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House of Commons Hansard

Fixed-term Parliaments (Repeal) Bill

06 March 2015
Volume 593

    Second Reading

  • I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

    The Bill seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, with effect from 8 May this year which, as everyone will know, is the day after the general election. A short-term fix can do long-term damage. So it is with the decision to introduce fixed-term five-year Parliaments. It might have been good for now, but it will turn out to be bad for the future.

    Until recently, general elections were governed by the Parliament Act 1911, which allowed for a maximum parliamentary term of five years. Crucially, though, it afforded the sitting Prime Minister the authority to call an election at any time. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 changed that to a rigid five-year term, with no easy mechanism for shortening that period. Consequently, everyone has known for years that the date of the next election will be 7 May 2015.

    The Prime Minister’s power to dissolve Parliament under the historic royal prerogative has—at least for the time being—lapsed. The new fixed term of five years can only be curtailed if two thirds of MPs vote for Dissolution, or if the House of Commons passes a vote of no confidence in one Government, but fails to pass a vote of confidence in an alternative one within a fortnight.

    We can all see why that was agreed. The only way a viable government could be formed after the 2010 election was for Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to join as one to create a parliamentary majority. Let us be honest about it: the Liberal Democrats needed to guard against being wrong-footed by a Conservative Prime Minister exercising his historic right to pick the election date and choosing to do so at the worst time for the Liberal Democrats. A deal to agree how long the Government should last was therefore an essential part of the glue that bound the Coalition together. The agreement to stay the course has served the country well, but a permanent constitutional change will not.

    A fixed term in office and predetermined election dates might suit a presidency, but they do not, in normal circumstances, suit a Parliament. Unlike a presidency, where the top person remains one and the same, Parliament is an organic institution. Its characteristics and composition can change in one year, let alone five. Some MPs will die or resign; others may cross the Floor, and in the course of our history, parties have split or merged. Between elections, the nature of Parliament, which underpins the energies and legitimacy of the Government, can change dramatically. The pressures and changes in the Commons can be at their most acute when there is a tiny majority for the Government or, worse, when there is no straightforward majority at all.

    There have been many occasions in our history when it has been best for the country to have a general election at moments that would have been nigh-on impossible had we this Act. After the February 1974 election, Ted Heath tried unsuccessfully to hang on as Prime Minister before accepting that the arithmetic was against him. The Wilson Government that took over felt obliged to return to the polls just a few months later, achieving a wafer-thin majority. Jim Callaghan’s Government fell once the Scottish and Welsh nationalists deserted the Labour Government after the devolution referendums of 1979. John Major governed with a very slim majority between 1992 and 1997—don’t I remember—with by-election defeats making the Government live on an ever sharper knife edge.

    The point is that all these Prime Ministers had the option, when the make-up of Parliament changed, to pull the plug and seek a stronger mandate from the voters. Even when they chose not to, the House of Commons had the power to force their hand with a simple vote of no confidence, as in 1979. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act, however, erects new hurdles that make it harder to dissolve Parliament midway through its term, and as a result, it is a recipe for political horse trading and coalition manoeuvrings, which, I maintain, will weaken, not strengthen public confidence in our politics and Parliament.

  • I agree with absolutely everything my right hon. Friend is saying. Does he recall that there was no commitment to anything like this in the Conservative party manifesto before the last general election? Indeed, the only proposal was that, should there be a change of Prime Minister, it should trigger a general election within six months.

  • My hon. Friend is right. The debate at the time concentrated on what would happen if a Prime Minister changed in the course of the Parliament—that has happened many times in our history, and I maintain that it is the right of Parliament to decide such matters through the leaders chosen by parties.

    Because the policy was absent from our manifesto, the current coalition was negotiated behind closed doors, even before the House had met after the election, but that will be as nothing compared to the public anger if coalitions are formed, broken and reformed within the five-year term of a Parliament without any new election taking place to give them legitimacy and if the Act is used as the excuse for not going back to the people, pushing power into the hands of politicians and denying it to the people who give us our authority. If the Government were to lose a confidence vote, the Prime Minister could not, as they could in the past, call an election and dissolve Parliament. Under the Act, the Opposition would have a chance to cobble together their own majority by wooing potential partners and doing what could be seen as unseemly deals by making promises to buy little pockets of support in the House.

    All this would happen hidden from view in the corridors of Westminster, with a ballot box nowhere in sight. In this scenario, the leader of a smaller party acting as kingmaker could simply walk away from their coalition partner and prop up the coalition without taking the trouble to ask any voter for their opinion.

    However, if a party had a slim overall majority and wished to refresh its mandate and ask the people for their view, it could do so only by repealing the Act—which would be the easier option—as I am trying to do, I hope with the foresight that seems to be lacking in the major parties, or by tabling a motion of no confidence in itself, a step that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) has described as an act of voluntary euthanasia. Even if that were tried, it might not get through, because some in marginal seats might defy the Whip to vote against their own Government in order to preserve their own lives in this House. That is an argument I have heard echoed, from someone supporting the legislation, on the grounds—would you believe it, Madam Deputy Speaker?—that they cannot get a mortgage for their second home unless they can commit to a five-year job. Thus, the constitutional structure of this House and the laws we make are in some cases being determined by rational financial judgments by Members of Parliament looking after their own interests. Who can be said to be bought by money, except by looking at a case like that? It makes some of the other influences on this House look puny.

    These are unintended, permanent consequences of an Act that was designed to fix a temporary problem. It is in every party’s interest and every voter’s interest to have strong, accountable Government. To do so, all parties should realise that what was done—and for a good reason: to hold together this five-year coalition—is not going to work in the future and will have perverse consequences. It compels all of us to combine now, before it can be said to be in any one party’s interests, to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and to make the change effective from the day after the election on 7 May.

    I should make it clear that I have received significant indications of support, resting at the moment at between 100 and 200 colleagues, on both sides of the House, of all ages and from all sorts of constituencies, who say that they think this was wrong. We do not know what the outcome of the next election will be, but many think it will be less certain than many we have seen in the past. If it is uncertain, this Act will render it even more so and will have very perverse influences over the proper actions and complexion of the politics of this House. If we do not repeal this Act now, we will all regret having to live with a law that was suitable for holding together one term of Parliament, but will turn out to be wholly inappropriate for all of those that follow.

  • I am very glad to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) and the, to my mind, wholly persuasive case he made for the repeal of this legislation.

    I should hold my hand up right at beginning. Like, I am sure, most if not all of us here, I think there are votes that with hindsight we regret. I did vote Aye on Second Reading of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act Bill, believing that it was an issue that was worthy of debate in the House, but I am glad to say that I abstained and refused to support the Government on Third Reading.

    The case that is made for fixed-term Parliaments rests in part on the assertion that if the Prime Minister is able to pick his or her spot to hold a general election, they can do so to the best party political advantage of their own party. The falsity of that argument was of course conspicuously demonstrated in February 1974, when Ted Heath decided to go to the country on “Who governs Britain?”, and the electorate in their wisdom decided three weeks later: “Not you, Ted.”

    I had very valuable and close personal experience of another such demonstration of the falsity of the argument in 1978, when I was Margaret Thatcher’s parliamentary private secretary. We began our usual weekend tour in a washing machine factory in Somerset. At about half-past ten, I had to extract Margaret from her characteristic scientific and housewifely close inspection of a washing machine to tell her that No. 10 had just announced that Prime Minister Jim Callaghan would be making a ministerial broadcast at six o’clock that evening. It was, of course, an electrifying moment. The news could mean only one thing: the Prime Minister was going to call a general election.

    So the day proceeded, with mounting excitement. There were hugely growing crowds wherever we went, and a hugely increased number of television crews. Margaret always had a profound sense of Conservative party history, and we ended up, ready to deliver the programmed evening speech, in Tamworth. There we were, at 5.59 pm, in Margaret’s suite at the hotel, when, on the dot, the expected courtesy call came through. The operator said “The Prime Minister’s private secretary is on the phone. He wishes to speak to Mrs Thatcher.”

    Margaret, with wonderful aplomb, deputed her diary secretary, Caroline Stevens, to take the call. Caroline took the call, which was very brief, and then said “Mrs Thatcher, the Prime Minister’s private secretary has asked me to tell you that at six o’clock the Prime Minister will make a broadcast announcing that he is not going to call a general election.” No such ministerial broadcast had ever been made before, and I do not think one has been made since.

    If Jim Callaghan had gone to the country in October 1978, would he have won? At the time, most of the pundits agreed that it would have been a very, very close-run thing. But, as we all know, after the winter of that year—the winter of discontent—Jim Callaghan’s Government was dead in the water by the following May.

    The question with which the Bill presents us is this: what is the right choice once the Government of the day have lost the confidence of this elected House, by however small a majority? Let it not be forgotten that, when we won a no confidence vote before the May 1979 election, we won by a majority of just one. I am absolutely clear in my own mind about what should not happen in such circumstances. No Government should be perpetuated behind closed doors on the basis of “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”. There should be no negotiations between political leaderships with no reference to the House and with no reference whatever to the electorate.

    The crucial democratic principle must surely be that the day when an elected Government of this House lose the confidence of this House, by however small a majority, is the day when it is for the British people and the British people alone to decide the future of the Government in a general election.

  • I congratulate the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) on a stirring speech in which he spoke with great authority. The freedom of the Back Benches has allowed him to speak out on a great many issues, and I find myself agreeing with him uncomfortably often.

    The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that having fixed terms is a substantial departure, and not only for this Parliament: Parliaments and Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are now moving towards the five-year fixed term, with important but limited caveats on when elections can take place—a two-thirds majority vote or a motion of no confidence.

    Section 7 of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 makes provision for these matters to be revisited in 2020, which is not that far away, albeit clearly not sufficient for the right hon. Gentleman and others who have spoken today. I am not going to rehearse at length the arguments for and against fixed-term Parliaments, as they are well known. I certainly cannot match the anecdotes of the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), but I can try to be a proceduralist and statistical and say there is some evidence from the university of Oxford that over the past 70 years the ability of a Prime Minister to choose his time has, notwithstanding the mistakes Edward Heath and James Callaghan may have made, on the whole given an advantage amounting to an estimated 6% of public support, which is not insignificant.

    I think civil servants are very fond of fixed-term Parliaments—I suspect that might be an argument against—and in terms of certainty and allowing better planning, fixed-term Parliaments are an asset. I could tell a small story of my own here. In 2007, when there was some rumour of a general election being called, I remember disappearing into the tunnel on the Eurostar with an announcement imminent, and I came out the other end not knowing whether we were in the middle of a general election campaign or not. I mention that only to say that although a lot is said about the time wasted in prolonging Parliament, quite a lot of time and nervous energy is wasted in planning for elections that never happen.

    Perhaps the main argument against fixed-term Parliaments is what we have seen over the past year, in what has been called the zombie Parliament. The rather sad way in which business has been dragged out and has collapsed or has been of an insubstantial nature has not been a great credit to this House. I am not sure, however, that one can draw the conclusion from that that is entirely the fault of fixed-term Parliaments, or fixed-term Parliaments of a particular length. It might simply be due to the way this Government have conducted their business. In the Labour party manifesto of 2010 there was a proposal to move towards fixed-term Parliaments, but of a four-year duration. That was our preference, and it may be our preference again in the future.

    I believe that, given what is in the 2011 Act, the best course of action is to wait until 2020 and see what happens, and then take a slightly more considered view than can be taken in the course of one Parliament on whether fixed-term Parliaments are working and five years is the appropriate length of time. The right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, who has more experience and wisdom than I do in these matters, might be entirely right. I simply say that I think it is a little precipitate, having gone through the process of getting us to where we are, immediately to reverse that decision. There might be an overwhelming consensus—not just one of 100 or 200—for reform again when we get to that stage, but for the present purposes I say that we are, reluctantly, unable to support his Bill.

  • This short Bill would repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 in its entirety. The Government have been consistent and clear since their formation about their commitment to parliamentary reform and to making our system as transparent and fair as possible. Indeed, even before the formation of this Government, there were references in all three of the major parties’ manifestos to reform of this nature. If I may, I shall refresh hon. Members’ memories on this front. The Labour manifesto stated:

    “We will legislate for Fixed Term Parliaments”.

    The Liberal Democrats said that they would

    “Introduce fixed-term parliaments to ensure that the Prime Minister of the day cannot change the date of an election to suit themselves.”

    The Conservatives said that they would make use of the

    “Royal Prerogative subject to greater democratic control so that Parliament is properly involved in all big national decisions”.

    That last statement would certainly give cover for the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments, which we went on to do.

  • If those words mean what the Minister thinks they mean, how can they be consistent with the specific pledge in the Conservative party manifesto that within six months of a change of Prime Minister there should be a general election?

  • The wording was obviously broad in its scope—[Laughter.] It could be interpreted in a number of ways, and it might have had specific reference to the Executive powers relating to declaring wars, armed conflicts and so on. However, it certainly gives a degree of cover for the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments.

    The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was introduced to remove the prerogative power of dissolution through fixing parliamentary terms for the first time in general election history. The Government believe that there are numerous advantages to fixing parliamentary terms. First, the Act prevents the incumbent Prime Minister from calling a general election to their own schedule—for example, when their popularity is particularly high or when it is to their party’s advantage to do so. This enhances the democratic status and standing of our political system overall. The Government believe that it was wrong that Prime Ministers were able to use their position by choosing to hold general elections to their own schedule, and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee also acknowledged this as a key reason for the Act.

    Secondly, removing this power from the Executive and giving it to Parliament enhances the democratic credentials of our political system overall, as Parliament alone can trigger an early election. It was the view of the PCRC that this significant surrender of Executive power was arguably unprecedented in this country’s history.

  • But that is not correct. Parliament can do that only if there is a two-thirds majority, and even then it cannot force a general election because, following the vote of no confidence, it would still be open to the Executive and the Opposition to put together some sort of deal. We effectively have a five-year Government dressed up as a five-year Parliament.

  • There is a degree of flexibility in the provisions that allows for the premature dissolution of Parliament, and various scenarios are possible, including the one to which my hon. Friend has alluded.

    In addition, the Act provides a number of useful advantages to the Government, Parliament and wider society. Not only does it provide greater predictability and continuity, enabling better long-term legislative and financial planning; it also provides much greater political stability. That is not the stability of the graveyard or a zombie Parliament, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) alleged in his speech; quite the contrary. This is not a zombie Parliament; the Government have shown themselves to be active all the way through to these last few weeks.

    Let us look at some of the statistics. In this Parliament, the House is due to sit for more days than in any of the three Parliaments under the last Administration. In the 2010-15 Parliament, we will sit for 734 days, compared with 718 days in the 2005-2010 Parliament, 585 days between 2001 and 2005, and 643 days between 1997 and 2001. By the end of March, 23 Bills will have been passed in this Session alone, of which four have received Royal Assent: the Finance Bill; the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill; the Childcare Payments Bill; and the Wales Bill. That compares with the 13 Bills in the last Session of the last Parliament under the Labour Government.

    Fixed terms have allowed us to plan the legislative programme effectively and ensure that we have enough time for full parliamentary scrutiny, which is essential in our model of representative democracy. In this Session alone, we will have legislated on: modern slavery; consumer rights; reforming stamp duty; tackling serious crime; supporting working families with child care costs; reforming pensions; devolving powers to Wales and Northern Ireland; and counter-terrorism. The list goes on, but I wish to pick out three Bills as emblematic in demonstrating why this is not the zombie Parliament the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) claims it is.

    The Infrastructure Bill, as was, will provide a £3.9 billion boost to the economy over the next 10 years by improving the funding and management of our major roads, streamlining the planning process for major projects and supporting house building. The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill backs entrepreneurs who run our small businesses—they are the backbone of our economy—and those who are looking for work. The Bill cracks down on costly tribunal delays, sets a deregulation target for each Parliament and helps businesses to get credit from banks, ensuring they expand and create jobs. The Pension Schemes Bill, as was, contains reforms that are the biggest transformation of our pensions system since its inception and will give people both freedom and security in retirement. By no longer forcing people to buy an annuity, we are giving them total control over the money they have put aside over their lifetime and greater financial security in their old age.

    There is no sense in which this can be described as a zombie Parliament, given not only the quantity of Bills, but their quality and that of the scrutiny to which they have been subjected. This Government have published more Bills and measures in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny than has been done in any other Parliament, and we have more than doubled the number of Bills receiving multiple days of scrutiny on Report in this House.

  • The Minister is clear about the great progress we have made in this Parliament on scrutiny, but he has left out one thing. He has not mentioned the business of the House committee, which we pledged to introduce within the first three years. It has not been introduced, so what happened there?

  • I am just about to address this Government’s reforms to the workings of Parliament and they touch on some of the themes I think he is interested in. Parliament exists to ensure: that the Government are held to account; that the nation, in all its diversity, can have its voices heard; and that issues that matter to all, not just those in power, can be aired. In that respect, this Parliament has been signally more successful than many of its predecessors. Half the business—

  • Order. Before the hon. Gentleman continues, may I say that although he is, of course, speaking perfectly in order, it is only fair to give him advance warning that discussion of the business of the House committee would not strictly come under the Bill before us? He has given notice that he intends to address that issue, but I do not think he does intend to do so now. I am certain that he has many more issues that he wishes to address.

  • Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall skate past that issue.

  • I wish to put on the record the fact that having opposed this Bill—not the one before us, but the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, before it was enacted—at every point on the compass, I entirely support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) is proposing and I am entirely unconvinced by the arguments that there has been a substantial amount of movement by the Government on any of these matters.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Obviously, it is now on the record that he previously opposed this Bill—

  • The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.

    Let me return to my thread. Half of the business of Parliament is now decided by Parliament rather than the Executive—far more than ever before. Before 2010, Back Benchers controlled no time at all and could not initiate substantive motions or debates. Now, most Thursdays are taken up by debates chosen by the MPs who form the Backbench Business Committee, not Ministers. Back Bencher-initiated debate on questions such as cervical cancer, contaminated blood and mental health have ensured that unfashionable but vital issues are properly aired on the Floor of the Commons. Of course, a significant amount of time allocated for Commons business is also given to the Opposition for the debates they choose on the questions they consider vital.

    The Procedure Committee recommends that there should be broadly 150 days in a Parliamentary Session. Of these, 20 days are allocated to the Opposition, 27 to the Backbench Business Committee, three to estimates, five to the Queen’s Speech, four to the Budget and 13 for private Members’ Bills. That leaves 78 of the 150 days in Government control, but some of that will include House business, which the Government introduce. As a result, in this Parliament the Government have controlled just over half the time allocated for debate, a lower percentage than ever before. That is not a zombie Parliament. It is a democratic Parliament, in which the power of the Executive is limited and the role of those holding the powerful to account is augmented.

    On top of the amount of time that the Government allocate to others for debate is the amount of time that Mr Speaker allocates to others to hold the Government’s feet to the fire. This is not a zombie Parliament when it comes to how Mr Speaker and his Deputy Speakers have used their power to grant any Members the right to ask urgent questions, initiating mini-emergency debates on any topic or issue by calling the relevant Minister to the Floor of the Commons. So far in this Parliament, there have been 148 urgent questions. In the 2005 to 2010 Parliament there were 50, and in 2001 to 2005 there were just 40. So, there has been a 270% growth in that use, the opposite of what one might expect in a zombie Parliament.

  • I hear what my hon. Friend the Minister says, but there is a need to reform this Parliament as well. Some of the things that he is saying might be of some interest to some people, but there are those of us who believe that the whipping system, which results in Bills not being properly considered and being given programme motions that prevent Members from debating essential questions, is a complete travesty. When he is considering these matters, will he propose reforms to deal with the Whip system as well?

  • Bills not receiving proper scrutiny, if that is indeed the case, lies to a great extent in the hands of the Opposition rather than the Government, in the sense that 70% of Bills have completed their passage through the House without having exhausted the time available to them in Committee. The Government are making plenty of time available for scrutiny, but the Opposition are failing to take advantage of it.

    In addition to all these merits, the Act provides a number of useful advantages to Government, Parliament and wider society. It provides greater predictability and continuity, enabling long-term legislative and financial planning. It gives those institutions whose work is affected by Parliament or Government much greater scrutiny. The timing of polls is now known and there will be less concern about policies or procedures being implemented that might only have a short-term or rather narrow self-interested objectives.

    The Act also brings to an end the political and media speculation about the likely date of the next election, a feature of previous general election build-up periods that has all too often been an unhelpful distraction to the work of government.

    Is the Fixed-term Parliaments Act too prescriptive? That question was asked, and although the Government are of the view that early or late general elections should be avoided, the Act is sufficiently flexible to cater for those rare but unavoidable situations in which an earlier or later general election is required. Under the Act the Prime Minister of the day can lay an order before both Houses to extend the date for a maximum of two months to deal with unexpected developments, although they must spell out their reasons for taking that step.

    In addition, the Act provides for early elections to be called if a motion is agreed by at least two thirds of the House or without Division, or if a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative Government are provided by the House within 14 days. This procedure builds in the necessary safeguards that will avoid future Prime Ministers routinely attempting to call early elections.

    Although early evidence shows that the certainty that the Act brings has many benefits—for example, in work planning—it will be for the next Government to examine how the Act has operated in this Parliament. Not only will such an appraisal help the next Government in their own work planning, but it will help to inform any amendment that might be needed—

  • The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

    Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 20 March.