House of Lords
Tuesday, 1 March 2011.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.
Taxation: Low-value Consignment Relief
My Lords, the latest estimate of the annual cost to the Exchequer of low-value consignment relief is £130 million for calendar year 2010, a reduction from the previous estimate of £140 million for fiscal year 2009-10.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer, which I find mildly unbelievable since the turnover of the largest company involved in this scam is around £500 million—and that is just one of them—on which we lose around £100 million a year. Does my noble friend agree that what started out as a quite reasonable relief for Channel Islands flower growers has now been abused to the point where it has destroyed whole industries in the UK? You can no longer on the internet retail records, computer memory, contact lenses or gifts. It is ever expanding and costing us thousands of jobs and, as the Minister says, hundreds of millions of pounds. Has not the time come to put a stop to it?
My Lords, there is a very wide range of estimates of the effect of LVCR but I believe that the HMRC data are as reliable as—more reliable than—any. I am grateful to my noble friend for drawing attention to this issue because the Government are committed to tackling tax avoidance. In that context, we are actively reviewing the operation of this relief. Ministers hope to be in a position to announce any possible changes to the operation of LVCR flowing from the review in the Budget on 23 March.
My Lords, I have to say that, until a few days ago, I was equally in the dark. I shall try to keep it within the seven minutes.
There is a scheme in European law to make sure that small-value goods imported from outside the European Union can be exempted from value added tax, because it would be disproportionate and a huge cost to consumers and businesses if every small parcel bought from outside the EU had to be scrutinised by the Royal Mail and VAT collected. So there is an exemption under European law for individual consignments up to the value of €22 or £20. At the moment the UK has a limit of £18, below which VAT on imports is not collected. I hope that that explains it.
My Lords, will the Minister accept that while at one level it sounds a rather frivolous subject, we are talking about more than 90 per cent of all CD sales in the UK? It has had a damaging impact on retailers and is another example of the Channel Islands being able to benefit from a tax scam. Will he take back to his colleagues in the Treasury the view of many Members of your Lordships’ House that this is a classic area where a small change in practice by HMRC can yield very many benefits which not only are good in principle but can also be beneficial to the Treasury?
My Lords, I fully accept my noble friend’s statement that this is an important area, which is why the Treasury is looking at it. It flows not from any scam but from the fact that the Channel Islands are treated as outside the European Union for these purposes. That goes back to the accession treaty. The previous Government took steps with the Channel Islands authorities to encourage them to introduce a voluntary restraint and caps on the activities of individual firms in this area. The issue relates not only to CDs and DVDs but to a whole range of goods. It is precisely because this is an important area and we want to make sure that the Exchequer is protected that Ministers are looking at what else we might do.
My Lords, the Minister’s response to his noble friend’s original Question seemed somewhat complacent in respect of the charge sheet of problems associated with this issue. He implied that things are improving, but the noble Lord, Lord Newby, expressed doubt about whether things are improving. I think that the whole House should be doubtful. With online sales increasing at their current levels and with this trade being very much a matter of online sales, it would be very surprising indeed if it was significantly decreasing. Would it not therefore behove the Minister to indicate that the Government intend to act in this area? If it is not an abuse of taxation—if it is not a scam—then it is certainly very close to being an avoidance of tax which we ought to put an end to.
My Lords, I did not want to turn this into a political question; indeed, I attempted to give credit to the previous Government for the actions that they took in conjunction with the Channel Islands authorities. However, the fact is that the VAT loss is estimated to have increased very considerably—by approximately 50 per cent in the past five years—under the previous Government. Members of that Government are now saying that the situation is terrible and we need to take action, but what did they do in the five years in which the amount of revenue lost to the Exchequer increased by 50 per cent? They only talked to the Channel Islands authorities. We have immediately gripped the situation. Ministerial colleagues and HMRC officials are now examining what—in a very difficult and technical area—can be done. If there are things that we believe should be done, they will be announced in the forthcoming Budget.
My Lords, individuals and businesses are responsible for protecting their own data and communications. Mobile phone operators already offer ways of protecting access to voicemail. In addition, the police will investigate unlawful activity and work with the CPS to bring prosecutions where appropriate. The Metropolitan Police are conducting a new investigation of evidence relating to the News of the World and the CPS is conducting a comprehensive assessment of all material in the possession of the MPS. A number of inquiries are, therefore, under way.
Obviously, my Lords, any criminal charges must be disposed of first, but is it not the case that we now know that the victims of phone hacking include members of the Royal Family, a former Prime Minister, a former Deputy Prime Minister, several serving Members of Parliament and many others? Is not this kind of organised intrusion entirely indefensible? While it may be true that, for some unaccountable reason, parts of the press do not seem to be very keen on an inquiry, there is in reality no other way of discovering the extent of the abuse or what can be done to prevent it.
My Lords, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Akers announced on 9 February that she recognises that she faces,
“clearly a major task with a considerable amount of work to be done which will take a significant amount of time and resources”.
I understand that she has met a number of those whose names have appeared in the investigation, including Members of this House, and that she will continue to work on that. Perhaps I should also mention that the Press Complaints Commission has set up its own phone-hacking inquiry.
Does the noble Lord recognise that this phone hacking—a criminal act—has undermined the public’s trust not only in the Murdoch press but in the Metropolitan Police? Senior officers and the commissioner attended private social functions given by Murdoch at the time of the investigation. Is that not unacceptable? Is he aware that the Murdoch defence of a rogue reporter was exposed by the production of e-mails by the Murdoch press that were not made available to the original inquiry, causing further inquiries by the Metropolitan Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and, my God, now even the Press Complaints Commission? God knows what will happen to that one. Therefore, can the Minister assure this House that no consideration will be given to the BSkyB application by the Murdoch press until the results of these inquiries are known?
My Lords, I am answering this Question for the Home Office; that question strays rather a long way towards the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I stress simply that the specialist crimes unit of the Metropolitan Police, which is conducting the new inquiry, is a different unit from the previous one. I understand that Deputy Assistant Commissioner Akers has met the noble Lord, Lord Prescott. This is intended to be a very thorough inquiry, which will also include relations between the Metropolitan Police and the press.
My Lords, my first question for the Minister is more of a riddle than a question, so I do not expect him to answer: which came first, the scoop or the journalist? Speaking as someone who has been a journalist, trained by the BBC, I know that the means are as important as the ends. Is my noble friend not very concerned that it has taken five years for this fact to be properly recognised by both proprietors and the police? I hope that I am not being too clever by half, but I end by citing Evelyn Waugh. Has there not been too much of:
“Up to a point, Lord Copper”?
My Lords, this is one of a number of questionable practices used by members of the press in obtaining information. When I spoke to the Information Office yesterday, the information officer told me that blagging is as important a problem as hacking. “Blagging” means receiving information through deception but not necessarily by hacking phones. I will read the relevant clause 10 of the Press Complaints Commission’s Editors’ Code of Practice:
“The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents”.
That is very much what the current Press Complaints Commission inquiry, which has a majority of lay members, intends to look at.
My Lords, will the Minister accept it from me that, when I occupied the Benches on which he now sits, what I dreaded most were Starred Questions? That is because one is answerable for the whole Government, not merely the brief on which the Question rests. Will he give me an assurance that in future all Members on the government Front Bench will abide by that convention?
My Lords, with one honourable exception, there is no prospect of our national newspapers investigating the issue of phone hacking. The growing evidence of their own considerable involvement in the practice means that their interest lies not in exposing it but in covering it up. Do the Government believe that the hidden and murky world of private investigators and their techniques—and that of those who employ them and why—now needs further investigation? Would the proposal, which we support, of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on phone hacking not be a useful contribution, in addition to what should be current thorough and comprehensive police investigations?
My Lords, I must remind the noble Lord that the murky relationship between government and the media and between the police and the media is not a new issue that has arisen with this new Government; it has been with us for some years. We all need to look at this. A large number of inquiries and a number of civil actions are under way with regard to the responsibility of the press. This issue will not go away.
My Lords, this morning I read the report issued in February of last year by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of another place on exactly this point, in which it makes a number of criticisms of the current situation. However, as I understood the report, it did not go so far as to propose a statutory replacement.
My Lords, have the Government got any further with the investigation of deep packet inspection of all our nation’s e-mails by private firms, which read those e-mails and pull out key words for advertising? The previous Government were investigating this. Have the present Government got any further with that because it is very worrying that all these e-mails are being exposed to that sort of scrutiny?
My Lords, I have not been briefed on that matter, which takes us into some very large issues about the whole question of privacy of e-mails. However, I asked a number of questions about privacy settings on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The technology is taking us further forward in a whole range of areas where questions of privacy and unauthorised access to information continue to move forward. In time we may well need to adjust the law to cope with what technology is providing.
My Lords, from 1 April, the National Health Service in London will fund continued provision of the Find and Treat outreach service to detect TB among the homeless, including rough sleepers, and to help to ensure treatment completion. There are also initiatives for TB testing among the homeless in cities such as Liverpool and Leicester. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence is developing guidance on tuberculosis among hard-to-reach groups, including rough sleepers.
I thank my noble friend for that encouraging reply, but is he aware that the chaotic lifestyle of homeless people with very poor immune systems means that they are extremely difficult to diagnose and to treat for the six-month period for which they need antibiotics? Are Her Majesty’s Government working with other organisations to help these homeless people?
My noble friend is absolutely right: this is a particularly difficult group of people in that they are hard to reach. There is a high incidence of TB among the homeless in London and a service of the kind to which I have referred appears to be cost-effective in reaching those people. On my noble friend’s second question, we are engaging with the Mayor of London’s office to see how it can become involved in helping to deliver cost-effective services to this group of people.
My Lords, will the Minister invite Westminster City Council to think again about the proposed by-law, on which it is consulting, which will make it illegal not only for rough sleepers to live on the streets around Westminster Cathedral but for charities such as Housing Justice to distribute food and soup to them? It describes the Westminster City Council proposal as an over-the-top response. Is it not right to say that? Does he agree that the problems of tuberculosis, which are the subject of this Question, will be much more difficult to identify if rough sleepers are driven off the streets and forced to live elsewhere?
My Lords, I very much see the force of the noble Lord’s point. We are very much committed to preventing homelessness and to protecting the most vulnerable. We have maintained the funding for the homelessness grant at the levels of the current year— £400 million over the spending review period, which is £100 million over each of the next four years. We are specifically providing £18.5 million a year to support the voluntary sector. This is a priority, but I will take away the point that he has made about Westminster City Council.
My noble friend puts her finger on a key difficulty with this group of people, who are often very difficult to keep track of. I heard of one case where a patient required 800 interventions, sometimes with the police involved. Clearly a lot of effort has to go into this group. However, it is possible, if the patient is willing, to register that person with a GP. The challenge is whether they actually return to complete their treatment, which of course extends over many months.
My Lords, I ought to declare an interest in that I chair the Cyrenians in the north-east. We have been working on a programme that has been identifying and keeping contact with these most vulnerable and disaffected people and we have reduced the number who have become, as they are called, “frequent flyers”. However, does the noble Lord acknowledge that there simply is not a straightforward system in the National Health Service to deal with people who do not have a fixed address and do not have regular contact with a particular locality or GP? Is it not about time that we looked at this much more holistically? There are some good individual examples around the country, but there is no guarantee that we will intervene sufficiently early to stop what is now known, which is that most people who sleep rough will be dead long before they are 50.
My Lords, I was very interested to hear about the noble Baroness’s experiences in the north-east and I would like to hear more. The points that she raises lie behind our intention in the Health and Social Care Bill to make GP consortia responsible not just for the patients on the GP lists but for all the population in the local area. The health and well-being boards, which we propose should be set up at local authority level, will bring together all the relevant stakeholders to look at how the health needs of an area can best be met and prioritised.
My Lords, this is a group of our fellow citizens who are particularly vulnerable and can so easily be lost in the system. At a time when there is considerable pressure on budgets, will the noble Lord use whatever good offices he can to ensure that this remains a priority in all the public services and is not seen as a soft option?
Following on from that very helpful question, may I ask specifically about the mobile X-ray units in London, which we have discussed before in your Lordships’ House? These were funded through pooling relatively small amounts of funding from the PCTs across London, organised by the strategic health authority. Those bodies are about to disappear, so what will happen in the transition period to those mobile units and how will the new arrangements work with the consortia that are being planned?
My Lords, the position for 2011-12 is that the NHS in London will fund Find and Treat. During the next year, the NHS will consider future funding, taking into account the final evaluation of the service by the Health Protection Agency and the emerging guidance from NICE. As regards the more medium-term agenda, the Government’s strategy is for a much more joined-up service. We will have the public health service working both locally and nationally. We will also have the GP consortia commissioning treatment at a local level. I hope that, as the system evolves, the noble Baroness will see that there is no loss of momentum in this very important area.
Health: Alcohol Minimum Pricing
My Lords, the Home Office review of pricing policy found that increases in alcohol prices are linked to decreases in alcohol-related harms. The review also highlighted that this is a complex issue. The Government intend to ban sales of alcohol below the rate of duty plus VAT. This is a pragmatic first step towards setting the lowest level at which different strengths of alcohol can be sold. We estimate that it would mean about 1,500 fewer alcohol-related hospital admissions per year.
I thank the Minister for his response. However, two leading advisers from the Department of Health’s own network of experts recently wrote in the Lancet that the Government,
“lacks clear aspiration to reduce the impact of cheap, readily available, and heavily marketed alcohol on individuals and on society”.
They estimate that failure to tackle drink-related problems could cost 250,000 lives over the next 20 years. How will the Minister ensure that in future the health, well-being and recovery of people with drink-related problems take precedence over the lobbying of the drinks industry?
My Lords, I make it clear that we neither have nor intend to have any sort of cosy arrangement with the drinks industry. The view that we have taken is that the food, drink and fitness industries, together with charities and public health experts, all have a huge role to play in improving our health. The industry has enormous influence in its own right. However, more than that, we believe that we have a collective responsibility to do something about this problem. That is why the industry has joined the Government in a partnership to promote and empower us all to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Through the public health responsibility deal, we are challenging industry to take action that will help consumers to live healthier lives in some areas where it is not possible or effective to regulate.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that experts on liver disease such as Professor Sir Ian Gilmore in Liverpool and Professor Chris Day and Dr Chris Record in Newcastle have identified an alarming increase in the incidence of liver disease in young people? No doubt he has read the letter in the Times this morning from representatives of the drinks industry, who say that the total consumption of alcohol in this country has fallen by 11 per cent during the past two years. However, consumption by young people is steadily increasing. Can he think of any solution by which he can overcome the problem of proxy purchasing, whereby people above the minimum age buy alcohol in bulk and pass it on to young people, who are being damaged by this process?
My Lords, as ever, the noble Lord is absolutely right. Overall consumption of alcohol is going down, but we are seeing very alarming rates of consumption among certain groups of young people. As Sir Ian Gilmore has pointed out, liver disease is appearing among the young, which is extremely worrying. The Government are determined to grasp this issue. Public health policy generally is co-ordinated by a public health Cabinet sub-committee. It will work on an alcohol strategy, which we will publish in the summer in the wake of our White Paper on public health. There is no single solution to this problem. The issue of proxy purchases, which for alcohol, I believe, is already an offence, is difficult to police and enforce. However, the noble Lord is right that we need to focus on it in our strategy.
My Lords, the original questioner mentioned public health in general, but is the Minister aware that alcohol is a cause of great disturbance in accident and emergency departments in all hospitals, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights, when ordinary people who go in with injuries are subjected to very unpleasant treatment by those who are brought in following an alcohol-related incident?
My noble friend makes an extremely important point. We estimate that alcohol harm costs the NHS around £2.7 billion a year. Forty per cent of all accident and emergency admissions are in some way connected with alcohol—I think a higher percentage on Friday and Saturday nights—and 7 per cent of all hospital admissions are accounted for in some way by alcohol. This is a very serious problem: 8,500 people die from alcohol in the UK every year and there are over 1 million hospital admissions relating to alcohol.
My Lords, now that the Minister and the Government have accepted that raising the price of alcohol is one of the ways in which we can minimise harm to those who are abusing alcohol, why have the Government’s recent proposals been so minimal? The cost of a can of lager will be increased, or minimised, to 38p under the new arrangements. This is hardly going to make any change whatsoever. We have to wait for the White Paper in the summer, but in the mean time why could a more positive approach to raising the cost of alcohol not have been taken and more fundamental changes made to the ever increasing easy access to alcohol, which is another problem that needs addressing?
My Lords, we view the decision to ban below-cost sales of alcohol as very much a first step. We have announced a number of other measures, as the noble Lord may know, particularly a rise in the rate of alcohol duty by 2 per cent above inflation over each of the next four years, additional duty on high-strength beers and greater powers for local authorities over local licensing decisions. As I mentioned, there is no single solution to this problem, but we are looking at a number of additional measures.
Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2011
Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2011
Occupational Pension Schemes (Levy Ceiling) Order 2011
Pension Protection Fund (Pension Compensation Cap) Order 2011
Financial Assistance Scheme (Revaluation and Indexation Amendments) Regulations 2011
Social Security (Reduced Rates of Class 1 Contributions, Rebates and Minimum Contributions) Order 2011
Offshore Chemicals (Amendment) Regulations 2011
Offshore Petroleum Activities (Oil Pollution Prevention and Control) (Amendment) Regulations 2011
Renewables Obligation (Amendment) Order 2011
Motions to Refer to Grand Committee
Energy Bill [HL]
Order of Consideration Motion
Pensions Bill [HL]
Order of Consideration Motion
That it be an instruction to the Grand Committee to which the Pensions Bill [HL] has been committed that they consider the bill in the following order:
Clause 1, Schedule 1, Clause 2, Schedule 2, Clause 3, Schedule 3, Clauses 4 to 17, Schedule 4, Clauses 18 to 24, Schedule 5, Clauses 25 to 29.
Fixed-term Parliaments Bill
My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, has consented to place her prerogative, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of this Bill. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill delivers a key strand of the ambitious political and constitutional reform agenda which this Government have pledged to deliver. The importance of these issues of political reform was reflected in the prominence given to them in the campaigning of all the major political parties at last year’s general election. There is now a consensus across the country—dare I say brought to a head by the expenses scandal but which had been forming for some time—that the political system in this country needs to be reinvigorated.
It has been my experience over many years in active politics that the overwhelming majority of people who come into politics—of all parties, and indeed in this House of the Cross Benches—do so out of motivation for public service. Nevertheless, sadly, politics has increasingly come to be perceived to have become more about protecting vested interests than about political representation of the electorate.
Let us not forget the backdrop to many previous general elections under the current arrangements when it was often widely anticipated that the election would be held at some stage during the third or fourth year of Parliament and the country was left on tenterhooks. On those occasions, the question was when the most advantageous date to call an election would be. From our own memories, I am sure we can think of Conservative or Labour Prime Ministers who made that calculation. Regrettably for my part, no Liberal Prime Minister in living memory has been in a position to make that calculation. However, the question is: advantageous to whom?
The question that the Prime Minister of the day considers then is not necessarily whether that date would be most advantageous to the country or the electorate; it is, more often than not, whether that date would be most advantageous to the incumbent party of government seeking re-election. This is an example of what people have grown tired of: a political system geared in favour of the Executive and used for partisan advantage. Fixed-term Parliaments will provide stability as it will be known from the beginning of the Parliament how long it can be expected to last. We already have fixed-terms for the devolved institutions, local government and the European Parliament.
We are not saying in the Bill that all Parliaments must last for five years no matter what happens, but there must be a significant and pressing reason for early Dissolution, and it is right that the other place, whose support is essential for the continuation of any Government, should be able decide when that should occur. This should not be a decision for the Government to take for themselves. That is why the Bill provides that Parliament should ordinarily last five years. It transfers from the Prime Minister to the House of Commons the power to bring about an early general election.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and members of the Constitution Committee of this House for the careful scrutiny that they have given the Bill. As a former member of that committee, I know the important role that it plays and I believe that its report will aid our debates during the Bill’s passage through your Lordships’ House.
I acknowledge that most of those on the committee decided that the case had not been conclusively established for fixed-terms. However, let us not forget that this debate has been going on for some considerable time. As I noted, fixed-terms already exist for our devolved institutions, local authorities and the European Parliament. Moreover, there were commitments in the 2010 manifestos of the Labour Party and my own party, the Liberal Democrats, to establish fixed-terms for the UK.
I was pleased to note the committee’s endorsement of significant elements of the Government’s proposals, particularly the two mechanisms in Clause 2 that provide for an early general election to be held. It seems to me that the committee has said that, if the principle of fixed-terms were accepted—I have acknowledged that that is not what it said—this Bill sets out very much the way in which one would seek to achieve that principle. The Government have responded to the committee’s report in a Command Paper, copies of which are available in the Printed Paper Office.
The Bill is modest in size. It has only five clauses and one schedule, but we can be in no doubt that its effect would be significant. Clause 1 relates to polling days for parliamentary general elections. It sets out that the polling day for the next parliamentary general election will be 7 May 2015. Each subsequent parliamentary general election will be expected to occur on the first Thursday in May every five years.
As I said earlier, we of course recognise that there may be exceptional circumstances in which it would not be appropriate for Parliament to continue to run for its full fixed-term—I will come to the arrangements for those shortly. When such an early election is called, however, Clause 1(4) clarifies that Parliament will run for five years from the preceding first Thursday in May. This provision has been endorsed by the Constitution Committee and will provide that a Government elected at an early general election will have a full term, allowing them to deliver a full legislative programme.
Is the Minister now able to answer a question that he was not able to answer at the informal meeting yesterday? Why was the month of May chosen when more general elections have taken place in October in the past? Local elections are normally in May and general elections in October.
I think the last October general election was in 1974, which was some 36 years ago. I have no doubt that the noble Lord remembers it well. However, it is difficult to say that they have generally been held in October when the last one held in October was over a third of a century ago. In more recent times, elections have been held in May. In 2001, it would have been held in May but for the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. It was held in June. This present Parliament was elected in May, and the natural course would be to go through to May 2015 if it was to have its full five years. That is why May was proposed in this Bill.
Clause 1 includes a power for the Prime Minister, by affirmative order, to vary the date of the polling day by up to two months either before or after the scheduled polling day. This power is intended to accommodate short-term crises or other conditions that might make it inappropriate to hold the election on the scheduled date: for example, a repeat of the foot and mouth crisis, which led to the postponement of the local elections in 2001. Although the general election was within the five years and nothing was needed to change the date, that is the kind of circumstance that is anticipated.
This is where your Lordships’ House will have an important role to play in the procedures set out in the Bill. Any instrument made under the Bill to vary the date of a scheduled election by up to two months will require the agreement of your Lordships’ House, thus affirming this House’s role as guardian of that particular principle of the constitution. It reflects an existing provision of the Parliament Acts: that your Lordships’ consent is required for any Bill that extends the maximum life of a Parliament beyond five years.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the members of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee for its report on this Bill. I was glad to see that the committee felt that the delegated power taken in Clause 1 of the Bill was justified. I can assure the noble Baroness, her committee and indeed the House that we will give careful consideration to the report and its recommendations and I will respond very shortly.
There has been much debate over whether the length of Parliaments should be four years or five. It is not an exact science; it is a question of judgment. However, all arguments considered, the Government remain of the strong view that five years—the current maximum set out by the Parliament Act 1911 and more recently the norm—is the right length for a Parliament. Three of the last five Parliaments have lasted almost five years, and 44 countries out of 77 in the Inter-Parliamentary Union have five-year terms for their lower house, with only 26 having four-year terms. Indeed, there are five-year fixed parliamentary terms in Italy, South Africa, France and Luxembourg, and there is a five-year non-fixed term in Ireland and India.
My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has spoken about the need for Governments to work for the long-term advantage of the country rather than simply to pursue policies for the short term. Not only will the five-year fixed-term help facilitate better planning within government, but it can help facilitate better scrutiny of the Government by Parliament. With a fixed term, Parliament will be able to plan better their scrutiny of the Government’s legislative programme, and Select Committees will have more certainty when planning their inquiries. Indeed, this point was recognised by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place.
Noble Lords might well argue that the recent experience of five-year Parliaments is that the Government are unpopular and have had limited ability to make use of the extra fifth year. However, I contend that that occurs in the current political framework and would not be a foretaste of what would happen under this Bill. The five-year Parliaments of recent years have been a somewhat self-selecting sample; they existed only because the Government in question did not believe they could win an election at the end of four years and were possibly waiting for something to turn up. Of course, in these circumstances, the Government tend to be tired and lacking in ideas. However, under this Bill, it will be possible for a Government to plan properly for a full five-year term.
There will be more certainty with fixed terms, and, with our proposed change to begin the Sessions of Parliament in May, the last Session would be a full one. As long as the Government retained the confidence of the other place, they would be able to deliver a full programme in their fifth Session. We would not have a situation in which the fifth Session began perhaps in the last week in November and by the last week in March we were engaged in a wash-up process. The Government can plan for the longer term, knowing that they will have time not only to introduce measures but to see them to fruition and begin to produce results.
I anticipate, too, that it might be argued that this Bill is part of some plot to reduce Parliament’s power over the Executive by extending the period between elections. However, we are not extending the potential period between elections. That remains, as it is now, five years. However, the certainty of five years means that not only the Government but Parliament can plan properly. It can plan its scrutiny programme and Select Committees can plan their inquiries. It will lead to more and better scrutiny, not less.
I turn to the interaction of the proposals in the Bill and the timetable for elections to the devolved institutions: an issue that has led to some considerable discussion and debate, not to say controversy. Under the proposals in this Bill and the respective devolution Acts, elections to the House of Commons and the devolved institutions will coincide every 20 years. Concern has been expressed about that. I ask your Lordships to recognise that this Bill has not brought about the possibility that the elections to the House of Commons and the devolved institutions coincide. It was inevitable at some point under the existing variable arrangements for Parliament that that could happen. The Bill has merely given us prior notification and an opportunity to consider the issue.
On the interplay and the coinciding every twentieth year, which might be at the end of the first cycle in this instance, is it not desirable that there should not be such clashing, that the elections to the Scottish Parliament and to the National Assembly for Wales should be in their own right, thereby ensuring that the electorate are aware of what they are addressing, particularly where manifestos of parties in relation to the devolved Assemblies might be different from their manifestos in relation to Parliament? Is there any mechanism whereby we can ensure that whatever the cycle—whether it is a five-year cycle as the Government propose, or a four-year cycle as many might wish—there is the same cycle for the devolved institutions to avoid any clash at all?
I readily understand the point made by the noble Lord. He is right to point out that, although it would happen once every 20 years, the first time would be in May 2015. It has been recognised that there are issues. That is why, as I shall come to explain, efforts have been made to address the issue with the devolved Scottish Parliament and the devolved National Assembly for Wales.
The Government are committed, as I have indicated, to working co-operatively with all three of the devolved Administrations. We have been consulting the respective party leaders and the Presiding Officers in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. I can confirm that my colleague and honourable friend Mr Mark Harper wrote to the Presiding Officers of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly on 17 February proposing that if the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly passed a resolution, with the support of at least two-thirds of all Members, agreeing that the 2015 Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly general elections should be moved to another date no earlier than the first Thursday in May 2014 and no later than the first Thursday in May 2016, the Government would then be willing to table an amendment to this Bill that would, if accepted, make this change. Copies of these letters to the respective Presiding Officers have been placed in the Library.
A resolution with the support of at least two-thirds of all MSPs or Assembly Members would be a clear indication of cross-party support for such a move and would be consistent with the existing requirement in the Scotland Act and the Government of Wales Act for a two-thirds majority in a vote for early Dissolution. In any event, we will carry out—I think this also addresses the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley—a detailed assessment of the implications of the two sets of elections coinciding at a later date. In the light of that, we would consider whether to conduct a public consultation in Scotland and Wales on whether the devolved institutions there should be permanently extended to five years.
The situation in Northern Ireland is different. Northern Ireland Office Ministers are conducting separate discussions with the parties in Northern Ireland on this issue and have concluded that it would be better to await the outcome of the combined polls scheduled for May this year before deciding whether special provision would be needed for Northern Ireland.
On Clause 2, it has been recognised that if we are to establish fixed-term Parliaments there must be a mechanism to deal with the situation in which a Government have lost the confidence of the House of Commons or where otherwise there is a consensus that there should be an early general election. Clause 2 therefore provides for the circumstances in which an early parliamentary general election can be held. There are two ways in which this can occur: through a traditional vote of no confidence in the Government, passed in the other place by a simple majority of those voting; or by a Motion, passed by a majority of two-thirds of the total number of seats in the other place, which states that there should be an early general election. As such, the Bill will provide the House of Commons with a new power to vote for Dissolution, which is not currently within its gift.
As many noble Lords will be aware, these votes have been the subject of some discussion and controversy. I wish, therefore, to explain to your Lordships exactly what the two votes are about, what they mean and why it is necessary to have two separate mechanisms for two separate circumstances where Dissolution might be required.
First, the defining principle of the Bill is that no Government should be able to dissolve Parliament for their own political advantage. That is why the threshold for passing a Dissolution Motion, as set out in Clause 2(1), that would trigger an early general election should be set at a majority of two-thirds of the number of seats in the other House. This is a majority that no post-war Government would have been able to achieve. In short, this means that we are the first Government to surrender to Parliament the power to call an early general election.
Some have questioned the rationale for giving the other place the power to vote for Dissolution. However, if there is a clear consensus that there should be an early general election, it would be nonsensical to force the other place to engineer a vote of no confidence. That is why Clause 2(1) provides the House of Commons with a new power to vote for Dissolution following a process that we believe is robust and transparent. The absence of such a power in other countries has meant that no-confidence Motions have sometimes had to be engineered to trigger an early general election in circumstances in which there is widespread consensus that there should be one.
I am not in a position to confirm that because it is highly speculative as to whether that would have happened or not. One does not know what kind of campaign there would have been if there had been an election on AV.
Clause 2(2) recognises the traditional right of the House of Commons to pass a Motion of no confidence in the Government on a simple majority of those voting. No-confidence votes have, until now, been a matter of convention—although it has been widely accepted that a no-confidence vote in the other place would require a Prime Minister to resign or call an early election. However, there has been nothing to date to enforce this. For the first time the Bill gives legal effect to a Motion of no confidence passed by the House of Commons. Such Motions will continue to require a simple majority.
Clause 2(2) provides that, following the passing of a no-confidence Motion in the other place, there will be a period of 14 days during which the Government may seek to gain the confidence of the other place. If, during the 14-day period, a Government emerge who can command the confidence of the House of Commons, it will be free to govern for the remainder of the five-year term since the previous general election, and the country would not have a general election. However, if no such Government emerge at the conclusion of the 14-day period, Parliament will be dissolved. As the Constitution Committee concluded, a period of 14 days strikes the right balance between allowing enough time for an alternative Government to be formed while ensuring that there is no prolonged period without an effective Government. We must bear in mind that a Government who are known to have lost the confidence of the House of Commons will continue to be the Government during the campaign period.
A Motion for an early election will be confirmed by issuing a certificate by the Speaker of the House of Commons. A similar provision is set out in the Parliament Act 1911, which provides for the Speaker of the House of Commons to issue a certificate confirming that a Bill has been certified as a money Bill. In the case of a no-confidence Motion, the Speaker’s certificate will confirm that the Motion has been passed, and that the 14-day period has ended without the House of Commons passing any Motion expressing confidence in any Government. Such a certificate will mean that there is no ambiguity about whether the other House has voted for Dissolution in the requisite majority or whether a vote of no confidence in the Government should trigger Dissolution.
Clause 2 sets out that the Speaker’s certificate, in these cases, shall be conclusive for all purposes and that the Speaker must, as far as is practicable, consult the Deputy Speakers before issuing the certificate. While it has been argued that the requirement for a two-thirds majority should not be set out in statute, I was pleased to note that the Constitution Committee shares the Government’s assessment of the Bill’s interaction with parliamentary privilege. It provides the House of Commons with a new power—one that is to be transferred from the Prime Minister to the House of Commons. We believe that such a fundamental constitutional change should be laid down in statute.
However, in doing so, the Government do not believe that the provisions in this Bill will undermine the other House’s exclusive cognisance. I have made available in the Library a copy of a memorandum that the Government placed in the House of Commons Library on 13 September setting out their view that the Bill does not affect the relationship between Parliament and the courts.
This is the point in the Bill with which I have the most difficulty. Why on earth should a Government who have lost the confidence of the House of Commons be given, in effect, a second chance to cobble together another coalition that might have the confidence of the House of the Commons? The present situation is terribly simple and very clear, and is the way in which Governments have operated almost exclusively in the past. If you lose a Motion of confidence, there has to be an election. That is simple. Why on earth can we not stick with it?
My Lords, the opportunity will be there for Parliament—to those elected to the other place—to see whether another Government can be formed. That may well be possible, but it would require the Government to have the confidence of the other place. If they have the confidence of the other place, there is no reason why they should not see out the term of the Parliament for which they were elected, subject to the provision that we are discussing. The provision places the power in the hands of Members elected to the other place and not to the Government of the day.
My Lords, if there is a period of 14 days in which discussions are taking place, you may end up at the end of those 14 days with a Government who are not the same Government as at the start of the 14 days. You may have a different Prime Minister and different Ministers; you may have different policies—all sorts of things may happen. I come back to the central point. Why on earth should we give a Government that period of additional opportunity to try to preserve a position that the House of Commons has rejected?
My Lords, that Government will require a confidence vote of Members of the House of Commons. It is the House of Commons that will determine the matter. That is an important point. If you have a fixed term but there is a clear consensus for a dissolution, there is a provision to trigger that. But if the House of Commons wishes to place its confidence in a Government, that is a matter for the House of Commons.
I am grateful to the Minister. This is an intrinsically important point. In all our experiences, a vote of confidence in the House of Commons is a rare event of crucial importance. We all know what it means: we are summoned back from the end of the earth to take part in it. As has been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, why should a Government, having lost a vote of confidence, have a second chance at all?
My Lords, the House of Commons would determine this. As the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, the Government might then be of a different composition, but they would come from those who have been elected to the House of Commons for a term of five years. If they cannot form a Government and no Government can command the consent to a majority in the House of Commons, there would be an election. If that could not be done within 14 years—I mean, within 14 days. [Laughter.] That is probably wishful thinking on some people’s part. If that could not be done within 14 days, there would be an election.
Clause 3 makes the key necessary changes to electoral law and the law concerning the meeting of Parliament in light of fixed days for elections. It provides that Parliament dissolves automatically 17 working days before the polling day, which has been fixed for the general election under the Bill. It means that Her Majesty the Queen will no longer be able to dissolve Parliament in exercise of the prerogative. This is a safeguard against a Prime Minister deciding that he wishes to ignore the requirements of the Bill and advising Her Majesty to exercise her power to dissolve Parliament.
Clause 4 deals with certain supplementary and consequential matters. It preserves the Queen’s power to prorogue Parliament. Subsection (2) preserves the traditional way in which the sealing of a proclamation summoning a new Parliament under the great seal of the realm is authorised, which is by Order in Council rather than by warrant under the royal sign manual.
Clause 5 sets out the short title of the Bill and the schedule contains consequential amendments to a number of Acts of Parliament. I do not intend to go through them all, but included among them is the Septennial Act 1715, which, after amendment by the Parliament Act 1911, set the current five-year term for Parliament.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill will be seen as a stabilising measure. It will reduce opportunities for partisan game playing. In a situation where we are so often told that the Executive are trying to gather power to themselves, under the Bill they will give power to Parliament, and it is right that they do so. I look forward to the debates that we will have in your Lordships' House. The points raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, will undoubtedly be ones to which we can return in Committee. I look forward in the course of this debate to hearing a maiden speech from my noble friend Lord Cormack, with whom I was privileged to serve for many years in the other place.
It was quite obvious from reading the record that the Bill was the subject of some lively debates in the other place, where—I should put on record—extra time was provided for consideration in Committee.
It is absolutely true, the Bill was given extra time at Committee—a Committee of the Whole House. I am certain we will not all see eye to eye with the noble Lords opposite, although I recall that they supported the idea of fixed-term Parliaments in their manifesto. There is therefore some broad consensus on what this Bill seeks to do.
This Bill demonstrates the commitment of this Government in bringing forward much needed political and constitutional reform. It will go a long way to restoring trust in our political institutions and I therefore commend this Bill to the House.
My Lords, I welcome the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, as the lead Minister on this important constitutional Bill. The noble and learned Lord gained your Lordships’ trust and respect—in the end almost alone—in his handling of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I very much look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who I am sure will be an important contributor to the proceedings of this House in years to come. I genuinely congratulate the Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, chaired by my noble friend Lady Jay of Paddington, which has produced a penetrating and extremely helpful report on the Bill that has helped to resolve a number of issues which would not have otherwise been resolved.
The Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have agreed that they wish to govern together until 15 May 2015. That is an agreement which, in practice and under our existing constitutional framework, is open to them to make. In the context of the healthy majority they enjoy in the Commons, it requires only one thing—that they abide by the promises that they have made to each other. It requires nothing more. In particular, it does not require a binding resolution of the other place and it does not require this Bill. There is very much to be said for fixed-term Parliaments; and there is very little to be said for this Bill, which dresses up as a piece of high-minded constitutional reform the chronic mistrust which the two parties in the coalition have—in my view correctly—for each other.
The legislation, practically everybody except them agrees, damages the constitution merely to give effect to an agreement that does not require the Bill. Our aim in your Lordships’ House should be to demonstrate the damage done by this Bill, to try to improve it as much as possible by amendment, and then to consider the overall effect of the amended Bill in the context of a Bill not caught by the Parliament Act 1911. The noble and learned Lord was right when he said that we are the guardians of the sanctity of the term of Parliament.
As regards the damage done by this Bill, first, it gets the period of the fixed term wrong; it should be four years, not five. The consequence of this is that the voters will find themselves even less able to hold their Executive and legislators to account. Secondly, this Bill probably allows the Prime Minister, as long as he retains a majority in the House of Commons, to have a general election whenever he wants by relying on one or other of the exceptions to the fixed-term provisions. It constitutes very little, if any, inhibition on the executive power of the Prime Minister. Thirdly, the drafting of the Bill is such that it might well prevent there being a general election when a Government genuinely lose the confidence of the House of Commons, either because the lack of confidence is not demonstrated by something which is described as a “motion of no confidence”, or because of the 14-day provision referred to in interventions on the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness.
The damage done by this Bill will be less accountable Parliaments, because they will last longer, a Prime Minister unchecked in his ability to have an election whenever he wants and a legislature with a more limited ability to evict a Government who have lost the confidence of the Commons.
This important constitutional Bill has—inevitably with this Government, I say with a heavy heart—not been the subject of a Green or a White Paper, of public consultation or of pre-legislative scrutiny. Its roots are in the coalition agreement. The terms of that agreement provided for the introduction of a binding resolution in the Commons to hold the next general election on 15 May 2015 and, after the passage of that resolution, to introduce a fixed-term Parliaments Bill with a provision which would allow there to be a general election if 55 per cent of MPs voted for such an election —the picture being: lock people in with a binding resolution, then lock them in further with the Bill.
On 25 May 2010 in the other place, its Deputy Leader said:
“Unlike what happened under the previous Administration [the Bill] will not be guillotined”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/5/10; col. 146.]
He also said:
“There is a strong case for pre-legislative scrutiny, but I do not want to extend the consideration of this legislation into the following Session, because that would not be appropriate”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/5/10; col. 152.]
No binding resolution was ever put to the Commons; the 55 per cent was changed to two-thirds without consultation—unsurprisingly, when one learns that the coalition has 56 per cent of the MPs; a guillotine was applied on the second Committee day in the Commons; and, despite the fact that the parliamentary Session was extended until May 2012, after the Deputy Leader of the Commons had indicated that he was in favour of pre-legislative scrutiny as long as it did not extend the consideration of the Bill into the next Session, there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny.
The unanimous view of your Lordships’ Select Committee, in its report on the Bill, is that the Bill’s origins and content,
“owe more to short-term considerations than to a mature assessment of enduring constitutional principles or sustained public demand”.
The short-term considerations driving this Bill are obvious; namely, to cement this particular Government into power for five years by making the holding of a general election earlier than five years as difficult as possible. To suggest that the purpose of the Bill is to introduce constitutional change beneficial to the nation is not credible when its provisions are examined for their effect and the evidence of what is generally perceived to be the right changes to introduce on fixed-term Parliaments. Perhaps I might make those assertions good.
First, on four years not five, the aim and likely effect of the legislation is to change our system from one where the maximum term of a Government has been five years, although the normal length has been much closer to four years, to one where the norm is five years with exceptions. That change will be damaging to our constitutional arrangements. By extending the period between elections by around one year, it will distance the people from the politicians. It will make the politicians less accountable to the public and intensify the feelings of alienation between those who govern and those they govern. Herbert Asquith, the then Prime Minister, when introducing the current arrangements with the five-year maximum, as opposed to the seven-year maximum, accurately predicted that they would produce an actual legislative working term, in practice, of four years. When he was introducing these provisions, he said that four years,
“will secure that your House of Commons for the time being, is always either fresh from the polls which gave it authority, or—and this is an equally effective check upon acting in defiance of the popular will—it is looking forward to the polls at which it will have to render an account of its stewardship”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/2/1911; col. 1749.]
That was in the context of Asquith saying that four years would be the norm.
Until the coalition agreement, no party and, as far as I can find, precious few academics were urging that the fixed term—that is, the norm—should be five years. The Conservatives, far from supporting a fixed term, argued through their leader in the general election campaign that there should be a mandatory requirement for a general election within six months of any change of PM. The Liberal Democrats’ position was that indeed there should be a fixed term. They did not say how long in their manifesto. Until the coalition agreement, they had always previously said that it should be four years. In 2007, their conference adopted a paper which said:
“Liberal Democrats have long argued that parliaments should last for a fixed term of four years”.
Since 1994, three Private Members’ Bills have been introduced in the Commons for fixed terms by three admired, independent-minded Members of Parliament: the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who I am happy to see in his place today, Mr Tony Wright and Mr David Howarth. Each one of those Private Members’ Bills specified four years. The Plant Commission—I am happy to see my noble friend Lord Plant in his place—which reported in 1993, said four years. All three of the devolved Assemblies or Parliaments in the United Kingdom set up in the past 13 years adopted four years. The academic position has been summed up by Professor Blackburn, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of London, as follows:
“In the UK, there can be little doubt that the period between general elections should be four years. The proposal for fixed-term Parliament as a whole should fit as closely as possible into existing constitutional expectations, and the idea that four years is about the right length of time between elections is very prevalent”.
There have been four five-year Governments since the Second World War. I include anything over four years and eight months. Those fifth years of five-year Governments, 1963-64, 1991-92, 1996-97, 2009-10, have tended to be demoralised years; very different from the fourth years of the Governments where the expectation is an election at the end of the fourth year; 1950-51, 1954-55, 1958-59, 1982-83, 2006-07, 2000-01, 2004-05. That is partly because the country may be waiting for change in those fifth years, but significantly because the democratic mandate is so obviously exhausted in those fifth years and legitimacy for the Government lacking.
This issue is of central importance to this Bill. It is the big change that this Bill will bring. There will be more fifth years; more paralysis waiting for change. Most of the evidence that dispassionate observers have brought to this issue supports the view that making five the norm—lengthening the period of our Parliaments —will damage our constitutional arrangements.
Perhaps I may give just two examples. Professor Dawn Oliver, Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law at UCL, thought that the cumulative effect of successive five-year terms would be to produce a democratic deficit. Democratic Audit expressed alarm that a five-year term would present,
“a reversal of a long struggle for more accountable government”.
The justification given for five years by Mr Clegg is that it is a length of time with which people are familiar and which will reduce the politicking because the politicking starts, he alleges, at the beginning of the fourth year. In fact, as a nation we are more familiar with a term of around four years, and in a shorter cycle, with four years fixed, the electioneering tends to be shorter and the period of paralysis shorter. My noble friend Lady Jay’s committee stated:
“Of all the issues arising from the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, the proposal for a five year fixed term has created the most unease”.
Your Lordships’ House has the power to stop the five years and we should certainly use it.
However, there is much wrong with this Bill apart from its cynical adoption of a five-year term. It is hardly a fixed-term parliaments Bill at all. It specifies two circumstances, other than the expiry of five years, in which a general election must take place: where two-thirds or more of Members of Parliament vote for one or where the Commons passes a vote of no confidence and another Government do not obtain the confidence of the House of Commons within 14 days of the passage of a vote of no confidence. With those two exceptions, it is likely that any Prime Minister who wants an early election can get one whenever he wants. Would, I ask rhetorically, the main opposition party have objected if either Gordon Brown in 2007 or John Major in 1990 had said that they wished to go to the country in the aftermath of their selection as PM by their parties in those years? I doubt it, so the two-thirds exception could have been relied on. Would the main opposition parties have objected in January or February 1974, when Mr Heath went to the country early, or in October 1974, when the Wilson Government did, assuming that this Bill had been law? I doubt it.
However, let us suppose that in January or February 1974 the main opposition party had objected to Mr Heath going to the country. Under the wording of this Bill, I can see no objection to Mr Heath having proposed a vote of no confidence in the Government, not on the basis that he did not believe that they were the right Government but on the basis that, without a democratic endorsement of the Government’s position, it was wrong for the Government to continue, as I conceive Mr Heath’s view to have been at the time. The way to have achieved that under this Bill would have been to propose a vote of no confidence in the Government as long as there was no election. Alternatively, let us take October 1974, when a minority Government needed to do things to put the economy straight. Again, would there have been any difficulty in proposing that it was necessary at that stage to have an early election? I conceive not. Or let us suppose that in 2000 or 2005 the Labour Government of Mr Tony Blair had said, “We think the right course now is to allow for driven public service reform, which can be achieved only by a new mandate from the country”. On the basis of the Bill, would it have been improper in those circumstances to seek a vote of no confidence with a view to having a general election? I do not think that there would have been any problem.
In each case, the question to be asked under the Bill is: does the Motion which has been passed satisfy the Clause 2(2) test; namely, on a specified day did the House pass a Motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government? Under the terms of the Bill, the question of whether it did or did not would fall to the Speaker to decide after consulting the Deputy Speakers. Any conclusion that the Speaker reaches is described in Clause 2(3) as being “conclusive for all purposes”. In my view, his conclusion would not be challengeable in the courts, although I am aware that the Clerk of the House of Commons, Mr Malcolm Jack, for whom I have the greatest respect, has expressed anxiety that the courts might consider that they had jurisdiction to consider on judicial review whether the Speaker had come to the correct view. I have very little doubt that the courts, having regard to the subject matter of the Bill, to the fact that the decision was to be made by the Speaker and that there was a conclusiveness clause, would consider that this matter had nothing whatever to do with them, and they would conclude that parliamentary privilege preventing any interference by the court meant that they could make no orders. Therefore, I agree with the Government in that respect.
Therefore, it would be for the Speaker to decide, and I do not see anything in the Bill which either allows or requires him to inquire into why the no confidence vote was passed. If it was passed, that is sufficient. The Bill says “passed”, not “lost by the Government”. It must be envisaged by the Bill that the Motion that leads to no confidence is not necessarily one that is proposed by the Opposition. Let us take, for example, the Queen’s Speech being defeated by the House of Commons or the Finance Bill being defeated at Third Reading. Would there be any doubt that those constitute votes of no confidence in the Government? Both would be votes proposed by the Government, not by the Opposition.
In practice, on the wording of the Bill, the Prime Minister, as long as he retains a majority in the House of Commons, can satisfy the first part of the vote of no confidence requirement. Inevitably, in those circumstances he could also satisfy the second—preventing any new Government emerging in the 14-day period after the vote of no confidence has passed. If that analysis is correct, which I believe it is, this Bill in effect provides no real inhibition on a Prime Minister with a majority from having an election whenever he wants. The vast majority of witnesses who gave evidence on this point before the Lords Constitution Select Committee said that it would be open on the current terms of the Bill for a Government to manipulate the position to have a vote of confidence and then lose it in order to have a general election. I am sure that that is right, although for the reasons I outlined I do not think that any real manipulation would be needed.
Mr Clegg gave evidence to the Lords Select Committee that he could not exclude the theoretical possibility but he went on:
“Can you exclude it in practical political terms?”
He answered his own question by saying:
“I think you pretty well nigh can”.
He went on to say that,
“if a Government sought to do that it would be so transparent and so evidently grubby and self-serving that it would not do that Government any good at all. The final court of opinion, of course, is what the electorate would do, and I think they would be very unforgiving”.
I do not think that the electorate would think that. If Mr Heath in 1974 had said, “Assume this Bill was passed so I am not entitled to an early Dissolution but I will do it by getting a vote of no confidence”, that does not feel grubby at all to me. Equally, if John Major or Gordon Brown—in 1990 or 2007—had said that they should be endorsed by the public, I do not think that people would remotely regard that as grubby. In any event, it does not appear right. Canada introduced a Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2006 which specified, as this Bill does, that the election should take place every five years on a specific day. The Canadian Prime Minister, Mr Harper, said in support of fixed terms at the time he was introducing the Bill:
“Fixed dates stop leaders from trying to manipulate the calendar. They level the playing field for all parties”.
That was said by Stephen Harper on 26 May 2006.
Like our Bill, his Bill had a safety valve in the sense that it did not affect the powers of the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament at the Governor-General’s discretion. Two years after the Canadian Parliament introduced that Act, the Prime Minister, Mr Stephen Harper, who swore blind that he was giving up his power to call the date of the general election, ignored the Act and asked the Governor-General for a general election, which was duly granted, correctly in my view because the Governor-General was obliged to accept the advice of her Prime Minister. I am not sure whether Mr Harper got a majority but he did better in that general election than in the previous one.
On that material, the Lords Select Committee chaired by my noble friend Lady Jay concluded:
“We conclude that, if the Bill is passed, it would not be possible to prevent a government using a vote of no confidence to bring about an early election. To do so would be seen by many as an abuse of the Act’s provisions and would undermine the fixed-term principle”.
The last part of the Select Committee’s view might be right—namely, that it would be seen by many as an abuse of the Act’s provisions—but I would not advise your Lordships to invest trust in this Government sticking to anything they have said about how they will treat Parliament. I draw the attention of noble Lords to the series of broken detailed assurances given to Parliament in relation to the Bill. If the two members of the coalition do not trust each other, without a binding resolution and this Bill, to stick to their commitment to govern until 15 May, why should this Parliament? The crucial point is that the Bill deprives the Prime Minister of the right to call a general election on the date of his choice only where he loses his majority in Parliament. Only then does he lose control over whether a no confidence vote passes, but then, of course, he would be vulnerable to being thrown out in any event by a no confidence vote.
Ironically, moving from the ease with which the Prime Minister who does want a general election can circumvent the fixed term where he thinks he can win an election, the Bill, at the same time, appears to provide a legal basis to prevent there being an election when the Government have, in reality, lost the confidence of the Commons in the traditional sense. The Bill allows for an early Dissolution only where there is a vote for one for which two-thirds of MPs have voted or where the House,
“passes a Motion of no confidence”.
What happens when the Government lose a vote on the passage of the Queen’s Speech or the Finance Bill? Does there have to be a subsequent Motion of no confidence in order for the Speaker to be satisfied that there has been a Motion of no confidence? If there does—which it would be in the interests of a governing party that wishes to stay in power to say that there would need to be—then the party’s MPs would, having, perhaps, rebelled in some numbers on the Queen’s Speech or the Finance Bill, rally to the party on the vote of no confidence, and the Government, unlike today, would get a second shot.
There have, since 1895, been four successful votes of no confidence in the Commons. In 1895 the vote of no confidence took the form of docking a proportion of the Secretary of War’s salary. In 1924 it took the form of an amendment to the terms of the resolution on the Queen’s Speech. There was another one in 1924, which took the form of an amendment to a vote of censure of the then Labour Government. A fourth one was the only one that was in the form of a vote of no confidence. I can see nothing wrong with the leader of the governing party, the Prime Minister of the day, saying, “This is not a vote of confidence, whatever it may be”, thereby, in effect, tying the hands of the Speaker and requiring the Motion of no confidence to be brought forward.
It is critical to tighten up the definition of the phrase,
“passes a vote of no confidence”,
to cover a number of situations over and above those that I have already raised. These situations include those cases where the Government lose a vote of confidence, as opposed to one of no confidence, and those cases where there would be no doubt that the vote was one in which confidence in the Government was at issue, albeit not expressly a Motion of no confidence—for example, the Queen’s Speech, the Finance Bill or an issue where the Prime Minister had expressly designated the vote as one of confidence.
The Bill should also deal with the position where the Government have never obtained the confidence of the House of Commons; for example, where, after a general election, in a minority government situation, the Government lose the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Is the position then that there needs to be a new Government? Do the new Government have to be found from the House of Commons then and there, or do they get only 14 days? Is that what is really envisaged by the Bill? Putting aside the situation where you have no Government after a general election who have obtained the confidence of the House of Commons after it has met, should there really be a norm that the House of Commons has 14 days to try to find a new Government? Should we not stick to the current norm, which is that, where there is a vote of no confidence, there should be a general election?
All of these issues are important, as is Prorogation and the extent to which it may be used to circumvent losing a vote of confidence, as it was recently in Canada. There are also issues about the timing of Westminster elections clashing with the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections, which we will wish to probe when the Government’s consultation with those two bodies is reported to us. If the report comes too late, we may have to proceed without it.
What do we have in this Bill? We have a Bill that gets the wrong number of years; provides no real inhibition to the Prime Minister of the day having a general election whenever he wants one; and restricts, by making hard, the circumstances in which a Government who have lost the confidence of the Commons can be removed. The Bill is an utter disaster. It has been put in simply to provide glue to hold the coalition together because its parties do not trust each other. I respectfully suggest that the Government think of ways to find that glue other than by messing up the British constitution. We will do our best in this House to amend the Bill to make it work and to make it do as little damage as possible to our constitution. It is a Bill to which the Parliament Act does not apply and, as the noble and learned Lord said, we are the guardians of the right length of parliamentary terms.
My Lords, this is the first time for many years that I rise to my feet recalling that I am formally to be described as “noble and learned”. I find myself following two gentlemen who are equally qualified for the second epithet but infinitely more competent in demonstrating their ability to cherish it. I find that the issues so ably presented by my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness, and so ably destroyed or eroded by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, make me even more worried about where we are going next.
I am now so antique myself that I have become more sceptical about fundamental changes to our constitutional structure. I have been taught that lesson by changes already made in the past 10 or 12 years. For example, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, was the last man to hold the office of Lord Chancellor in anything like the significant way in which it was long held and should have gone on being held. It is not simply a piece of tearful legal reminiscence that makes me say that. The fact that my former Parliamentary Private Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, is now Lord Chancellor but also Secretary of State, which office no longer assimilates, emulates or coincides with the office of Lord Chancellor as one used to know it, disturbs me. We are now living in a period in which, increasingly often, politicians and judges denounce each other. We find ourselves facing the terrible burden of “non-elected judges”, as though they have no qualifications because they are not elected. There is an upsurge of affection for democratic structures.
The fact that such conflict is developing is a consequence of the disappearance of the office of Lord Chancellor—an office that, if I remember correctly, was criticised by a select committee of the Council of Europe many years ago. It said that we had such an odd officer defying the laws of separation of powers because Britain had not experienced the reforms implemented throughout the rest of the continent by Napoleon Bonaparte. What sort of judgment is that? It is not just a fashionable thing to bewail dispensing with the Lord Chancellor or—this may seem more controversial—the transplantation of the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary from these premises to the supremely superb, manifestly impressive and expensive buildings on the other side of Parliament Square. I am more worried than pleased by that change, which may have had a theoretical academic justification but has not been beneficial. I point to a feature that makes that point. We now have the senior judge—the presiding judge—in the Supreme Court having to protest personally and complain about the inadequacy of the financial resources available to the Supreme Court. For the first time the Supreme Court has to go cap in hand to the Treasury. Chancellors—I say this as a former Chancellor —are benign men, but it is very unattractive that the Supreme Court should have to go cap in hand to the Treasury. In the old days one could say that the Supreme Court existed under the benevolent blessing of Parliament through the Judicial Committee of this House. This is a serious change. Those two factors make me apprehensive, and certainly not persuaded by the case being made for this Bill as it stands.
Both the preceding noble and learned Lords have presented cases with skill, expertise and clarity, as one would expect. However, I confess that I felt rather like the person who some years ago attended a conference on local government reform in that I was confused when I arrived in the premises and I am more confused now that we have heard these two competing speeches. I recall—I do not think that he is in the Chamber at present—the Joint Committee presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, which discussed the wisdom or otherwise of respecting conventions rather than formality. Conventions have shaped the framework within which we have lived for many years. People understand whether the Prime Minister does or does not have the power to do something and whether or not he has the wisdom to do the right thing. To be now transplanted from that situation and confronted with a bundle of difficult to understand subsections in the Bill, giving scope for analyses of the kind the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, has already presented, does not give me greater confidence in the proposed future system than in the continuation of our present system. I say that with nostalgic respect for the way in which the system treated me in my university days long before I sought to be a candidate for Parliament. We had the 1950-51 sequence of elections. We saw the erosion and disappearance of the Attlee Government and the restoration of a Churchill Government. I stood twice as a candidate in the constituency of Aberavon. Lord Morris of Aberavon and Lord Howe of Aberavon would make a very good partnership. I should not say that, should I? I was not being serious when I fought against the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, because he was bound to win.
In 1964, I was delighted to be elected to the constituency of Bebington. I inherited a majority of 9,861 and saw it reduced to 2,200, which was a bit of a let-down. The Government lost office, but only by a small margin did the Wilson Government arrive in office. In 1966, I had to go through the struggle all again to find that the Labour Party had a majority of 2,200. The point I am making is that in each of those cases—1950-51 and 1964-66—by a gradual process of application of the conventions that then existed and still do, the nation made a change, first rather nervously and then more decisively, and a change of government was achieved as a result of the votes cast by the electorate in the light of the decisions taken in the Houses of Parliament. However, I am wary about the wisdom of taking away the structure that we have come to know and which has served us not too badly.
There is one other piece that I would like to say, which causes me some concern. That is the huge volume of legislation we are having to grapple with since the arrival in office of the coalition. Of course, for all sorts of reasons, I have the most enormous respect for the coalition—it has a Conservative Prime Minister of great distinction, and one is bound to be cheerful about that, not to mention distinguished Front Bench spokesmen such as the noble and learned Lord who has presented this case. However, it is a coalition that is running this torrent of legislative change through this House and through Parliament. I am not going to make a speech about the Public Bodies Bill now save to mention it, but when the Minister was first in charge of it I said that it struck me as something like a self-inflicted tsunami of constitutional destruction and it still has that flavour. It was an enormous number of different identities being bundled together in a semi-destructive fashion.
I plead guilty to the fact actually—I only rediscovered this the other day—that when I first arrived as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1979 I also called for a bonfire of the quangos and some casualties there ought not to have taken place. That is by the way. I think the coalition—more than the Government of which I was a member under the leadership of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher—is constructed rather like the way I put wood on the fire before I light it. Bits of little wood lean on other little bits of little wood and big logs can go on them and gradually it is all assembled in such a way that I can apply the firelighter to it. The coalition had to do all that. One can imagine the negotiations in which the two party leaders said, “If you do this, then I can do that”, and then, “Perhaps we can both do this together”. So we have this assorted menu of constitutional change touching almost every institution in sight. That is what worries me and why I speak with such disloyalty to the Government, which I of course support. I think that it is important to draw attention to these anxieties.
I have one last thought. One of the topics on which the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, and I agreed from the outset in the course of our long-standing relationship was one when I made a speech—I think to the Society of Conservative Lawyers—saying that above all,
“we must make fewer laws and make the laws fewer”.
In a short time the noble Baroness echoed that triumphantly. We were both absolutely agreed upon it. As a matter of fact, we did not do too well in the end. It was quite remarkable. The Labour Government between 1975 and 1978 enacted an average of 1,177 pages of primary legislation a year. The Conservative Government that followed between 1980 and 1989 enacted an average of 1,788 pages. We managed 2,170 pages in 1988 and no less than 2,581 in 1989. It was at that point that we surpassed the record hitherto held by the Attlee Government of 2,288 pages. That shows how difficult it is to achieve. Lo and behold the present Administration, this marvellous coalition, have already enacted 687 pages of statute and 2,084 pages of Bills are on their way through the system. One can give the prize to them, with 2,771 pages of legislation.
That is a firm foundation on which to base my anxiety. I am not persuaded that we should be making this change. I am not persuaded that it is necessary to make the change. I am not persuaded by the experience of Canada. I respect the Canadians who have been able to function on the same basis as ourselves and without the firmness of four-year fixed terms of the kind south of the 49th parallel. I would rather we stayed as we always have been and rather we stayed as the Canadians had been until quite recently. I make those points as I am anxious but do not wish to tear down this marvellous coalition, on whose success we all depend.
My Lords, we had quite a substantial discussion on fixed-term Parliaments in the debate on the gracious Speech in May of last year. That discussion, I recall, was particularly difficult in the aftermath of the election, as perceptions of the coalition agreement clouded the debate on the principles of fixed-term Parliaments. It is already clear from the tenor of today’s debate that some of those difficulties remain.
Fixed-term Parliaments are not a short-term political fix but a long-term and overdue democratic reform. The idea that Parliaments should last for a fixed term is one to which the Liberal Democrats have subscribed for a very long time. It is also one which Labour supported in its general election manifesto only last year and which the Conservative Party accepted in the coalition agreement.
The Government have improved their proposal since last year, not least by dispensing with their original plan to set a threshold of only 55 per cent for the Dissolution of Parliament, which would have worked perhaps for this Parliament but not for most Parliaments. The Bill now provides for greater clarity to distinguish between votes of confidence and votes for Dissolution.
In order to have a fixed-term Parliament, there must be some form of mechanism to hold it in place. A substantial threshold for early Dissolution is clearly required. Without it, the legislation would be simply a statement of aspiration and a reiteration of the status quo whereby a Parliament lasts for five years unless a Prime Minister decides otherwise. The proposed threshold for Dissolution of the Westminster Parliament, a two-thirds majority, now closely reflects the arrangements set up by the Scotland Act 1998, introduced by the last Labour Government. Those arrangements have been shown to work very well since their introduction. Sadly, it was not a reform that the Labour Government extended to Westminster in their 13 recent years in office. However, Labour sought to rectify that in its last manifesto, in which it promised to legislate to “ensure” that there would be fixed-term Parliaments, although it did not say of what duration. I look forward to hearing from noble Lords opposite exactly how they intended to legislate to ensure that there were fixed-term Parliaments.
Labour’s pledge to legislate for fixed-term Parliaments was first made in 1992 by the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, whom I am very pleased to see in his place today. In its manifesto of that year, the Labour Party criticised,
“months of on-again, off-again dithering which damaged our economy and weakened our democracy”,
after John Major delayed a much anticipated 1991 election. The Labour Party said then:
“No government with a majority should be allowed to put the interests of party above country, as the Conservatives have done”.
Labour promised fixed-term Parliaments in 1992 and again in 2010.
A fixed-term Parliament is accepted without controversy in most developed democracies—indeed, I believe that it exists in about two-thirds of democracies. It also exists for every single local authority and devolved Government here in Britain. It was introduced for all those devolved Governments during the 13 years of the Labour Government and each of them now operates a fixed-term Parliament principle. It is now the right time for the House of Commons to catch up with that principle.
I turn to the question of whether a fixed term should be of four or five years. The Government acknowledged that there is a genuine dilemma on this issue in their response to the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place. They recognised that there is no monopoly of merit in the cases for four or for five years; it is a question of judgment. However, on balance, I am persuaded that setting the term at five years is right, because a four-year fixed term would mean Governments having a non-election-fighting life—a period of governing without immediate electoral pressures—of three years at most, which would not be sufficient.
There are other practical reasons for considering why five years is the right period. The previous Labour Government legislated in the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 for a period covering party-political expenditure that works only in a five-year Parliament. Under the Act, the pre-election campaign period for regulating party-political expenditure starts 55 months into a Parliament—in other words after, and only after, four years and seven months—and it runs for up to 60 months after the previous general election, but for no longer. A few noble Lords may recall that I opposed those provisions at the time because they would work in practice only if there was a five-year fixed-term Parliament. That is now what is proposed and it would make those regulations on party-political controlled expenditure, introduced by the last Labour Government, actually work. The campaign expenses legislation that we approved only two years ago will now work in future.
I do not wish to repeat the debate that we had recently during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill—to do so would of course take a very long time—but I remind your Lordships that we approved legislation to review the constituency boundaries every five years. The first review of the constituency boundaries under the legislation that we so recently approved will be conducted by October 2013 and each subsequent review will be concluded on a five-year cycle from five years thereafter. To hold a general election in 2014, only four years after the previous one, would mean that the next general election would be fought only six months after the new constituency boundaries became known. If we have system of individual constituency representation, then that, I think, would be madness. Parties need time to find, select and promote candidates. Voters need to be able to assess them and their relative merits and to make informed choices. Even a period of 18 months between knowing the new boundaries and the general election may be too short to do this effectively, but anything less than a five-year Parliament will mean less than an 18-month period from knowing what the constituency boundaries will be to the Dissolution of Parliament and the commencement of the next general election.
I am interested in what the noble Lord has just said. He has made a specific and direct link between the five years in this Bill and the legislation that the House has just passed. He has done it in such a way as to suggest that basically you could outlaw any amendments for four years on the basis that the House has passed previous legislation for five years. The fact that he has made a direct connection between the two almost amounts to blackmail. If he had not said that towards the end of his remarks, I would tend to agree with most of what he said, but that direct link will be used to attack anybody who wants to move from five years to four years or four and a half years, if that is the desire. It cannot be a fair argument to use the kind of legislative trick that he has just played on us. My question to the noble Lord is this: during our Committee stage, will he be prepared to accept the good faith of those who want to promote four years or four and a half years and not suggest that they are seeking to go back and debate the previous Bill? If he will not spend time accusing people of that, I will withdraw the imputations that I have just made about his speech.
My Lords, early in my remarks I said that there is merit in the case for four years or for five years. The noble Lord should accept that and withdraw his remark that my suggestion that there are strong reasons why we should have five years rather than four years amounts to blackmail. Also, comments from a sedentary position that this sounds like blackmail are rather offensive and over the top in the circumstances of a genuine debate on this issue.
I want to address a couple of issues if I may. I note that the noble Baroness is due to make her remarks later on in the debate.
I want to draw the Minister’s attention to an area of the Bill where I think that work is still required. The Bill rightly sets out to remove the starting pistol for an election race being held by one of its principal competitors and to implement the coalition agreement, which states:
“We will establish five-year fixed-term Parliaments”.
There is a real danger that the Bill could fail in that objective under Clause 1(5), as it effectively provides for a Prime Minister with a majority in Parliament to be able to alter the date of the general election by two months either side of the five-year norm. The coalition agreement commits to establishing five-year fixed-term Parliaments, not nearly fixed-term Parliaments of between 58 months and 62 months.
Countries such as Norway, Sweden, South Africa and the United States, along with all our local government and the devolved Assemblies established in recent years, manage to exist on a fixed-term basis without such a provision. I accept that some elections may need to be delayed in exceptional circumstances, such as the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001, but that could be dealt with in legislation relatively easily, just as the fixed-term council elections during May 2001 were postponed until June of that year. I cannot see any merit in the special power for the Prime Minister to bring forward an election. If unforeseen circumstances may conceivably delay an election by two months, how can unforeseen circumstances require an election to be brought forward by two months?
There is, however, a strong case to say that the Bill could be amended to allow a few days’ flexibility over polling day, sufficient so as not to preclude the possibility of voting taking place over a weekend. Perhaps polling day in the next general election should not be on the first Thursday in May but on the Saturday and/or Sunday following that day. There is a good case for proper consideration to be given to voting over a weekend rather than on a weekday. It would be a mistake for the Bill to preclude that possibility.
The Bill is long overdue. It was never right that one of the runners in a race also held the starting pistol and was able to fix the start of the race depending on his or her party’s convenience. The Bill sets out healthy, democratic reform to our political system. As the first Prime Minister to accept this principle, David Cameron deserves considerable credit. I also think that the Labour Party should adhere to the principle that it set out to the country in its manifesto last year. This House should support the Bill.
My Lords, I rise in a state of some trepidation. It is almost 41 years since I last made a maiden speech and almost a year since I made my valedictory in the other place. I am delighted that the custom here is to begin on a totally non-controversial topic and to thank all those noble Lords in all parts of the House who welcomed the new Member. I genuinely do that. I also couple with that all those officials and members of staff who have been so unfailingly courteous, helpful and kind.
I feel this particularly because I have been welcomed twice. I took my seat on 21 December and then had the misfortune to go into hospital. I did not get back here until 8 February, when I was welcomed again. I assure noble Lords in all parts of the House that I did not retreat to hospital in order to escape those late-night sittings, which were so reminiscent of my early days in another place.
When the Prime Minister told me that he would like me to come here, I accepted his invitation with great gratitude, enthusiasm and alacrity. I did so for one very simple reason: I believe passionately in this place—in its functions, in its composition and in its powers. That belief is founded, after 40 years in the other place, on the conviction that there is a more unambiguous democratic mandate if it is held by one elected Chamber rather than divided between two. I have always seen this House as an assembly of the experienced, which has a duty to give advice but no power to impose its will. It is because of my admiration for the delicate system of checks and balances that sustains our constitutional monarchy, in which the ultimate power rests with those who elect Members of the other place, that I approach any constitutional measure, produced by any Government, with a degree of caution and trepidation.
I am of course aware of the convention that a maiden speech should be non-controversial. However, I do not take that as an instruction to be anodyne or as an excuse to be irrelevant. I have advocated the merits of fixed-term Parliaments in the past and I believe that it is entirely proper and right that the Bill before us should have an unopposed Second Reading tonight. However, as always, the devil is in the detail and it is incumbent on this House to subject this short Bill to proper scrutiny.
The logical case for fixed-term Parliaments has often been rehearsed and, indeed, has been referred to in this afternoon’s debate. By fixing the term, we remove the manipulative power of the Prime Minister of the day, we create a symmetry with other parliamentary, assembly and local government elections and we become similar to many other democracies, although by no means all. Yet it is essential that we should not deprive the elected House of the power to turf out a Government who have lost its confidence. The Bill before us recognises this, but only up to a point. No one who was in the other place at the time of the last vote of confidence when a Government fell will ever forget that March night in 1979 when the late Michael Foot made that wonderful speech as he looked at the serried ranks of the nationalists and said, “These are turkeys going to vote for an early Christmas”. It was a memorable evening. The vote was carried because Frank Maguire came from Northern Ireland to abstain in person. The Government of the day fell because immediately after the vote was announced the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, for whom I still have the greatest affectionate memories—he was one of the greatest gentlemen ever to occupy that office—came to the Dispatch Box and immediately said that he would be going to see the Queen.
Under the terms of this Bill as it stands, that vote in itself would not have triggered an immediate general election. It might instead have led to 14 days of horse-trading, perhaps resulting in a lame-duck Administration, or perhaps in another vote, in which two-thirds of the Members of the other place would have had to vote for an early election. Perhaps by then some of the turkeys would have changed their minds and thought that the prospect of having their necks wrung in December was better than having them wrung in March.
Two other provisions in this Bill need especially careful examination. Is it right to replace a royal prerogative with a Speaker’s edict? I suggest that we should reflect on what the Clerk of the House said about that and about the possible role of the courts in any subsequent dispute. It has been referred to this afternoon and is a matter that must be addressed at least by probing amendments in this place. Also, is the prescribed length of the term better fixed at five years or four? We should consider what the Constitution Committee of this House has said on that issue and, in doing so, we should bear in mind what has already been referred to several times as the proliferation of elections that are fixed at the moment for the late spring of 2015. Is that proliferation of elections, in the words of 1066 and All That, a “Good Thing”? It is for us to decide.
I am sympathetic to a move to fixed-term Parliaments. I strongly support and admire the coalition Government and I am proud to support them from these Benches. However, I cannot but ask whether everything in this Bill, which received no pre-legislative scrutiny and which was subject to a strict timetable in another place, is not capable of improvement. In recent years, there has been a tendency—no, a habit—for Governments of all persuasions to rush into constitutional reform. It might have been no bad thing if successive Governments had remembered that old Latin tag, festina lente.
My Lords, it is a pleasure and an honour to be the first to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on his superb maiden speech. It demonstrated the noble Lord’s special feel for Parliament, its practices and its history, for the magic and mystery of the British constitution and for its constitutional legislation. So subtle and insightful is his understanding of the constitution that I have long believed that the noble Lord is actually part of its warp and woof. He served as a hugely distinguished chairman of the History of Parliament Trust and his distinction has been very much in evidence this afternoon.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has been a much valued friend and mentor of mine for several years. He has sustained the gifts of the history teacher he once was; he has followed Albert Einstein's words:
“Never lose a holy curiosity”.
He is a natural transmitter of that curiosity to others. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, gave the other place long, distinguished and devoted service as a dedicated and natural parliamentarian. I am confident that he will do the same as an enormously welcome addition to your Lordships' House.
The Bill before us today is a collector's item for a combination of reasons. First, if passed, it will be a rare example of a Prime Minister relinquishing a power which his predecessors possessed: the power to request the sovereign to dissolve Parliament, thereby triggering a general election. In the unusual circumstances of the coupon election in 1918, after the sudden armistice that brought the Great War to an end, David Lloyd George took that power unto himself as coalition leader. Previously, such requests had been a decision for the Cabinet.
Secondly, as other noble Lords have pointed out, the Bill proposes that Her Majesty the Queen be stripped of a sizeable chunk of one of her two remaining personal prerogative powers: that of dissolving Parliament, although summoning Parliament or proroguing it will remain a matter for the sovereign. Her other personal prerogative, that of appointing a Prime Minister, will remain entirely untouched.
Thirdly, this is a very rare example of a government Bill originating in the other place that, as currently drafted, is entirely beyond the reach of the Parliament Acts, creating an unusual stretch of legislative turf on which your Lordships can frisk. The Clerk of the Parliaments has attested that:
“It is ... clear that the … Bill does contain provision to extend the maximum duration of a Parliament beyond five years, and that it cannot, therefore, be passed under the Parliament Acts procedure unless, before it leaves the Commons, the … provisions ... are amended”.
Not since November 1944, when your Lordships’ House agreed to extend the Prolongation of Parliament Act 1940 until the Second World War had ended, has this been true of a government measure sent to your Lordships’ House from the other place.
Fourthly, and of the greatest concern for your Lordships, the Bill seeks to change the biorhythm of our national politics by creating a statutory norm for the timing of our general elections. The question—several other noble Lords have raised it already—is whether five years captures our natural biorhythm. There is a strong case for arguing that it does not. The fine report by your Lordships’ Select Committee on the Constitution on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill published last December calculates that the average duration of the 17 Parliaments between the general election of July 1945 and that of May 2010 has been three years and 10 months.
As well as the biorhythmic arithmetic, we need to consider the quality of government and political life in the fifth year of Parliaments that have gone to the wire. They have rarely been shining patches in the life of Administrations. Ministers are often tired and accident prone. The palette of the electorate becomes progressively more jaded. A kind of pre-electoral blight sets in. Of course it could be argued that the final year of a fixed-term four-year Parliament would be similarly blighted. Certainly, the press would succumb to its customary pre-election frenzy as the last year deepened. However, the blight is likely to be less pronounced towards the end of a four-year span than a five-year one, and accountability is more likely to be enhanced by a four-year cycle.
On balance, your Lordships’ Select Committee, and the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform in the other place, came down for four-year Parliaments. I plump for the tariff that they recommend. Four years not only fits with the UK-wide biorhythm but, as other noble Lords have pointed out, with the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies. The second question to which your Lordships’ Constitution Committee has drawn attention is the pair of safety valves for use if, for emergency or other reasons, the other place decides that an election is necessary before the fixed term is expended. For the valves to operate, either 66 per cent of the membership of the other place has to vote for Dissolution, or the Government have to lose a confidence vote and, over the subsequent 14 days, fail to conjure up an alternative Administration or be replaced by another one that can demonstrate command of the other place.
It would be highly undesirable if these provisions became the political equivalents of “get out of jail free” cards in the game of Monopoly. The British constitution is not a Stradivarius to be played—or indeed fiddled—for reasons of narrow electoral advantage by the party or parties in government. A number of safeguards, therefore, are desirable. First, the Bill needs to contain as precise a definition as possible of what constitutes a confidence Motion. Secondly, the ticking clock must be so arranged that a general election following Dissolution sooner than the expiry of the fixed term does not restart the clock from scratch. Instead, the refreshed Parliament should sit for the remainder of the original fixed term and no longer—as is, so far, the untested arrangement for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.
Finally, I share the regret of your Lordships’ Select Committee, and the one in the other place, that we have before us yet another substantial constitutional Bill that is without the benefit of a Green or a White Paper, or pre-legislative hearings. For, to pinch a line from PG Wodehouse, it is always easy to distinguish between a ray of sunshine and the coalition bearing a statute prepared in haste.
My Lords, not for the first time in this Parliament do I find myself urging the Government to take care of our constitution, which I regard as a precious mixture of documents and conventions that need looking after. I think I know something about the basis on which this Bill was put together. It has very much the fingerprints of the Deputy Prime Minister on it. I know the base from which he operates, because he has told us frequently enough; it is to describe our parliamentary system as involving “broken politics” and to say that we have a “broken constitution”. I am paraphrasing what he has said, but the word “broken” frequently appears in his speeches.
I simply do not accept that our political system is broken; nor is our constitution. If you want to look at broken politics, where the word “broken” really applies, there are plenty of parts of the world where you can find it—not least in the Middle East. Politicians, and particularly Deputy Prime Ministers, need to be careful about the language that they use. We, on the contrary, in my view, have a constitution and democratic system of which we can be proud. I cannot be the only Member of this House who has travelled to various countries in the world, including those recently emerged from dictatorships, where they tell us that they admire our political system. They want to know more about it and about how we reconcile the differences between the two Houses, when they occur, as well as how our elections take place and how our electoral law operates. A whole range of things that we have developed over many years, often with great difficulty, are not viewed by countries overseas as being part of a broken political system—absolutely on the contrary. So I simply do not start from the same premise as the Deputy Prime Minister.
This is the only party political point that I shall make, but I think that the Prime Minister needs to be careful about dressing up in grand constitutional argument a political arrangement that guarantees that he will be Prime Minister for five years and about putting a Bill before Parliament to ensure that it lasts for five years. That comes not very convincingly from a Prime Minister who in arithmetic terms has a weaker parliamentary base of his own party than any Prime Minister since the Second World War. If he stays there for five years, he will be one of the longer-serving Prime Ministers, as I think the average for the 20th century was five years. It will not be a bad stint for someone without a parliamentary majority of his own party.
I have two sets of questions. The first is surely the most important, and I do not think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, addressed it. What are the faults that this Bill tries to rectify? The strongest argument—and I can see it—is that it stops the Prime Minister from starting the race, and that it gives undue power to Prime Ministers over Parliament—and, if you like, over the country—to decide when a general election should be. Rather than look at the books on political theory, let us look at the facts. Of the 18 general elections held since the Second World War—and I shall assume that determining the date of the general election is a huge political advantage and that, if the Prime Minister wins the election, he or she has made a good judgment and that, if the Prime Minister loses, he or she has made a bad judgment—10 general elections were won and eight lost by the Prime Minister who called them. Of the 10 where the victories occurred, four of them were either by Mrs Thatcher or my great friend, who also seemed to keep winning elections. Mrs Thatcher is the best example; Tony Blair and Mrs Thatcher between them account for four of those 10 elections—and you get the feeling that whenever they called an election they would probably have won it. It therefore does not seem to me that as a matter of historical fact it is a colossal advantage to be able to determine the date of a general election.
The second fault it is alleged this Bill will put right is that flexibility in determining elections is wrong in principle. I cannot accept that. I could give any number of examples, as could other Members of this House. When an early general election was called in 1951 by Clem Attlee, would it have been better if he had been forced to have a fixed term that saw that Government continue for the full five years, or was it not entirely proper—although sad from my perspective as a lifelong member of the Labour party—that, because he felt his Government was tired and that some of the great characters had died or were unwell, it was right to ask for a further mandate from the public, which actually he won but was then beaten by the electoral system?
Would it have been right to have prevented Mr Heath from calling his election in the middle of the miners’ strike when he judged that that was the right time to call for an election to renew his mandate in a most difficult set of circumstances? I do not think that that was a failure of our constitutional system; it was a strength of it.
I am not at all convinced that flexibility in the way in which we hold general elections is a bad thing. The system whereby a general election is immediately held once a Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence is nothing other than a splendid part of our constitution. That is the most telling point of all and one mentioned in the splendid speech by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. It is far from broken.
For reasons of nostalgia I read what Jim Callaghan said—and those of us who were there will never forget it—after he lost a vote of confidence by one. He said, in the simplest and shortest of speeches:
“Mr. Speaker, now that the House of Commons has declared itself, we shall take our case to the country. Tomorrow I shall propose to Her Majesty that Parliament be dissolved … and I shall then announce … the date of Dissolution, the date of the election and the date of the meeting of the new Parliament”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/3/1979; col. 589.]
Those are splendid words. They almost bring tears to my eyes because shortly after that I was unemployed. I would go as far as to say there was majesty in the simplicity of those words. I dread to think what he would have had to say if this Bill had been an Act of Parliament at that time. He would have said, “The House of Commons has now spoken. I therefore invoke Section (2)(1) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act”—or whatever Act it would have been. I suggest that the kind of detail involved in this Bill diminishes our constitution.
The Minister’s speeches are splendid and very persuasive most of the time, but it took him quite a long time to explain Clause 2 and the circumstances in which Dissolution on a vote of no confidence would take place. Why change it? What is wrong with the system? It has not only worked well, it has worked absolutely perfectly and majestically, so for heaven’s sake leave it alone. I do not think there are any serious problems to which this Bill provides a solution.
I want to make a couple of specific points about what is bad about this Bill. A couple have been mentioned before but it will do no harm to rehearse them briefly. Many of us here have either been in Parliament during four or five-year Parliaments or, in my case, have watched from outside when the electorate made their decision. There is no doubt that the fifth year of a Parliament, in our constitutional history and experience if not in theory, is nearly always a completely unsatisfactory year. It is one in which everything is winding down, and it is ludicrous to suggest that a Government in their fifth year of a five-year Parliament would be doing anything other than providing for the general election, the date of which they knew, both in their legislative programme and in the decisions that they made. Importantly, it extends the whole period of electioneering. I do not want to overstate the case, but again do we really want a system like the one the United States has in which the preparation for an election takes at least a year? That is what would happen if everyone knew in advance.
I have already demonstrated that this does not give a Prime Minister a huge advantage. Do we really want a 12-month period in which expenditure presumably had to be controlled and in which everyone knew that we were simply waiting for the date to come? I remember, as many others here do, that we have only once had a six or a seven-week election—I think that was the 1997 one. There was pretty universal agreement that that was too long for an election period. The public get bored rigid if it goes on for too long. The present period is pretty good: four or five weeks between the calling of an election and the public making their decision.
I sit on an institution that has a four-year cycle, and I assure the noble Lord and the House that in the past months as we are now approaching our four-year deadline, the pre-election process creeps into that four-year cycle. However, in trying to find a balance and to know the right thing to do we also have the example of the European Parliament, which is on a five-year cycle. It is very hard to discern or divine what the right time is, because I assure the noble Lord that, even in the devolved regions, the four-year cycle produces a period when people are obviously preparing. I suspect that that is inevitable in any democracy. Let us hope we do not have a Bill that proposes a two-year cycle, like the House of Representatives in Washington.
I would certainly prefer a four-year cycle to a five-year cycle, but my strong view is that there is no need to change the present arrangements, which provide for a short sharp election in which the public are focused and where colossal sums of money will not need to be spent to extend it over 12 months, or however long the preparation period for the election would be.
My final point on what I dislike about the Bill is that it inevitably weakens Parliament. Part of the drama of Parliament and the Commons is knowing that almost any Division on any Bill—certainly, if the numbers in the Commons make it possible—could precipitate a drama that could result in a general election. Parliament needs to be dramatic and it is important that it is. It is not nine to five, for however many months per year, within fixed terms or within fixed Sessions of Parliament within those fixed terms. That makes for boring tedious politics, and we all know how difficult it is, even under the present system, to make it of interest on a wider basis.
To conclude, this Bill weakens Parliament. It weakens the House of Commons and makes it more predictable. It does not solve any problems that have been identified in any satisfactory way. I hope that my party, when it comes to draw up its manifesto for the next general election will, assuming that this Bill becomes an Act, at the very least say that we should revert to four-year Parliaments, but I would like it to abide by the oldest maxim in the book; if something is working, there is absolutely no need to fix it.
My Lords, as we set out today on proceedings on this important Bill, those on the Pensions Bill set out in parallel in Grand Committee in the Moses Room. At Second Reading on that Bill, I averred that I was batting much too high in the batting order, but that misgiving was as nothing compared to my similar concern about overpromotion today, given the wealth of batting still to come. However, it gives me the unwarranted opportunity to be the first from these Benches to welcome the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Cormack and to congratulate him on it. The debate might have been made for him on this occasion.
It is also the greatest of pleasures, with one caveat, to follow the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. He always speaks with such uncommon good sense on these matters that my one caveat must necessarily be that if I find myself disagreeing with him, I shall spend the rest of the debate asking myself how I could have got it so wrong. Fortunately, I shall give so few hostages to fortune in what will be a brief speech that I shall enjoy the rest of the debate even more. My first observation is based on the symmetry arising from the repeal of the Septennial Act 1715. That Act was preceded in the reign of Queen Anne by paving legislation in 1706; that in the event of the Hanoverian succession, Ministers should cease to sit in the House of Commons. That Act was then repealed in 1708. I had always wondered why the repeal occurred. My only likely conjecture has been that the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 had overtaken the need for the 1706 legislation. I was greatly reassured when I found that my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern agreed with me. Interestingly, the great historian GM Trevelyan, in his magisterial four-volume history of the reign of Queen Anne, draws attention in a footnote to the fact that Montesquieu, writing in 1739, had alluded to the passage of the 1706 Act without apparently realising it had been repealed. After paying a warm tribute to the great understanding of this nation in these affairs, he prayed the 1706 paving legislation in aid of his own argument for a separation of powers, which Trevelyan believed had affected American and French thinking on their own constitution building at the end of that century.
If I fast-forward three-quarters of a century to the last two decades of that century, and concentrate for a moment on the Americans and ourselves—the French Revolution not being exactly conducive to a Speaker’s Conference—it is interesting that while the Americans were soberly, if a little informally, going about their own constitution building, Charles James Fox, who beats me into fourth place in terms of longevity as MP for Westminster, was embarking on his dedicated campaign, born of his own brief experience in Cabinet, to remove the royal prerogative in the calling of elections; the story which is in the very context of this Bill still gripping us today two centuries later.
The reference to the Bill encourages me—and perhaps your Lordships’ House—to cover the next two centuries in a single sentence and to bring me straight to today’s proceedings. We are much in the debt of the Constitution Select Committee in your Lordships’ House for providing us in its eighth report with an energetic canter over the issues. It was admirably and reassuringly assisted by the UCL Constitution Unit—even if one piece of briefing sought to translate that acronym into the disguise of a “University of Central London”. I must remark that, although the Mediterranean littoral is currently seized of a massive political upheaval, in the western democracies less is happening than two centuries ago in terms of constitutional reform—although the recent inability of the Belgians to form a Government runs counter to that universality of peace and quiet. There is, therefore, a general absence of external infectiousness towards reform here.
Of the three major parties, the essence of this Bill contained in its title “Fixed-term Parliaments” uniquely did not appear in the Conservative Party’s manifesto last year. This is clearly a coalition measure and very much in the care of the Deputy Prime Minister. I mean no disrespect either to him or to our coalition partners if I say that I had some difficulty in parsing Mr Clegg’s reply before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee when he said,
“Do I think that in practice 12 months makes an earth-shattering difference in terms of the length of time of a fixed-term Parliament?”,
and he answered his own rhetorical question,
“No. I do … ”.
If the trumpet sounds an uncertain note, who will gird himself for battle?
I understand that several national polling projects have reported that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the nation are in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, but I have not seen any qualitative evidence of why they hold that opinion. For myself, I find the arguments for one side or the other remarkably evenly balanced. I do not propose to draw up a personal balance sheet but shall listen closely to the rest of the debate.
In the mean time, as I am speaking from the government Benches, perhaps I may say that I approve of the argument that a fixed-term Parliament would make for better planning of parliamentary business; nor am I disturbed by the alternative contention that a fixed-term Parliament would enable Her Majesty’s Government better to manipulate the economic cycle. Given that any Government hope to succeed themselves, I do not have such unyielding confidence in Her Majesty’s Treasury so to conduct itself as to achieve the optimal result.
I also think that there is much to be said for the final sentence in lighter print—not the heavy print of a recommendation—of paragraph 43 of the Constitution Select Committee’s report:
“There is a case for saying that any new Prime Minister should at least have the opportunity to seek a fresh mandate in a general election”,
as Eden did in 1955 and as Mr Blair’s delayed retirement prevented his successor from doing, had he wished, prior to the Summer Recess in 2007.
For myself, I am left a little agnostic about the balance underlying the Bill. Where I may be in a gang of one—as my noble friend Lord St John of Fawsley once described the then Mr Hattersley, now the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, in his winding-up speech in the Queen’s Speech debate in 1979—is that, despite the coalition’s rapid resolution of the post-election crisis of last year, I doubt whether the crisis of February 1974 would have been resolved as rapidly without the benefit of the Queen’s prerogative in the background. Together with my noble friend Lord Taverne, I have spent many happy hours explaining British politics to young American students at the start of their semesters abroad in British universities. The students’ curiosity about the Queen’s position in the British constitution always prompts me to allude to February 1974.
It is in part because of the abolition of the prerogative—and, were this the subject of polling, I doubt that a national majority would be found for its abolition—that I regret that a move towards more constitutional consultation or scrutiny on these issues has not found favour with the coalition. There are enough loose ends lying around on the quarterdeck, as the Bill now is, to prompt resort to the memorable conviction of that tersest of American politicians, President Johnson’s great Texan ally, Sam Rayburn, that the wisest words in the English language are, “Wait a minute”. On St David’s Day, I am encouraged by the speech of my noble and learned friend and fellow Welshman Lord Howe of Aberavon to believe that the remaining stages of this Bill are going to be interesting.
My Lords, perhaps the wisest words in the English language are those of Oliver Cromwell, which we can now address to the government Front Bench:
“in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”.
There is no agnosticism but a firm absolutism in the way in which these proposals have been put forward when they are clearly matters of judgment and not matters of utter rigid determination.
It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, with his historical sweep. I was musing on the fact that, if Montesquieu had it wrong and that was translated into the US constitution, nevertheless the US constitution has lasted and it has been rather difficult to amend, so perhaps there are some lessons to be learnt from that. However, I follow the noble Lord in congratulating someone whom I can call my noble friend, Lord Cormack, on his most felicitous maiden speech. I served with him for 30 years in the other place and believe he is an outstanding parliamentarian and—dare I say it—a natural for this place. He would have glided down the Corridor to this place and I welcome him warmly.
I begin by saying that I was most impressed with the report of the committee presided over by my noble friend Lady Jay. When I chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place, I had enormous admiration for the foreign affairs reports of this place. I cannot honestly say that I said so at the time but I certainly had that admiration, and this report is very much within that same tradition. Indeed, that is the case to the point where I wonder whether political science professors such as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, will ever again ask their first-year students to write on fixed-term Parliaments because they can only harmonise on the themes in this report. I look forward to his contribution and to that of my noble friend Lord Morgan, at whose feet I sat for some time. Indeed, I also very much enjoyed the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy.
I was astonished—this is my initial point—at the letter of 16 February from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who I dare say was one of the few on the other side who improved his reputation very much during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. The letter of 16 February was one of the most selective letters I have ever seen. It says that the Constitution Committee published a report on the Bill on 16 December and that the committee,
“endorsed significant elements of the Bill”,
specifically X and Y. The committee indeed endorsed one or two details. However, from reading that letter and the introduction to the response to the report of the Constitution Committee that the Government published last month, which states that,
“The Government was pleased to note therefore the Committee’s endorsement of significant elements of the Government’s proposals”,
who would have thought that the all-party committee’s conclusion was the most devastating indictment? The committee’s report states:
“We take the view that the origins and contents of this Bill owe more to short-term considerations than to a mature assessment of enduring constitutional principles or sustained public demand”.
Why was that not mentioned? It was such a selective letter. In short, the all-party committee concluded that this is no way to run a railroad and certainly no way to change our constitution. Equally, no one can deny the lack of public debate; so much of this has been drawn out of a hat.
As to the proposal’s origins, the Conservative Party traditionally has a tremendous reverence for the constitution and is wary of change—a tradition reflected in the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and in the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack—but that reverence was abandoned to give free rein to the Liberal Democrats and to give them free rein on economic and social policy. The Liberal Democrat Party has again shown an obsession with constitutional change. It was clearly part of a deal and lacked consultation. I cite evidence of the lack of consultation when the Deputy Prime Minister said that he would consult the devolved Administrations about the details that affect them. Would it not have been better to have had that consultation with the devolved Administrations beforehand rather than to do it on the hoof? The context is ill thought through and it smacks of partisan calculations. On page 39, the committee’s report states:
“There is strong evidence to suggest that the Government’s proposals have not been properly thought through”.
On page 41, the committee concludes:
“the constitutional relationship between the provisions of this Bill and the Government’s other proposals for constitutional reform have not been adequately thought through”.
The charge is clearly that the Bill is partisan, ill judged and piecemeal.
The Government’s argument essentially is that the Bill removes powers from the Executive and gives power to Parliament and the wider electorate. The point has been well made about the vote of confidence—my noble friend Lord Grocott made the point about 1979. While he was speaking, I was musing on the recent election in Ireland. Clearly, as a result of the awful mess of the economy made by Fianna Fáil, there was an enormous revolt of public opinion against that party. Had that dramatic drop in confidence taken place halfway through the fixed term and had there therefore been a vote of no confidence in Fianna Fáil, under this provision there would have been 14 days in which Fianna Fáil, with its substantial numbers in the Dáil, could have cobbled together a new coalition with some elements who would not otherwise have found their way into Government. That new coalition could have been formed in spite of the enormous public rejection—so much for public accountability.
The point has been well made that the Government can, in any event, manipulate the economy. The broad principle, in my judgment, is that the less frequent are elections, the less accountable Parliament is to the electorate. I would not go quite as far as the Chartists in arguing for annual elections, nor do I agree with the two years of the House of Representatives, because there is constant electioneering within that branch of the US legislature, but five years means, effectively, that there is less opportunity—the French have a phrase, “sortir les sortants”—to get rid of the rascals, to bring accountability.
There is clearly a correlation between the length of a fixed-term parliament and accountability to the people. A Government can bring in all the unpopular measures within the first couple of years of a five-year term and therefore seek to feed the great beast and give the Government what they want. Equally, there have been allegations of inconsistency on the part of some of my friends on this side, but in 2007, when there was a change of Prime Minister without an election, the Conservative Party called for an election. That would not be possible under the proposals which the coalition is now bringing forward. In my judgment, there is much grounds for the unease which the committee talks about.
Should it be four or five years? I have not heard any, or any sufficient, case for a length of five years. Nowadays events seem to move far more speedily. On the international scene, one thinks of the year of revolutions in 1989, or the current troubles in the Middle East. Equally, in terms of the financial crises, the whole context of a Parliament can change very speedily. The Conservatives have not mentioned any particular date; the Liberal Democrats have argued in the past for four years, which is the pattern for devolved Administrations, and there has been little serious argument in favour of a longer period, which, as I have sought to submit, would make the Parliament less accountable. Will it last? My noble friend Lord Grocott said no. I fear that it may, because the Executive have such a vested interest in continuing. There is real concern that a Government may well be content with the five years; any Executive would like to have the certainty of five years rather than four.
If your Lordships will allow me one final reflection, I share the sense of unease, but I am prepared to accept the case for a fixed-term Parliament, which I will support, even though I would argue for greater flexibility. It is clearly not a matter of absolutes, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, has argued very persuasively, a matter of judgment. Therefore, the response to the debate will provide a clear test of whether the Government are listening and open to persuasion; or whether, as we saw with the constituencies and AV Bill, the Bill will be brought down to us like tablets from the mountain, with no possibility of serious change, however well the argument is made against it. The danger is that, rather as with the AV Bill, we will be faced with coalition sclerosis—the inability of the two coalition parties to reach agreement on the changes.
The debate has only just started. Surely the proper course is to debate first and then enshrine in legislation. The Government have chosen to do otherwise. The Deputy Prime Minister told the committee:
“We want to make sure that it”—
that is, the Bill—
“is subject to the greatest possible scrutiny, which it rightly deserves”.
Surely this is not an academic matter but one, as I have argued, of judgment. The Government may well have an argument, but at least let them concede that, if they are not wrong, there may be a better view on certain of the matters. I end, as I began, by quoting Cromwell: the Government should think that they “may be mistaken”.
My Lords, I, too, express great appreciation of the maiden speech of our new colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I had the privilege of serving with him in another place for 30 years and came greatly to admire his understanding and perception of how our constitution worked. As others have said, today was the ideal opportunity for him to make his debut in this House. He will continue to be listened to with great interest and even affection.
I am, however, surprised by the tenor of the speeches that have come from the opposition Benches today, bearing in mind the Opposition’s commitment to a fixed-term Parliament in their recent election manifesto. It was also strange to hear the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, say that he saw partisanship in this Bill. I would have liked to hear that spelt out a little more clearly so that the criticism might have been answered. The noble Lord spoke for 13 minutes but did not make that case.
I was also surprised to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, from the Front Bench describe the Bill as a disaster, when he also—at least, by implication—seems to be committed to the notion of a fixed-term Parliament. We must therefore focus on the problems that give rise to such extreme criticism from those who are apparently supportive of the principle. However, I am bound to say that there was a difference between the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who plainly does not like any kind of constitutional reform and sets his face entirely against any change in our system of government, which suggests a sentimentality that I find rather strange, given that the Government in which he served presided over such significant changes.
It seems that the Bill has not been scrutinised with the necessary time that would ideally be given to an important piece of constitutional legislation. However, those committees of both Houses that have deliberated upon it have found much to commend and much to criticise. Surely, during our debates in this House we can take account of the suggestions that have been made without throwing out the baby with the bath water. As to the main question which seems to have given rise to difficulty, about whether a fixed-term Parliament should be for four or five years, it is a genuinely difficult matter to decide. Having served in nine Parliaments in another place, I have had experience of short and long Parliaments and I am bound to say that short Parliaments seemed to me for the most part to constitute interregnums during which no significant steps could be taken, the country was in a turmoil of uncertainty, business did not know the background against which it had to make its decisions and private citizens could not make up their minds about what their future best interests would be. It seems to me that fixed-term Parliaments provide the stability that is utterly desirable. It is not an accident that most democracies have them.
On balance, I come down in favour of a five-year term, although I listened with great interest to the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy. I believe that the last year of any Parliament is apt to be unsettled. However, if the last year of a four-year Parliament is unsettled, there is a very limited amount of time in which Governments can put their best thinking to work. In my judgment, in 1,000 days they do not have the opportunity to fine-tune, take account of opinion outside, listen and shape their decisions with the deliberation and consideration that they ought to give to that.
It is also clearly right that there should be ways of recognising the need for early elections in the event of political crises. These happen in the best organised countries. The change from the 55 per cent cut-off to the two-thirds requirement for parliamentary voting for dissolution was a sensible step. I have not heard much criticism of that that seems to me to have stuck. As for the passing of the vote of no confidence in two weeks followed by the automatic dissolution if a vote of confidence in a new Parliament is not put in its place, we can deal with some of those issues at later stages of the Bill. I suggest that the case is very strong for defining the terms of the vote of no confidence that would bring about the dissolution. Looking back through the motions of no confidence over the past 100 years, I see that only four led to the downfall of a Government but there were many other cases when the language was such that it might have been construed by the Speaker as having been the equivalent of a vote of no confidence. I also think that the Speaker’s position would be extremely uncomfortable if he had the power to exercise discretion in these matters. I do not think that that would work effectively, notwithstanding the precedents that we have had. The Bill has to be a great deal more precise about what is required to enable a dissolution to occur.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, referred to possible manipulation by the Prime Minister of the day as being a serious danger. He has a real point there. We have to consider how to avoid the possibility that a resignation by a Government to force a dissolution would be made impossible. Two weeks may not be long enough to sort out that problem and it may well be difficult to construct another Government in that period. I hope that we shall come back to that issue later.
I take a less fatal view of the possibility of clashes with the other election date in May. It appears to me that in the United States at least the electors are capable of voting on many things on the same day—on individual appointments, elections at different tiers, the election of judges—and I have not noticed that that does not work very well. In the devolved Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales it is feared that electors might be distracted by focusing on national, United Kingdom issues. Those thoughts have to be listened to very carefully. However, as my noble friend Lord Rennard said, it would be possible to adjust that slightly. Again, that is not a reason for opposing the Bill and it seems to me that it is a matter to which we can return in Committee.
I very much welcome the general principle of the Bill. It is a forward looking step. It intends to—and, I believe, does—transfer to Parliament from the Executive the responsibility for elections and when they should occur. I very much welcome that. There have been too many opportunistic, manipulative moves by Prime Ministers for party advantage. The Bill enables us to depart from that.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on his maiden speech. I note with pleasure that he now seems to be in robust good health. I have known him for 10 years in two capacities, one is his chairmanship of the all-party group that has been indefatigable in sustaining the arguments against an elected second Chamber and for a reformed appointed Chamber along the lines of the Bill introduced—I cannot remember how many times now—by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. The second capacity is his chairmanship—for many decades, I believe—of the All-Party Parliamentary Arts and Heritage Group, which has given such great pleasure and, indeed, education to so many of us.
In preparing my speech I have been very much assisted, as we all have, by the report of the Constitution Committee chaired by my noble friend Lady Jay of Paddington. I look forward to a riposte to the Government’s riposte. I hope that she will add her own recollections—perhaps this has been mentioned—of her father’s very relevant experience in 1979.
The central scenario that I want to consider is to some extent my response to the very fair question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart—this is not said in a partisan spirit, although it might be viewed as such—namely, what happens when the coalition collapses? That is the central question. The whole Bill is framed to try to ensure that it cannot collapse and that it can be nailed down as if by President Mubarak. People say it is like being locked in a loveless marriage, but the idea that it was dreamt up in heaven does not quite tally with one’s instincts.
Why were some of us quite content with the Labour party manifesto one minute and then appearing to say something else the next? In the case of two recent Bills, many of us were supportive. My reaction to the Bill preceding this on AV was to be vaguely supportive until we started to look at some of the detail. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, will accept in good faith that there are so many contortions in the detail because of the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny, the lack of a Green Paper and a White Paper and the fact that the Bill is designed specifically not for the good of the Commonwealth for the next 500 years but to keep the coalition going for five years.
There is going to be a degree of sophistry in the arguments that are put forward. I would compare the central argument to the famous Catch-22 in Joseph Heller’s novel. Once one has nailed down the idea that there has to be a fixed-term Parliament for five years, obviously all the arrangements for votes of confidence and the question of whether the Prime Minister has to agree with the Speaker and whether anyone can turn up at Buckingham Palace or whatever are secondary to ensuring that the scheme cannot fail. Five years, again, has been designed clearly to maximise the period of this particular coalition, because not until five years have passed—it is hoped on the other side—can the economic and social crisis facing this country possibly turn around so that not everyone on the other side will be decimated at the next general election. If bets were taken on how the public would view a vote on five years versus four years at the moment, I do not think the bookmakers would agree to take any bets other than one way for very long.
The little exchange between the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Rooker, was very informative. As I understand it, the argument is that we have made arrangements on party funding in a five-year cycle and somehow it would be very inconvenient if the electoral cycle did not match that cycle. What an extraordinary way of putting the tail before the dog. Without necessarily repeating every word my noble friend said—I agree with the sentiments and the language—I must say that he made a very fair point in his question. I think the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made an inappropriate remark. He is forensically very able in dealing with all these matters, but I did not think that that remark was particularly apt.
I have one question about how this would work in practice. We all remember 1974 and everything that happened in January, February and March that year, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, who will have it branded on his soul; he was Principal Private Secretary to Mr Heath. Let us say that this Bill had been an Act. The Labour Government came in with a majority of minus one or plus one or whatever it was.
Minus three, jolly good. Can someone just spell out what the scenario would have been then? Who would have done what, with which and to whom, and would not the royal prerogative have somehow come into it at all? I ask the question in all innocence because I just cannot work out the answer looking at this Bill. I suppose that Harold Wilson would have been able to manufacture Dissolution by manufacturing a confidence vote that he would lose. Is that what we are supposed to believe? I would like to know where I am wrong. It seems to me an extraordinary contortion. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said so eloquently, when you go around the Commonwealth and other places on electoral missions and to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and so on, people tend to respect the very things that we are now going to tear up. It is English or British pragmatism gone mad, you might say, but these things work, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. The balance of evidence for deciding this matter is the degree to which it is broke and the degree to which fixing it will be satisfactory. That is the balance that we should obviously look to.
Finally, as an aside, how many of the IPU 77 countries cited by the Government in their reposte to the memorandum of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, can change their whole constitution by a single vote in the House of Commons? That worries me as well because many of them, I am sure, have a two-thirds majority to change the constitution. We have in this Bill a two-thirds majority to instruct the Speaker to sign a piece of paper, like Cromwell or someone, to say that this is now a lost vote of confidence. If the principle of a two-thirds majority is so important for that, why do we not have some sort of two-thirds majority provision on constitutional Bills generally? I am happy to echo what my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton said in this characteristically superb forensic speech: that we will be protected only by the fact that unless the Government make some significant changes, they will be up a gum-tree so far as the Parliament Act is concerned. They could get away from under the Parliament Act if they do another U-turn on all the arguments that they have been advancing today, but that is something else. It is against that background that we will, I am sure, have a very interesting Committee indeed.
My Lords, I echo those who have expressed their pleasure at the arrival of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in this House and welcome him here among us. I did not have the pleasure of working with him in the other place, but I have enjoyed his friendship for a number of years and I believe that he will add greatly to the light as well as the enlightenment of our proceedings.
None of your Lordships would query the need for a statutory limit on the maximum term of a Parliament, even if there is room for disagreement on how long that maximum term should be. However, the case for a statutory fixed term seems to be much less clear. It would have been beneficial to have had much more pre-legislative scrutiny of these proposals, although that would mean that we would be talking about something else today.
If one introduces statutory provisions for fixed-term Parliaments, one immediately has to try to define, and prescribe for, the circumstances in which, despite that provision, political conditions make it necessary for there to be Dissolution before the end of the statutory fixed term. It is almost certainly impossible to define in the statute all the possible circumstances in which premature Dissolution should be permitted. As the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, has just reminded us, there were two elections in 1974, during both of which I was the Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, first to Mr Heath and then to Mr Wilson. I have been scratching my head to think how those elections could have been fitted into the straitjacket of this Bill. Would Mr Heath have had to engineer a vote of confidence in the House of Commons by instructing a number of his members to abstain on the vote so that he lost it? Is that how Mr Wilson would have had to deal with the matter in October 1974? It is difficult to see how a situation of that kind could have been fitted into the provisions of this Bill. That suggests to me that more consideration needs to be given to this whole matter.
When a situation arises that is not covered by the statute, politicians will be obliged to devise some clever way of stretching the statute and precipitating the Dissolution of Parliament and a general election. While that process is going on, no doubt in an atmosphere of crisis, there will inevitably be doubt and uncertainty. I would be inclined to argue, therefore, that a fixed term for a Parliament is a political objective that can be considered only in the political circumstances of the time. If with a statutory fixed term in place that objective became for whatever reason unattainable, in circumstances in which the statute did not permit Dissolution, the Government would presumably have to introduce emergency legislation to override the statutory provision and take whatever time was required for that: or, conceivably, the Sovereign would have to be requested by the Prime Minister, or perhaps by Parliament, to grant Dissolution despite the legislation.
It is argued that the present system, which confers on the Prime Minister the right to request the Dissolution of Parliament at a time of his choosing, gives an incumbent Prime Minister an unfair advantage over his political opponents. As one noble Lord suggested, this is a matter as much, or more, of media speculation as of reality. In practice, the issue is rarely as simple as that. For one thing, a Prime Minister who exercised that right prematurely and purely to seek political advantage over his political opponents would run the risk of being punished by the voters for his opportunism. The exercise of the right imposes upon a Prime Minister, as I have seen, an agonising choice, in deciding upon which he puts his party's future in government and his own political career on the line. In practical terms, whether and when to exercise the right to request Dissolution must always be a very complex question. It is a lonely decision, but one that can be taken only after extensive consultation.
I recognise why it suits the present Government to create a presumption that the next general election will not be held until May 2015, but I question whether that justifies the introduction of this legislation. The objective could be just as effectively achieved by a commitment in a White Paper or even a Statement by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons that for the duration of this Parliament he will not exercise his right to request Dissolution before the end of the maximum period that he has stated unless ineluctable circumstances arising from unforeseen changes in parliamentary or political circumstances oblige him to do so.
I take some consolation in the thought that, even if this Bill is passed and this Parliament runs its full statutory course, no Parliament can bind its successors. The next Government and the next Parliament will not be bound by this statute if they do not want to be; they will be able to repeal it and revert to traditional practice. I therefore suggest to your Lordships that the question whether and, if so, when a Parliament should be dissolved before the end of its statutory maximum life should be determined pre-eminently by political process and is not really amenable to statutory provision.
If this proposal for a statutory fixed term goes forward, there is then the question of how long that term should be. I share the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. Experience shows that the imminence of a general election casts its shadow over government and Parliament for many months. Even with a term of five years, that shadow extends over the last year of the term and tends to reduce to no more than four years the period during which government policy-making and parliamentary debate can effectively be pursued without too much looking over the shoulder at electoral considerations. If legislation were to set a fixed term of, let us say, four years, that period would be reduced to more like three years. That would not leave enough room for sensible policy-making and good parliamentary debate before the imminence of the forthcoming election began to cast its distorting shadow. So I hope that, if this Bill becomes law, the fixed term will be five years, as is proposed in the Bill, and not some shorter term.
My Lords, before indicating my thoughts about the Bill, perhaps I may say gently to the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Clegg, that between 1832 and now there have been a number of extremely significant constitutional changes, not least the giving to the people of Scotland and Wales a voice in their own decision-making and, perhaps even more significant, the introduction of the universal franchise and the giving of the vote to women.
It has been fascinating to listen to some of the lessons from history that we should take on board as we go through the process of scrutinising the Bill and to hear of some of the problems that have arisen when previous elections have been declared. As many noble Lords have said, this Bill has been cobbled together in haste, clearly with narrow, short-term party interests in mind, without a Green Paper, White Paper or pre-legislative scrutiny, and to a very tight timetable—what the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in the other place referred to as a “scrutiny bypass”.
I can see no cause for speed, not least because of the longer parliamentary Session. It was clearly no coincidence that the Leader of the Commons announced the extension of the Session on the day of the Second Reading of this Bill. According to the Deputy Prime Minister, it was done to align the Sessions of this Parliament to the fixed-term provision. That produced ill thought-out proposals, as was clearly shown in the embarrassing U-turn that had to be done by the Deputy Prime Minister in response to the furore that followed the coalition agreement’s statement that a “binding Motion” would be put before the House of Commons stating that the next general election would be held on the first Thursday of May 2015 and that a vote of 55 per cent of Members would be needed to bring down the Government. That proved to be an unsustainable proposition. The “binding Motion” disappeared and the 55 per cent vote became a two-thirds majority. I mention that because it shows the confusion that seems to have surrounded the whole Bill right from its inception.
A statement made by the current Prime Minister during the general election campaign has also disappeared. He said that if there was a change of Prime Minister during the course of a Parliament—clearly he was trying to have a go at Gordon Brown—there should be a general election within six months. That, we are told, has been superseded and improved on by this Bill. It may have been superseded, but nothing could be improved by this flawed piece of legislation.
It is a great pity that a Bill that I support in principle is so flawed in detail. I have been committed to four-year fixed-term Parliaments since it became Labour Party policy in the early 1990s, as ironed out by the committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Plant, in which both the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and I were involved. The policy was ultimately carried by the Labour Party conference. We had long discussions as to how to arrive at a fixed-term Parliament and how to arrive at a four-year fixed-term Parliament. We had to ensure the integrity of the proposal. It was made clear that it would have to be built into legislation to allow for an election to be triggered when a Government lack the support of Parliament and would operate under a strict, clearly defined set of rules, unlike the sort of confusion that we seem to have in this Bill.
As has been said, there is nothing unique about the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments. They apply to our devolved Parliaments and Assemblies and to local government. They have been introduced in most western European states, the US, the EU, most of the Australian states and in most of the provinces of Canada, as well as at federal level. But in all those instances there are safety valves that have been either legislated for or provided by constitutional conventions of no confidence motions leading to dissolution.
There are reasons why, as a past party organiser, I think that a fixed-term Parliament is a good thing. As well as removing the power of the Prime Minister, it gives clarity to our electoral procedures. It will enable electoral registration officers to schedule their work and put current deadlines into a more coherent timetable. It will give time to increase voter registration and without doubt it will bring clarity to the timing of the electoral expenditure limits, to which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred, by enabling people to work to fixed dates. It might also bring some sensible construction to the legislative programme, building in time for consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny—something denied to this and the other constitutional Bills that have been rushed through Parliament.
My main objection to the Bill is the proposal to turn a five-year maximum into a five-year norm. Well, it might be five years, or it might be five years and two months in exceptional circumstances. I ask the Minister whether it can be envisaged that those exceptional circumstances—and we do not know what they might be—could further extend the period, with the approval of both Houses, of course.
As has been spelt out, since 1945 three years and 10 months has been the average for a Parliament. Since 1979, four Parliaments have been around for four years and, exceptionally, three lasted for five years. Overall, four years has been the norm. The Deputy Prime Minister tried to negate these facts by misinterpreting the words of Lord Asquith during the passage of the 1911 Parliament Bill. The words to me are quite clear. Lord Asquith said that a five-year term,
“probably amounts in practice to an actual legislative working term of four years”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/2/1911; col. 1749.]
Those words could not be clearer and to cite them as a reason for five-year terms I find extraordinary.
Here we have yet another somersault by the Liberal Democrats, who were long-term supporters of four-year fixed-term Parliaments, as approved by their 2007 party conference, and who vehemently supported the Bill introduced by David Heath MP for four-year Parliaments. When and why in the negotiations between the Conservative and Lib Dem teams did four years become five years? We are told that it was a matter of judgment, but perhaps we could have a little clarification of how that judgment was arrived at. I am not sure whether we will get it, because we are still waiting to be told why the number of MPs had to be 600.
The arguments for four years as opposed to five are quite evident. They reflect devolved control and international experience. As several constitutional experts made clear as witnesses to the Constitution Committee, that period is by far the most accountable time for a Government to sit. I hope that when we have the debates in Committee we can have much further discussion as to the benefits and values of a four-year Parliament. I do not accept the argument that we would end up having the last year solely discussing when an election would be. That happens even with fixed five-year Parliaments. There is a lot more confusion about when the election might be and a lot of pressure is put on. I cannot accept arguments that say that we should not have any timing or that we should go for five years.
I do not wish to intrude on the question of the date, because I am sure that my friends from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will wish to do that for themselves, but I make reference to the Scottish elections review that was carried out by my namesake, although no relation, Ron Gould. The review followed the holding of the Scottish Parliament and local elections on 3 May 2007, when 140,000 electors lost their vote. His comments are equally applicable to this debate. He said that,
“the voter was treated as an afterthought”,
in the planning and organisation of those elections. This has clearly not entered the Government’s thinking. He also said that Ministers should take,
“voters’ interests as the primary objective”.
Again, it appears that the voters’ interests have been ignored.
The Scottish Parliament decoupled the Scottish parliamentary elections from the local elections only to find the principle undermined by the fact that the general election will be held on the same date. I appreciate that an offer has been made for discussions with the Scottish Parliament and the devolved Assemblies to ask and perhaps suggest that they might wish to look at their dates, but it would be much simpler for this Bill to change its date than to go through the complicated process of asking the Scottish Parliament and devolved Assemblies to look at their dates. It is a great pity that it did not occur to the Government to have discussions with the devolved areas prior to the introduction of this Bill. Whatever happens, whether we change the date in this Bill or whether the Scottish Parliament and the devolved Assemblies change their dates, there will be a serious impact on devolved institutions. Asking people in those areas to elect two different Executives on different electoral boundaries—and there may well be different manifestos—on the same day could be a recipe for disaster.
What I find absolutely confusing about this Bill—I have a very simple mind and I like things to be simple—are the provisions in Clause 2. I do not intend to go into them as so many have done, but the complexities of that clause and the debate that we have had today have made my confusion even worse. I would like somebody to say why we cannot have a simple solution. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in his excellent maiden speech, made that point very clearly. It seems to me that what we are looking for is simplicity, not confusion, when we are building legislation. Surely there is something wrong if we can have confused legislation. My other point is that, if there is to be a vote of no confidence in a Government, surely it is then for the electorate, not MPs, to decide who the new Government should be.
My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer said that he did not think that there was any difficulty or problem in respect of the courts on what is a vote of no confidence and who can take a confidence Motion. However, I would like greater clarity. I absolutely respect his knowledge as compared to mine, which is nil, but this is all the more reason why I would like him to explain why he thinks that the Speaker’s certificate could not be challenged in court. The paper from the House of Commons Library goes even further. The lack of clarity creates the remote possibility of a lame-duck Government unable to secure their business yet imprisoned in office by an Opposition unwilling to trigger an election.
The legislation also fails to deal with the issue of prerogative powers. On the one hand, the Bill removes the prerogative powers of the Queen to dissolve Parliament, but on the other hand it does not remove the Queen’s prerogative power to prorogue Parliament. That surely cannot be right. This could be interpreted as a get-out for a Prime Minister, as it makes it possible for a Prime Minister facing a vote of no confidence that he is likely to lose to go to the Queen and seek the prorogation of Parliament to avoid that crisis and to buy time to restore a coalition. Another scenario could be where the Government had lost a vote of confidence. During the 14-day grace to form a new Government, they would have an opportunity to prorogue Parliament expressly to prevent an alternative Government and thereby trigger a general election. I find it all extremely confusing and I cannot understand why we cannot have a simple vote of confidence.
In conclusion, I can only reiterate the words of my right honourable friend Sadiq Khan, who said that,
“unfortunately the coalition has hijacked a sensible and progressive idea, amended it for its own means and tried to rush through legislation preventing a proper, wide-ranging debate”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/1/11; col. 797.]
There has been no consultation and scrutiny. The Bill is a short-term compromise to hold together two coalition parties. Far from being a careful analysis of how to redesign our constitution, it is the product of a political imperative in an attempt to ensure survival of the coalition to a full term. To me, it seems like a piece of—and I use the word advisedly—gerrymandering in that it does not, as has been stated, take the absolute power from the Prime Minister that we are told it should do. It gives extra power to the Speaker and I wonder whether that is appropriate—I do not accept the analogy given by the Minister in relation to money Bills. Nor does it strengthen the powers of MPs in the other place. I hope that when the Bill leaves this House it will be more coherent and completely simplified and that it will provide for four-year fixed-term Parliaments.
International Aid Reviews: Conclusions
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place. The Statement is as follows.
“Mr Speaker, with permission, I should like to make a Statement about the Government’s bilateral and multilateral aid reviews which are published today. The coalition Government’s decision to increase the UK’s aid budget to 0.7 per cent of national income from 2013 reflects the values that we hold as a nation. It is also firmly in Britain’s national interest. But this decision imposes on us a double duty to spend this money well.
On my first day in office, I took immediate steps to make our aid as focused and effective as possible. I commissioned reviews of DfID’s bilateral programmes in developing countries, and of the UK’s aid funding to international organisations. These reviews have been thorough, rigorous, evidence-based and scrutinised by independent development experts. They will fundamentally change the way that aid is allocated.
Recent events in north Africa and the wider Middle East have demonstrated why it is critical that the UK increases its focus on helping countries to build open and responsive political systems, tackle the root causes of fragility and empower citizens to hold their Governments to account. It is the best investment we can make to avoid violence and protect the poorest and most vulnerable in society.
The bilateral aid review considered where and how we should spend UK aid. Each DfID country team was asked to develop a ‘results offer’ setting out what it could achieve for poor people over the next four years. Each offer was underpinned by evidence, analysis of value for money and a focus on girls and women. The results offers were scrutinised by more than 100 internal technical reviewers and a panel of independent experts. Ministers then considered the whole picture deciding which results should be prioritised in each country. Consultation with civil society and other government departments was undertaken throughout.
As a result of the bilateral aid review, we will dramatically increase our focus on tackling ill health and killer diseases in poor countries, with a particular effort on immunisation, malaria, maternal and newborn health, extending choice to women and girls over when and whether they have children; and polio eradication. We will do more to tackle malnutrition, which stunts children’s development and destroys their life chances; and do more to get children—particularly girls—into school. We will put wealth creation at the heart of our efforts, with far more emphasis on giving poor people property rights and encouraging investment and trade in the poorest countries. We will deal with the root causes of conflict and help to build more stable societies, as people who live amidst violence have no chance of lifting themselves out of poverty, and we will help the poorest who will be hit first and hardest by the effects of climate change—floods, drought and extreme weather.
As a result of the review, we have decided to focus UK aid more tightly on the countries where the UK is well placed to have a significant long-term impact on poverty. By 2016, DfID will have closed significant bilateral programmes in 16 countries. This will be a phased process honouring our existing commitments and exiting responsibly. The countries are: China, Russia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Moldova, Bosnia, Cameroon, Lesotho, Niger, Kosovo, Angola, Burundi, the Gambia, Indonesia, Iraq and Serbia. This will allow us to focus our bilateral resources in the following 27 countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Pakistan, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Uganda, Yemen, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Together, these countries account for three quarters of global maternal mortality, nearly three quarters of global malaria deaths and almost two thirds of children out of school. Many of them are affected by fragility and conflict, so we will meet the commitment made through the strategic defence and security review to spend 30 per cent of UK aid to support fragile and conflict-affected states and to help some of the poorest countries in the world address the root causes of their problems. We will also have three regional programmes in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, and an ongoing aid relationship with three aid-dependent overseas territories; namely, St Helena, the Pitcairn Islands and Montserrat.
The multilateral aid review took a hard look at the value for money offered by 43 international funds and organisations through which the UK spends aid. The review considered how effective each organisation was at tackling poverty. It provided a detailed evidence base upon which Ministers can take decisions about where to increase funding, where to press for reforms and improvements, and in some cases where to withdraw taxpayer funding altogether. The 43 multilateral agencies have fallen into four broad categories.
First, I am delighted to tell the House that nine organisations have been assessed as providing very good value for the British taxpayer. These include UNICEF, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, the Private Infrastructure Development Group, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. We will increase funding to these organisations, because they have a proven track record of delivering excellent results for poor people. But of course there will always be room for improvement and we will still require strong commitments to continued reform and even better performance.
Funding for the next group of agencies—those rated as good or adequate value for money, such as the United Nations Development Programme and the World Health Organisation—will be accompanied by specific pressure from the UK for a series of reforms and improvements we expect to see in the coming years.
We are placing four organisations in special measures and demanding they improve their performance as a matter of urgency. These organisations are UNESCO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the development programmes of the Commonwealth Secretariat and the International Organisation for Migration. These organisations offer poor value for money for UK aid but have a potentially critical niche development or humanitarian role which is not well covered elsewhere in the international system or contribute to broader UK Government objectives. We expect to see serious reforms and improvements in performance. We will take stock within two years and DfID's core funding may be ceased if improvements are not made.
The review found that four agencies performed poorly or failed to demonstrate relevance to Britain’s development objectives. The review therefore concluded that it is no longer acceptable for taxpayers’ money from my department to continue to fund them centrally. So, I can tell the House today that the British Government will withdraw their membership of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation and that DfID will stop voluntary core funding to UN-HABITAT, the International Labour Organisation and the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. This will allow over £50 million of aid money to be redirected immediately to better performing agencies.
We are working closely with other countries to build a coalition for ambitious reform and improvement of all multilateral agencies. As a result of these reviews, over the next four years, UK aid will: secure schooling for 11 million children—more than we educate throughout the UK but at 2.5 per cent of the cost; vaccinate more children against preventable diseases than there are people in the whole of England; provide access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation to more people than there are in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined; save the lives of 50,000 women in pregnancy and childbirth; stop 250,000 new-born babies dying needlessly; support 13 countries to hold freer and fairer elections; and help 10 million women get access to modern family planning.
I believe that these results—which will transform the lives of millions of people across the world—will make everyone in this House and this country proud. They reflect our values as a nation: generosity, compassion and humanity. But these results are not only delivered from the British people; they are also for the British people. They contribute to building a safer, more stable and prosperous world, which, in turn, helps keep our country safe from instability, infectious disease and organised crime.
Aid can perform miracles but it must be well spent and properly targeted. The UK’s development programme has now been reshaped and refocused so that it can meet that challenge”.
I commend this Statement to the House.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made earlier by the Secretary of State in the other place. It is indeed encouraging to note the emphasis on value for money—who would not agree with that? This objective was a central plank of the Labour Government’s policy from the very first DfID White Paper in 1997, so talk of value for money is certainly not a new thing. While welcoming the emphasis on maternal mortality and on girls’ education, I would like the noble Baroness to confirm that the Government’s view is that it is essential also to promote the rights and empowerment of women and to encourage their leadership and participation. Should women not participate equally in public dialogue and decision-making?
As the Secretary of State listed the countries with which we shall no longer engage, is the noble Baroness aware that bilateral aid to Russia ended in 2007 and that the Labour Government were also committed to closing programmes in China? Last week I travelled with members of the APG to the north and the south of Sudan and can confirm that there are enormous needs and very high expectations in the south. Will the noble Baroness comment on the fact that aid to Sudan is not set to increase—it is currently £140 million a year to 2015—despite the fact that that aid will now be dealing with the needs of two countries, especially, of course, the south?
Sixteen countries have been listed as ones that the Government feel no longer need the support of Her Majesty’s Government, including, for instance, Burundi, which has enormous needs and is in the Great Lakes region of Africa, where the whole situation is always very vulnerable; and Lesotho, a very small country in the south of Africa, which is very much supported by Wales, where many of us are very much aware of its needs. Will the noble Baroness tell us whether adequate donor co-ordination will take place to make sure that the needs in these countries—which will undoubtedly still exist when we exit—are picked up? This very serious point was raised today in a press release from Save the Children.
The agency UN Women urgently needs long-term, predictable funding. Thirty countries have contributed already—Spain, a country experiencing enormous financial difficulties at the time, was the very first country to contribute to UN Women. Michelle Bachelet, the head of the agency, is struggling to manage the resources that she currently has, and I fear that we cannot accept the statement from the Secretary of State that she has to wait until June when an assessment will have been made of the objectives. To leave her struggling for these resources at this time, when the other agencies that are working for women’s interests have been more or less disbanded, is extremely serious.
Will the Government make a commitment to increase cross-border aid to reach parts of Burma where the dictatorship refuses access for aid to people there? Is the noble Baroness aware that DfID aid to Burma under the current circumstances is almost entirely channelled through registered organisations that have been vetted by the regime? Should DfID not seek other channels to achieve a more equitable outcome?
Finally, after the funding of part of the Pope’s visit and the loan to the Turks and Caicos Islands, can we feel sure that our aid programmes will not be driven by the priorities of other departments of state?
First of all, I thank the noble Baroness for her opening comments. We all accept that DfID did some fantastic work when the Opposition were in government. However, the focus there was on inputs. We want to try to reshape the programmes and put the focus on outputs as well as inputs, so that we can measure the results and see that, where programmes are working, they are working well. The noble Baroness has asked a number of questions and I will try to answer as many of them as I can. Where I do not answer, I will of course write back to her.
A larger scale-up of aid for Burundi would have required us to show a significant impact on value for money and we believe that there are other comparative partners and donors in Burundi who will do far better than us. We would not have been able to achieve the sorts of results that we would have wanted by scaling up in the short term. We want to deliver value for money and results-based aid through larger existing programmes. From 2012, DfID will focus exclusively on supporting Burundi’s integration into the East African Community, as we believe that this is a critical factor in the country’s medium-term growth. All of DfID’s regional integration work will be managed by TradeMark East Africa, which has an established office. DfID will continue to support Burundi from Rwanda and Nairobi through those organisations.
The noble Baroness asked about UN Women's funding. We have agreed to support transitional costs but, when I spoke to Michelle Bachelet at the launch of UN Women, we made it clear to her that we wanted to see a strategic framework and, based on that framework, most major donors want to see what the priorities will be. She has readily accepted that and she has accepted that, if we are to be key donors to UN Women—the noble Baroness will be aware that we were through UNIFEM—we need to ensure that the money will be spent and directed through a strategic plan which will deliver the outcomes, as I am sure the noble Baroness would wish.
I noticed that the noble Baroness raised the Pope's visit again. I remind her that the funding for that was agreed to by her Government in March 2010; they agreed that different departments would pay for the visit. We also need to highlight the fact that the Catholic Church does a lot of genuinely good work across the globe and that it was right that his visit highlighted the excellent work undertaken by the Catholic Church. As her Government agreed to it, we honoured the undertaking.
On the Sudanese question, we agree that there are enormous needs there. It will take a lot of time and intervention but we will be very supportive of both sides in Sudan. We want to ensure that we build capacity for them. Noble Lords will understand that we shall be delivering in very difficult environments, but we shall continue to be responsive on the ground and see where we can deliver better and more.
My Lords, I broadly support my noble friend in describing the outcome of the two reviews. The Government should be congratulated on becoming, by 2014, the largest rich economy to attain the United Nations target of providing 0.7 per cent of GDP in aid, which in the light of our very straitened circumstances is noble indeed. Fourteen years since the establishment of DfID—I pay tribute to the Labour Government for having set up that department—it is right that there should be this level of comprehensive review to look at the focus of its expenditure. I particularly welcome the emphasis now on fragile and conflict states. It is right that we focus on those where the need is greatest.
I have two questions to put to the noble Baroness. One is on the bilateral review and concerns India. I am somewhat concerned that a country which is in the queue to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a country which has a £20 billion space programme and which gives aid to other countries, should still continue to be a recipient of hard-pressed aid which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, pointed out, should be going to other organisations, such as UN Women. I look forward to hearing my noble friend's response to that. It leaves one slightly uncomfortable.
On multilateral aid—I declare an interest as a former employee of the Commonwealth Secretariat until 2003—I notice that the Statement suggests that those organisations in special measures will be given two years to show significant improvement. I wonder whether two years is too short a period and whether there have been any conversations with those organisations in special measures to see whether they believe that they can show significant improvement in just two years or whether they need longer.
I thank my noble friend for both her questions. I know she has some concerns about aid going to India. Perhaps I can point out to noble Lords that India has one-third of the world's population living on less than $1.25 a day. Last year, DfID spent 58p per poor person in India compared with £3.50 per poor person in sub-Saharan Africa. We shall have to shift our focus and, therefore, the Secretary of State has decided to shift it to three states in India—the poorest states—to ensure that we are able to maximise our aid there.
India’s space programme adds up to 0.1 per cent of the country’s overall budget, but the issue is not just about the space programme. From that programme, the Indians are able to use the technologies to deliver mobile technology to villages and particularly to women who are able to access information which they would not otherwise be able to access. The programme is not just about space but about using the technology for other things as well. I completely understand that the noble Baroness has concerns, but she would perhaps also agree that we have a special relationship with India. If we are to see the aid programme go down, we must be able to lift far more of the people of India out of poverty.
On the organisations in special measures, I respond to the noble Baroness by saying that two years may seem a short time, but the organisations are fully aware that they have to make some serious reforms. Of course we will keep in constant dialogue with the Commonwealth Secretariat to see where the improvements are taking place. The secretariat reaches out to places where we, as a single country, would not. It has special niches and therefore it is important to support it fully.
What the Minister has said is very encouraging indeed and, I am sure, will enjoy widespread support across the House. I have two brief questions. Will she say something about how this review is affecting non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and CAFOD? As she will be aware, they are sometimes able to provide the most sharply focused and effective forms of aid and they are often in receipt of government grants for their projects.
The second question follows up on India. As the noble Baroness knows, the poorest section of the Indian population is the Dalits, of whom there are 200 million in the world, most of whom are in India. They are not only desperately poor but are shunned and humiliated. Would she say something about how the Government will support the Dalits in raising them from the very bottom of Indian poverty?
I thank the noble and right reverend Lord. On the NGOs, the Secretary of State has made it very clear that much of our aid, particularly in countries where there is conflict, is delivered through NGOs, and we want to strengthen that ability. We recognise that there will be times when we will work in partnership with NGOs to ensure that we can reach a much wider population. The Secretary of State has made it clear, time and again, that the major NGOs are key to the success of development programmes at grass-roots level, and therefore we will work hand in hand with them to ensure that that is strengthened.
I accept what the noble and right reverend Lord says about the Dalits. Through the programmes, we will continuously see that monitoring is in place to ensure that all the poor benefit from our programmes and that no one who needs a beneficial response is excluded. I hope that he is reassured by that. I am very aware of the difficulties that the Dalit community faces, and I raise it constantly.
I declare an interest as a former director of Oxfam and as a current trustee of Saferworld. There is a great deal of material in this Statement. Can the noble Baroness give us an assurance that we shall be able to have a proper and full debate on its implications at an early date?
Reference was made to the desire to see poor people being able to own property. Does that also envisage a stake in land and land reform to ensure that poor people can farm for themselves and engage in their own agricultural production? Can the Government also assure us that priority will continue to be given to the whole issue of security sector reform that we can see is essential for providing the context within which development can take place?
More specifically, does this Statement cover the immense needs that will now arrive among the impoverished homeless, in many cases in effect stateless refugees from Libya and elsewhere in north Africa? If there is concern about conflict resolution and areas of conflict, why is there no mention in the Statement of the north Caucasus?
On the noble Lord’s question about the debate, this is, as I have always said, in the hands of the usual channels. If he feels that a debate is required, we need to address that through them.
We have already distributed some humanitarian aid to Libya. We were already placed to ensure that refugees fleeing could have some humanitarian aid. The noble Lord is absolutely right that this will develop into looking after many thousands of people who are fleeing a very unstable place. We chartered an aircraft that left Dubai this morning with blankets for 36,000 people and 300 tents to shelter at least 1,500 people. This was in response to a request from the UNHCR. As of yesterday, at least 126,000 who have crossed international borders out of Libya, including Egypt and Tunisia, will we hope be helped by some of the humanitarian aid that we will be providing them.
As you know, this is a moving picture. A lot is going on, and it is very difficult to be able to comment further. We also need to be very mindful that whatever we say in this country is immediately responded to elsewhere. However, I reassure the noble Lord that humanitarian aid is at the forefront of our thinking.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for repeating the Statement. I declare an interest as a trustee of UNICEF UK. We very much welcome the announcement that the Government are doubling our core funding for the next two years because of the results that we have had in tackling child mortality, maternal health issues, HIV and AIDS. I pay tribute to UNICEF, NGOs and all our aid workers throughout the country who do amazing work in challenging circumstances.
I also welcome in the Statement the help that will be given to countries that are trying to build open and stable societies. Events are moving fast and furiously in the Middle East and north Africa. I therefore welcome the extra money that will be given to the occupied Palestinian territories. Over the last few years, DfID has been withdrawn from some countries in the Middle East. Will DfID be keeping an eye on this? Will it sometimes look at and review where the money can be spent, particularly to help countries that are doing their very best to open up their societies?
I thank my noble friend for her very warm words. I also pay tribute to UNICEF and many of the great NGOs that do incredible work often in very difficult circumstances. She raised some points about countries from which DfID money was withdrawn. We are going continuously to countries that will need our assistance. However, the infrastructure must be in place to be able to deliver it on the ground. If it is not, it is often difficult. I very much take on board what my noble friend has said and will take it back to the department for the Secretary of State.
My Lords, will the Minister accept a very warm welcome for the way in which the Government have withstood the slings and arrows of the tabloid press, who have asked them to cut our aid programme? How welcome it is that they are sustaining it, particularly given that, if you do a mathematical calculation, you will find that, because of the crisis, the 0.7 per cent of GNI will be worth less in 2013 than when it was pledged in 2005. These countries have already taken a hit. It is very good that the Government are standing up to that.
Does the noble Baroness recognise that seeking reforms to these multilateral organisations, which is entirely legitimate, depends crucially on getting allies in other countries who take the same view as us and press for the same reforms, otherwise it is just a concealed cutting operation? I hope she will be able to say that the Government put a lot of effort into that.
India, Brazil and China are now becoming aid donors. They are countries with a lot of working experience of how to lift people out of poverty. I hope that we will work closely with countries such as Brazil, India and China in future because we have both a lot to contribute and a lot of work to do with them.
I thank the noble Lord for all his comments. In fact there was very little that I could disagree with. As he is very well aware through his own experience, building good partnerships is very important. He is absolutely right; we will be working with China and Brazil and, hopefully not too far into the future, with India, too. We are having very constructive conversations with our other partners who provide donor aid. Many have shown a very keen interest in how we have gone through our review process and are looking very closely at what we have managed to do to ensure that their programmes are also going to be targeted and focused so that we all work toward the same end, which is getting people out of poverty.
My Lords, there is much to be welcomed in the outcome of this review, not least the new-found emphasis on agriculture, food production and wealth creation. Does the Minister recognise that there will be widespread concern in southern Africa, in particular, at the decision to end the bilateral programme in Lesotho, a small state that has been fragile in the past, and Angola, which is conflict ridden and has many millions of people who continue to live in grinding poverty?
Will the Minister assure the House that these two countries in particular will be the subject of concerted effort to improve donor co-ordination, particularly from the multilateral organisations that we fund, and will also be the beneficiaries of the southern African regional programme, within which region Angola and Lesotho quite clearly fall? Will she assure us that resources to that regional programme will be enhanced and will be delivered to those two countries?
The noble Lord maybe missed the part of the speech that said that the Secretary of State has committed to supporting regional programmes. As he absolutely rightly points out, some of the smaller countries will have greater responses from their regional areas than from bilateral programmes, which are smaller and less able to reach widely. We support the regional programmes very much.
I come back to the point about Burundi and Lesotho, which I keep pronouncing wrongly. We believe that they have comparative partners that are far better placed than us to deliver aid. Therefore, we will help them through the regional programmes.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, I should say that our regional integration work, which is managed by TradeMark East Africa, which has an established office in Bujumbura, will provide support for Angola and Burundi, so that is covered well. We will not just leave them out there and we are not suddenly going to stop—the process will phase down by 2016.
The noble Lord is absolutely right that we have a keen focus on agriculture, which is really important for food security, not only for that area but for us, too. We have pledged from 2009, when the Opposition were in government, £1.1 billion over three years. We are therefore taking agriculture sustainability very seriously. We are committed to food security and agriculture and are working with the FAO as well as other multilaterals, including the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Programme, to ensure that we have a strong programme in place.
My Lords, I press the Minister on an aspect of the Statement that has not featured in the questions so far—the point that,
“it is critical that the UK increases its focus on helping countries to build open and responsive political systems”.
In the conclusions there is simply a reference to holding “freer and fairer elections”, but building democracies is about more than just helping countries to hold elections; it is about helping to build institutions in a society that support democracy. Could the Minister say a bit more about that?
I thank the right reverend Prelate for that question. Of course this is about more than just fairer elections; it is about making sure that the institutions in countries where there has been corruption and where unstable Governments have held office are removed or strengthened. Therefore, DfID, through its programmes of technical support and assistance, can ensure that we help Governments who want our help to train people in place to be able to hold Governments and funded institutions to account. We will not tolerate corruption; we want corruption to be eradicated. Therefore, we take all allegations of corruption and of misappropriation of funds very seriously, and we will work very strongly with Governments to ensure, with their assistance, that we put in place stronger good governance in the political systems. However, this is not about freer and fairer elections—I understand that; it is about giving people at grass-roots level the ability to hold the politicians representing them to account.
We have also put into place a watchdog that will monitor all our aid—where it is spent, how it is spent and what the outcomes and results are—so that people across the world can just log on and see for themselves. If that aid is not reaching them, they have a place to come back to and ask for recourse.
Railways: Intercity Express and Electrification
My Lords, with permission I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement is as follows:
“I wish to make a Statement on the Government’s plans for the extension of the electrification of the Great Western main line and for the procurement of a replacement for the existing diesel intercity trains. These two issues are closely connected.
I turn first to the provision of a new generation of intercity 125 mile per hour trains to take advantage of the electrification of the Great Western main line and to allow for the phasing out of most of the ageing diesel InterCity 125s.
In February 2009, the intercity express programme, launched by the previous Government, identified Agility Trains, a consortium of Hitachi Rail (Europe) Ltd and John Laing plc, as the preferred bidder to provide a new fleet of intercity trains. Subsequently, the previous Government placed this process on hold and ordered a review of the procurement by Sir Andrew Foster. Last summer, recognising the fiscal challenges that the UK faces and the challenges that the new Government’s plans for high-speed rail to Leeds and Manchester introduce, Agility put forward an improved, lower-cost proposal, which provides the required service through a mixed IEP fleet—some all-electric trains and some with a combination of electric and diesel power, allowing them to operate through services beyond the electrified railway. This proposal retained the more modern electric InterCity 225s on the east coast main line, as the previous Administration had proposed.
We have reviewed this proposal against the alternative of an all-electric fleet with purpose-built diesel locomotives being coupled to trains to haul them beyond the electrified railway. Either way, this would represent a multibillion pound investment for this country, underpinning the operation of intercity services on the conventional railway for many years to come, and it is imperative that the right choice is made.
As I said at the time of my Statement to the House on 25 November, there were complex legal, technical and commercial issues to be addressed. Both the Government and Agility Trains as preferred bidder recognised this. Over the past few months we have worked together on these issues and I can now announce that I am resuming the IEP procurement and proceeding with the proposal that Agility Trains put forward as preferred bidder. We will now work with Agility Trains with a view to reaching financial close by the end of the year. This is, of course, subject to the Government continuing to be satisfied that the proposal offers value for money as the commercial negotiations are concluded and that the final arrangements are compliant with the United Kingdom’s EU obligations.
This deal will allow us to provide better, faster, more comfortable services and to continue providing through journeys between London and parts of the rail network that are not electrified. In total, there will be over 11,000 more peak-time seats each day on the Great Western main line and east coast main line on the IEP trains, compared to today.
Hitachi is today confirming its plans to locate its European train manufacturing and assembly centre at Newton Aycliffe in County Durham. This investment is expected to create at least 500 direct permanent jobs, as well as hundreds of temporary construction jobs. Thousands more job opportunities will be created in the UK manufacturing and service supply chains. Coming just days after the news of the reopening of the Redcar steelworks, this is a massive and very welcome shot in the arm for the skilled workforces of the north-east’s industrial heartland.
I turn now to the related issue of electrification of the Great Western main line. I announced to the House on 25 November that, over the next six years, Network Rail will electrify the commuter services on the Great Western main line from London to Didcot, Oxford and Newbury. I recognise that this announcement, although welcomed in the Thames valley, left unanswered the clear aspirations of rail users further west for the extension of electrification to Bristol and into Wales. I and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales have subsequently considered the options for extending electrification alongside the Government’s consideration of the proposals for replacement of the current diesel intercity trains, and in close consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government.
We have concluded that there is a case for extending electrification westwards to Bristol and Cardiff and I am today asking Network Rail to add this major extension to its electrification programme immediately. This is good news for Wales and the south-west against a backdrop of public spending constraint, as we deal with the legacy of debt that we have inherited. Bringing electrification to Cardiff will mean that we are linking, for the first time, the capital cities of England, Scotland and Wales by electrified rail. These measures will deliver a London to Cardiff journey time of one hour and 42 minutes and will shave 22 minutes off the London to Bristol journey.
I have received representations calling for electrification of the Great Western main line to be extended as far west as Swansea. We have looked carefully at the arguments. The business case for electrification is heavily dependent on the frequency of service. Services between London and Swansea currently operate at a frequency of only one train an hour off-peak. There is no evidence of a pattern of demand that would be likely to lead imminently to an increase in this frequency. Consequently, I regret to say that there is not, at present, a viable business case for electrification of the main line between Cardiff and Swansea.
Because of the decision to proceed with Agility’s proposal for a bi-mode train, journey times from London to Swansea will be shortened to two hours and 39 minutes—20 minutes faster than today—with trains switching automatically to diesel power as they leave Cardiff. Because the constraining factor on the south Wales main line is speed limitations dictated by the geometry of the line, there would be no time-saving benefits from electrifying the line from Cardiff to Swansea. However, the policy of the Government is to support a progressive electrification of the rail network in England and Wales, for environmental among other reasons. My right honourable friend and I will therefore keep under active review the business case for future electrification of the Great Western main line between Cardiff and Swansea in the light of future service patterns.
I have a further announcement to make to the House. In the course of the examination of the case for electrification in south Wales that my right honourable friend and I have undertaken, we have established, at an initial high level, that a good case appears to exist for electrifying the key valley commuter lines north of Cardiff via Pontypridd and Caerphilly to Treherbert, Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil, Coryton and Rhymney, as well as the lines to Penarth and Barry Island to the west. My department will therefore work with the Welsh Assembly Government to develop a full business case for the electrification of the Cardiff valley lines within the next rail investment control period, beginning in 2014. The Welsh Assembly Government will need, in parallel, to consider the case for specifying suitable electric trains for these routes when the Wales and Borders franchise is relet in 2018. This would, of course, be a prerequisite for electrification to proceed, and the timetable for franchise reletting and respecification necessarily dictates the timescale of this proposed electrification.
On the basis of our preliminary evaluation, the valleys electrification represents the best value-for-money rail electrification investment that can be made in Wales. It promises to bring all the benefits of electric commuter trains—faster acceleration, greater comfort and cleaner, greener travel—to rail users in south Wales. It would have a significant effect on the economy of Cardiff and the valleys, deepening labour markets, improving connectivity and significantly enhancing the attractiveness of the area to investors. Coupled with the electrification of the Great Western main line, this represents a major boost to the economy of south Wales as a whole.
These three decisions—on intercity express, Great Western main line electrification and electrification of the valley commuter lines—represent a major further investment in UK rail infrastructure, following the announcements that I have already made on Crossrail, Thameslink, Tube upgrades, Thames valley and north-western electrification and additional rolling stock. They sit alongside the Government’s proposals for high-speed rail, the consultation on which I announced to the House in a Written Statement yesterday, as testimony to this Government’s commitment to investment in the future of Britain’s railways. They represent excellent news for passengers on the Great Western main line and the east coast main line, for commuters on the Cardiff valley lines and for the economies of south Wales and north-east England as a whole”.
I commend this Statement to the House.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made earlier this day in another place, particularly as I understand that he is a late stand-in for the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, who is indisposed. We wish the noble Earl a full recovery to health as quickly as possible. I commiserate with him. In the past I have been somewhat critical of transport Statements presented by the noble Earl from the Dispatch Box, but today the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has drawn the long straw, because this is a Statement on which we can offer some commendation and approval. In fact, there is much in this Statement that the Opposition welcome.
We welcome, of course, the news about the intercity express programme. I hope that the noble Lord will recognise the perspicacity of the previous Administration, who last year asked Sir Andrew Foster to carry out a review of the situation. This was important, because the original bid contained unsatisfactory features. We are glad that the Government have been able to take advantage of the review and the additional time to agree a deal with Agility Trains that is a substantial advance on what otherwise would have been the case. It also means that they will be producing not just all-electric trains but a combination of diesel and electric power. As the noble Lord indicates, with the rejection of the case for electrification through to Swansea, this dual capacity is of great importance.
We also welcome the fact that Agility Trains and Hitachi have planned to locate their European train capacity in the north-east, at Newton Aycliffe in County Durham. We all know the present difficulties of many parts of our economy; all our regions are due to have very difficult times but particularly the north-east, so this will be a welcome development in terms of the number of manufacturing jobs created in County Durham.
We are somewhat concerned about the Government’s argument with regard to Swansea. After all, south Wales shares with the north-east difficulties with regard to its economy and a degree of remoteness from the centres of financial power in the United Kingdom. It may be regarded as a relatively short distance between Cardiff and Swansea, but the noble Lord must recognise that they are two different economies. This will inevitably be looked on in Wales as a gain for Cardiff—I will come on to the valleys in a moment—but as a rebuttal of the needs of Swansea, where links with London are of very great significance. I hear what the noble Lord says about the business case not having been made, but this is calculated using present traffic flow numbers. If the Government invest in infrastructure, the improvements will generate a degree of economic activity that will increase traffic flow and the numbers of passengers. We are sorry about that dimension of the Government’s decision.
We very much appreciate that the opportunity was taken to look at the valleys economy. There is no doubt at all that it is important to improve communications between the valleys and Cardiff—and, to that extent, Newport, too—and then the links to London. The House knows only too well the struggles that the valley towns have had in trying to replace industry, as the original, vast coal-mining activity is now long since gone. The extent to which effective communication between the valleys and Cardiff is absolutely essential has only more recently been appreciated, with regard to employment in the valleys. Effective communication gives the opportunity for people who live in the valleys to get to Cardiff and to that part of southern Wales where rather more jobs are available.
We welcome this Statement. It is a reflection of essential investment. It also reflects something of which we must all take due stock. We will all have our differences about economic strategies and policies and there is, of course, a fairly obvious division between the perspective of my party and that of the coalition on how to handle the present crisis. However, we must renew our commitment to long-term investment in infrastructure, which must survive changes in government if we are to build the crucial infrastructure that the nation requires. That is why I have not the slightest doubt today about the importance of this Statement and the fact that the House should take pleasure in it.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, for his comments regarding my noble friend Lord Attlee, who I certainly hope will soon be fit and well. It is of course a joy to be presenting a good-news story, which is exactly how the noble Lord, Lord Davies, has seen it, too. I thank him for that and for having the grace to understand that good-news stories can emanate from this Dispatch Box.
The noble Lord raised an interesting point about Swansea. I understand the disappointment, but the two things are linked, in that getting the intercity express train, which is electro-diesel, means that no one has to get out at Cardiff to get on to a connecting train, nor do they have to wait the 10 minutes or so for a diesel engine to be put on to the front. The train goes straight forward. Because of the nature of the track between Cardiff and Swansea, that journey time will be the same whether it is electrified or not. To that extent, there is no sense in these proposals that Swansea is being done down. Indeed, as I said in repeating the Statement, although the case is not at present viable, the Government propose to go on with further electrification and it may well be that an extension comes at some future time. I am grateful that the noble Lord referred to the valleys. This is, of course, a new scheme, which has not been raised previously. It will do a great deal for the area around Cardiff.
I particularly want to comment on the noble Lord’s concern about the long-term infrastructure. It is quite interesting that this is an interlude from talking about the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, on which I make no comment whatsoever. Yet however long the term is, of the terms that have been mentioned, those terms are often longer than it takes to get a major infrastructure project going. It will be towards the end of this Parliament that we see some wires and trains in some of the electrification proposals being put forward. It will certainly be into our next Parliament when we see more of that.
My Lords, will my noble friend convey to the Secretary of State in another place our warmest congratulations for a surprisingly upbeat Statement? It is probably one of the best that I have ever heard, but will he take back two or three small points? First, if we are to have electrification to south Wales, before anybody starts any engineering work we must have the line between Swindon and Kemble doubled so that we maintain a reliable connection between London and south Wales and vice versa.
Secondly, the procurement process for Agility Trains has been extraordinarily long-winded and expensive. It has employed a lot of consultants. Will my noble friend try to convey to the Secretary of State the need, in the new franchises, to simplify the acquisition of new rolling stock? That is something which the Department for Transport is singularly ill-equipped to do. I believe that we need to bring the train operators much closer to the process.
Lastly, would my noble friend remind the Secretary of State that there is no reason why some of the journey times between south Wales and London should not be shortened by, I believe, up to 15 minutes? That could be done by using the current equipment but taking out the intermediate stops which have been placed on those services at places such as Swindon, Didcot and Reading—again, I believe, at the behest of his own department.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments. I immediately looked at my railway map and thought, “What does this mean in terms of the construction period?”, particularly for the tunnel to south Wales and the electrification thereof. Clearly, there is the problem of that single line between Swindon and Kemble. I am told that much of the work is likely to take place at night. However, there is work going on at the moment, with Network Rail looking at its next programme of work from 2014-19. There is still a possibility that, if it is really believed that it would enhance the diversionary route for that period when work is taking place, it could be considered or, indeed, brought forward.
Secondly, on procurement, the likelihood is that there will be longer franchises in future, which may well mean that my noble friend Lord Bradshaw has his wishes in that regard. One feature of this procurement is the knock-on effect of various proposals and the fact that Agility Trains may well mean agility, in terms of trains moving from place to place. For example, if ultimately there were to be electrification to Swansea after this programme, you could then have all-electric trains while the electro-diesels could go somewhere else where they can go under the wires and not be where the line is electric. There is a sense in which this proposal is about more than one train company and one piece of work.
Concerning the third item, the journey times on the Great Western main line, we all know that the Thames valley has, over the years, become something of a honey-pot. Places such as Swindon and Reading have grown and grown, so commercial reasons have meant that more trains have stopped at those places rather than being express trains. With electrification, the likelihood is that there will be more trains—there are plans to have them—and fast trains. I cannot guarantee that there will be any enhancement in services prior to electrification but I will pass back to the department the comments that my noble friend has made.
I congratulate the noble Lord on this Statement, which is very positive, as my noble friend has said. It has resolved many of the uncertainties surrounding the whole of the Great Western network in terms of electrification, new trains and everything else.
I just draw his attention to one issue that needs a little more resolution: the section between Reading and London and the relationship with Crossrail. As noble Lords will know, Reading station is being subject to a major upgrade, which is very welcome too. At the moment, however, the Crossrail services are due to stop at Maidenhead, where I believe construction work has started on a big maintenance facility. Most people think that it would be much better if Crossrail trains went on to Reading, which is a major interchange; I do not think anyone would suggest that Maidenhead was the centre of the universe when it comes to changing trains. That would also avoid having a separate shuttle train, which I think is still planned to be a diesel, between Reading and Slough, stopping at Maidenhead. Reading station is being extended to take Crossrail trains, but there has been no decision on where they will go.
I have one final suggestion that my noble friend could pass on to the Secretary of State. It is very welcome that there will be 11,000 more peak-time seats with these new trains, but there is still an enormous demand for fast services between Reading and Paddington. It may be that there should be some faster services as well as the stopping Crossrail services to take up some of the slack, so that the seats are not empty all the way from Reading to Swansea.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for his comments and hear what he says about Reading and the extension of Crossrail beyond Maidenhead. Of course, until there was certainty of the electrification, I do not think that that could have been planned; clearly, it can now be planned. I am not sighted of any specific plans of today as to trains terminating at Maidenhead or going forward to Reading, but I believe that that is likely to be the case. Indeed, they may even go further, to Oxford. It is likely that that will be embraced, and this electrification means that that is possible.
I would like to take the Minister on a little trip. If he went to Westminster station and got on the Circle line, he would end up somewhere near Liverpool Street station. Liverpool Street station and Norwich are 111 miles apart and the line is electric, but the trains that we have there are—I was told yesterday—well over 40 years old. The rails and the catenas are frankly not of the quality that one would need for a fast train. The signalling is still very bad. It is appalling, in fact. The staff on the trains and the station have been trained to be nice and to keep you informed the whole time, which is wonderful; I think they deserve something for that. Every time the train stops in the wrong place, someone tells you why you have stopped there—or at least he tries to find out. Also, on this line is the rather important train for the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, which runs from Felixstowe to the Midlands, but you cannot go from Felixstowe to the Midlands yet. You can get under the bridge—through the tunnel—at Ipswich, but you have to come all the way down to London to go all the way back again. You have to do another 20 kilometres. Minister, this is a very important bit: it would relieve the main line to Norwich.
My Lords, it is good to have the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, and for him to extol the virtue of rail travel to Norwich. I am afraid, however, that I cannot say much about that. I leave that to someone else on another occasion. What the announcement means is that the new train will be electro-diesel. At some point you may even be able to go from London to Norwich and then a diesel will take you on to Great Yarmouth. That could well be possible because of this new way forward. He can at least have the comfort that there are these possibilities of enhancement. I have nothing to say at the moment, I regret to say, on further electrification beyond that which has been announced—or indeed on any other enhancements other than those in the Statement. However, the noble Lord knows about campaigning and knows how to make the case, and I am sure that he will continue—just as he has this evening—to do that.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware how warmly welcomed this announcement will be in the north-east of England, which is the home of the railways, of Stephenson and of the Stockton and Darlington Railway? This is a fantastic announcement for the north-east, which comes on the back of that great announcement of the planned reopening of the Teesside Cast Products at Redcar and the thousands of jobs that that will mean, which itself came on the back of announcements about the Tyne and Wear Metro upgrade of half a billion pounds. This is a huge amount of good news and demonstrates this Government’s commitment to that region. Would he care to contrast that announcement with the time a year ago when the Labour Cabinet arrived in Durham to mothball the TCP plant at Redcar and to postpone the announcement on Agility Trains? Would he care to contrast those two approaches to manufacturing in the north-east of England?
My Lords, I am grateful for the comments my noble friend Lord Bates. Clearly, as a north-easterner, he is very concerned and happy that there is to be investment there. He is quite right to point out the change that has taken place. This positive piece of work will go on there. Not only will north-east England benefit from new employment opportunities, there will be the possibility of even greater employment opportunities because of the railway factory and other places that will enhance and put further work there. He is right that this is a real piece of work about which the coalition Government can be really be proud. As I say, this is a real good news story.
My Lords, it is not often that I welcome a decision of this Government, let alone feel inclined to congratulate the Government on anything. The only other major infrastructural decision they have taken over the past nine months—the decision to veto the third runway for Heathrow—was absolutely deplorable. However, today I really congratulate them. Those three projects are going to be enormously important for the economy of the country and clearly the most important one of all is the high-speed rail link. Will the Government do everything possible to accelerate these projects now this decision has been taken? We in this country generally take far too long to implement infrastructural projects. The longer such projects take to be built and to be commissioned, the more you postpone both the internal return and the external return and the more you damage the economics of the initial decision. Will the Government take a close look at the lead time for such projects in France, Germany and Spain between a decision being taken and the first high-speed train running, and will he try to make sure that they treat that as a target, which this country should seek to beat?
My Lords, future travellers to Swansea will have to travel in the bimode train for about 35 miles. By comparison, London-to-Inverness travellers will need a bimode electro-diesel for 180 miles and those who travel on the hard road up to Aberdeen will need that for 150 miles. With regards to the split between pure electric and electro-diesel, can my noble friend please tell us whether there will be enough electro-diesels in the programme to cover such routes? Also, will the electro-diesels have enough power to handle the Drumochter and Slochd summits?
My Lords, I am not able to give details of the power that the trains will have to tackle the road to Inverness, but they are going to be brand new and had better be right for purpose. My noble friend makes a good point. Although I suppose he would love the electric wires to go to Aberdeen and Inverness, I do not think that that is on the list at the moment. However, the beauty of the bimodal system is that diesel trains will not go from London to Inverness under the wire; they will be electric to Edinburgh and will then turn to diesel on the way to Aberdeen. Therefore, the people in Aberdeen and Inverness, and those at points between Edinburgh and those places, will benefit from the electric railway between London and Edinburgh.
My Lords, a popular pub question is: what do Albania and Wales have in common? The answer is that they are two nations in Europe without a single mile of electrified railway. I warmly welcome the Statement that the Minister has made today because that is now going to be put right so far as concerns Wales, and I am delighted that the decision has been taken, after initial hesitancy some months ago, to extend the wires through the Severn tunnel into Cardiff. I think that the Minister or his colleagues will have to deal with the Welsh Assembly Government’s disappointment. They have certainly been campaigning very hard for the electrification to continue to Swansea. However, the news of the valley electrification is particularly welcome. The diesel multiple units that currently serve those lines are already life-expired, and the opportunity for new journeys and new trains is very welcome.
Perhaps I may be allowed one further comment. Today’s Statement is a very welcome, and clearly bipartisan, extension of the policy concerning the railway begun by my noble friend Lord Adonis. It was he who got the debate on High Speed 2 up and running and it was he who made the announcement on electrification. I certainly commend the Government for picking up the baton where he laid it down in May. I warmly welcome that and I think that my noble friend deserves some credit for it as well.
Perhaps I may ask a specific question, which the Minister has already been asked by his noble friend Lord Bradshaw, concerning the need to improve the line between Swindon and Gloucester. It is not just a diversionary line; it is an important service which already has an hourly train in each direction. However, when the Severn tunnel is closed, as it will be for part of the electrification works, it is going to be crucial that that line is double-tracked again. It was a very short-sighted decision to take the double track out.
I have one other specific question. Is it intended that the bimodal train which operates on the Great Western main line will be electric as far as Oxford and then diesel-powered on the Cotswold line to Worcester and Hereford? I should declare an interest as president of the Cotswold line promotion group and as an unpaid member of the First Great Western advisory board.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, and pay tribute to his service, and indeed that of his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, in the latter part of the previous Government at the Department for Transport. There may be disappointment in Wales about the line from Cardiff to Swansea but there will of course be rejoicing about the valleys. The Government have looked at this matter in great detail and have concluded that, in terms of value for money and the return, it is a better bet to look at the valleys than at Cardiff to Swansea, particularly when there is now a prospect of a bimodal system for Cardiff to Swansea.
I note the noble Lord’s comments about the Gloucester line. Indeed, in the couple of hours that I had to look at this issue and discuss it with the department, I said, “Just a minute. Not only is there the prospect of this line being needed because of the tunnel being closed and construction work and so on, but, as I understand it, this is being looked at in its own right anyway”. Therefore, there could well be double the case for improving this line. I hope, and believe, that it will be considered very seriously.
I am not sighted on any proposals for bimodal trains to go beyond Oxford, although of course that is a possibility. Bimodal means that the wire can be used to Oxford and you can then go beyond that with the diesel system.
Fixed-term Parliaments Bill
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.