Consideration of Commons Reason
My Lords, I beg to move that this House do not insist on its Amendments 1, 2 and 9. I am sorry—I beg to move that the Commons reasons be now considered.
9A: Because the Commons do not consider it appropriate that the continuing operation of the provisions of the Bill should be dependent upon periodic resolutions of each House of Parliament.
My Lords, what it is when one does not have the crib sheet Depending on which way we vote, if the opinion of the House is tested, we may—or may not—be approaching the home straight of this Bill. However, it is worth putting on record that it is exactly one year ago this week, on 22 July, that the Bill was introduced in the other place. By any reckoning, for a Bill of seven clauses and one schedule this is quite some time. We are now down to the fact that there is one remaining and outstanding issue. Your Lordships’ Amendments 1, 2 and 9 provide that the provisions of the Bill are subject to a sunset clause after the next general election, and each subsequent Parliament would have a choice whether to be a fixed-term Parliament or not. These amendments were passed by your Lordships’ House by a majority of six. The other place has considered these and has sent back a strong message in relation to this group of amendments, which they voted to disagree by 312 votes to 243. The reason on the Commons Disagreement and Reasons paper indicates that Commons disagreed because they,
“do not consider it appropriate that the continuing operation of the provisions of the Bill should be dependent upon periodic resolutions of each House of Parliament”.
I am, perhaps not surprisingly, in accord with this view.
It is worth remembering that the Government have been prepared to consider amendments which improve the Bill, and indeed we have taken on board a number of your Lordships’ suggested amendments. We were persuaded that the provision to allow the Prime Minister to move the date of the election earlier by order was unnecessary, and that if there was to be an order to delay by up to two months, it should be accompanied by a statement of reasons. We have tabled amendments to put back elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly from May 2015 to May 2016. This issue was of concern not only in the other place but also when the Bill came here for Second Reading. In particular, and thanks in many respects to the work done by and discussions between the former distinguished Speakers the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, and the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, who took the initiative with an amendment, and others, we redrew the architecture of the circumstances in which a vote of no confidence or of dissolution could trigger or lead in turn to an election. This indicates that the Government have been willing to listen, and on these points the other place has recognised that this House has done its task as a revising Chamber and has agreed to these amendments.
However, we were not prepared to support amendments that we believe undermine the fundamental purpose of the Bill—a purpose which was welcomed by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in another place and has obviously been supported there. That purpose is that the fixed-term Parliament is not for this Parliament only but, subject of course to the fact that any legislation can be repealed by a future Parliament, it should nevertheless apply to future Parliaments. Further, the purpose is to make fixed terms for the United Kingdom Parliament the norm, just as they are for local government, the devolved legislatures set up by this Parliament, and the European Parliament. This will deny the Executive the ability to choose a date for a general election to suit its own political ends. It will create certainty as to how long a Parliament should last. I ask your Lordships to recall that at Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, noted that we should not forget that the Prime Minister is surrendering a significant power in this Bill.
I also remind your Lordships about what my noble friend Lady Stowell said in Committee. She noted that this Bill will,
“ensure that the Government and the Opposition had to face the electorate on a predetermined date, whatever the political conditions are at that time. That is the most compelling thing about fixed-term Parliaments”.—[Official Report, 15/3/11; col. 223.]
In addition to this, many of your Lordships noted that the certainty of a fixed-term Parliament would create better facility to plan across Government, within Parliament, and beyond. By contrast, if these amendments are accepted, the electorate turning out in May 2015 will not know what they were voting for. Will they be giving the next Parliament a fixed and predictable term within which to govern or will they be handing to the leader of the next Government a trump card; namely, the ability to call an election whenever he or she thinks it is most opportune?
During the debates on this on Report, I indicated that the assumption behind these amendments must be that in the event a subsequent Parliament is not a fixed-term Parliament, the current rules about calling elections should apply to that Parliament. I again highlight what a somewhat anomalous and strange position this will result in. In particular, we presume that the drafters of the sunset—they are sometimes referred to as sunset or sunrise—provisions would mean that the royal prerogative power to dissolve Parliament would be summoned back into existence for that subsequent Parliament. I assume that that must be the intention, for how else would Parliament be dissolved other than by the prerogative unless the drafters intend Parliament only to end by reaching the five-year limit set in the revised septennial Act?
I wish to make two points about this. First, is it right that the existence of a royal prerogative be dependent on resolutions of each House not being carried? It seems very undesirable to the Government that the prerogative power may sometimes not exist and sometimes be revived in this way. Secondly, if this is the intention of the drafters, it is not at all clear that it has been achieved in the drafting that they have provided. In particular, the presumption in Section 16 of the Interpretation Act is that where an enactment of a temporary duration, which the provisions abrogating the dissolution prerogative appear to be, expires, it does not ordinarily revive anything not in force at the time of the expiry. Admittedly, that may seem to be a technical point but I urge noble Lords to consider that what is being proposed here is far from straightforward and hidden complexities abound. We should be very careful before giving our approval to what, perhaps at the very least, can be described as a constitutional novelty.
As I have indicated, it is important to note that this Parliament did not include sunset clauses when legislating for the fixed terms for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Indeed, in this Bill we are extending the fixed term of this parliamentary term for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly but doing so by primary legislation. I have heard no convincing arguments to explain why we should sunset the fixed terms of the United Kingdom Parliament.
Is a sunset clause necessary to ensure that the issue of fixed terms, and the merits of this piece of legislation, are properly reviewed? Arguably, it is not. This Bill has received thorough scrutiny by four Select Committees—your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, the PCR in the other place, the JCHR and the Delegated Powers Committee. It has had all of its stages on the Floors of the respective Houses and the Government have reflected during the progress of the Bill and, as I have indicated, have made amendments where they feel that these improve the overall package.
If a future Parliament decides that it wishes to move away from fixed terms, or if it wishes to amend what we have provided for, we cannot bind its hands. Perhaps it has not been said in this Chamber but it has been said in some of the commentary that somehow we are trying to bind the hands of future Parliaments. Perhaps I may make it clear that that is not the case, nor is it the intention. It is clear that we believe that, if there is to be a change, it should be done through primary legislation, and can be done by means of primary legislation.
A change to the fundamental structure of Parliament is not a small matter and we believe that it should be subject to the full scrutiny of Parliament. It should not be a default option if a resolution fails to be tabled or passed to sunrise provisions for fixed terms. Many noble Lords have expressed concern about what these amendments would mean for the relationship with the other place. Arguments have been made that by providing that the Bill could be revived only with a resolution of both Houses, we could be undermining the primacy of the other place. This House would be given a power to veto the will of the other place on this matter. I would ask your Lordships to recall comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, who has contributed notably in our debates on this Bill, when he spoke in the debate on 22 June on the reform of your Lordships’ House. I think that what he said would be echoed by noble Lords across the Chamber.
“We are a revising Chamber and a debating Chamber, and valuable in both functions, but we cannot prevail against the House of Commons if it wishes to insist. The House of Commons is sovereign in the matter of law-making”.—[Official Report, 22/6/11; col. 1257.]
In the case of this Bill, the other place has clearly indicated that it wants to establish fixed terms as a rule that applies equally to each Parliament. Both your Lordships’ House and the other place finally decided that it would not be appropriate to include a sunset provision in the European Union Bill. In the final debate on that Bill, my noble friend Lord Lamont of Lerwick wisely noted that a sunset provision was not appropriate because it would provide for primary legislation to be reversed by a simple resolution. That is the same effect as the sunset amendment would have on this Bill, turning important amendments to the statute book on and off, perhaps somewhat akin to a light switch. It is also worth noting the report of the European Scrutiny Committee in the other place on the European Union Bill. Again, I quote:
“All Parliaments legislate for the future. Laws passed by one Parliament do not contain a sunset clause at the Dissolution. The real point is whether a government can, in law, make it difficult for a future Parliament to amend or repeal the legislation it has passed; in our view it cannot. Our conclusion therefore is straightforward—that an Act of Parliament applies until it is repealed”.
That should be said also of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. Should a future Parliament wish to amend or repeal the legislation, it can do so, but it should do so through the normal legislative process, not simply by passing a resolution.
I repeat that, in a number of respects, this House performed valuably the revising and reforming function to legislation which is at the core of your Lordships’ business and that the Government responded to these proposals, but the amendments run contrary to the spirit of the Bill and raise more questions than they answer. Your Lordships have raised a matter of concern and have asked the other place to reconsider its position. The other place has done so. Consistent with the role of your Lordships under our parliamentary system, a role which many noble Lords have been at pains to suggest does not amount to the making of law but only to its scrutiny, I urge your Lordships to accept the verdict of the other place and not to insist on the amendments. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Pannick, but with his support, it falls to me to urge your Lordships to cause the Government to think again about these amendments which this House passed to the Bill. My noble friend asks me to express his regret that other unavoidable business prevented him being here today.
The amendment which your Lordships passed would give the next Parliament and subsequent Parliaments the opportunity to decide whether the provisions of this Bill, subjecting them to a fixed term, should apply to them. It does not nullify the Bill. It merely gives future Parliaments the right to disapply it without having to go to the lengths of repealing it.
In essence, the case for your Lordships’ amendment is that a permanent constitutional change to fixed-term Parliaments should not be made without more preparation and consultation than this Bill has had. In the substantial debate in the other place last week, thoughtful individuals in both the main political parties both spoke and voted for your Lordships’ amendment. A Conservative Member described the Bill as a “reckless” constitutional act,
“on the back of an envelope”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/7/11; col. 375.]
A Labour Member, perhaps better versed in the vernacular, described it as tinkering with the constitution,
“on the back of a fag packet”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/7/11; col. 373.]
As for those who argue, as the Minister did today, that it would be open to a future Government who disagreed with the provisions to repeal the Act, the Minister in the other place gave the game away. He asked, if the Bill became law and fixed-term Parliaments became the norm,
“would any Minister realistically be able to come to the Dispatch Box and suggest with a straight face that we should change the position and give the power back to the Prime Minister to hold an election at a time of his choosing to suit his political party? Would anyone take that proposition seriously? I suggest that they would not”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/7/11; col. 361.]
So it is clear that the Government intend that this should be a permanent change to the constitution.
The main case advanced by the Government for the legislation—what the Minister called today the “fundamental justification”—is based on a fallacy. I do not doubt the sincerity of those who argue for it, but it is a fallacy none the less. It is that the power of a Prime Minister to seek a dissolution at a time of his or her choosing gives the governing party an unfair political advantage. The Minister went so far today as to describe it as a “trump card”. In the real world, the Prime Minister’s room for manoeuvre is heavily constrained. In normal times, and with a workable parliamentary majority, it is simply not practical politics for a Prime Minister to call an election in the first, second, third or even fourth year of a parliament. It is true that the fifth year becomes open season for elections and Prime Ministers often seek a dissolution before the last moment in order not to be at the mercy of events, but the practical advantage this gives is very limited—it is far short of a trump card. Even the proponents of the Bill accept that there should be some flexibility in the fifth year to allow for unforeseen events such as the BSE epidemic.
It follows that it will be only in exceptional circumstances that a Prime Minister will seek a dissolution in the first, second, third or fourth year of a parliament. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, pointed out in our earlier debates, history shows that these occasions are never dictated merely by political advantage. In 1966 and 1974, general elections were called in the second and first years of the parliaments respectively in the circumstances of a growing economic crisis when the Government did not have a sufficient majority to deal with it. In 1974, a general election was called in the midst of a miners’ strike when the incumbent Government had exhausted their means of resolving the strike. Can it be denied in these circumstances that it was in the national interest rather than in the Governments’ political interest that the Governments should seek a reinforced mandate to deal with these national crises?
In such circumstances, what would have been the effect of this Bill? The Government would have had to rely on the Opposition’s support to obtain a dissolution. Proponents of the Bill may say that, in practice, general elections would always be available in such circumstances because Oppositions would never deny themselves the opportunity to throw the Government out. In that case, the legislation is pointless. However, let us suppose that they have a point, that there would be circumstances in which a Government would want a reinforced mandate to deal with a national crisis and the Opposition, for whatever reason—shortage of party funds or whatever—denied them the 75 per cent majority necessary for a dissolution. Would that be in the national interest? Can it be right that in such circumstances the Government should be dependent upon their political opponents in seeking a fresh mandate from the people? The purpose of this constitutional change is misconceived.
A further argument used by the Minister in another place, over several columns of Hansard—although I noticed that the Minister made only a glancing reference to it today—was that because a decision to reapply the provisions of the Bill would require a resolution of both Houses, your Lordships could deny an elected House of Commons the right to apply the Bill and thus undermine the supremacy of the elected House. To my mind, it is appropriate that, if a law is to be reapplied, it is constitutionally right that it should be reapplied by both Houses of Parliament. I find it inconceivable that in a future Parliament, if the newly elected House of Commons voted for a fixed-term Parliament, your Lordships would overturn that decision. The fact that the Minister relied so much in this argument on another place illustrates, to my mind, the weakness of the Government’s arguments against the amendment.
Finally, the Minister in another place and the Minister in this House today were critical of the drafting of your Lordships’ amendment. The Minister in another place was particularly critical of Section 7(4), which states that a number of parts of the Bill would only have effect until the first meeting of a new Parliament. His argument was that this would cause confusion by reviving provisions repealed by the Bill, and the Minister in this House said something similar today. This, too, suggests to me that the Government’s arguments are weak. We all know that if the Government were minded to accept the principle of the amendment, it would be open to them—and indeed normal practice—to table a revised set of amendments in order to avoid technical defects in your Lordships’ amendments.
It is clear from the debates in this House and in another place that many Members, on both the government Benches and the opposition Benches, are uneasy about legislating in this way to make a permanent change to our constitutional arrangements without proper consultation, preparation or consideration. It is open to your Lordships, even now, to ask the Government in the other place to think again and provide an opportunity for future Governments and Parliaments to make their own decision whether to subject themselves to this legislation. It would cause the Government no loss to do so, and it is the proper, constitutional way to proceed. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, has set out fully and powerfully the case for your Lordships’ House to insist on these amendments. Nevertheless, I would like to say a few words in support of the excellent case that he has made. I do think that it would be right to ask the other place to think again. I do not think that it had the opportunity to consider this legislation properly when, in the new Parliament, it was sent sailing through—if I may put it this way—a very inexperienced new House of Commons.
The Bill was only hastily examined by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee; I do not criticise the committee for that because it had all too little time between the publication of the Bill and the date of Second Reading that the Government had scheduled very early on indeed. It was then rather perfunctorily examined in the Chamber of the House of Commons before it came to this House. The other place should have looked at it much more carefully. After all, among our powerful objections to the legislation as the Government presented it was that the Government were playing fast and loose with the role of the Speaker and with parliamentary privilege, matters that surely one would have expected the House of Commons to ponder and take very seriously, but it did not and the legislation went through quickly.
This is not the moment to rehearse again all the flaws in this Bill, but, as we bottomed out the issues that the Bill gives rise to in our proceedings here, it became more and more evident that it was bound to be a bad Bill because it was seeking to give legislative force to a bad idea. It was addressing a non-problem. There is no evidence that there has been abuse by successive Prime Ministers of the right to choose the date of the next election or that the country has suffered because successive Prime Ministers have exercised that right. I do not think that the “will he, won’t he” issue that Mr Harper made so much of in the other place is a serious problem, and I do not think that the country considers that it is.
This legislation was dressed up as a project to reduce the power of the Prime Minister and increase the accountability of government to the people, but it did not do that. In fact, it did exactly the reverse. It secured for this Prime Minister the assurance of a five-year Parliament and bound the coalition, however unhappy the marriage, into a five-year Parliament. Far from increasing accountability, it reduced the frequency with which electors can be expected to have the opportunity either to throw the Government out or to renew their term at a general election.
The typical interval between general elections in most of the 20th century was, we are told, some four years. By extending the term of Parliament rigidly to five years, without allowing the sensible pragmatic flexibility that our unwritten constitution has hitherto permitted, the legislation would make Governments and Prime Ministers less accountable to Parliament, not more.
The measure would still have been bad in principle, but it might have been somewhat less objectionable had the Government accepted the amendment tabled by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton to reduce the fixed term from five years to four years. However, the Government saw no merit in that, no doubt because they were very worried that the consequences of their fiscal nihilism and the misery and waste that their policies are causing will not have been forgiven, or anywhere near forgiven, in a mere four-year term.
The amendment that your Lordships passed and which built a sunset clause into the Bill was the best damage limitation that this House was able to offer, because we rightly have a convention that we do not reject government legislation at Second Reading. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, and his ministerial colleague in the other place, Mr Harper, have raised various objections to the amendment that we passed, but they seem to me to be quibbling amendments. None of them creates such difficulty that, had the Government been willing to accept the advice of this House, they would not have been able to refine the legislation to deal with those problems.
We could certainly have thought about whether your Lordships' House should approve an order under this legislation in a normal way. An argument could have been mounted that it would not be appropriate for your Lordships' House, unelected as it is, to decide itself whether the fixed-term provisions of this legislation should have been renewed, although I am attracted to the argument made by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, on that point. Issues such as the royal prerogative or the exact stage in the new Parliament in which the vote on the order might take place could have been sorted out consequentially had the Government been willing to accept the advice of your Lordships.
Nor am I impressed by the argument about consistency. Just because we have not proposed that we should undo the fixed terms for the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly, which are being extended under this legislation, it does not follow that we should not seek to amend the provisions relating to the Parliament at Westminster. A constitution benefits from sensible anomalies; a constitution that is pragmatically designed and evolves to take account of the political realities in different places at different times stands a much better chance of working successfully.
I appreciated the fact that the Government accepted some of the amendments that we passed in this House. They should, after all, surely accept this provision. It is simple and effective, and would give the House of Commons the opportunity, after the experience of this five-year Parliament, to confirm or not to confirm that a fixed-term Parliament would be a permanent arrangement. It would, in effect, be an exercise in post-legislative scrutiny. It seems to me that the Government would do well, in the light of experience, to have the modesty to allow reconsideration of a very contentious and experimental piece of legislation such as this, in the convenient way that the amendment provides for.
As the Minister has emphatically reminded us this afternoon, it would be open to the new Parliament—or, indeed, to this Parliament should the coalition fall apart within five years, which is not at all inconceivable—to repeal the legislation. It is, however, much more of a performance to repeal, whether in this Parliament or at the beginning of the next Parliament, because it involves all the long drawn-out processes of primary legislation to achieve in essence the same as your Lordships’ amendment would achieve. In all events, one way or another I hope that Parliament will get rid of this footling and misguided piece of constitutional tinkering.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Butler, will no doubt recall very well from the period in early 1992 that there was much speculation about the likely timing of the general election then due. Options of April, May and June were all under consideration by John Major, and his choice was based simply on when was most likely to favour his party in what was expected to be a very close contest. Indeed, it was a very close contest that was well described in the book I much enjoyed by the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Oareford, entitled Too Close To Call. It was clear from that account that the advantage of being able to choose polling day possibly made a decisive difference.
At the time I was involved in helping to prepare the campaign led by my noble friend Lord Ashdown. I was quite shocked to receive a call one day in the run-up to that election from someone who ran a printing firm.
My Lords, the last possible date was June of that year. A date that was widely considered was the May of that year, which coincided with the local elections. In fact, the date chosen was 9 April, which was rather earlier than the last possible date, and was chosen—as the book I have just described accounts—for his advantage. I asked the printer, who told me that the date would be 9 April, how he could know. He told me he was breaking commercial confidence by telling me, but he knew because he was in the process of printing the election address of a then Cabinet Minister who was able to tell him that the date would be 9 April, and that this date was on the front of his leaflet. It seemed to me that that Cabinet Minister had an advantage over other candidates in that election, and that the ability to print election literature at a time of one’s choosing is just one of the unfair advantages afforded to the governing party over all other parties in our present arrangements.
As I have said before in these debates, it is rather like allowing Sir Alex Ferguson to pick the dates for all the Manchester United games. In 1992, the advantage of choosing polling day was possibly crucial to the narrow and generally unexpected Conservative victory, although in that election the Sun newspaper famously said:
“It’s The Sun Wot Won It”.
I know that many noble Lords opposite were candidates for the Labour Party in that election, in which they were led by the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock. I ask them to remember the words of their manifesto in 1992, which said:
“This general election was called only after months of on-again, off-again dithering, which damaged our economy and weakened our democracy. No government with a majority should be allowed to put the interests of party above country as the Conservatives have done”.
“Although an early election will sometimes be necessary, we will introduce as a general rule a fixed parliamentary term”.
The principle of this Bill is to do exactly that. It upholds a principle that was also in last year's Labour manifesto, which guaranteed to ensure that legislation would be introduced to make sure that we have the principle of fixed-term Parliaments. That principle was also in last year's Liberal Democrat manifesto and was one that David Cameron agreed in opposition to consider seriously before committing his party to it in the coalition agreement.
The Motion under consideration is not a minor revision to the Bill, the central principle of which is that Parliament should decide whether there is good reason to have an early general election, not just a potentially opportunistic Prime Minister. The principle of this Bill did not come out of the blue but has been debated for at least 20 years—sufficient time, I suggest, for consideration of that principle. The Bill enacts a principle that puts more power in the hands of Parliament and reduces the power of Prime Ministers to manipulate electoral timetables for partisan advantage.
In many of our debates in this House, I regularly hear many noble Lords expressing concern about the degree of power that can be exercised by a Prime Minister with an overall majority in the other place. If carried, the Motion proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, will help to maintain that power for Prime Ministers in future. We should recognise that the effect of abandoning the principle of the Bill is simply to leave the timing of future general elections to the whim of a Prime Minister who will inevitably choose the timing to party advantage, not national interest, to his or her own benefit and in ways calculated to disadvantage opponents.
I hesitate to interrupt my noble friend, but I feel that he is making a bit of a Second Reading speech. I hope he will not mind if I ask him a question that has been puzzling me on the idea of the abuse of prime ministerial patronage. If we know the date of the election, is that patronage not going to be used to ensure that all kinds of goodies are announced before that date, and are Governments not going to plan their programmes accordingly? Is the problem not going to be much worse, not better?
My Lords, I think the problem would be rather less serious when we all knew when the election would be. The amendments strike very much at the principle of the Bill, which is why I am now addressing them. If anyone doubts how a Prime Minister can manipulate the present system for party advantage, they should think back to the events of September 2007, when a new Prime Minister was clearly planning an election for the autumn. Indeed, we now know that more than £1 million was spent on leaflets that sat with the Royal Mail waiting to be dispatched, when the Prime Minister suddenly realised that he might lose the election and called it off. Surely that is a great example of a Prime Minister abusing the system for party advantage.
Again, comparing this with football, would we consider it fair if Sir Alex Ferguson was allowed to call off a football match if he was worried about the form of his team and to rearrange the match for another day when it might perform better? Of course we would not. I see the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, who obviously regards football as a very serious matter, sitting opposite. I recall my own sporting hero Bill Shankly saying that football is not,
“a matter of life or death … it's more important than that”.
However, I would say that democracy is even more important. At the moment, in this period of great turbulence and concern about the rules of fair play, fair competition and fair enforcement of the law, we should take this small step towards making the rules of our democracy fairer. If a future Parliament wishes to take issue with the fixed-term principle or with any of the detail of how it operates, it should go through the same parliamentary processes that are currently necessary with this Bill.
On the principle of the Bill, let us consider finally that neither the Scottish Parliament nor the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the European Parliament, the Greater London Assembly or a single one of the hundreds of local councils across the United Kingdom appear to have a problem with the fixed-term principle for elections. Neither should we in this unelected House.
My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, has returned to the principles of this Bill because it enables me briefly to return to the report of your Lordships’ Committee on the Constitution, which I have the honour to chair and which I note the Minister did not refer to. Well, he referred to it only in passing; he did not refer to the fact that the Committee was on the whole opposed to the idea of the principle of fixed-term Parliaments and was very much in support of the idea that if they were to be undertaken they should have four-year terms rather than five-year terms.
In supporting the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, it is more appropriate to refer again to the Constitution Committee’s strictures on the processes that produced this Bill. Your Lordships will recall that one of the things that the Committee felt most strongly about was that the Bill had been brought forward with as many political concerns and ambitions in mind as constitutional principles. In fact, we were very concerned that this was seen as a short-term measure designed to extend and protect the five-year term of the present coalition Government, and not something that was designed properly to change the constitution.
We also referred to the fact—as the Minister said in his opening remarks—that there was some time in Parliament for the Bill to be considered, although I noted that my noble friend Lord Howarth referred to the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny that we felt was desirable in this case. None of the pre-legislative scrutiny or any of the processes that we as a committee felt should have been undertaken to ensure that the Bill had widespread support in making a major change to the constitution had been undertaken. There was no Green Paper and no White Paper, and although Ministers appearing before the committee said at the time that this was because it was early in the Parliament—as the Minister said—we felt that there was no time limit on this Bill in the way that there was on the referendum legislation that was brought forward with equal speed early in the Parliament, so there was nothing to prevent this Bill being considered in what we would have thought was the proper way for a constitutional Bill of this significance.
I add in conclusion that your Lordships’ committee has now undertaken, partly because of our concern about this Bill, a full-scale inquiry into the process of constitutional change that we have just completed and which I very much look forward to having the opportunity to debate with your Lordships following the Recess.
I agree very much with the noble Baroness and respect the views of her committee. In thinking about process, does she think that the novel constitutional process that the amendments introduce is a short-cut, without proper process, to look at major primary legislation by resolution of the two Houses, which could be in conflict, or does she think that that is a proper constitutional process?
My Lords, the committee’s position, and certainly my personal position, is that given the inadequate processes that have produced this legislation, some form of post-legislative scrutiny was needed. I do not remember whether the noble Lord was present when the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, led the previous debate on a similar subject, but the discussion included the issue of whether there was some way not perhaps of preventing the present Government fulfilling their five-year term, which the Constitution Committee certainly thought was the primary aim of this Bill, but of giving Parliament an opportunity to think again about whether this was an appropriate way for the constitution to be changed.
My Lords, I wish to make a brief speech in support of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, and to focus the House’s attention on one or two points. First, whatever our views on fixed-term Parliaments, we have debated that. The House, in its wisdom, has made its decisions and has not stood in the way of another place. We are to have a fixed-term Parliament and the next general election will take place in May 2015. That is not the issue this afternoon. However, we have also decided that it is entirely proper to seek to improve and amend what many of us consider to be an ill thought-out, unnecessary and bad Bill. That is what the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, seeks to do. I hope very much that we will support him if he decides to press his amendment to a Division, and that we will do so because we recognise the circumstances in which this Bill was produced.
This Bill is the creature of coalition. It came into being because of the coalition agreement. None of us has sought to deny the right of the Government to decide when the next general election will be. As I said, it will occur in May 2015. Attempts to bring forward that date were defeated—in my view, understandably, and probably rightly—when we sought to amend the Bill. However, because this Bill is the creature of coalition, there should be an opportunity for the next Parliament to consider whether it truly wishes to continue with this experiment. The next Parliament may well be one with a Conservative majority—I sincerely hope that it will be—but whether it has a Conservative majority or a Labour majority it is unlikely that it will be another coalition. This amendment merely gives the opportunity for the new Parliament to make its decision. Indeed, this has already been recognised on the Floor of this House by my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford when he was dealing with the sunset clause on the European Union Bill. He pointed out that the two things were different. He said:
“As was explained in the debate”—
that is, the debate we had just had—
“one can see perfectly well why”,
our amendment had been passed. He continued:
“The coalition exists, and I hope that it continues to exist in strong fine form during this fixed-term Parliament, but after that we have a new landscape. Who knows who will govern? Who knows what the pattern will be? It made perfectly good sense for that legislation to have a limited life before coming to be re-examined”.—[Official Report, 25/5/11; col. 1861.]
My noble friend Lord Howell made a similar point when he wound up the debate on the sunset clause at Report on the European Union Bill.
We have before us the opportunity to say to the other place, “Please reflect on what you have done. Please recognise that we have not wrecked the Bill that you sent to us and that we have made no attempt to change the date of the next general election, but also recognise that what we have done is to give an opportunity for the Parliament elected in May 2015 to re-examine this matter and to decide whether, in the light of experience, it wishes to continue with fixed-term Parliaments”. We are giving that Parliament the opportunity to make that decision without burdening it with the necessity of introducing full-scale constitutional legislation at the beginning of a new Parliament if it generally desires to move away from what we have decreed.
As we know all too well, constitutional legislation takes a long time to get through Parliament. We may learn that lesson yet again in the not too distant future, so we are being exceptionally kind to the next Parliament in giving it that opportunity to ratify or nullify without long, protracted debate. Because of that, I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, will be listened to and heeded, and that if he decides to put this to the vote the majority will be more than six this time.
As one who put his name to the amendment on Report, I rise briefly to add to the comments of my noble friend Lord Butler of Brockwell and others. I do not need to go through the defects of and objections to the Bill again. For all the reasons given in earlier stages, and again by my noble friend Lord Butler now, I share his view that the Bill is neither necessary, nor desirable, nor satisfactory.
There is something very rummy about a Bill in which one clause decrees that a Parliament should last for a full term of five years, and the next clause tries to provide for the circumstances in which, despite the first clause, it may be dissolved prematurely. It is all Lombard Street to a China orange that the time will come when a premature Dissolution would be to the manifest benefit of the country, in circumstances which have not been foreseen or provided for by the legislation. The Prime Minister will have to resort to some artificial device to enable him to request a Dissolution from the Queen—for instance, by calling for a vote of confidence in Her Majesty’s Government, and advising his supporters to abstain or even vote against it.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, has pointed out, the Bill has been introduced as part of the glue to allow the coalition to stick together and stay in office as long as possible while it takes through the unpalatable measures required to restore a measure of stability in the finances of the Government, and a climate more conducive to growth in the economy.
It is said that the legislation is intended to deprive Prime Ministers of the opportunity to request a premature Dissolution for the sake of supposed party-political advantage. If Prime Ministers are so deprived then, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has pointed out, they will be forced to trim the timing and the quality of their policies to the electoral timetable. They will defer good news, such as tax benefits, until near enough the election to affect the result. That may not be in the best interests of the country. Either way, the Prime Minister is going to retain some form of discretion about how he or she responds in these circumstances. Therefore, in reducing—though not, I suspect, eliminating—one risk, there is reason to fear the risk of unforeseen and adverse consequences. One devil—if it really is a devil—may be stunned, if not slain outright, but seven other devils may be released.
After the next general election, a new Government and a new Parliament should be obliged to review the arrangements for and against legislation of this kind, decide whether to be bound by the provisions of this legislation in future, and consider the case for reverting to more flexible arrangements of the kind that have prevailed until now. Passing this amendment would ensure that that would happen, so I hope that your Lordships will vote accordingly, if they are asked to divide, and invite the other place to think again.
My Lords, the other place has rightly rejected these amendments because they rest on a fundamental misconception that, merely by enacting legislation that is not time-limited, Parliament is seeking to bind its successors by passing permanent legislation. That proposition needs only to be stated to demonstrate its falsity. The Bill contains no entrenching provisions. It does not seek to restrict in any way the power of any subsequent Parliament to amend or repeal it. If the next or any future Parliament wishes to reconsider the provisions of this Bill when enacted it is free to do so, relying on the normal processes by which we consider and pass legislation. In 1885, Dicey defined the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty on this point as the right,
“to make and unmake any law whatsoever”.
Nothing in this Bill as unamended infringes that principle.
These amendments, with their ungainly hybrid of a sunset provision and what might appropriately be called a Lazarus clause—rather than a sunrise clause—would kill off the effective provisions in the Act after the next general election automatically and without any parliamentary consideration whatever, contrary to the assertion of my noble friend Lord Cormack. They would then allow one or any number of future Parliaments, by simple resolution of both Houses, to reinstate the legislation for a single Parliament at any time and at any stage of the Parliament in question. That would not then be a fixed-term Parliaments Bill; it would be no more than an unedifying muddle with no clarity for the electorate—or for parliamentary candidates, for that matter—when they go to the polls.
The amendments offend against constitutional principle on three main grounds. It is notable that your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, led by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, did not at any stage suggest a sunset and sunrise clause in the form proposed. The first offence against principle is that the amendment threatened to remove from Parliament the right to insist on full and detailed consideration of any proposal to repeal or re-enact the legislation by introducing a mechanism for re-enactment by resolution of both Houses. That re-enactment, as my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness pointed out in opening, would apply to the Schedule, which contains historic and important repeals, and would apparently be reversible by a resolution of both Houses.
Secondly, the amendments would increase the power of your Lordships' House beyond that generally permitted by the Parliament Acts because they would give this House the power to thwart the will of the other place, not merely to delay its implementation, if a resolution were passed by the House of Commons but denied passage by the House of Lords.
Thirdly, the amendments would offend against the Salisbury/Addison convention, if not in the letter certainly in the spirit. Both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats had commitments to fixed-term Parliaments in their manifestos, which were then agreed by the Conservatives in the coalition agreement. The settled view of the House of Commons, expressed on two occasions, is that this Bill should pass. Yet these amendments seek to time-limit it in a way that would remove its impact altogether. I say that because as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and a number of other Lords pointed out at earlier stages of this Bill's passage, no legislation whatever is required for this Parliament to last until May 2015.
As always, the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, put his argument seductively and persuasively, but the reality is that far from being asked to act in this House as guardian of the constitution by these amendments, we are in fact asked to challenge the primacy of the elected House and to usurp the revising and scrutinising role of this House by effectively emasculating this Bill.
My Lords, I do not accept that there is a parallel. There is indeed the exception in the Parliament Act for a Bill to extend the life of Parliament, and that was the case with this Bill, with the power to extend by two months. That is not the case in respect of these amendments.
My Lords, I have listened to the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and I must say that it seems to me that they are making an enormously unnecessary mountain out of this. What has happened is perfectly straightforward. Many parts of this House do not like this Bill, and for good reason. Your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, on which I have the privilege to sit, did not like it either. But in the way that this House often finds compromise solutions, instead of saying, “We won’t have the Bill at all”, the House said, “You can have your Bill. You want a fixed term this time around, but don’t force this down the throats of every successive Parliament. We will make it easy for you. We will not even require you to go through the full process, though you can if you want to”—I think the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, was at one stage proposing that, and I will come back to it. The House said, “We will leave it on the basis that if each House resolves that in its turn it wants a fixed-term Parliament, it can have one”.
That seems to me to be an eminently suitable compromise. What the noble Lords say, inter alia, is that this somehow gives this House the ability to prevent the Commons from having its way. But no; if the Commons wants to pass a Bill—a full Act—against the wishes of this House, it can still do that in the next Parliament. There is no constitutional aberration about this at all. It is a sensible compromise, it is a good British compromise, and it is the sort of compromise that this House is good at finding. I too hope that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, will divide the House. If he does, I will gladly join him in the Lobbies.
I have two answers for the noble Lord. First, that is one of the reasons why this Bill has never been necessary. It would have been perfectly possible for the Prime Minster to have made it very clear—on his honour, on his commitment, or whatever— that he was not going to go to the country until later. That was undoubtedly one of the options which was available, as we know from the evidence that has been given. The reasons why it was not taken I do not find at all convincing. Nevertheless, that is the route by which the Government have gone. Secondly—I say this with respect to the noble Lord, who has not been here as long as some other noble Lords—this House has the obligation and the responsibility of saying to the other place, “We think you are wrong. Think again”, and from time to time of saying, “We think you are wrong and we are not going to support what you are trying to do”.
This House has put forward sunset clauses which have been agreed a number of times; the precise mechanism does not matter. The point is that this House has said from time to time—for example, in relation to control orders—“All right, Government, you can have them for the time being, but you are not going to keep them without some further legislative process”. That seems to me to be a very good idea.
Can I ask the noble and learned Lord whether in his consideration within the committee—to which I made reference earlier—he thought it appropriate for a constitutional Bill of this sort, over which a great deal of concern has been expressed on his side of the House, to be subject to this fast-track, quick process, which is an entire novelty? It is not given to any other legislation whatever. Will he address in particular what would happen if one resolution were “Yes” and the other resolution in the other House were “No”? Would that not then raise questions about the adequacy of the process?
The noble Lord is tempting me to tell him what I think about the legislative process that has taken place so far in relation to the Bill. It is deplorable—not the consideration in this House, but the whole way in which this has come forward. This House is making the best it can of that job by taking poor, inadequately consulted-on legislation and putting forward a compromise that I believe will work. In answer to the noble Lord’s second question, the amendment is very clear. Both Houses need to give their approval. However, if they do not, it is still open to the other place to bring forward legislation and to use the Parliament Act if it wants to do so.
My Lords, I will come at this from a slightly different angle. Before I do, I will say that it is to your Lordships’ great credit that the Bill before us is much improved, especially the completely revised Clause 2. I regret that I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, for whom I have great respect, on this Motion, which drives a coach and horses through what the Bill has the potential to help us as a Parliament begin to achieve.
On many occasions during the passage of the Bill, several noble Lords have argued that our political system is not broken. I agree with that. My argument has always been that the problem we need to address is the public's lack of confidence and trust in the system. To fix the problem, we need to look for opportunities to change—not change for the sake of it, but change that delivers the kind of result that shows people we mean it when we talk about putting the public interest before our own.
I support the Bill not because I believe in fixed-term Parliaments; I support it because it is a means to a positive end. The Government and Opposition will have to face the electorate on a predetermined date, whatever the political conditions at the time. In other words, the Bill provides certainty to the electorate that the politicians have less room to manipulate the system for their advantage. It is not a silver bullet but a small step in the right direction—and it is change with a purpose. That makes it very different from changing the voting system, with which some noble Lords have compared it.
I did not support AV, and I believe that voters rejected it because it was only a means; it delivered no end. It was obvious that AV would not mean, as the leaders of its campaign tried and failed to argue, more hard-working MPs and fewer MPs likely to fiddle their expenses. If I were minded to make a party political point, I might say how ironic it is that the person who keeps telling the rest of us that we “just don’t get it” was in favour of AV and is, based on his Front-Benchers’ response to the Bill, at best confused as to whether he supports fixed-term Parliaments.
Even though the case is different, some noble Lords have argued that the public should be consulted on this matter as well: that if a referendum was held for AV, why not for fixed-term Parliaments? I would not have held a referendum on AV, either: but the reason a referendum on fixed-term Parliaments is not necessary is that our job is to find a solution to the problems that people have identified, and to take responsibility for the changes that we make.
I will offer my own analogy, which is not based on football. It is bit like Marks & Spencer asking loyal shoppers who have abandoned it because it has stopped supplying the kind of fashion that 40-something women want, to design next season's women's range. It is not the job of shoppers to fix the problem; it is up to Marks & Spencer to listen, understand and come up with the right solution to meet its customers’ concerns. If it starts supplying what people want, they will return.
Over the past few weeks, many commentators have made the point that the recent phone hacking scandal is the latest in a series of similar scandals that have already affected bankers and politicians. I agree with that. One common thread running through all three is the public's reaction to the evidence in front of them. It can be summarised as: “Now we know for sure that you’re all in it for yourselves”. Although expressed at varying speeds and to varying degrees, another common thread is the way the institutions responded to that dreadful public indictment. We have seen shame, apology and promises to put the House in order. Sadly, when it comes to the last of these, we are all found wanting. No one seems to want to change anything in a way that will show the public that we are in it for them. There is always a compelling argument for the status quo. Whether it is ring-fencing bonuses in banking, stronger regulation of the press or a simple guarantee to voters that they will definitely get five years instead of, “possibly five, but maybe not if we think we can get more years in power by giving you less”, there is always someone saying, “That is not the bit of the system that is broken”. That is not good enough and it is not the point.
At his press conference a couple of weeks ago, when he announced the public inquiries now under way, David Cameron concluded his remarks by saying that after all the inquiries had finished, we need to have a political system that people feel is on their side. If we are to achieve that, we need to restore public confidence in the system which currently we think works okay. That means changing things which might not be broken, but by doing them differently, which could create a different result: one that people can see clearly is in their interest and that therefore gives them greater confidence that we are truly on their side. Committing ourselves to fixed-term Parliaments without the get-out-of-jail-free card that this amendment offers is something that we can and should do.
The problem with this amendment is that it looks as though we do not really mean what we say. In short—and I hesitate to say this, because I know that it is not what your Lordships intend—this amendment is symptomatic of the problem that we are trying to solve. At the moment, we are demanding leadership in banking, in policing and in the media; we are asking them to make changes that might not be in their interest in order to show people that they operate in theirs and, in doing so, will, we hope, help to restore public trust. We cannot and should not demand of others that which we are not willing to do ourselves.
Before the noble Baroness sits down, let me say that I follow her argument. She sees this Bill as a way of increasing public trust and public involvement in the political process. Does she accept that had fixed-term Parliament legislation been in place since the Second World War on the five-year basis, there would have been four fewer general elections?
As I said in Committee, when we talked about the length of Parliaments being either four or five years, I really do not think that that is the issue. People are not looking for more general elections. They are looking for a system that gives them the confidence that we want to work in their interest.
My Lords, I believe that the issues that we are concerned with turn upon three very simple matters. First, the argument against the amendment is seen to be founded on the idea that in some way or another it brings about a revolutionary change in our constitutional situation. It does not. The point has already been made—and due to a late train I am sorry that I was not here when the noble and learned Lord dealt with this matter—that the flexibility is still there, because no Parliament can bind its successor. If this Bill were passed and within three months Parliament, in its wisdom, sought by a majority of one in each House to repeal it, that would be the end of it. No constitutional impediment to that exists at all. So the flexibility is there. Well, you may ask, if that is so, why have the amendment? The argument for it, it seems to me, is not tenuous and indeed it has some merit. It concentrates the mind. It enables a new Parliament in a new situation to look at the circumstances prevailing at that particular time.
My second point—and I hope that I am not making a Second Reading argument now, because I think that is very much the backcloth to this very amendment—is what I would call the William Lovett point. Do you remember the last point in Lovett’s charter—annual general elections? God forbid. But the reason for it was that Lovett and other brave people of his day were convinced that the more you defended a Parliament and a Government from the will of the people, the greater the disservice to humanity and to democracy. If you gave them a certain five-year term rather than a much shorter term, that as far as Lovett was concerned would be a betrayal of democracy. Therefore, one should approach the idea of a five-year full term with very great reservation on that point alone.
My last point is the question where the onus of proof lies. This is a major constitutional change from any point of view—nobody would dispute that. Where is the evidence in support of it? It comes either from an idealistic direction or from a cynical direction. If it comes from an idealistic direction—and I can see that that may be so—it is based upon the theory that there is evidence within, say, the last half century of Prime Ministers beating the gun and going to the country when it was wholly unnecessary to do so. It certainly did not happen in 1935. It did not happen in 1945. There were elections in 1951, 1966 and 1974 that have already been referred to. In each case, the country was crying out for the chance to decide the matter there and then. If there is any criticism to be made about the abuse of the privilege of a Prime Minister to decide the exact date, it is against those Prime Ministers, of more than one party, who have stayed too long rather than against those who have gone to the country too soon. Where then is the case for this amending legislation? Therefore, one doubts whether there might not indeed be some faint cynical reasons for it.
My Lords, I shall not delay the House long. I supported the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, for a sunset clause when it first came in front of us. I totally accept the rationale to which my noble friend Lord Cormack referred: this was part of the coalition agreement. Whether, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, this was written on the back of an envelope or a fag packet, I do not quite know, but it was certainly cobbled together to try to cement the coalition together. I always took the view that it was quite legitimate for the coalition Government to decide, if they wanted to, that they wanted to go the full five years. Indeed, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, made the point that that undertaking could be made by the Prime Minister because it did not need legislation. One rather suspects the reason why the coalition Government have decided that this should go into future Parliaments is to give that agreement a bit of respectability, but I cannot see why it should bind future Parliaments.
However, I will not be supporting the concept of a sunset clause this time round because the whole idea of a fixed-term Parliament is completely nonsensical and is not even worth the paper the Bill is written on. The reasons for that are those put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong. I think the Prime Minister of the day could organise things so that a vote of no confidence was achieved which would bring down his own Government even if his own Back-Benchers voted against the Government. Therefore, we could well end up with a four-year Parliament if the Liberals decide no longer to support the coalition. Indeed, four-year Parliaments could happen in the future with this Bill existing. That is the real flaw in the whole thing. There would obviously be an amazing row and accusations of bad will if the Prime Minister organised things that way but, on the other hand, knowing the way that elections kick in, that row would last 24 hours and then we would all be campaigning on the election and who we wanted as the next Government so we would all forget about how the election was brought about in the beginning.
My Lords, I am rather torn over this issue—after all, I am much in favour of opportunistic Prime Ministers. I enjoy sunsets and I also enjoy flexibility and preparations for the unexpected, which is the point raised by the noble Lord. After all, I was an aide to Margaret Thatcher when, as leader of the Opposition, she advised us all to store tins in our larders for just such an event.
This is an important constitutional Bill, and sunset clauses are entirely inappropriate here. Noble Lords have questioned the manner in which this Bill has been conducted and introduced, and I share some of those reservations, but surely, even if they believe in their claim of constitutional purity, they cannot respond with a constitutional absurdity, which is what a sunset clause would be in this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, suggested that no Minister in a future Parliament would ever dare argue—I quote him as far as my memory will allow—that this Bill should be overturned in order to give power back to Prime Ministers for narrow party-political reasons. Surely Prime Ministers acting for narrow party-political reasons is entirely the point. Where is the constitutional purity in that?
This Bill does not mean that elections can be held only every five years. I believe that almost all the early elections of the past 60 years could still have been held under this legislation.
I wish to be very brief because we must move on. As to the call for second and third thoughts on the part of the other place, we should be clear about the purpose of this amendment. We are not looking into a sunset here. What we are looking at are the lamps of wreckers, lined up on the cliff top, waiting to lure the ship of state on to the rocks and destroy it. No matter how much better dressed they may be than their forebears, and how much better their manners, that is still the purpose of this amendment.
This issue has effectively been decided in this House and in another place, whether we like it or agree with it or not. I would not say that to support a sunset clause on this occasion is unethical, but it is entirely inappropriate. We do not use it on any of the other constitutional Bills; it is not the time to start doing it now.
My Lords, this has been an extremely good debate. If I may respectfully say so, the opening speech from the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, said almost everything that could be said and I support everything that he has said in relation to this.
We support this amendment because we think the Bill is a bad Bill. We respect the right of the coalition, because of the relationship between the Commons and the Lords, to have what they wish—which is a Parliament that ends on 15 May 2015—but if you analyse the detail, this Bill damages rather than improves the constitution. Mindful of our obligation to respect the primacy of the Commons, we suggest that we give the Commons what they wish but do not affect the constitution further than is necessary. Before I come to the detail of that argument, I will just get rid of some of the truly appalling points that have been taken against the amendment.
First, I turn to the point that the provision is badly drafted. It was drafted by the noble Lords, Lord Pannick, Lord Butler of Brockwell, and Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, and supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. I do not think you could have a more powerful team in relation to this. What the amendment says—and it says it incredibly clearly—is:
“The polling day for the next parliamentary general election after the passing of this Act is to be 7 May 2015”.
It then says,
“If, but only if, a resolution to this effect”,
is passed, then the next one will be five years after that, and if a resolution is not passed, the other provisions do not apply. It could not be clearer. Please ignore all false remarks made in the other place. With respect to the noble and learned Lord, there is nothing wrong with the drafting of this.
The second point that has been made is that it is suggested there is something unconstitutional about this provision. First, it is said a sunset clause is inappropriate. We know that there have been sunset clauses in what may be described as constitutional Bills, for example the EU Bill and the control order Bills. The idea that a sunset clause in a constitutional Bill is inappropriate has been rejected by this House on a number of occasions and accepted by the other place.
The third particularly bad argument is that the provision increases the power of this place by allowing it to defeat orders. Yes, we can defeat orders, and the Parliament Act does not apply, but we always behave responsibly, and I would expect us to behave responsibly should the Commons indicate after the next general election that they want to have a fixed-term Parliament. If, however, that was the objection to this provision, then speaking for myself I would readily agree to an amendment to deal with that.
The final particularly appalling technical argument that has been advanced is that this is contrary to the Salisbury/Addison convention. I have never heard this being said until this afternoon. The Salisbury/Addison convention effectively says if the electorate have indicated it supports something this House should not resist it. I do not know if Members remember the election in 2010, but the one thing I can tell you, and it pains me to say it, is the one party that unquestionably lost the election was the Labour Party. Yes, a fixed-term Parliament was in our manifesto, but the public appeared very unattracted to it, so I do not think the Salisbury/Addison convention can be relied on by anybody remotely sane.
We know why this has been put in because we have had the privilege and the pleasure of Mr David Laws’s book, which was read many times on the Floor of this House during debates. Noble Lords will recall that Mr David Laws, who happily for this House was present during negotiations, gave us an account of how we got the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. It is lovely to hear the highly principled noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and the splendid noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness—neither of whom were there and neither was I—but have I got news for you. It was not on the basis of a desire to change the constitution; it was because the Tories and the Liberal Democrats did not trust each other to hold on to the convention. As David Laws explained, that is why they said that there had to be a Bill.
I respect the decency of the noble Lord and the noble and learned Lord to whom I have referred but that was not the reason given by David Laws for why this has been done. It is because of the coalition agreement. I could not put it better than Mr Shepherd, the Member for “somewhere”. He is facing a House of Commons laughingly about to pass this Fixed-term Parliaments Bill without the sunset clause. He says:
“I hope that this cheerful Chamber will look askance at the Minister and his colleague, the Deputy Leader of the House, who are sitting on the Front Bench and trying to seduce us into thinking that there is some immaculate constitutional conception behind the Bill. There is not. It is the raw politics of ‘We want to be there for five years, in the hope that something turns up at the end of the fifth year’. That is what it is about, and we know it. I urge the House to vote for the Lords amendment, and damn them”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/7/11; col. 378.]
I do not think he meant damn the Lords; I think he meant damn the coalition.
My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, also recall that during the very same debate Richard Shepherd said that,
“the Lords make the absurd proposition that it should have a role, as an unelected House, in determining when an election should be”?
He also described these proposals as,
“ridiculous proposals from the House of Lords … the body of the House … feels that this is almost an impertinence”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/7/11; col. 377-78.]
Those were the context of his remarks last week.
I recall that but he voted in favour of the amendment. So I think you can say where his heart lay in relation to this.
Moving away from the technical points to the point of this Bill, let us think about history for a moment. In 1924, the Labour Government were defeated in a vote because the Labour Prime Minister had interfered with the Attorney-General in the exercise of his discretion. The moment he was defeated on the Floor of the House of Commons, there was a general election and the Conservative Party was returned to power. Imagine if Mr Ramsay MacDonald had been faced with the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill in 1924: first, being defeated on the proposition that he had interfered with the Attorney-General would not have led to a general election. There would had to have been a vote of no confidence put down by the Opposition. Let us assume that that had passed but that would not have been the end of it. Mr Ramsay MacDonald would then have had 14 days to try to cobble together a bit of support. Let us remember that he had a small majority in relation to this. He could have tried to survive on that basis. Is it seriously being said that that sort of behaviour would have led to the public having more confidence in the Government?
Moving forward in time to 1974, Mr Edward Heath perfectly legitimately wanted to test who governed the country because the country was in a major crisis in relation to the miners’ strike. Despite the fact that he legitimately wanted to go to the country, he could not have gone because he would not have been allowed to under this Bill unless he had tabled a vote of no confidence in his own Government. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, who said that perhaps he could have done that. But what would people think of a Government who put down a Motion of no confidence in themselves?
Finally, the father of my noble friend Lady Jay in 1979 was defeated in a vote of confidence on the Floor of the House of Commons. The most quoted extract from political history in the course of this debate was what Mr James Callaghan said when he was defeated. He said, “I have been defeated in the House of Commons. I must now take my argument to the people”. After this Bill has been passed he would have to say, “Now that I have been defeated on a vote of no confidence, I must see if I can scrabble together a majority to stay in power because this beastly Act gives me 14 days in which to try to do it”.
Okay, I say to the coalition, have your miserable Act so that you can stick together until 5 May 2015, because we respect your right to force that upon us. However, there is nothing unconstitutional in saying that it is appropriate for this House to stick with the principle that says, after that, let the next Parliament decide whether it wants to continue with what I say is a terrible Act. We will support the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, in his excellent sunset clause.
My Lords, once again on this subject, we have had a very full and interesting debate, and I thank all noble Lords who have made important contributions to it.
It is clear that a number of noble Lords who spoke in the debate approached the amendment on the basis of whether they supported fixed-term Parliaments. My noble friend Lady Stowell and my noble friend Lord Dobbs gave compelling reasons why they believe in fixed-term Parliaments, whereas the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, departing from his party’s manifesto at the last election, indicated that he is now not quite so sure about them. When the House was debating whether the fixed term should be four or five years and the noble and learned Lord was asked whether, if five years was passed rather than four, a future Labour Government would try to bring it back to four, I remember his not being able to give an answer. If this Bill is passed and the amendment which we are currently debating is not included, I cannot see a future Government trying to repeal it either.
Back in 1992, as my noble friend Lord Rennard reminded us, fixed-term Parliaments was a policy of the Labour Party on which it fought the election; it is a policy which my party has espoused for many years; and it is a policy of the coalition. The argument that the legislation was meant to last only until 5 May 2015 is nonsense. The coalition agreement makes a clear commitment to legislate for fixed-term Parliaments in the future. The title of the Bill refers to fixed-term Parliaments in the plural, so it was never intended simply to be a fix for the current Parliament. Many of the arguments brought forward, particularly when we were debating four or five years, related to the ability to plan government business over a period of time. Whether one could test the feasibility of that in this first Parliament, when we do not have the Bill on the statute book, is doubtful.
I want to put to rest the idea that the Bill was meant to be for only one Parliament. It is very clear in the coalition agreement that it was intended for future Parliaments, subject crucially to the fact that no Parliament can bind its successor, as the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said. The important point here is that if a Parliament cannot bind its successor and future Parliaments do not want fixed-term Parliaments, they should bring forward legislation. That would be the proper way of scrutinising whether the fixed-term Parliament has worked. As things stand with this amendment, no resolution whatever would be required if one did not wish to continue with fixed-term Parliaments. There would be no post-legislative scrutiny, no opportunity to consider whether the idea had delivered what those of us who support it claim it would. If one had to bring forward a Bill repealing the legislation, it would provide ample opportunity to debate the pros and cons.
I say with all due respect to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, that the idea that, somehow, Acts of Parliament should be suspended or ended at Dissolution and that, if you wanted to continue them into a future Parliament, you should bring back a new Bill to do it, rather than what we have thought for years, which is that if you wish to repeal an Act of Parliament you do so by primary legislation, was a very novel constitutional proposal which I certainly would not like to argue before the Constitution Committee if it became an act of faith.
It is the answer to the point that is being made. The amendment as it stands enables future Parliaments to decide whether to go the same way without having to go through the full process. The objection that is raised is that that might lead to the Commons taking one view and the Lords another, to which I say, in those circumstances, one should pass an Act. The Parliament Act could be used and the Commons could have its primacy through that proper route.
My Lords, the more appropriate approach is in the ABC of constitutional law, whereby, if one does not like legislation passed by a previous Parliament, one brings forward primary legislation to repeal it and does not simply let it lapse, particularly on matters of such constitutional importance.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Rennard, who said that the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, introduced his negativing of my Motion in a persuasive way, but I ask your Lordships to consider some of the things that the noble Lord said. He sought to suggest, first, that the power the Prime Minister was giving up was not much of a power at all, which is contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Hennessey, said at Second Reading. Indeed, in his remarks supporting the amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, referred to the abuses which many Prime Ministers had inflicted on the country. I think he used the word “abuse” in regard to choosing the date of the election.
I said there was no evidence of this power having been abused. Indeed, would not the noble and learned Lord agree that Prime Ministers who have attempted to string things out, who have dithered, hesitated and dragged out the life of their Governments until the last possible moment, have usually been heavily punished by the electorate for doing so?
Prime Ministers have tried to divine the times to see when would be the best time to call an election. Indeed, in an earlier debate I quoted from the book of my noble friend Lord Lawson, The View from No. 11: Memoirs of a Tory Radical. He said about the then Prime Minister, now the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher:
“Her view was that a Government should always wait until the final year of the quinquennium, but once there should go as soon as it is confident it will win”.
In other words, a partisan political judgment was clearly being made. As my noble friend reminded us, in September/October 2007, Mr Gordon Brown did a calculation in the third year of that Parliament as to whether or not it would be in his party’s best interests to go to the country. There is more to this. The power that the Prime Minister is giving up as a result of this Bill, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessey, at Second Reading, is important.
The noble Lord, Lord Butler, said that it was not much of a power, and then he said that no Prime Minister would have a straight face in trying to reverse the situation in the future. He is absolutely right. If a fixed-term Parliament became law, it would be very difficult for someone to come before the House and say that they wanted to revert to the position where the Prime Minister could choose the date of the election because of party advantage. They would get pretty short shrift—it would be difficult to do—but no one denies that, constitutionally, it is perfectly possible. It would be perfectly proper for them to seek to do it and to argue their case. However, my point is that they should do it by proper means through primary legislation and not in the way proposed by the amendment to the Motion.
Why does my noble and learned friend use the phrase “because of party advantage”? What happens if a Prime Minister thinks it is the country’s advantage—as happened in 1974 when the Prime Minister felt that the issue of the power of the unions needed to be settled? Why take that away? Secondly, I struggled with the speech of my noble friend Lady Stowell when she said that having a fixed-term parliament would restore people’s trust in Parliament. How does giving people absolute job security for five years help to restore people’s trust? Can my noble and learned friend explain that to me?
My Lords, the answer is the same to both parts of my noble friend’s question. On the position in February 1974, which has been raised in the debate, if the Conservative Prime Minister of the day believed that it was necessary for an election, it is beggaring belief to suggest that the Labour Party would not also have agreed to an election and that the 75 per cent majority for a dissolution would not have been achieved. This does not mean absolute job security for five years because, if a Government lose confidence, the Bill contains within it mechanisms which can lead to an election. This can also happen if there is an agreement—as I believe would have been the case in March 1979. The then Prime Minister, Mr James Callaghan, could have said that he had lost a vote of confidence and that the following day he would table a Motion for dissolution, which I am sure would have been overwhelmingly carried by more than the majority required under the Bill. To suggest that he would have had to go scrabbling around trying to find a means of living on until October would not have been the case. There are mechanisms in the Bill to deal with that kind of situation.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, sought to dismiss the suggestion that there could not be tensions between the two Chambers, although I do not think that he actually denied that that was a possibility. However, he did say that this House would not stand in the way of a newly elected Government who sought to establish a fixed-term Parliament. Part of the problem with the noble Lord’s answer, apart from suggesting that this House might simply rubber-stamp the Bill—heaven forbid—is that the amendment does not say that the resolution would be brought forward by a newly elected Government. It actually says that it would have to be brought forward at some time during the Parliament. Therefore it might be brought forward some years into the Parliament. At that point, who is to say that this House might not think that they were at it at the other end, bringing forward the resolution for partisan advantage? This House might take a different view about that in those circumstances. Therefore it does change the balance.
My noble friend Lord Forsyth asked whether this does not parallel the position in the Parliament Act when Parliament was extending the lifetime of a Parliament. The point is that the exception in Section 2 of the 1911 Act is to,
“a Bill containing any provision to extend the maximum duration of Parliament beyond five years”.
There is a crucial difference between a Bill that extends a Parliament beyond five years and a resolution as to whether there should be a fixed-term Parliament. In that respect, it is not proper that this House should be given a veto in these circumstances.
I have already indicated that this course can be revived in each succeeding Parliament. It is not just a case of seeing how the Parliament from 2010 to 2015 would go. It may not happen under the amendment here—there may not be a fixed-term from 2015 to whenever—but it could be revived in the following Parliament. It is another unsettling uncertainty about this Bill that it can switch on and off fundamentally important constitutional proceedings.
There has been considerable debate on this Bill. As I indicated, it was introduced a year ago this week. It had its Second Reading in another place in September last year, extra time was made available in Committee, and Report and Third Reading in the other place took place in January. In your Lordships’ House, the Bill was introduced in January, Second Reading took place in March, the Committee sat on three days in March, Report was heard on two days in May and Third Reading also took place in May. It has been very fully debated. I note that the noble Baroness, the chair of the Constitution Committee, referred to the committee’s report on the process of constitutional change, which I believe was published overnight. One of the conclusions was as follows:
“We stress the importance of proper parliamentary scrutiny of all bills”—
and this Bill has been subject to considerable parliamentary scrutiny for a Bill of only seven clauses and one schedule—
“but we do not recommend that any new parliamentary procedures such as super-majorities should apply to significant constitutional bills”.
I cannot think of any more noted significant new parliamentary procedure than the one that is promoted by this amendment. If the Constitution Committee is sceptical about using new parliamentary procedures with regard to even very sensitive and important constitutional Bills, this is one about which we certainly should be very sceptical. I do not believe the view of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, that we are doing a service to the constitution by saying that we do not have to go to the length of repealing. Repealing is what we do if we do not like legislation that was passed by previous Parliaments. If we depart from that principle on a matter of constitutional importance, I believe we should only do so with very great caution. I would urge your Lordships not to insist on the amendment because I do not believe that the case has been made for such a serious constitutional departure.
My Lords, I agree that this has been a very good debate. I do not need to go over the arguments again except perhaps to assure the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that, like Mark Twain’s death, reports of the advantage to a Prime Minister of being able to decide when to call an election in the last year are greatly exaggerated. Certainly such reports did not prevent the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, from packing her bags on the morning of a general election in preparation for the election not going the way she expected.
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, who spoke about the report from your Lordships’ Select Committee on the Constitution. The Minister quoted one of its conclusions in his last remarks, but I would like to quote the two main conclusions. The Minister said that the Select Committee on the constitution in another place endorsed the proposal, but I shall quote what your Lordships’ committee said. If I may say so, your Lordships’ committee contains distinguished constitutional lawyers from all parties, who trump those who are members of the constitution committee in another place. They said:
“We take the view that the origins and contents of this Bill owe more to short-term considerations than to a mature assessment of enduring constitutional principles or sustained public demand”.
The committee continued by saying that,
“the balance of the evidence we heard does not convince most of us that a strong enough case has yet been made for overturning an established constitutional practice and moving to fixed-term Parliaments”.
There could hardly be two more damaging sentences.
Our national constitution is too important to be tinkered with as a bargaining chip in the negotiations of a temporary coalition. The British people have decisively prevented that from happening to the voting system for the House of Commons. They are not to be given a chance to express a view on this constitutional change, so it falls to your Lordships to insist that the Government and the House of Commons refrain from making a permanent change and give future Parliaments and Governments the opportunity to make these decisions for themselves. I would like to seek the opinion of the House.