Committee (3rd Day) (Continued)
43: Clause 2, page 2, line 16, leave out subsection (4)
My Lords, this amendment is designed to probe the reasons for the Speaker having to consult the Deputy Speakers before issuing his certificate. So far as I can see, there are two possible, if incompatible, reasons for the inclusion of this provision. The first is because of the provision of Section 1(3) of the Parliament Act 1911, which requires the Speaker, before certifying that a Bill is a money Bill, to consult, if practicable, two members of the Chairmen’s Panel. The Government may thus see the provision of the Speaker’s certificate as analogous to a certificate under the Parliament Act.
The second reason is that the Government recognise that the situation is not strictly analogous. As I pointed out at Second Reading, there is a statutory definition of a money Bill. There is no definition in this Bill of a motion of no confidence. There is therefore the prospect, as we have already heard, of the Speaker being dragged into political controversy. It is possible at the moment for the Speaker to be drawn into controversy over the certification of a money Bill. We saw a recent example in your Lordships’ House. That arose because some Members were ill informed about the provisions of the Parliament Act. However, that perhaps emphasises the point that the potential for controversy is even greater in a politically charged atmosphere where the fate of a Government may be involved, and there is no statutory guidance that would offer the Speaker a protective shield. It may thus be that, recognising that potential, the Government wish to provide some protective cover for the Speaker by involving the Deputy Speakers in the decision. Because the Deputy Speakers will be drawn from different parties, it provides a modicum of cover.
Whichever it is, neither justifies the provision. Ultimately, whatever consultations are held, the decision will be that of the Speaker and be seen as such, as is the position with money Bills. If one seeks to provide some degree of protection for the Speaker, the answer is not to require him to consult the Deputy Speakers but, rather, to provide a clear statutory definition of what constitutes a motion of no confidence. We shall come in due course to the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Cormack. That is the way we should be going. I appreciate that his amendment is not incompatible with subsection (4) but, whereas there is a clear, and I believe compelling, case for defining what we mean by a vote of no confidence, I am not clear that there is a compelling case for subsection (4). What value is added by consulting the Deputy Speakers? They are not necessarily experts on the subject. What if they disagree with one another? If the Speaker is to consult, why not give him scope to consult those who appear to him to be appropriate to consult? In practice, he could presumably consult whom he wishes, so there is no obvious need for the provision. Ultimately, if there is to be a Speaker’s certificate, it is the Speaker’s responsibility. He cannot pass it on to others. I am therefore unclear why this provision is necessary. I look forward to hearing from the Minister why it is in the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I tabled an amendment in exactly the same terms as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. As he is your Lordships’ leading constitutional expert, I felt very good that I had arrived at the same idea, and I am extremely happy to appear on the Marshalled List as having signed up to his amendment.
The provision is so vaguely drafted as to be almost entirely without meaning. I know that it is borrowed from the Parliament Act 1911 but that does not mean that it is an appropriate precedent, particularly, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, has just pointed out. In that Act, there is a clear definition of a money Bill, but there is no clear definition of a no confidence motion in this measure. The Clerk of the House of Commons, in giving evidence to the Select Committee in the other place, was of the opinion that the question of whether consultation was practicable would become a legal question. It would be open to legal challenge in so far as anything in the Bill is liable to be open to legal challenge. We had a full discussion of that in an earlier debate.
One observes that judicial reviews have been upheld again and again against the Government on the grounds that Governments had failed to consult properly. If it is a question of whether the Speaker may or may not have consulted properly according to the requirements in the Bill, I suppose that that, if anything, might give an opening to judicial intervention, although I am not seriously afraid that that is the case. The real concern about this provision is that it is almost meaningless. What does “so far as practicable” mean? What would be proper consultation in these circumstances? The requirement to consult does not oblige the Speaker to agree with the Deputies. The Deputies themselves might disagree. In fact, one might surmise that they are rather likely to disagree in the circumstance of a no confidence vote that will occur in the most fraught and complex political circumstances. There will be enormous pressure not only on the Speaker of the House but also on the Deputy Speakers if they are to be involved formally in this process. The Deputy Speakers have disclaimed their party allegiance in their new capacities but, none the less, it is only realistic to anticipate that they would come under immense political pressure from members of their own political parties. They would need to be very sturdy to ignore all that. In the previous debate, the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, described how they would imagine the atmosphere to be in the House on the occasion of a no confidence vote. They gave us to understand something of the sort of pressures that would be brought to bear not only on the Speaker but, if this provision remains in the Bill, on the Deputy Speakers, too.
In the end, the Speaker will be on his own. It seems that this provision gives him no useful cover or protection against the political storm. A very sensible conclusion of the Constitution Committee, contained in its report at paragraph 159, was that, whether or not this turns out to be a legal question, an obligation on the Speaker to consult with the Deputy Speakers should be a matter of internal House of Commons procedure, should not be contained within the statutory provisions of the Bill and therefore should be omitted. Rather regrettably, the Government rejected this advice in their response to the report of the Constitution Committee at paragraph 60. The Government are quite keen to pray the Constitution Committee’s recommendations in aid when they agree with them. They have not done so on this occasion, however. They cite the precedent of the Parliament Act 1911, which, they say, has worked well. As we suggest, it is not a terribly useful precedent; certifying a money Bill is a matter of ascertaining fact and hardly contentious. Certifying a vote of no confidence would be a very different thing.
I hope that the Minister will agree to look again at this sensible recommendation of the Constitution Committee and that he will agree to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and myself.
On the face of it, this seems an unwise provision. First, the similar provision in the Parliament Act is about the Speaker having to certify whether something is a money Bill. That has become a legal, constitutional issue where there is not much discretion; it is simply a question of law. I can see that assistance is important for this. Secondly, I imagine that the application of the Freedom of Information Act would mean that any document containing the advice given by the Deputy Speakers to the Speaker of the House of Commons in relation to this issue would become available very quickly. Thirdly, it does not help the constitution if there is disagreement between the Deputy Speakers and the Speakers and a doubtful Motion of no confidence. Fourthly, what is the purpose of the provision when the critical issue raised by the Bill is: what is a motion of no confidence? Though the procedure is very tight and closed, the Bill leaves that completely open.
It is not something that the courts will want to get involved in. However, it is not good for Parliament that divisions will become apparent and technical processes that need to be gone through might not be. Quite separately from the issue of whether this is a motion of no confidence—on which view there is wide discretion—the phrase, “so far as practicable”, is one to which any reasonable person can give a very substantial meaning. Two reasonable people can take two entirely differing views as to what is practicable and what is not.
I ask, in parenthesis, what do the Government envisage as making it impracticable to consult a Deputy Speaker? Is it only the illness or incapacity of one of the Deputy Speakers or do the Government have something else in mind? It seems to be extraordinarily unlikely that, apart from illness or incapacity, the tabling of a motion that might be one of no confidence, the indication by the Speaker or the debate on the motion, will happen so quickly that there will be no possibility of getting to speak to a Deputy Speaker. Perhaps the Minister can help us on that.
Like my noble friend Lord Howarth and the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, I ask what the purpose of this is once it is accepted, as it is by everybody, that an exercise of judgment may well be required by the Speaker. The judgment is his and his alone, and who he or she consults is inevitably a matter for him or her. For example, one would reasonably expect that if there is any room for doubt, he or she should consult senior representatives of all the political parties about what they think in relation to it, yet the Bill specifies only one group of statutory consultees. I can see the precedent in the Parliament Act, but the way that this is drafted is much more suitable, almost, to the exercise of a discretion by a Minister, which is then challengeable, rather than to the exercise of difficult judgment by a Speaker in the context of the House of Commons where to specify statutory consultees, apart from in the Parliament Act, is extraordinarily unusual. I do not know of any other example, and I would be interested in the other examples that the Government relied on apart from the Parliament Act, which is very different.
It feels as if this has not been thought through, and I invite the Minister, having heard the debate, to ask what we are getting out of this provision. Does it make it worse rather than better? The superficial attractions of asking the Speaker to get advice are, when you think about it, probably not real, particularly when there is nothing to stop the Speaker getting that advice if he wants to, yet here it is made compulsory. Why? What is the benefit? There does not seem to be any, and there seems to be quite a lot of disbenefits.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth was quite correct, as other speakers in this debate have indicated, to draw attention to the provision in the Parliament Act 1911, which indicates:
“Before giving his certificate the Speaker shall consult, if practicable, two members to be appointed from the Chairmen’s Panel at the beginning of each Session by the Committee of Selection”.
My noble friend inquired whether that was simply because of precedent and suggested that there are differences between the definition of a money Bill and what is required of the Speaker in the context of this clause. I accept that this arises from there being a precedent for such a requirement and acknowledge that there is a difference between determining what is a money Bill and the nature of the certification that would be required of the Speaker in the context of this Bill. What they have in common is that they are matters which have important constitutional consequences. That is why we thought it appropriate, given that there is a precedent for the Speaker to consult two very senior members—in the case of the Parliament Act, two members of the Chairman’s Panel and in this case Deputy Speakers—that we should follow that precedent.
When I was listening to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, I was thinking that if we had not included this we would probably have been accused of not having thought this through. In the Parliament Act, there is provision for consultation with the Deputy Speaker and we would have been asked why we had not included a provision to consult the Deputy Speakers.
I feel that the noble and learned Lord is getting a bit paranoid. No, I would not have said that.
My Lords, it is not necessarily paranoia if you think that someone is putting forward such an argument, but I will leave it to noble Lords to judge whether they could hear the noble and learned Lord making a similar argument.
I accept that the issue links into the debates we have had, and will have later, on whether we could find more objective criteria for determining what constitutes a vote of no confidence. I was not quite sure whether the argument made by my noble friend Lord Norton was that, as things stand at the moment, the Speaker has a greater need to consult in the absence of such a definition than in the context of a money Bill. Even looking at the provisions in the 1911 Act as to what constitutes a money Bill, it may be a statutory definition but it is not transparent, which I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Martin, who had to deal with these things, will recognise.
I would not wish to try to persuade the House—nor is it the case—that this is the most important provision in the Bill. Nevertheless, it is very similar to a provision that has existed on the statute book and has been in force for 100 years. It is a tried and tested procedure. That also applies to the requirement to consult “so far as practicable”. Clearly, if someone was ill or abroad, that might not necessarily be practicable. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, was right to say that the requirement is for consultation, not to seek agreement. As I have said, they are tried and tested measures, which we thought were appropriate in a context where important constitutional consequences would flow from a decision.
On freedom of information, obviously one issue would be what form the consultation took. If the consultation was verbal, there would be nothing for a freedom of information request to latch on to. I would have to remind myself what the possible grounds of exemption are but, given that advice to Ministers can be a matter for exemption, perhaps that would also apply to advice given to a Speaker. However, without looking in detail at the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, I cannot answer that question directly, although I can say that, if the consultation was not written down, I am not quite sure what would be caught. The noble and learned Lord asked me to write to him on this and I will seek to do so.
Given that we are trying to embrace a tried-and- tested procedure, I would invite my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.
Does my noble and learned friend not see the irony in arguing the case for this on the basis that it is a tried-and-tested procedure while turning upside down the whole tried-and-tested procedure of how we decide when we are going to have a general election?
I see the irony. I still think that it is right.
My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have spoken in this short debate, which is an important debate to be had. I am still left wondering what value is added by this provision. My noble and learned friend has confirmed that, of the two definitions I offered, the first was correct. The Government have looked at the Parliament Act in which there is a provision that has been carried over. That seems to be the sole reason.
In terms of the argument, I am not quite sure why the provision should be there. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, was right. The Speaker is quite capable of consulting those whom he wishes to consult. If the provision was not in the Bill, it would avoid the legal problems to which the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, referred. The more we can do to reduce the prospect of legal challenge, the better. As the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, pointed out, there is a problem with the position of the Deputy Speakers, who are neutral figures as Deputy Speakers but seek re-election as party candidates.
The Minister’s argument is that this is based on precedent, as it is in the Parliament Act, which also has a definition of a money Bill. I am not quite sure why we are following the precedent of consultation but not following the precedent of having a definition as the basis on which that consultation takes place. Either one follows precedent and does both or one does neither. I cannot see the argument for saying, “Well, this is in the Parliament Act, so we’re lifting that” and “This is in the Parliament Act, but we’re not lifting that”, even though the definition, to which we will come, is far more important. That is essential in this Bill and I do not see why we need Clause 2(4).
I hope that my noble friend will reflect on that. He has heard the arguments and I think that he has recognised the value of them. I hope that it is something he might consider between now and Report. But in the interim, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 43 withdrawn.
Amendment 44 not moved.
45: Clause 2, page 2, line 21, leave out from “(2),” to second “day” and insert “polling for the election is to be conducted on a day, or two consecutive days, no earlier than four weeks and no later than eight weeks after the date of the certificate issued under subsection (1) or (2), and on a”
My Lords, the amendment addresses two issues. I do not propose to deal with the question of possible weekend voting because we have discussed that already.
The first issue is that the Bill as drawn omits to provide for a timetable for an election to take place after a vote for a Dissolution or a vote of no confidence. The existing provision in the Bill is for an election to be held on the day appointed by Her Majesty, by proclamation, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The Bill therefore leaves it to the defeated Prime Minister to decide on the advice he gives to the Queen as to how long should elapse before a general election is held in the event of a vote of no confidence. To leave the date of the election as open as that would be unsatisfactory and open to abuse.
Secondly, the timescale suggested in the amendment—that an election should be held no earlier than four weeks after the Speaker’s certificate and no later than eight weeks after the certificate—is intended to strike a sensible balance. On the one hand, it is important to avoid an unholy rush to judgment, with a squeezed timetable for candidate selection, for nominations and for postal votes; on the other hand, it should not be possible to delay an election under either of the provisions for an early Dissolution for too long. It is also important not to permit an unduly long campaign to enable a Prime Minister to bolster an unpopular Government’s position. Keeping the period reasonably short is particularly important when there is a vote of no confidence because the Government who have just been rejected by the elected House would remain in power following that vote until replaced after the election.
However, the period allowed also has to be long enough to make it possible for a reasonably full campaign to take place, even where the Speaker’s certificate comes just before a holiday period. The timing of any early Dissolution may be unpredictable and inconvenient and that may happen. For this reason, while it might at first blush seem desirable to opt for a shorter period of six or seven weeks as the longest period permissible, we feel that eight weeks is about right.
It will be interesting to hear what other noble Lords think about the appropriate period, but it would not be sensible for the Bill to be enacted with no timetable at all. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is a characteristic of trying to solve a problem that has never existed. The only occasion on which this system has been tested—we keep going over the same ground and I do not need to repeat it—was when Jim Callaghan lost a vote of no confidence. I can remember absolutely no dispute, argument, difficulty or sense of abuse about the period between the defeat of the Government and the general election being held. However, now, as with fixed-term Parliaments and a number of other provisions in the Bill, we seem to need to write into statute law what has historically always operated perfectly satisfactorily.
In particular I am concerned that, unless we can improve the Bill, in addition to the two-week period when the Government are being formed, there is now to be up to eight weeks—10 weeks in all—between the defeat of the Government in a motion of no confidence and the general election. The longest election period in the time that I was fighting elections was six weeks, in 1997. I think that there was universal agreement that that was at least two weeks too long. The public get bored—I do not blame them—pretty rapidly. I shall not go over those arguments again because they are conclusive. I simply say that this is yet another example of an attempt to impose a straitjacketed legal constraint on something which has worked perfectly well and requires no change whatever. At its worst, it could lead to a general election campaign effectively lasting for 10 weeks, which is at least six weeks too long.
I was rather puzzled by the amendment, for the same reason the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, indicated: that this has never been an issue in the past. I have been thinking about what is driving this stuff. It appears to be the notion that the Prime Minister has some enormous advantage in being able to choose the date of the election and, if this amendment were agreed, its timing. For those Prime Ministers whom I have known and who have had to decide these things, it is an agonising decision. Have too long a campaign and you might lose because the public get bored; have too short a campaign and you might not get across your arguments or there may be an event which you are unable to control and which will affect voters’ views—for example, some trade figures. That there is some great advantage in the Prime Minister deciding the date seems to be what is driving this stuff. It is fundamentally misguided and takes away the flexibility which you need in the system to apply common sense.
Perhaps I may make one slightly partisan point. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill recently passed through this House. The Government moved heaven and earth to make sure that that Bill went through the House so that the referendum could take place on the same day as the Scottish and local government elections, thereby ensuring the turnout. Perhaps I may say to my noble friends in the Liberal Democrat party that it is inconsistent for them to argue, on the one issue, that the Executive’s power and patronage can be used to try to achieve a particular result, and then, on another issue such as this, to say, “Well, we can’t possibly have the Prime Minister deciding the timing of a general election campaign”. It is a power which Prime Ministers have sometimes tried to use to advantage in the past and it has turned out to be something of a curse.
The fundamental thinking behind the amendment, that there is some great defect in our system because of prime ministerial ability to choose the date and timing of a general election, is misguided. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that we end up trying to create a box-ticking culture for the conduct of our public affairs. It will come to grief, as we have seen in many other areas of our public life where this philosophy has been applied.
I am slightly confused by the amendment. Its effect would be that, depending on the date of the certificate, you could be compelled to have a general election between, for example, 18 December and 16 January, which would seem unwise, or from 1 August to 29 August. I have no experience of fighting elections but, speaking as a member of the electorate, I imagine that I would not particularly want a general election campaign going on between those dates. The Government cannot avoid that conclusion on the basis of the rigidity in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames. The Government or the noble Lord may indicate that something is wrong with the current system. Have there been Prime Ministers who, having lost a vote of confidence, then held on for a year or two avoiding having a general election? This seems to be trying to solve a problem that probably does not exist.
I wait to hear the noble and learned Lord's view on this, because there may be some problem that we have not spotted. For the life of me, I cannot see it. This is a criticism not of the Government but of the amendment, but again we are struggling with a series of problems which do not exist. As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, says: for what? To take away from the Prime Minister the power that the noble and learned Lord acknowledged that he could probably have by the back door: the ability to procure a vote of no confidence in himself whenever he wanted to go to the country anyway.
My Lords, I readily understand the thinking behind the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Marks. If the Bill is intended to remove the opportunity for the Prime Minister of the day to take a partisan view on the timing of the election, I can see why, the Prime Minister having lost a vote of confidence, you might then wish to restrict the Prime Minister's room for manoeuvre on setting the date—either to go too soon, which may give a campaigning advantage; or to delay unreasonably. Nevertheless, the amendment is unnecessary. More importantly, practical issues could flow from it.
If we take the case of delaying too long, in the context of Clause 2(6) and the Bill as a whole, it is clear that the Prime Minister would be required to recommend to Her Majesty a prompt election. If two-thirds of the House—the other place—had voted for an early election, one would imagine that the Prime Minister would be as anxious as anyone to get on with it. Likewise, although the Prime Minister may be less keen for an early election where there has been a motion of no confidence, and no other Government have been formed, that would also be a clear statement from Parliament that it expected to see change and an election. The electorate would share that view. This is pure speculation, but if the Prime Minister tried to pull a fast one and delay unduly, that decision could be subject to challenge.
On the other hand, there are limits as to how quickly the Prime Minister can move if he seeks an early polling day. Clause 3(1) dissolves Parliament 17 working days before polling day, so the timetable at Dissolution is fixed and is known to all sides. Therefore, there is no way that that could be cut short for advantage. There is already that backstop as to how an election could be called.
My biggest concern is practical. The Government decided not to set specific limits that inadvertently tied hands in circumstances which could lead to a situation such as that described by the noble and learned Lord, where the election campaign might be some time between 18 December and 16 January. It is almost inevitable that if we were to try to fix those times, the first example would be when it fell in a period where campaigning would be very difficult. We should allow flexibility to allow a general election to be called on a date—which, one would assume, would be consulted on among the parties—to minimise disruption in a Christmas period or summer vacations.
Therefore, the amendment is neither necessary—provision is already there which would stop a Prime Minister calling an election too soon; he would clearly be challenged if he tried to delay unduly—nor practical in trying to tie hands. That might run into more problems than the amendment is intended to solve.
The noble and learned Lord said something important there. He said that the Prime Minister would be subject to challenge if he sought to delay. Interestingly enough, it is a statutory power whereby the Prime Minister is obliged to recommend a date. Is it challengeable by way of judicial review?
It could be challengeable by judicial review if he was abusing his decision on a recommendation. That is why there is a safeguard there, which would mean that it would not be possible to delay in an unacceptable way.
Just to pursue that: the Government envisage a situation that could not arise now—because there is absolute discretion on the part of the Prime Minister—whereby the Prime Minister recommends to the Queen that the date of the general election be, say, 1 May 2013, and other parties can take the Prime Minister to court, arguing that that is an unreasonable exercise of his discretion and ask the court to fix the date of the general election, which it could set to take place two weeks earlier or two weeks later. Is that what the Government envisage as a possibility?
It is not what the Government envisage. However, if a vote of confidence had been on 10 December 2012, holding an election on 1 May 2013, which the noble and learned Lord mentioned, might well be considered to be an abuse of the statutory power. Under judicial reviews, the court would not necessarily substitute its own date, but the Prime Minister would be required to nominate or recommend a date to Her Majesty that would be consistent with a proper exercise of the statutory power. It is highly hypothetical and unlikely, but it would not be unreasonable; if there had been a vote of no confidence and 10 days had elapsed in December 2012, setting an election date for 1 May 2013 would be an abuse of power. That would be widely recognised.
However, the point that I am making is that we do not believe that there should be the kind of restrictions set out in my noble friend’s amendment. They could run into practical problems for the very reasons that he illustrated, but, in practical political terms, it is not likely that a date would be set that would be seen to be an abuse by taking it too far.
My Lords, I am grateful for the consideration that has been given by noble Lords and my noble and learned friend to the amendment. The problem that it sought to address was simply the question of the lack of a timetable. I am bound to say that the exchange we have just heard between the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and my noble and learned friend illustrates that there is—in theory, at least—scope for an abuse of power by a Prime Minister that could, perhaps in extreme and unlikely circumstances, lead to a challenge, because executive action of this sort might be justiciable and there is room for an abuse of power. The amendment simply seeks to address that.
Of course we are open to consideration of that time, but the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, talked of James Callaghan; it does not follow that because James Callaghan behaved well on that occasion everyone else necessarily would do so. As regards the number of weeks, it is right that there is a window of only a month, and that could involve a holiday period. However, the corresponding argument is that it may be undesirable for a vote of confidence in June to lead to an election being deferred until September or October, on the basis that holidays would intervene. We took the view that is worthy of consideration that it is more important to have an election than it is to avoid the holiday periods and allow them to be an excuse for not holding an election. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 45 withdrawn.
Amendments 46 to 48 not moved.
49: Clause 2, page 2, line 24, at end insert—
“( ) If an early parliamentary general election occurs under any of the provisions of this Act an order approving the next review of parliamentary constituencies shall not be submitted to Parliament until after the fourth anniversary of the start of the new Parliament.”
My Lords, the amendment seeks to ensure that in the event of an early general election the constituency boundary review would remain synchronised with the cycle of general elections, and new constituencies would be approved by Parliament only at the latest practicable time in the life of a Parliament.
We were told when we were debating the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill that this was a sacred principle for the Government. They made great play of the importance of the provision in that legislation to ensure that there were boundary reviews every five years and that their timing should bear a sensible relationship with the date of the next general election. Although many of us argued that there were other factors that the Government ought to bear in mind about registration and the undesirability of destabilising constituencies and political parties at such frequent intervals, the Government stuck to their guns and said that it was very important to have a five-yearly cycle of boundary reviews.
However, on this legislation the Government take a very different position. When the Minister, Mr Mark Harper, appeared before the Constitution Committee he was asked:
“Do the Government envisage amending the review period if the two cycles move out of synch in the future?”,
I was struck by what he said:
“We thought about this carefully … We did not think that it was absolutely necessary to synchronise them. You will know that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill sets out that we want boundary reviews once every five years—broadly once per Parliament—but I do not think that it is that important that they are absolutely synchronised. We will see how it works … we did not think it important to align them or make provision in this Bill or in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill to tie the two together”.
It is fairly odd that such contradictory positions have been taken by the Government in two concurrent pieces of constitutional legislation. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us more. I beg to move.
My Lords, I readily recognise where the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, is coming from on this. As the Committee will know, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 requires boundary review reports to be published on a five-yearly timetable, starting in October 2013. Once this Bill is enacted, general elections will occur at five-year intervals, starting in May 2015. In the absence of any early elections, the effect would be that boundary reviews generally would be published 18 months before each general election. Our debates on the previous Bill were about allowing an opportunity for the political parties and electors to become familiar with new boundaries and, importantly, for the electoral administrators to gear up accordingly.
I understand that the intention behind this amendment is to realign the five-year cycle for boundary reviews in the event that an early election causes them to get out of sync. Unfortunately, the amendment does not achieve this. It relates only to when the order is submitted to Parliament; there is no provision made to adjust the cycles that the Boundary Commissions themselves will work to. That is not simply a technical objection but an important and fundamental one. Broadly, I have sympathy with what the amendment is trying to do to ensure that there is one boundary review in each Parliament so that constituencies remain of roughly equal size and votes remain of equal weight. We looked at the interaction between the boundary reviews and the provisions of the Bill. The conclusion that we reached, which may be an echo of what some Members said in earlier debates, was that we simply could not legislate for every scenario under a fixed-term Parliament provision. This is one where it would be far better for judgments to be made by future Parliaments, in possession of knowledge of the circumstances, depending on when the early election—if such there was—took place.
I give a brief example. If, for the sake of argument, an early election was to occur before a full boundary review had been completed—say, in early 2018, when the report from the Boundary Commission would not be due before October that year—this amendment says nothing about what should happen to that boundary review, which would be well under way and ready to report in October 2018. It says simply that the next order should not be brought into force until 2022—that is, before the election of 2023. That raises questions about whether the review that was due in 2018 should be implemented in 2022, which would mean that the boundaries could become out of date. Is it the intention that the first review after an early election should have a 2022 deadline, in which case additional provision would be required to define which register that review should use? Without that additional provision, the commissions would have to use the December 2020 register, which would give them a very short time in which to conduct the review.
As I indicated, while it would be preferable—and may still be possible for the dates of some early elections—to continue the cycle of reviews that is there, it is far better left to a future Parliament to deal with the specific circumstances if it felt that boundary reviews were not keeping pace with the cycle of elections. In any event, even without doing anything, future elections are likely to be fought with more up-to-date registers than was the case for England in 2010. I welcome what I am sure is the well intended purpose of the noble Lord’s amendment, but I do not believe that it achieves that purpose. I therefore ask him to withdraw it.
Does the Minister envisage Parliament dealing with the issue by primary legislation each time?
As things stand, it probably would have to be by primary legislation. It might be a very simple Bill, but I think in trying to be too prescriptive at this point you could run into difficulty. As I have said, there may well be circumstances in which the early election, should it occur, would nevertheless be one in which the actual scheduled date would still fit in quite readily and allow a reasonable time for the political parties and electoral administrators to make the necessary arrangements. That is why I do not think we can predict what is going to happen and it is better to leave it to the future—to see whether it would in fact be necessary—in the belief, and indeed the knowledge, that even under the present system, without anything further, we are likely to be fighting elections on more up-to-date electoral rolls than was ever possible prior to the passage of the 2011 Act.
My Lords, I am not at all surprised to be advised that my amendment is defective, as these are indeed knotty matters, and it takes specialists to formulate legislation to get it right. However, if the Government think—and I have much sympathy with that point of view—that it is desirable to align the boundary reviews with the cycle of elections, maybe they would go back and think a little bit further about this and see whether they can find a better means to do it. I do not think that the Minister’s optimism that primary legislation from time to time in Parliament to get the relationship back in to a reasonable synchronicity would be straightforward, because whenever Parliament debates boundary review matters, a lot of Members become intensely interested in that and these proceedings are never very short or straightforward. If the Government wish to hold consistently to the principle they articulated in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, I hope they will go back and do some more work on this. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 49 withdrawn.
50: Clause 2, leave out Clause 2 and insert the following new Clause—
“Early parliamentary general elections
(1) An early parliamentary general election is to take place if the House of Commons passes a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.
(2) A vote of no confidence will have been deemed to have been passed if the House of Commons—
(a) passes an amendment to the motion thanking Her Majesty for the Gracious Speech which would have the effect of negating it;(b) denies a second or third reading to a Finance Bill or any Bill defined by the Prime Minister of the day as being essential to his or her administration continuing in office;(c) passes a motion of no confidence tabled by the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition; or(d) defeats a motion of confidence tabled by the Prime Minister.(3) If the provisions of subsection (2) are met, the Speaker of the House of Commons will issue a certificate to certify this.
(4) A certificate under this section is conclusive for all purposes.”
My Lords, I am delighted to be able to move this amendment. I have listened with great care to all the debates today on Clause 2 and, as I have listened, I have become more and more convinced of two things: first, that there are tremendous advantages in having an unwritten, flexible constitution; secondly, that Clause 2 is, frankly, incapable of proper improvement and should be deleted and replaced by something else. It is in that spirit that I have tabled this amendment, ably supported by—and I am most grateful to them—the noble Lords, Lord Armstrong and Lord Norton of Louth, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, all three of them constitutional experts of great eminence. We all feel very strongly not that this amendment is necessarily perfect in every particular but that it offers a better and clearer approach to a problem that the Government themselves acknowledge needs to be addressed.
The Government feel there must be an escape clause in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. If we are to have a Fixed-term Parliaments Bill—and again I have become more and more convinced that we really do not need one—then the escape clause must be clear, simple, understandable, not capable of misinterpretation and, in the light of that very interesting debate that we had shortly before the dinner break, not something that places the Speaker of the day in an intolerable position. I am attempting in this amendment to clarify and simplify, and to remove the Speaker from that invidious position about which the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, spoke so eloquently.
I am trying with this amendment to define a vote of no confidence. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, has already referred in the earlier debate that we had just a few moments ago to the fact that in the Parliament Act there is a clear definition of a money Bill. He asked very sensibly why, if the Government are picking, they do not have, as a precedent, both the Deputy Speaker provision and the definition. Why did they choose the one and not the other? My noble friend the Minister has already in a number of remarks today given me some quiet encouragement, and I hope that that will be confirmed when he replies to this debate because he has indicated that there is merit in having a definition of a no-confidence Motion.
I have sought here to list the occasions on which there clearly would be an issue in the House of Commons where the Government of the day had forfeited the confidence of the other place. The first is if the House of Commons,
“passes an amendment to the motion thanking Her Majesty for the Gracious Speech which would have the effect of negating it”.
I believe that that particular provisional clause could be slightly improved in the light of what we have said earlier today. Maybe we should say, “In the second or later Session of a Parliament”, because I accept that if a Government have not had any programme and their Queen’s Speech is rejected within weeks of the election, that is slightly different, as it was in 1924. However, if the Government have been in power, have governed for a Session on the Queen’s Speech, and lose the confidence at any time, there can surely be no doubt that that is an absolute rejection of them.
Secondly, if the House of Commons,
“denies a second or third reading to a Finance Bill”,
no Government can continue. My noble friend Lord Forsyth referred earlier today to the prime function of the other place to grant supply. If they are not in a position to do that, the Government of the day cannot continue to provide the government. It is therefore self-evident that if a Finance Bill is rejected on Second or Third Reading, there really can be no future for that Government.
I have also put into proposed new subsection (2)(b) in the amendment,
“any Bill defined by the Prime Minister of the day as being essential to his or her administration continuing in office”.
At Second Reading a number of noble Lords referred to Mr Edward Heath saying at the time of the Bill that took this country into what was then the Common Market that if that Bill was rejected at Second Reading his Government could not continue. Every Government have a flagship Bill, and if they lose on it they really cannot continue in office. Again, that is generally self-evident.
Then, if the House of Commons passes,
“a motion of no confidence tabled by the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition”,
and if that sort of Motion is carried, it is clear that Members on the government side, or Members who normally support the Government, have withdrawn their support. Many of us in the debates on the Bill have referred to March 1979, the defeat of the then Labour Government led by James Callaghan, and his exceptionally dignified conduct in defeat. His words have been quoted yet again today. He said that his Government had lost the confidence of the House and must now take their case to the country. It was clear cut, it was simple and everyone understood it.
The case is similar if the House of Commons,
“defeats a motion of confidence tabled by the Prime Minister”.
Many of us will remember that John Major tabled a Motion of confidence in his Government. However, it was carried, so the Government carried on. Had it been defeated, they could not have carried on.
If we seek to have a definition of a vote of no confidence along these lines, we are improving this Bill very considerably. How undignified is all this business of having 14 days in which to scrabble around to try to save a Government who have clearly become discredited in the eyes of Members of the House of Commons. Then there is the business of the two-thirds majority of the Members of the House of Commons, not of those who vote. In a House of 600, as it probably will be after the next general election, 400 have to vote. At Second Reading, in a very amusing and wry speech, the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, said in effect that the Whips have means of making you vote. Of course, he knows that better than most people; he practised the dark arts with a consummate artistry that has rarely been rivalled. If in March 1979, after the Government had lost by one vote, there had been a period following that, I doubt very much whether a few would not have changed their minds, either when being offered inducements or maybe even by being not so gently threatened. The noble Lord is laughing in assent; he knows that that is the case. We all know that these things can happen.
Those of us who were there in March 1979, on the very rare occasion of a Government being defeated, on a vote of no confidence, all know what happened. I referred to it in my maiden speech. We had the wonderful spectacle of Frank Maguire coming to abstain in person. We know that the Welsh and the Scottish nationalists, disgruntled with the Government following the devolution votes, were not going to support them. I am delighted to see my noble friend—and I call him that deliberately—Lord Wigley on the Benches over there, because he remembers that as well as I.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord. On that occasion, he is right to say that my Scottish friends voted against the Government but, after concessions on pneumoconiosis, we were persuaded to support the Government. Those are examples of what happens in such circumstances.
I am deeply grateful both for the correction and for the explicit example. Of course, we all know, too, that the Ulster Unionists voted both ways, because they did not want to be seen either to have propped up an unpopular Government or to have defeated a Government who had given concessions in Northern Ireland. All these things can happen.
A clear-cut defeat followed by the dignified recognition of that defeat and taking the case to the country is how we do it in the United Kingdom and it is how we should continue to do it.
In proposed new subsections (3) and (4) in this amendment, I say:
“If the provisions of subsection (2) are met, the Speaker of the House of Commons will issue a certificate to certify this”.
This is not a discretionary thing; it is on a par with the money resolutions. I took clerkly advice when I was drafting this amendment and was assured that this provision would in no sense place the Speaker in an invidious or difficult position. The Speaker of the day would have no choice other than to sign the piece of paper. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, has an amendment to delete subsections (3) and (4) in my amendment, but while I admire his vigilance I do not think that the deletion is necessary, because the Speaker is not being put into a difficult or invidious position.
Can my noble friend help me if I ask the same question that I asked of my noble friend on the Front Bench? Why is the Speaker’s certificate necessary?
I was advised by the clerks that this would be the tidy way of doing it—the certificate is issued, it is automatic and it would be expected. However, I am not desperately wedded to this proposal. What is truly important is the first part of the proposed new clause, subsections (1) and (2). I was merely saying that proposed new subsections (3) and (4) do not place the Speaker in the same invidious position that the provisions that we were debating earlier today do. I hope that your Lordships’ House will feel that this clause or something very similar—because, as I said, it is not perfect—would be a vast improvement on what we have, which is complicated, convoluted and thoroughly unnecessary.
If we are to have a Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, it is the duty of this House to try to ensure that it is as compatible with our constitutional arrangements in this country as it can be. Many of us feel that all that was really needed was a declaration of intent to serve until May 2015. I, for one, applaud that declaration of intent. However, if it is to be given legislative form, for whatever reason, let it be a legislative form that is both comprehensive and comprehensible; let it be a legislative form that people can understand in both Houses and in the country beyond. Do not let us connive in any arrangements that would allow a discredited Government to indulge in endless days of horse-trading to try to sustain themselves in office. Do not let us give to those who might practise the dark arts of sinister persuasion a power to redress a vote that the House of Commons has already passed. I beg to move.
Amendment 51 (to Amendment 50)
51: Clause 2, line 15, leave out subsections (3) and (4)
My Lords, my amendment to the new clause tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and his very distinguished co-signatories would delete subsections (3) and (4) of his new clause, which require the Speaker to issue a certificate and assert that the Speaker’s certificate shall be conclusive.
I have three grounds for proposing to the Committee that we should delete these provisions. There is the difficulty of defining a vote of confidence or of no confidence. The noble Lords’ new clause goes some way to achieving this but I do not think that it is the whole story. Notwithstanding the reassurance that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, just offered, I believe that there is a risk to the Speaker that he would be placed in a damagingly contentious role. There is the risk of intrusion by the courts into parliamentary proceedings, which we debated very fully on Amendment 42, and I do not propose to say any more about that in this debate. I do question the wisdom of the attempt, made with the very best of intentions by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and his co-signatories, to specify and define in this new clause the varieties of no confidence vote that there could be. I fear that the more we try to write down the constitution, the more specific and detailed we need to be. We shall be chasing our own tails in more and more circles, yet the task is impossible to accomplish.
I do think that the new clause is an improvement on what the Government have provided in Clause 2. The Government’s Clause 2 is vague. It appears to elide a no-confidence motion with a confidence motion. My noble friend Lady Jay asked Mr Mark Harper, when he was before the Select Committee, whether votes in various circumstances could be confidence or no-confidence votes. The Minister replied:
“I think the intention is that the Bill would encompass those examples”.
Yet the Government’s drafting does not make it clear, for example, whether a defeat on a motion or an issue of confidence would count as a vote of no confidence.
The conventional no-confidence vote is entirely obvious. It is what it says on the tin:
“That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”.
No problem would arise with that variety of no-confidence vote, but after that it gets harder. There is an excellent note on confidence motions and votes provided by the House of Commons Library, which I commend to everybody. It says that,
“despite their central importance, there is no certainty about the rules on the form and applicability of confidence motions in the UK Parliament, as it is established by convention rather than by statute or standing order of the House”.
The note goes on:
“Broadly speaking there are three main types of motion which act as tests of the House of Commons’ confidence in the Government: ‘confidence motions’ initiated by the Government; ‘no confidence motions’ initiated by the Opposition; and other motions where because of the particular circumstances can be regarded as motions of censure or confidence … There is no standard formulation for confidence motions”.
Apart from motions of confidence and of no confidence, there are,
“Other motions put down by the Government or the Opposition treated by the Government (whether expressly declared as such or not) as, or because of the particular circumstances can be regarded as, motions of censure or confidence”.
Examples of all the motions and votes of confidence that have taken place over a long period—the whole of the 20th century, I think—are described in that brief. There were, for example, substantive motions of no confidence during the Suez crisis. On 1 November 1956 the Prime Minister, Mr Eden, spoke but the leader of the Opposition, Mr Gaitskell, did not, so you cannot necessarily define a motion of no confidence in the terms that the party leaders speak on it. In the debate on 5 and 6 December of that year, Mr Gaitskell spoke but Mr Eden did not—admittedly, because he was ill and unable to do so. On a much earlier occasion, there was a motion in 1895 to reduce the salary of the Secretary of State for War which led, after a short delay, to the resignation of the Rosebery Government.
There have also been motions to adjourn. On 11 March 1976, following the defeat of the Government on its public expenditure White Paper Mr Wilson, the Prime Minister, did not take defeat on that matter of central importance to the Government’s programme as a vote of no confidence. He used a vote on the adjournment the next day as a device to avert his resignation and during the course of that Parliament of October 1974 to 1979 Mr Wilson, in very specific terms, narrowed the interpretation of confidence motions. He advised the House that the Government would only regard a motion as a confidence motion if every Member was aware in advance of the vote that that was its status. It was as well for him and the Labour Government that they did, because they were defeated 17 times in the short 1974 Parliament and 42 times in the October 1974 to 1979 Parliament.
Practice has evolved and there is not a set orthodoxy in these matters. Previously, historic Governments accepted defeats on major policy items as votes of no confidence. Yet how assured can we now be when it is now the case that only votes specifically stated by the Government to be matters of confidence or by the Opposition to be matters of no confidence count? I think that is the latter-day view.
The Clerk of the House of Commons, giving evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, said:
“I think that what is a confidence motion—other than the very straightforward one, ‘There is no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’—is an ambiguous matter”.
Would not votes on intensely controversial issues such as tuition fees and going to war now be widely regarded by the public as confidence votes, and perhaps the more so with coalitions?
The tendency in our politics appears to be that we shall have more coalitions because of the declining proportion of the vote for the major parties. Certainly, if we get the alternative vote, it seems likely that we will have more coalitions and more minority Governments. At the same time, we are very properly encouraging increased public engagement with and accountability of Parliament. Petitions submitted by members of the public may in certain circumstances now be debated in Parliament in a way that they never were before. The Government are about to introduce legislation to provide for the recall of Members of Parliament.
In these new developing political and constitutional circumstances, can we not expect that the public will take a very much closer interest and that they will not necessarily be content to leave it to the party leaders or the traditional authorities to define a confidence motion? In these much more confused circumstances that I think we can reasonably anticipate, is it fair and sensible to legislate to require the Speaker to adjudicate on whether a particular vote will be, is or has been a vote of no confidence or, indeed, of confidence?
Perhaps I have this wrong, but my understanding of the present position is that the Government may be defeated on a serious matter such as whether to go to war and may take the view that it is not a confidence motion. However, in such circumstances, the leader of the Opposition would table a confidence motion, which takes precedence over all business. If there is an argument about whether the issue is a confidence motion, it is up to the Opposition to bring forward a confidence motion on which there will be a vote, so why is this such a big problem?
I would very much like to be comforted by the noble Lord’s suggestion, but we are in an evolving state of affairs. I am not as confident as he is that the traditional formulations and conventions will necessarily be the only ones that the public will find acceptable in the future.
We have to think of what the role of the Speaker will be when it is contentious whether a particular vote may have this status. Let us imagine what would have happened if the Speaker had been required to issue a certificate as to whether, on 18 March 2003, the House of Commons had passed a motion of no confidence in Mr Blair’s Government, had that Government been defeated in the vote on the Iraq war. Mr Blair said later that he regarded that vote as a confidence vote, and that had he been defeated he would have resigned. How could the Speaker have certified in advance in those circumstances when the Prime Minister himself had not made it clear in advance that that was to be a confidence motion?
However, that is what the Minister, Mr Harper, confidently expects would happen. He said to the Constitution Committee:
“Our view is that the Speaker would make it very clear before such a vote took place whether it was a vote on which he would issue his certificate”.
The noble Lord is repeating the earlier debate because in this new clause the Speaker does not have that discretion. He may say that what I have put in is superfluous to requirements, but nevertheless it is not a question of putting the Speaker in the invidious position of having to determine the matter because, if one of those conditions is fulfilled, the Speaker has no option.
The noble Lord is assuming that all the circumstances that he has specified in the four categories that he has set out in his subsection (2) would be the only circumstances that would be regarded as a vote of confidence. Subsection (2) states:
“A vote of no confidence will have been deemed to have been passed if the House of Commons”,
passes amendments in the various terms set out. I am suggesting that, in political reality, there may be other votes which are not included in his survey of the possibilities but which would be regarded as votes of confidence.
The situation in March 2003, had the Government been defeated, illustrates the point quite well. I do not see how, as the Government expect, the Speaker could have certified that in advance, nor am I sure that the Prime Minister would have said in plain terms there and then when the result was announced that he treated it as a confidence matter. If he had not, was the Speaker to make a judgment there and then and certify that the Government had lost the confidence of the House, or perhaps some time later was he to issue a certificate that would have had the effect of bringing down the Government? It seems that the Bill as drafted leaves open these possibilities. I am not entirely confident that that would be avoided if it were amended by the noble Lord’s proposed new clause.
However, the amendment removes the existing Clause 2. I agree with the noble Lord that that should be removed and that the Speaker should not be put in that position. However, my new clause, imperfect as it may be in other respects, would not put him in that position.
If the provisions of subsection (2) in the noble Lord’s new clause are met, the Speaker is required to issue a certificate to certify that. Therefore, it seems that the certification requirements in the new clause are closely similar to, if not the same as, those already in the Bill. The merit of the noble Lord’s new clause is that it makes a brave attempt to define what would be motions of no confidence.
Let us take the case of Libya. The House of Commons voted with a very large majority to support military intervention in Libya. However, let us suppose that the intervention drags on, that the mood of the country turns sour, that sentiment in the country becomes as hostile to our military engagement with Libya as it has in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan, and that in due course the Government are defeated on a motion relating to the continuation of military engagement with Libya. Mr Cameron insists that it is not a confidence motion and Mr Miliband insists that it is. Is the Speaker to be required to adjudicate between the two of them? Is he to be required to umpire? In another circumstance, which the Committee has certainly recognised could occur under the legislation as the Government have produced it, what is the Speaker to do if the Government engineer a vote of no confidence? Is he to collude with the Government in that process?
Speakers of the House of Commons have to be sturdy people—they are always being shot at—but is it reasonable or realistic to expect such preternatural wisdom, courage and authority on the part of the Speaker if he is placed in what will inevitably be this very invidious position? That was certainly the view of the former Speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, who spoke in our previous debate. I have not only great respect but personal affection for Mr Speaker Bercow, but can we assume that every future Speaker will have this wisdom, courage and authority? I think that laws and institutions are best not predicated on an assumption of individual perfection. Even if the Speaker is such a paragon of all the relevant virtues, I think that the burden that certification places on him is excessive. A decision taken by the Speaker in the best of conscience could still be so contentious that it would damage the authority of the office of the Speaker. How would an individual Speaker who issued a certificate that was contested by the defeated party and resented by that party and its supporters in the country ever recover his personal authority?
I suggest that another consideration is that, if a certificate is issued in advance, as the Government advocate and foresee, that process will in effect pressurise Back-Benchers to rally to their party Whip. The Speaker, contrary to the role that we expect of him, would in effect be suppressing Back-Bench discontent. He would be suppressing the honest expression of individual views on great issues that the House was considering. He would be acting as a recruiting sergeant for the Whips. The Constitution Committee went some way towards recognising that. It foresaw a temptation for a Government in a position of political weakness to press the Speaker to certify that minor issues, or issues that were controversial within the party that came to the vote, were votes of confidence.
The Government assert that there is nothing new in the provisions. In their response to the Select Committee in the other place they talked of the traditional mechanism of no confidence motions and foresaw it as being straightforward. But creating legal consequences of no-confidence motions is new and potentially very important. As to the position of the Speaker, as we have noted, the Parliament Act requires certificates to be issued in quite different circumstances, as does the freedom of information legislation.
This Bill, as presented by the Government, places the Speaker in a new constitutional role which risks being highly politicised and which I believe will have disastrous implications. This all arises out of the Government’s desire to create escape hatches from the trap that fixed-term Parliaments create. It is one more instance of the dangers of making constitutional legislation in a hurry. If we damage the Speaker, who personifies Parliament, more than ever in an age of broadcasting, to the people and the world, we damage Parliament, and the reputation of Parliament is fragile. I do not think that we need this legislation. The evolving conventions have worked well, as they did in 1979. The House of Commons knows an issue of confidence when it faces it and knows how to deal with it, but an issue of confidence depends on the political context; it cannot be defined in advance. At least let us not put the Speaker in an impossible and damaging position.
My Lords, I have listened to the discussions today—and indeed on this subject—with anything but joy in my heart. I have been struck by the contribution that this Bill is making to the pile of legislation that this coalition Government have already brought to Parliament and which we are still ploughing through. The Attlee Government at one time had the record for the number of Bill pages in legislation presented in one year—2,288. I am sorry to say that the Thatcher Government some years later outstripped that with 2,581. My fear is that the present Administration may well be running well ahead of that. It is not only for that reason that I am very unenthusiastic about the Bill—all the more so when I see the problems that we are now getting deeper and deeper into.
I shall comment on those quickly. I respect the extent to which the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, has taken part in well considered detail in all the discussions. However, his last point does not take account of the fact that the proposed new clause moved by my noble friend Lord Cormack specifies in clear terms that the provisions are beyond doubt to be recognised as no-confidence motions. Moreover, they are so cast that they do not impose any real burden of judgment on the Speaker at all. He is certifying something that is as plain as a pikestaff as already set out. Even so, I commend the provisions in the proposed new clause as being better than those in the Bill, but I wonder whether we need to be going through any of this at all. The attempt to define in detail what it has to fulfil reminds me of the task of definition and how difficult that is. It is now 15 years since I chaired the steering committee of the Tax Law Rewrite Project. We were engaged in the task of rewriting, reclassifying and redefining almost everything on the existing tax statute book. I know from that experience how harsh it is.
We really need not put ourselves into this morass. The impact of the no-confidence motion has always been recognised. I cannot think of a past example in which somebody has repudiated the attempt to dissolve a Parliament because of the passage of a no-confidence resolution. You can sometimes get into great mistakes by trying to define too much in too much detail too often. I have no enthusiasm for the fixed-term Parliament proposition, but, if we have it, I do not see the need for this kind of detailed definition. Let me go one stage further back. We have survived many decades and a whole series of varying circumstances, but without any equivalent of the fixed-term Parliament provision. On different occasions, the Prime Minister, the nation and Parliament have had to make up their own minds as to whether the circumstances being exercised or exploited have been properly reacted to. This has worked.
I hope that I may not astonish the House still further by drawing attention to a completely different episode in my past. I found myself in Mumbai in the Indian state of Maharashtra at a time when the governor—who most of us will know—was considering the circumstances in which he would choose the winner of the next election. The situation that he faced was not a two-party competition, but a three-party competition, between the Congress Party, the BJP and a third party which was operating in semi-partnership with the BJP. He had to decide on what basis a victory was to be judged and which of the winners he was to invite to form the next Government if it came to that. The point is that he spent an entire evening with me discussing the precedents facing Her Majesty in the 19th century in handling quarrels between the two major parties and the Irish as the third party. He found his study of those precedents valuable in guiding him to judge what might or might not emerge.
It is easy to laugh and ask, “What on earth is Lord Howe up to, asking us to apply our attention to Indian constitutional precedents?”. However, it is a serious point; the governor was building upon the experience that has enabled us to recognise a decision of no confidence. It is more clearly specified in the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. However, I doubt we need any of it at all. I doubt whether we need to have a fixed-term Parliament. It might be a security guarantee for a coalition, which we are not very accustomed to. I cannot now invite us to revisit the Second Reading of this Bill. It is here. We have to try to keep it as simple and as straightforward as possible and to that extent the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Cormack is better than the alternative. I am not very happy with either of them. However, I do not think that we will gain much profit by examining the detail to that extent.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, pointed out, conventions can be very valuable. Conventions enable us to decide which way in the end to go, in the light of our past experiences. I suggest we approach this much more safely and wisely upon the basis of conventional judgments in the light of our experience as parliamentarians over a very long period. It is upon that basis that I do not have much enthusiasm for any of the provisions in this Bill. The one to which my name is attached—though not much of a qualification —is the most sensible so far. Upon that basis I commend it as being the least unattractive of what we have before us.
My Lords, I have put my name to this proposed new clause because it provides greater clarity and certainty than Clause 2 in its present form. It defines clearly and unambiguously what constitutes a vote of confidence in the other place for the purposes of this legislation. It is not a total definition of all votes of confidence but of what would constitute a vote of confidence for the purposes of triggering an early parliamentary election. It may not be perfect, but I think it is a very good shot at that. It provides the additional safeguard of a certificate by the Speaker that a vote is indeed a vote of confidence within the meaning of the Act, but I hear the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, on that subject, and we can consider whether that needs to be retained, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, suggested.
This proposed new clause also specifies clearly the consequence that is to follow the defeat on a vote of confidence, as defined, in the Government in another place: that there is to be an early and immediate parliamentary general election. It does not provide, as the existing Clause 2 would provide, for a cooling-off period of a fortnight between the vote and the decision to dissolve Parliament and hold an election. That seems to me an improvement, not a weakness, as compared with the provision in the Bill. That fortnight would be, as has been pointed out, a period of prolonged political uncertainty, not to say crisis, and of paralysis in government, which would be better avoided.
I suppose that that provision is intended to allow for the possibility that after a defeat on a vote of confidence a new Administration might be formed, perhaps under a different Prime Minister, which could carry on government without the need for a general election. I suggest that this possibility is more theoretical than real. In real life, if a Government were faced with the prospect of a vote of confidence, the loss of which would certainly trigger a dissolution of Parliament and a new election, they would do their utmost to try to ensure that they did not lose the vote. If they failed to do so, it would be clear enough that a Government who had lost a vote of confidence as defined had run out of time and political credit to such an extent that the only realistic remedy for the problem would be a Government with a new electoral mandate.
As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has suggested, the drafting of this amendment could well be improved or tidied up in various ways by further consideration and refinement but, for the reasons I have indicated, it seems to me that a new Clause 2 to the effect proposed by this amendment would be a marked and useful improvement to the Bill, if we have to have the Bill.
My Lords, the authors of this amendment are so distinguished that I speak with even more trepidation than usual. They have shown characteristic confidence in proposing a complete removal of Clause 2 and its replacement with their own model. However, I suggest to the Committee that their self-confidence may in this case be misplaced.
The Bill, if we are entirely candid, does not fix parliamentary terms; it codifies how long they should last, but also provides for them to be foreshortened in very specific circumstances with very specific safeguards, and it is those safeguards that we are looking at this evening. Indeed, for all the debate in this House about how a simple majority vote of confidence should precipitate an election, the Bill already has, just about, that provision in it, albeit with a 14-day government-formation period, referred to by the noble Lord as a cooling-off period. I think it is actually going to be a hotting-up period if the media are camped on the green outside waiting to see what is going to happen.
I suggest that if we were to accept Amendment 50, we would be going even further in negating the principle of a fixed-term Parliament. That may be what some Members wish to do, but it is not, I think, the view of the Official Opposition, nor is it the position of the Government.
There are several veterans in your Lordships’ House of the long debates about the Maastricht treaty. Therefore, I want to draw the attention of the Committee to the way in which that was handled in the other place. I happened at that stage to be largely on the side of the Government. There was a sort of informal Lib Dem/Conservative alliance but there were also many people on the Conservative Party Back Benches who were opposed, in principle, to the Bill. That was a matter of policy but it was turned into a matter of confidence in the Government. Philip Stephens, a distinguished Financial Times columnist, wrote subsequently that,
“the rebels understood the choice was between supporting ratification of Maastricht and certain defeat at a general election four weeks later. Major won the confidence vote comfortably”.
In those circumstances, MPs were effectively circumscribed in their judgment by virtue of a prime ministerial power to make MPs choose between incumbency and defeat.
Amendment 50 codifies that power in proposed new subsection (2)(b), suborning matters of controversial policy to raw short-term political objectives. That same subsection also sets up a lawyer’s paradise. I am not a lawyer, but from the legal advice that I have been given the amendment is more likely to be justiciable, for reasons that I will come to in a moment, than the situation previously described very eloquently by two distinguished former Speakers, because it is about a Prime Minister’s entirely subjective definition of a Bill,
“being essential to his or her administration continuing in office”.
That is a sort of papal absolute, which could be questionable in court or subject to judicial review—a point to which I will come back—because that is an executive decision. It is not the decision of the Speaker of the House of Commons. It is the decision of a Minister in a political role in an executive position. At the time of Maastricht, the Major Government could have continued in office without the Maastricht treaty. They would have lurched even more absurdly from crisis to crisis if they had but they could have survived.
Why and how should a Prime Minister—the very person from whom the whole point of the Bill is to remove that absolute power—be accorded an absolute right to define those Bills which he or she thinks should be the subject of this provision? Why would not a Prime Minister use it for every substantial piece of legislation?
It seems to me that the provisions of this amendment could encourage unnecessary brinkmanship when there are perfectly legitimate disagreements, whether they are among coalition parties or within majority Governments, which we all know are coalitions anyway. I invite your Lordships to look carefully at the amendment in the names of my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Norton of Louth, my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon, and the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. My noble friend Lord Cormack was very fair in saying that he thought that it could be improved but proposed new subsection (2)(a) and (b) would give extraordinary executive opportunity to the Prime Minister of the day. It might remove from the Speaker the invidious role that was described earlier so eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and the noble Lord, Lord Martin, but it could create in its own way even more difficult circumstances.
Let us suppose that the Prime Minister of the day, under proposed new subsection (2)(b), decides that a particular Bill and a vote on that Bill is essential to his or her Administration continuing in office. Under the amendment as it stands, the Speaker would have to specify that to be the case. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, on the fact that the Speaker would have to specify that that was the case—that the Prime Minister had said it, so it is the case. But that decision of the Prime Minister of course could be subject to judicial review, perhaps several days after the Speaker’s certification. What situation does that place the Speaker in? It is not his decision that has been challenged. It is the decision of the Prime Minister. Nevertheless it puts the Speaker in an extremely invidious position. Unfortunately, the noble Baroness is no longer in her customary seat but the strictures that were being applied earlier to your Lordships’ House in terms of putting the Speaker in an invidious position would be even worse under this amendment.
Who is going to challenge the decision of the Prime Minister? Will it be the Leader of the Opposition? Will it be one of his own supporters? If the Prime Minister has come to the conclusion that particular legislation is essential to the Government’s survival, it is hardly likely that he will be taken to court over that.
I do not agree with the noble Lord. There are people who will always want to subject the decisions of a Prime Minister to judicial review. As I understand it from the legal advice that I have received, such applications are much more likely to be considered by a court and to take time. That is the situation described earlier in the Committee. I hope that everyone will accept that the certification by the Speaker is a parliamentary act, but the executive, political decision of a Prime Minister to say that he or she considers a particular Bill to be a matter of confidence is open to much greater interpretation by the courts.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, quite rightly said earlier that we should avoid artificial certainty of definition. I fear that that is precisely what the distinguished authors of the amendment have produced. For example, how many parliamentary Questions would be tabled along the following lines: “Will the Prime Minister define the Miscellaneous Provisions Bill as essential to his continuing in office under Section 2(2)(b) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act?”. Would the Prime Minister always say no? What would he say? There could be endless entertainment in the other place on this position.
I am sure that the amendment is well intentioned but it will take us down a dangerous route. I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, says about the subsequent decision of the Speaker following such a decision by the Prime Minister in an attempt to force a vote of confidence, but I still think that the amendment, with or without his subsequent amendment, is extremely damaging and potentially dangerous.
I noted what my noble and learned friend Lord Howe said about not being particularly enthusiastic about the amendment to which he had put his name, any more than he was about the Government’s position. I accept that there is some lack of enthusiasm for the amendment, even by its authors, but it is a dangerous route for us to take. It would be justiciable and challenged in the courts—and that would be extremely dangerous.
I and my colleagues have put forward an alternative which is a great deal simpler. It is that rather than trying to codify the status quo, as the amendment attempts to do, we should have one specific rule—that the Motion of no confidence should be tabled by the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. It is difficult to think of any circumstance—even when the second and third parties are of comparable size—when the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition would not in practice have to table that Motion. It would be so firm and clear that it would ensure that Governments could not use such a vote as a way of cutting and running early. That is one of the key purposes of the Bill. The cut-and-run tendency is not good for the governance of our country, but we have seen it happen in the past.
The amendment undermines the purpose of and hollows out what is an already modest Bill. Some noble Lords on these Benches, and perhaps in other parts of the House, think that the fixed term should be even firmer than it is under the Bill—after all, it operates perfectly well in the United States. The Bill is already a compromise from that position; I suggest there is no need to compromise it further.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, has described better than I ever could the Alice in Wonderland nature of the debate. I can understand my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport picking credible holes in the amendment brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and it is certainly easy for the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, to do so.
We are holding this debate against a background of a Bill which is unnatural and is opposed by an overwhelming majority of Members of this House. A party which lost seats in the previous general election is blackmailing its partners in a coalition to accept constitutional change. We shall all end up being twisted and contorted by trying to take part in a debate on a Bill which is utterly flawed and goes against the natural flow of political events in this country. It is easy to criticise, but we are taking part in a debate on a Bill which is a strange and unnatural beast in British politics.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has tried within the context of that debate to play the constructive, revising role that people in this House look for and to make the Bill better. I do not think that he supports the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, but we have got it in front of us and it is what he is trying to improve.
Subsection (2) of the proposed new clause outlines the instances in which a vote of no confidence will be deemed to have been passed. They would amount to votes of confidence anyway. They are issues where, if a vote goes against the Government, Parliament is entitled to pass a vote of no confidence; that is the new world. Paragraph (b) states,
“denies a second or third reading to a Finance Bill”.
We all know that a Government need a Finance Bill to be passed. I take the point about a Prime Minister defining it, but that is his or her judgment as the Prime Minister of the country. Paragraphs (c) and (d) state,
“passes a motion of no confidence tabled by the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition; or … defeats a motion of confidence tabled by the Prime Minister”.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is using real life to bring forward instances which determine whether there is a general election in this country. I, too, was in another place at the time of Maastricht. It is not the first time that people have combined in quite such dishonourable—in some ways—alliances.
I presume that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, supported the 14-day provision. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack—I had better not call him my noble friend for the purpose of this debate—was paying me compliments in talking about black arts and sinister persuasions. That 14 days would allow all sorts of things to take place. There would definitely be no physical violence, but imagine the sheer pressure that you can generate by being able to say to somebody that you hold in your hand the power to determine whether, in my case, a Labour Government fall, or a Conservative Government, in the case of other people.
This is really nonsense, but we are all being forced to discuss it because we are being led by the nose—I hesitate to say anything that would upset or insult noble Lords on the Conservative Benches—by a comparatively small group of people, the Liberal group, who are hell bent on changing the constitution of this country. They are tinkering with it and coming up with all sorts of ill thought-out, ill advised and quite nonsensical proposals. In the likes of the noble Lords, Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Cormack, and my noble friend Lord Grocott, we have people here who are prepared to listen to ideas for change but to take the best of this place to keep it going. We are in an unnatural situation where we are all discussing something which we know is not right and not practical.
I was particularly struck by a phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, which was that he was trying to get a comprehensible Bill. That sounds to me like common sense. As long as we are forced to discuss a Bill such as this, we will all come forward with positions that we do not really believe in or like in a vain attempt to make a better Bill. We know full well in our heart of hearts that a majority of people in this House know that the Bill is nonsense; but as long as we are prepared to discuss in an Alice in Wonderland way, we can pick holes in reasonable suggestions.
I am very interested in the amendment and agree a great deal with the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Armstrong, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe. A common argument put here is that we did not need a Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. I come from engineering. My foreman used to say, “Michael, if it works, do not fix it; do not touch it”. There is nothing to stop the present Administration, the alliance, going for five years if they want to; but, as others have said, we are past that point now. I remember when the Labour Party decided that it would have mandatory reselection of MPs and that was made part of its constitution. We were warned that if you kick a ball into the constitution park, it can roll in many ways. That is what we are seeing here, when we do not need a change. Now people are attempting to fix it by ensuring that the legislation is watertight.
On the idea of a Speaker signing a certificate, the fact is that every decision of the House of Commons is then put in the Journal of the House. There is a dedicated Clerk to the Journal who makes sure that the Journal records the decisions of the other place and of this place. Perhaps the legislation should have a mechanism whereby someone would be presented with the Journal, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said, stated that a decision had been made by a two-thirds majority or that a vote of no confidence had been carried.
I think that it is on the steps of the Mansion House that someone comes out to say, “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye”—there is going to be a general election. There is a delay while it goes up to Edinburgh because in the old days, someone went by horse and the announcement was made in Edinburgh a bit later—a lovely tradition. If I had my way, I would rather that that certificate did not have to be issued by the Speaker. It is different with Money Resolutions and other matters that the Speaker has to deal with.
I would rather that the provision be left out; if it is to be left in, I would rather that subsections (2)(a) and (b) be left out, because, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, what would happen if the gracious Speech was defeated and negated by a brand-new Government elected by the people? It would be hard for people to understand and very difficult for a Speaker to sign off a certificate in those circumstances. But what would happen if he or she denied the certificate? An element in the country would say, “Oh no, you have it in legislation. Sort that out”. I certainly would be uncomfortable. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that paragraph (b) is open to interpretation. For a Prime Minister to say, “Get this through or it is a vote of confidence in me”, is not the way things should go. However, a Speaker would be in a difficult position.
I mentioned earlier about the pressures on modern Speakers. I used to read some of the lovely stories in the beautiful books in Speaker’s House telling us what previous Speakers had to worry about. In one case, the Speaker had to worry about the price of coal being delivered to Speaker’s House. That was a big worry, and I wish I had had that worry. In the old days, perhaps in Edwardian times, the Speaker stayed in the big house, and would then go to his constituency or a place in the country. No one would bother him. Even if people wanted to apply pressure on him outside parliamentary hours, there was not the modern technology that we have just now. Nowadays, there is texting, e-mails and the mobile phone. As a result, I can envisage a situation in which, even if the period in which a Speaker had to sign this certificate was only 48 hours, he would be pursued and the pressures that would be put on him would be enormous. Forgive me, this applies also to lady Speakers.
The black arts of the Whip have been mentioned, and there are many black arts. There is the direct approach, when the Chief Whip comes in and gives the Speaker the rough edge of their tongue; or there is a more subtle way, when the pal of the Speaker is used. Bear in mind that the Speaker is elected from the ranks of the House of Commons, and he has friends. The pal is sent up and says, “You know, Michael, everyone in the Tea Room is worried”; but it is not everyone in the Tea Room who is worried—the Whips sent him. You get the friendly approach and then the Gypsy warnings, and so on.
There is another thing that we have to remember in these modern times—the 24/7 media. I mentioned the Edwardian Speaker who went away to the countryside. When I got to my home at weekends, if there was anything controversial going on, there were people at my door from the media, and they were not very nice at all. In fact, it is rule and convention of the House that the Speaker does not make statements anywhere other than in Parliament. A spokesman phoned me and said, “If you do not give a statement, this newspaper will doorstep you”. I said, “ I am bound by the rules of the House”. While I was speaking to that spokesman at 9 am on a Saturday, two reporters from a Sunday newspaper were outside in a car. The caller said, “I will phone the editor back and say that you are not going to speak”. One of the two reporters went to the side door of my home and the other went to the front door and battered it so hard. That is not a decent way to carry on. Had I or any of my family been in bed at the time, I would have thought that there was something very serious going on. I would have rushed to the door, opened it and been confronted by a newspaper editor.
I tell you that the pressures are tremendous. There is worry in every city about housebreaking. I even had a situation when a clown was outside my door—I describe him as a clown, although he called himself a journalist—from Sky TV, using big satellite television equipment. There he was, outside the house while I was in London. He said, “We cannot get him; the house is empty”. Anyone who is involved in security will tell you not to advertise that you are away from home, but here was somebody broadcasting live television, saying that my house was empty. That is the type of pressure I am talking about.
Something else must also be remembered. I was appalled when I heard that the Prime Minister of the day had a spin doctor whose only job—he had other spin doctors—was to put out negative stories about people in other parties and anyone else who was felt to be a danger to the Prime Minister. I do not wish to use the privilege of this House to mention his name. That person was sacked. It was public knowledge that he was putting out nasty, negative stories about members of the shadow Cabinet and their families. It absolutely horrifies me that the public purse was paying for this man and that the Prime Minister of the day was willing to employ him. Despite all my differences of agreement with Margaret Thatcher, I do not think she would have employed someone like that. Jim Callaghan would not have employed someone like that, and Ted Heath would certainly not have employed someone like that. That spin doctor was not the only one putting out negative stories, but he was paid by the Prime Minister of the day. If the Speaker of the House was going to do something that the Prime Minister was not happy about, there would be tough pressure on him with these people around.
We must also consider the public. We represent the people of this country. We must make sure that, if there is a vote of no confidence, the people understand what is happening. We are the anoraks of politics: we live and breathe politics; we look at politics in our spare time. However, there are other men and women who say, “We’ll leave that to the politicians”, although they want to know what is going on. They would not necessarily understand A and B.
I have listened to the noble Lord with great care. He is somebody I have respected for a long time. However, I wonder where he is taking us in this debate, which is on an amendment to a very serious Bill. We have listened for 10 or 15 minutes to the experiences of a Speaker in the House of Commons. The evening is moving on and we have a lot of business to get through. Will the noble Lord, as an experienced former Member of Parliament, be good enough to tell us in a short sentence the point that he is trying to make?
If the House wants me to cease speaking I will do so. I am sorry—the noble Lord has put me off, but I think he will get my point in a moment. I will try not to take so long the next time I speak.
If a Speaker has to sign a certificate, it should be simple. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that the public outside should know exactly what is being voted on in the House. It will be very clear if it is a vote of no confidence: a clear resolution or Motion will have been put down, saying, “We have no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”. If that was voted on, at least the Speaker would be in the position of knowing what he or she was going to sign. A vote of no confidence will have been carried, the House will have made a decision, and the Speaker will be conveying the wishes of the House and putting that on a certificate. I hope that has helped the noble Lord.
My Lords, I have added my name to the new clause as well. I will just begin by disagreeing with my noble friend Lord Tyler, because I do not agree that this new clause undermines the Bill—quite the reverse. The Bill as presently drafted requires the Speaker to certify whether a vote of no confidence has been passed. However, there is no definition in the Bill of what constitutes that. This new clause seeks to adumbrate what constitutes a vote of no confidence as presently understood. If the Speaker is required to determine a vote of no confidence, all he has to go on is present understandings; otherwise he has to devise a definition of his own, which would be a sure recipe for undermining, if not destroying, the office of the Speaker.
What constitutes a vote of no confidence is a serious concern, and one that has been acknowledged by Ministers. When the Deputy Prime Minister appeared before the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House to discuss the Government’s constitutional reform programme, he conceded,
“this is a really important area and it is a classic example of where we could perhaps work away at the Bill if necessary, to strengthen or clarify it”.
He went on:
“In a sense, we have provided the tramlines in this draft Bill, but at the same time, I clearly want to retain as much flexibility and autonomy as possible for the House to decide for itself how it then interprets that. That is exactly the kind of thing that now needs to come out in the scrutiny that the Bill will receive”.
The problem with the present provision is that it does not leave it to the House how it interprets a vote of confidence—it is left to the Speaker to determine what constitutes a vote of confidence. As we have heard, unlike with money Bills, there is no statutory definition to guide the Speaker and there is an obvious ambiguity with the current wording. Defeating a motion of confidence is not the same as passing a vote of no confidence. Last week, the Minister referred to the case of Germany, where he said the Government had engineered a vote of no confidence in order to trigger an election. I pointed out that they had not engineered a vote of no confidence; they had contrived to be defeated on a motion of confidence. What happens if the Government consider that a Division on a major issue of policy is one of confidence and the Speaker takes a contrary view? Worse, what if it is the other way round?
As we have already heard, the danger is that the Speaker will be dragged into political controversy. In the event of an expected close vote on the Second Reading of a major government Bill, the Speaker could, in effect, be holding the fate of the Government in his hands. The potential to damage the office of Speaker is immense, and it should be avoided. If we are to have a Speaker’s certificate—and I say “if”—then we need to define what constitutes a vote of no confidence in the Government. As we have heard, there is a statutory definition of a money Bill, and I believe a statutory definition is required of a vote of no confidence. My noble friend's amendment seeks to provide that.
Last week, the Minister mentioned that I had undertaken research of all votes of confidence. In fact, my research was of government defeats in the House of Commons in the 20th century and, as part of that research, I was able to determine what were deemed to be votes of confidence—and, equally, what were not. In essence, as has already been touched on, there are three types of vote in which the House of Commons expresses its lack of confidence in the Government. First, there are Motions that stipulate that the House has or does not have confidence in Her Majesty's Government. The House may carry a Motion of no confidence or negate one expressing confidence in Her Majesty's Government.
Second, there are Motions on measures that the Government consider so central to their programme that, if defeated, they cannot sensibly continue. Confidence has therefore attached to some Second Readings and on occasion particular provisions of Bills. I have previously cited—again, this has been touched on—the example of the Second Reading of the European Communities Bill in 1972, when the Prime Minister stated that, if defeated, the Parliament could not sensibly continue. As an aside, I would mention that, if one went down the route where the Speaker did not certify it as a vote of confidence, it would still be open to the Prime Minister to say that the Government could not sensibly continue.
The third category is that of implicit votes of confidence. A small number of issues are taken to be confidence votes even if not explicitly worded as such and without the Government having declared them to be so. This is essentially a residual category deriving from the Government’s need for supply—my noble friend Lord Forsyth touched upon it earlier. Failure to grant supply is regarded as the traditional means by which the House can demonstrate its lack of confidence in the ministry.
My noble friend’s amendment seeks to encapsulate these categories in his new clause. It provides the clarity I would regard as necessary for the Speaker. I have some sympathy for the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth. It may be that the definitions provided are such that no verification from the Speaker is required because, if a Government attempted to argue that a particular defeat, say, on an amendment to the gracious Speech, was not one of confidence, then it would be open as now for the leader of the Opposition to table an explicit vote of no confidence.
I believe that my noble friend’s new clause is drawn sufficiently tightly to encapsulate what is normally understood to constitute a declaration by the House of Commons that it lacks confidence in the Government. I appreciate that it could be argued that it is too tightly drawn. Under the amendment, votes of no confidence can be moved only by the leader of the Opposition. As I mentioned in Committee last week, one of the most celebrated Motions of no confidence was moved in wartime by a Conservative Back-Bencher, Sir John Wardlaw-Milne, who triggered a two-day debate on 1 and 2 July 1942 on the Motion that the House had no confidence in the central direction of the war. It may be that it should not be restricted to the leader of the Opposition, though it would be unlikely for a Motion of no confidence to be carried without the support of the Opposition.
I think my noble friend has produced a new clause that provides the basis for determining what constitutes a Motion of no confidence. I believe it is essential that we should include such a provision in the Bill. It injects the necessary clarity and avoids miring the Speaker in controversy. If my noble friend the Minister is not able to accept the new clause, it is incumbent on him to come up with an alternative that improves on it. Given a choice between my noble friend’s new clause and the Bill as it stands, it is a case of no contest. This amendment, or one close to it, is essential.
My Lords, the hour is late so I have no wish to detain the House. First, I would like to congratulate my noble friend on this amendment, which I think is a great improvement on Clause 2. I have been reading Clause 2 again and it is like some kind of pre-nuptial agreement. If you look at the reasons behind it, clearly this is a clause put together by two parties who are not quite sure whether this marriage is going to work out. The reason we have the provision of more than a simple majority is clearly because the Liberal partners in the coalition were worried about the Prime Minister cutting and running and calling an early election when they were very unpopular. You can see how the architecture of this Bill has been created and it has nothing whatever to do with the proper functioning of the House of Commons.
Clause 2 is completely unnecessary, but I respect my noble friend’s very constructive attempt to try to go with the grain and not be too confrontational, as perhaps I am being now, about this clause. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, that my preference would be to leave out the proposed new subsections (3) and (4) for the reason that, as the noble Lord, Lord Martin, has so eloquently explained, we should not be putting the Speaker in a position where he is involved in this.
Throughout the evening my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace has been very patient and very good and very constructive. I have asked him on several occasions why we need to have the certification process at all. It goes back to the pre-nuptial agreement. Normally, if the Prime Minister wants to call an election, people accept that, but people have thought we cannot have the Prime Minister doing it so we have to have somebody else. You can see them sitting in a room thinking, “Well, who could we have? Well, we will have the Speaker”. It has not been thought through. It is not necessary. We do not need the Speaker to sign a certificate saying that a Motion of no confidence has been passed.
Where I take slight issue—I support my noble friend’s amendment, but it is not perfect—is with the list of what constitutes a Motion of no confidence. As has been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, I do not think that you can have a Bill,
“defined by the Prime Minister of the day as being essential to his or her administration continuing in office”.
My noble friend Lord Tyler is absolutely right about that. If a Bill that was central to the Government’s programme, a flagship Bill, was defeated in the House of Commons, any leader of the Opposition worth his salt would the very next day table a no-confidence Motion, which would take precedence over all other parliamentary business under the rules and conventions of the House of Commons. Presumably, Members would either vote for or against that Motion. I do not see the need for this list.
In my noble friend’s amendment, I like the bit that says, “Leave out Clause 2” and I like the bit that says:
“An early parliamentary general election is to take place if the House of Commons passes a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”,
but then I think, “Why do we need any of the rest?”. I would be very grateful if, during the course of these proceedings, we could answer these very simple questions. You do not need the Speaker to sign a certificate and, if the House of Commons can pass a Motion of no confidence, that Motion does not need to be moved by the leader of the Opposition. But if the House of Commons no longer has confidence in the Government, there has to be a general election. That is a tried and tested thing that has continued for years.
I agree, too, with those who have said, “What is the point of this Bill?” If a Prime Minister wants to have a fixed-term Parliament, he can say, “I am not going to call a general election till the fifth anniversary of the previous election, or the last possible moment”—and there we have it. Normal conventions will apply.
We have this Bill, but it is a muddle, and if we are going to proceed with it we need something like my noble friend’s amendment, which leaves out Clause 2. If we could do away with the list or reduce its scope—perhaps continuing to include the Finance Bill but certainly taking away the requirement on the Speaker to issue a certificate—we would end up back where we started. The great advantage to where we started is that we know that it has worked and it has worked for centuries.
Before my noble friend sits down, I shall answer his question about the list. The reason why we need the list is because it has been our understanding about what a vote of confidence is for about a century. He is now being extremely radical in trying to limit the list in saying that only in certain circumstances would there be an explicit vote of no confidence. That is quite a constitutionally radical proposal.
I stand corrected by my noble friend, who is very expert on these matters. However, a Motion that says, “This House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government” is absolutely clear, and it would trigger an election. In the context of this Bill, with a fixed-term Parliament, it is going to change. I accept that, because the nature of the Parliament will have changed. But I would much prefer something clear-cut, simple and explicit. If you want to bring down the Government, you have to pass a Motion of no confidence. That is absolutely clear. If such a motion is passed, the Prime Minister has to go to the country.
I was going to sit down, but my noble friend has set me off again. To turn to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, the idea that a Prime Minister should somehow be prevented from going to the country to get the consent of the people for what he is trying to do, to call a general election, is also a deeply worrying change to our constitutional pattern. But I sit at the feet of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and I am perfectly prepared to alter my view and go along with this amendment, at least in part under his instruction, because it is a far better thing than Clause 2 as it stands.
I hope that my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness will accept the good advice that has been given him tonight and that at a later stage we will be able to discuss something that is more practical and workable and does not threaten the integrity of the office of Speaker of the House of Commons or the ability of the House to hold the Executive to account.
This debate has demonstrated the need for the Government to reconsider Clause 2. I am very grateful to all my noble friends and all those who have supported the amendment for raising the issue again and in a different context from the previous debates. The intention is to remove the opportunity for Governments to fiddle with arrangements in any way, and that is a desirable purpose. The amendment also seeks to clarify the circumstances in which a vote of no confidence is deemed to justify the holding of an election. However, although noble Lords have raised the debate, I do not think they have concluded it. There are defects in the drafting of Amendment 50 that need to be considered. No one has suggested that this is a perfect drafting, but I would like to suggest two or three points that could be considered when the Government come forward at a later stage.
The first point is that proposed new subsection (2) states:
“A vote of no confidence will have been deemed to have been passed if the House of Commons”,
does certain things, but those things do not appear to be an exclusive list. It would still allow other circumstances to occur that enabled it to be said after the event that there had been a vote of no confidence. The rubric of statutory interpretation that springs to my mind is the Latin tag, “inclusio unius est exclusio alterius”. That might be the answer to this if that were still the law and still the rule of statutory interpretation, but it is not sufficiently clearly the case to avoid the possibility of a further circumstance being deemed to have been a vote of no confidence.
It also seems to me that there has been a slight conflation between a vote of no confidence and the inevitability of a Government’s fall followed by an election. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, with great respect, as I always do, but it seems to me that, even if the Wardlaw-Milne Motion of no confidence had been carried—and of course it was not—it would have been perfectly understandable in wartime if that had led to the demise of the particular Prime Minister or a significant change of Government without any election being held. I think the constitution was sufficiently flexible at that time to make it likely that that would have been the outcome. What we are considering here is the circumstances that trigger an election, and I think that needs to be put beyond doubt. I do not believe, even in the case of the European Community Bill in 1972, that despite what the Prime Minister of the day said it would have inevitably resulted in an election. It seems to me that it might have led to the departure of the then Prime Minister. However, he could easily have been told that there were others who would have been prepared to take his place and preside over the parliamentary majority that existed.
If we want an escape clause—and clearly an escape clause is necessary, even with a fixed-term Parliament—in a constitution that is prime ministerial and not presidential, we must have the possibility of having a vote of no confidence. However, I think the better solution to that is the one proposed already by my noble friend Lord Tyler, which is that the Motion of no confidence should come from the leader of the Opposition. If the Government appear to the party in government itself to be in a shambolic condition, it does seem highly probable that a leader of the Opposition would seize the opportunity to declare that the House has no confidence in the Government. I hope that that is the line that will be taken by the Government in reconsidering this clause, but that the case for reconsidering it is strong I have no doubt. Clause 2 as it stands is ill defined and gives no certainty on what the circumstances are within that two-week period which could lead to the holding of a general election. Amendment 50 is a good stab at trying to clarify which issues need to be addressed. The debate tonight will have given my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness a lot to think about and to discuss further with his colleagues, as I believe is definitely necessary.
My Lords, this has again been an important debate. I pay particular tribute to the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn. It was forceful and effective in determining the importance of the role of the Speaker in the new Bill and had the experience of the Speaker in dealing with that. As far as I was concerned, it was absolutely clear throughout his whole speech where he was going with it. I also pay tribute to the noble Lords, Lord Cormack, Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, for bringing this amendment forward. However, this proposed new clause slightly illustrates the problems again.
I will try to identify four principles within which we should be operating. Proposition one: whether we like it or not, the purpose of this Bill is to deprive the Prime Minister of his absolute discretion to determine the date of the general election. Proposition two: the Bill does not intend to disturb a constitutional principle that any Government should continue only for as long as they have the confidence of the House of Commons. Proposition three: currently, the House of Commons itself determines whether a Motion, when passed, indicates a lack of confidence in the existing Government. Proposition four: the Bill, whether in the form advanced by the Government or as amended by Amendment 50 moved by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, seeks to try to produce a legal definition of what constitutes an indication of a lack of confidence in a Government, as opposed to leaving it to the politics of the time in the House of Commons.
The critical change which the Bill is making—if I may say so, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and his fellow tablers have been lured into it—is in trying to provide a legalistic definition of a vote of no confidence. It is not for the courts to intervene. I assume it will have to be the Speaker who does the job. When he sees the words “Motion of no confidence” in a Bill or an Act of Parliament, he will look to see what their preceding meaning was.
Noble Lords should read the Confidence Motions note, which is incredibly helpful on this. A Motion of no confidence can have two meanings. It can mean any motion which puts the confidence of the Government to test, and that can include an adjournment motion if the Prime Minister has said that it is a motion of confidence. It can be a motion moved by a Back-Bencher. It can be the Second Reading of a Bill. It can be the Finance Bill or the Queen’s Speech. It can be anything which puts the confidence of the Government at issue. Whether it is or not is not solely determined by the words of the motion, since it does not need to use “confidence” or “censure”. Neither is it determined, if it does not use those words, by the Prime Minister of the day simply saying, “This is a Motion of confidence”. It can be a motion of confidence even if it does not use those words and the Prime Minister does not treat it as one, because the House of Commons itself would treat it as one. Equally, it could be a motion that is not a motion of confidence even though “confidence” or “censure” are used in it, because Governments are repeatedly being censured for what they have done by motions, but everybody in the House of Commons understands that they are not motions of no confidence that would bring the Government down.
This matter is incredibly difficult to identify in a legalistic way. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, is looking confused, but you could have a Motion that said: “We censure the Government for their determination to sell off the forests”. If we assume that such a Motion was passed, everyone would understand that it would not lead to the Government falling. I wish to quote examples of Motions of confidence or censure that do not use the relevant words. The first Motion of confidence states:
“That this House deplores the action of Her Majesty’s Government in resorting to armed force against Egypt in clear violation of the United Nations Charter, thereby affronting the convictions of a large section of the British people, dividing the Commonwealth, straining the Atlantic Alliance, and gravely damaging the foundations of international order”.—[Official Report, Commons, 1/11/1956; col. 1631.]
That Motion was put down by the Opposition. A month later a further Motion of confidence was put down by the Prime Minister. It stated:
“That this House supports the policy of Her Majesty’s Government as outlined by the Foreign Secretary of 3rd December, which has prevented hostilities in the Middle East from spreading, has resulted in a United Nations Force being introduced into the area, and has created conditions under which progress can be made towards the peaceful settlement of outstanding issues”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/12/1956; col. 845.]
Both those Motions fall on one broad understanding within the definition of a Motion of no confidence because, loosely, as I say, that is sometimes taken to mean any Motion that puts the confidence of the Parliament in that Government at issue.
Clause 2(2), as drafted, says:
“An early parliamentary general election is also to take place if the Speaker of the House of Commons issues a certificate certifying that—
(a) on a specified day the House passed a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government (as then constituted)”.
Is it intended that the phrase,
“a motion of no confidence”,
should embrace anything that puts the confidence of the Commons in the Government in issue? Therefore, does it include Motions, for example, on the Queen’s Speech? Does it include a Motion on the Finance Bill? Does it include anything that under the current definition in Erskine May would constitute a Motion of no confidence? We need to know the answer in order to know what the Government intend in relation to it. The problem that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, rightly identifies is that it is such a compendious phrase you do not know where you stand in relation to it, and it gives the Speaker much too wide a discretion, which then brings him into issue politically. Subsection (1) of the new clause in the amendment states:
“An early parliamentary general election is to take place if the House of Commons passes a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”.
That raises precisely the problem that the Government’s reference to a Motion of no confidence raises. I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, seems to me to be completely right in that, as a matter of construction, subsection (2) in the amendment does not say that a vote of no confidence will only have been deemed to have been passed. It states:
“A vote of no confidence will have been deemed to have been passed if”,
the conditions in paragraphs (a), (b), (c) and (d) in the amendment are met. Here are some examples, although they are not conclusive. The consequence of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, is that, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and his very impressive constitutional cohorts behind him, the amendment does not even begin to solve the problem that he has identified. However, the position is worse than that as the amendment states:
“A vote of no confidence will have been deemed to have been passed if the House of Commons … (c) passes a motion of no confidence tabled by the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition”.
Does that include the following Motion that was put down by Mr Attlee when he was Leader of the Opposition on 4 December 1952? It states:
“That this House regrets that Her Majesty’s Government is dealing with the Business of the House incompetently, unfairly and in defiance of the best principles of Parliamentary democracy and the national interest, and records the view that this is in part brought about by the efforts of Ministers to force through measures, unrelated to the needs of the nation, for which they have no adequate support in Parliament or the country”.—[Official Report, Commons, 4/12/1952; col. 1783.]
Is that a Motion of no confidence? I should tell noble Lords that that is a trick question because I am reading from a Motion that was regarded, and treated, as a Motion of no confidence on 4 December 1952. If Erskine May says that that is a Motion of no confidence, the effect will be that if an identical Motion is put down by Mr Ed Miliband, then, irrespective of what the Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron, says, it will be treated in a legalistic way as a Motion of no confidence.
The noble and learned Lord is giving examples of Motions that were treated as confidence Motions. Am I missing something here? Surely the context has changed. Those Motions are in the context in which a Prime Minister can say, “I am putting this policy to the House. I regard it as a matter of confidence. If I don’t have the support of the House, I’ll go to the country”. However, the Bill, as the noble and learned Lord has pointed out, removes the Prime Minister’s ability to call a general election—to go to the country and take his case to the people ahead of the conclusion. In that context, what would constitute a Motion of confidence is quite different from the position in which the Prime Minister cannot go to the country, and I think that the reason why my noble friend has had to fall back on a specific Motion that says that the House has no confidence in the Government arises from that. Therefore, the Erskine May examples arise from a situation in which the Prime Minister can call a general election at any time in order to secure support in the country.
If the noble Lord is right, a massive constitutional change is being proposed. I did not realise that that was the intention. Is it intended that the fundamental principle of our parliamentary democracy—that if you lose the confidence of the Commons, you have to resign—should go? If that is so, then the principles underlying a Motion of no confidence presumably remain the same as they are referred to in Erskine May. It would be extraordinary if they did not, because the phrase that is being used is precisely the same as the phrase used in the Bill for determining whether there will be either Dissolution or a resignation. A Motion of no confidence is a well recognised phrase in Erskine May and there must be a reference to that in the Bill. The fact that there would not necessarily have to be a general election does not change the fundamental principle in our constitution that if you lose the confidence of the Commons you have to go. That, as I understand it, is what is intended by this provision.
Under the present rules, it is perfectly possible for a flagship policy to be lost in the Commons and for the Prime Minister of the day to move a Motion of confidence that wipes the slate clean. Therefore, it is not as straightforward as the noble and learned Lord suggests.
The noble Lord may or may not be right. He has been in the Commons, I have not, so he will understand the situation better than I do. I do not have the experience of the noble Lords, Lord Martin and Lord Forsyth, but from looking at the history books it would appear that, by a process of general consensus, the Commons understands what is and is not a Motion of confidence. The best example of what was not a vote of confidence occurred on 10 March 1976, when the Labour Government’s public expenditure plans were defeated. I should have thought that the Government would have had to go on that basis, but they did not.
The next day there was a vote on whether the Adjournment was a confidence Motion. Presumably the Prime Minister said, “I’m treating this vote on the Adjournment as a vote of confidence”, and the Commons understood it to be such. How is the Speaker supposed to determine that a vote on the Adjournment as a legalistic matter is a vote of confidence? He could not, either under the Bill as drafted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, or under the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth.
As the Bill now necessitates, instead of saying that we are on the Adjournment and that this will be treated as a Motion of confidence, one would put down explicitly worded confidence. That would be the essential change.
Is that right, because the wording in the amendment is:
“passes a motion of no confidence tabled by the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition”?
The noble Lord is obviously right, but what about the position in relation to the Egyptian Motions to which I referred, or the Motion in which Mr Attlee, lambasting the Conservative Government in 1952, did not use the words “censure”, “Motion” or “confidence” once, yet regarded it as a motion of no confidence?
We already have a well understood definition of no confidence. The phrase is well known. What it means at any particular time depends on a consensus view that emerges from the Commons. The Commons understands when there is a Motion of no confidence. What it means is not something that is capable of being written down in a statute. I respect what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is trying to do in trying to define it, as it obviously is not working the other way. The Government’s problem is that they use the phrase “a Motion of no confidence”, as if it is a single, static thing that can be defined at any moment. Is not the obvious difficulty that it is not a static thing? One moment something will be a Motion of no confidence and 10 years later it will not because political circumstances have changed. As a consequence of what the Government are seeking to do, they are in effect changing the basis and moving it on from a political judgment made by the House of Commons to a legalistic issue that has to be resolved by the Speaker of the House of Commons. That is a fundamental change.
Much of what the noble and learned Lord says about the deficiencies of the Bill is completely right. The amendment seeks imperfectly—I made that point from the word go—to make the Bill less bad than it is at the moment by giving a definition of a vote of no confidence and by relieving the Speaker of the day of the invidious position of having to make a political judgment. We might have tabled the amendment imperfectly, and I am sure that there is room to improve it, but the general consensus in the House tonight appears to be that this is an improvement on what we have in front of us in the Bill.
I am not sure. I think that there are two alternatives. The one is to be lured into the trap that the Government are laying of the legalistic route; the other is to take the route that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, seeks, or that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, who has somewhat confusingly put his name to the amendment, although he also said to rely more on conventions, which I found quite forceful.
Let us suppose that instead of proposed new subsections (2), (3) and (4) we simply had one proposal which stated: “An early parliamentary general election may take place if the House of Commons passes a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”. You would end up in the position whereby the Speaker is not being asked. You preserve the current position of allowing the Commons to determine whether it is a motion of no confidence, which has not caused a problem in the past. By using “may” rather than “is to”, you also deal with the problem of the Queen’s Speech being defeated before the Government ever get going, and you deal with the Narvik situation. You effectively and essentially pass a Bill that is not drawn into difficult and damaging legalism, which is the danger that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is trying to avoid.
I wait to hear what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, says. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is right that there is a considerable sense around the House that his amendment is better than the honourable but rather ineffective try that the Government have made. However, is it not better to try to preserve, as much as possible, the current arrangements that work rather than ending up in a legalistic situation with great difficulties about interpretation? I see the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, shaking his head. I am willing to be persuaded that I am wrong. However, using the phrase,
“passes a motion of no confidence”,
twice drags him into a situation where he is freezing the definition of something that cannot be defined. I am open-minded as to the right answer but I am not at all sure that the submission of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is it.
I identify two other difficulties. As drafted, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, does not deal with the defeat of the Queen’s Speech before the Government have got going, which he acknowledges. It does not deal with the Narvik situation, where you have a strong sense within Parliament that the Government should fall because they are defeated in a vote of no confidence and a new Government should emerge. Assume that in the Narvik example the Government are defeated because Parliament wants, say, Winston Churchill to become Prime Minister and a national Government to run the war. It would not be appropriate in these circumstances to force a general election. The effect of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is that there would have to be a general election whenever there was a defeat in a vote of no confidence. However, I see I am wrong.
The noble and learned Lord is trying to rewrite history in the most peculiar way. During the war, each year a Bill was passed so that there would not be a general election. General elections did not take place for 10 years. This agreement was in force at the time of Narvik. There was no question of the Government falling. The Prime Minister lost so much support on his own side that he felt that he had to resign and Mr Attlee made it quite plain that he was not prepared to serve under Lord Halifax, who appeared to be the preferred choice at the time, so we had the Government of Churchill and we all know what happened after that. To try to rewrite history in the way that he is doing is not exactly helpful to any of us.
The account of history given by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is entirely accurate. However, if you are passing a Bill that is intended to set out what our constitution is, what happens when there is not a suspension of elections and the Commons wants rid of a particular Government because it, quite legitimately, wants a national Government? The effect of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is that you are not allowed to have a situation where you cannot avoid an election. I envisage circumstances in which a vote of no confidence might well reflect both a Commons view and a national view that the Government of one party be changed, for example, into a national Government. We have to be able to deal sensibly with this. The current arrangements allow for a defeat in a vote of no confidence followed by a replacement of the national Government, which the amendment does not deal with. It is not a comprehensive definition of motions of no confidence and so leaves the Speaker as exposed under these arrangements as he is under the old arrangements. I share the desire of the mover of this amendment to get to a point where the Speaker is not exposed in the way that he is at the moment. I do not believe that the amendment quite succeeds in doing that. I am open-minded about the other efforts to do it, but currently, I can see force in the sort of amendment that I suggested.
My Lords, it is obvious that we have had an important debate following a number of other debates on amendments where we have looked at the structure of Clause 2. In this case, the intention of the amendment is to seek more certainty about what will constitute a no-confidence vote. It is clear from the amendment—indeed it was said by the mover, my noble friend Lord Cormack, and the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster—that an early election would inevitably follow specific types of no-confidence votes being carried in the House of Commons.
It is interesting that the concern of all contributors has been about how we ensure that we are certain about what a no-confidence motion is. My noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart made the important point that even the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Cormack does not necessarily exclude other possible amendments. That indicates the difficulties. I have tried to be open about the objective, which is to try to devise a means by which there can be a trigger mechanism for an early election but with a degree of certainty and without opening the door for abuse.
If I can helpfully work on that basis, I respect the views of those who say that they are totally against fixed-term Parliaments, but this Bill is designed to bring in a fixed-term Parliament; a number of noble Lords set out specific arguments based on our having a fixed-term Parliament. I think there is some agreement that if we have fixed-term Parliaments, there must be a mechanism to trigger an early election. I have not detected any desire in your Lordships' House for a very fixed, rigid system.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in introducing his amendment, rightly indicated that if we are to have what he described as the escape clause, it must be clear, simple, understandable and not capable of misrepresentation. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, asked what was the thinking behind the Government’s position as we set it out. Why had we not specified words? My noble friend Lord Norton encouraged us to have a statutory definition of a no confidence motion. The reason why—
With great respect to my noble and learned friend, he said we are trying to set up a situation in which, with fixed-term Parliaments, we can trigger an early election. That seems to be something that we are all groping for. We already have a fixed-term structure in the sense that there is a maximum term with the existing pattern of being able to trigger it for different reasons. I emphasise the significance of what he said, I think not per incuriam. We are working in a fixed-term situation but finding a way in which we can trigger an early election. If that is what he is after, we are not far away from it as we are.
That is indeed what I said because there is a difference between a fixed term, as set out principally in Clause 1, and recognising that you could have a situation, as they do in Norway, where the term is fixed and nothing can allow an early election, even if the Government were to lose the confidence of their Parliament. That is not what anyone has argued for in our deliberations. There is a distinction between a fixed term and a maximum term during which, under the present system, the Prime Minister of the day can opt to have an election at a time of his choosing for partisan advantage. We do not disguise the fact that that is what we are seeking to move away from.
I return to the point that I was about to address with regard to the way in which we have structured this provision. In recognising some of the examples that the noble and learned Lord gave, we accept that no confidence motions over the years have taken many different forms and the desire of the Bill was not to restrict flexibility. It was to avoid confusion that we suggested that a Speaker’s certificate would confirm that the House of Commons had passed a no-confidence motion. I have heard and listened to the arguments. We had good debates earlier about the merits or otherwise of the Speaker’s certificate and I have clearly undertaken to reflect on whether that is the best way of doing it.
That was why we felt that there was a need to have the Speaker’s certificate. Votes of no confidence historically have taken a number of different forms. The noble and learned Lord referred to those which took place against the backdrop of the Suez crisis. We have tried to allow that flexibility while at the same time having the certainty which we believe is necessary to trigger an early election because there are consequences. Having an early election in a situation where you have a fixed term requires some clarity about what will trigger it. I do not believe that we could get that clarity by allowing, as the noble and learned Lord seems to suggest, a sort of consensus to emerge in the House of Commons.
It may well be that, if a particular Government had lost what might be interpreted by many to be a vote of no confidence, they could drop that consensus by saying “Well, we did not consider it as a vote of no confidence”. That is why I do not believe what I thought the noble and learned Lord was suggesting—that we will recognise votes of no confidence when we see them and that there will be a general consensus in the House of Commons that there was one and that there will be an election.
If we are in a situation where we have a framework of a fixed-term Parliament and we are envisaging a situation where there could be an early election, it is important that it is very clear what will constitute the trigger mechanism for that early election. Simply leaving it to a consensus is not sufficient in these circumstances.
I completely understand that it is different under the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill but remember that the consequence now of the Government losing a vote of confidence is that they at the very least have to resign and at the very most have to have a general election. There is a very high price to be paid now in relation to losing a vote of confidence or no confidence. Can the noble and learned Lord identify historically any occasion where there has been a dispute over whether something is a vote of confidence?
I seem to recall in one of our earlier debates that there was a suggestion that in the 1970s Mr Harold Wilson indicated that he would not accept as a motion of no confidence motions which on some occasions hitherto had been seen as votes of no confidence. I think that that point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, not on this amendment but in a debate on an earlier amendment.
It was earlier in this debate. It has been going on for so long, it is difficult to remember. The point was that the House accepted, it appears, the redefinition that the Prime Minister had proposed to the House at that time and recognised the political circumstances in which that Labour Government had a tiny majority. It did not really have a workable majority.
Perhaps the House accepted it because it was quite clear that if the Prime Minister had decided that he was not going to go to the country it could have tabled a motion of no confidence. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Forsyth keeps coming back to what seems to be a very straightforward way of addressing this issue: that if there is any doubt, the Leader of the Opposition or someone could table a motion of no confidence. The more one thinks about it, it tends to be the motion which has no ambiguity and is very clear, about which something further might want to be said.
The amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Cormack would replace the entirety of Clause 2 and therefore would not allow the provision of the trigger mechanism of a Dissolution if two-thirds of the House of Commons was voting for a Dissolution. We have had debates on this in the past but if at some date in the future, in a fixed-term Parliament, there is a consensus in the House of Commons that there should be an election—and 1951 has been identified as a possible example when this may have happened—I would rather the option remained for the Dissolution to be triggered on a cross-party, consensual basis rather than having a motion of no confidence brought forward simply to achieve a Dissolution which two-thirds of Members believe is necessary. That option is lost by my noble friend’s amendment, but it is a worthwhile provision to maintain.
On the question of what constitutes a motion of no confidence and whether it should automatically trigger an election, I recall that in our earlier debates my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth indicated that that should not necessarily be an automatic consequence. However, a consequence of the amendment is that there would be an election. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, suggested a way round it and, in introducing his amendment, my noble friend Lord Cormack suggested that if it was after the Queen’s Speech in the first Session there could possibly be other ways.
It is important, therefore, that we reflect on circumstances in which an election should not automatically be triggered, the most obvious one being immediately after a general election when a party does not yet have the confidence of the House and there is still an opportunity for another Government to be formed. Equally—I cannot say this is a Narvik situation because it is not—there may perhaps at a time of extreme national crisis be a view that a Government should not continue and that there is a case to be made for a national Government. Indeed, it occurred to me that the Bill as drafted would provide for that. There could be a motion of no confidence and a period of time—we can debate whether or not it should be 14 days—for a new Government to be established which could in such circumstances enjoy the confidence of the House of Commons. I find my noble friend’s amendment defective in that regard because there are circumstances where the automatic triggering of a general election would not necessarily be the right way to proceed. I will not elaborate on the point about an incoming Government after an election and the fact that we do not want election after election after election.
A number of colleagues have indicated that there are problems with the amendment. As I have indicated, I do not want to take technical issues— it used to annoy me greatly in opposition if Ministers said there were technical problems—unless they are very fundamental.
On the second branch of what would constitute a vote of no confidence—namely, a Bill defined by the Prime Minister of the day as being essential to his or her Administration continuing in office—my noble friend Lord Tyler expressed scepticism; the noble Lord, Lord Martin, felt it would be unwise and was concerned about the Speaker; and my noble friend Lord Forsyth also expressed concern about that. Quite apart from trying to get a definition of what constitutes a Motion of no confidence, a Government facing a problem with their own Back-Benchers could simply decide that they would make a particular vote a matter of confidence—the black arts may well come into play—for the purpose of imposing party discipline. As we are trying to initiate a switch from the Executive to Parliament, that would be a regrettable consequence of that trigger point for a general election. Likewise, as my noble friend Lord Tyler indicated, that would be a decision of the Prime Minister and not of Parliament or the Speaker, and therefore it would be an Executive decision which, in certain circumstances, could conceivably be open to challenge.
I know my noble friend Lord Forsyth has strong reservations on fixed-term Parliaments—I probably understate his position—but he made an important point in his exchange with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton. He said that the examples the noble and learned Lord was giving were not operative within the framework of a fixed-term Parliament. If that is the case and we are to have fixed-term Parliaments, the rules will change. As he pointed out, the simplest thing in these circumstances may be to say that a motion of no confidence is what it says. On what constitutes confidence or no confidence in the question of supply, my noble friend Lord Norton said in his article of 1978, Government Defeats in the House of Commons: Myth and Reality:
“The most effective means whereby the House could declare its lack of confidence would be through an explicitly-worded motion of no confidence”.
I did say that we were in listening mode—and, indeed, reading mode. That was an important point.
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, spoke of his concerns about the Speaker’s certificate. I do not wish to rehearse our earlier debate; I undertook then to reflect on that. However, what I found difficult was his suggesting that the more we try to write down and define matters, the more difficult it is, yet seeming to have an objection to the Government’s position where they did not seek closely to define. That seemed to be a contradictory view. My noble and learned friend Lord Howe said that we should keep it as simple as possible. That is what we have sought to do by setting a background where it is possible to recognise a motion of no confidence rather than trying to define it. This matter has been looked at many times, including in the other place. Whenever efforts are made to bring some definition to it, other than perhaps a very simple one, one seems to conjure up more difficulties.
I said at the outset that I wanted to hear the arguments about structure and definitions. Members on both sides of the Committee have expressed a number of views. I clarify again that I shall speak with my colleagues on these matters. The principles that we wish to establish are that, within a context of having a fixed term, there should nevertheless be a mechanism to trigger an early election if there has been deadlock in the other place, if a Government lose confidence, and if no Government can be formed who maintain confidence. There is an argument for having consensus about Dissolution and proper provision being made for it, as well as for trying to minimise the potential for abuse of the trigger on the part of the Executive and to get clarity as to what constitutes a vote of confidence. There may well be circumstances in which a vote of no confidence does not necessarily have to trigger a general election. How do we clarify those circumstances in a way which is acceptable? These are the general principles and issues which I want to put flesh on. Various ways as to how we might do that have been suggested. The amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Cormack has been very helpful in suggesting one way. It has a number of problems to it, but the comments that it has triggered will help shape our thinking as we move to the next stage of the Bill.
I reflect that perhaps we have got it right because these are very complicated matters, but I undertake to give serious consideration not only to what was said in response to this amendment but also to earlier amendments and those which were heard on the second day of Committee. On that basis—
I understand the argument that my noble and learned friend is developing. One of his objections to my noble friend’s amendment was that it seeks to encapsulate what is the current position, where the Prime Minister can say, “Well, if we lose on this Second Reading of a major government Bill, we cannot continue; we make it a question of confidence”, and uses that to mobilise government supporters.
My noble and learned friend is objecting to maintaining the current provision, whereby the Prime Minister can simply say: “If we lose, we go”. I touch on the point that it is still open to the Government to resign. If the Prime Minister says, “This is crucial to our programme; if we lose, we resign”, and therefore goes to the Palace in the wake of that to tender the Government's resignation, under the Bill, what happens?
We debated this under Amendments 35 and 39. I said then and as part of our general debates that, in my understanding, if the Prime Minister resigned—nothing in the Bill stops the Prime Minister resigning in those circumstances—the Queen would invite another Member of Parliament to form a Government. If that other Member of Parliament tried to form a Government but there was a motion of no confidence in that Government, there would be an election. Alternatively, the Prime Minister may have resigned and it may be evident to everyone that there is stalemate and that the sensible thing—with agreement across all parties—is to have an election. In that case, two-thirds of Members could vote for an early Dissolution.
My Lords, I think that it would be for the convenience of the Committee if the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, were first to respond on his amendment, as it is an amendment to that of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.
My Lords, noble Lords who have spoken in this debate are people of great political experience, experience of government and profound knowledge of the constitution. It has been a very helpful debate. I share the regret of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, that we have to grapple with these issues. The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, caught the sense of the debate very well when he said that at least there is widespread agreement around the Committee that Clause 2 needs careful reconsideration.
The intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, was, as in our earlier debate, of the utmost importance to the House. We should not lose sight of the eminently simple and practical point that he drew to our attention: the Journal of the House records the Divisions of the House. That may well be the authoritative point of recourse that would satisfy the legalistic requirements created by the conception of the Bill. In that way, we might avoid the need for the Speaker to issue certificates. The noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, explained to the House the pressures under which a Speaker may come in the ordinary day-to-day circumstances of modern politics—how very unpleasant and intense they are. That is a foretaste of the pressure that a Speaker might experience were the Speaker to be required, as the Bill proposes, to certify motions of no confidence.
If the definitions in the new clause proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, are clear and comprehensive, certificates might not be needed, but I fear that events might not be as cut and dried or mechanistic as it suggests. I suspect that other votes, beyond those that he itemises in his new clause, might be regarded as confidence votes—in which case, if the Speaker is to issue certificates, it will be contentious and dangerous, as two former Speakers of the House of Commons have warned us this evening.
My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer explained that it is incredibly difficult to tie down a motion of confidence, or of no confidence, in legal terms; I suggest that it is impossible. That is why I like the simpler solution suggested by my noble and learned friend.
I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, for the tone of all his remarks, for his recognition of the reality of the problems that noble Lords have sought to identify, and for his willingness to reflect on whether there may be better ways than the requirement that the Speaker should issue a certificate to enable the Government to pursue their purposes in the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 51 (to Amendment 50) withdrawn.
First of all, I apologise for jumping the gun ahead of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth. I echo his remarks to my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness on his constructive response to an interesting and important debate. I did not claim at the beginning, and I do not claim now, that the amendment I tabled with the support of my noble friends is perfect—of course it is not—but it has focused attention on a number of important issues, and I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate.
There has been a surprising degree of consensus. Almost everyone who has spoken would agree that in most circumstances—I am trying to choose my words carefully, accurately to reflect what has been said—a vote of no confidence should be enough to see a Government resign. There is fairly widespread distaste in all parts of the House for 14 days of horse-trading. There is a degree of scepticism in the House on the two-thirds majority, although I of course note what my noble and learned friend said on that subject.
There is total opposition to involving the Speaker of the day in contentious matters. My amendment certainly did not seek to do that, but sought, by implication, to equate the certificate with the sort of certificate that is already applicable to money Bills. I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for his constitutional expertise and for the things that he has been able to point out.
Like the famous Irishman, I would rather that we had not started here. The Bill is not a great adornment to our constitution. It is a real threat to many parts of our constitution. I do not want to repeat what has been said by so many, but almost no one in this House would oppose the notion of the Prime Minister of the day expressing a determination to see through a full five-year term. However, there is also an overwhelming consensus that, fixed-term Parliament or not, one has to have an escape clause.
I tried to approach the Bill, not as one who loves it, but as one who accepts that we have a Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. I want to make it as workable as possible, I want it to inflict as little damage as possible upon our constitution, and I want it to allow as much flexibility as possible to remain. I hope that in the discussions that I trust will take place, formally and informally, between now and Report stage, we will be able to consolidate the consensus that has been implicit in much that has been said tonight, and that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, will come forward with a Clause 2 that is far more acceptable than the present clause in the present Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 50 withdrawn.
Debate on whether Clause 2 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, our debates on Clause 2 have been very significant. Would it be possible for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, to suggest some process? He has been accommodating and conciliatory, and he has broadly shared the aim, expressed all around the House, of there being no uncertainty about the circumstances in which an election would be triggered. As I understand it—I may have misunderstood—the Minister is not seeking to dislodge the basic principle that, when a Government lose the confidence of the House of Commons, that Government have to go.
Could I invite the noble and learned Lord to convene a meeting of all interested parties—I do not mean political parties—from all over the House to discuss this, with a view to agreeing a Clause 2 that reflects the concerns that he appeared to share? The noble and learned Lord—I hope that this will not be a case of “once bitten, twice shy”—was accommodating in indicating during the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill that he would come back with things, and he is leaving me with the impression that he shares many of our concerns. Perhaps the way to move forward is for those who are interested to meet him to try to agree a clause that reflects the sort of principles he just went through. Does that suggestion find favour with the noble and learned Lord?
I am certainly more than willing to meet. I will need to discuss with ministerial colleagues—it will not be just I who have to reflect on this—but I am certainly willing to meet, although I do not know whether that can be done constructively with a large number, or whether it is better done with a smaller number. The noble Lord, Lord Martin, has already suggested that he and the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, would be willing to meet. I have said that I would welcome that opportunity, although that would be to deal with a discrete part of the Bill. I am sure that, through the usual channels, we can devise some way of meeting, either individually or by convening a much larger meeting. I am sometimes sceptical about how far you can get without convening a larger meeting. I will work out the best way to take that forward, with an undertaking to meet and include those—without, I hope, being exhaustive—who have made an important contribution to our deliberations in Committee.
I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord. One of the things that very much infused the debate on Clause 2 is the question of what the Government have in mind when they use the phrase “motion of no confidence”. For example, it was never clear—I am sure this is my fault for not listening; it is very late—whether a motion of no confidence includes being defeated on a motion of confidence. Does a motion of no confidence include things that are not explicit? Does the definition of a motion of confidence in Erskine May apply in helping us to construe the reference to a motion of no confidence in Clause 2? We need to know the answers to those questions. If the noble and learned Lord does not want to answer now, I am more than happy for him to write. However, we do need clear answers to those questions.
My Lords, I tried to answer on this in response to the previous debate, when I indicated that we recognised that no-confidence motions could take and have taken many different forms, and that our desire in the Bill was not to be prescriptive and not to restrict flexibility. That is where we started from and that is what we sought to do. I think a vote of no confidence would not include a vote of confidence, but it would not be beyond the wit of a leader of the Opposition to table an amendment inserting the word “no”. That is clearly part of the discussion that we can have. The noble and learned Lord asked what our proposed statutory definition of a motion of no confidence was. In response to the earlier debate, I said that we recognised the many different forms that it could take, as he himself illustrated in his speech. Our desire was not to restrict flexibility. We will enter the discussion, as I have said, bearing in mind the comments that have been made from various parts of your Lordships’ Chamber.
There was just a flicker there, in that the noble and learned Lord said a vote of no confidence would not include a vote of confidence. Therefore, you could have the strange situation where the Government are defeated on a vote of confidence but do not resign at that point. Indeed, there could not be a general election under those circumstances; under this Bill, there would then have to be a vote of no confidence at that point. How nutty is this Bill?
Clause 2 agreed.
52: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Parliamentary general elections coinciding with scheduled elections to a devolved institution
(1) A parliamentary general election shall not be held within 30 days of a general election to the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales or Northern Ireland Assembly (“the relevant devolved institutions”).
(2) Should an early general election be called under section 2 of this Act such that it would occur within 30 days of scheduled general elections to the relevant devolved institutions, the Prime Minister shall, after consultation with all of the relevant devolved institutions, lay orders before Parliament to move the date of either the parliamentary general election or any of the general elections to any of the relevant devolved institutions so as to ensure compliance with subsection (1) of this section.
(3) Any order laid by the Prime Minister under this section shall not move any of the general elections either to Parliament, or to the relevant devolved institutions, by more than 35 days from the date on which they would otherwise have taken place.”
My Lords, this amendment deals with the question of the potential coincidence between elections for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Our draft gives the Prime Minister the ability to lay an order to ensure that a general election must take place at least 30 days apart from the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, to avoid a coincidence of these occurring on the same day.
I put my amendment down to probe the Government’s position on this. Everybody understands that the first general election under any Fixed-term Parliaments Act is likely to occur at or near the same date as the elections for the institutions I have referred to. Subsequent to my putting my amendment down, the Government, in consultation with the relevant institutions, have now reached some sort of agreement and have now put their amendments down, as Amendments 55B and 55C. Would it be convenient to your Lordships if we heard what the Government have proposed first, because I do not fully understand it? Once we hear what the Government have proposed, it would then be possible to see whether we need to proceed with our probing amendments.
I hope this will be a helpful way to proceed, because Amendments 55B and 55C standing in my name implement agreements reached with the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales in relation to the coincidence of elections in 2015. It is important to say from the outset that this Bill has not created the possibility that elections to the UK Parliament and the devolved institutions coincide—that could have happened anyway. However, the Bill has given us prior warning and has allowed us an opportunity to plan for the eventuality.
The Government believe that there can be tangible benefits from combining elections, in terms of voter convenience and cost. These were factors which led to the decision to combine the voting systems referendum with other polls on 5 May. However, combining elections for two legislatures arguably poses issues which did not arise from the combination of the polls with a referendum. I have outlined to your Lordships’ House previously—both at Second Reading and in one of our earlier debates in Committee—that concerns have been expressed by the Scottish Parliament, by the Welsh Assembly and in the other place that if the two sets of elections coincide it could be difficult to ensure that voters are able to differentiate between the manifestos for each election for each separate parliament, and that might inhibit the candidates’ ability to campaign effectively. There is also the added complication of different voting systems in the different elections; the 2015 UK general election could be held using a new electoral system, if the referendum on 5 May has an affirmative outcome, and will in any event use different boundaries.
This set of circumstances meant that it was not appropriate to combine the polls to the devolved institutions and the House of Commons in this instance. To that end, we have been in lengthy discussions with the Presiding Officers of both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. I made it clear at Second Reading that we wrote to the Presiding Officers on 17 February proposing that if the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly passed a resolution, with the support of at least two-thirds of all Members, agreeing that the 2015 Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly general elections should be moved up to one year earlier or later, the Government would then table an amendment to this Bill which would seek to set the dates of these elections on a one-off basis. Copies of the letters to the respective Presiding Officers have been placed in the Library of the House.
The Scottish Parliament passed a unanimous motion on 3 March confirming that it wished the United Kingdom Government to bring forward a provision to defer its 2015 general election to 5 May 2016. A similar motion was passed by the Welsh Assembly on 16 March. To this end, the amendments in my name will provide that the general elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly currently scheduled for May 2015 will be deferred by one year in line with the motions passed by the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. That will ensure that the two sets of elections do not coincide in 2015.
Before he sits down, can the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, confirm that the Government’s amendment covers everything that had arisen in discussion with the National Assembly for Wales and in the debate that took place on this matter there? When he says that this is a one-off solution, how might this be handled in future? Does it mean going through all this again every time there might be a coincidence or is there some agreement to get some stable basis ongoing for however long?
My Lords, I was not about to sit down. I was about to address how we might proceed in the future. I point out that this was not a question of the Assembly Members or the Scottish Parliament awarding themselves an extra year—the motions were passed unanimously by the outgoing Assembly and Parliament. A new Parliament and a new Assembly will be elected on 5 May but we believed it was important to bring forward provisions now so that, at least when people go to vote on 5 May, they will know the period of the Parliament or the Assembly which they are electing.
The Minister says that people will know. Does he envisage that the Bill will be passed by 5 May 2011?
People will know our intentions. I stand corrected by the noble and learned Lord. We thought it was important that we flagged up that intention, subject to these amendments being carried this evening and in the Bill itself. If the Bill is not passed there will not necessarily be a coincidence but there still could be a coincidence of elections on 7 May 2015.
Subject to these amendments being accepted, in the longer term we would then need to carry out a detailed assessment of the implications of the two sets of elections coinciding at a later date. In the light of this we would consider whether to conduct a public consultation in Scotland and Wales on whether the devolved institutions should permanently be extended to five-year terms. While the 2015 general elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly will be deferred by one year, these will be treated as ordinary elections and subject to the usual rules. For instance, a subsequent ordinary general election will be scheduled to be held on the first Thursday in May in the fourth calendar year following the deferred election. Additionally, the power to vary Assembly or Holyrood general elections by one month earlier or later under Section 2(5) of the Scotland Act 1998 or Section 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 will apply. In both instances Holyrood and the Welsh National Assembly may still vote for an early dissolution with the two-thirds majority, in line with the existing provisions in the respective devolution Acts. Such an early general election does not affect the subsequent ordinary general election unless the extraordinary election was in the six months prior to the scheduled election.
A number of noble Lords have expressed the view that if the Government had proposed a four-year term for this Parliament then the problem would never have arisen. We have debated at length the Government’s reasons for preferring the five-year term and I do not propose to rehearse them now. It was recognised when the debates took place that we were willing to look at future possible coincidence of elections and, on the back of that, to look at the possibility of extending to five years the lifetime of the devolved Parliament and Assembly. We do not believe that it would be proper to do that on a permanent basis without having that further discussion. I also ask your Lordships to bear in mind that there is always the possibility of the coincidence happening in any event. This has allowed an opportunity to address the possibility now rather than finding ourselves in April, May or March 2015 seeing that a coincidence was about to happen.
Following correspondence with parties in Northern Ireland on this issue, Northern Ireland Office Ministers concluded it would be better to await the outcome of the combined polls scheduled for May this year before taking a decision on whether special provision would be needed for Northern Ireland.
I am happy to stop there and allow the noble and learned Lord to speak to his amendment before going on. I simply observe that it is possible at the moment for the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament or the Secretary of State for Wales to move the election by 30 days. Whether 30 days would be enough to get a proper disjunction of the different election campaigns remains to be seen. I look forward with interest to what the noble and learned Lord says about that. The problem was identified. We engaged with the respective institutions and sought their views on what they would wish their response to be, and these amendments deliver on the way forward agreed with the respective Parliament and Assembly.
In the first place, I thank the Minister and the Government for moving on this, following the discussion that took place in another place and the misgivings expressed quite widely. It is very helpful that these changes are proposed. None the less, there is an issue with regard to the 30 days. There would be considerable complications if two elections took place within that time, not least for those who have to organise the elections. In the context of Wales and, I suspect, Scotland the elections would be on different boundaries, as well as the possibility of there being different electoral systems. I hope that the Government will look again at the 30 days and see whether it could be elongated to two or three months. Can the decision be put in the hands of the National Assembly and not just the Secretary of State so that there is no question of any political tension arising out of this?
I have two or three difficulties with the Government’s proposal. First, if Parliament decides that it should be a four-year fixed term rather than a five-year one, the extension of the lives of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales would have been entirely unnecessary and not justified. What then are the Government going to do in relation to it? That suggests to me that the issue should have been dealt with only once it was known what the length of the fixed-term Parliament was, which you could not know until after the Bill had passed—which suggests that the Bill is coming at the wrong time in the cycle.
Secondly, it strikes me as wholly unsatisfactory that this provision deals only what the first of the elections and none of the subsequent elections. If there is always a five-year cycle, there will not be a coincidence again for a long time. However, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, acknowledges, this could happen at any time. In those circumstances, while I fully accept what the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, is saying, and maybe my proposal to separate the elections by at least 30 days does not leave long enough, a mechanism needs to be properly addressed in the Bill for going forward and ensuring that when the clash occurs there is some process by which it can be dealt with. The Bill does not deal with that. This looks like a rather unsatisfactory sticking plaster to deal with something that had not been thought through before the Bill was introduced. What are the Minister’s proposals going to be for dealing with the problem as a permanent problem? Will there be another Act of Parliament in addition to the Acts of Parliament that we can expect to deal with the boundary revisions from the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, to which the noble and learned Lord referred earlier in the evening? Is this another loose end left flapping in the wind? Is it intended that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly should have five-year terms only on this occasion, or for ever?
Thirdly, why has Northern Ireland been treated differently from these other two institutions?
My Lords, I sometimes wonder if the noble and learned Lord listened to what I said. I have answered those three questions, but perhaps, with respect, I did not explain clearly enough, so I shall try again.
The first question was with regard to whether we would have a four-year or a five-year Parliament. Clearly that is a debate that we will come to at Report, and I am not going to rehearse again the arguments why I believe the five-year option is preferable to the four-year one. If the Committee agrees today that these amendments in my name should be passed, I believe that they should stay because people who will be voting on 5 May should at least get some indication of what the length of the Parliament or Assembly that they are electing is likely to be.
Is the noble and learned Lord saying that it would be four years or five years?
I am saying that they would still get five years. I do not think it would be right to elect people on the basis that they believe they are getting five years and then to say, “By the way, you’re not”. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, shakes his head. I think we would attract even greater criticism if there was an expectation of five years, and then we said, “Oh, by the way, we’ve changed our minds. You’re not getting your five years. You’re being cut back to four”. That would be the source of some legitimate criticism. Of course, if that is what happens and we do have four years—I will not again emphasise the reasons why we should not—the chances of it recurring are probably less likely, because then you could get yourself on to a four-year cycle, depending on whether there was an early election.
The noble and learned Lord asked what would happen in the longer term. I did seek to explain that we have also indicated that, subject to these amendments being accepted, in the longer term we would carry out a detailed assessment of the implications of having two sets of elections coinciding on a later date. Obviously the Electoral Commission would be involved in that. In the light of that, we would consider whether to conduct a public consultation on whether in devolved institutions the term should permanently be extended to five years. We do not proceed to do that in the context of this Bill, but we have indicated, as I have done in earlier debates, that that is our proposal. I hope that I have made it clear on this occasion that that is what has happened.
The noble and learned Lord also raised a question about Northern Ireland. I thought that I had answered that but, for clarity, the situation there is that there was correspondence with the parties in Northern Ireland on this issue. Northern Ireland Office Ministers concluded that it would be better to await the outcome of combined polls scheduled for 5 May this year before taking a decision on whether special provision would be needed in the future for Northern Ireland. It was a reflection of the dialogue that had taken place within Northern Ireland, and I see nothing wrong with this Parliament being sensitive to the views expressed in different parts of our diverse United Kingdom. I think that is to our credit, so I do not think that it would have been appropriate to have made provision for Northern Ireland if that was not the feedback that we were getting in the consultations that had taken place.
It was my fault for not having heard that. Having heard what the noble and learned Lord said now and understood it—having been so dim-witted in not picking it up before, for which I apologise—perhaps that indicates that this Government should not have come forward quite so hastily with this Bill, but instead should have consulted on those issues, which are very important, before bringing forward the Bill. It is not too late.
Amendment 52 withdrawn.
Clause 3 : Dissolution of Parliament
53: Clause 3, page 2, line 26, leave out “17th” and insert “21st”
My Lords, my amendment is very straightforward. It allows for four extra working days from the Dissolution of Parliament to the general election. Why is that important? My amendment allows a few extra days to get everything right. People have quite rightly expressed serious concern when things have gone wrong in the electoral process. Seventeen working days is a very short period in which to deal with all the matters that need to be dealt with in the time from Dissolution to polling day.
Many noble Lords will have contested elections in the past or been involved in elections and be aware that you have to get your nomination papers completed and submitted, and in some cases pay a deposit—certainly for all parliamentary elections. Printed materials can be prepared to some extent in advance, but often the cut and thrust of the campaign will determine how your campaign goes. Having a few extra days is of great benefit to candidates and parties. I also contend that it is of benefit to the public to have a slightly longer look at who they are being asked to vote for locally, as often the campaigns as reported by the broadcast media and national newspapers focus on the bigger picture and the leadership of the respective parties.
We should also place particular emphasis on the administration of the election. Running any sort of election places a big responsibility on returning officers and their staff. Giving them a few extra days to prepare and ensure that everything is correct is most desirable. The printing of ballot papers, the sending out of postal votes and getting everything ready for polling day can be done only when an election is under way. I can see no reason why this amendment should not have wide support across the Committee.
If the Government are not going to support the amendment today, I hope that the Minister can give a detailed reason why. My only motivation in moving it is to have well run and well managed elections where citizens can exercise their rights to participate in elections and choose their representatives. I hope the Government will see my amendment in that light and accept it. I beg to move.
My Lords, briefly, I support the broad principle of extending the election timetable, largely for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark. In particular, I feel strongly that we have too short a timetable for elections, which denies many service voters the opportunity to vote because of problems with issuing postal votes, getting them back and so on. However, it seems to me that the length of election timetables should be dealt with for all elections—council, European et cetera—not just Westminster general elections. However, while the problems that he suggests are very real, they will be addressed for general elections if we establish the principle of fixed-term Parliaments, which is the primary purpose of the Bill.
My Lords, in supporting my noble friend on his amendment I invite the Government to think very carefully indeed before rejecting it, if that is what they intend to do. I speak from personal experience: in a former life, my noble friend was the regional secretary of the Labour Party in the east Midlands, so I worked extremely closely under him for many years and I can speak to his expert knowledge about running elections. I dare say that the Minister could talk about other individuals whom he worked with in that capacity and, no doubt, those from the Conservative Party could as well, while the fame of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, goes before him. When you have such experts as my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, speaking with one voice, it behoves the Government to think carefully before rejecting what they suggest.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for his amendment. Clearly, it seeks to dissolve Parliament 21 working days ahead of polling day rather than 17 working days. It is fair to point out that a 21-day timetable would be novel. It is not currently used in local or parliamentary elections; that in itself raises issues. I understand that the Electoral Commission, with which I know the noble Lord has an association, has previously suggested that the electoral timetable might be extended to 25 days. That would, not least, support participation by service voters. The commission has highlighted problems caused by the current election timetable and its associated deadlines for electors, candidates, political parties and electoral administrators. Those were reflected in the experiences that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned. My noble friend Lord Rennard also has experience of them.
The Electoral Commission notes that this change should not be made without a review of further changes that might then be required to the electoral timetable. I assure the Committee that the Government agree that this is an important issue. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister indicated during Second Reading in the other place that we believe there is merit in exploring an extension to the timetable. I note that, at present, there are different timetables for the elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and, I think, the Northern Ireland Assembly. Therefore, there is merit in looking at this not just in relation to this Bill and future elections to the House of Commons but in looking generally at the election timetable.
The Electoral Commission has pointed out that the matter requires a thorough review to ensure that any change is coherent across the piece. There are practical issues and consequential complexities that have to be considered. It is not as simple as omitting “17” and replacing it with “21”. There are issues about the judgment on where particular milestones would best fall within an extended election timetable. For example, there may be competing views as to when they should fall with regard to nominations. We are anxious that, if we are to extend the timetable, we should find the most effective solution. The deadline for registering to vote is another important issue, as are the current deadlines for postal and proxy votes.
As I have indicated, we do not have experience of a 21-day timetable but the Government agree that this is an important issue and we want to set out our proposals on how we might address it in the future. In asking the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment, I hope he will accept that the Government recognise that there are much wider issues to deal with here, and that 21 days is perhaps not the appropriate length of time. We should look at the totality of a longer electoral timetable, but it would not be appropriate to amend it in this Bill.
I thank the noble and learned Lord for his response. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and my noble friend Lord Bach for their comments. I am happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 53 withdrawn.
Amendment 54 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
55: Clause 3, page 2, line 28, at end insert—
“( ) Parliament may otherwise be dissolved if—
(a) Her Majesty appoints another Prime Minister;(b) a Government of a different coalition is formed;(c) the Prime Minister considers it appropriate to seek the endorsement of electors following a change in government policy;(d) the Prime Minister considers a Parliament not to be viable;(e) the number of MPs in receipt of the governing party’s or governing coalition’s whip falls below a majority of 10 over the combined members of the other parties in the House of Commons.”
My Lords, I do not detect a huge zest in the Committee for considering the remaining amendments on the Marshalled List at this time of the morning. However, if that is what the usual channels have agreed and wish to insist on, it is not for the rest of us to argue.
In moving Amendment 55, I wish to speak also to Amendment 55A. Both these amendments would widen the range of circumstances in which Parliament may—not must—be dissolved beyond the two contingencies that are provided for in the Bill, which are the eventuality of the two-thirds majority and that of a vote of no confidence. My first suggestion is that if a new Prime Minister is appointed by Her Majesty, there should be the possibility of a general election quickly following that. I do not think that when Mr Major replaced Mrs Thatcher in 1990, and certainly when Mr Callaghan replaced Mr Wilson in 1976, there was widespread public demand that there should be a general election. It was accepted that it was reasonable and appropriate that the Government should be headed by a new Prime Minister without a general election taking place. On the other hand, when Mr Brown replaced Mr Blair in 2007, there was a very discernible feeling in the country that there should have been a general election. Professor Bogdanor has suggested that that may be because our politics had become more presidential by that time, but I think that when Mrs Thatcher was our counterpart to President Reagan our politics were already fairly presidential, so I am not sure that that is the explanation. Be that as it may, there was that feeling in the country.
It is also interesting that before the recent election Mr Cameron proposed that a new Prime Minister taking office should be required to go to the country within six months of doing so. It would be helpful if the Minister was able to cast any light on why that proposal was dropped and is not incorporated in the Bill. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats thought that it was a bad idea for whatever reason—I do not know. However, it was an interesting suggestion and one that should not be forgotten. If we are likely to have more frequent hung Parliaments, and there are indications that that may be so, it follows that there is a greater likelihood that there will be a change of Prime Minister within the Parliament. If we are to have a situation in which one Prime Minister gives way to another but there is no election, that raises questions about accountability, not least in the context of the coalition’s own insistence that its reforms are designed to improve the accountability of politicians to the people. That is one set of circumstances in which it would be appropriate to allow a general election.
I then propose in the amendment Dissolution if a Government of a different coalition are formed, so we are not just talking about a new Prime Minister of the same party continuing in government. However, if we get a new coalition, I suggest that again accountability to the people should require at least the possibility of a new election without having to resort to devices such as Motions of no confidence and so forth, or indeed getting a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons, which might still be difficult.
Thirdly, I have suggested that if,
“the Prime Minister considers it appropriate to seek the endorsement of electors following a change in government policy”,
it should be legitimate for him to go to the country. At this time of night, my memory is rather failing me, so perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, can help me. Did Mr Baldwin go to the country on tariff reform? I think that that may have happened, and in fact I see nods from better informed noble Lords on the other side of the Chamber. Had Mr Heath, when he performed the famous U-turn and adopted an incomes policy in 1972, thought that it was appropriate to go to the country, I do not think that anyone would have objected. If a similar situation were to develop now, surely that, too, would be appropriate. It should be possible for a major change of policy to presage an election in which the Prime Minister seeks the endorsement of the country for that new course of policy.
Fourthly, I have suggested that, if in the view of the Prime Minister a Parliament is no longer viable, again he should be able to seek Dissolution and go to the country. We talked in an earlier debate about just such a judgment made by Mr Attlee in 1951. Had this fixed-term Parliament legislation been in place, that Labour Government might have had to struggle on unable, by the Prime Minister’s own acknowledgement, to govern effectively unless it had been reprieved by a two-thirds majority. I think that there should be a surer way to provide that an election can take place in those circumstances.
My final suggestion is a bit arbitrary, if not even possibly whimsical. It is that where,
“the number of MPs in receipt of the governing party’s or governing coalition’s whip falls below a majority of 10 over the combined members of the other parties in the House of Commons”,
again it should be possible for a general election to take place. That is, in a sense, a variant of the situation in which a Prime Minister judges that a Parliament is not viable. However, in this case it would not necessarily be just the opinion of the Prime Minister that would count.
Amendment 55A is a little different. It picks up a suggestion made by Mr Gordon Brown that a Parliament may, not must, be dissolved if the House of Commons approves by a simple majority a Motion that the Prime Minister should request Dissolution from the Queen. This seems to be an elegant and simple solution to what the Government have stated as the key issue that they wish to resolve through this legislation. They think it is objectionable that the Prime Minister of the day should have the power to call the election whenever he wishes. Gordon Brown suggested that the Prime Minister should no longer have the power to seek Dissolution on his sole judgment—a power which I think was originally assumed by Lloyd George and which has rested with subsequent Prime Ministers. The Prime Minister would have to go to the House of Commons and secure a vote there before he could go to the Palace and request Dissolution. This would solve the main problem that the Government have set out to solve. It could be legislated for, although I do not think that it really needs legislation; it could be accepted as one of the conventions under which Parliament operates. I beg to move.
I thought that I would speak briefly on the amendment. I can see the argument that it drives a coach and horses through the intention of having fixed-term Parliaments and I can see that it may attract some support in the House for that reason. I have problems with how the amendment is drafted, as it says:
“Parliament may otherwise be dissolved”.
Who determines that? It may otherwise be dissolved if Her Majesty appoints another Prime Minister. Is it the incoming Prime Minister who determines that there should be a dissolution? It also states that,
“the Prime Minister considers it appropriate to seek the endorsement of electors following a change in government policy”.
One can see how any Prime Minister could have a fairly minor change of policy and decide, “I’d rather like to have a general election”, and it could be used as an excuse presumably for triggering the election. There is no requirement here; it has to be a major change in public policy. There are obvious drafting problems because I am completely unclear as to who would be responsible for triggering a Dissolution. That is my problem with it, but some may find that quite attractive since, in effect, it would undo the whole Bill.
I am not sure that it would. There are drafting issues and the noble Lord is right about that, but there has been a mood around the House that when John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher or Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair, it might have been appropriate to have a general election. I understand that my noble friend Lord Howarth is saying, “Let’s define some circumstances which don’t say you have an absolute discretion, which is the current position, but there are certain defined circumstances”.
I agree that some of them, such as,
“the Prime Minister considers a Parliament not to be viable”,
“the Prime Minister considers it appropriate to seek the endorsement of electors following a change in government policy”,
are a little vague. Would it be a change in any government policy, including where we stand in relation to the Forestry Commission? That might be a little bit unjustifiable, but if you wanted the Brown-Blair, Thatcher-Major; a change in the complexion of the Government; the Heath situation; and the October 1974 situation—there is a broad consensus round the House that those would not be bad—it is not necessarily a bad idea to say that tightly drafted provisions should be included at the end of Section 3.
We are dealing not with the safety valves but specific occasions when the nation would think it appropriate for there to be an election. I do not see that as being necessarily inconsistent with a fixed-term Parliament. As the noble and learned Lord rightly said, we are not in the Norwegian-type situation where it is X years come what may, and you soldier on to the end, come what may. You are identifying certain circumstances when the norm, whether four or five years, can be departed from. It is when there is a vote of no confidence, or questions when certain well recognised events occur, which justify the then Government seeking the endorsement of the electorate, even though there was no vote of confidence and even though there was no two-thirds vote, which would be, as I understand it, a Prime Ministerial discretion.
What the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is getting at is that if it is a Prime Ministerial discretion, you go straight back to where you were before. Let us suppose that the provision said that the Prime Minister—meaning the new Prime Minister—can go to the country if he takes over mid-Parliament. That would not be an absolute discretion; it would be a very constrained discretion, usable only when there was a change in Prime Minister. That would not strike me as driving a coach and horses through the Bill, although I can see that the noble Lord is dying to tell me why I am wrong.
Yes, I was going to suggest that he is. In circumstances that he suggested that it is the incoming Prime Minister who can opt to do that, as with Anthony Eden in 1955, presumably it will be used to the Prime Minister’s advantage. When the noble and learned Lord suggested that the mood of the nation perhaps favoured a change, one can see situations in which the very last thing an incoming Prime Minister plans to do is call an election.
Think, like the right honourable Nick Clegg, about giving the public more control over their politicians. There is always a sense of frustration that comes when a new Prime Minister comes in and the public get no say in whether this change is right. This would reflect this mood and give the public more control.
The noble Lord is right. I cannot think how I would have taken over as Prime Minister and at the same time been unpopular. It is an unlikely scenario. However, it is a way of avoiding lots of clubhouse politics, where you move from one to another. It does not necessarily drive a coach and horses through the Bill. It would do so if the viability provision or the change in policy were there. It would, however, be worth the Government thinking of a circumstance in which, for example, a Government totter on with a majority of one and want to have a general election but the Opposition will not give them a two-thirds vote. Why should there not be a general election in those circumstances? It might well be that the country is not assisted by there being weak government in those circumstances.
I completely understand why the Government would wish to knock out the very general reasons for Dissolution. However, if the Government are serious about trying to improve the constitution, it is worth them considering whether or not there are more specific reasons of the sort proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, that might be worth including in Clause 3(2) of the Bill that says that,
“Parliament cannot otherwise be dissolved”,
except in those situations that we have dealt with before, which is the two-thirds majority, the expiry of the fixed term or a motion of no confidence.
Amendment 55A says that Parliament cannot otherwise be dissolved,
“unless the House of Commons has approved on a division a motion tabled by the Prime Minister that the Prime Minister should request Her Majesty to dissolve Parliament”.
The effect of that provision is that it would not be in the discretion of the Prime Minister alone, which is the current position. Put aside everything else. Assume no Motion of no confidence. Assume no two-thirds vote. Assume no change to the Bill to allow any special measures. The Prime Minister could nevertheless table a Motion that says, “I think there should be a general election”, and, if Parliament backed him by a simple majority, there could be a general election. This is probably the position anyway because, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, says, there is nothing to stop the Prime Minister from procuring a vote of no confidence to get rid of himself so that, for example, in the Heath situation, he could have an election to deal with a particular crisis that had struck the Government. Would it not be more sensible for there to be a straightforward mechanism that allowed that to happen? If it can happen by the back door, why should it not be allowed to happen by the front door? It does not offend against the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill because its stated purpose is to take away the right to call a general election from the Prime Minister and give it to Parliament. Amendment 55A does not offend against that principle
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, for these amendments. My immediate response was to share the view of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth; that they do run a coach and possibly some horses though the Bill—although I do not agree with him that that is what should commend it. The other thing I noticed was that there was no certainty as to whether Parliament would in fact be dissolved in these circumstances. Parliament might otherwise be dissolved. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, suggested that it would be the new Prime Minister who would trigger this. If there is a discretion, the Prime Minister taking over in circumstances that might not be propitious for his party might not necessarily exercise it. I think we are back to the situation that the Bill seeks to avoid. My noble friend and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, recognised that issues such as changing government policy or a very subjective view about the viability of a Parliament would put the power back into the hands of the Prime Minister that this Bill seeks to remove.
I also observe that another Prime Minister may be appointed on the grounds of death or serious illness, and I am not sure that that would necessarily be good grounds for triggering Dissolution. I simply observe that in Wales where there are fixed-term Parliaments, there have been circumstances in which the First Minister resigned and a new First Minister was appointed, and I do not remember the Labour Party clamouring for an election. When subsequently the minority Government became a coalition Government, there was no suggestion then in the context of a fixed-term Parliament that there should have been an election. Nor was there any suggestion that an election would have been appropriate following the death of Donald Dewar in 2000 or the resignation of Henry McLeish in 2001. In circumstances in which we have had fixed-term Parliaments and there has been a change of First Minister, it has not been thought appropriate that there should be an election; rather, the fixed-term Parliament has seen itself out in circumstances in which the Government have the confidence of the Parliament. That is crucial because if the Government do not have the confidence of the Parliament, the provisions elsewhere in the Bill will kick in.
I do not really understand the point about the majority falling below 10. Historically, a majority of 10 could be quite a high number. I do not believe that that would be an appropriate circumstance in which there may be Dissolution.
On amendment 55A, I cannot share the view of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, that it is somehow consistent with the principles of the Fixed-term Parliament Bill. I think it drives more than a coach and horses through the Bill. I have said on a number of occasions that the situation is open to abuse. The Prime Minister of the day could contrive Dissolution by the back door, but I do not think that we should put a red carpet down to the back door or to the front door for him to do it. There would be a degree of opprobrium attached if he was thought to be bending the rules, or indeed if he went to the country on the basis of a vote of no confidence in him that had been expressed by the House of Commons. We all know the reality of this amendment; if the Prime Minister wanted to have the date of his choosing for his party’s best advantage, it would not even need the black arts of the Whips to get his Members to turn out and vote for it. It defeats the object of a fixed-term Parliament. In these circumstances, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I was quite wrong. This has been a very zestful debate—positively sparkling. I congratulate all noble Lords who have spoken on their effervescence at this time of the night.
I tabled these amendments because I think that the Government have restricted the Bill to permitting elections to happen before the end of the fixed term in too limited a range of circumstances. I think there are circumstances in which it would be in the interests of politics and of the country that there should be an election. I apparently differ from the Government in thinking that elections are a good thing. I do not think that it is desirable to stave them off so that they can happen only once every five years, if you can get away with it. A general election is a great moment in the life of the country, and we should be willing to recognise that there will be situations in which an election would be a thoroughly positive thing that would be welcomed by the country and that would be good for our politics, for the quality of government and for our democracy. It may well be that I have not sufficiently tightly defined all these circumstances, and given that the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and the Minister have drawn attention to the palpable inadequacies of drafting in Amendment 55, I beg leave to withdraw it.
Amendment 55 withdrawn.
Amendment 55A, in substitution for Amendment 54, not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
Amendments 55B and 55C
55B: After Clause 3, insert the following new Clause—
“General election for Scottish Parliament not to fall on same date as parliamentary general election under section 1(2)
(1) This section applies in relation to the ordinary general election for membership of the Scottish Parliament the poll for which would, apart from this section and disregarding sections 2(5) and 3(3) of the Scotland Act 1998, be held on 7 May 2015 (that is, the date specified in section 1(2) of this Act).
(2) Section 2(2) of the 1998 Act has effect as if, instead of providing for the poll for that election to be held on that date, it provided (subject to sections 2(5) and 3(3) of that Act) for the poll to be held on 5 May 2016 (and section 2(2) has effect in relation to subsequent ordinary general elections accordingly).”
55C: After Clause 3, insert the following new Clause—
“General election for National Assembly for Wales not to fall on same date as parliamentary general election under section 1(2)
(1) This section applies in relation to the ordinary general election for membership of the National Assembly for Wales the poll for which would, apart from this section and disregarding sections 4 and 5(5) of the Government of Wales Act 2006, be held on 7 May 2015 (that is, the date specified in section 1(2) of this Act).
(2) Section 3(1) of the 2006 Act has effect as if, instead of providing for the poll for that election to be held on that date, it provided (subject to sections 4 and 5(5) of that Act) for the poll to be held on 5 May 2016 (and section 3(1) has effect in relation to subsequent ordinary general elections accordingly).”
Amendments 55B and 55C agreed.
Amendment 55D not moved.
Clause 4 : Supplementary provisions
56: Clause 4, page 3, line 12, at end insert “except that Parliament may not be prorogued for more than 14 days”
My Lords, it is me again, but this is the last time. The Bill abolishes the monarch’s power to dissolve Parliament but not the monarch’s power to prorogue Parliament. If the monarch is removed from the dissolution process, should she continue to exercise other prerogative powers, such as the power of prorogation or the power to summon Parliament? It is a question worth pausing on and it would be helpful to hear the Government’s account of why they have sought in this Bill to remove one very important prerogative power but to leave others in place.
I am not a great believer in consistency in constitutional matters. A constitution breathes and relaxes through its anomalies and is able to be responsive to the complex circumstances of the different parts of a country through the very existence of anomalies. I am rather of the view of Ralph Waldo Emerson who said:
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen”.
I think that we would all reject such consistency—I hope so.
At a practical level, the Bill leaves a loose end. The continuing power of prorogation is, in principle, open to abuse. If a Prime Minister were to be defeated on a vote of no confidence he could, under the terms of the Bill, ask the Queen to prorogue Parliament to get around the 14-day constraint. There was such an incident in Canada not very long ago. Following his re-election, the Canadian Prime Minister asked the Governor General to prorogue Parliament. The Prime Minister was seeking to avoid losing a threatened vote of confidence. Parliament was prorogued for two months. By the time it came back, the threat of that vote of confidence had pretty well gone away, so his continuing lease on power was ensured. The Constitution Select Committee thought that the likelihood of such an abuse occurring in the circumstances of this country was very low, with which I agree. I think that if any Prime Minister were to attempt to manipulate and abuse the power of prorogation, it would certainly backfire on him politically.
This amendment seeks to provide a safeguard against prolonged prorogation if a Prime Minister did seek to avoid the consequences of a no-confidence vote and get the election deferred to benefit himself or his party. The amendment should probably have been framed to guard equally against an abuse of the power of adjournment. Without such an amendment, the only safeguard that would remain would be the refusal of the monarch to accede to a request for prorogation. I think that we would all take the view that it is not a good idea to place the monarch in a politically contentious position. There is a loose end to be tidied up here and I should like the Minister to explain why the Government have left the power of prorogation as it is. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have absolutely nothing to say on prorogation but I would like to mention the significant contribution that my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport has made to the Committee stage. I also congratulate the noble and learned Lord who has conducted Committee stage completely alone on behalf of the Government. Although I have disagreed with very much of what he said, he has done an absolutely first-class job.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for his kind remarks. I also thank—as I have done on a number of occasions—the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, for introducing amendments that have allowed us to look at important parts of this legislation. Indeed, I thank in general all others who have contributed to our constructive debates.
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, asked about prorogation. There is a distinction between the prerogative power of dissolution and the prerogative power of prorogation. We have identified that the prerogative power of dissolution, which this legislation seeks to remove, can be used by the Prime Minister, in advising Her Majesty, for partisan purposes. By contrast, the prerogative power of prorogation is different. It is the mechanism that is used to bring to an end a Session of Parliament and determines, subject to the carry-over procedure, when Bills have to complete their passage through both Houses so that they become law; it is also used at times in the run-up to Parliament finishing its business pending Dissolution.
An incumbent Prime Minister, even today, could prorogue Parliament to prevent the other place considering a forthcoming no-confidence motion, as happened in Canada some two or three years ago. That risk exists today but the convention is that the Government and Parliament find time to debate a motion of no confidence tabled by the Official Opposition. It is instructive that the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House considered the question of prorogation as part of its examination of the Bill and decided that the risk of abuse of the power of prorogation is very small. It therefore concluded that Her Majesty’s power to prorogue Parliament should remain.
The noble Lord raised the possibility of abuse in relation to the 14 days to frustrate these ends. It is perhaps thought that preserving the prorogation power could mean that a Prime Minister who wants a general election can, after a no-confidence motion is passed, prorogue Parliament during the 14-day Government formation period and thus deny the new Government the opportunity for a motion of confidence in them to be passed. It is highly unlikely that would happen. There are two basic scenarios. The first is that there is no obvious alternative Government and therefore nothing would be achieved by proroguing Parliament. If it was the wish of the Prime Minister of the day to go to an election, he would simply proceed to an election after the expiry of the 14 days. The second is that there are political factors, such as the Prime Minister resigning after a no-confidence motion and Her Majesty appointing a new Prime Minister. In such a scenario the outgoing Prime Minister would have agreed to resign and it is inconceivable that he or she would resign and then not allow the new Prime Minister to test the confidence of the House. Even if the new Prime Minister took office and found that, in the mean time, a prorogation had been slipped through by the outgoing Prime Minister and the House had been prorogued, he or she would be able, through the Queen, to recall Parliament under Section 1 of the Meeting of Parliament Act 1797.
These are hypothetical examples but it is right that we should examine them. The power of prorogation can still be used properly and sensibly and is not in the same category as the power of dissolution. I hope that with these reassuring words the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I draw much comfort from what the Minister has just said. Indeed, we need not be too scared of the possibility of an abuse of the power of prorogation and, subject to what my noble friends consider in the mean time, I anticipate that we will not need to return to this issue on Report.
I am grateful for what my noble and learned friend said and for the tolerance of the House. If I have been a little overzealous it was because, very shortly before the first day of Committee on the Bill, only a small handful—perhaps not more than eight—amendments had been tabled. As we have all acknowledged, this is a constitutional reforming measure of first-rate importance. We attach great importance to the role of this House as a revising Chamber and it is appropriate that we have had a good range of amendments to consider and have given the measure useful scrutiny in Committee. I apologise that the House has had to put up with the sound of my voice for far too long. However, we have done a good job, as we shall again when we get to Report. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 56 withdrawn.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5 : Final provisions
Amendments 57 and 58 not moved.
Amendment 59 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Clause 5 agreed.
Bill reported with amendments.
House adjourned at 1.02 am.