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Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011

Volume 759: debated on Tuesday 27 January 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on Parliament of the next general election date having been fixed as 7 May 2015 since the enactment of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.

My Lords, it is a little too soon to reach definite conclusions on fixed-term Parliaments. The Government believe that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act has a number of benefits. It curbs prime ministerial and, therefore, executive power by preventing the Prime Minister of the day from calling an election on his or her own schedule. It has also assisted with Parliament’s work planning. The Prime Minister of the day will be required to appoint a reviewer to evaluate the Act in 2020.

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister shared the nation’s palpable sense of gloom this morning when the broadcasters and the newspapers united in reminding us that there are 100 days of campaigning left until the general election. Do fixed-term Parliaments not inevitably lead to inordinately long election campaigns, as many of us predicted, and, I am afraid, to the past its sell-by date House of Commons that we have at present, with very little to do in either House? Does the Minister at least acknowledge that there is a growing view, on both sides of this House and in the Commons, that the passing of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was a serious mistake?

My Lords, the noble Lord may perhaps have missed the report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee last year, which stated:

“Our evidence has overwhelmingly argued that the greater certainty about the length of a Parliament provided by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is a positive development, and in particular has created opportunities for better planning by the Government and Civil Service”.

I cannot understand why he prefers the situation of 1964-66, which led to the putting off of decisions and the devaluation of 1967; the two elections of 1974, which led to a Labour Government entering into an IMF programme; the dithering by Mr Callaghan in 1978; or that wonderful experience in 2007 when Gordon Brown kept changing his mind as different opinion polls came out. That was not good Government.

My Lords, we have plenty of time. When two noble Lords stand up, perhaps one of them could be courteous to the other and decide to give way.

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Tyler. As one who fought all the elections to which my noble friend the Minister referred, will he accept that those of us with that sort of experience have evaluated? We do not need to wait until 2020. This is a disservice to the constitution and the sooner it is consigned to the legislative rubbish tip the better.

My Lords, the noble Lord demonstrates that his conservatism on constitutional matters is as deep as that of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. It was in the Labour Party’s manifesto for the last election that it would legislate on a fixed-term Parliament—as indeed in others. This transfer of, what was after all, executive power to Parliament was, one would have thought, an extension of our democratic system and a limit on prime ministerial power.

My Lords, the Minister said that it is too soon to decide whether this is a good thing. The sad thing is that the other place seems to be working part-time, so why are the Government not using their planning for better use of Parliament during the extended period?

My Lords, that is something that we need to learn about five-year Parliaments. There are some very good proposals from the Institute for Government and from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee about how best to use the fifth year of a Parliament to discuss some of the issues that any Government will have to deal with—for example, Green Papers on the future of the National Health Service, et cetera. That is something which, in a future five-year Parliament, perhaps with another stable coalition Government, we might do. We have delivered stable government through difficult economic times for five years, unlike the Labour Governments of 1974 to 1979, and others. That is a very major advantage.

My Lords, the noble Lord knows that we follow several conventions. We have had one already, which is about giving way to each other. There is another about the sides taking turns as we go around the House. We have just heard from the Labour Front Bench, so it is now the right time to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that there are 19 government Bills still in play in this Session and a further 14 government-backed Private Members’ Bills? There are a number of draft Bills and more than 90 statutory instruments, so this Parliament still has a lot of work to do. Does he agree that anyone who attended our very interesting debate yesterday on the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill or indeed the debate on the Infrastructure Bill in the other House can see that Parliament is working really hard at the moment? Any suggestion that this is a zombie Parliament is ridiculous. Has my noble friend also noted that the Labour Opposition in the other House constantly complain that they have not enough time whenever a programme Motion is recommended?

My Lords, I think that we stand a good chance this time of avoiding the dreadful experience of the wash-up which we have had when elections are called at short notice and the rushed election campaigns which follow.

Will the Minister accept, putting the matter as neutrally as one can, that there must be some dubiety as to whether there was the slightest justification in constitutional law for the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in that since the Second World War there was no instance of a Government running to the country in the short term without justification—that was true in 1951, in 1966 and in 1974—but there were instances of Governments who went right up to the buffers —in 1997 and 2010? Is not the true reason for the Fixed-term Parliaments Act that the coalition Government were desperately anxious to give security of tenure to the Liberal Democrat party?

Is the Minister aware that my noble friend Lord Grocott has more parliamentary experience than Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband put together? He therefore deserves to be listened to carefully.