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Fixed-term Parliaments Bill

Volume 726: debated on Monday 21 March 2011

Committee (2nd Day)

Relevant documents: 10th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee, 8th Report from the Constitution Committee.

Clause 1 : Polling days for parliamentary general elections

Amendment 11

Moved by

11: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out “fifth” and insert “fourth”

My Lords, this amendment goes to the heart of the Bill in that it seeks to reduce the period of a fixed-term Parliament from five years to four years. This important Bill may well bring about a significant change to our politics by changing the position from a situation in which the norm for our Parliaments is to last around three years and eight months to four years—with a maximum of five years—to a norm for our Parliaments to last for five years, with the possibility of going below that period only in exceptional circumstances.

The reason why the proposal in the Bill has been advanced has been given on the basis of high principle. At Second Reading, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, said that:

“The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill delivers a key strand of the ambitious political and constitutional reform agenda which this Government have pledged to deliver”.

He went on to say:

“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”.—[Official Report, 1/3/2011; cols. 929-30.]

The noble and learned Lord is nodding helpfully. He is putting forward this Bill as part of that reinvigoration process.

His leader, Nick Clegg, has spoken in a similar vein. The Select Committee of this House which reported on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill had the privilege of Mr Clegg appearing in front of it. Its report states:

“The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill is just one part of a package of proposed reforms intended by the Government to make the political system ‘far more transparent and accountable’. In his evidence, the Deputy Prime Minister told us that: ‘it is an unambiguous judgment on our part that reducing the power of the executive, seeking to boost the power of the legislature, making the legislatures more accountable to people ... collectively introduces the mechanisms by which people can exercise greater control over politicians’”.

The Deputy Prime Minister has also said that the time has come to stop people being allowed to,

“play politics with the dates of a general election”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/6/10; col. 40.]

That is the high-flown basis on which the matter is put forward.

Happily, we have the account of the circumstances in which the five-year term was agreed, provided by Mr David Laws. I quote him from the introduction to his book:

“My intention in writing this book is not to describe an all-too-brief Cabinet career. It is instead to inform those who are interested in this important period of British politics and to make sure that an accurate account is left of what really happened in May 2010 before memories fade, myths grow and the evidence is lost”.

On page 98, he writes that Andrew Stunell pointed out to the Conservative negotiators that,

“trust and confidence was very important to us, and that we wouldn’t want to find the PM calling an election at a time that did not suit us. ‘That works both ways!’ said William Hague. We mentioned that our own policy was for four-year, fixed-term Parliaments. George Osborne made the point that five-year parliaments were better, as they allowed governments to get into implementing their plans before having to start worrying about the timing of the electoral cycle. We made no objection to this, and Britain was on its way to five-year, fixed-term parliaments, for the first time in its history”.

That is how the Liberal Democrats moved from four years to five years; they did it because of the problem of trust. We should look at the proposals that are being put forward by the coalition with a moderately jaundiced eye, particularly because of the disingenuous way in which it is being done.

However, that does not relieve this House from considering as a matter of principle for the British people whether the right period is five years or four years. We are clear that the evidence—and this should be decided on the basis of evidence—is strongly in favour of four years rather than five. A mistake that the coalition persistently makes, and made in relation to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill as well, is that because judgment is required in coming to a conclusion on whether a particular course should be taken, all evidence can therefore be ignored. One simply, for example, has a conversation with Mr Andrew Stunell which lasts 40 seconds, at which point you abandon the policies that one has adopted for the previous 20 years. That does not sound to me like the exercise of judgment; it sounds like playing politics with the date of the next election, which is precisely what the Deputy Prime Minister said should not happen.

We in this House have an especial responsibility in determining what the length of a Parliament should be. It is an area where the Parliament Act does not normally apply, although I accept that its being five years is not the reason for its not applying. Nevertheless, it is an area where this House has an especial responsibility to ensure that the matter is looked at on the basis of evidence.

What does the evidence show? The Select Committee looking at the Bill heard evidence, which did not happen in terms of pre-legislative scrutiny, and concluded unequivocally that the evidence showed that four years was the right answer rather than five. In her speech at Second Reading, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said:

“The weight of evidence from British and international experts to the committee was against a five-year norm as against a five-year maximum”.

We should remember that this legislation involves a change from a five-year maximum to a five-year norm. She continued:

“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’, and, ‘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”.—[Official Report, 1/3/11; cols. 1005-1006.]

The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield said:

“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”.—[Official Report, 1/3/11; col. 935.]

My noble friend Lord Grocott said:

“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”.—[Official Report, 1/3/11; col. 958.]

The overwhelming view expressed during the course of the Second Reading debate, with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, and some Back-Benchers on the Government’s side, was that five-years as the norm is a bad idea. That was the weight of the evidence before the Select Committee and the experience of active politicians such as my noble friend Lord Grocott, so where is the evidence in favour of five years? I have looked hard to find it. I have read very carefully the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, to see what arguments he advanced. He said that it would be possible to plan more easily if you had five-year terms. I fail to understand why planning cannot take place whether the norm is four years or five years. It is an entirely bogus argument.

Secondly, the point was made that you would have a longer time in which to implement your provisions. The throw-away remark of Mr George Osborne which appears in Mr Laws’s book appears to be the reason for five years. It states:

“George Osborne made the point that five-year Parliaments were better, as they allowed governments to get into implementing their plans before having to start worrying about the timing of the electoral cycle”.

Presumably, that would depend entirely upon the length of time their plans took in any individual case. It is therefore difficult to see the force of that argument.

As was said at Second Reading, when Asquith introduced the current arrangements he made it clear that he thought a five-year maximum would, in practice, lead to a four-year period of time, which he said was sufficiently close at some stages to the previous election and sufficiently near to the next election to lead to accountability. If the coalition were serious about trying to reinvigorate our politics, it would at least address that issue. The consequence of there having been a four-year fixed term is that there would have been four fewer general elections between now and 1945. If your aim is to connect more with the electorate, surely reducing the number of general elections rather than increasing them will have precisely the opposite effect of that which Mr Nicholas Clegg and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, put forward.

There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that this proposal is put forward as means of gluing the coalition together. Mr David Laws says that that is the reason. As I said at Second Reading, there is no need for an Act of Parliament, bogusly dressed up as a piece of high constitutional principle, in order to achieve that. All you need do is stick by your word if you are a Tory or a Liberal Democrat. I ask the coalition to please think again about our constitution. Is it genuinely better for Britain and for encouraging trust in our politicians to say that now there should be longer between elections than previously? I earnestly ask the coalition to consider whether the electorate might think that the coalition is doing this so that it can stay in power for as long as possible.

That sense is perhaps increased by the broken promises the coalition has made in relation to the conduct of the Bill. On 25 May 2010, Mr David Heath, the Deputy Leader of the House, said that there would be no guillotines—but there were. He said that he would favour pre-legislative scrutiny as long as it did not lead the Bill to go over into the next Session. Despite the fact that this Session was then extended until May 2012, he reneged on that particular promise. This is a matter of some importance and it is not too late for the coalition to rethink what is best for the British constitution and to perhaps accept the overwhelming weight of evidence from academics, active politicians, committees that have looked at it, the Minister’s own party, my party, my noble friend Lord Plant, the three respected Back-Benchers who over the 10 years since 1993 have introduced fixed-term Parliament Bills—Tony Wright, David Howarth and my noble friend Lord Rooker—all of whom have favoured four years.

Does the noble and learned Lord not think that maybe five years is the wrong length of time and that four years is right? If he is not able to persuade the coalition to change its mind, I hope that this House, having considered the evidence, will conclude that the right way to protect the constitution is to support the amendment and reduce the period of the fixed term to four years. I beg to move.

I will make a brief speech since I have put my name to the amendment. In the course of his reply at Second Reading, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, described the question now before the Committee as “the key issue”. He went to on to say that,

“there is no absolutely right or wrong answer in that regard—it is a judgment”.—[Official Report, 1/3/11; col. 1044.]

That point has been made by many noble Lords in the course of the debate. Unfortunately, to describe something as a question of judgment does not necessarily make the answer any easier but it does, I suggest, point the way to the right starting place. In this case, that must be to look at what other sound judges have said on the subject, especially those who have made a study of our constitution. That is surely a better approach than simply, for example, counting up the number of countries worldwide which have chosen five years rather than four, or four years rather than five.

I wish to start with two of the witnesses who gave evidence before the Select Committee, Professor Dawn Oliver and Professor Bogdanor. It happens that I know them both; they are both pre-eminent in the field of constitutional law and practice and they both say that they would choose four years rather than five. So did Professor Bradley—and I hope that the Committee will forgive me for simply mentioning their names, without quoting from them—along with Professor Padgett, Dr Milner and Dr Fox. None of those witnesses who gave evidence expressed a view in favour of five years. In the other place, Professor Robert Hazell preferred four years, as did Professor Blackburn, whose evidence is important because he is the man who has made a particular study of this very issue. So the professional evidence is really unanimous; it is certainly all one way. In the Constitution Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, tested the witnesses giving evidence, but it is fair to say that they did not hedge in any way, or flinch from what they had said. So it is not surprising that the Constitution Committee came down as strongly as it did in favour of four years. In contrast, the Government’s reply to the committee’s report, in paragraphs 12 to 15, seems feeble in the extreme.

If academic evidence was all one way, so also with two or three notable exceptions were the views expressed at Second Reading in this House. I have in mind the noble Lord, Lord Anderson—again I shall simply list the names—and the noble Lords, Lord Hennessy, Lord Grocott, Lord Norton and Lord Morgan, and the noble Baroness. Lady Taylor. I would assume that the noble Lord, Lord Plant, was also of that view, having regards to the conclusions of the Plant commission, although he did not in fact mention this particular point in the course of his speech.

Of the notable exceptions, I regret very much not being able to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, or the noble Lord, Lord Marks, who favoured five years rather than four because they thought that four years would not allow long enough for sensible policy-making and parliamentary debate. I accept that during the fourth year of a four-year Parliament the coming general election would begin to loom large but, even so, four years is surely long enough for the electorate to judge the Government’s performance to date. That is what in a democracy matters most and it is what Professor Oliver meant—I think it was her—when she referred to the democratic deficit if we chose five years rather than four. That is clearly what Professor Bogdanor meant when he said that five years would make Parliament less accountable to the public. In addition to those theoretical arguments from eminent experts, there is the practical argument that four years fits in better with the devolved institutions.

So what are the Government’s arguments in favour of five years? They are not altogether apparent. I looked carefully at what Mr Harper, the Minister in charge of the Bill, had to say on the subject when he was pressed by the noble Lord, Lord Powell of Bayswater. He said:

“If we had been starting with a clean sheet of paper, we might have reached a different conclusion, but we started from our existing position where the length of a Parliament is up to five years”.

He was saying that the Government might well have chosen four years but for the fact that five years is the current maximum under the Parliament Act 1911. I simply do not follow the logic of that argument. If we are trying to do our best to find the right number of years for a fixed term of Parliament by taking all relevant factors into account, surely of all the factors the current maximum is the least relevant, unless you take as your objective giving the Government of the day, whether they be Labour or Conservative, as long as possible within the existing maximum. The objective should be entirely different; to make the Government and, indeed, Parliament itself more accountable to the public.

In conclusion, briefly, what is before us today is a constitutional issue. It is not, perhaps, of the greatest importance but it is certainly of some importance and it would therefore be highly desirable to reach a consensus if we can. Unfortunately, there is no room for a compromise between four years and five years. We often reach a consensus in that way but no one, I think, suggests a fixed term of four and a half years. When the Government chose five years, they could not have had before them the evidence which is now before us so, like the noble and learned Lord, I hope very much that they will give way on this occasion and accept the amendment. If they do not and insist on their opinion in this matter, despite the great weight of opinion the other way, there will be little point in anyone ever giving evidence before Select Committees again. They will simply be wasting their time. For that reason, I will support the amendment.

My Lords, a key argument advanced by the Government in favour of five-year fixed terms as opposed to those of four years is that it will improve overall government effectiveness, because there will be fewer elections and therefore less distraction to the Government in having to fight them. In mulling over this question, I have found it useful to think about the whole lifespan of a Government rather than the individual terms that go to make that up. Modern experience seems to be that most Governments serve for two or three terms. They occasionally serve for one or four but two or three seems to be the norm.

On that basis, modern experience is that a two-term Government will serve for about nine years and a three-term Government for about 13. That is because most Governments go to the polls every four years, except in their final term when they realise that the jig is probably up and hang on for as long as possible. Actual experience since the Second World War is that two-term Governments have served for even shorter periods, because of the narrowness of their initial victory and the need to go to the country early to try to secure a workable majority. Even setting that to one side, we have two-term Governments of nine years and three-term Governments of 13 years under the current system.

Under the proposals in the Bill, we would have Governments of 10 years or 15 years. However, in the second or third term of each Government, they seem to run out of steam. The toxins that are produced by reshuffled Ministers and disaffected and disappointed Back-Benchers build up to such a degree that the Government find it increasingly difficult to provide coherent and decisive leadership. They therefore end either their second or third term in a rather weakened state. It seems to me that these dynamics are likely to occur at about the same pace under whichever system we adopt so it seems likely that, under the Bill’s proposals, we would have weakened Governments limping on for about one or two years longer than they currently do. I find it hard to see how that can be construed as an overall increase in government effectiveness. Indeed, it seems quite the opposite; that four-year fixed terms would probably produce such an increase in effectiveness, rather than the reverse.

Perhaps I might make one final point. I may have a rather idiosyncratic view of this but the essential and, indeed, the defining characteristic of any democratic electoral system of whatever model is the unassailable power and right to remove incumbents. This is to say not that doing so at too frequent an interval is conducive to effective government but that one should be very cautious about extending the period at which that is customarily done. That seems to me to be inescapable under five-year fixed-term Parliaments.

My Lords, I am tempted to talk about the word “consensus”. I said on day one of the Committee that New Zealand had a three-year term of Parliament. When the cut in the number of UK seats was devised as a consensus between the two parts of the coalition, I think that one lot wanted to get rid of 60 seats and the other wanted 100 seats, so they went for a compromise of 50. On the basis of that, I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, that perhaps there could be a compromise here but it could be three years rather than four or five.

I turn more seriously to the question of four years. As the noble and learned Lord has reminded us, the Minister acknowledged at Second Reading that this was a judgment and there was no absolutely right or wrong answer. I feel that the Government have made the wrong judgment in going for five years rather than four.

There is a lot to quote from earlier debates. I have chosen the quote from Herbert Asquith that is in the report, partly because it was exactly 100 years and one month ago today when he said that we should be desirous of a House of Commons that 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.]

More recently, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, said on 1 March:

“as the election comes up accountability is a very, very strong thing indeed”.—[Official Report, 1/3/11; col. 1045.]

For any MP, he went on to say, an election is very effective for accountability.

The Deputy Prime Minister, who has already been quoted, claimed that the Government’s ambitious programme would transfer power away from Parliament and empower people. So we have to ask why the Government want to diminish accountability by extending the life of the other place from four years to five. It cannot be about increasing accountability. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, has suggested, to think about two periods of five years—that is, 10 years —is what makes me think that the figure of five is wrong. Ten years seems to be too long. Someone just short of their 18th birthday might have to wait until they were 23 to vote, and they would be 28 before they could vote again. The period from 18 to 28 is the whole of the setting down of one’s life, but the Government are suggesting having only one vote during that time.

Similarly, imagine a Government with a small majority or indeed no overall control. It would be extremely hard to run the country like that, as I know, but the Government would be denied the right to go for a working majority, somewhat dreading every death or resignation and the resultant by-election—or maybe hoping for them so that they could then engineer a defeat on a confidence vote. Leaving it that way to call an election could mean that it would happen at the very worst of times: in the middle of a freezing winter, during school holidays, in a financial crisis or even at a time of national mourning, to say nothing of major international events or indeed the convenience of Her Majesty. Some of those questions are about the principle of a fixed-term Parliament, but they are far more likely to arise and be more acute with an over-lengthy five-year Parliament.

The question is particularly pertinent for a coalition. A coalition is new to the electorate and therefore needs a vote sooner on its performance than five years. Also, because its manifesto was never put to the electorate or endorsed at a general election, it seems right that it should not be run for a full five years. Although in general four years is right, it is even more acute either for a Government with a small majority or indeed for a new coalition that four years down the line rather than five is the right time to involve the electorate in whether they wish that Government to continue.

I agree with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, about the length of the period between elections in normal times. If it is agreed that five years will be written into legislation, over a period of 20 years the electorate will be denied an opportunity to go to the polls to decide what form the Government will take and which Government will be returned. We had an opportunity last week to hear the Minister on this matter. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, was good enough to talk about it. He said that the present system gave awesome power to the Prime Minister of the day. However, what seems to have happened in the room that was talked about in the story from the autobiography of Mr Laws is that awesome power was given to the people around that table. It strikes me that many of the people around that table, who may be very good at economics and other matters, were not experienced parliamentarians. If they had been experienced parliamentarians, they would have said what I am saying today: four years is far better than five.

I ask the Minister to consider four years for the sake of the House and how it operates. I know what he said last week, when we had a warm-up and were able to hear some of his thinking. That is good; we could then think about what he had to say and come back, as we have today. I think the Minister said that his case was that in the fifth year Members of Parliament decide that they want to be in their constituencies. That is not because they are lazy—far from it. They want to work on the hustings; they know an election is coming up and want to be in their constituency. The Minister’s case was that they would do that in the fourth year. However, they would not do that because the Government would not run out of legislation in the fourth year. Therefore, if Members of Parliament missed three-line Whips, it would be duly noted in their constituency. Constituents would say, “Why was he or she here on a Tuesday, missing a three-line Whip?”. That is an incentive to keep Members of Parliament here in the fourth year, rather than in the fifth.

I bolster the case about Governments running out of legislation in the fifth year. The House of Commons Library tells me that in 2009-10 Session, there was not one vote taken on the Floor of the House of Commons on a Thursday. They had topical debates on a Thursday. Some were on very important matters but they were debates. On Thursdays we turned the House of Commons into a debating society, which meant there was no record of whether anyone turned up to represent their constituents. I reiterate what I said the other week. Tam Dalyell, an excellent parliamentarian, told me as a young MP, “Michael, if they want you, tell them you will be available on a Saturday or a Friday night. Don’t take the sleeper up to Glasgow and then get back down for the vote. Tell them that your job is to be in the House of Commons”. However, the Executive of the House of Commons at that time were pleased to have topical debates with no votes so that everyone who wanted to could get away, which meant that more power was put into the hands of the Executive. That is contrary to what the Liberals have said on the Floor of the House of Commons and, indeed, here. They have said, “We don’t want the Executive to get more power”.

Last week the Minister said what fantastic power we were giving to the Prime Minister by enabling him or her to call an election on a date of their choosing, when the polls looked good. The coalition comprises two parties that fought like cats and dogs in the House of Commons—I had to hold their jackets at times—because their policies were so different. However, the leaders of those parties said: “We are getting together to sort out the financial problems of this nation; that’s why we are together, but here’s the wee deal—that we get a five-year Parliament”. There are people with more knowledge of political history than I but I put it to the Committee that Ted Heath might have had the power to go to the country that the Minister talks about, but it did not work for him. Ted Heath said: “It’s me or the miners”, but the country did not re-elect him. He did not serve his full term. Therefore, the great power that he had did not work in his favour; nor did it work in Harold Wilson’s favour in 1970. I remember hearing as a young canvasser that Labour would win again, and the polls all said that. Harold Wilson was perceived as the winner, but during the 1970 election word came through that he would lose, and he did. The same happened with Jim Callaghan. Had Jim Callaghan gone to the country before the great winter of discontent, perhaps he would have won—who knows? The Prime Minister may have awesome power but it has been shown that that power does not always work in his favour.

The noble and gallant Lord spoke about disgruntled Ministers. I suggest that there will be a stack of disgruntled former Ministers. I can hear them now saying, when they were appointed, “Tony said I am the only one who can do this job”. Then they go on to Sky TV—the lovely thing about Sky TV is that if you cannot sleep in the middle of the night, you go on to Sky TV—and the same Minister says, “What a wonderful Prime Minister we have”. I do not know whether it was reported that one Minister said: “I would jump under a bus for the Prime Minister”. I would not jump under a bus for anybody. I do not know whether it was a moving bus or a stationary bus but it shows how much that Minister loved the Prime Minister. Then there is a reshuffle because the Prime Minister has a difficulty; he has to get fresh blood in because the Back-Benchers are saying, “They’ve had their turn at being Ministers; we want to be Ministers now”.

I do not want to mention names but it has been reported that the gentleman who wrote the book might get back into government. I say good luck and three cheers to him. However, there are too many Ministers on the Front Bench so somebody must fall off the end. The logic of that gentleman getting back into government is that someone else will lose their job and become a disgruntled former Minister. The lovely thing about that is that the same people, when they lose their jobs, do not say any more that the Prime Minister is a great person. They sidle up to you in the tea room and say, “He’s a rotter. He’s a bounder”. That gave me an opportunity to say, “But you were not saying that about him two years ago”. The media then make mischief because they have a pool of individuals who are willing to criticise the Government.

That then leads me to consider the people who matter—the electorate. They turn on their televisions, as do the politicians, and they say, “What is going on here? They are all fighting like cats and dogs”. They then think of the old saying in the Bible that a house divided against itself will surely fall, and they say to themselves, “We elected these people to be unified. They promised us unity and now they are fighting with one another”. That will happen in the fifth year. For the sake of running the House properly, four years is far better than this fixed five years.

My Lords, I am tempted briefly to intervene, partly because of what the noble Lord, Lord Martin, said. I always remember that one of his predecessors—the late, great Jack Weatherill, who many of your Lordships will remember from his time in this House—once said to me, “If you have any doubt, do not go in and listen to the debate; just stay out and vote”. I must say that I have heard every word in this debate and uttered one or two myself, but the more I look at the Bill and listen to what noble Lords say, the more convinced I am that this is a wholly unnecessary piece of legislation.

If the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister wish to make a binding undertaking to go to the country in May 2015, there is nothing in our current legislation that would stop them. I can well understand why the two leaders of the new Government—a coalition which is a new experiment in many ways—wanted a period of five years. God bless them, they can have five years, and I genuinely wish them success; but I am not so naive as to suppose that if there is some extraordinary rift or argument during those five years, all those protestations will not fall to the side and there will be an election. The Bill provides for an escape clause, in Clause 2, which we shall debate next week. I have tabled a significant amendment to delete it and to replace it with something else. However, I must not rehearse those arguments now.

The more I listen to this debate, the more two things come to mind. The noble Lord, Lord Martin, talked about the fifth year. Everything he said was correct. I was there for the five-year Parliaments that existed between 1970 and last year. It is quite true that, in every case, the fifth year was the least glorious. However, it would be a little naive to suggest that there would not be a concentration on the forthcoming election in the fourth year. One has only to look across the Atlantic at the ridiculous two-year cycles for the House of Representatives and the four-year presidential cycle to see that potential presidential candidates are already being lined up by the Republicans although the general election is a long time ahead. Of course that would happen here as well. Therefore, we in this House have to accept—in my case reluctantly—that the House of Commons has sent us the Bill. We have the ultimate power to reject it completely. However, that would not be an advisable course for your Lordships' House to take, even though we would be entirely within our rights to take it. Instead, we should decide whether the five-year term enshrined in the Bill is the right way forward.

The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have put themselves into a difficult position, because if we insert “four” rather than “five” into the legislation, their resolution made last year to serve five years will be blown apart. Of course, the House of Commons would send back the Bill. Therefore, I suggest that perhaps the best way forward is to accept, with whatever degree of reluctance but with total understanding, the five-year wish of the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, but then to look to the future beyond that to consider what should be the normal life of a Parliament. On that question, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, in an excellent speech, put his finger on a number of very important points. Beyond 2015, it would be prudent and sensible to listen to the advice not only of many theoretical experts and academics, but of others who have had practical experience of politics, and to say that if the Government insist on fixed-term Parliaments after 2015, the term should be four years.

My Lords, I am not sure that I would be happy with the proposal that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, made, although I can see merit in it. However, I was very interested in what he said about the Bill laying bare the criticism that has been made of the Prime Minister for using as a defence of the five-year Parliament and of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill the argument that somehow it will take away power from the Prime Minister. It will take away power from subsequent Prime Ministers. As David Laws's book and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, spelt out clearly, it was the Prime Minister who decided, with the Deputy Prime Minister, that the next general election would be five years hence, and gave the precise date. He did it far longer in advance than previous Prime Ministers, but none the less he made the decision himself.

I will address a comment made by a number of noble Lords in various debates that deserves a response from people like me who do not like the Bill but feel that if we must have fixed terms, we would prefer four years to five. The criticism directed toward us is that the worries in the final year of a five-year Parliament are not significantly different from the difficulties that come at the conclusion of a four-year Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, touched on that. The argument is that people will be electioneering for a full year, knowing when the election will come, that the Government will gear their legislative programme to the timing of the election, and that the situation will not be significantly different regardless of whether that election comes at the end of four years or five.

However, it is my experience, and that of many other noble Lords who have spoken, that a five-year Parliament historically has been less successful than a four-year Parliament, and that the fifth year is always a tired and weary year, when the authority of the Government is running down and may or may not get renewed. It is often a very bad-tempered year, with constant demands from the Opposition for the Government to resign and put their record to the electorate. I will not quote names, but many Ministers in the fifth year of a Parliament want to retire but know that it would be disloyal to the Government to quit when an election is coming at a proximate but indeterminate date. A Parliament gets tired and needs refreshing. It is almost a relief when the election comes and a new Parliament can, with renewed vigour, come into operation with a new Government, although not necessarily of a new party. All sorts of things contribute to that. Members of Parliament announce their retirement during the course of a Parliament, but there would be far more such announcements towards the end of a five-year Parliament than towards the end of a four-year one. I had better be careful how I say this but people who know that they are retiring do not give it quite the full welly as they would if they thought they might be sitting in the following term.

There is also a practical problem. This is probably rather an esoteric point but I think that many in the Chamber will recognise it. With fixed five-year terms, when you have to commit yourself to fighting the next general election, which is normally around half-way through a Parliament, you are committing yourself to remaining in Parliament for at least eight years—no one dares to call a by-election these days, or at least they do so only very rarely—and that is a very big commitment to make, certainly when you get to about your mid-50s.

Therefore, in terms of the last year, there is a significant difference between a five-year and a four-year Parliament. Of course, this country has the advantage of a wonderfully flexible constitution, so we are able empirically to compare what has happened in the past with four and five-year Parliaments. I hope that I have at least attempted to answer the criticism that it really does not make much difference whether it is a four or a five-year term.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, may think that I am rather a sad figure but over the weekend I reflected on what he said in his response last week. He said something that threw me—I had not thought of it. I was arguing, as I am now, for a four-year Parliament—not of a fixed term but normally four years—and I challenged him on why on earth a Liberal Democrat within a Government would say that the electorate should be consulted less frequently, because I suggest to the Committee that that is what would happen. I suggested that since the Second World War there would have been 13 rather than 18 elections and the noble and learned Lord said, “Ah, you can’t really assume that that is the case because, under the provisions of this Bill, who knows how many elections there would have been. Some might have been instigated by the two-thirds rule”. On reflection, that is not the strongest of arguments. I hope that in responding to this debate he will at least concede that there could not have been more general elections than there would have been had his Act been in operation, because there is a maximum amount of time that a Parliament can sit. Therefore, it must surely be true that there would have been fewer. I think it is incredibly unlikely that the two-thirds provision would have precipitated an election. The only occasion when there was an early election due to parliamentary activity was when the Jim Callaghan Government lost the vote of confidence, and that would have applied under this legislation. In fact, it might not have applied and poor Jim Callaghan would have had to enter a 14-day cooling-off period, or whatever you call it. That has always struck me as an odd suggestion.

I have a final question for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace. The defence that his leader gave of the proposal for a five-year Parliament is contained in the Second Reading debate of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. When challenged as to the justification for five years, he said:

“Leaving aside the very short Parliaments, half of all Parliaments since the war have run for more than four years, so five years is … in keeping with our current arrangements”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/9/10; col. 625.]

I do not know what he did at university, but it was not logic. That is the equivalent of a batsman saying, “My batting average would have been 100 if you eliminate the ducks”. Basically that is what he is doing in terms of averages. We need from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, a better justification for five years than has been offered to the Committee so far.

My Lords, accepting, as I suspect we all do, that this is a matter of judgment, I suggest to the Committee that the judgment referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, is best made by a serious assessment of the balance between, on the one hand, the likelihood—although not the certainty under the provisions of the Bill—of less frequent elections and, on the other, the stability that a five-year Parliament offers and the opportunity for the electorate to bring a greater maturity of judgment because of the experience that they have of the Parliament and the Government after five years rather than four years. In making that judgment I suggest that the historical precedents since the war are of limited assistance, precisely because we have not had fixed-term Parliaments.

One complaint of those who argue for four years is that the Bill substitutes five years for a maximum of five years and a norm of four years. That is the effect of the Bill, but the complaint ignores the fact that the effect in practice of the 1911 Act has been that, where a Government have had a working majority, the Parliament has lasted five years if the Prime Minister has believed that he or she will lose, which means that he or she has stayed for the full term. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, and the noble Lord, Lord Martin, argued that the fifth year tends to be a lame-duck year—an ineffective year. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said much the same thing. It is an ineffective year because, it is said, in the case of five-year Parliaments, the Government is tired and expects to lose. However, you cannot deduce from that that, where everyone knows that the next election is fixed for the end of the five years, there will be similar exhaustion.

In the past, when a Prime Minister has expected to win, he or she has gone after four years. That analysis is borne out by the elections of 1964, 1979, 1997 and 2010. In each of those years, the election was held at the end of five years and the Government went on to lose. An exception is the election of 1992, when the Government expected to lose and were rather surprised to win. The only other exception to that analysis, although it is not a real exception, is the election of February 1974, which noble Lords will know was held for special reasons. However, that election gives us a useful analysis of whether it is true to say that there would have been four fewer elections or whether you can count the elections and say that there would have been that many fewer. I suggest that under the provisions of this Bill it is highly likely that there would in any case have been an election in 1974 because when the then Prime Minister said, “I want an election to determine the issue of who governs the country, the Government or the miners”, the then Opposition to Mr Heath would have accepted the challenge and voted for an election, so that Parliament would have been dissolved on a two-thirds majority basis. It is not possible to say how many fewer elections there might have been. The Bill makes the basis for Dissolution more logical and removes what we say is the unfairness of allowing the Prime Minister sole charge of when there is an election.

As we know, the average length of Parliaments since the war has been three years and 10 months. I suggest that the calculation of that average term is of no assistance. The principal point against the relevance of such an average is that it takes into account all those early elections called by the Prime Minister in the exercise of precisely the power that the Bill is designed to remove. Secondly, it takes into account the very early elections of 1951, 1966 and October 1974. In that sense, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is right to say that it leaves out the ducks, but those ducks are important to leave out because, in the calculation of a sensible term for a Parliament with a working majority, those Parliaments where the Government had no working majority and had to go to the country early are of no assistance.

I am interested in the noble Lord’s arguments. He knows that his party’s policy for many years was, honourably, that there should be fixed terms for four years. Did he support that policy? If not, was he always a five-year man? If he did support that policy, when was it that he changed his mind to five years? Was it, by any chance, around the time that the coalition was formed?

That is a perfectly fair question, because it is well known that it was Liberal Democrat policy to go for four-year fixed terms. However, it is quite clear that the formation of the coalition caused people to consider their policy and the arguments one way or the other. The coalition has put forward a programme for government. It is a considered view—which, I suggest, is no less right because it is a view come to after negotiation, the negotiations to which Mr Laws refers in the book that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, is now reading—that that period gives more stable government. The question for this House is, in the light of what has happened, to consider whether five years is better than four. The history of the Liberal Democrat policy on the point does not assist us. We have to bring a new and balanced judgment to the question now before Parliament.

Surely if five years is what the leaders of the coalition want—I fully understand that, as I have made quite plain—we do not need the legislation for that. How does the noble Lord answer that point? They can have that under current legislation.

The noble Lord is quite right to point that out, but it has long been Liberal Democrat policy, with which I firmly agree and consider extremely important, that we should have fixed-term Parliaments in the long term, because they make a level playing field. The question that we are considering in the context of the Bill is whether those Parliaments should be for four years or five. It is of no assistance to say that we can fix a Parliament for five years now and decide later. We are determining the right period under the Bill. This Parliament cannot bind its successors, as the noble Lord plainly knows. If a future Parliament should take a different view, it is for that Parliament to legislate, as my noble friend pointed out. However, on consideration of this Parliament and what we should do now, we say that, as a matter of principle, it is right to go for five years.

Understandable concern has been expressed on all sides of the House and by the Constitution Committee about the need for pre-legislative scrutiny. If we accept that there is a need for pre-legislative scrutiny of important legislation, then the first year of a Parliament will generally be given over in respect of important legislation to that scrutiny.

I accept that; it gives rise to the concern that has been expressed and that I am, for these purposes, accepting. If it be the case that enactment of legislation starts in year two of a Parliament, and given the point made by the noble Lords, Lord Martin and Lord Grocott, which I think we all accept, that the last year of a Parliament is given over to preparing for a general election, a five-year Parliament leaves a period of three years for positive legislation and a four-year Parliament leaves only two years, because we all accept that inevitably the imminence of Dissolution makes legislation more difficult, as the time is limited in the last year. I suggest to the House that the stability that is required for the convenient and sensible passage of legislation is better achieved with three whole years between the first and last years.

In terms of government rather than simply legislation, I also suggest that four years runs a danger of leading to short-term planning, which inhibits a strategic approach to all forms of activity in government. That point was well made by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, at Second Reading.

On the other side, of course it is the case that regular recourse to the electorate is at the heart of our democratic system of government. However, there is no doubt that Governments that are too driven by early electoral considerations may not be the best or most effective Governments. The four-year term in the United States is frequently and rightly criticised for its shortened electoral cycle and for the fact that from far too early in the term the Administration are looking for the prospects of re-election—all political eyes are firmly fixed on the next election.

The last point is this: a shorter term has the effect of depriving the electorate of the time to judge on mature reflection the effectiveness of government policy and legislation. That is particularly true of a reforming Government who reform the way in which the public services are delivered and taxes and benefits are administered, as this Government will and as may be the case with many future Governments. That is the case because the preparations for the Dissolution and an election come at a time when much of what the Government have done during the term, particularly after the first year of the term—this brings me back to the point about pre-legislative scrutiny—has not had time to take effect, so the electorate have not had the opportunity to judge what the Parliament and the Government have done during the term.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, laughed when I talked about a matter of principle with reference to what I had previously described, and continue to describe, as a matter of judgment. Of course that is right, but I suggest that the better balance between four years and five years is the one that the Government have struck and incorporated in this Bill as unamended.

My Lords, I keep hearing the words, “It is a matter of judgment”. I heard them from the noble Lord, Lord Marks, on several occasions in connection with giving the electorate the power to decide. I just heard a reference to the importance of time for pre-legislative scrutiny and allowing people who are about to vote an opportunity to maturely evaluate the Government’s policy. I am beginning to feel as though we live in a different place, because we have a whole plethora of constitutional reforms before us, who have to vote on them, with no opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny and no opportunity to see how the first bit, the second bit, the third bit and the fourth bit come together.

Then, in the middle of it all, is the bit of the Bill that perhaps worries me even more than the five and four years: who, how and in what circumstances the proposed five or even four years could be varied. I have heard a variety of ways in which a Prime Minister can decide that it is a good time for an election if he thinks it is in his interest, although I think that convincing the Opposition that it is a good time for an election will be quite a hard task. Having heard all these arguments, however, I am not allowed to see what this coalition Government propose to do. This is against a background of assurances that I keep getting that they know where they are going and they know who is going with them, but it sure ain’t me because they are not telling me where they are going.

I have been asked to vote on changing the system of votes, which is being put to the people in the AV referendum, without being told what is being proposed for people being elected to this House. All these things keep being thrown at me by people who say, “Oh well, it is a matter of judgment”. In the end, a bit like the dance of the seven veils, all will be revealed. However, I want to know the whole picture now before I am asked to start pulling apart some of the parts of the structure of our constitution. The argument is therefore surely that it would have been better if the coalition had concentrated on fewer Bills that made fewer changes to the constitution, had put them out for quick pre-legislative scrutiny and did not Christmas-tree them. Those who have been in government know that the minute the whole plethora of people in any department see a Bill looming, they start hanging little baubles on it, complicating it and muddying the whole picture. I am therefore uneasy.

On the use of the term “judgment”, I think that it is a bit arrogant of the coalition—a new form of government in this country for a long time—to say, “We are making a judgment about when you can vote to judge us, and we are restricting the way in which it is going to be done”. Perhaps, having a somewhat warped political mind, I can see that it is just possible, in reaching an agreement to form a coalition, that neither party trusted the other and so the five years had to be set in concrete in case either one pulled the rug from under the other. However, I am then assured that in the middle of the Bill is the opportunity for the Prime Minister of the day suddenly to pull the rug out anyway, although I suppose he would have to get his Deputy Prime Minister to support him.

On the argument about the length of time that it takes to bring in legislation, in my view the public out there have the right to expect to be able to voice their view on what happens in the future. It is just possible that, within the next two years, some people who are currently members of the coalition will not want to be tied to a fixed term of five years. They could be members of either party; it is not always the most adulterous one who ends up getting divorced.

I am concerned. Why cannot we have a big picture for all these constitutional changes? Why cannot we substitute this judgment that we ought to be laying in concrete an agreement of convenience for this particular Government? Why are we wasting our time legislating to set that in concrete? We are wasting our time because they can do that anyway. They do not need this Bill to do that, so why on earth are we being told that they do? I am beginning to get suspicious, because from certain Benches—from parties to this Government—I keep hearing, “Well, we are voting for this now. It is not what we really want, but we will get what we want next time”. I have met the odd person out there who has said to me, “Hey, I watched that debate, and the Lib Dems said that they do not really like AV, but it is better than what we have, and anyway it is a road to somewhere else”.

Finally, I cannot resist remembering when I sat on those Benches over there during the first stage of House of Lords reform. I heard a member of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition at the time—a former Home Secretary—come out with the words, “The wicked thing the Labour Government are trying to do is force an extension of the life of government”. Who is doing it? Not us. Can we please have the big picture, can we ask the British people what they think, and can we not patronise them by saying, “You need longer to be able to judge us”?

My Lords, I think most would agree that there is merit in the arguments on both sides of the debate on whether the term of Parliament should be fixed. However, if there is merit in the argument for the term being fixed at five years, it is merit that passed by both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats until the coalition agreement enlightened them. Nearly a year after that agreement, Ministers have still not managed to find a way of articulating that case persuasively.

The Government’s proposition is that they have a mandate for this proposal—this was one of the arguments used by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, on Second Reading—because an appetite for political reform was manifested at the last general election. That is a questionable proposition, to put it at its politest, because it conflates an arguable general distrust and dislike of politicians with a wish for a specific proposal for a five-year fixed term for Parliament. The Government’s argument that five years is somehow part of our political culture—the Deputy Prime Minister has made this argument—ignores inconvenient facts about the average length of post-war Parliaments. Of the last seven Parliaments, for example, four have lasted for about four years and three for five years. Moreover, the proposition, which Ministers have also advanced, that the Parliament Act somehow supports this proposal confuses setting a maximum term with fixing a norm. Then, of course, there is the selective quoting of international examples, nearly always in discussions of constitutional reform—a refuge for the intellectually desperate.

Does it matter that the Government have so inadequately made the case for a fixed term of five years? I think it does. This is not a matter of a finely balanced judgment one way or another, with there being really nothing very much to choose between a four-year term and a five-year term. Of course there is an element of judgment in these things, but, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, so eloquently set out, the overwhelming weight of expert opinion is in favour of four years. Anything longer inevitably—logically, inevitably—delays the calling to account of the Executive, and it creates an accumulating democratic deficit.

In the absence of any persuasive arguments for a five-year term, this flaw is toxic. It is particularly toxic because of the process by which this Bill has been brought before Parliament and the damaging perception that this has created the motivation behind the selection of five years as the fixed term for Parliament. Due process and perceptions of motivation matter especially for constitutional legislation because they can create public trust in the integrity of our constitutional arrangements or they can destroy it. A constitution which does not command the trust and respect of the citizens it serves is a constitution without value.

So what has been the process for this Bill? There has been no manifesto commitment to its key detail or any compelling argument for it. There has not been a Green Paper, a White Paper or public consultation. The process has consisted simply of ramming this hastily and poorly drafted Bill through Parliament as quickly as the business managers can get it through. This creates a perception which has been widely voiced. I am very grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer for telling the House about the account given in Mr David Laws’ history of the formation of the coalition agreement. I am sure that Mr Laws did not wish to be quite as unhelpful to his colleagues who remain in government as he has turned out to be. Nevertheless, the citizen might legitimately ask, “Why did the Government suddenly abandon a historic Liberal Democrat commitment to a fixed four-year term?”. Why would two parties which are locked in an uneasy embrace, trying to find a way to govern together that does not lead to an electoral annihilation for one or other or both of them, suddenly decide to extend the fixed term to five years?

My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer’s quote from Mr George Osborne tells us everything that we need to know about this. The Government have yet to come up with one good argument about why the motivation for this move to a five-year term is nothing more than the search for short-term, partisan, political advantage, seeking to stay in power, locked together, for as long as they possibly can. Sadly—I say sadly because I know that many Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches have long and honourable histories of espousing constitutional reform—this sort of short-term partisan manoeuvring is coming to characterise this Government’s constitutional legislation. It injects poison into the system. It creates suspicion where there should be trust and volatility where there should be stability. This really is no way to legislate for constitutional matters.

Accepting this amendment would help to neutralise this poison, but I fear that the Minister—characteristically amiably, no doubt—will try to find reasons for resisting it. I fear that the Government will ignore the reservations, which we have heard over and over again in this debate, which has gone on now for nearly one and a half hours, just as they have ignored all the other doubts about their constitutional legislation, and that they will just whip this Bill through. Despite that, I hope that the noble and learned Lord who moved this amendment will test the opinion of the House on the matter, if not now then at Report. This House should do its constitutional duty whatever view Ministers take of theirs.

This House pursues this discussion with considerable passion and at times almost with an element of ferocity, which is how it should be. But I have to admit that it has left me rather confused. I have done my best to follow the arguments. Should it be four years or five years? Should it be three years and 10 months or some other figure? Statistics have been hurled around this House and given a mythical, almost mystical, significance and, at times, even an ethical significance. Some say that “this figure is right and that figure is wrong”, and not just wrong but downright wicked. It is enough to make a young chap giddy.

For better or worse, as a party official and a prime ministerial adviser, I was involved with the process of helping to choose one or two election dates in the 1880s and 90s.

Did I? My memory does not go back quite that far but I thank noble Lords. I can confirm that there was nothing mythical or mystical about it and least of all could the process be described as ethical. There is only one reason why Prime Ministers choose this or that election date and that is because he or she thinks that the chosen date gives them the best possible chance of winning. For a party leader, elections are rather like the gunfight of the OK Corral. There is no future for the loser; they are likely to be dragged out of the arena feet first and never seen again. Prime Ministers sweat over these decisions—even the fragrant ones.

We keep hearing that four years is best. The question remains: why have Prime Ministers so often chosen to hold an election after just four years? The answer is very simple. Except in the most extreme circumstances they do not go earlier because there is nothing to be gained: they will only be accused of cutting and running. They do not often carry on beyond four years for fear of running foul of events or the economy or the private excesses of some wayward Cabinet Minister. I am afraid that these decisions have nothing to do with the astrological significance of the figures four or five. It has simply been a matter of self-preservation.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, spoke about the natural rhythms. I think that in a previous debate we heard someone refer to the natural biorhythms of the British constitution, a point picked up in the Select Committee report. I admire the noble and learned Lord almost beyond expression. His knowledge of our constitution is profound but I fear that his romantic nature might have led him astray on this one. In my less than humble experience—Conservative chiefs of staff do not usually do humble or, if they do, they do not tend to survive—it has nothing to do with biorhythms: it is simply the uncertainty of that fifth year that leads Prime Ministers to opt for four—nothing else. But remove that uncertainty, as this Bill does, and I suspect that we will find that Prime Ministers are more than delighted to soldier on to the end with absolutely no complaint. They will carry on in Downing Street, their biorhythms entirely undisturbed. After all, Prime Ministers love office. They never know when to give up. They hang on as long as possible, and almost always too long, leaving their fingernails in the Downing Street carpet as they say goodbye.

Another argument, which was picked up by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and the noble Lord, Lord Martin, is that somehow a fifth year is always unsatisfactory; that for some metaphysical reason the Government will run out of steam after four years. We have heard of the term, the lame duck—the least glorious of years—but it is only the uncertainty that causes distraction, which is what this Bill does away with. Give a Prime Minister a certain election date and, instead of confusion, there will be a reasoned, possibly somewhat reckless, campaign of tax cuts, heady promises and kissed constituency babies—in other words, business as usual.

Of course, another argument has been put forward; namely, that a five-year term deprives the electors of a more frequent choice than four years. The logic of that is, of course, indisputable. But, if the noble Lord will forgive me, it is also absurd. Follow that logic and we would end up with elections every three years or two years or perhaps every year. Looking at the US congressional system where politicians are constantly campaigning, I am inclined to suggest that there is no obvious connection between more frequent elections on the one hand and better government on the other. Above all else, it is better government that we should be seeking.

There is no democratic deficit of the sort suggested by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. There is no shortage of elections. We have more elections for more Parliaments than at any time in our history. But whether all those elections and elected politicians have given us better government I suspect is a matter to be discussed on another day.

The crucial point is this: should it be four years, should it be five, or three point something or other? Having dismissed the relevance of so many statistics, let me offer a few of my own. Looking back over the last eight elections, which takes us back an entire generation or more to the dark days of 1974, the average lifespan of a Parliament has been nearly four and a half years. To me that is just as legitimate as the figure which is so often quoted, that of three years and 10 months. But we are told that four years is what the people demand. If that is the case, where is the surge of public indignation, the outrage that our biorhythms have been disturbed and the voters left short-changed by four-and-a-half year or five-year parliaments? The argument about four years and only four years simply will not wash.

To garble the phrase, there are exaggerations, irrelevancies and political evidence. We have heard plenty of all three in this debate. If we are looking for a norm, it is four and a half years, not three years and 10 months, at least in our recent history. What should we read into that? Precisely nothing. Except that in every one of the last eight elections, the Prime Minister chose a polling date that was thought to be in his or her interest. It is self-interest, not the national interest, and there is no magic in a term of four years. That is because, of course, Prime Ministers have a terrible habit of stumbling to the conclusion that they are the national interest, and that is what lies behind these statistics, nothing more. Statistics will not resolve this issue for us; it is up to us.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He has mentioned the last eight elections. I may be slow in my arithmetic, but I think that would take us to 1979 as the first one he has chosen since there have been eight elections since then. I think he said that in the last eight elections, the Prime Minister has always chosen the date for his own benefit. I do not think that that is something James Callaghan could be accused of.

I think it takes us back to 1974. I well remember Lord Callaghan, as he became. Indeed, he first introduced me to this House by giving me tea here. I owe him a great deal and I have the most profound respect for him. But I am surprised that the noble Lord should quote 1979 as being the pinnacle of constitutional principle. It was sheer self-interest based on the opinion polls, like it was for all other Prime Ministers.

I may be wrong, but my recollection is that Mr Callaghan went to the country because of a Motion of no confidence passed in the House of Commons. To describe him as choosing an election date seems, if I may say so, a little misplaced.

The noble and learned Lord misunderstands me. The election date that he was going to choose was in the previous October, and that is where he got it wrong. In his own self-interest, he thought that he should soldier on, despite the evidence. Let me not be distracted, but I am surprised that the noble and learned Lord remembers 1978 and 1979 so fondly. I have to say that it is not an example that I would wish to follow.

Statistics will not resolve this issue. In the decision over whether it should be four years or five, I find myself, rather oddly, agreeing with the Deputy Prime Minister who, in a celebrated quote of his when asked if he thought 12 months here or there mattered very much, replied, “No, I do”. I think that he summed up the situation admirably. So let us have five years. I do not know if it is a matter of principle, as my noble friend Lord Marks says—I probably would not go that far—or of sheer practicality, but it is as close to the norm as four years. If any of the political parties find it somehow offensive, they are entirely at liberty to change it. All they have to do is to win an election, and because of this Bill they will have the immense benefit of knowing precisely when that election will be held.

Even taking the extreme position of supposing that every Parliament runs its full term, a premise that personally I doubt very much, surely extending the average length of a Parliament from the present four-and-a-half years to five does no great disservice to our constitution, and by enhancing the possibility of sensible, long-term government, it offers considerable benefits in compensation.

My Lords, I have a brief point to make, but first I agree with the noble Lord who has just spoken that you cannot compare the frequency of Parliaments under a fixed-term arrangement with the frequency of Parliaments under a variable-term arrangement. They are not comparable things. I would also say to the noble Lord, Lord Marks, who expressed his distress that a Government would have only two years to legislate, not three, that if he had been in Parliament as long as I have, he would pray for fewer Bills to come from a Government rather than more. So I do not think that the quality of a Government is measured by the number of Bills they introduce; I think exactly the reverse.

I have one anxiety, which I shall explain. This Bill does not actually fix the term at five years, but at five years and two months. There is a distinct possibility that, again and again, a Prime Minister would be able to breach the standard convention that a term of five years is the limit. That is a fundamental part of our constitution. This Bill breaches that by allowing, in Clause 1(5), for an extra two months. We ought to take this very seriously. Prime Ministers can find good excuses to delay elections. As has been pointed out, if they see better a better chance two months hence, they will find a way of waiting. I do not care how long this goes on for—whether it goes on for 10-and-a-half years—but we should take the breach of a very fundamental political principle seriously. The advantage of my noble and learned friend’s amendment is that, even if a Prime Minister uses the two-month option, we would never breach the five-year rule. That is a telling argument in favour of the amendment.

My Lords, in 2005, together with my noble friend Lord Razzall, I was responsible for the Liberal Democrat general election campaign. The manifesto for that campaign contained a commitment to fixed-term Parliaments and specified terms of four years. Obviously I have changed my mind, and I should like to give the Committee three good reasons why I have done so. However, before I do that, I would point out to some noble Lords opposite that only last year they fought a general election on a manifesto promising that, if re-elected to government, the party would legislate for fixed-term Parliaments. The party has still not said how it would have legislated to “ensure” that there would be fixed-term Parliaments, and made no mention whatever of what the term of those fixed-term Parliaments would be. If the case for four years rather than five years was so absolutely clear cut, as suggested by some noble Lords opposite, I wonder why it was not included in the Labour Party manifesto of only last year.

The first reason why I think I have changed my mind is through simply looking at the balance of a five-year term for a Parliament and how much of that time might be spent governing or how much doing anything else. My noble friend Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames referred to the case for more pre-legislative scrutiny. I feel quite strongly that in the circumstances we have in this year in this Parliament, our legislation would be rather better if there was more draft legislation and more pre-legislative scrutiny, and I hope that when fixed terms of five years become the norm, there will be more of a case for such scrutiny in the first year of a Parliament, which would be good for the governance of the country.

Knowing that this Parliament is going to last for five years, surely there is time for pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill. Why does the noble Lord not support that position in relation to this Bill?

In this Bill, we do not necessarily know whether we will have five-year terms or not. If the noble and learned Lord has his way, we will have four-year terms, not five years.

Am I given to understand that the reason for not giving this Bill any pre-legislative scrutiny is fear that it may not get through?

No, indeed. There are many things that require considerable scrutiny. But it seems to me that the actual principle of a fixed-term Parliament has been considered a number of times in a number of ways. I happen to think, for the reasons I am trying to advance, that five years is more logical. The first reason is that the first year of a Parliament would, more normally in the future, provide more time for draft legislation and pre-legislative scrutiny. As we all know, the last year of a Parliament tends to be given over to government campaigns rather than legislation. If we had only four years and the first year was dominated more by pre-legislative scrutiny and the last year dominated more by campaigning, only two years of government out of the four would be effective. That, as my noble friend Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames said, is the problem with the US system. There, the period is four years, but everybody knows that in the first two years the President governs and then, after the mid-term elections, the second two years are all about campaigning for re-election.

There are two other points which are quite significant. They have not been made in this debate and some noble Lords opposite may wish to address them.

Before the noble Lord finishes telling us why he changed his mind, perhaps I may point out that all the considerations in favour of a five-year term that he is now advancing, and the issues that he has brought into play, have been well known for many years—in fact, all the years during which he was in favour of a four-year fixed term. Can he tell us now precisely why he changed his mind?

The first reason is one about which the noble Lord, Lord Wills, should know a great deal. I pay great tribute to him as a genuine constitutional reformer. He was responsible in the previous Parliament and in the previous Government for changing significantly some of the rules on party political expenditure. Noble Lords opposite shared my concern throughout much of the 13 years and the three Parliaments of the previous Government about the lack of a level playing field in this country in party financing, which gave too much opportunity to extremely wealthy individuals to influence an election, particularly in constituencies, in the immediate run-up to it. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, introduced legislation in the previous Parliament which provided for control of that expenditure after four years and seven months of a Parliament. There would be no controls before that; they would apply only after four years, seven months. I opposed that legislation on the ground that it would work logically only if you had a five-year fixed-term Parliament. Noble Lords opposite had no answer to that point, but decided that four years, seven months was how it should be. So, now, our legislation to regulate party political expenditure is entirely dependent on there being a five-year fixed-term Parliament and on those controls coming in after four years and seven months through to the 60th month of the Parliament, and no other period.

I wonder whether my noble friend recalls that not only the noble Lord, Lord Wills, but all his political colleagues in another place promoted that legislation in terms precisely of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act and the control of the expenditure of political parties. Why have the noble Lord and all his colleagues changed their minds? I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, is back in his usual place. Perhaps he would like to explain why he has changed his mind, having teased my noble friend on this point.

My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords opposite will have an opportunity to explain their points. Perhaps I may briefly explain the third reason for my having decided that five years is better than four years. It is again a question of consistency. We agreed relatively recently and after lengthy debate—the longest that we have had in the time that I have been here—on the system for parliamentary boundary reviews. It has been established that there will be five-year reviews of constituency boundaries. It would be madness to say that one should redraw the constituency boundaries every five years but then not to have general elections every five years. To have a general election every four years but to redraw the boundaries every fifth year would put the two processes completely and quite unfairly out of sync. On that basis, I decided that five years rather than four was more logical and more democratic.

Would the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, care to comment on the fact that the first reason he gave for changing his mind applied before he espoused and promoted his manifesto for the election? Between his saying, “Vote Liberal Democrat; we’re in favour of four years” and reaching the conclusion that it should be five years, the people went and voted thinking that it was four. The noble Lord knew about the legislation that had been passed by the previous Government. I see a pattern however. I am grateful to him for his comment on five-yearly parliamentary boundary reviews and I shall go away and think about that very seriously.

I thank the noble Baroness, particularly for her latter point. In response to her first point, about how I should have known all this before 2005, I say very honestly that if all of us ignored all the evidence and all that we had learnt during the past six years, this place would be a poorer place and our legislation the poorer for it. I have reflected over the six years and have been convinced by many people that there should more pre-legislative scrutiny and more draft legislation. In 2005, I did not feel so strongly about that. Some of the more recent evidence points me in the direction of being strongly in favour of five-year, rather than four-year, fixed-term Parliaments.

My Lords, if we are to have a fixed-term Parliament, and I believe that we should not, we will do less damage if we fix it at four years rather than at five. I rather agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, and with my noble friend Lord Wills that there is little advantage to be gained when we are considering how to reform our own constitution, which has grown out of our distinctive political and constitutional tradition, in looking over the way to see how such matters are organised in other countries. I do not think that when de Tocqueville engaged in such an exercise he was intellectually desperate; it was quite a fruitful exercise. It is worth noting that there is no advanced country with which we can sensibly be compared that fixes the terms of its Parliament for as long a period as five years. France has a fixed term of five years, but it has presidential government; Italy has a fixed term of five years, but Italy is a byword for governmental instability; Malta and Luxembourg have fixed five-year terms, but we cannot sensibly compare ourselves to them. I do not think that there is an advanced democracy abroad which sets the term of its Parliament at five years which should encourage us. If we look inwards at our own affairs, we should remind ourselves that the terms of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly are set at four years. It is therefore incumbent upon the Government to explain why they have taken such an eccentric view. It is all the more so because setting the term at five years, notwithstanding what the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, said, seems to be at odds with the principles that the Liberal Democrats have professed.

If we fix the term of Parliament, for whatever duration, we insulate Members of Parliament and, significantly, Ministers from public opinion. The longer the term, the worse that effect; the shorter the term, the more accountability and democratic engagement are brought into play. In the light of all the professions that the Deputy Prime Minister has made about the whole thrust of the constitutional reforms being brought forward by the coalition Government being to improve accountability and democratic engagement, it seems very odd that they should have decided on five years rather than four. It was Mr Mark Harper, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, when he was giving evidence to your Lordships Select Committee on the Constitution, who used the phrase, “it is an issue of judgment”. It should not perhaps surprise us very much that the judgment that the Government took was that which best suited the political interest of the coalition parties. I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, will be able to persuade us that the Government have some better reason.

My Lords, I decided to intervene briefly in this debate because I felt that the arguments advanced by my noble friend Lord Armstrong at Second Reading had not been given voice and because he was not in his place. He now is in his place and I think that he could put them a lot better than I can. They have been referred to, but I should like to reinforce them.

Like other noble Lords, I do not like this Bill. It is an unnecessary Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, if the Government had wanted to commit themselves to a five-year Parliament, they could have done that under the old legislation. For that reason, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, this is not a Bill that binds the present Government so much as it does future Governments. There has been a lot of speculation in the debate about the Government’s motives for what they have done. I do not want to enter into that, because I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that what this House should do is decide on principle what is better for the country. On that issue, I come down in favour of the view expressed by my noble friend Lord Armstrong at Second Reading. I do so for a reason which I am sure will be dismissed as a Sir Humphrey-esque argument, as a bureaucrat’s argument, but I am not ashamed of that. Those of us who have seen government from the inside—the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, made this point, rather unexpectedly from my point of view, but from a political perspective—have reason to put to the House that too frequent elections are not good for the government of the country. Terrible things are done in the lead-up to a general election. Decisions are put off or are made in budgets which are designed to attract voters and are not in the interests of the country. For example, it will be in your Lordships’ memory that the Personal Care at Home Bill, which was introduced by the previous Government before the general election, was a blatant piece of electioneering. I made the point then that, in the economic conditions of the country, it was irresponsible to the highest degree. So to have elections more often than we need to have is not in the best interests of government.

Some people may say that I am against democracy, but that would be unfair. Of course there have to be elections. However, if there is a choice between every four years or five years, I would argue in favour of a five-year term.

Can the noble Lord comment on the point that all the experts who gave evidence, both in the House of Lords committee and in the House of Commons, came down in favour of four years? These were experts on our constitution, both in law and in practice.

I should like to comment on that because the experts were, for the most part, either politicians or distinguished academics; they were not people who had seen government from the inside. That is why I am anxious to express this alternative point of view.

First, a number of the politicians had been Ministers. Does the noble Lord regard that as government from the inside—or were they kept from the inside by Sir Humphrey on a regular basis? Secondly, on the basis of the argument he has made, if the noble Lord was given a choice between five and six years, I assume he would choose six years because there would be even less wearisome elections then.

A balance has to be struck and I would strike it at five years.

On the previous day in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, urged a referendum on the question of the day of the week that polling should take place. In his speech today, he did not urge a referendum on going to a four-year term, which is a greater constitutional change than a change in the day of the week for voting.

My Lords, it is precisely the same issue. This is about whether the election should be every four years or five years—I am happy to accept that there may be failings in the wording of the amendment—but the principle is exactly the same: it is to enable the electorate to choose between whether the term of a Parliament should be five years or four years.

I take it that, if the amendment is passed, the noble Lord would also want a referendum on the question of whether a fixed-term Parliament should be for four or five years.

Thank you. That makes my point. It has been argued that the merit of a four-year term is that it gives the electorate more ability to hold the Government to account because they can do so more frequently. People like us and experts on government argue about what is good for the people and what the people want. If this was put to a referendum, I doubt whether there would be popular support for four-year rather than five-year terms. Elections are not very popular in this country; people do not like having their television dominated by politics for five or six weeks at a time. One of the arguments in favour of a four-year term is that we are giving the public what we think they ought to want, but I doubt they want it themselves.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for introducing the amendment. It has given rise to considerable debate in all parts of the House and a number of important and interesting arguments have been put for and against. The duration of the parliamentary term proposed in the Bill has been discussed not only at Second Reading but in some of the earlier amendments we debated on the first day in Committee. It has also been debated in the other place where, it is worth noting, amendments similar to those tabled by the noble and learned Lord were debated and rejected.

On the debates in the other place, I should indicate to the noble Lord, Lord Wills—who, at one point, suggested that the business managers were ramming the Bill through—that the Bill was introduced on 22 July 2010; it had its Second Reading in the other place on 13 September; it had two and a half days in Committee in November and December; Report and Third Reading were on 18 January; and it was introduced into this House on 19 January. We are now on the second day in Committee on 21 March and, with the best will in the world, we would be unlikely to reach Third Reading of the Bill before the Easter Recess. That does not sound like ramming a Bill through. I shall come later to the point the noble Lord made about the partisan nature of the Bill, which I strongly reject.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, suggested that I had indicated that the issue of four or five years was one of high principle, and I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, for quoting what I did say. I indicated that I did not believe there was a right or wrong answer. I think that there is a matter of important principle in terms of a general constitutional reform package. I have always strongly believed in the argument for a fixed-term Parliament, and I thought that the Labour Party supported that argument as well at the last general election.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, went on to say that he considered this a matter of high principle, although many of us are waiting to hear exactly what that principle is. I did not discern it in any of his remarks. He put forward arguments on the basis of practicality and why he felt four years was better than five. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, cited a number of academics and politicians who had given evidence to that effect as well. However, my noble friend Lord Rennard quite properly pointed out that the legislation on candidate expenses which the noble Lord, Lord Wills, took through the other place under the previous Government—which, I assume, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, was responsible for in this House—presumed that there would be a five-year Parliament. Indeed, that legislation would have been otiose if there was a four-year Parliament. No doubt we could amend that legislation but it is an insight to what the Labour Party was thinking at the time. Therefore, to elevate this to a matter of high principle is overegging the cake.

However, it is a matter of principle that the constitutional reform that the Government are working hard to achieve should have a framework for strong and stable government that can deliver results to the electorate. This Bill and a fixed five-year term would help to ensure that.

Perhaps I can now address some of the issues and explain why a five-year term would be beneficial. The current constitutional position is that any Government who retain the confidence of the other House may, if they wish, stay in office for a full five-year term. We should not kid ourselves that curtailing the length of time would be a significant change beyond simply the important change to fixed terms. On the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that the Bill made provision for five years and two months, that would be the case only if an order was brought forward in unusual circumstances—for example, if there was an outbreak of foot and mouth—and it would require a resolution of both Houses of Parliament to be implemented. Amendments will be introduced later—this evening, I hope—which will require the Prime Minister to give an explanation to both Houses as to why he or she was doing this. In fact, a Parliament need not be dissolved until five years after it is called but it is certainly possible under our existing constitutional arrangements to go beyond the five years. Under the Bill, unless there is the exceptional circumstance to which I referred, it would not be possible to go beyond five years. I understand the noble Lord’s concern but hope that he, on listening to the later debate when this comes up, will be reassured on that point.

I take the stricture of my noble friend Lord Dobbs about the dangers of trading figures. It is the case that most Parliaments since the Second World War, some 10 out of 17, have lasted at least four years. Three of the last five have lasted almost five years. Some have pointed to examples of Parliaments that have lasted closer to four rather than five, making the argument that four is somehow the norm and five is only for Governments who are clinging on to power. Yet, as was well put by my noble friend Lord Marks, those who point to the examples where the fifth year has been, if one wished to use the term, a lame duck almost make the point. These arose because the Prime Minister of the day looked at the runes, did the calculation and estimated that it would not be worth going to the electorate because he was probably not going to win. The very nature of the Government being in that position means that they are almost inevitably limping into their fifth year. That is a different situation from Governments knowing that there is a five-year fixed term and having to plan accordingly.

The noble and learned Lord also mentioned what Mr Asquith said back in February 1911. We could have a legitimate debate on what Mr Asquith was actually saying. He is quoted in the Official Report as saying that reducing the Parliament from seven years, as it previously was, to five would,

“probably amount in practice to an actual legislative working term of four years”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/2/1911; col. 1749.]

He clearly did not say that the term would be for four years but that the practical legislative working term would be for four years. That is an important point and one I will pick up later in light of the comments made at Second Reading by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. As I said, the fact that an election is called before the end of the fifth year of a term has often been cited as the Prime Minister of the day seeking to give his or her party a political advantage. The noble Lord, Lord Martin, gave examples where a Prime Minister has exercised that power and it has not come off. It is fair to say that those Prime Ministers were mightily surprised and upset by that. They could not have foreseen it: it was their wrong judgment. That cannot get away from the fact that that is what they were trying to do. My noble friend Lord Dobbs made it clear from his inside track that that is precisely what Prime Ministers try to do in those circumstances.

At Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, said—although I accept that he indicated his objection to fixed-term Parliaments as a whole—that there are merits, if you are having fixed-term Parliaments, to a term of five rather than four years. The noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, made the same point today. I remind the House what the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, said:

“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”.—[Official Report, 1/3/11; col. 971.]

That echoes the point made by Mr Asquith about what would practicably be the working life of the Parliament. Many commentators—politicians and the public—would argue that Governments can be too short term in their planning and decision-making, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Butler. Many major decisions and investments often take a significant time for their consequences to appear. We want—I hope there is a consensus in the country that people also want—to encourage future Governments to take that longer-term view rather than always to be looking for the short-term advantage, be that from being able to pick the date of the election or shortening the length of the Parliament.

The noble and learned Lord said earlier that he was not quite sure what the high principles were that are at stake here. He has just set out one of them—the interest of stability and good government. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, also made the case for this. Against that has to be traded the principle of accountability, which has informed a lot of the remarks on this side of the House. The noble and learned Lord has just referred to what the British public might want. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, also referred to this. Why precisely have the Government taken so few steps to consult the British public on this? There is no Green Paper or White Paper as far as I am aware, and no going out to the country to ask the British people how they think these respective principles of accountability and stability should be weighed in the Bill. Why have the Government not done this?

I take seriously the issue that somehow democratic accountability is being reduced. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, made the point in speaking to his amendment on the first day of Committee—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, also expressed this view—that if we had had fixed-term, five-year Parliaments there would have been a reduced number of elections. I cannot accept that that automatically follows. Taking up the point of democratic accountability, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, cannot ignore the possibility—or, more, the probability—that there would have been Parliaments that did not run their full term of five years. Perhaps February 1974 would have been an example, or October 1974, or the 1951 election.

My noble friend Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames also indicated that it is important to put the ducks—as they were described by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—in perspective. It is almost inevitable that during the past 65 years some Parliaments would not run their full course. You cannot say that every Parliament would automatically run the five years. Indeed, that is why we have the provisions in Clause 2 of the Bill.

The Minister seems to be making some of the points that I know colleagues have been anxious about. Governments and Parliament have to respond to what is going on in the outside world and with the electorate, so it is difficult to be absolutely precise in legislation as to when things should happen and be rigid about that. That is the objection of many people to the Bill. In a constitution which has evolved and which develops, the Government are trying to bring absolute certainty, when democracy does not bring certainty and should not be expected to. That is why we are having such interesting times in the Middle East at the moment.

The noble Baroness’s final point is a huge leap. As I explained at Second Reading—as did the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington—there is a spectrum between the complete flexibility that you have under the present system, which is subject to a maximum term, and the system in, I think, Norway, where there are quite rigid terms in which there is no way out if anything happens. There was a consensus that if we moved to fixed-term Parliaments, as I believe is right and as is proposed by the Bill, there should nevertheless be a mechanism to call an early election if certain circumstances arose. There was some degree of consensus on that. When we come to Clause 2, we will debate those mechanisms. I merely observe that the Constitution Committee thought that the mechanisms were fit for purpose in terms of what we are dealing with.

We have heard in this debate references to all former Prime Ministers using their judgment in their own party-political interests and that of their own futures. How do I explain to people outside that the present Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, arriving on the figure of five years, were not doing the same thing?

My Lords, I think that one can readily do so, because five years was what this Parliament was elected for. If this legislation gets through, the Prime Minister will not be able to substitute another date or another judgment, unless there are other issues. He has put that date so far away that he cannot be accused of using it—

Well, he can be accused, because noble Lords opposite will accuse him. But any reasonable person would see that, in setting the basis for a fixed-term Parliament, one could not take account five years out of the possible political vicissitudes, waves and currents in the intervening five years. If this Bill becomes law, the Prime Minister will be locked in, as will any other Prime Minister in future.

I was going to make this point later, but this is an opportune time to make it. I thought that a large part of the noble and learned Lord’s argument was that this measure is the glue that holds the coalition together. However, unless I am mistaken—and I stand to be corrected if I am—the terms of his amendment would still leave standing the election to take place on 7 May 2015. The noble and learned Lord shakes his head.

I want to correct that, because it is certainly not my intention, which is to have four years, four years, four years and so on. It is certainly not to have five years and then four years. There may be an issue with the drafting, but this is intended to set four years as the term, so be under no illusion.

I am grateful for that clarification because I had interpreted his amendment as leaving 7 May 2015 to stand and that thereafter there would be four years. I am grateful to hear the noble and learned Lord say that that was not the intention, because that was going to be the answer that I gave to my noble friend Lord Cormack. I accept that it may well be an error in the drafting.

The point that I would make is that this Parliament was elected for a maximum of five years, so in moving to a fixed-term Parliament regime we are embodying that in the Bill—and then thereafter also to have five years. That is the point that I make to the noble Lord, Lord Butler. Of course it is right and it goes without saying that no Parliament can bind its successor. The noble Lord and others say that there is no need for this legislation, but what we are seeking to do is to have fixed-term Parliaments on into the future. Other Parliaments can repeal that, but obviously it would take primary legislation to repeal a system of fixed-term Parliaments. I would very much hope that, having established the principle of fixed-term Parliaments, in the same way as we have fixed terms for devolved Assemblies, for local government and for the European Parliament, fixed terms would become the norm.

I take the point made by my noble friends Lord Marks and Lord Rennard with regard to pre-legislative scrutiny. I have been at the receiving end of many complaints about the lack of such scrutiny. There is an issue about the first year of a Government, because when they come into office they want to get on and start dealing with things. One can readily imagine the criticism that would come from the Opposition if a Government were not doing anything. However, there has been a move over the years to having more pre-legislative scrutiny, which has the effect of increasing the workload on both Houses. It is not fanciful to imagine that, following the election in 2015, a Government of whatever colour will not be able to commence their first Session of legislation with more substantive Bills until there has been a considerable amount of pre-legislative scrutiny. So we are talking about the beginning of 2016 as the time when some key pieces of legislation are introduced, having properly been looked at beforehand.

The final year, whether the term is four years or five years, is always going to be one when those seeking re-election look to their constituencies. That would reduce by some way the effective time for legislation by a Government. My noble friend Lord Norton made the point in one of our debates on the first day in Committee that Governments might run out of steam in the fifth year. Allowing for pre-legislative scrutiny and knowing that there will be five years allows for the legislative programme to be planned more effectively. The fifth year, particularly if it is a full year, not one starting at the end of November with a wash-up in the middle of March, would then be used much more effectively.

I defer to the huge experience of the noble Lord, Lord Martin, as he was Speaker of the other place and has an understanding of the parliamentary process. However, the final year, be it the fifth or the fourth year, would inevitably be one when the shadow of the coming election loomed. I also point out that my understanding is—although I may be corrected—that now Thursday debates in the other place are very often chosen by a Back-Bench Committee and that the Government have given power to the Back-Bench Committee to determine the subject matter for debate. I would be interested to know how many Divisions there have been on Thursdays in the first Session of a Parliament, as the noble Lord made the point about how few there were in the fifth Session. That is another measure that this Government have taken to put more power in the hands of Parliament rather than the Executive.

I cannot speak for what is going on in the other place at the moment. However, if my memory serves me correctly, the Minister followed Jo Grimond into the House of Commons in 1983, so he will appreciate as a former Scottish Member that on a Thursday there were votes more often than not, because we had to take the sleeper home. The other thing is that the Minister has had more experience of four-year Parliaments than five-year ones. In the last Session of a five-year Parliament, there were no votes whatever on the Floor of the House of Commons on a Thursday. That is what happened in the last Session of Parliament before the general election—there were no votes at all. The Minister has never had the experience of when that was the case.

I agree that it was never my experience. One thing that I am glad that I do not have responsibility for is how Parliament under the last Government was arranged in its final year. The point that I was making was that I believe that, be the term four or five years, the final year will be taken forward under the looming election. If one goes to four years and one has pre-legislative scrutiny, that cuts down the effective time for the Government to introduce their measures, let alone for their measures to be judged.

The noble Lord was not in the Chamber for the whole debate. He knows that I normally give way. Perhaps I can just—

The noble Lord is always trying to help. I cannot remember who it was in the last debate—it may have been my noble friend Lord Brooke—who said that one should always beware of the help that comes from certain quarters.

One treats with caution foreign comparisons because, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said, there are different circumstances. However, noble Lords mentioned the fact that there are fixed terms of four years in the United States. I happened to note, reading a copy of the Economist from earlier this month, some comment that for the Republican Party people have not yet been clearly identified as taking part in the primaries. That is just two years and two months since the inauguration of President Obama. It is in order for a Government who receive a mandate to be able to fulfil their programme over a planned period and I believe that five years is more likely to assist that than four years.

The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, will get an opportunity in future to intervene. I am sure that he will make a speech on another set of amendments, to which I shall be more than happy to reply.

At the moment, we have a system that allows up to a maximum of five years. In fact, three of the past five Parliaments have gone for five years. To remove that possibility requires a more compelling argument than we have heard. To move for four years would leave the effective working life of a Parliament and a Government sufficiently curtailed that they would not be able to implement their manifesto provisions. Therefore, I ask the House to support the idea of a five-year fixed term and ask the noble and learned Lord in those circumstances to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I will of course withdraw my amendment at the end of the debate because the purpose of debate at this stage was in order to probe and examine the arguments. The noble and learned Lord’s speech was well delivered but disappointing because it ultimately did not address the central argument being put against him: that the effect is to change our constitution, where there is a five-year maximum but the norm is around four years, to one where the norm becomes five years save in exceptional circumstances.

What everyone around the House was asking him was: why are you making this change if we have to make the judgment on what is in the best interests of good governance in this country? The Minister never answered that question at all but it is at the heart of the debate. This is not a party-political point. The reason that the noble and learned Lord cannot answer the question is that good old Mr Laws, in order to make it clear that the record should not be perverted in any way, has explained why it is five years. I do not know why the noble and learned Lord, who is an honourable man, is weaving and dodging on this. Just say, “They wouldn’t do a deal with us unless we agreed five years”. Do not try and make it something that it is not.

One of the other things that emerged so strongly from this very powerful debate was the sense that the more one talked about it, the more this House felt uneasy about being locked into this straitjacket that the Bill brings. I am in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, in the sense that I can see it to be appropriate that Parliament should in some way endorse what the Prime Minister has decided about an election. However, the Government are saying, “You have to choose between five years and four years”. I detected a real sense of unease around the House on this, but the Government are putting it that we have got to make this choice. Therefore, looking at the arguments, let us see which the best choice is. The noble and learned Lord himself said what the reason is that the Government are doing this.

Now, I cannot find my note. That would give my noble friend Lord Foulkes an opportunity to ask me a question, but I do not think that he wants to ask me any questions. I am sorry about that.

My noble and learned friend is aware that I have just spent the last year of a four-year term in the Scottish Parliament. We happen to have been legislating right up to the very last day of that Parliament. There has been none of the kind of lassitude, or the feeling that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, described as an end-of-term—what word I am I looking for?

There has been none of that fatigue in that Parliament, which has been legislating right up to the wire, and no lame dog—

Yes, I mean lame duck; I knew I would get it eventually. I can tell my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer that one of the architects of the four-year fixed-term Parliament in Scotland was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness.

How grateful I am for all that. I know that the Minister will have listened to it all.

To go back to my point, the noble and learned Lord is making us choose between five and four years, but the arguments that his Government put forward are all on the accountability side. That is what makes the case being advanced so absurd. Again, in the evidence that the Deputy Prime Minister gave to the examination of the Bill, he said in justifying it that,

“it is an unambiguous judgment on our part that reducing the power of the executive, seeking to boost the power of the legislature, making the legislatures more accountable to people ... collectively introduces the mechanisms by which people can exercise greater control over politicians”

How could he have been trying to justify the Bill as giving more accountability in a process that left the electorate with less ability to get rid of Governments, because there would be fewer general elections? What is so odd about the Government’s position is that they rely upon accountability and then propose something that produces less of it.

We heard a number of very impressive speeches. I particularly mention the speech that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, made. He went through the evidence and, with respect to everyone else, demolished the case in favour of a norm of five years. By my calculations there were five speeches, apart from that of the Minister, in favour of five years. I include in them that of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who I detected was in fact in favour of four years but said it should be five years for the first term. I respectfully suggest that we should not listen to his extremely well put siren song. To paraphrase the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, he was saying that we will just have to succumb to this awful argument that is being advanced. He is not nodding but I feel a sense coming across the Room on that. Do not be persuaded by that argument; if five years is wrong for the future, it is certainly wrong for the present.

The noble Lord, Lord Marks, described it as a point of principle. I remind noble Lords that the point he referred to was not on whether we should have fixed terms but on whether they should be of five years. To quote David Laws again, he says that Andrew Stunell,

“mentioned that our own policy was for four-year… Parliaments. … Osborne made the point that five-year parliaments were better … We made no objection to this”—

a point of principle lost in a second. What will their point of principle be tomorrow on it? I would not rely heavily on it.

Is the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, not prepared to concede that it may just be that, in spite of the frivolous tones in which he dismisses the arguments, my right honourable friend Mr Osborne may just have been right?

He might have been, but I would not rely on anybody whose point of principle—this one was adopted for years by the Liberal Democrats—evaporates in the course of one sentence in a negotiation. Say that it is a compromise or a deal done to benefit the country, but do not say that it is a point of principle which switched in the course of negotiations. That is the weakness of the argument, in my respectful submission, that the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, was making.

The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, made an impressive speech. I have never heard statistics more blatantly abused than by him. Perhaps I might draw attention to two particular points. First, he chose his starting point as October 1974 to ignore the February to October 1974 point, as he explained. Secondly, the difficulty with the fact that there was one election where the date was forced upon the Prime Minister by a Motion of no confidence was simply obliterated from his mind completely, so that he focused only on 1978. What he said was accurate in that, obviously, in choosing the date that they have for elections Prime Ministers are motivated by the chances of winning. That is the basic reason why one has a fixed-term Parliament but it does not really assist in determining between four and five years.

The speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, was the most admirable. I say that genuinely, having worked with him. He was the Cabinet Secretary in 1997 when we took power and, having seen the talent of the noble Lord, I can genuinely understand how he would find the elected politicians quite wearisome to start with, particularly when they come into power with no experience of any sort of government. If I were him, I would have the least often elections as possible but, as people have made the point, this debate is just as much about accountability as about stable government. The reason that the Bill is being brought forward—this is the Government’s defence—is because the public are fed up with the politicians and want more accountability and more mechanisms to have control over them. The idea that you do that by extending the length of a Parliament, which is the effect of this, seems, with the greatest respect, to be nonsense. Nothing could be better designed to reduce confidence in government than the disingenuous explanations that have been put forward for the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill in the course of this debate. I will withdraw my amendment, but it will be back. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Before the noble and learned Lord sits down, since he had a go at me, can he quote one piece of evidence that the public generally want four-year elections?

Can the noble Lord quote one bit of evidence in favour of five years? I suspect that the public have no view on whether it should be four years or five; it is for us to judge.

I shall answer on the noble and learned Lord’s behalf. The evidence given to the Power commission was clearly in favour of more elections rather than fewer, not more than four years apart.

Amendment 11 withdrawn.

Amendments 12 and 13 not moved.

Amendment 14

Moved by

14: Clause 1, page 1, line 8, at end insert “except if an early parliamentary general election has occurred under section 2”

My Lords, the effect of my amendment would be to remove the provision for “resetting the clock”, as the phrase goes. If the amendment were incorporated into the Bill, and were there to be an early general election under either of the two provisions in Clause 2, that early general election would not be followed by a new full fixed term of the subsequent Parliament. Only the balance of the term left over from the previous Parliament would be served by the new Parliament, and a general election would take place at the end of five years—or, if at Report we adopt a four-year fixed term, at the end of four years—as established before the early general election took place.

The provision for resetting the clock is an important element in the Bill and we should have the opportunity to think about it in Committee. I understand that in Sweden, if an early general election is called, the electoral cycle none the less remains unaltered; they have the provision that I am proposing in the Bill. Of course, Parliament legislated that there should be four-year fixed terms for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. That legislation provides for the possibility of an exceptional early election but does not provide that the clock is reset in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, and one might say that sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander.

If we are to have fixed-term Parliaments, why do we not have genuine fixed terms? That would enable the benefit of the discipline of fixed terms to be fully experienced and everyone would know where they stood. It would remove the incentive for a Government to contrive an early general election by, for example, engineering a vote of no confidence in themselves. The requirement would be less significant if in due course the House approves one of the amendments that provides that only the Leader of the Opposition may table a Motion of no confidence, but without that amendment we must recognise that there is a possibility, and it could be an attractive one, for the Government to engineer such a Motion in order to achieve an early general election. It would discourage the parties from colluding to take advantage of the two-thirds provision for an early general election, and would lead to the benefits of full five-year terms being more surely secured, as no doubt the noble Lords, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster and Lord Butler of Brockwell, would wish. It would keep the rhythm of the boundary reviews in sync with the electoral cycle, the importance of which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, stressed in our previous debate.

When Mr Harper, the Minister, gave evidence to your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, he was rather equivocal on this point—he simply said that it was a judgment issue whether or not the provision for resetting the clock should be built into the legislation. He said,

“on balance we have taken the view that resetting the clock is the right one”—

that is, the right decision. Once again, as with the issue of judgment as to whether the fixed term should be for four years or five, the coalition’s judgments just happen to favour its own interests in staying in office. Again, I ask the Minister whether the Government have any better reason for having incorporated the provision for resetting the clock in the event of an exceptional early general election.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, for the amendment. I was initially puzzled about its effect, which would be that it would provide that the next scheduled election was not held following an early general election under Clause 2. This gives me an opportunity to say something about subsections (3) and (4), as he has indicated that with this amendment he is seeking to ensure that the clock is not reset. His closing remarks indicated that this is a matter not of high principle but of judgment.

Subsections (3) and (4) of the clause provide that, where an early election occurs, the polling date for the next election will be the first Thursday in May in the fifth year of Parliament, unless the early election falls on a date before the first Thursday in May, in which case the length of the ensuing Parliament will be calculated as four years from the next first Thursday in May. That will deliver certainty as to when the next election will be, but—this is a crucial point—it also gives the incoming Government as close to a five-year term as possible. It eliminates the need for the electorate to return to the polls in quick succession, as the clock is effectively reset.

The Constitution Committee examined this aspect of the Bill. In its report it concluded that if there is an early general election, a Government elected at that poll should have a full term, or as near a full term as possible, in which to develop their policies and take their legislative programme through Parliament.

Some noble Lords may nevertheless have the concerns expressed by the noble Lord about the term of the Parliament after an early election. I know that some consider that it would be preferable for an early election not to affect the date of the ordinarily scheduled election, but that could well mean that a Parliament was given only a relatively short period of time. It may be that a Government would be elected with a substantial majority, and it would be difficult to explain to an electorate in these circumstances why it would be necessary to return so quickly when it might appear that a Government had been elected relatively recently with a mandate. They might be surprised and somewhat confused by that approach.

Not to allow an incoming Government to serve a full term would lead to a system with potentially two types of Government: those entitled to a full term to implement their policies, and those who would have to make do with the time left to them before the next scheduled election. That could also alter the nature of the elections themselves. Why should the mandate provided at one election be any different from the mandate provided at another?

I note the points made about the devolved Administrations in both Scotland and Wales. There is a difference; I think that the Northern Ireland Assembly is much more akin to what is proposed in the Bill. It is also the case that, given the proportional systems that are in place for elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, it is unlikely that you are going to get a Government elected with a large single-party mandate. If a party had not been elected with such a mandate, people would not think it so odd that it did not have a full term.

We gave consideration to this matter, but the balance comes down in favour of resetting the clock. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his amendment. It has been an opportunity for us to air this important aspect of the Bill. I hope that he will agree that there is merit in resetting the clock and, on that basis, will withdraw his amendment.

I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the Government’s case slightly more fully than the debate at Second Reading gave him the opportunity to do. After all the excitement of the previous debate, the House has not been particularly zestful about embarking on an exhaustive debate on this topic, but this provision in the Bill is significant and it is right that the House has received the explanation that the Minister has given.

If my amendments were incorporated, however, they would provide greater certainty. The Minister seemed to suggest that there would be greater certainty if we had a resetting of the clock. There would be greater certainty about the duration of a Parliament if we did not have that provision, but I do not want to quibble. I also accept his point about proportional representation making a difference. I am grateful to him for correcting my appreciation of the position in Northern Ireland.

I agree that, on balance, it is better to include the provision to reset the clock. One could make a reasonable case for not including that provision, or for not applying it, if the early general election were to occur in the first half of a fixed term of Parliament. It might be accepted that, if there was more than half of the fixed term still to go, it would be sufficient and the benefits of discouraging early elections would be felt. However, I certainly agree that if there were an early general election later in the Parliament, it would not make sense not to start a new fixed term. If we were to elect a new Government, they would need a decent span of time in which to govern. I also do not think that the need to have two general elections in rapid succession would be well received by voters if this was the only reason why there had to be another election. I am glad that we have been able to look at this issue and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 14 withdrawn.

Amendment 14A

Moved by

14A: Clause 1, page 1, line 8, at end insert “unless this date coincides with an election to a reformed House of Lords”

My Lords, this amendment would mean that an election to the other place could not take place on the same day as an election to this House. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place suggested that the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill should be discussed with the draft Bill on reforming the House of Lords so that the two fundamental constitutional issues could be considered alongside each other. Indeed, that somewhat wise committee noted:

“Elections to a reformed House of Lords may well prove a further complicating element”.

Let us pause for a moment to see what considerations and complications might arise. There are two assumptions. The first is that the elections to the other place and to your Lordships’ reformed House would take place on the same day. If that is the correct assumption, I assume that the elections to this House would also be for the same five-year fixed term—if that, rather than a term of four years, is accepted. One has to assume that the term would be shortened should an election be triggered in the other House. In the mean time, what should happen? Will Members of this House be able to resign, for example, to fight a seat in the Commons? Maybe they will be able to resign from this House, having been elected here, for any other reasons via—presumably—the equivalent of the Chiltern Hundreds. If so, what if the following by-elections to this House changed the composition of this House so that the Government in the Commons could no longer get their programme through this House but were unable to call an election in the other place because that is not allowed for in this Bill?

The second assumption is that elections to the two Houses would take place on different days. It is interesting then to ask the question: for how long would Members elected to this House sit and would that be for a fixed term, regardless of what elections were to take place in the other place? What will be the gap between the general elections in which people are elected to the two Houses? On the assumption that they are held on different days, halfway through a Commons parliamentary term your Lordships’ House could change hands so that there was stalemate, but with the upper House perhaps claiming the legitimacy of a fresh mandate and—if elected by proportional representation—a more representative mandate. If this House claimed a fresh mandate in light of current affairs, where would that leave the Commons—unable to challenge it or to refresh itself by virtue of a new election and mandate? Could the equivalent of a no-confidence vote in this House then trigger a response in the other House, to enable it to call an election?

It is worth recalling that our Select Committee on the Constitution noted that, in regard to the triggering of an early general election for the Commons, the Bill should contain a form of safety valve in case the Government lost,

“the confidence of the Commons or where a political or economic crisis … affected the country”.

However, either of those, should they happen, might be felt most quickly in your Lordships’ House—should an election here come swiftly after, or even during, such a crisis—and change its composition so that this House felt it more truly reflected the current views of voters. The new elected House might then almost make things ungovernable if it felt that it had to restrain the Commons from action that the electorate had demonstrated would displease it.

These are exactly the sort of questions that will in due course be debated with regard to the plans for this Chamber. However, it seems odd that we will entrench the date for the elections to one part of Parliament without any reference to elections to the other part. Perhaps, therefore, at the very least, the Minister will simply clarify whether the first tranche of the elections to this place is also envisaged for 7 May 2015, and the next tranche for May 2020. If not, what are the ideas about the harmony of the two Chambers, given the provisions of the Bill? I beg to move.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has done us a real favour in introducing her amendment. It is a mischievous one, as she knows, but she has brought before us a subject that may come again. Personally, I hope it does not. As one who believes strongly in the virtue and value of a non-elected second Chamber, I hope that this Chamber will not be abolished and replaced by another. The noble Baroness has indicated the sort of things that could happen if there were two elected Chambers. There is the challenge over which is the more legitimate, and the challenge as to whether you can possibly—even though you may wish to—retain the supremacy of the other place if a second Chamber here is elected. Many of us believe that you cannot. Many of us believe that it is far simpler, better and less ambiguous to have one mandate held by one House, rather than a mandate divided between two.

It will be interesting to see whether my noble and learned friend the Minister can give us some of the answers that the noble Baroness sought. He ought to reflect, as should others in government, on the wise words of Ernest Bevin, one of the greatest Foreign Secretaries that our country has had in the past century. Talking of some political problem, he said:

“If you open that Pandora’s box, you never know what Trojan horses will jump out”.

I urge the wisdom of those words on my noble and learned friend before he replies.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack: we are grateful to my noble friend Lady Hayter for raising these issues. It is important to emphasise that the Government have put forward these proposals for constitutional reform so that they are all part of a package. The three parts of the package are the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and the House of Lords Reform Bill. It is important for the noble and learned Lord to give at least some answers to what my noble friend Lady Hayter has said, but there is a more important underlying point. At Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said to my noble friend Lord Rooker, “Oh, you can’t say that, because we voted for the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill on the basis that it is a five-year fixed term”. I very much hope that we will not hear any more of that sort of talk from the Government, because they were given the opportunity to put the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill together—

I am not going to give way, if you do not mind. As I say, the Government were given the opportunity to put these things together but they did not take it. It seems to me that the consequence of not taking that opportunity is that when Parliament debates these issues again on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill or on Lords reform, we will not regard ourselves as bound by the previous decisions that have been made—for example, we might conclude that four years was better than five for a fixed-term Parliament—because the Government explicitly refused the opportunity to put these constitutional reforms together despite the fact that they were urged to do so not just by the Opposition but by the cross-party constitutional committees in both Houses of Parliament.

I shall be interested to hear the noble and learned Lord’s view on how we deal with possible inconsistencies between one of the Government’s constitutional reform package Bills and another. Presumably, that is done by amending the later Bill when we see what the right answer is. I now give way to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard.

I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord is being consistent in his arguments. There seemed to be a lot of criticism of the fact that in previous legislation two items were put together—the voting referendum and the constituency boundaries. Now he is suggesting that the third item—this Bill—and House of Lords reform should all be put in the same package. I do not understand his argument. I was simply suggesting that when we have decided things we should try to be consistent about them.

As regards the AV referendum and the parliamentary boundaries, we saw what was proposed in relation to both of those. The issue was whether they both needed to be included in one Bill. We knew what the proposals were.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for this interesting amendment, which has given rise to a number of interesting questions. As the Committee well knows, a cross-party committee has been considering reform of this House and the Government intend to publish a draft Bill shortly. I could not possibly comment on what will be in that draft Bill as it will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. We hope that that will be done by a Joint Committee of both Houses. I am sure that some of the important issues which the noble Baroness raised will be brought before that Joint Committee. My noble friend the Leader of the House answered questions on some of the issues she raised regarding the relative standing of both Houses last week, if not the week before. However, I do not think that it is appropriate to deal with them in the context of this Bill.

The noble and learned Lord says that that draft Bill will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. That is great to hear, but why was that not the case with this Bill?

My Lords, we have gone down that path many times and have indicated that we intended this should be a first-term Bill. I have made it very clear on a number of occasions when this has been raised that we believed it was important that at a very early point in this Parliament we should establish that it would run to a particular fixed date, and that we wanted to ensure the principle of fixed-term Parliaments. However, no one can say that there has not been ample opportunity, in the length of time which I described in responding to an earlier amendment, for both Houses to have plenty of opportunity to look at a relatively short Bill.

My noble and learned friend talked about the scrutiny committee of both Houses. Can he give an absolute assurance that on that committee there will be Members who do not believe in a fully or partially elected House so that it can reflect the wide range of opinions in both Houses of Parliament?

My Lords, I am in no way trying to dismiss the suggestion that my noble friend makes. I am not in a position to indicate how that committee will be established. No doubt there will be nomination procedures from both Houses. I suspect that it would be rather odd if a contrary view or two was not expressed on it, but I am not in a position to indicate that ahead of the Bill being published. I assure the Committee that the timings of elections to the reformed second Chamber has been considered carefully by the Government and the proposals will be in the draft Bill.

I certainly take my noble friend’s point that, having spent most of the time on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill listening to the Opposition saying that the Bill should be split, it is somewhat intriguing then to be told that not only should it be split but that two other Bills should be added on to it. I do not think that the experience of the CRAG Bill in the previous Parliament, where numerous constitutional principles were put together under the one heading of a constitutional reform Bill, was necessarily the most satisfactory experience.

The noble Baroness mentioned entrenching the election date for one House while the other was pending. At least it will be known when this Bill has got on to the statute book what Parliament has agreed with regard to a fixed-term election. If this Bill had not come forward and we did not have fixed-term Parliaments, an election to the other place could have happened at any time. The potential for some of the confusion and concerns to which the noble Baroness referred would have been multiplied many times over if it was proposed that this House should have a fixed term while the other place could have elections as and when the Prime Minister of the day thought best to call them. Therefore, when the Joint Committee of both Houses considers the draft Bill, it will do so in the knowledge of what Parliament has passed in the context of fixed-term Parliaments. This Bill deals with dates of the general election to the other place. These should be set before we consider the dates of elections to the reformed second Chamber. There will be ample opportunity to discuss elections to this Chamber when the Bill is published in draft form and, I suspect, plenty of further opportunities to discuss it when the reality of the Bill comes before the other place and your Lordships' House. I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

I thank the Minister and the other speakers for their contributions. The Minister said that it was an interesting amendment, rather like the Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times”. I am not sure about the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, calling it mischievous. It was seriously meant because it is about a package of reforms, as my noble and learned friend said. I do not think that means putting them in one Bill but rather having a real idea of where we are taking our constitution before we tackle any one bit of it, so that we see it in the round. Nevertheless, given the comments that have been made, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 14A withdrawn.

Amendment 15

Moved by

15: Clause 1, page 1, line 8, at end insert—

“( ) Each five-year parliament shall include a minimum of five parliamentary sessions.”

My Lords, I am very conscious of the fact that we probably have only about 10 minutes before we ought to break for dinner. These things fall as they do, but I hope that I may be presumptuous enough to suggest that this is an important amendment. It is a simple one and says straightforwardly that if we are to go down the road of fixed-term Parliaments over five years—I am opposed to that—there is a very strong case indeed for saying that there should be annual Sessions of Parliament, and that it should not be within the remit of government, having fixed the Parliament, then to be allowed absolute flexibility over the length of Sessions.

I perhaps would not have thought it necessary to put this amendment down and in effect legislate for the Session of a Parliament were it not for the very bad experience of the current practice whereby, to my amazement, last September the Government announced that the first Session of this Parliament would last for two years. So far as I know, this was done without any consultation, although the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, can correct me on that. That was an extraordinary unilateral decision to make. The only defences of it that I have heard are, “This is the first Session, so we have a lot to do”, or the rather feeble defence that it is only five months longer than the first Sessions of Parliament have often been in the past. Speaking as a former Chief Whip, I can say only that if you had said to me, “It is only five months”, five months longer for a Session of Parliament for any Government is absolute gold dust. It is a discipline on Governments who are putting in their legislative programme to do that within a 12-month period. I remind the House of the current situation before I explain why it is essential, when faced with this fixed-term Parliament, that we legislate to ensure that Sessions are at least annual.

At present, Governments normally decide around September each year—perhaps a little earlier—the date of the Queen’s Speech. I do not know the details of the negotiations between No. 10 and the palace, but I know, as the Committee knows, that we all understand that normally there will be a Queen’s Speech in November each year. Occasionally, it has drifted into December. That is excepting the Queen’s Speeches that come after general elections, which can come at any time—although they cannot come at any time if the Bill becomes an Act. We know that Governments work within a parameter, which is usually some time in November. There is the usual argy-bargy whereby if a Queen’s Speech comes too early, it is because the Government do not have enough legislation and are running out of steam; or if the Queen’s Speech comes too late it is because the Government have lost control of their legislative programme. However, the parameter means that there is a discipline that gives a big advantage to the Opposition—because parliamentary time is valuable, as we know only too well—and the Government really have to get their act together, manage their programme, and finish it within the 12-month period. To extend unilaterally the normal length of a Session is an abuse and is certainly to the massive advantage of the Government.

I do not know whether I should say this in anger or in envy, because anyone involved in managing a Government’s legislative programme every year has the nightmare period of October and early November when you are trying to fit a quart into a pint pot, you know that you have to do it and that you have to observe the conventional gaps between the stages of Bills—or at least you used to have to observe them; this Government do not have a good record on that aspect of our constitution. However, you know that there is a discipline within which you have to work. Moreover, both Houses—the Commons and the Lords—have recognised this process as important. Both Houses have procedures to enable Bills to be carried over. We have all been familiar with the debates that allow, in exceptional circumstances, individual Bills to follow a recognised constitutional procedure—if I may put it as grandly as that. Motions have to be passed and so on. There is a recognition that either House of Parliament can breach the annual sessional understanding only if the Government obey certain rules in relation to individual Bills and do not do that as regards their overall programme.

I do not know whether I should be angry or envious about the fact that the Government have unilaterally given us a two-year Session. I just wish that I had thought of it. When we were in government I wish that I could have thought, “Blimey, I don’t need to worry about getting these Bills through in 12 months; let’s just postpone the Queen’s Speech for another year or however long—whenever it is convenient to the Government to decide when the Queen’s Speech should take place”. Given that we have had all this hyperbole from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and others—not very convincingly—about the Government or the Prime Minister giving away power regarding fixed-term Parliaments, I hope that he will acknowledge, if he believes that argument, that they should give away the power of unilaterally being able to decide when a new Session of Parliament should begin.

By having this two-year Session, the Government have breached an important convention of both Houses. It is reasonable for those of us who are concerned about this to say that we now need to enshrine the proposal in my amendment in legislation. I cannot think of any good argument against, if you know when general elections are going to be, why you should not also determine when the Sessions should be. I beg to move.

My Lords, briefly, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said. I very much hope that my noble and learned friend will be positive in response. There is nothing that we can do about this extended Session. It will last until May next year. I regret that. Sessions should last as near as possible for a year, and if we are to move to fixed-term Parliaments, the obvious thing is to have the state opening for each Session in the May of each year. I hope that my noble and learned friend will give me some comfort when he responds.

My Lords, I rise briefly in support of the principle in my noble friend’s amendment, because it would bring a discipline into what has happened ever since this Government took power, which has been the continual tampering with the constitution for petty party-political advantage. That is a fact of life. I do not like to be provocative, but I am trying to find the words that would best describe this matter. I have mulled over words such as “sleazy”, but if I continued, my words would probably be unparliamentary, and I would not wish to be responsible for any more damage to the office furniture. However, as a former business manager in the Commons, I consider that we are dealing with a completely foolhardy approach to the constitution. We have conventions here, but ever since the advent of this coalition, particularly for the party advantage of one of the partners in the coalition, the majority party opposite is being driven along to stay in power. Precedents are being set that are damaging to the conventions of this House, the other House and the constitution. I appeal to Conservative Members of the coalition, such as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, whose comments are welcome, that it is past the time that they should put a stop to the roughshod treatment of the constitution.

My Lords, I support what my noble friend Lord McAvoy said; I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Grocott; and I support the approach taken by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. It is worrying when everyone who knows anything about this says—and I do not include myself; I refer to three distinguished ex-Members of the other place—that the effect of there being no control over the Government on how long a Session lasts means that they can play fast and loose with however long it takes them to get the legislation that they want through Parliament. That weakens the power of Parliament. A lot of the constitutional rhetoric of this Government was on strengthening the power of Parliament.

I wish to ask a specific question, because it would appear that the Government understood this position on 25 May 2010, when the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons said in relation to the Bill:

“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, 25/4/10; col. 152.]

He understood the importance of Sessions. He said that on 25 May 2010. Happily for him, on 13 September 2010, the Session was then extended until May 2012, thereby getting rid of the one problem that stood in the way of pre-legislative scrutiny. Can the noble and learned Lord specifically answer as to why the Deputy Leader of the House broke that promise? “Promise” may be overstating it. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord should characterise what the Deputy Leader meant. Was it wild musing as to what might happen? Why did he not go ahead with what he had said?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for his amendment, which would provide for a minimum of five parliamentary Sessions in every five-year Parliament. I have a lot of sympathy with the spirit of what is proposed, but I will explain why I do not think that it should be enshrined in statute. I accept that having five annual Sessions in a five-year Parliament makes considerable sense. Indeed, under this Bill is it likely that the Parliament elected in 2015 will have five Sessions. The only reason that this Parliament is likely to have four—I will deal with this in more detail in a moment—is the transition to fixed terms and spring state openings. It would not be appropriate to put the amendment into statute; the current arrangements should remain. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, recognised, even if the Bill did not exist, it would still be possible to change the length of a Session.

I will answer the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. It was very obvious that the decision to move to spring 2012 was not taken in the early days of this Government. By the time the announcement was made in September, the Bill had already been published. I cannot remember the exact date; it must have been around the time the Bill got its Second Reading. I am being told that in fact it was the same day. That might explain why the Bill did not have pre-legislative scrutiny. I know that I have not answered this point to the satisfaction of the Opposition, who will come back to it time and time again. However, we wished to have this Bill in the first term. It was not in order to get this Bill through that we decided to extend the Session. It is very clear that the reason for the extension was that we wished to move to an annual Queen's Speech in May and therefore an adjustment was required.

We could have reduced the length of this Session, but to have done so half way through would have caused a number of difficulties. That is why it was decided, as a one-off, to extend this Session until spring 2012. There is nothing sinister in that. Most of our legislation would have been passed in any event. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, indicated that there is provision for carry-over. I pause to reflect that the fact that this Session is longer may bring a ray of hope—with reference to the previous debate, I believe that hope was the last thing to come out of Pandora's box—to Members whose Private Members’ Bills are so often frustrated because there are not enough Fridays in the Session to get them through. To suggest that this is a sinister plot on the part of the Executive is grossly misplaced. The purpose is to get into a position where we can have annual Sessions that begin in May. It will be our intention thereafter to have Sessions that run from spring to spring.

It is not appropriate to enshrine this in statute because there may be a case where, if the Bill is enacted, an incumbent Government lost a vote of no confidence and a new Government was formed within 14 days. It is possible in such a scenario that it would be felt that the Session should come to an end and that there should be a new Queen's Speech. Nobody would think that that would be unreasonable in the circumstances. It might be very difficult then to fit in five Sessions. That is why it is better not to stipulate in statute that there should be five Sessions in any one Parliament. A Session might begin after an election in February and come to an end in May, which would not make much sense. It would have to be brought artificially to an end to ensure that the requirement of five Sessions was met.

Having annual May-to-May Sessions will ensure that the final Session of the Parliament is more likely to be much more meaningful and worth while than one which, for example, begins in late November and lasts until the wash-up in late March. The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, says, “We’ll see”, but nothing could be less exciting or satisfying than what we experienced in the wash-up last year when we tried to deal with so many Bills that had barely got anywhere. Parts of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, which had had only a Second Reading in this House, were passed with only the briefest scrutiny. It had some pre-legislative scrutiny, but no scrutiny in this House. I hope that noble Lords would agree that at the end of the day actual legislative scrutiny is more important than pre-legislative scrutiny.

It is best to have both; I quite agree. That Bill had enormous pre-legislative scrutiny, but should have had more legislative scrutiny. There, I have said it. Now perhaps the noble and learned Lord will admit that his Government, too, are in error. More importantly, they are passing legislation now, so they should learn from any mistakes that we may have made.

This legislation is having ample legislative scrutiny and I suspect that in times to come we will move towards having much more pre-legislative scrutiny. That is why I argue for five-year fixed terms; there will be more opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny as well as legislative scrutiny. I simply make the point that to truncate one Session into two or three months would not be sensible. Future Sessions will last for only 12 months. What is happening in this Session is a one-off adjustment so we can get into the pattern of spring to spring Sessions that would fit the election timetable of fixed-term Parliaments with elections in May. For these reasons, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, is getting tired or whether I am. He has ample reason for getting tired because he has been heroic as the only Minister dealing with this vital constitutional Bill. However, I simply did not understand what he said. We had a general election in May last year and he said that in order to adjust to the situation where we know the date of the next general election, which will be five years from last May, the length of this Session of Parliament had to be adjusted to accommodate that. I do not understand that argument.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me an opportunity to explain it. It was clear from the comments made by the Deputy Leader of the other place in May of last year that the decision to extend the Session to spring 2012 was not made in the early days. The working assumption was that we would go forward as we normally do after an election in May and have the first Session running through to the following October or November. It is not giving away any state secrets to say that that was the assumption. We then considered whether it was better to move to a situation where, if we were going to have fixed-term Parliaments, the Sessions should run annually, May to May. An announcement was made in September, which would normally have been between a third and half way through the Session. There was an option to truncate the Session about now, but it was thought that the best thing to do was to go to next year. There is nothing sinister in that; we were totally open. However, this is a one-off change and from next year, Sessions will go from May to May. That is the right way to proceed. I hope the noble Lord will accept that there was nothing sinister in this, but that it was an adjustment made in-year, given that the original expectation was to go through until the autumn of this year.

I am not saying that it is sinister; I am just saying that it is illogical. If the Government decided in those five days in May that there were to be five-year fixed-term Parliaments, why was it not plain as a pikestaff that in normal circumstances that would mean five annual Sessions? No adjustment was required. A year would take you to the following May, then the May after that and so on. I do not need to go through it. With respect, it seems obvious to everyone in the House apart from the Minister that that is the logic of a five-year Parliament.

I am very grateful to noble Lords for their contributions, which have been 100 per cent on the side of those who agree with the amendment.

We did not, in those five days in May, think about moving from one year to one year to one year. That is the simple answer and I hope that the noble Lord will accept it at face value.

Of course I accept that and I shall not labour it further if the Minister assures me that the coalition was not going to tamper with that aspect of our constitution. However, I emphasise the sheer inconsistency of rejecting this amendment when the whole rationale—if there is one, although I doubt it as every day passes—of the Government’s comprehensive constitutional reform programme is to provide a degree of predictability and take away powers from the Executive. My amendment simply tests the Government’s sincerity and commitment to that by requiring them to correct their very inadequate and unsatisfactory decision unilaterally to make it much easier for the Government to legislate.

I fear that there is a tendency by the Minister—it is understandable when you are taking a complicated and important Bill such as this through the House on your own—to assume that, if any amendment is put down, particularly by the opposition Benches, the duty of the people in the Box is to find reasons for saying no to it. If the Minister were to put a cold towel over his head and think in as dispassionate a way as he is allowed—I do not mean “allowed” in any sense other than that this Government seem to be totally locked into their constitutional reform programmes, which do not seem to be thought out in a coherent way—he would come to the conclusion that, once the deal had been sealed between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, there would be no flexibility on that Bench to make any adjustments whatever.

Before I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, perhaps I may appeal to the Minister to tell those of a higher pay grade that this really is a sensible proposal, which, so far as we have tested the opinion of the Committee, has 100 per cent support from everyone but the Government, and that, if they are to be consistent in their principles, about which, as I said, I am not thrilled, they really ought to see the logic and sense of having fixed annual Sessions within five-year fixed Parliaments. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 15 withdrawn.

Amendments 16 and 17 not moved.

House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.43 pm.