Second Reading (Continued)
My Lords, by the end of the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, I had almost forgotten that he had opened it by reminding us that the Labour Party supports fixed-termed parliaments. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, I was surprised that he omitted to say how he would legislate for fixed-term parliaments. I look forward to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, telling us.
I will be very happy to subject the Opposition’s Bill to the same critical scrutiny that I now plan to bring to the Government’s Bill. I share the scepticism of my noble friend Lord Cormack, a fellow son of Lincolnshire, who I have known for well over 40 years since I was a young and precocious schoolboy.
I propose to discuss the Bill in terms of process and substance. I begin with process and the Government’s response to the report on the Bill from the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House. I declare an interest as a member of the committee. In our report on the Bill, as various noble Lords have noted, we drew attention to the speed with which it had been prepared. It was introduced with no Green Paper, no prior consultation and certainly no formal pre-legislative scrutiny. We had to move extremely quickly, as did the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place. We also made the point that in recent times there has been little public discussion of fixed-term parliaments, although the issue has been on the constitutional reform agenda for the past 20 years. The Bill, we further recorded, appeared to be the product of short-term political expediency rather than the result of a mature consideration of enduring constitutional principles or sustained public demand.
How, then, did the Government respond to these points? They claim in paragraph 3 that the committee had heard evidence from constitutional experts that,
“the concept of fixed-term Parliaments has been considered and debated by politicians and academics for many years and in great detail”.
Really? Some Private Members’ Bills have been introduced on the subject—three in the past 10 years—but what academic debate has there been? Perhaps the Minister can tell us what academic literature, since Owen Hood Phillips’s Reform of the Constitution, published in 1970, has addressed the issue of fixed-term parliaments and done so in any detail, never mind great detail? There is some work by Robert Blackburn, not least a section in his book, The Electoral System in Britain, but, apart from that, what literature is there and to what extent has that literature engendered debate? Can my noble and learned friend identify any substantial academic debate that has taken place?
The claim that there has been such a debate is taken as the basis for the Government not accepting that there has been no mature assessment of the constitutional principles relating to fixed-term parliaments. Perhaps, then, my noble and learned friend can explain why this Bill derives from a coalition agreement that said that there would be a “binding Motion” placed before the House of Commons stating that the next election would be held on the first Thursday of May 2015? At what point was it realised within government that there was no one to be bound by such a “binding” Motion?
The agreement also stated that legislation would provide for Dissolution if 55 per cent or more of the House voted in favour. Any suggestion that this derived from any clear constitutional principle is somewhat undermined by David Laws in his recent book, 22 Days in May, where he writes:
“After some work on Ed Llewellyn’s calculator, and consideration of by-election risks, it was decided that a 55% vote of MPs would be required to provide a dissolution. This was just greater than the combined opposition and Lib Dem parliamentary parties, thereby safeguarding the Conservative position”.
No doubt it was a more mature assessment of constitutional principles that led to the threshold being set in this Bill at two-thirds of MPs voting rather than 55 per cent.
The response also claims:
“It is also wrong to say that there is not public support for the principles of fixed-term Parliaments. There was a very strong demonstration at the 2010 general election that political reform was a high priority for the electorate”.
The committee report did not refer to public support—we know that people when asked say they support fixed terms—but to “sustained public demand”. Again, can the Minister kindly provide evidence for that claim? Were fixed-term Parliaments really an election issue? I remind him of what Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley say in The British General Election of 2010. They note that political reform was, unusually, an issue but go on to say:
“But focus groups reported that media discussion about different electoral systems, hung parliaments and coalitions passed over the heads of voters”.
Perhaps the issue of fixed-term Parliaments did not go over their heads and they did engage, in which case perhaps my noble and learned friend can provide empirical evidence for that claim.
The Government in their response also refute any claim that the Bill is being rushed. We are told that the Bill was introduced in the other place on 22 July last year and did not complete its Commons stages until 18 January of this year. That may be because of the delay in scheduling the Bill. It had its Second Reading on 13 September and had three days in Committee, the last of which was an extra day that had to be allocated. We are told that at Report stage,
“all amendments which were selected for debate were in fact debated in full”.
The operative words there are,
“all amendments which were selected for debate”.
This is by way of failing to engage properly with the Constitution Committee’s observation that, save where there are justifiable reasons for acting more quickly, the proper way to introduce a constitutional reform proposal is to publish a Green or White Paper, or a draft Bill, and to take the comments and concerns raised in the process of consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny into account in the legislation that follows. As it stands, there has been no time for thorough scrutiny and examination. Why in any event is there a need to move so quickly? It is not like the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill where there was an obvious time constraint. In this case, as the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, said, it is sufficient for the Prime Minister to announce that he will not be inviting the Queen to dissolve Parliament until May 2015. There is then the rest of the Parliament available to get the Bill through. I shall be interested to hear why this is a measure regarded as requiring such speedy passage.
I turn to the substance of the Bill. I have a particular concern with the definition of a vote of confidence in Clause 2(2). As we have already heard, an early general election is triggered if the Speaker of the House of Commons certifies that on a specified day,
“the House passed a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty's Government (as then constituted)”
and a period of 14 days elapses without the House passing any Motion expressing confidence in any Government of Her Majesty.
As has been noted, there is no definition of what constitutes a vote of no confidence. The elephant definition is assumed—that is, one knows one when one sees one, or rather that the Speaker knows one when he sees one. But will he? A vote of confidence takes different forms. It has not been confined to an expressly worded Motion. I did research looking at every vote for most of the 20th century. The Bill stipulates that a certificate is issued when the House has passed a Motion of confidence. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, asked, what happens if the Government introduce a Motion of confidence and it is defeated? The House has not passed a Motion of no confidence; it has negated a Motion of confidence.
However, I wish to focus on those Motions which the Government believe are so crucial that the Government cannot sensibly continue if they are defeated. I remind my noble and learned friend what the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, said at the conclusion of Second Reading of the European Communities Bill in 1972. If the Government lost the vote, he said,
“this Parliament cannot sensibly continue”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17/2/72; col. 752.]
There have been a number of Bills of similar importance since that time.
If this Bill is passed and a similar measure comes before Parliament—one crucial to the Government’s programme—what does the Speaker do? Bear in mind that the situation is not comparable to the Speaker certifying a money Bill. There is a statutory definition of a money Bill and, for quite understandable reasons, the Speaker waits until a Bill has cleared the Commons before certifying it as a money Bill. This is all clearly explained in the Constitution Committee’s recent report, Money Bills and Commons Financial Privilege. Under the Bill before us, the Speaker will have to act prospectively without any statutory guidance. The Government’s response to the Constitution Committee report states:
“Where there is doubt about whether a motion is a no-confidence motion, we would expect the Speaker to inform Members before they vote on it whether, were it to be passed, he would certify it as a no-confidence motion”.
So, on a Bill similar to the European Communities Bill, what would he do? Would he check with Government as to their stance? Would that not raise the prospect of drawing him into political controversy? What if he failed to consult and took a view at odds with that of the Government? Again, there would be the prospect of being dragged into political controversy. Also, what happens if the Speaker fails to certify a vote as one of no confidence but the Government regard it as a matter of confidence and, on losing the vote, resign? In that situation, the 14-day rule does not apply. The quest to find a new Government, as the Minister, Mark Harper has confirmed, is not time-limited. If the Opposition wish to avoid an election and oppose a Dissolution Motion, what happens? The situation may be unlikely, but as long as it is not impossible, we need to consider whether more needs to be done to cover such an eventuality.
Before I leave Clause 2, I have one further question for my noble and learned friend. Subsection (2)(b) refers to the 14-day period ending,
“without the House passing any motion expressing confidence in any Government of Her Majesty”.
The Explanatory Notes refer to the House passing “a” motion rather than “any” motion. The wording appears more flexible than that in subsection (2)(a). Can my noble and learned friend explain the reason for that particular wording in subsection (2)(b)?
I turn briefly to the provision for a five-year rather than a four-year fixed term. The Deputy Prime Minister said that a five-year term flows with some of the founding texts of our unwritten constitution. When I asked him what these were, when he appeared before the Constitution Committee, he cited only the Parliament Act 1911. Can my noble and learned friend enlighten us as to what the other documents are?
We are told that for most legislatures around the globe, a four-year term is the norm, although the data appear to cover terms rather than necessarily fixed terms and do not distinguish by type of regime. Can my noble and learned friend confirm the evidence offered to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place by Professor Robert Hazell that a four-year term is the norm in continental Europe and in Westminster systems?
I was also going to quote Professor Hazell’s evidence in which he lists in some detail the commitment to four-year fixed terms by both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrat Party, but that is no longer necessary as others have made the point. I was also going to respond to the Government’s response to the Constitution Committee’s report asserting that the reason that some Parliaments are ended after four years is political opportunism. I was going to point out that exactly the same observation could be made about Parliaments extending to five Sessions, but I no longer need to do so as my noble and learned friend conceded exactly that point in his opening speech. I heard nothing in his speech that constituted a compelling argument for a five-year term. I think it would be difficult for a Government to generate a full five-year programme and remain vigorous by the fifth Session. I do not think that it is necessarily healthy for the Government, as government, or for the electorate.
As we have heard, the Bill is supposed to restore trust in politics, but I am not sure how pushing ahead with it, with no pre-legislative scrutiny and no attempt to consult the public on whether they would prefer a five or a four-year term helps bolster trust in the political process. I know the argument that the measure reduces the power of the Prime Minister, but that is not relevant to the point I am making. Does one restore the trust of people in politics by leaving them out of the process?
That brings me full circle. Why the hurry? My noble and learned friend may feel that I have put a lot of questions to him but that is a necessary consequence of the absence of any consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny. There remain a lot more questions still to be put.
My Lords, I feel privileged to join all those who have tendered their congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I think it was 41 years ago when he joined me in the House of Commons. He was then a callow youth, but I remember that within a very short time he had made a considerable impact upon that august body. I am very proud indeed to follow the address of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. I agree with everything he says, but putting it that way would almost make it seem as though we are speaking as equals; we are not. He has given a scholarly and professional analysis of the situation and a most magisterial and utterly justified rebuke to the massive, porcupinal difficulties with which this piece of legislation bristles.
Somebody asked the Abbé Sieyès at the end of the French Revolution, “What did you do, Father Abbé, during the great upheaval?”. He said, “I survived, my son”. That is the great thing, in politics and in life; survival. I have no doubt but that, in those heady hours and days after the election of May last year, survival must have been foremost in the minds of Conservatives, who realised that they could not govern, certainly not govern credibly or effectively, for any period of time without some form of alliance. The Liberal Democrats suddenly found themselves, for the first time since December 1917, in Government—that excludes the rather artificial period of coalition during the Second World War. One can well understand, therefore, that flashing like a light in the minds of the two parties would have been the question of survival. There is nothing disgraceful in that; nothing wrong at all.
That, of course, could have been done quite simply, as the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, with his vast experience and understanding, made perfectly clear. It would only have needed, possibly, a White Paper—not even that; a solemn undertaking given by the Prime Minister, joined by the Deputy Prime Minister, would have made it perfectly clear that this was an arrangement that would last for five years, unless there were unforeseen circumstances. A binding motion would not have been any more binding than either or both of those two methods. That, I think, is where the problem began. Whereas they could so clearly have declared to the whole world what was a perfectly understandable and, I think, honourable agreement, they nevertheless sought to improve upon it. They sought to elevate what was a perfectly practical piece of day-to-day politics to a principle. They sought to graft what was a political agreement of mutual benefit to them onto principle and when you do that, you sometimes get some very strange fruit. That, I think, is the problem the House faces at the moment with the Bill.
I do not consider that it is either necessary or, indeed, appropriate, that there should be fixed-term Parliaments. They have a superficial attraction, but there are many dangers inherent in the whole principle. I cast this gauntlet down to the Government, both parts of it, if I may do so without impertinence. The case that has been put forward for a fixed-term Parliament is that there is an abuse that has been perpetrated by more than one Prime Minister from time to time in dealing cynically with the British electorate and going to the country when there was no need to go to the county, but in order either to safeguard or, indeed, to further advance his or her political advantage. Where is the evidence? I do not believe that one can properly point to any situation since the Second World War when there has been any clear evidence of such action.
In 1951, Attlee’s Government had, I think, a majority of six or seven, if I remember rightly. On top of that, of course, many Members, especially leading figures of the party were old and ill and, indeed, to cap it all, a very brilliant young Minister by the name of Evan Durbin died tragically in a swimming accident. That was the last straw for Prime Minister Attlee and he went to the country. That was not a case of jumping the gun, or anything like that. It would have been impossible for him to have carried on and it would have done nobody any good, nor would it have served any constitutional principle.
In 1964, Harold Wilson had a majority of three and it was clear that it was only a matter of time before he would have to seek a proper mandate from the people, which he did and which he obtained. In 1974, the situation was even clearer. In February/March of 1974 there was an election which yielded a hung Parliament. What else could he do but to go to the country? He soldiered on for six months and a second election was held. That election gave him a majority of the order of only three, four or five. Then there was an agreement, a very proper agreement, with the Liberal Party for some period of time. It was a brave act, to soldier on until 1979.
Where is the evidence of abuse on the part of a Prime Minister jumping the gun and therefore creating a justification for this legislation? It simply is not there. Of course, one may very well argue that it not just the case of the actual abuse; it is the threat of it and there is some truth in that. The Liberal Democrats have been saying from time to time that it was utterly wrong—as, indeed, did the Conservatives—for there not to have been an election when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair. There was precedent for an election, as when Anthony Eden took over from Churchill in 1955. There were other situations, as when John Major succeeded the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, when there was no election and there was no great upheaval about that.
It is a fair point, but it is a point which has been totally destroyed by the fact that Mr Cameron blew hot and cold and hot again about it. When the succession took place in June 2007, his first reaction was, “Well, there must be an election”. At the time, Labour was well behind in the polls. Then Labour caught up in the polls and Mr Cameron said there need be no election at all; it would be a waste of time. Then the polls changed, as they have a habit of doing from time to time, and Mr Cameron said, “Come, come—we must have an election, because the polls now point to a possible Conservative victory”. There is no white sheet of purity in which he can clothe himself in relation to this matter.
I believe that the Bill is wholly unnecessary; it comes from pragmatism that has been wrongly grafted onto principle and is creating a situation that is utterly impossible. I need not seek to add to the very erudite speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. He described the statutory straitjacket that the Bill creates for a Prime Minister. There are situations in which a Prime Minister would wish to go to the country and should go to the country, but will not be able to go to the country because of that impossible straitjacket. I do not need to say any more about that matter.
One matter that I will touch upon is that of how much harm the Bill will do to the whole concept of parliamentary democracy. I put it in this way: generations of schoolchildren are taught that with the Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights at the end of the 17th century there was a massive transfer of authority from monarch to people. That is not so. It was a massive transfer of authority from monarch to Parliament. The people were ultimately the beneficiaries of that transfer, if indeed Parliament was acting in a proper trusteeship and holding that authority for the people—something that it has not always done in past centuries. Be that as it may, there was that transfer towards the people. At the same time, Parliament—or, rather, the Executive—was feathering its own nest and arrogating much of that power to itself, yielding it only gradually and reluctantly to the direct arbitrament of the people.
Our situation is not the same as that of a Greek city state or a Roman republic, where there was direct involvement of the public. We do not have that except in general elections, by-elections and, very occasionally, in referendums. However, that is the situation. It is the people who have the sovereignty—not Parliament and not the Executive. Many will remember the book by Quintin Hogg, the late Lord Hailsham, Elective Dictatorship. He was right in most of his submissions. Whether he would have made them in relation to a Conservative Government is arguable, but that was his verdict on the constitutional situation. My point at this stage is this: anything that comes between the sovereignty of the people and Parliament is, of itself, bad. It reneges on and betrays the trusteeship that Parliament owes to the people.
William Lovett, in his charter of 1836, wanted annual general elections. God forbid. However, his heart was in the right place. He realised that the more you place Members of Parliament at the mercy of the electors—the more you expose them to the arbitrament and verdict of the electors—the better it is. The more you cosset them and hide them from the electorate, the worse it is. It is as simple as that.
I make one other point about the situation of the Assembly of Wales and the Scottish Parliament as regards a May 2015 election. I have raised the question before and I do not ask it impertinently of the Minister. Was that a deliberate slur—a deliberate attempt to avoid consultation with those bodies beforehand—or was it mere forgetfulness? Does he not agree that it would be entirely wrong at this stage for the United Kingdom Parliament to say to the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish, “You do this. You rejig your programmes and we will accept that”? No, it should be the other way. It is the United Kingdom Parliament that has created the problem and it is the United Kingdom Parliament that should avoid the duplicity of having both elections on the same day.
The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, made the point that in America people vote for dozens of different things. I understand that; they vote for a Congressman, a judge, a fire chief, et cetera. However, they do not vote in two general elections on the same day. There would be a general election in Scotland and a general election in Britain; and a general election in Wales and a general election in Britain. That is the issue. It is clear to anybody, bearing in mind that there are different constituencies and different issues altogether, that they simply should not be held on one and the same day.
My Lords, I join noble Lords all around the House in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on his sparkling maiden speech. I was very touched by his kind references to my father, James Callaghan. It was very kind of him to speak in that way.
I declare my interest as chairman of your Lordships’ Select Committee on the Constitution, of which we have heard much this afternoon in contributions from Members—again, on all sides of the House—who referred to its substantial report. I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, who reinforced many of the points that the committee made about the historical problems that it saw with this legislation. We took the view that this was of sufficient importance that we needed to hold a full inquiry into fixed-term Parliaments, and not simply scrutinise the Bill. Therefore, our report contains reference to the general issue as well as the particular issues in this legislation.
It is worth, even at this stage of the debate, simply elaborating some of the process and outcome of what the committee discovered and heard from witnesses, who included people from many of the countries that already have fixed-term Parliaments. It is important to say that we have, as the House knows, now had a response from the Government, although I must say to the Minister that this was published only yesterday. It was therefore again outside the convention that responses to Select Committees should be made within two months. As we have heard from, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, the committee’s report was published in the middle of December. Within the two-month limit, we should certainly have heard from the Government by 14 February. However, at least on this occasion—I am sorry to go back into the past—it was here in time for Second Reading. The House will remember that on the previous constitutional Bill—the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill—the Government response was issued only at Third Reading. In another place the Government failed to respond in time for the consideration even of your Lordships’ amendments.
At the time, Mr Graham Allen MP, the chairman of the committee of a similar nature to ours in another place, described this as a failure of duty to Parliament. Noble Lords will remember that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, referred to it as being a “deplorable occurrence”. I do not emphasise these points of process to go over old ground. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, was kind enough to apologise for the Government’s dilatoriness on the previous Bill. Nor do I have an exaggerated opinion of the Select Committee’s significance. However, as has been said time and time again today, in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, as in the previous Bill, we have before your Lordships a Bill of great constitutional significance, about which virtually every speaker has made the point that there has been no formal public consultation beyond the rather random opinion polling. No Green Papers or White Papers have been published and there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny—all of which the committee unanimously thinks should be undertaken before Bills of this nature are ever introduced.
I know that the Deputy Prime Minister has said, as he told your Lordships’ committee, that he must move ahead rapidly with proposals for what he sometimes grandiloquently describes as the greatest reforms since 1832. Therefore, he has little time for these conventional processes. However, in these circumstances, where there is the pressure for rapid movement that has been vividly described by noble Lords, the Government should pay special attention to the work of parliamentary Select Committees, particularly—as in this case—when your Lordships’ committee has conducted a detailed inquiry and written a very full report.
I have not had time to discuss my comments on the Government’s response with my colleagues on the Select Committee. As I have said, this report was published only yesterday, which was at the end of our week’s Recess. However, I was interested in the useful and forensic dissection of it by my colleague on the committee, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. I find both the timing and content of the Government’s response to the fixed-term Parliaments inquiry disappointing. It is slightly sketchy. For example, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, has said, the committee is concerned that the constitutional relationship between the provisions of this Bill and the Government’s other proposals for constitutional reform has not been adequately thought through. In reply, the Government simply reiterate that as a package they will provide for a fairer and more stable political structure. Frankly, that is not very adequate. Indeed, that same paragraph goes on in a rather worrying way to say, for example, that the provisions of the boundary reviews in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill require them to be held every five years, consistent with the five-year cycle of elections set out in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. This seems to me precisely to confirm the worry and concern that was expressed by my noble friend Lord Rooker when he intervened in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard.
When we turned to the policy issues, we as a committee considered two major issues of principle, as is our formal remit. The first was whether the Government’s case in favour of fixed-term Parliaments had been made and what the length of the fixed-term Parliament, if introduced, should be. I must tell your Lordships that on both these two issues the committee simply did not accept the case made by the Government. The Deputy Prime Minister told us that the basic motive was, as we have heard this afternoon,
“seeking to remove from the executive and the Prime Minister … the ability to play politics with the timing of the election”.
We recognise, of course, that in promoting this Bill, the Prime Minister is prepared to relinquish an important prerogative power. This has been emphasised round the House this afternoon. However, the evidence we received—I would like to speak a little about that—showed us that there is another important side to this argument. Authoritative academic witnesses and witnesses from other countries with fixed-term arrangements suggested that in practice the advantage to the Prime Minister under the current system had been “greatly overstated”. We have heard the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, put that in a historical context. The witnesses told us that on most occasions when a Prime Minister “went early”, in the jargon, he or she would have won anyway. More importantly, the case was put to us that fixed terms could actually undermine the democratic process by preventing an early election being held when there may be legitimate demand for one. Several historical examples were cited and I shall mention just a few of them. These included following a change of Prime Minister—we have heard examples of that again this afternoon—when a Government with a very small majority were unable to govern effectively, or where a Prime Minister wished to seek a mandate for a significant new policy. All of these are described in some detail in paragraph 39 of our report but I will not elaborate on them now. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, one of our witnesses, also raised a particular contemporary issue. He said:
“Most importantly of all, because we could be moving into that situation with our hung Parliaments, it means that coalitions can change in the middle of a Parliament without the people being allowed to pronounce on that”.
This again raises the question to which several noble Lords have referred of whether it is important that Parliament should decide whether a Government continue or are reformed, or whether that decision should be taken by the electorate.
The Government argue that the Bill provides for the other place to vote in favour of an early election where there is a need for one, but it may be that in the circumstances I have described—they have been illuminated by several vivid examples from other speakers today—particularly in a hung Parliament, it would not be possible for the House of Commons to achieve a two-thirds majority for dissolution, as the Bill demands. The committee recognised that the arguments for moving along the spectrum—it is a spectrum—from a fully flexible to a fully fixed Parliament, as the Bill does, are, in practice, finely balanced. We must remember that the Bill provides only for a semi, not a fully, fixed arrangement.
However, as noble Lords have said several times today—the committee was very sure that this was the case—if the original proposal was designed, as the coalition agreement appeared to suggest, as a confidence-building measure to the Liberal Democrats to ensure that this Parliament lasted a full five years, it could certainly have been achieved under existing statutes. Witnesses suggested to the committee that it was not appropriate—we have heard this again several times—to confuse this short-term political motive with the fundamental decision to change the constitution. This leads, of course, to the question of the length of any fixed parliamentary term and here the Constitution Committee agreed with all those noble Lords who have said that they preferred the original 2007 Liberal Democrat proposal of four years rather than the five years which is now in the Bill. Most members of the committee thought that fixed five-year Parliaments were more likely to reduce democratic accountability than increase it, in the way that Ministers have said that they intend. It is, after all, worth noting, as our report does, that had all Parliaments since 1945 lasted the full five-year term, there would have been four fewer general elections.
The weight of evidence from British and international experts to the committee was against a five-year norm, as against a five-year maximum. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer has already quoted Democratic Audit, which expressed alarm that a five-year term would present,
“a reversal of a long struggle for more accountable government”.
Overseas experience, for example from Canada and Sweden, suggested, in the words of witnesses, that,
“there seems to be a kind of natural rhythm around four years”,
“four years is more consistent with voter expectations”,
all of which appears inconsistent with the Deputy Prime Minister’s evidence to us that his “unambiguous aim” is to,
“make the legislature more accountable to the electorate and to introduce the mechanisms by which people can exercise greater control over politicians”.
Our evidence suggests very clearly that this unambiguous aim may not be achieved by this Bill.
On the practical side, the Constitution Select Committee's report notes with concern the potential clash—this has been raised by several noble Lords—about the five-year term being adopted for Westminster elections and this clashing with the devolved institutions. Again, we unanimously think it is regrettable that the coalition Government did not try to consult those institutions to sort this out before the Bill was introduced. On another practical, but important, issue of the safety valves proposed in the Bill, we broadly accept most of the Government's proposals but I agree with my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton that we felt that it was extremely complex. We have asked as a committee for clarification of a number of detailed points, especially on the question of what constitutes a vote of no confidence and what the result of that would be. I hope very much that these points will be examined fully as the Bill progresses.
As noble Lords all round the House, particularly in the most recent stages of the debate have said—the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, mentioned this—there will be a large number of issues and questions which need to be answered and scrutinised in Committee and on Report. I very much hope that there will be sufficient time to do so. I recognise that the Government, as they say in their response to our committee, have already given additional time for scrutiny in the other place but I still think that this House has a considerable amount of work to do. After all, the Deputy Prime Minister has already conceded to us that,
“the principle should be to time these things in a way that allows for proper pre-legislative scrutiny”,
and he has also said that reform proposals should be brought forward in a more measured way in the future.
I hope that the House will be encouraged to learn that the Constitution Select Committee is now embarking on a new inquiry looking at the whole process of constitutional reform. We have sent out a call for evidence and it would obviously be very valuable if any noble Lord wished to contribute. The committee hopes that, at the end of this inquiry, we will be able to bring forward some constructive proposals for improvement.
However, in the mean time I do not wish to repeat the quote that both my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton and my noble friend Lord Lea of Crondall quoted about the conclusion of the committee’s report, but I will give another quotation from the final report on our fixed-term Parliament inquiry:
“The policy behind the Bill shows little sign of being developed with constitutional principles in mind … We acknowledge the political imperative behind the coalition Government's wish to state in advance its intent to govern for the full five-year term, but this could have been achieved under the current constitutional conventions”.
My Lords, I believe that this Bill and the principle that it embodies represent a significant and beneficial step towards modernising our democracy.
As a preliminary point, the monarch’s ancient prerogative power to dissolve Parliament may on one view be a constitutional power only, but we should not forget the dismissal of Gough Whitlam, the Australian Prime Minister, by the Governor-General Sir John Kerr in 1975. One effect of this Bill is that on its enactment the Dissolution of Parliament will be a matter that is governed by statute, subject to the will of the elected House of Parliament, as I believe it should be.
There is an important distinction between the position in Canada to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, referred and the position in the light of the enactment of this Bill, which is that the Canadian legislation specifically reserved the power of the Queen to dissolve Parliament by the Governor-General, whereas this legislation abolishes that power—an approach with which the Constitution Committee expressly agreed on the basis that we had a fixed-term Parliament system.
On the principle of the fixed term, it has been an anomaly that to this day we have a system whereby it is for the Prime Minister alone to decide when to seek the Dissolution of Parliament. It has therefore been open to Prime Ministers and Governments to tailor policy, including economic and fiscal policy, to electoral plans of their own choosing without any figment of transparency. Indeed, it has been quite the opposite. The elements of secrecy and the teasing of the Opposition and of the electorate have been at the heart of the system, obliging Oppositions to expend time and money preparing for elections without any information as to when they will take place. The game for Governments has been to decide when their opponents are at their least effective and then to time the start of the race on that sole basis—that it is to be run when the incumbent Government’s chances of winning are at their highest.
These things are too important for a game. We would not accept such a system as fair in sport and nor should we in politics. That is the answer to the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, as to why we should leave the present system alone. The Constitution Committee quoted the former chair of the Constitution Committee of this House, the late Lord Holme of Cheltenham, who rightly described a British general election as,
“a race in which the Prime Minister is allowed to approach it with his running shoes in one hand and his starting pistol in the other”.
The present system, I suggest, damages stability—witness the events, or rather the non-event, of November 2007. It damages confidence among the electorate in the integrity of our democratic process, and it damages the image of British democracy abroad. These are no doubt among the reasons why both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party had a commitment to fixed-term Parliaments in their 2010 manifestos. It is a concept that the Labour Party has long supported and why our Conservative colleagues were pleased to include such a commitment in the coalition agreement.
There is a further point, which we concede and assert. Where government is by coalitions, of whatever political make-up, a fixed-term Parliament enhances stability and confidence. That is a serious point. It is not an illegitimate glue or odd nails for coalition politicians; it is a legitimate arrangement to secure political stability for the country. A programme for government can then be planned, agreed and implemented on that basis in the event that no one party has an overall majority.
Should the fixed term be four years or five? The Bill commits to five-year terms. It has been the policy of my party in the past, as has been pointed out, that they should be four years, but I suggest that, on balance, five years is the better solution. Parliament is at present elected for a five-year term. Parliaments have lasted for less in the past precisely because Prime Ministers have cut short their terms, thinking that they could win an early election, not because the shorter term is for the objective benefit of the country at large.
The argument is sometimes made, as it was by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, that where Parliaments have run their full five years, it has led to lame-duck Governments in the final year. However, if that is right, the reason is the same: that where a Prime Minister has seemed to be in a winning position after four years, he or she has then gone to the country early. Only when the Government have expected to lose have recent Parliaments gone to full term. The catalogue of those elections cited by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, bears that out. In the elections of 1964, 1979, 1997 and 2010, the likelihood of losing was the reason for the apparent ineffectiveness of the last year, not the fact that the Government was a five-year Government.
Once we have five-year fixed terms, there is no reason to expect lame-duck Governments in the last year. On the contrary, the electoral cycle will be clear, and that of itself should increase effectiveness. Government planning can be more confident and effective, as has been pointed out. Five years allows an appreciable time between a Government becoming established and the next election inevitably starting to dictate the course and pace of political life. We have much of benefit to learn from the United States and its constitution, but I suggest that choosing a four-year electoral cycle over a five-year cycle is not one of them.
It was the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, who pointed out forcefully, and rightly, that every election has a pre-election period that clouds the judgment and the actions of government. If that is right, the period before that pre-election period needs to be longer rather than shorter. That strengthens the argument for five years rather than four.
I accept that those of us who advocate a five-year rather than a four-year term must concede that there is a price to be paid for the stability that derives from the longer period; the electorate is consulted less frequently, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, pointed out. However, against that, I would argue that the electorate needs time to make an informed judgment both on the performance and competence of a Government and on the consequences of that Government's policy and actions as they develop. In particular, the management of the economy through difficult times, the effects of fiscal policy and the changes that are made by Governments of every colour in delivering public services take time to be capable of thorough assessment. I would argue that the electorate can make a significantly better judgment after five years than after four of the long-term effects and effectiveness of government policy.
On the two trigger mechanisms for an early election, I suggest that the two alternatives strike the right balance between establishing a secure five-year electoral cycle and allowing for an early election when either the overwhelming view of the House of Commons is that one is necessary or it is clear that no Government can be formed who command the support of the existing House of Commons.
The two-thirds majority required for early Dissolution would ensure that there would have to be broad cross-party support for an early election before the cycle could be broken. In February 1974, that might well have been achieved.
The 14-day period after a vote of no confidence would ensure that a reasonable although necessarily restricted time would be available to explore alternative Governments in the event of a coalition breaking down. Two points arise from that. The first is that if you accept the principle of fixed-term Parliaments, as the Labour Party does, then it is consistent with the principles of representative democracy for Members of Parliament who are elected for five years that if a new Government can be formed quickly following a no-confidence vote, and if that Government commands the confidence of the House of Commons, they should govern for the balance of the five-year Parliament. That system might lack the elegance and simplicity of the late Lord Callaghan’s resignation, but it is none the less a valid system for that.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, sees the Machiavellian possibility of a Government proposing a vote of no confidence in itself and then allowing the 14 days to elapse to preserve the Prime Minister’s power. One view that has been expressed is that were a Government to seek to make such a mockery of the provisions of this Bill, that Government could expect to be punished at the ballot box. However, if the fact is that Machiavelli is alive and well on whatever Benches he or she might sit, some amendment to the Bill to prevent this happening could be considered.
It is significant that the Scottish and Welsh provisions are in almost identical terms, except that 28 days rather than 14 days are allowed to explore forming an alternative Government. In neither Scotland nor Wales have the triggers for an early election yet been required, nor has there been any attempt to manipulate votes of confidence in the way suggested by the noble and learned Lord. I suggest that it is sensible to accept the shorter period of 14 days for the United Kingdom rather than the 28 days because of the desirability of stability, and the desirability that the country should know the consequences of such a vote of no confidence as soon as possible.
This is an important Bill. There is of course scope for clarification of some of its provisions, but that is the function of this House at the later stages of the Bill. The Bill is short because the concept is a simple one, but it is none the less necessary and commendable for that, and it should be given its Second Reading.
This has been a very enjoyable debate, notable for the criticism from eminent Conservatives: the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, who are not in their places, and most certainly the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in his splendid maiden speech. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, shredded the Bill entirely and left it just a pile of ruins. I particularly wish to say how much we all appreciated the admirable maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I have had the privilege of being one of the trustees of the history of Parliament group under the genial presidency of the noble Lord, which has been very strongly marked by a sense of historical awareness. It brings back to my mind the famous novel of my late Swansea colleague, Kingsley Amis, and the professor who observed “history speaking”; that is how I respond to the noble Lord’s admirable views in welcoming him here.
It is late in the day and I want to strike one new note, at least from these Benches. There is one important feature of the Bill that I very strongly welcome: it is a step towards a codified constitution. That seems to be an admirable principle, originally brought forward in his last months by Gordon Brown, now being considered by the House of Commons Constitution Committee. It is a further nail in the coffin of the royal prerogative, which has always been an obstacle to a more democratic constitution. In the sense that the Bill creates a stronger sense of citizenship and a stronger sense that the people are in ownership of their own institutions, I welcome it.
As has been said, there are arguments in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, but some features of the Bill seem to be less admirable. It is, first, like other aspects of the constitutional programme that we have had, a contrived measure put together, as the Select Committee said, not after mature long-term reflection, but hastily during the behind-the-scenes discussions that led to the agreement. It is reflective of short-term consideration, as was the original proposal, happily now jettisoned, to have a 55 per cent vote to trigger a Dissolution. The purpose of that was to give an instrument to the Liberal Democrats so that they would have a significant role to play in the timing of a Dissolution.
This is designed for the needs of the Conservatives, who did best but did not quite win the election, and the Liberal Democrats, who did extremely badly. The Liberal Democrats polled 23 per cent and lost several seats, but are nevertheless driving the constitutional agenda. It is a question of an imbalance between two parties, which they are trying to rectify, as it was in 1918 in the coalition of Liberals and Conservatives and in the 1931 coalition of Liberals and Conservatives. To quote a famous American baseball player:
“It's déjà vu all over again”.
It is also open to objection because other constitutional reform measures are not considered. It is a piecemeal, non-comprehensive system of constitutional change. For example, the proposal for fixed-term Parliaments rests on the proposition that we keep our present voting system of first past the post and there will be an adversarial situation in the House of Commons. However, it is perfectly possible that AV might come about, in which case hung Parliaments would become the norm and coalitions would become far more prevalent. The trigger for a Dissolution would then be far less certain in its operation.
There is no clear connection either between a fixed term of five or any other years and the timing, as has been said, of the boundary reviews and how they will relate when a general election comes about. Also, there is no obvious link between this and the elections that might or might not be held if we have an elected House of Lords. Frankly, like a good deal of constitutional reform in recent years, it has been a piecemeal and non-inclusive affair and unfortunate for that.
It has also been claimed that the purpose of the Bill is to give the House of Commons more control over the termination of a Government and the processes of devolution. In fact, the Bill will have precisely the opposite effect. It will actually strengthen the power over the legislature and make it more difficult to dissolve a Parliament. It will offer more opportunities for an Executive to stay in office. Therefore, the recourse to the will of the people will be weakened even if there is a clear wish or need to have a general election.
While other noble Lords were speaking I was reflecting on the Parliament Act of 1911. That could not have come about under this legislation because neither of the two 1910 elections would have been possible. The first was to confirm Lloyd George's People's Budget and the second was to confirm the terms of the Parliament Bill. In both cases, the Liberals had a clear majority. Therefore those elections would not have been held and what seems to have been a highly desirable political transformation would not have come about.
In addition, as other noble Lords have said, there has been remarkably little scrutiny—no Green Paper and no White Paper; and, as my noble friend Lord Anderson observed, amazingly selective quotation. I would quite like to appoint the Minister as my literary agent as he would be an absolute genius at finding the two or three subordinate clauses in a book review that said the book was valuable or interesting and being able to wave aside a whole swathe of criticism saying it was boring or foolish. It is a talent, but a political talent and one that might perhaps be used elsewhere.
Many questions have been raised, including the issue of why the period should be as long as five years. Many noble Lords have considered this from the standpoint of the effectiveness of government. I would like to look at it from a different point of view—that of the will of the people. It is perfectly clear that this diminishes the control of the popular will over government. There was lots of evidence to the Power inquiry—chaired by my noble friend Lady Kennedy—saying that people wish to have more frequent elections and that they wish to have more opportunities to give their views to the Government, but that opportunity is being whittled away. The clash with the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly is really deplorable—it is a form of Anglo-centric imperialism from the 19th century, which they have just presented on a “take it or leave it” basis. I regard that as a quite contemptuous attitude and I hope that the noble and learned Lord who comes from one of these fine countries can make an observation on that. There has been no public debate on the timing. We might even have a referendum—at any rate have the popular view and not sheer guesswork—even though there is no guide as to why we have them or what we have them on.
The whole process for triggering an election is extremely unclear and an area ripe for confusion. There is no necessary link between having the confidence of the House, having a vote of confidence—and, as noble Lords have said, defining what that vote of confidence should be on—and then triggering a Dissolution. There would be 14 days of mayhem, and, if we have hung Parliaments, it would be even more inconclusive. It is absolutely central to define what a vote of confidence is. If the Government are defeated over their proposals in the Finance Bill, how can they get going? It may be less formal than that—I do not want to be too historical, but one of the various Dissolutions that my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer referred to was in 1895. The Government were defeated on an utterly trivial issue, but it was their first defeat and they had lost the confidence of the House, with majorities of two and seven against them. I simply make the point that you do not need a formal vote of confidence necessarily to feel that a general election should come into play.
It will also seriously compromise the position of the Speaker, just as the definition of money Bills has latterly put the Speaker’s role into some question. There are many cases when the democratic thing to do is not to defer a Dissolution, but to proceed. The alternative can be a Government meandering and a House in total stagnation. Many examples have been quoted—October 1974 and perhaps earlier in 1951. There is an overwhelming need for a proper Government who can govern without the complications and hazards of this Bill. The effect of it will be to diminish popular control. The great slogan in American politics was “Throw the rapscallions out”. Throwing the rapscallions out—I think sometimes other terms have been used—will be made more hazardous and more difficult. Dissolution of a Parliament will be governed, not by the needs of the country, not by having a Government necessarily unable to govern, but by party manoeuvres in the House of Commons. Much of this is a comment on the role of Members of Parliament in deciding whether a Government should continue. It is based on a very curious view of Members of Parliament, as though they are isolated entities, like Rodin's “The Thinker”, rather than people who are in fact swayed by the Whips and whose views are, therefore, imposed on them. That will decide the Dissolution rather than the will of the people.
Much of the argument about reducing the role of a Prime Minister is highly exaggerated, and some of it is thrown in with attacks on Gordon Brown, which is what the coalition supporters do: when all thought stops, you attack Gordon Brown. Prime Ministers have not made much use of the prerogative. I can think of at least two occasions when Prime Ministers tried to cut and run early: Edward Heath in 1974 and Harold Wilson in 1970. Those uses of prime ministerial prerogative proved resoundingly unsuccessful. To a degree, power would continue to lie in the Prime Minister and in his room for manoeuvre in a divided House, but it would put power primarily in the party machines in the House of Commons rather than in the hands of the voters.
This is not a satisfactory Bill. It is not based on high constitutional principles. It is not based on the outcome of a public debate but of a private deal. It is not a fulfilment of democracy but a bypassing of democracy.
My Lords, restoring public confidence in our political system is important, is something on which all parties campaigned in the general election and was highlighted as a priority for Government and Parliament. It is that priority, that common goal, which has motivated me to contribute to the debate.
We cannot begin to restore public confidence in our political system unless and until we are willing to make significant changes to the way it operates. Introducing fixed-term Parliaments is not a silver bullet—no single measure ever is—but it is one of the most tangible and meaningful moves we can make to show the public that we are serious about putting their interests before any opportunities that we might spot for political advantage. Put simply, the change to which I refer is removing the Prime Minister's power to call an election at the time of his choosing so that the Government and their opponents have to face the electorate on a predetermined date, whatever the political conditions at that time.
There is evidence to show that the public support that. When the polling company Populus carried out a poll for the Times in 2009 at the height of the expenses scandal, it showed that 74 per cent of the public supported fixed-term Parliaments as a change to improve the political system. At that time, the only measures ranking higher among a list of 13 possible reforms were a recall for MPs found to have broken parliamentary rules, national referendums on major constitutional issues and local referendums on local issues where interest warranted them.
Like all Bills, this one requires appropriate safeguards and deserves proper scrutiny. I certainly bow to the expertise and experience of many other noble Lords and many noble friends, among whom I am very privileged to count my noble friend Lord Cormack. It was a great privilege to be present in the Chamber to hear his maiden speech.
A central issue for debate on this Bill concerns the length of Parliaments, on which point I would like to offer some thoughts. Right now, the British public elect a Government for up to five years, but a Government serve five years only if they have not identified an earlier time when they think it would be to their political advantage to call an election. This Bill offers the electorate certainty on that five-year term. In future, five years would mean five years. It would mean a Government concentrating on governing for all that time, with the exception of the period in the final year when preparing for the general election.
If we are serious about taking action to address the public’s lack of confidence in our political system, we have to make changes to the system—the sort of changes that the electorate want—with the purpose of providing greater certainty and transparency. A fixed-term Parliament of five years would surely be a step in the right direction. Where it is possible to make a genuine concession that could start to give the public some confidence that the political system is willing to change and demonstrate even more clearly that it works in their interest, it is a change worth making. I will certainly go on listening to the views of experienced and expert noble Lords about points of detail during this debate and in the future stages of this Bill. However, I am happy to make it clear today that I support both the principle and purpose of the Bill to introduce a five-year fixed-term Parliament.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, as she thoughtfully made the case in support of this Bill. It is also a very particular pleasure to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on his splendid maiden speech. He showed himself to be—as we all knew he is—a fine and committed parliamentarian. As so often in the past, I look forward to working with him on causes that we both care about.
I have not been persuaded by the case for legislating for fixed-term Parliaments—certainly not in the manner in which this Bill does. I join members of Select Committees in both Houses in deploring the haste and lack of care with which this Bill has been brought forward. It was wrong of the coalition to bounce the House of Commons early into a Second Reading in September. Like my noble friend Lord Grocott, I ask what mischief this Bill undoes and what mischief it might create.
The Deputy Prime Minister made the case for the Bill at Second Reading. He said that it would remove the right of the Prime Minister to seek the Dissolution of Parliament for—as he put it—“pure political gain”. Yes, for what it is worth, it does do that. However, I do not believe that the right of the Prime Minister to determine the date of the next general election has been a great mischief. He said that it would stop feverish speculation about the date of the general election, distracting politicians from getting on with running the country; that it would bring greater stability to our political system; and that it would stop parties ending up in perpetual campaign mode, which make it very difficult for Parliament to function effectively.
In their last minute response to the Constitution Select Committee yesterday, the Government added that it would engender a more long-term policy-making approach. There are other reasons why politicians are distracted, why journalists speculate, why there is political instability, why there is perpetual campaigning and why there is governmental short-termism. Fixed-term Parliaments would be no political cure-all.
The benefits of the Bill have been exaggerated. The Bill would make another more serious mischief worse, and it would create new mischiefs. The existing serious mischief that it would make worse is the excessive domination of the House of Commons by the Executive and the ineffectuality of the House of Commons on behalf of the people in holding the Executive to account. A Government who are more secure about staying in office for a full five years will be more dominant and less accountable.
On 5 July, the Deputy Prime Minister declared to the House of Commons that the Government’s mission was to transfer power away from the Executive to empower Parliament. In his Hansard lecture of 16 November, he proclaimed,
“a programme that we can set against a single test … are we giving people the choice and control they—rightly—now expect?”.
This Bill fails the single test that the Deputy Prime Minister set himself. The average interval between general elections since 1945 has been three years and 10 months. With this legislation, the people would in future have to wait a full five years before they had the opportunity to exercise their choice and control as to who should be their Members of Parliament and members of the Government. The coalition has conflated two issues to its own political advantage. There was the political question of how to ensure the longevity of the coalition and the constitutional issue as to whether we should have fixed-term Parliaments. To legislate to protect the coalition parties from facing the electors before five years are up is very convenient for two parties that formed a Government without having won an election and which are incurring bitter unpopularity for their scorched earth policies towards the economy and society.
Mr Clegg affirmed on 19 May:
“This government is going to persuade you to put your faith in politics once again”,
even as Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament were meditating on breaking their promise on tuition fees and provoking new depths of cynicism among the public about politics. No wonder the Deputy Prime Minister was glad to announce to the House of Commons on 5 July that the date of the next general election would be 7 May 2015.
To introduce fixed-term Parliaments is more than a wheeze to shelter the coalition from the people’s anger. As the Deputy Prime Minister went on to say on 5 July:
“This is a hugely significant constitutional innovation”.—[Official Report, 5/7/11; col. 23.]
As such, the proposal should have been put forward tentatively, consultatively and in the search for a consensus about carefully considered and genuinely necessary constitutional change. That fixed-term Parliaments were in the manifestos of two political parties does not unfortunately mean that they had been as carefully considered as they should have been. They have been considered as devices to attract votes, but I do not think that they were considered in their full constitutional significance.
The spirit of caution and respect is not the spirit in which the coalition proceeds. Mr Clegg declared on 19 May:
“It is time for a wholesale, big bang approach to political reform”.
That seems to me to be one of the most foolish things that I have ever heard any senior politician in this country say. Can the experienced noble Lords on the Conservative Benches do nothing to restrain these boys?
As with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, there has been no Green Paper or White Paper and no draft Bill or pre-legislative scrutiny. How much better it would have been had Ministers been able to hear the thoughts of noble Lords who have spoken in this debate before they formulated their legislation. Political convenience for the coalition has again trumped respect for Parliament and the constitution. The Deputy Prime Minister said at Second Reading that,
“the timing of general elections”,
“not be a plaything of Governments”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/9/10; col. 621.]
The constitution should not be the plaything of politicians who happen to be in office for the time being.
Why might fixed-term Parliaments be a bad idea? In some circumstances an early general election might well be desirable. I have been impressed by that case as it has been made by a number of noble Lords in the debate so far, and I was impressed by the evidence that Professor Vernon Bogdanor offered to the Constitution Committee. A Parliament might be judged not to be viable—that was the judgment that Mr Attlee took in 1951 and that Mr Wilson took in October 1974. It cannot be a good thing for a lame-duck Parliament to hobble along with a Government unable to govern effectively. It might be right for the country to have the opportunity to endorse a new Prime Minister, a judgment that Anthony Eden made in 1955 and that Gordon Brown nearly made in 2007—and the judgment that, by fits and starts, Mr David Cameron has also made. It might be right for the country to have the opportunity to endorse a new policy, as Baldwin thought about tariff reform in 1923 and as the coalition ought to think now about its extremely radical and contentious policies on the National Health Service and the welfare state. To make changes of this kind, so bitterly contentious, without any authority from the people, is an offence against democracy. It might be appropriate for the country to have the opportunity to endorse a new coalition, as was the case when the national Government were formed in 1931, and might yet be the case when Tory and Liberal Democrat Back-Benchers can no longer bear this coalition.
We are advised to expect that hung Parliaments will occur more frequently in the future with the reducing percentage of the vote for the two major parties, and particularly if we have the alternative vote. Why should Governments be made mid-term by wheeler-dealer politicians supervised by the Cabinet Secretary inside 70 Whitehall rather than by the people in a new general election? The Deputy Prime Minister on 7 June blustered that,
“we have this great opportunity to renew our democracy from top to toe”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/6/10; col. 46.]—
not, however, if a renewal of our democracy limits the opportunity for Liberal Democrats, discredited in public opinion, to negotiate another coalition and extend their hold on office.
It might be right to hold a general election if Parliament is quite simply clapped-out and discredited. Would it not have been preferable to have had a general election in 1996 rather than wait until 1997? Would it not have been preferable to have had a general election in 2009 rather than wait until 2010?
There are two safety valves in the Bill that will enable, exceptionally, an early general election to take place. Are they appropriate? Yes, in the case of the retention of the traditional right of the House of Commons to expel a Government on a vote of no confidence with a majority of one, but why legislate for a maximum of 14 days of negotiations following a vote of no confidence? Legislation is not needed to allow a period of negotiations in such circumstances, so why specify a time limit? I do not believe that in this country we will find ourselves in the same case as in Belgium or Iraq.
The second safety valve is very questionable: the provision that by a vote of two-thirds of all Members of Parliament the House of Commons can vote for an early general election. Why legislate for a super-majority? The reason is political: to stop the Tories and the Liberal Democrats ratting on each other. This threshold for Dissolution is too high; a majority of one should be enough, and I believe that all this apparatus is unnecessary. Gordon Brown, in the previous Parliament, proposed that the Prime Minister should not simply be able to go to the Palace in the future but should be required to seek a majority in the House of Commons before requesting Dissolution. If that were to be the convention—and I do not believe that we would need legislation to secure it as such—it would be a simple and satisfactory solution to the primary problem which the proponents of this Bill have identified.
The more we look at this short and apparently simple Bill, the more difficulties appear, as the Constitution Committee has found. What exactly is a no confidence vote? What is a confidence vote? How, indeed, are votes to be counted? That might seem an unnecessary question, except that Dr Jack, the Clerk of the House of Commons himself, raised anxieties about this in his evidence to the Select Committee in another place. Will not the impact on the Speakership of requiring the Speaker to certify a no-confidence or a confidence Motion in very contentious circumstances be dangerous indeed? The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, spoke brilliantly and devastatingly on this matter. What will be the impact on parliamentary privilege if the inclusive cognisance by the House of Commons of its own procedures is liable to be questioned by the courts consequent upon parliamentary procedures prescribed by statute? Mr Mark Harper, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, has asserted his expert authority in contradiction to that of the Clerk of the House of Commons. I note that other noble Lords have tended to dismiss the anxiety that the Clerk expressed. As we look at this Bill in Committee, we should consider this issue very carefully.
Some of these matters that I have just touched upon seem to me to illustrate the dangers of moving towards a written constitution—here I differ from my noble friend Lord Morgan. If there is to be a fixed-term Parliament, how long should the term be? Four years is more normal where there are fixed terms, we are advised. Mr Asquith intended that four years should be the norm. Since the war, only weak and unpopular Governments have staggered to the full five years. The people of this country accept that after four years, or very shortly after that, it is a fair do if the Government call the election.
Whether the term should be four years or five is, as the Government have said, a matter of judgment, but it is significant that the judgment they have made is that it should be a five-year term, thus increasing the benefit for themselves and reducing the frequency with which the people will have the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights at a general election. This is just the kind of political opportunism that the Government, in their response to the Constitution Select Committee, have said that the public are tired of. I believe that we should amend this to four years.
As for resetting the clock and the question of whether, after an early general election, there should be a new five-year term or whether the new Parliament should simply use up the balance of the previous five-year term, again, the coalition has opted to extend the power of the Executive and to diminish accountability. I think that is the preferable choice—not being in favour of fixed-term Parliaments—but it should also be noted that if there is an early general election and the clock is reset, the relationship between five-yearly boundary reviews and the new Parliaments that the Government attached so much importance to when we were considering the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is thrown out.
If five-yearly Parliaments proceed without interruption, there will be an unfortunate coincidence in 2015, and every 20 years after, between general elections for the country as a whole and elections to the devolved institutions. It is simply boorish for the Government to impose general elections on the same day as elections to the devolved institutions, candidates for which should be judged on their own performance and their own promise, not immersed in the backwash of a UK general election. The coalition has already wrecked the 2011 devolved elections; it is now belatedly consulting. What would be wrong with amending this Bill to move the date of elections to October? The interaction with other constitutional changes has not been thought about. There are possible elections to a second Chamber and there is the interaction with the parliamentary privileges Bill that we are promised in draft.
This Bill is unnecessary. It does not respond to any significant problems or real grievances. Mr Harper cites opinion polls showing, he asserts, that the public broadly welcome fixed-term Parliaments, but the Hansard Society’s audit of democratic engagement shows the public uncertain and indifferent: 60 per cent had no understanding of the issue; 39 per cent were satisfied that the Government should appoint the date of the general election; 38 per cent had no preference or view; and only 28 per cent were dissatisfied.
The Bill would limit the power of the Executive in one respect—the power of the Prime Minister to determine the date of the general election—but would increase the power of the Executive through guaranteeing them prolonged life. It is busybody legislation brought in by people who want to parade themselves as constitutional reformers without having thought carefully about the constitution. It will be the duty of this House, once again, to limit the damage. I hope that when we are in Committee the Government will not regard this as a trial of strength but will look forward to Committee and treat it as a collaborative attempt to improve the legislation.
My Lords, like many noble Lords I pay tribute to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. For those of us who knew him in the other place, I can honestly say that it was vintage Cormack. When he speaks in future, I am sure we will note that he is a distinguished parliamentarian who is worth listening to because he talks a lot of sense.
It is somewhat ironic that this debate on further changes to our constitution by introducing fixed-term Parliaments is being held on St David’s Day. I was delighted, by the way, to see the Draig Goch flying above Westminster Abbey as I came in this morning for St David’s Day, that great day which we celebrate. It is ironic because this Government have shown a complete lack of regard—indeed, have shown nothing but contempt—for Wales in their constitutional changes put so far before Parliament. We have already seen the gross spectacle of the Government forcing through a blatantly partisan Bill, which will reduce the number of Welsh representatives in the other place by a quarter and will certainly damage the relationship between Wales and the rest of the union. This Bill has been drafted with little or no concern for the impact that it will have on Wales or, for that matter, on Scotland and Northern Ireland.
At the heart of this matter is the Government’s failure to test their proposals by way of pre-legislative scrutiny. We have constantly been told by the Government that they are committed to pre-legislative scrutiny, but we have yet to see the evidence. The Constitution Committee in your Lordships’ House has stated:
“There is strong evidence to suggest that the Government’s proposals have not been properly thought through”.
The committee is certainly right so far as that is concerned. The Government originally proposed a threshold of 55 per cent in order for a dissolution to occur in the other place; that has now been revised after much criticism to a two-thirds majority. Equally, the Government originally proposed to put a binding order for dissolution to occur—an order which would have made the next election be held in May 2015—but that has now been revised or abandoned because such an order would have no effect. These changes demonstrate that the Government simply have not thought through their proposals. It is deeply concerning that the Government are willing to take such a shoddy approach to our constitution.
The Government have equally failed to consider properly the importance of this Bill and how it interrelates with other proposed constitutional changes. They seem obsessed with piecemeal changes to our constitution. For example, it is not at all clear why changing how people vote demands a referendum, but changing when they vote does not require a referendum. None of the detail of the Bill was subjected to proper consultation or proper pre-legislative scrutiny. The Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, Mr Harper, when challenged on this, informed the Constitution Committee that pre-legislative scrutiny was less important in the first term since,
“if the whole programme was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny … you would not get on and do very much”.
He was serious when he made that statement. Surely when it comes to our constitution, proper pre-legislative scrutiny should always occur—no matter how much of a brake that places upon the Government.
We all know that the Deputy Prime Minister is under a lot of pressure—so much so that he forgot the Prime Minister was abroad last week and had left him in charge of the country. It says something about the arrogant way in which the Government and the Deputy Prime Minister in particular have proceeded with this legislation that the Constitution Committee found it necessary to remind the Government that the proper way to introduce a constitutional reform proposal is to publish a Green Paper or a White Paper or a draft Bill and take into account the comments and concerns raised in the process of consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny in the Bill that is finally introduced. The Bill has simply not been properly consulted upon and, as I have said, there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny that is worthy of the name.
The Bill allows for an election to be called in the aftermath of the vote of no confidence and sets out a procedure to be followed after such a vote. The Bill, however, fails to state what constitutes a vote of no confidence. Instead, Clause 2(2) places the onus on the Speaker of the House of Commons to determine whether the requirements for an early election have been met. The Minister, Mr Harper, told the Constitution Committee that the Speaker of the House of Commons would be guided by convention in determining whether the requirements have been met. The conventions, however, are not clear on what constitutes a Motion of no confidence. As such, the Speaker is in effect given a significant amount of responsibility to determine when a Motion amounts to a vote of no confidence—and hence to determine when an election can be called. Such powers for the Speaker are completely unprecedented and risk radically altering the role of the holder of that office.
Conspiracy theorists who might have read the weekend press will have learned that the Government are allegedly plotting a way in which the House of Commons can remove the Speaker. Some people might think that these two things are linked, and that the Government would much prefer a compliant holder of that office in the other place. Let us not forget that it was a Speaker—a previous holder of that office—who told the King of England where to go. The Speaker has a very important role. We do not want to see that role in any way compromised.
As the Constitution Committee noted, the Speaker’s judgment on what amounts to a Motion of no confidence risks placing him in conflict with the Government, and hence with a majority of the House. It is unclear whether Motions of no confidence include defeats on key confidence issues, such as the Queen’s Speech or the Budget, or whether they include cases where the Government lose votes on other matters.
The Government have, without any consultation on the issue and with very limited justification for the position that they have taken, arrived at the decision that the appropriate length for a fixed-term Parliament is five years. The Deputy Prime Minister has stated:
“There is a pattern of five-year Parliaments, at least recently”,
with which people are familiar. However, as my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport has just pointed out, since 1945 Parliaments have sat for an average of three years and 10 months. Of the last three general elections, two were called after around four years and one was called after a full period of five years. Therefore, I contend that there is little support for the Deputy Prime Minister’s assertion that people are used to a pattern of five-year Parliaments. When my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer opened the debate for this side, he reminded us that five-year Parliaments were introduced by the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. However, it is worth remembering that Asquith said at the time that in all probability this would result in an actual working legislative period of around four years. Therefore, when a five-year maximum term was introduced, it was expected that five years would indeed be the maximum and that general elections would occur more frequently than once every five years.
A five-year, as opposed to a four-year, maximum would make elections significantly less frequent than they are at present, which would surely make politicians less accountable to their constituents. Yet we all remember that the Deputy Prime Minister promised an era of “new politics” in which voters would be more, not less, engaged in the democratic process. More important, people want to hold their politicians to account for the actions that they take in power, and we should do nothing to restrict them in exercising that right. That was certainly the view of the Liberal Democrat Party when in 2007 it published documents that favoured a four-year fixed term. One wonders whether the Deputy Prime Minister’s new-found commitment to five-year Parliaments is borne more out of fear of facing the electorate than out of principle.
The Government have not made a particularly compelling case that fixed-term Parliaments are a good thing. Even if allowing Prime Ministers to manipulate the electoral cycle to their own advantage is a bad thing, it is not clear that the Bill will improve that situation very much at all. The Government have argued that fixing each election time will improve the democratic legitimacy of Parliament, yet in reality there are a number of circumstances in which it is more, rather than less, democratic to hold an early election. First, there may have been a change of Prime Minister within the life of a Parliament, and many have argued that that should precipitate a general election. The present Prime Minister was a great fan of that until the 2010 election. Indeed, he constantly called for a general election when there was a change of Prime Minister. He now seems to have had a change of heart. Equally, where a Government change in the course of a Parliament, it would seem logical for there to be an election. If the present coalition were to fall apart and a new coalition formed, would it not be right to test in a general election whether that coalition Government had the support of the British people? Of course it would be right.
The Bill leaves many questions unanswered. We in this House must therefore give it the closest possible scrutiny in the coming weeks and months.
My Lords, it is a pleasure for me to be able to participate in a debate which has seen the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Cormack. It was joyous and I look forward to listening to his speeches for many years to come.
It is also a great pleasure to speak on St David’s Day, as the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, has pointed out, and to listen to the fine speeches of so many Welshmen. As a naive newcomer to this place, I might have been forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that the vast majority of Members of this House were Scots.
I have never been elected. I have never even stood for election, although many years ago I did suggest to the Conservative Party that it should adopt me as its candidate in the constituency of Manchester Moss Side. Very wisely it turned me down, as no doubt the electors would have done had they been given the chance. However, I have had various other roles and have come to revere elections—the unelected in pursuit of the uninterested, to mangle Oscar Wilde, although I have never been entirely sure which is the hunter and which is the fox.
I was fortunate, indeed honoured, to be with my noble friend Lady Thatcher in Barnet town hall in 1979 watching her own count on the night of her election victory. I was the first to be able to tell her that she had won. I was with her the following day in Downing Street as she took her first steps across the threshold as Prime Minister and quoted St Francis of Assisi:
“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony”.
Yes, I have to admit that I thought we had lost her there for a moment. I was there when she went in and I was there with John Major when we were kicked out, so I know a little about both the triumphs and the tears that go with these great outbursts of the people’s will.
I do not wish to tread over ground already so well trodden during this debate and will perhaps find a slightly different path in considering the Bill. I do not relish change for the sake of change. If in doubt, don’t. If our constitution has to be changed, it must be for sound and solid reasons. But I think there are good reasons for looking favourably on fixed-term Parliaments, one of which probably will not be considered in Committee. That is money—party-political money to be precise, which is not a subject we like to shout about but perhaps one that in quiet moments we all know is of real practical importance.
The costs of running political machines are huge, and those costs regularly leave our political parties in a state of financial chaos—often near bankruptcy. Of the millions that are raised, so much is spent—some would say squandered—during a few weeks of electoral warfare, leaving the parties to starve in the following years when issues on which those elections were fought are pursued through Parliament. Great political machines are built to win the campaign only to be ripped apart immediately thereafter. Party workers are sacked and discarded just at the point when they might have been working for the long-term health of their parties and our political system. It is a sad and desperately inefficient way to run a democracy.
Perhaps I should declare an old and perhaps expired interest because I was once an employee of the Conservative research department—a place where I laboured many long hours and for very little money under the direction of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport. As I said, it was a long time ago. Finding the money to run a healthy political system is not easy but I believe that this Bill will help. Under the present system, party managers never dare take the risk of being unprepared, so at the first whiff of a possible election they gear up before any spending caps ever come into consideration. Staff are employed, premises are leased, equipment is found, posters sites are booked and battle buses are commissioned. The troops are brought up to speed and made ready for war, but having been marched up the hill, under present circumstances, they are often then marched down again until the next scare, and much of the precious money raised is wasted.
We have not yet found the right answer to funding political parties but I believe that fixed-term Parliaments will help by allowing party managers to plan more effectively and party treasurers to fund more wisely. That may not be the most important outcome of this Bill but it must be a good outcome. I have no doubt that in Committee my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness will listen with all his characteristic sensitivity to suggestions for improvement that are already being put forward. I hope that he will not close his mind to them even if they take matters a little beyond the fixed wording of the coalition agreement. I mention just one. It is not the matter of thresholds—although I have to say that a two-thirds threshold is a very generous offer and one that I would happily have accepted a couple of weeks ago. I want to endorse the point raised by many Members here. The noble Lords, Lord Foulkes, Lord Wigley and Lord Howarth, have asked, why May? Why not, for example, June or October? I hope we will be allowed to identify a date that is most suitable in the long term, not just one which, through present circumstances, is temporarily convenient.
The month of May creates issues with elections for devolved institutions which others will raise, but May is not often an ideal general election date. Campaigns fought over April almost inevitably run into the barriers of Easter and school holidays. Asking party workers to campaign through these periods and then to give up their May Day bank holiday seems unnecessarily clumsy. Of course, an election fought on the first Thursday in October would also have its drawbacks. It would require us, for instance, to abandon our party conferences, but somehow I feel that the electorate would find it in their hearts to forgive us.
Underlying the Bill is the decision to take away from the Prime Minister the right to choose the election date. I can recall very few occasions in recent years when Prime Ministers have given up anything, let alone a key prerogative such as this. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, on that—I believe that this is an entirely genuine matter. I am all in favour of the Executive giving up powers to Parliament. I think that we should have more of it and I applaud the Prime Minister for taking this step.
In any event, Prime Ministers are often very poor at taking these decisions about election timing. They gather their soothsayers, the entrails are extracted, the runes are read and, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, pointed out, still they make a mess of it. How different might things have been. Ted Heath going to the polls in February 1974; Jim Callaghan not going in October 1978; Gordon Brown too—how might history have been rewritten if they had made different decisions?
There is an inherent uncertainty that accompanies all elections; that is one of the many splendours of democracy. After Winston Churchill’s extraordinary election defeat in 1945, his wife, Clementine, tried to comfort him. “Darling, it is a blessing in disguise”, she said. “If it is a blessing”, the old man said, “it is very well disguised”. The Bill contains many blessings, even if at times some of them seem to be rather well disguised.
My Lords, I will bear in mind the time and the fact that many more experienced colleagues than me have spoken. First, I join the massed ranks of those welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, to our midst. I, too, have happy and sound memories of him in another place and I am quite sure that over the next months and years, there will be at least one or two causes that we will be completely united on.
I want to take head-on the point made by noble Peers, but particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that the Labour Party had fixed-term Parliaments in its manifesto. I think that we had that in 1992, but I was a bit closer in 2010 to the formulation of the general election strategy, policy and manifesto issues. I remember that from right back to 1992 and right up to 2010, there was always the spoken assumption that there would be pre-legislative scrutiny and a full process of Green Papers, White Papers and draft Bills. That was always inherent in it, so I do not think that we have anything to hide in indicating that the Labour Party followed that. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, might be being a bit optimistic in thinking that he will get some leeway from the Front Bench. After having endured 17 days of valid points from all corners of this House, we achieved absolutely nothing. If the noble Lord wants something, he will need to speak to Mr Clegg and get his permission.
Once again, what we have here is an abuse of the House of Lords. We have a constitutional Bill being rammed through this place without a single jot of notice being given to its conventions. I am well aware—because I was told often enough—that the new incomers from the other place over the past year or so breached the conventions of this place. There is some justification in that charge but, in answer to it, the circumstances must be borne in mind. The Government had thrown away all the conventions. The anger felt at that was certainly reflected on these Benches. I have learnt not to be too robust in this place, but it is a bit of a cheek for people to complain about others breaching conventions when they have provoked the anger. That is a fact of life. There are supposed to be 14 days between Committee stage and Report stage; with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill we got a day’s notice. I do not want to go over old ground. I am just making the point that this Bill must be seen in that context.
What we see here is the Liberal party’s obsession with tinkering with the constitution and coming up with systems, rather than democracy and paying attention to the true needs of people. Take the record of the Liberal party every time it is put in a position where it can gain something for itself. I go back to the formulation of the Scottish devolution policy between the Labour Party, the Liberal party and other parties in Scotland, except the Conservatives and the SNP. It was crucial that we got consensus at that time, and crucial that we got the Liberals on side. We got them on side but at the price of giving two seats—that is, preferential treatment—to Orkney and Shetland. That was the first instance that I saw of the Liberals using a position for their own political gain.
There was then the situation where Mr Clegg was in a position where he could blackmail another party when two parties were bidding for him to form a coalition. What does he get out of it? He gets out of it constitutional matters—the greatest reform since 1832. He says that it will be a “big bang” for the constitution that has served this country well for hundreds of years—all driven by the Liberals. When they get into a position where they can control and blackmail other parties, they use it to the full. Folk should be aware of that. The be all and end all of this is that if they get AV—God forbid that they should win—we will have maybe not Mr Clegg but a Liberal as Deputy Prime Minister. Where is the democracy there? Where is the paying heed to people and making sure that there is democracy?
Speaking as a reasonably active former Whip, I would have loved to have 14 days to deal with a government defeat and fix the situation. By rights, the Government should resign after being defeated, especially on an important matter. My noble friend Lady Taylor is a former government Chief Whip in the Commons; I served many years with her. We are talking about 14 days to fix something and do all sorts of things—all in a persuasive and kindly way, naturally—to make sure that the will of the House of Commons is defeated. It is absolutely wrong that we are under this pressure and that this priority is being given to tinkering with the constitution when it has served us well.
The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, was, I think, the only one from the Conservative side who gave unconditional support to the Bill. Having persuaded many a colleague to speak in the House of Commons in particular situations, I recognise a press-ganged Member when I see one. I mean no disrespect to the noble Baroness but I certainly recognise the symptoms.
The noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Norton of Louth, made unanswerable cases. One of them was perhaps political but the other constituted an absolutely clinical, methodical and systematic dismantling of the Bill. I offer a word of warning to Conservative colleagues who may think that they can pay the blackmailer once and he or she will go away. However, I assure them that they will return again and again until their party is absolutely demolished.
My Lords, I was interested to hear that the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, thinks that we will be able to demolish the Conservative Party in future. We might demolish the Labour Party as well—who knows?—and then we will have achieved our goal in life. However, at the moment we are in coalition and we shall be loyal members of the coalition.
This has indeed been a very interesting debate. The one thing that has united everybody who has taken part is the importance of the Bill. It is a slim but important Bill. I am strongly in favour of the principle of fixed-term Parliaments, which forms the basis of the Bill. I believe that the power of a Prime Minister to seek a Dissolution is a democratic outrage and should have been abolished long ago. As noble Lords will know, I am also strongly in favour of this House doing its job properly and of the practicalities of this legislation being properly scrutinised and discussed in this House. I hope that that will happen and that we will not again witness the fairly deplorable events that occurred during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I am not at this stage pointing the finger at anybody. The House got itself into a huge tangle on that and, as they always say, it takes two to tangle. I do not believe that the Government were blameless although my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness played a blinder during that Bill.
The principle of this legislation has been Liberal Party and Liberal Democrat policy for decades. If anybody suggests that we have just invented it for party political advantage, that is complete nonsense. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, who is not in his place, said that the Liberal Democrats have an obsession with constitutional reform. Constitutional reform has certainly formed a very important part of our party policy and our party election manifestos for as long as I can remember. If we are now in a position to try to do something about that, we shall do so. It has been pointed out that it is also a Labour manifesto commitment—I assume that it is still Labour Party policy—that the principle we are discussing is correct. At some stage we want a very clear statement of what the Labour Party now stands for as regards fixed-term Parliaments.
I listened with great interest to the fluent, eloquent and interesting speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and to those of other speakers. I listened carefully to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who is not in his place, and to that of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, who said that he was not persuaded by the Bill. I think that is his normal way of saying that he is completely against it but we will find that out. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that he was against all change. He thought that our constitution was wonderful and marvellous and that it should not be messed about with at all. Having listened to the speeches of a number of Labour Members, I got the impression that they could not imagine that anything different from what happens now was remotely desirable. We have seen on the part of quite a lot of Members the deep well of conservatism which exists within the Labour Party on constitutional matters. It was not always thus. Robin Cook was a pioneer in constitutional reform and the Cook-Maclennan agreement formed the basis of a lot of what the Labour Government did in the years after 1997 in setting up the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, changing the role of the Lord Chancellor, introducing changes in this House and, indeed, in phase 1 reform of your Lordships' House.
So there was an agenda there—it was a radical agenda but in latter years the Labour Government ran out of steam. We need to know what Labour policy is now and specifically what its policy on a fixed-term Parliament is. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said that the proposal had a high-minded aim. I agree with that but he then went on to say it is damaging and at the end of his speech he said it is an utter disaster and it is messing up the British constitution. Well, let us put on one side the way in which the legislation has been brought in. We have a job to do here—
I did not say, I am afraid, it had “a high-minded aim”. I said there is very little to be said for this Bill and that it seeks to dress up as a piece of high-minded constitutional reform the chronic mistrust that the two parties, in my view correctly, have for each other. It is my fault for not expressing it clearly but I certainly was not intending to say it had a high-minded aim.
I am grateful for that correction but the noble and learned Lord allowed me to use the words. I believe it has a high-minded aim and it is something with which we agree. However, we still need to know, as a basis for our discussions in Committee and at following stages, what the Labour Party would like to do. What policies would the Labour Party be putting forward on this if it was still the Government? We have been told that we have to operate on the basis of what Mr Asquith said 100 years ago. Well, no one has greater admiration than me for the achievements of the great Liberal Governments in the eight years before the Great War. Really, things have changed a little bit in the past 100 years and if we are to argue on the basis of conditions 100 years ago we are not going to get very far, although the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, did say that what he said was for reasons of nostalgia and it would not have allowed Mr Callaghan to make his wonderful speech in 1979. I think we have got to start looking into the situation in the second decade of the present millennium.
Does the right of the Prime Minister to call an election give the Prime Minister a great advantage? We are being asked to believe that it does not. Whether or not it does it certainly dominates politics in the months and sometimes years leading up to a general election. It dominates politics, in my view, in a very undesirable way. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that Mr Blair and Mrs Thatcher were evidence that it did not work. They between them fought five elections, I think, and won them all as Prime Ministers. That is a very strange argument.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, in a very thoughtful speech from her position as chairman of the Constitution Committee, said that what we need is more accountable Government. I agree that Governments need to be much more accountable than they are now and have been for as long as I have known—and I think that the position has probably got worse over the years—but I believe that that accountability is far more to do with the relationship between government and Parliament; both Houses, but particularly the House of Commons. We have a convention here. One cannot be too acerbic in one’s criticism of the House of Commons so I am not going to be. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, is encouraging me to be critical. I am very critical of the way the House of Commons works. I do not think it holds the Government to account properly. There have been some recent changes which are beneficial but I believe that that whole area is far more important than whether it is elected for four or five years. I am disappointed at the way in which the coalition Government have related to Parliament. I understand why—the enthusiasm of new brooms wanting to sweep clean and wanting to get things done but I believe that they have been careless. In some areas they have been too bullying and I believe that is probably coming to an end now. I hope it is; we will see. It is up to Members of Parliament in both Houses to stand firm and say this must not continue. I believe that slowly that is beginning to happen.
We have a system in this country where people elect Parliaments. I know that a lot of people think that they are voting for the Prime Minister. At the previous election, the single most common telephone call made to the election department in my own area of Pendle was from people who had postal votes and were ringing up to find out why they could not find the names Cameron, Clegg and Brown on the ballot paper.
I do not think that people in my part of the world are any more stupid than anywhere else, but scores of such telephone calls were being made all over the country. We have moved to a more presidential system in recent years, but we nevertheless elect the House of Commons and not the Government. It is up to the House of Commons to decide who will form the Government, and it is up to the House of Commons to decide whether the Government still have their confidence. All the talk about a five-year Parliament putting more power in the hands of the Executive is not necessarily correct.
A number of important issues will have to be discussed. For example, what constitutes a vote of confidence must be clear. However, once that is clear, all the talk about what happened in 1895—I think that it was the vote of no confidence in Campbell-Bannerman and the attempt to take away his wages—as well as in 1910 and 1951, will become irrelevant. What will be important is what people think and know they must do in order to express no confidence in the Government. That must be absolutely clear, but it will then define the behaviour of politicians in the House of Commons.
I do not believe that whether the fixed term should be four years or five years is a major issue; other people do. I was fascinated by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, talking about biorhythms. I know that when I am going through a low patch my wife always looks up the book of biorhythms and tells me what is happening. If that does not work, she looks at the phases of the moon. I say to her, “Well, it’s to do with the viruses I’ve got in my head. It’s the head-cold viruses, or perhaps it is just to do with the latest government announcement I don’t agree with”. I am not quite sure that parliamentary biorhythms are much to do with it, but I shall be interested to hear more about that fascinating theory.
It has been said that the average length of Parliament since the war has been three years and 10 months, which I assume is true, but that has been utterly distorted by the fact that there were three very short Parliaments in 1950, 1964 and 1974. If one takes those out, the average rises to something over four years.
Of course, it can be argued, as we will do, that having a longer Parliament gives the House of Commons more time to scrutinise what the Government are doing. That is a perfectly good argument to use if Parliament is doing its job properly. At least, if one knows when a general election is going to be, one of the democratic outrages of Parliament, the wash-up, will not take place That is when Bills which have often had little or no scrutiny are nodded through behind closed doors by the parliamentary parties, leading to a lot of bad legislation. If the wash-up is done away with, that is a good thing.
The clash of election dates is a very important issue which we will have to discuss. I do not believe that the new system will, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, suggested in different words, allow the Prime Minister to fiddle when he wants an election anyway, because discussion on it will have been taken out of the context and dynamic of the politics of the time.
I hope that we will not have a major trial of strength over this Bill. There are very important issues to discuss. It may take some time to scrutinise the Bill in Committee, but I hope that it will all be done constructively on both sides. I have great confidence that the Government will be prepared to approach it in that way. I hope that the Opposition will do so, too.
My Lords, I must first apologise to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, for missing the first moments of his speech, although I was in time to admire the patience with which he dealt with interventions.
Many good points have been made during the debate, including those made by my noble friend Lord Cormack, whom I join in welcoming. I will not waste your Lordships’ time in respect of all the points that have been raised, but I would like to touch on one aspect embodied by this Bill: the increase in the power of the Executive at the expense of the power of Parliament.
Any action which takes away the ability of Parliament to call the Executive to account is a retrograde step. Put simply, this proposal to have a fixed-term Parliament for five years is an erosion of the power of Parliament to call the Executive to account, because whatever way it is dressed up it reduces the ability of Parliament to shorten the life of a Government.
The Government claim that by taking away from the Prime Minister the ability to choose a propitious moment to recommend to the Sovereign that an election be called, the timing of an election is made fairer. That may be so, although except for a few inconsequential bodies I cannot recall this being an issue of much interest to anyone, and certainly no one much outside of Westminster. In any event, the argument was put firmly in its place by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others. As has been pointed out by noble Lords, it would be a simple matter for a Prime Minister to get around this in any event by arranging to lose a vote of no confidence. The price being exacted for this supposed benefit is to make it more difficult for Parliament to call for a change of Government.
A further benefit being claimed is that it makes the scheduling of government business easier, but the easier life is for Government, the more difficult it is for Parliament to exercise proper control over the actions of the Executive.
The Government claim in answer to the report by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that this Bill gives the House of Commons a fundamental constitutional power which it currently does not possess, namely to require that there be an early general election. Reading those words I am not sure whether I have entered the world of Alice in Wonderland or Animal Farm. As noble Lords have already pointed out, the House of Commons already has the power to force the Prime Minister to call an election. A simple majority on a vote of no confidence and down go the Government.
To pretend that a vote for Dissolution by two-thirds of the Members of Parliament is an increase in the power of Parliament is absurd. As for introducing a 14-day cooling off period, the mind boggles. I am sure the present Government would never stoop so low, but imagine the cornucopia of inducements, together with the bullying, which a future Government might carry out during those 14 days. We might even get a few more Dukes in this House.
In recent years too much power has been taken by the Executive at the expense of Parliament. For example, in the 50 years between 1947 and 1997 time-limiting, or guillotine, Motions were used 136 times—that’s 136 times in 50 years. Between 1997 and 2007 this type of Motion was used 438 times: 438 times in 10 years. The result was rotten legislation and too much of it. The ability to ram legislation through Parliament by reducing the ability of Opposition and Back-Benchers to force Government to look properly at what they are doing lowers the quality of legislation.
This may come as a surprise, but the Prime Minster himself is aware of this. In an article for the Guardian in 2009, he said:
“Every bill now has a "programme motion" setting out how much time can be spent scrutinising and debating each part. These are automatic guillotines, and the time allowed for scrutiny is set in advance, before anyone can see whether a particular issue is contentious or complex. Watching a minister in the Commons drawing out one point for an hour to fill the time, to an audience of dozing backbenchers—this is not accountability. How has the mother of all parliaments turned itself into such a pliant child?
If we're serious about redistributing power from the powerful to the powerless, it's time to strengthen parliament so it can properly hold the government to account on behalf of voters. The House of Commons should have more control over its own timetable, so there is time for proper scrutiny and debate”.
The Prime Minister was not alone in those sentiments. Sir George Young, Leader of the House of Commons, pledged on ConservativeHome’s Platform:
“Fixed term parliaments are undoubtedly a major constitutional change and it is proper that people should express their views. That is why there will be a Bill with full and proper debate in Parliament. Indeed, because I have pledged to abolish programme motions for legislation—known as ‘guillotines’—Parliament will have more time to scrutinise this Bill than they would have done under Labour”.
What did the House of Commons get? As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, pointed out earlier, it got a programmed Bill which was hurried through the Commons amidst complaints from Members of Parliament.
Where is the respect of Parliament? In spite of the fine words, there is none. The Bill before us today is a further limitation of the power of Parliament to call the Administration to account. This House, as one of the Houses of Parliament, must act as a protector of the power of elected Members of Parliament and not as a poodle of the Executive.
My Lords, I add my voice to all those who welcomed the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and congratulate him on his maiden speech. I am very pleased that he has become a Member of this House. We go back a very long way. We were at school together. I was well under his radar. He was head boy and I was a recalcitrant first-year pupil. But after he left he endowed an essay prize that I happened to win one year. I still have the Oxford Book of Latin Verse, which was the PT Cormack essay prize. I should own up that I also have his copy of Livy’s histories, which after 49 years I suppose I should remember to return to him someday.
One of the constant refrains of recent political commentary over the past two or three years—and the reasons are fairly obvious—is that we have to accept that Parliament and Government need to be made more accountable to the people. My objection to the Bill as currently drafted is that it weakens that accountability. It is fairly easy to see why.
I want to make the case by focusing on a change of Administration during a fixed-term Parliament under the terms set out in the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, the constitutional convention is that a Prime Minister, for example, can succeed another Prime Minister but only if he or she is capable of leading an Administration with the confidence of the House of Commons. It is the Members of Parliament who elect or choose the Prime Minister, not the population at large. Given that the Prime Minister has to have the confidence of Parliament, he or she can succeed an incumbent Prime Minister in a perfectly legitimate way.
That has been the normal process of British politics since the Second World War—so Churchill succeeded Chamberlain, Eden succeeded Churchill, Macmillan succeeded Eden, Lord Home succeeded Macmillan, Callaghan succeeded Wilson, Brown succeeded Blair, and Major succeeded the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher. In only one of those cases—namely when Eden succeeded Churchill—was there an early general election to confirm the mandate of the new Prime Minister. In all these cases without an early election, excepting that particular case, it seemed perfectly fair, reasonable and legitimate that the new Prime Minister came into office because that was in accordance with the constitutional convention.
In the case of Gordon Brown succeeding Tony Blair, the assumption came seriously into question in the media, in the polls, in quite a lot of political commentary in the newspapers and among politicians themselves. It was argued that somehow this succession lacked legitimacy, although it was exactly comparable to previous changes I have mentioned. I suspect the reason is not just political opportunism—although that no doubt played a fairly important part—but because over the past 20 years or so there has been something of a change in public opinion and the electorate are not so ready to accept that Government can and should emerge just through intra-parliamentary debate and deal-making. People want to have a bit more of a say in the outcome. After all, there are many more opportunities for non-political voting in a straightforward sense through interactive television, newspaper polls virtually every day of the week on some public issue and so on. Yet, many people now feel rather distant from Parliament when someone can become Prime Minister without them having voted for him. I fully accept and understand the account of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, of the constitutional position. However, I think that position may be leaving behind a bit the way in which society more generally is evolving.
If there is some truth in the idea that people are demanding more of a political say, then I think this Bill—particularly if the AV vote turns out to be positive —is going to cause us great problems, because it is going to insulate the processes of intra-parliamentary politics more and more from public opinion. If we have AV, we are going to have more coalitions; and a coalition can change part of the way through a fixed-term Parliament and possibly without the same priorities as its predecessor. I doubt whether the electorate would regard this as acceptable. It is fashionable at the moment to decry the idea of the mandate—one can see that it is very difficult at the moment for the Government to claim a mandate in the sense that people have not voted for the coalition agreement. I fully understand the difficulty. Nevertheless, if one coalition were to succeed another and you had a second coalition agreement that no one had ever voted for, it is straining credulity to believe that this would be regarded as legitimate. Whatever degree of confidence the House of Commons has in a new coalition—reflecting what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, said—I do not think the idea that you can have one coalition succeeding another will wash with the British people. It makes Parliament appear to be too insulated from public opinion. There is a great deal more that could be said, but the time is getting late and so I will not say it.
I will finish on a point made by someone who has always had a great interest in constitutional reform and has been a member of the Liberal Democrats, Professor David Marquand, who once described Westminster politics as club politics. I always thought that was a very exaggerated account of Westminster politics. If you got into the position of having a series of coalitions arising during a fixed-term Parliament, without a straightforward appeal to the electorate, that would be club politics of the worst possible kind. At the very least, this Bill needs to be amended to remove the 14-day clause on the vote of confidence because that allows the possibility of a constant renewal of a coalition to occur, which I just do not think that the British people will accept.
My Lords, I shall be very brief because most points have already been made. I start by echoing what has been said by way of welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The number of noble Lords who have told anecdotes about his past implies that he will feel very much at home here, as I am sure will be the case.
I acknowledge, as one or two noble Lords have done, that the Labour Party policy in its manifesto was in favour of a four-year fixed-term Parliament. That is not a policy that has ever excited me, but to suggest that because of that specific manifesto commitment we should now support this entirely different Bill is, to my mind, total nonsense. My starting point is quite simple: any proposal to change the British constitution, as this Bill does, should be coherent, should have public support, should be subject to wide consultation and, as far as possible, should be based on consensus. The onus should be on those who are proposing change to prove that those conditions have been met and that what is proposed is an improvement. To my mind, this Bill fails both tests. As my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer proved, it is constitutional change for party-political convenience because neither side in the coalition trusts the other and they need what he described as glue to bind them together. That is a pretty sorry state of affairs and certainly not one of high constitutional principle.
In opening the debate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, said that the political system needs to be reinvigorated. With due respect, I do not think that this Bill will achieve that. I do not know about the Minister’s former constituents when he was in another place, but I served there for a good long time and no one ever indicated that they would or would not vote for me because they were in any way concerned about fixed-term Parliaments. I do not think that the mass of the electorate is demanding this kind of change.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, has been welcomed as the Minister leading for the Government on this Bill. I endorse that welcome. As we saw with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, it is true that he is considered to be the user-friendly Minister for the Government on these matters and he stepped in when others had exhausted any goodwill that they had. I hope that he retains that reputation, but to do so it is important that he listens to the genuine concerns about this Bill that have been expressed on all sides of the House, not just from these Benches. The concern is genuine and I am afraid that the letter mentioned by my noble friend Lord Anderson, which the noble and learned Lord sent implying endorsement by the Select Committee, was not a reassuring start. I hope that he will be reasonable and listen to these concerns so that we can have a very constructive Committee stage.
Briefly, my concerns are twofold: one is about the content of the Bill and the other is about the context in which the Bill is being introduced. I object to fixed five-year Parliaments. I was somewhat surprised at the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, earlier when he said that anything other than a five-year Parliament could not achieve anything. I thought back to the 1966-1970 Government and the Open University, which is a glaring example of a fantastic achievement and, although I disagreed with many of their policies, I do not think that many people would say that the 1979-1983 Thatcher Government did not have, in their own way, a great number of achievements.
People say that the term has to be of five years so that we can have more achievements, but why? The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said that it has to be five years because it would save money for political parties. On that basis, why not make it six or seven years? What is so magical about five years? The point in the Constitution Committee’s report, about how many elections we would have had had there been five-year terms since the war, was a very telling one. We need to maintain contact with the electorate as much as possible.
My main very serious concern—and here I follow the noble Lord, Lord Plant—is about the mechanisms and complications that arise from making a vote of confidence more complex. I will leave aside for the moment the concerns expressed by the Clerk of the Commons—though, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, pointed out earlier, these are things that we might have to come back to because there could be difficulties. I did not find the Minister very convincing in his earlier comments. For example, the Minister did not give a very satisfactory answer to the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, about the use of the 14-day mechanism. I am still not very sure whether this 14-day mechanism is supposed to be a cooling-off or hotting-up period. As a former Chief Whip, I perhaps should not have enjoyed the relish with which my noble friend spoke about how a Government might use those 14 days. However, clearly, Members opposite had had the same thoughts. Are we to have 14 days so that Government Ministers can offer jobs to rebels or inducements or threats or whatever? The possibilities of buying off an opposition in your own party or doing deals with others are certainly there. A lot could be achieved in 14 days. It is not a good idea, and I hope that it will not remain in the Bill.
However, on the other hand, when you think of the source of this idea, as was mentioned earlier, maybe 14 days is simply designed as a mechanism for one partner in a coalition to try to persuade a different partner to enter a new coalition and form an entirely different kind of majority in the Commons without an election. Either way, the deal would be done without any reference to the electorate whatsoever, which is the case with any coalition. If the alternative is the simple and obvious one of a general election, I am a long way from accepting the 14-day concept. When MPs vote on a vote of confidence—and I am one of a relatively small number of people who have done that—they know that they are voting for or against a general election. It is as simple as that. My noble friend Lord Grocott was there on that very significant night in 1979—as I was—when there was a vote of confidence. This is my main concern with the Bill. There are many others that will need clarification.
I have one specific question for the Minister that I hope he can clarify. Provision in Clause 1(5) says that the Prime Minister can make an order for a general election to be brought forward or delayed by two months —the so-called foot and mouth provision. I can understand why, if there is a foot and mouth outbreak, as in 2001, an election might be delayed. What are the circumstances, however, in which a crisis can be anticipated so that the election has to be brought forward two months? If you can anticipate in February that you will have to have an election in March, is it a crisis? I hope this question can be answered and my mind set at rest.
There are many other small points. As the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, asked, why May? What he did not mention is that, if the election is in May, there is always the problem of juggling the scrutiny of the Budget provisions in the other place because the Budget is traditionally in April. I could ask why Thursday and not the weekend, but that is not the point that we are discussing now.
My other concern about this Bill is with what is happening to the whole area of constitutional reform. The Constitution Select Committee said very politely:
“We are concerned that the constitutional relationship between the provisions of this Bill and the Government's other proposals for constitutional reform have not been adequately thought through”.
That is a wonderfully calm understatement. We have already had some legislation with a high degree of controversy because of a lack of consultation. Indeed, the committee, in its fantastic report, pointed out the possibilities of the difficulties with a five-year boundary and a five-year Parliament and them being out sync. It is a recipe for chaos.
My real problem is that we are seeing a whole ragbag of proposals from this Government, with AV brought forward with a referendum, legislation reducing the number of seats of another place and talk of recall of MPs and changing rules on parliamentary privilege as well as changes to voter registration, elected police chiefs and Lords reform, not to mention the decision to have a two-year parliamentary Session, which has a whole range of implications. What we have is a disparate range of piecemeal, ill-thought-through ideas. It is just like a series of bad schoolboy essays being put forward. My noble friend takes issue with the word “schoolboy”, but I think that those making these decisions will well understand the kind of essay that I am talking about.
If the Government want to make changes to the British constitution in so many different and fundamental ways, they should take a step back. The noble Lord, Lord Morgan, wants a codified constitution. I do not think that I do—but if we are going to have change, we must have coherent change. To do that, you need to take a step back and have a royal commission and you need to have debates on terms of reference. You cannot rush through significant constitutional proposals in this way and expect to get things right. The law of unintended consequences will come in here, and we will see great difficulties arising in future.
Finally, it was interesting that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, in describing the role of this House, mentioned the phrase “guardianship of the constitution”. It is a phrase that has echoed around this Chamber this evening, and many people realise their responsibility in that respect. I hope that this House lives up to that billing on this legislation and, indeed, on any other constitutional changes that this Government bring forward.
My Lords, here we are again, less than two weeks have passed and here we are, debating another constitutional Bill, claimed by the Government to make a long-term constitutional change based on principle, thought through, properly considered, well researched and thoroughly argued in another place, but which in reality—as nearly everyone acknowledges—is a short-term measure, with its driving force the political necessity of the coalition and its need, given the desperate lack of confidence between its parties, to ensure that it survives until at least May 2015. In other words, it is a short-term political fix masquerading as serious constitutional reform. Of what other Bill—I ask rhetorically of course, but I may give a clue—what other Act of Parliament does that remind noble Lords?
In these circumstances, it is perhaps not too surprising that the Bill is so deficient in so many ways. From the choice of five-year terms to the lack of any clarity on the issue of confidence Motions, the Bill looks what it is—a ridiculously hurried, unconsulted-on piece of rushed legislation, whose consequences, if it were passed unamended, might well be dire for our constitution. Surely our duty, as a revising House, is clear; we must do all we can to improve the Bill, to build up consensus around the House that says that the Bill in its present state is deeply unsatisfactory. The least the House can expect—and here I really am looking at the Minister—is that the Government remain open-minded to sensible changes. Not just Ministers in this House—I am sure they are open-minded to sensible changes—I mean the Government as a whole.
Having set out the Opposition Front Bench’s view, let me say, in case I should be accused of being a trifle negative, that the Second Reading has given rise to an excellent debate. It would have been surprising, given the expertise, experience and indeed wisdom of noble Lords who have spoken, if the debate had not been good. There have been some very powerful speeches on all sides of the House; it would be quite invidious to pick out any in particular. However, I do want to say that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, was very impressive indeed. For those of us who have not heard him speak before, either in another place or elsewhere, it was a breath of fresh air to hear what he had to say. The House very much appreciated the way in which he said it and looks forward to hearing a lot from him in the months and years to come.
A whole number of issues have been raised but there are three I wish to concentrate on. The first is whether the practical effect of the Bill as drafted would be seriously to circumscribe a Prime Minister’s powers or whether the Bill allows, frankly, for a coach and horses to be driven through the principle of a fixed-term Parliament. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton and others too have dealt effectively with this issue. Having listened to nearly 30 speeches, no noble Lord has been brave enough to attempt any serious criticism of my noble and learned friend’s analysis of the Bill in this regard. It is sad but true that any consideration of how Prime Ministers are likely to act in the future should start from a fairly cynical viewpoint. If legislation allows Prime Ministers to behave badly then I am afraid to say that there will be occasions when they do behave badly. Mr Harper in Canada is no worse or better in that respect. As the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, said, any Act of Parliament based on this Bill would inevitably be stretched as far as it could be and then perhaps—and here I am speaking rather than the noble Lord—a little bit further too if the survival of a particular Prime Minister was in question.
Secondly, there is the issue of four or five years. That is a very significant issue, not a minor one, which goes to the heart of the Bill. We do not think that the Government have ever really even begun to explain why five years is to be preferred. The consensus, not universal of course, is that four years is to be preferred. I accept that the Liberal Democrat Benches have been loyal to a man and that the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and also perhaps, on occasion, the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, have been in support of the Bill. No other Conservative was actually very supportive at all. Both Select Committees, in our House and in the other place, came out in favour of four years. Academic opinion seems overwhelmingly in favour of four years, yet the Government say five.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked us, the Labour Opposition, to adhere to the principle of fixed-term Parliaments. Perhaps he should ask his colleagues why they are not adhering to their commitment to four-year fixed Parliaments. We all know about the Liberal Democrat policy paper of 2007 in favour of a four-year fixed Parliament. Even more telling was David Howarth’s Private Member’s Bill, whose Second Reading was heard on 16 May 2008 in another place. That Bill was a model of brevity and simplicity: the kind of Bill that my noble friend Lady Gould was talking about when she complained about the complexity of this Bill.
From that Bill—remember, this was a 2007-08 Bill—it said, at Clause 1(1):
“The next general election shall take place on 7th May 2009”.
Clause 1(2) said:
“Each subsequent general election shall take place on the first Thursday in May in the fourth year after the previous general election”.
That is pretty simple and clear. When the Bill was published in December 2007, who supported David Howarth? It is a stellar list. It has Westminster glitterati of the highest order, who would grace any Oscar shortlist. Let me remind the House who supported that proposition by supporting that Bill in print. First, there was David Heath, now the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons. There were two who are now Cabinet Ministers: the right honourable Chris Huhne and the right honourable Danny Alexander both put their signatures to that Bill. There were two who are now junior Ministers, as I understand it, Ms Featherstone and Mr Burstow. Then there was the Colin Firth of the list, the Oscar winner himself who is now the Deputy Prime Minister, the right honourable Nick Clegg.
All those Members of another place put their name to a Bill that was clearly stating four-year fixed Parliaments. I pose the question: what has changed all their minds so that within three years they are voting for a five-year period, attacking a four-year period and arguing strongly for the five years. Not just one but all of them seem to have changed their minds simultaneously. Is it some sort of Pauline conversion on the road to Whitehall?
The noble Lord is having his bit of fun. I think he has come to the end of it now. It is of course a matter of whether noble Lords think four years or five years is fundamental or not. I understand that they do. Will the noble Lord now answer the basic question that the noble Lord asked: do he and his party still support the principle of fixed-term Parliaments?
I will of course be more than happy to answer the noble Lord’s question. I was waiting for it. We have not changed our position on the Front Bench since the last election—an election, I remind the House, that we lost. We support fixed-term Parliaments. Thus we are doubly disappointed by this disaster of a Bill, which has been rushed through with no proper consultation—no real consultation at all—and thus got so many vital, important things entirely wrong. First, on five years instead of four and, secondly, on the no-confidence safety valve, as it is called. That is drafted in a completely unsatisfactory way. It is unclear and, indeed, may turn out to protect the power of a Prime Minister so that there is no point at all in a fixed-term Parliament in any event. I hope that answers the noble Lord’s query.
I wonder whether my noble friend will give way for what I hope he will think is a helpful suggestion. Although he is quite right in describing the Labour Party’s current position in the aftermath of a general election commitment, any prudent party, when it has lost a general election, looks again at the policies that were in the document that it put to the electorate. I strongly suggest that that would be a good move and that it might result in our deciding that the commitment to a fixed-term Parliament was not the election winner that some might have thought it was.
My noble friend is certainly right in one regard; it was not an election winner. On the other hand, I understand that the main opposition party is quite rightly considering all its policies, bearing in mind that it is in opposition and is likely to be in opposition for a little while longer.
I had not quite finished my fun, so perhaps I should not have given way to the noble Lord opposite so quickly. I hope that it will not be ungallant to suggest that this simultaneous change of mind might have something to do with the aftermath of the 2010 general election and the need to have a short-term arrangement that has the best chance of sticking for five years. If that is what was intended, fair enough. Political parties are absolutely entitled to come together on whatever terms they like, but why is there a need to cover up this short-term political necessity with a Bill that will change our constitution for ever? Let me be fair. At least those distinguished Members of Parliament took a little time to change their minds, unlike the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister, who, as we have heard during the debate, suggested right in the middle of the election campaign that, far from fixed-term Parliaments, when a new Prime Minister took office there should be legislation insisting on a fresh general election within six months. I ask what has made him change his mind.
On this issue, the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, and, in my view, our Constitution Committee, got it right. The noble Lord talked about the biorhythms of our national politics. I think I understood what he meant, even if the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, did not. He said that five years does not capture it, and he seems to have got that precisely right. Our Constitution Committee dealt very thoroughly with this issue at paragraphs 62 and 63 of its report, from which I shall quote:
“Whilst acknowledging the case made by the Deputy Prime Minister for a five year term, nonetheless the majority of the Committee consider that a four year term should be adopted for any fixed-term Parliamentary arrangement at Westminster. In the view of the majority, the shift from a five year maximum to a five year norm would be inconsistent with the Government’s stated aim of making the legislature more accountable, inconsistent with existing constitutional practice and inconsistent with the practice of the devolved institutions and the clear majority of international legislatures”.
I say to that: game, set and match. The response so far to the Constitution Committee report is, by any test, very weak. To set out as part of that response a number of countries that have a five-year maximum is hardly the point.
My final point—and I am sorry that I have gone on for so long—is that many of the problems could have been solved if the Government had not rushed this legislation. It is such an obvious point and it has been made by many noble Lords, but it is worth repeating. At least, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, with the AV Bill, whatever we may have thought of it, the importance of 5 May—at least to the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition—gave some excuse and reason for rushing that legislation. In this Bill, what is the hurry? What is the rush? What is the excuse for having no consultation, no pre-legislative scrutiny, no Green or White Papers?
I hope that the noble and learned Lord will spend a little time explaining why it is necessary for this Bill to go through Parliament without any outside consultation. We are told that when the next piece of constitutional legislation comes along—the Lords reform Bill—there will be pre-legislative scrutiny and the full works will be brought out, and quite right, too, but if for that, why not for this? I could mention the large number of noble Lords who have raised this point in one way or another during the debate.
In Chapter 5 of its report, our Constitution Committee absolutely slaughtered, if I may use the expression, the Government’s arguments for this legislation. Of course, it did so in parliamentary language and absolutely appropriately. If noble Lords think I am being high minded about this, I am not. I was the Minister who received our Constitution Committee’s report on the CRaG Bill, and only that Bill got a worse press than this one from our very much respected Constitution Committee, so I sympathise with the noble and learned Lord. I know what it is like after such a Second Reading when the whole world—apart, of course, from the Liberal Democrats—has been against you. I know what it is like, but the Constitution Committee has been absolutely clear and I do not want to allow the agony to continue by quoting from the report. The Minister and others on the Front Bench know exactly what it says.
I am sure that the noble and learned Lord will agree that our Select Committee criticised the Bill in a powerful and fundamental way. It did not believe, first of all, that the case for fixed-term Parliaments had been made. It did not believe that the case for five years rather than four had been made, and it severely criticised the Government for not taking time to consult and think more about the Bill. It is a pretty comprehensive attack, and the response, which I know the House was grateful to receive before Second Reading, is laughable. The letter from the Minister was well meant, but it was making the very best of a pretty bad job.
I end by asking the Minister what the Government’s serious answers are to the criticisms made by the Select Committee and many noble Lords around the House today. Why the urgency for the Bill? Surely what should happen now is that the Government should take the Bill away, consult on it and come back with a proper and suitable Bill for our consideration. Surely our constitution is vital enough not to be the plaything of temporary politicians who are just a little too eager to get power and much, much too eager to keep it.
My Lords, I join those who have indicated that this has been a very good debate. The House has had the benefit of the experience of many people, from academia and from the other place, who have taken part in votes of confidence—or no confidence—in times past. I certainly wish to join many of your Lordships who have expressed their congratulations to my noble friend Lord Cormack on a notable and distinguished maiden speech. He said that he had been in favour in principle in fixed-term Parliaments for some time. I think that I would describe his speech as that of a critical friend. I served in the other place with my noble friend, I think on a sub-committee of the Administration and Accommodation Committee, which he chaired. Perhaps its most significant task when I was on it was to identify those who would appear in the painting of the House of Commons in session in about 1985 or 1986. That chairmanship was just part of the contribution which my noble friend gave to the other place, not only a concern for its fabric, but a concern for, and a passionate commitment to, its workings. That is the experience that he brings to this place and we look forward to his contributions in the future.
Congratulations are also in order to the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy. Although he said that he was a former Whip, I understand that he has recently been appointed to the Whips’ Bench opposite and I congratulate him on that very rapid rise, which no doubt reflects his abilities as a Whip. That is meant to be a compliment.
We have heard a variety of views, from those who are opposed in principle to this, through to those who are very supportive of it and to those who are supportive of it, but want to see things done in different ways. There are those who have indicated that they do not wish any change whatever. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, indicated a level of satisfaction with a constitution that he did not think needed changing. My noble and learned friend Lord Howe expressed the view that he was getting somewhat sceptical about constitutional change, but I am grateful to a number of my noble friends who indicated their support in principle. My noble friend Lady Stowell indicated that it was not necessarily a silver bullet, but nevertheless was an important contribution to try to revitalise our political system.
My noble friend Lord Dobbs had a slightly interesting, but very practical, explanation as to why he supported this, not least in terms of party finance. That may not seem the most obvious reason why one would support it, but for those of us who think back to the debates we had on the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill, the point was made on more than one occasion that political parties oil the wheel of democracy and my noble friend made an important point. Certainly, under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, there is a regulation of national campaign spending for 12 months before the actual date of poll. Therefore, it is probably preferable that the parties can have a fixed idea of when that is likely to be, rather than have to guess.
This is important because it lends that stability. It particularly lends stability, as my noble friend Lord Marks said, on occasions when there is a coalition Government. It allows Governments and Parliaments to plan for the long term. I take issue with those who say that it does not give the Prime Minister an advantage. Our late colleague Lord Holme of Cheltenham, who chaired the Constitution Select Committee with distinction at one point, asked as long ago as 1991, in words which my noble friend quoted, what people would think about,
“a race in which the Prime Minister is allowed to approach it with his running shoes in one hand and his starting pistol in the other”.—[Official Report, 22/ 5/1991; col. 245.]
The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, although opposed to what is happening and sceptical about the arguments about the Prime Minister, also made the point about the Prime Minister being able to use Dissolution as a threat. It is not only about occasions when Dissolution has been sought by a Prime Minister, it is often about occasions when it was not sought, but was there nevertheless.
I disagree with those who think that this is a shift to the Executive. I believe that neutralising the threat that the Prime Minister has to hang Dissolution over his Back-Benchers may indeed strengthen Back-Benchers, rather than weaken them. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, and my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising, took the view that the Bill does not do what I claim it does; namely, that we believe it should transfer power from the Executive to Parliament.
I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, acknowledged that it was the Prime Minister giving up a prerogative that he has had the power to exercise for many years. I certainly agree with my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising that the objective must be to shift power from the Executive to Parliament. That is why I believe the Bill helps. This is a Bill that gives Parliament, not the Prime Minister or the Executive, the opportunity to decide when there should be an early general election. That is because of the flexibility, which I will come back to. No longer will the Executive be able to use the threat of a Dissolution against Parliament or their own Back-Benchers.
It is worth remembering that there have quite properly been references to the report of our own Constitution Select Committee. I also remind the House that the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee of the other place, in its report on the Bill, said:
“It is questionable whether a Prime Minister should be able to use his position in government to give him and his party an electoral advantage by choosing to hold the next general election to a schedule that best suits him. We therefore acknowledge the principle behind the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill”.
My noble friend Lord Norton asked about public demand. I am the first to say that it is not the question that comes up first at hustings. I am sure it was not the issue that lost the Labour Party the election last May. However, as the Constitution Select Committee report points out, the issue has been on the constitutional reform agenda for the past 20 years. The report refers to a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research in 1991; a commitment in the Labour Party manifesto in 1992; Private Members’ Bills, which have been referred to, in 2001 and 2008; Liberal Democrat policy documents; and the Liberal Democrat manifestos of 1992 and 1997. As my noble friend Lady Stowell indicated, an opinion poll from 2009—at the height of the expenses scandal—showed considerable public support for the idea of a fixed-term Parliament. As far back as 1998, Professor Blackburn, giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in the other place, gave an argument as to why a fixed-term Parliament should be an issue that the committee might look at. He said:
“But if I could finally select just one reform of election law which does carry popular backing and probably also substantial parliamentary support. This is our system of General Election timing which is an extremely important matter in electioneering terms and which clearly operates to the advantage of the government of the day … The trick is to avoid those times when you are unpopular so far as you can. I believe this Committee”—
that is, the Home Affairs Select Committee—
“should examine the case for fixed intervals between general elections”.
I listened to and take on board the criticisms regarding the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny. As I think I indicated when we dealt with the previous Bill, it is very difficult to have pre-legislative scrutiny of a Bill in a first Session. Noble Lords will remember that the original proposal was to have a binding resolution. That was not proceeded with. It was suggested by some of those who have contributed to the debate that it was questionable whether it would be binding. I certainly do not accept the view that was put forward by the noble Lords, Lord Armstrong and Lord Elystan-Morgan, that the simplest thing would be for the Prime Minister to make a declaration. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, then qualified that by saying, “unless in exceptional circumstances we could not go on to 7 May 2015”. That is the point. It would continue the possible uncertainty. One of the reasons for legislating is to make it clear that that would be the position: there will be an election on 7 May 2015, unless the trigger mechanisms come into play.
I am trying to cover quite a lot of ground. I hope that I can do justice to the many important contributions that were made during the debate.
I welcome the fact that the Constitution Committee will look at the process for constitutional reform. It occurred to me that if a Parliament could not do much in the way of legislation in its first Session—it is not just constitutional Bills that call for pre-legislative scrutiny—there would not be much time to do much business at all, particularly since a four-year fixed term of Parliament has also been advocated. There will always be that tension as regards legislation that is introduced in the first year of a Parliament. We look forward to the Constitution Committee’s report on the process that it will recommend for constitutional legislation.
I had not anticipated my noble friend Lord Dobbs asking why the election should be held in May as opposed to June or October. The simple answer is that the most recent elections have been held in May, with the exception of the 2001 election when the foot and mouth epidemic occurred. There is always a difficulty with finding other times that do not clash with traditional holiday periods. However, my noble friend has posed an important challenge and we want to reflect on it. I also note that the annual canvass to update the electoral register takes place in October in Great Britain, so that may not be an appropriate time to place yet a further burden on electoral registration officers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, asked whether there could be an extension of the two months beyond the extension. The answer to that is no. My noble friend Lord Rennard asked about primary legislation in this context. I believe that it is appropriate to introduce the relevant measure by order as the latter would have to be passed by both Houses. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, asked what we anticipate might happen. I have asked myself that question. I am not sure that I have an answer but I think that one could anticipate receiving a lot of criticism if one was seen to be making provision for the Government to extend their life, not to shorten it. I have no doubt that if we did not have this measure something would happen that no one could have foreseen and we would wish that we had had it. In the case of the Scottish Parliament, the Presiding Officer has the power to vary the election date by one month either way and I think that in the case of the National Assembly for Wales, the Secretary of State has the power to vary the date by a short period either way—although I cannot remember exactly by how much. The measure that we are discussing has been informed by those practices.
My noble friend Lord Norton asked why Clause 2(2)(a) refers to “a motion” whereas Clause 2(2)(b) refers to “any motion”. I think that “any motion” was chosen because it is followed by,
“expressing confidence in any Government”.
It is clearly a drafting preference. We think that “any motion” or “a motion” would have the same effect. I shall certainly contemplate that matter further, but I think that it is a drafting preference rather than having any significant constitutional importance.
The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, referred to resetting the clock. If there has been an election and a Government have been returned with a substantial majority and a mandate, they should have the opportunity to see that through for a full term. If the clock was not reset, the electorate might find it odd if, having returned a Government with a significant majority, they were then asked some 12 months later to vote again.
I have noted the points made about parliamentary privilege, which the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, raised, as did my noble friend Lord Cormack. I am sure that we will want to look at that issue in Committee but I certainly share the analysis of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, that the provisions here would ensure that the courts would not interfere in what we believe is very much the space of Parliament.
The key issue is whether Parliaments should last for four or five years. As my noble friend Lord Rennard indicated, there is no absolutely right or wrong answer in that regard—it is a judgment. I indicated that the longer period allows the electorate to make its judgment—my noble friend Lord Marks commented on this—on the policies of a Government as they are seen to be working out in detail over time. I also believe that it allows a Government and Parliament longer to plan their activities. I cannot accept the argument that inevitably the situation has arisen under our present system whereby the fifth year has tended to be a bit of a lame-duck year and that that would necessarily follow if we had fixed-term Parliaments. As has been pointed out by a number of contributors, the fifth year has tended to be a lame-duck year because the Government in office did not think that they could win by cutting and running after four years. Therefore, it has been against a background where they have probably been at a disadvantage anyway.
The point was made by my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart and by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, and I think indeed by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—although I think he was arguing this point in the context of arguing against a five-year term—that the final year, even though it would not be under the same sort of handicap as perhaps 1976-77 or 2009-10, nevertheless would be under a handicap. Even under a fixed-term Parliament, there would be the looming shadow of the forthcoming election. The last year is not as effective a year as the earlier years of a Parliament. That is why I believe that it would be the same in the fourth year of a four-year fixed-term Parliament or the fifth year of a five-year fixed-term Parliament. A four-year fixed-term Parliament therefore would only really allow three years for the Government to put a substantial part of their programme through. I have no doubt whatsoever we will come back to this.
I also just want to say one point. I cannot wholly accept that under a five-year term accountability disappears in the fifth year. I think those of us who have fought elections and have been elected know only too well as the election comes up accountability is a very, very strong thing indeed. When one is about to go and face one’s constituents accountability is very effective.
Another key issue, to which I am sure we will return in later stages of the Bill, is the mechanism. I absolutely endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said about there being a spectrum from total flexibility, which you might say we have got at the moment with an end point, a maximum turn with total flexibility and on to rigidity. I do not think that anyone was arguing in this debate for total rigidity. There is a consensus among supporters of the fixed-term Parliament over there being some degree of flexibility; if there is a political imperative or the Government completely fail there must be a mechanism for triggering an election. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said that the Constitution Committee broadly endorsed the two mechanisms for triggering an election set out in the Bill but I have listened to the concerns that have been raised. A number of historic examples have been given but it is always difficult to say what would have happened in the past under a future system. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, acknowledged this. Edward Heath in 1974 obviously wanted a dissolution. The Opposition would have agreed and they would have got the two-thirds majority for an election. Likewise, the position in 1924 was also raised by, I think, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon in an intervention on my opening speech.
In January 1924 the Conservative Government resigned after a defeat on the Queen’s Speech address but that did not trigger a general election. It actually triggered the formation of Ramsay MacDonald’s Administration. The draft Cabinet manual which was published in December last year indicates that at the moment the convention is that the Prime Minister either advises Her Majesty to dissolve Parliament or the Government resign and a new Government from the existing Chamber can be found, as indeed happened in, I think, January 1924.
Am I right in saying that the election took place at the beginning of 1924 and Baldwin’s Government failed to win on the first Queen’s Speech and that is why we moved straight from Stanley Baldwin to Ramsay MacDonald? It would have been impractical to have gone straight to an election at that point.
Indeed, and that was the point that I think the noble and learned Lord raised in his speech. What happens in the first Queen’s Speech after an election? I think unless people are prepared to have election after election after election or the potential for that there would be an opportunity for another Government to be formed. The draft Cabinet manual published for consultation in December last year indicated that too. There would either be a dissolution or another Administration would be formed. It is that dual possibility that the Bill seeks to address.
I listened carefully to those who argued that the wording as to what constitutes a vote of no confidence needs tightening up. In response to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place, the Government indicated a willingness to listen to suggestions on how that might be done. Those suggestions were not forthcoming during the Bill’s progress through the other place. I have certainly thought hard about it and wonder whether trying to be too specific might cause more problems than if one leaves the wording as it is. I know that my noble friend Lord Norton has views on this matter which it will be interesting to hear and explore in Committee. However, one recognises an elephant when one sees it. If it waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is generally a duck. There is an issue here, but the more I have thought about it, the more I have found that trying to find a solution might cause more problems than leaving it, as it is at the moment, to the Speaker’s discretion. If it is not to be the Speaker, I do not think that it would be appropriate, given what has been said, for a member of the Executive to sign. I do not believe that leaving it as it is would cause the difficulties that have been suggested.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, talked about manipulation. The Constitution Committee indicated that the position is indeed open to abuse, stating:
“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”.
I accept that that is possible, but I believe that it would be identified as an abuse. It would be a matter of politics. As far as I can see, the only way in which one can stop any kind of abuse is to have a rigid scheme, which no one apparently supports. That is why I have difficulty with those who have advocated that we keep things simple and that a simple majority of one in a vote of no confidence should be enough to trigger Dissolution. That would make the position worse in terms of the potential manipulation that the noble and learned Lord suggested could happen under the Bill. It would be even more likely to happen under a Bill which allowed for a simple majority of one in a vote of no confidence. It could be much more readily arranged.
That is not the position, because the Bill provides for a 14-day period following a vote of no confidence in which it could be seen whether another Government could be formed. That is not the same thing as going to the Palace the morning after a vote of confidence on a majority of one. If manipulation is possible under this Bill—unless the fixed terms are rigid, it is impossible to avoid—the opportunity for manipulation under a Dissolution on a simple majority of one is even greater. However, the important point is identified by the Constitution Committee: it would be seen as an abuse. That would be a matter for political debate and political comment and the electorate are the ultimate arbiters.
I said that that was what is envisaged because the proposition with which one has to deal is that the Government of the day with a majority procure a vote of no confidence in themselves—I have in mind the Heath example, where the Opposition do not agree. If that is the position, the Government of the day will also be able to stop anything happening in the following 14 days.
My Lords, it makes it much more of a process and an abuse of that process would be seen. However, as we indicated in our response to the report of the Constitution Committee, we accept that the scenario described would be possible, but, as the committee pointed out, it would be a clear abuse of the Act’s provisions and we do not believe that that outcome would be likely. Such an abuse has been possible in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh National Assembly—there would be a 28-day period rather than a 14-day period following a vote of no confidence—but it simply has not happened because I think that people recognise the consequences of trying to manipulate a situation to bring that about.
The noble Lord, Lord Bach, helpfully confirmed in his winding-up that the Labour Party is still committed—although not entirely with the support of everyone behind him—to the idea of fixed-term Parliaments, but he objected to the way it might be done. I have no doubt that the Labour Party gave this very careful thought and I am sure that in Committee we will see the benefit of that thought in the kind of the amendments that he tables to address this. It is identified by anyone who supports a fixed term that there has to be an element of flexibility in how you do it.
I conclude by acknowledging, as have my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Dobbs, and many others, including the noble Lord, Lord Bach, in his winding-up, the importance of scrutiny and the important work that we will do at the ensuing stages of this Bill. It is quite clear that there is a lot of meat for the House to get its teeth into. I look forward to engaging with that, and on that note I urge the House to support this Bill and give it a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 11.06 pm.