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Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011

Volume 803: debated on Monday 15 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will announce the membership of the committee to review the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 as provided for by section 7 of the Act.

My Lords, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the Prime Minister is required, between June and November 2020, to make arrangements for a committee to undertake a review of the operation of the Act. Announcements about arrangements for such a committee will be made in due course.

Given that the Government have a manifesto commitment to remove the Fixed-term Parliaments Act from the statute book, as indeed do the Opposition, and given that one has to put something in its place because the old arrangements are not automatically resuscitated, do the Government agree that the committee that has to be set up on the Act is an ideal vehicle for generating—quickly—a replacement measure to enable the Government potentially to legislate by next year?

My Lords, my noble friend is an outstanding authority on these matters, and I am sure that all contributions from him will be heard on all sides of the House. He is quite right to say that the Government made a commitment in their manifesto to repeal the Act. However, I can only repeat that detailed announcements about how we will proceed will come in due course.

My Lords, I served on the Constitution Committee during the passage of the then Bill. We heard extensively about the many concerns regarding it, which eventually came to pass during 2017-19. If ever a demonstration was needed that the Act is unsuited to our constitution, the last few years provided it. Can the Minister therefore please press for the review to be announced as soon as possible so that we have the legislative time to pass the necessary legislation to do away with it?

My Lords, the Government remain absolutely committed to replacing the Act, and I totally agree with the noble Baroness about its impact. We all lived those days, months and years, and we do not wish to see a recurrence.

My Lords, this Act has clearly served Parliament badly but I worry that we are getting too many reviews and commissions confused together. Bearing in mind that many other parliaments around the world have a fixed term and that we are in a completely new age from the point of view of the electorate, who are now digitally empowered, is not the length of parliamentary Sessions a prime subject for the constitutional commission? Should not the review of the workings of this Act somehow be worked into the commission, where we will look closely at the effectiveness and functioning of Parliament, which has not been too good in the past and where people are now looking for a very much more effective and stronger performance?

My Lords, again, my noble friend makes important points. It is certainly the Government’s intention to improve electoral procedures—separate announcements have been made on that—but Section 7 of the Act lays specific duties on the Prime Minister, and the Government must observe the law of the land.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s report in September 2010 on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill received evidence that the Bill had been prepared on an extraordinarily rushed timetable and introduced with no prior consultation and no Green or White Paper; nor had time been allowed for pre-legislative scrutiny. The committee’s concerns were entirely justified. We cannot go on making quick-fix changes to resolve short-term political problems. Does the Minister agree that we need a thorough overhaul of our constitution, particularly on the role of the nations and regions in the post-EU United Kingdom?

My Lords, in their manifesto, the Government emphasised the need for long-term consideration of our constitutional arrangements, as my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford said. The noble Baroness is correct that this should not be hurried. The Government will bring forward their proposals on how we should proceed in due course.

My Lords, in the last few years, there has been a great deal of discussion, particularly from within the Conservative Party, about the need to strengthen the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. If we abolish the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, we will go back to a substantial role for executive sovereignty in the UK. Does the Minister accept that we cannot go backwards by abolishing the Act and that we need to strengthen Parliament’s role in organising its own meetings, terms, Prorogation and Dissolution?

My Lords, as I said, many matters will be considered and we will make further announcements in due course. I think the noble Lord would agree that Parliament did not have its finest hour under the aegis of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. That is why, partly to restore Parliament’s reputation, we need clear arrangements that command support.

My Lords, I want to comment on my noble friend’s constant references to “in due course”. The Parliamentary Constituencies Bill, already under consideration in the Commons, is affected by any changes to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act; and the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, is chairing a committee in this House giving consideration to electoral legislation, which will also be affected by any such changes. I ask my noble friend to expedite both the commission’s implementation and its completion.

My Lords, my noble friend refers to important legislation relating to modes of election. We are talking here about the timing of elections. I assure him that the Government remain completely committed to implementing their manifesto proposal on this Act.

It is a rather misnamed Act—is it not?—because the Fixed-term Parliaments Act actually allows for two unscheduled elections at the time of the Government’s choosing. I hope that, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, said, we can move with some speed on this. Will the Minister ensure that representatives of the regions and the nations—perhaps also of the Opposition—are included on this committee? It is too serious an issue to leave to just a handful of Government-appointed people.

My Lords, I note what the noble Baroness says, as always, but I regret that I cannot go further today than to say that we will make detailed announcements on this matter in due course.

My Lords, if I recall correctly, we were told by our Liberal Democrat colleagues in 2011 that the purpose of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was to provide stability. The Act did that under the coalition Government but it has been nothing but problematic ever since. The Act should have included a sunset clause. With that in mind, does my noble friend the Minister agree that now is the time to return to the usual method and that tinkering with the constitution without proper checks and balances can have the exact opposite result to that of stable government?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. On the details, I must ask again for the House’s patience. She is quite right to say that the Act was born in unusual circumstances: it was part of a doubleton with plans for proportional representation, which the Liberal Democrat party hoped at the time would enable it to hold the ring in Parliament and change horses whenever it wished.

My Lords, if enabling the Prime Minister to dissolve Parliament at a time to suit his or her party is put on the statute book, it will start to codify the royal prerogative. Is that what the Government intend?

My Lords, again, the noble Lord tempts me to go ahead of where we are now. I do not agree with the idea advanced by a number of noble Lords that, axiomatically, the Prime Minister’s power to dissolve works in that Prime Minister’s interest; for example, it did not do so for Mr Heath in February 1974.

My Lords, returning to the membership of the committee, the Act states:

“A majority of the members of the committee are to be members of the House of Commons.”

I support my noble friend Lady Hayter in saying that those Members should represent the different parts of the United Kingdom, but can the Minister confirm that Members from this House of Parliament will also be on the committee?

My Lords, again, I cannot anticipate the announcements that the Government will make. The noble Lord is quite right, as always: the Act stipulates that the majority on the committee should be Members of the House of Commons, but it says nothing about the others.