in another place for 30 years and came greatly to admire his understanding and perception of how our constitution worked. As others have said, today was the ideal opportunity for him to make his debut in this House. He will continue to be listened to with great interest and even affection.
I am, however, surprised by the tenor of the speeches that have come from the opposition Benches today, bearing in mind the Opposition’s commitment to a fixed-term Parliament in their recent election manifesto. It was also strange to hear the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, say that he saw partisanship in this Bill. I would have liked to hear that spelt out a little more clearly so that the criticism might have been answered. The noble Lord spoke for 13 minutes but did not make that case.
I was also surprised to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, from the Front Bench describe the Bill as a disaster, when he also—at least, by implication—seems to be committed to the notion of a fixed-term Parliament. We must therefore focus on the problems that give rise to such extreme criticism from those who are apparently supportive of the principle. However, I am bound to say that there was a difference between the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who plainly does not like any kind of constitutional reform and sets his face entirely against any change in our system of government, which suggests a sentimentality that I find rather strange, given that the Government in which he served presided over such significant changes.
It seems that the Bill has not been scrutinised with the necessary time that would ideally be given to an important piece of constitutional legislation. However, those committees of both Houses that have deliberated upon it have found much to commend and much to criticise. Surely, during our debates in this House we can take account of the suggestions that have been made without throwing out the baby with the bath water. As to the main question which seems to have given rise to difficulty, about whether a fixed-term Parliament should be for four or five years, it is a genuinely difficult matter to decide. Having served in nine Parliaments in another place, I have had experience of short and long Parliaments and I am bound to say that short Parliaments seemed to me for the most part to constitute interregnums during which no significant steps could be taken, the country was in a turmoil of uncertainty, business did not know the background against which it had to make its decisions and private citizens could not make up their minds about what their future best interests would be. It seems to me that fixed-term Parliaments provide the stability that is utterly desirable. It is not an accident that most democracies have them.
On balance, I come down in favour of a five-year term, although I listened with great interest to the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy. I believe that the last year of any Parliament is apt to be unsettled. However, if the last year of a four-year Parliament is unsettled, there is a very limited amount of time in which Governments can put their best thinking to work. In my judgment, in 1,000 days they do not have the opportunity to fine-tune, take account of opinion outside, listen and shape their decisions with the deliberation and consideration that they ought to give to that.
It is also clearly right that there should be ways of recognising the need for early elections in the event of political crises. These happen in the best organised countries. The change from the 55 per cent cut-off to the two-thirds requirement for parliamentary voting for dissolution was a sensible step. I have not heard much criticism of that that seems to me to have stuck. As for the passing of the vote of no confidence in two weeks followed by the automatic dissolution if a vote of confidence in a new Parliament is not put in its place, we can deal with some of those issues at later stages of the Bill. I suggest that the case is very strong for defining the terms of the vote of no confidence that would bring about the dissolution. Looking back through the motions of no confidence over the past 100 years, I see that only four led to the downfall of a Government but there were many other cases when the language was such that it might have been construed by the Speaker as having been the equivalent of a vote of no confidence. I also think that the Speaker’s position would be extremely uncomfortable if he had the power to exercise discretion in these matters. I do not think that that would work effectively, notwithstanding the precedents that we have had. The Bill has to be a great deal more precise about what is required to enable a dissolution to occur.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, referred to possible manipulation by the Prime Minister of the day as being a serious danger. He has a real point there. We have to consider how to avoid the possibility that a resignation by a Government to force a dissolution would be made impossible. Two weeks may not be long enough to sort out that problem and it may well be difficult to construct another Government in that period. I hope that we shall come back to that issue later.
I take a less fatal view of the possibility of clashes with the other election date in May. It appears to me that in the United States at least the electors are capable of voting on many things on the same day—on individual appointments, elections at different tiers, the election of judges—and I have not noticed that that does not work very well. In the devolved Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales it is feared that electors might be distracted by focusing on national, United Kingdom issues. Those thoughts have to be listened to very carefully. However, as my noble friend Lord Rennard said, it would be possible to adjust that slightly. Again, that is not a reason for opposing the Bill and it seems to me that it is a matter to which we can return in Committee.
I very much welcome the general principle of the Bill. It is a forward looking step. It intends to—and, I believe, does—transfer to Parliament from the Executive the responsibility for elections and when they should occur. I very much welcome that. There have been too many opportunistic, manipulative moves by Prime Ministers for party advantage. The Bill enables us to depart from that.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on his maiden speech. I note with pleasure that he now seems to be in robust good health. I have known him for 10 years in two capacities, one is his chairmanship of the all-party group that has been indefatigable in sustaining the arguments against an elected second Chamber and for a reformed appointed Chamber along the lines of the Bill introduced—I cannot remember how many times now—by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. The second capacity is his chairmanship—for many decades, I believe—of the All-Party Parliamentary Arts and Heritage Group, which has given such great pleasure and, indeed, education to so many of us.
In preparing my speech I have been very much assisted, as we all have, by the report of the Constitution Committee chaired by my noble friend Lady Jay of Paddington. I look forward to a riposte to the Government’s riposte. I hope that she will add her own recollections—perhaps this has been mentioned—of her father’s very relevant experience in 1979.
The central scenario that I want to consider is to some extent my response to the very fair question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart—this is not said in a partisan spirit, although it might be viewed as such—namely, what happens when the coalition collapses? That is the central question. The whole Bill is framed to try to ensure that it cannot collapse and that it can be nailed down as if by President Mubarak. People say it is like being locked in a loveless marriage, but the idea that it was dreamt up in heaven does not quite tally with one’s instincts.
Why were some of us quite content with the Labour party manifesto one minute and then appearing to say something else the next? In the case of two recent Bills, many of us were supportive. My reaction to the Bill preceding this on AV was to be vaguely supportive until we started to look at some of the detail. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, will accept in good faith that there are so many contortions in the detail because of the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny, the lack of a Green Paper and a White Paper and the fact that the Bill is designed specifically not for the good of the Commonwealth for the next 500 years but to keep the coalition going for five years.
There is going to be a degree of sophistry in the arguments that are put forward. I would compare the central argument to the famous Catch-22 in Joseph Heller’s novel. Once one has nailed down the idea that there has to be a fixed-term Parliament for five years, obviously all the arrangements for votes of confidence and the question of whether the Prime Minister has to agree with the Speaker and whether anyone can turn up at Buckingham Palace or whatever are secondary to ensuring that the scheme cannot fail. Five years, again, has been designed clearly to maximise the period of this particular coalition, because not until five years have passed—it is hoped on the other side—can the economic and social crisis facing this country possibly turn around so that not everyone on the other side will be decimated at the next general election. If bets were taken on how the public would view a vote on five years versus four years at the moment, I do not think the bookmakers would agree to take any bets other than one way for very long.
The little exchange between the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Rooker, was very informative. As I understand it, the argument is that we have made arrangements on party funding in a five-year cycle and somehow it would be very inconvenient if the electoral cycle did not match that cycle. What an extraordinary way of putting the tail before the dog. Without necessarily repeating every word my noble friend said—I agree with the sentiments and the language—I must say that he made a very fair point in his question. I think the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made an inappropriate remark. He is forensically very able in dealing with all these matters, but I did not think that that remark was particularly apt.
I have one question about how this would work in practice. We all remember 1974 and everything that happened in January, February and March that year, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, who will have it branded on his soul; he was Principal Private Secretary to Mr Heath. Let us say that this Bill had been an Act. The Labour Government came in with a majority of minus one or plus one or whatever it was.
Minus three, jolly good. Can someone just spell out what the scenario would have been then? Who would have done what, with which and to whom, and would not the royal prerogative have somehow come into it at all? I ask the question in all innocence because I just cannot work out the answer looking at this Bill. I suppose that Harold Wilson would have been able to manufacture Dissolution by manufacturing a confidence vote that he would lose. Is that what we are supposed to believe? I would like to know where I am wrong. It seems to me an extraordinary contortion. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said so eloquently, when you go around the Commonwealth and other places on electoral missions and to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and so on, people tend to respect the very things that we are now going to tear up. It is English or British pragmatism gone mad, you might say, but these things work, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. The balance of evidence for deciding this matter is the degree to which it is broke and the degree to which fixing it will be satisfactory. That is the balance that we should obviously look to.
Finally, as an aside, how many of the IPU 77 countries cited by the Government in their reposte to the memorandum of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, can change their whole constitution by a single vote in the House of Commons? That worries me as well because many of them, I am sure, have a two-thirds majority to change the constitution. We have in this Bill a two-thirds majority to instruct the Speaker to sign a piece of paper, like Cromwell or someone, to say that this is now a lost vote of confidence. If the principle of a two-thirds majority is so important for that, why do we not have some sort of two-thirds majority provision on constitutional Bills generally? I am happy to echo what my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton said in this characteristically superb forensic speech: that we will be protected only by the fact that unless the Government make some significant changes, they will be up a gum-tree so far as the Parliament Act is concerned. They could get away from under the Parliament Act if they do another U-turn on all the arguments that they have been advancing today, but that is something else. It is against that background that we will, I am sure, have a very interesting Committee indeed.
My Lords, I echo those who have expressed their pleasure at the arrival of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in this House and welcome him here among us. I did not have the pleasure of working with him in the other place, but I have enjoyed his friendship for a number of years and I believe that he will add greatly to the light as well as the enlightenment of our proceedings.
None of your Lordships would query the need for a statutory limit on the maximum term of a Parliament, even if there is room for disagreement on how long that maximum term should be. However, the case for a statutory fixed term seems to be much less clear. It would have been beneficial to have had much more pre-legislative scrutiny of these proposals, although that would mean that we would be talking about something else today.
If one introduces statutory provisions for fixed-term Parliaments, one immediately has to try to define, and prescribe for, the circumstances in which, despite that provision, political conditions make it necessary for there to be Dissolution before the end of the statutory fixed term. It is almost certainly impossible to define in the statute all the possible circumstances in which premature Dissolution should be permitted. As the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, has just reminded us, there were two elections in 1974, during both of which I was the Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, first to Mr Heath and then to Mr Wilson. I have been scratching my head to think how those elections could have been fitted into the straitjacket of this Bill. Would Mr Heath have had to engineer a vote of confidence in the House of Commons by instructing a number of his members to abstain on the vote so that he lost it? Is that how Mr Wilson would have had to deal with the matter in October 1974? It is difficult to see how a situation of that kind could have been fitted into the provisions of this Bill. That suggests to me that more consideration needs to be given to this whole matter.
When a situation arises that is not covered by the statute, politicians will be obliged to devise some clever way of stretching the statute and precipitating the Dissolution of Parliament and a general election. While that process is going on, no doubt in an atmosphere of crisis, there will inevitably be doubt and uncertainty. I would be inclined to argue, therefore, that a fixed term for a Parliament is a political objective that can be considered only in the political circumstances of the time. If with a statutory fixed term in place that objective became for whatever reason unattainable, in circumstances in which the statute did not permit Dissolution, the Government would presumably have to introduce emergency legislation to override the statutory provision and take whatever time was required for that: or, conceivably, the Sovereign would have to be requested by the Prime Minister, or perhaps by Parliament, to grant Dissolution despite the legislation.
It is argued that the present system, which confers on the Prime Minister the right to request the Dissolution of Parliament at a time of his choosing, gives an incumbent Prime Minister an unfair advantage over his political opponents. As one noble Lord suggested, this is a matter as much, or more, of media speculation as of reality. In practice, the issue is rarely as simple as that. For one thing, a Prime Minister who exercised that right prematurely and purely to seek political advantage over his political opponents would run the risk of being punished by the voters for his opportunism. The exercise of the right imposes upon a Prime Minister, as I have seen, an agonising choice, in deciding upon which he puts his party's future in government and his own political career on the line. In practical terms, whether and when to exercise the right to request Dissolution must always be a very complex question. It is a lonely decision, but one that can be taken only after extensive consultation.
I recognise why it suits the present Government to create a presumption that the next general election will not be held until May 2015, but I question whether that justifies the introduction of this legislation. The objective could be just as effectively achieved by a commitment in a White Paper or even a Statement by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons that for the duration of this Parliament he will not exercise his right to request Dissolution before the end of the maximum period that he has stated unless ineluctable circumstances arising from unforeseen changes in parliamentary or political circumstances oblige him to do so.
I take some consolation in the thought that, even if this Bill is passed and this Parliament runs its full statutory course, no Parliament can bind its successors. The next Government and the next Parliament will not be bound by this statute if they do not want to be; they will be able to repeal it and revert to traditional practice. I therefore suggest to your Lordships that the question whether and, if so, when a Parliament should be dissolved before the end of its statutory maximum life should be determined pre-eminently by political process and is not really amenable to statutory provision.
If this proposal for a statutory fixed term goes forward, there is then the question of how long that term should be. I share the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. Experience shows that the imminence of a general election casts its shadow over government and Parliament for many months. Even with a term of five years, that shadow extends over the last year of the term and tends to reduce to no more than four years the period during which government policy-making and parliamentary debate can effectively be pursued without too much looking over the shoulder at electoral considerations. If legislation were to set a fixed term of, let us say, four years, that period would be reduced to more like three years. That would not leave enough room for sensible policy-making and good parliamentary debate before the imminence of the forthcoming election began to cast its distorting shadow. So I hope that, if this Bill becomes law, the fixed term will be five years, as is proposed in the Bill, and not some shorter term.
My Lords, before indicating my thoughts about the Bill, perhaps I may say gently to the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Clegg, that between 1832 and now there have been a number of extremely significant constitutional changes, not least the giving to the people of Scotland and Wales a voice in their own decision-making and, perhaps even more significant, the introduction of the universal franchise and the giving of the vote to women.
It has been fascinating to listen to some of the lessons from history that we should take on board as we go through the process of scrutinising the Bill and to hear of some of the problems that have arisen when previous elections have been declared. As many noble Lords have said, this Bill has been cobbled together in haste, clearly with narrow, short-term party interests in mind, without a Green Paper, White Paper or pre-legislative scrutiny, and to a very tight timetable—what the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in the other place referred to as a “scrutiny bypass”.
I can see no cause for speed, not least because of the longer parliamentary Session. It was clearly no coincidence that the Leader of the Commons announced the extension of the Session on the day of the Second Reading of this Bill. According to the Deputy Prime Minister, it was done to align the Sessions of this Parliament to the fixed-term provision. That produced ill thought-out proposals, as was clearly shown in the embarrassing U-turn that had to be done by the Deputy Prime Minister in response to the furore that followed the coalition agreement’s statement that a “binding Motion” would be put before the House of Commons stating that the next general election would be held on the first Thursday of May 2015 and that a vote of 55 per cent of Members would be needed to bring down the Government. That proved to be an unsustainable proposition. The “binding Motion” disappeared and the 55 per cent vote became a two-thirds majority. I mention that because it shows the confusion that seems to have surrounded the whole Bill right from its inception.
A statement made by the current Prime Minister during the general election campaign has also disappeared. He said that if there was a change of Prime Minister during the course of a Parliament—clearly he was trying to have a go at Gordon Brown—there should be a general election within six months. That, we are told, has been superseded and improved on by this Bill. It may have been superseded, but nothing could be improved by this flawed piece of legislation.
It is a great pity that a Bill that I support in principle is so flawed in detail. I have been committed to four-year fixed-term Parliaments since it became Labour Party policy in the early 1990s, as ironed out by the committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Plant, in which both the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and I were involved. The policy was ultimately carried by the Labour Party conference. We had long discussions as to how to arrive at a fixed-term Parliament and how to arrive at a four-year fixed-term Parliament. We had to ensure the integrity of the proposal. It was made clear that it would have to be built into legislation to allow for an election to be triggered when a Government lack the support of Parliament and would operate under a strict, clearly defined set of rules, unlike the sort of confusion that we seem to have in this Bill.
As has been said, there is nothing unique about the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments. They apply to our devolved Parliaments and Assemblies and to local government. They have been introduced in most western European states, the US, the EU, most of the Australian states and in most of the provinces of Canada, as well as at federal level. But in all those instances there are safety valves that have been either legislated for or provided by constitutional conventions of no confidence motions leading to dissolution.
There are reasons why, as a past party organiser, I think that a fixed-term Parliament is a good thing. As well as removing the power of the Prime Minister, it gives clarity to our electoral procedures. It will enable electoral registration officers to schedule their work and put current deadlines into a more coherent timetable. It will give time to increase voter registration and without doubt it will bring clarity to the timing of the electoral expenditure limits, to which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred, by enabling people to work to fixed dates. It might also bring some sensible construction to the legislative programme, building in time for consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny—something denied to this and the other constitutional Bills that have been rushed through Parliament.
My main objection to the Bill is the proposal to turn a five-year maximum into a five-year norm. Well, it might be five years, or it might be five years and two months in exceptional circumstances. I ask the Minister whether it can be envisaged that those exceptional circumstances—and we do not know what they might be—could further extend the period, with the approval of both Houses, of course.
As has been spelt out, since 1945 three years and 10 months has been the average for a Parliament. Since 1979, four Parliaments have been around for four years and, exceptionally, three lasted for five years. Overall, four years has been the norm. The Deputy Prime Minister tried to negate these facts by misinterpreting the words of Lord Asquith during the passage of the 1911 Parliament Bill. The words to me are quite clear. Lord Asquith said that a five-year term,
“probably amounts in practice to an actual legislative working term of four years”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/2/1911; col. 1749.]
Those words could not be clearer and to cite them as a reason for five-year terms I find extraordinary.
Here we have yet another somersault by the Liberal Democrats, who were long-term supporters of four-year fixed-term Parliaments, as approved by their 2007 party conference, and who vehemently supported the Bill introduced by David Heath MP for four-year Parliaments. When and why in the negotiations between the Conservative and Lib Dem teams did four years become five years? We are told that it was a matter of judgment, but perhaps we could have a little clarification of how that judgment was arrived at. I am not sure whether we will get it, because we are still waiting to be told why the number of MPs had to be 600.
The arguments for four years as opposed to five are quite evident. They reflect devolved control and international experience. As several constitutional experts made clear as witnesses to the Constitution Committee, that period is by far the most accountable time for a Government to sit. I hope that when we have the debates in Committee we can have much further discussion as to the benefits and values of a four-year Parliament. I do not accept the argument that we would end up having the last year solely discussing when an election would be. That happens even with fixed five-year Parliaments. There is a lot more confusion about when the election might be and a lot of pressure is put on. I cannot accept arguments that say that we should not have any timing or that we should go for five years.
I do not wish to intrude on the question of the date, because I am sure that my friends from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will wish to do that for themselves, but I make reference to the Scottish elections review that was carried out by my namesake, although no relation, Ron Gould. The review followed the holding of the Scottish Parliament and local elections on 3 May 2007, when 140,000 electors lost their vote. His comments are equally applicable to this debate. He said that,
“the voter was treated as an afterthought”,
in the planning and organisation of those elections. This has clearly not entered the Government’s thinking. He also said that Ministers should take,
“voters’ interests as the primary objective”.
Again, it appears that the voters’ interests have been ignored.
The Scottish Parliament decoupled the Scottish parliamentary elections from the local elections only to find the principle undermined by the fact that the general election will be held on the same date. I appreciate that an offer has been made for discussions with the Scottish Parliament and the devolved Assemblies to ask and perhaps suggest that they might wish to look at their dates, but it would be much simpler for this Bill to change its date than to go through the complicated process of asking the Scottish Parliament and devolved Assemblies to look at their dates. It is a great pity that it did not occur to the Government to have discussions with the devolved areas prior to the introduction of this Bill. Whatever happens, whether we change the date in this Bill or whether the Scottish Parliament and the devolved Assemblies change their dates, there will be a serious impact on devolved institutions. Asking people in those areas to elect two different Executives on different electoral boundaries—and there may well be different manifestos—on the same day could be a recipe for disaster.
What I find absolutely confusing about this Bill—I have a very simple mind and I like things to be simple—are the provisions in Clause 2. I do not intend to go into them as so many have done, but the complexities of that clause and the debate that we have had today have made my confusion even worse. I would like somebody to say why we cannot have a simple solution. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in his excellent maiden speech, made that point very clearly. It seems to me that what we are looking for is simplicity, not confusion, when we are building legislation. Surely there is something wrong if we can have confused legislation. My other point is that, if there is to be a vote of no confidence in a Government, surely it is then for the electorate, not MPs, to decide who the new Government should be.
My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer said that he did not think that there was any difficulty or problem in respect of the courts on what is a vote of no confidence and who can take a confidence Motion. However, I would like greater clarity. I absolutely respect his knowledge as compared to mine, which is nil, but this is all the more reason why I would like him to explain why he thinks that the Speaker’s certificate could not be challenged in court. The paper from the House of Commons Library goes even further. The lack of clarity creates the remote possibility of a lame-duck Government unable to secure their business yet imprisoned in office by an Opposition unwilling to trigger an election.
The legislation also fails to deal with the issue of prerogative powers. On the one hand, the Bill removes the prerogative powers of the Queen to dissolve Parliament, but on the other hand it does not remove the Queen’s prerogative power to prorogue Parliament. That surely cannot be right. This could be interpreted as a get-out for a Prime Minister, as it makes it possible for a Prime Minister facing a vote of no confidence that he is likely to lose to go to the Queen and seek the prorogation of Parliament to avoid that crisis and to buy time to restore a coalition. Another scenario could be where the Government had lost a vote of confidence. During the 14-day grace to form a new Government, they would have an opportunity to prorogue Parliament expressly to prevent an alternative Government and thereby trigger a general election. I find it all extremely confusing and I cannot understand why we cannot have a simple vote of confidence.
In conclusion, I can only reiterate the words of my right honourable friend Sadiq Khan, who said that,
“unfortunately the coalition has hijacked a sensible and progressive idea, amended it for its own means and tried to rush through legislation preventing a proper, wide-ranging debate”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/1/11; col. 797.]
There has been no consultation and scrutiny. The Bill is a short-term compromise to hold together two coalition parties. Far from being a careful analysis of how to redesign our constitution, it is the product of a political imperative in an attempt to ensure survival of the coalition to a full term. To me, it seems like a piece of—and I use the word advisedly—gerrymandering in that it does not, as has been stated, take the absolute power from the Prime Minister that we are told it should do. It gives extra power to the Speaker and I wonder whether that is appropriate—I do not accept the analogy given by the Minister in relation to money Bills. Nor does it strengthen the powers of MPs in the other place. I hope that when the Bill leaves this House it will be more coherent and completely simplified and that it will provide for four-year fixed-term Parliaments.