Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.- ( Miss Chloe Smith.)

9:02 pm
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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

May I begin by saying how grateful I am to you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to raise the subject of the process for the Dissolution of Parliament on the occasion of the first Adjournment debate of this new Parliament? I am delighted that, as a result of the brevity of the preceding debate, we could spend up to one and a half hours this evening discussing this very important subject. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members present will think of contributing, as this subject is indeed worthy of one and a half hours of debate.

I am delighted to see in his place on the Front Bench Mr Heath, who is going to respond in his capacity as Deputy Leader of the House. He and I were often in agreement on issues in the last Parliament and I hope that that will remain the case in the current one. I think that he would agree that there is probably nothing more frustrating for Back Benchers than raising an Adjournment debate-I am talking about the standard half-hour debate-in which the Member makes his quarter of an hour speech and the Minister spends about 12 minutes going through platitudes, repeating much of the content of the Member's speech, a couple of minutes giving superficial answers to some of the points that have been raised, and then one minute's explanation of why he has not had time to answer the remaining points.

Anticipating that the hon. Gentleman would respond to the debate and in the spirit of the new politics, I thought that I would send the Government, in advance, a list of questions to which I wanted responses. I sent them to the Cabinet Office-or the Government Chief Whip's Office-yesterday because I had been unable to find out for certain which Department, let alone which Minister, would respond. The Government Chief Whip kindly said that he would put my questions into the system, and that a briefing on them would be prepared for whoever happened to be responding. I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the House has been well briefed on those questions, and will welcome the fact that he has much more time to expand on the detail of the answers that have been prepared than he may have expected. In due course, I shall put some of the questions on the record, so that those who read the report of the debate will be able to see the extent to which he has responded to the new politics and actually answered the questions that have been raised.

All this arises from changes that were sketched out in the coalition agreement. I use the phrase "sketched out" advisedly. I fear that what is currently in that agreement could be interpreted as taking away from us-the Members of this House-our historic right to vote a Government out of office with a majority of one. Relatively few Members were here when the Callaghan Government were defeated, but that was an exercise of people power, in which the people, through their elected representatives, decided that they had had enough of the Government and no longer had confidence in them. As a consequence, the Prime Minister had to resign and a general election was called by the monarch, exercising her prerogative.

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Peter Bone (Wellingborough, Conservative)

What does my hon. Friend think would have happened when Callaghan's Government fell and an election was called if the 55% rule had been operating?

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

It was because I did not know the answer to that question that I initiated the debate. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to speak in it as well, given that, as I have said, it will be much longer than we expected it to be.

It must also be unusual for the first Adjournment debate in a new Parliament to concern a subject that was not raised at all during the general election campaign. I can recall only one reference to it by a member of my party. At some stage during the campaign, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that, if elected, he would legislate to require that in the event of a change of Prime Minister-let alone a change of Government-a general election should be triggered within six months. I think that he was emphasising the importance of accountability to the public and the people, and felt that that accountability had been lacking when the last Prime Minister became Prime Minister without the people having a say. Now that we have an arrangement that is becoming increasingly presidential in style, with rival candidates for the position of Prime Minister almost standing on soapboxes in front of millions of television viewers, it is probably all the more significant that a change of Prime Minister should generate a general election rather than being simply dealt with through the usual channels.

I know that many of my constituents were rather enthusiastic about the point made by my right hon. Friend during the general election campaign. I wonder whether the Deputy Leader of the House, when he responds to the debate on behalf of the Prime Minister, will be able to explain what has happened between the occasion, a few weeks ago, when the Prime Minister said that such a development was desirable and the position today, which seems slightly inconsistent with that stance. I understand that the talk is now about having a five-year Parliament, irrespective of how many Prime Ministers there are, and not giving the people a chance to have their say when there is a change of Prime Minister in the intervening period. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to provide a response to that extra question.

I also in my preliminary remarks refer to the fact that I was elected, and was proud to be elected, on the Conservative party manifesto. I was pleased, as I am sure the Deputy Leader of the House is pleased, that page 63 of the Conservative party manifesto included the Conservative commitment to change Britain

"with a sweeping re-distribution of power...from Government to Parliament."

We all signed up to that in the Conservative party and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be consistent with that part of the manifesto. For the sake of completeness, I refer to page 67 of the manifesto where there was a pledge

"to make the use of the Royal Prerogative subject to greater democratic control so that Parliament is properly involved in all big national decisions."

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Martin Horwood (Cheltenham, Liberal Democrat)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one example of the royal prerogative being diluted might be to take the power to call general elections out of the hands of the Prime Minister at his personal whim and into the hands of, say, 55% of Members of this place?

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is correct constitutionally to say that the Prime Minister has the power to call the general election. He has the power to recommend to the sovereign that an election be called. The sovereign has the constitutional right to say, "No, I do not think the time is right for a general election. I think that another group of people are willing and able to form a Government and therefore I will not call a general election." I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on putting forward the argument in support of the Government.

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Angela Eagle (Shadow Minister (Treasury); Wallasey, Labour)

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm my reading of the situation that, as a result of the 55% rule, the mathematics of the current Parliament mean that an early general election could be called, regardless of a pledge to have a five-year Parliament, if both of the member parties of the Government coalition decided that they wanted an election, as between them the two parties can muster more than 55% of MPs?

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

The hon. Lady makes a fair point and has thought through the possible implications of this. She may be aware of the German precedent, as referred to in some of the excellent briefing provided by our fantastic Library. The most recent German precedent-there have been others-was where the partners in a German coalition Government decided that it would suit their joint interests effectively to engineer a general election. A vote of no confidence was called in which a number of the coalition partners' Members of Parliament abstained, thereby ensuring that the vote of no confidence was carried against the Government. That triggered an election in circumstances that wholly suited the purposes of the coalition. That was despite the fact that in German law there is provision for fixed-term Parliaments. The hon. Lady raises an important point, which along with similar points will I am sure be looked at in detail if and when we get any legislation on this subject.

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Martin Horwood (Cheltenham, Liberal Democrat)

Surely the logic of that argument is that the bar should be set even higher, perhaps to the 66% that the Labour Government introduced in the Scottish Parliament.

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

Before the Scottish Parliament was set up, legislation set out what the rules would be in that Parliament when it was set up. If the hon. Gentleman is referring to what he thinks might be the appropriate rules to be introduced for fixed-term Parliaments starting after this one, we might be able to have a coherent debate. However, I am sure he is not suggesting that we should be retrospectively legislating now to create a bar to a Dissolution of a fixed-term Parliament when no proposal has been put to the people in a general election that we should have a fixed-term Parliament at all. Therefore, although the Scottish example has been frequently cited, I am not sure that it is a good one, because there was a proper debate in Scotland before the legislation was put forward, and when people went on to vote they knew the terms on which they were voting.

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Angela Eagle (Shadow Minister (Treasury); Wallasey, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman has made precisely the right point in respect of the Scottish Parliament, but will he also therefore agree that the 66% that has been prayed in aid was agreed by all parties and became part of a consensus before the Parliament existed?

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

I have not gone into the detail of that, but I am sure the hon. Lady is correct.

All of this brings me to chapter 24 of the coalition agreement, which states that the Government believe that it is necessary to make

"changes to our political system to make it far more transparent and accountable."

The chapter continues:

"We will establish five-year fixed-term Parliaments. We will put a binding motion before the House of Commons stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, we will legislate to make provision for fixed-term Parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour."

It is because of the various ambiguities in that passage that I thought it would be a good idea to explore these matters in this Adjournment debate.

I have set out a number of questions to ask. I am sure that many others could be asked as well, but the following are the questions that immediately came to mind when I looked at the wording of chapter 24. What is meant by a "binding motion"? Surely any motion that is passed can later be amended or revoked by Members of this House? Will this binding motion also be put before the House of Lords; will it need to be approved by both Houses? Will the binding motion include reference to the proposed 55% threshold for Dissolution, or will that be dealt with later in the proposed primary legislation? Will the binding motion be brought before the House before the summer recess? It was stated in the original draft coalition agreement that this motion would be put

"before the House of Commons in the first days following this agreement",

but those words are omitted from the final version. Does this indicate a welcome ingredient of consultation and opportunity for full debate inside and outside the House, in the context of our commitment to more transparency and accountability? I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to confirm that that is the correct interpretation to put upon that change of wording.

Will the legislation that is promised in the coalition document to make provision for

"fixed-term Parliaments of five years"

only apply to future Parliaments, or will it apply retrospectively to the Parliament elected on 6 May 2010? If it is going to be retrospective legislation, how can that be justified constitutionally?

What is meant by the following statement in the coalition document:

"This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55 per cent or more of the House votes in favour"?

Does the 55% figure mean 55% of those voting on any motion, or 55% of those eligible to vote, or 55% of all MPs elected at the 2010 general election, including Sinn Fein Members and you yourself, Mr Speaker? What role, if any, will there be for the House of Lords in the legislation?

Will Members other than the Government be able to move a motion for Dissolution? If so, what safeguards will there be to require the Speaker to give such a motion precedence over ordinary business? Those of us who have been in the House some time know that it is all very well having a motion on the Order Paper. Indeed, during the last Parliament, there were motions reflecting decisions taken across the House in important debates on future House business and our organisation of our affairs, yet the then Leader of the House refused to put those motions above the line on the Order Paper, thereby preventing Members of the House from voting on them, even though, collectively, we were in a majority. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and I were seething with frustration and anger about that, so I am sure he would not wish us to be in a similar situation under this new regime.

Will there be constraints on the Government's tabling a motion for Dissolution? That point was raised in an intervention. I mentioned Germany, and an example of how something that on the face of it seems plausible could actually be cynically used for the self-interest of a coalition Government when they see that their opponents are in a particularly weak situation.

In what circumstances will a Dissolution follow if the Government are defeated on a confidence motion by a bare majority? There has been a lot of debate about that outside, and perhaps some confusion and misunderstanding, which I hope can be cleared up this evening. Are there any circumstances in which a Government defeated on a confidence motion could remain in office? If they did not remain in office could an alternative minority Government be formed even if they did not enjoy the support of a majority of MPs on confidence and supply measures? What would prevent Parliament from repealing by a vote of 50% plus one legislation requiring a 55% threshold for Dissolution?

I shall expand on some of those points in a minute, but I now turn to some fundamental procedural questions. Will the proposed legislation to establish a fixed-term Parliament and a 55% threshold for Dissolution be published first in draft, and be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny? When we were, collectively, in opposition, we were very much in favour of draft Bills and pre-legislative scrutiny. There could be no more critically important constitutional legislation than the proposals we are talking about this evening.

Will the Government set up a special Joint Committee of both Houses to consider the matter, along the lines of the Joint Committee on the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill in the last Parliament? My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House-I am delighted to see him on the Treasury Bench-and I were privileged to serve on the Committee. It drew on expertise not only from this House but from the other place; for example, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, who has recently written on the subject in The Times, gave some important evidence and his counsels were very well received. Such a Committee would be a sensible way forward.

My next question is for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House: will all these important and novel matters-which were not raised in the Conservative manifesto at the general election, when we said we were in favour of more free votes-be the subject of free votes for all Conservative Back Benchers? That would take quite a lot of heat out of the situation, because it would then be obvious that in order to win parliamentary support for these novel propositions, my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench would need to win not only the votes, but the arguments. A free vote would, I submit, be useful; indeed, it might be a good example of the new politics in action. To balance that out, I ask the Deputy Leader of the House why, when a fixed term of four years was proposed in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, we are now talking about a five-year fixed-term Parliament.

Some of those questions and others were raised by my right hon. Friend Mr Davis in an article in one of the national newspapers, and in other media outlets. He has said that he is sad that he is not able to participate in this debate, but he has been kind enough to share with me the response that he received to a letter that he wrote to the Prime Minister. It might help the House if I quoted from it a little. Members will make their own judgment about whether it clarifies or obscures what we are talking about. It says:

"I do take on board your concerns about our suggested proposal to require a 55 per cent majority to dissolve Parliament. Let me set out why I think this is an important, progressive and necessary step.

As we know from last week, the country wants strong and stable government."

I do not want to pour cold water on anything that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister says, but I thought that in the general election campaign we were saying that the only way to deliver strong and stable government was for the Government to have an overall majority in Parliament. Indeed, I can remember distributing leaflets that were strongly against the threat of a hung Parliament, and which said that if we had a hung Parliament, there would be deals done behind closed doors; that nobody would know what was happening; that hon. Members of this House would be the last people to know what was going on; and that the country's economic crisis demanded strong and stable government, and that is why we needed a Conservative Government with a strong majority. I still believe that proposition, and that is what I was campaigning for.

I disagree with the Prime Minister's interpretation of what the country wanted, because the country voted for a hung Parliament. The essence of a hung Parliament-this is important for those of us who have the privilege of being Members of this Parliament-is that it is not a strong Government, but a strong Parliament. A strong Parliament is one that can hold the Executive or the Government to account. It means that we can put pressure on the Government if we disagree with them, whether on relatively minor matters such as the details of Bills, or on slightly more important matters, such as those that we are discussing this evening.

A strong Parliament and a strong Government are two separate propositions. My interpretation of the fact that we have a hung Parliament is that the people decided to have a strong Parliament. I am privileged to be a Member of this Parliament, and I hope that it will be known in due course as the strong Parliament, rather than be given the epithets that the previous Parliament was given.

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Peter Bone (Wellingborough, Conservative)

May I take my hon. Friend back to before the general election? He will recall that on the Order Paper, below the line, there was a motion for fixed-term Parliaments. I think that I was the only Conservative Member to sign that motion, and there were very few names on it, so before the election there was no groundswell among Conservative Members for fixed-term Parliaments.

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

I am interested in the fact that my hon. Friend was and is in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, and he is quite right to reflect on the balance of opinion within the Conservative parliamentary party and throughout the House more widely. At one stage during the previous Parliament, it seemed that the then Government were flirting with the idea of a fixed-term Parliament. Indeed, I think that the Modernisation Committee-I shall be corrected if I am wrong-looked at the idea for a time and took evidence on it, including evidence from Officers of the House. The whole project was then kicked into the long grass.

I revert to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden. The Prime Minister said that

"we are determined to deliver that stability with our lasting coalition. The introduction of a fixed term Parliament was, therefore, a necessary and important measure to propose. Obviously, this is a new idea for our Parliament and necessitated a mechanism for dissolution. I want to reassure you that a mechanism for a no confidence vote in the Government is unchanged."

That is an important statement. The Prime Minister continued:

"Rather, what our proposals would do is give Parliament a new power to dissolve itself"-

rather like a Beechams powder, although that is perhaps an unfair analogy. That power, he said, is

"currently only exercised by the Prime Minister. We are, in effect, taking a power away from the Executive and putting it in the hands of Parliament, not the contrary. As you know it has always been my intention to reinforce the powers of our Parliament. I hope that this proposal is one positive measure to do just that."

In my final quotation from the letter, the Prime Minister says:

"The House of Commons will remain able to call a vote of no confidence in the Government as at present. If that took place, a vote of 50 per cent plus one would mean that the Government falls and unless an alternative workable majority can be formed within a specified number of days, a General Election would be called."

The convention that prevailed meant that if the Government were defeated, the Prime Minister would go to the sovereign and invite her either to dissolve Parliament or to invite somebody else to form a Government, but the new proposal seems to leave Her Majesty out of the equation. I do not know whether that is the intention, and if I am incorrect on that, I am sure that I shall be corrected in the Minister's response.

I am not criticising anything that has been proposed; all I am doing is asking questions and saying, "Why is the change to the convention on Dissolution necessary or desirable?" The Prime Minister is giving up his constitutional right to request a Dissolution, and I can understand that that is very important-a matter of honour between himself and the Deputy Prime Minister. It means that the Prime Minister cannot pull the rug from under the coalition, but why do we need legislation or, indeed, a motion to achieve that? Surely the Prime Minister's word is sufficient. Such a unilateral commitment gives the Liberal Democrats the assurance that the Prime Minister will not pull the rug, but during the debate on the Loyal Address earlier today Sir Alan Beith said that the measure might provide for less stable government, because it would enable the Liberal Democrats to withdraw from the coalition and vote against the Government on a motion of confidence without causing a general election. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to deal with that issue. If at some stage the Liberal Democrats withdraw from the coalition, the threat hanging over them, as things stand, is that the Prime Minister would go to the Queen and invite her to call a general election. But if the Prime Minister said that he would not do that in any circumstances, but had no reciprocal Liberal Democrat commitment not to withdraw from the coalition in any circumstances, the Liberal Democrats could withdraw and align themselves with the left, as Simon Hughes would have much preferred them to have done in the first place. They could create an alternative coalition.

That predicament is unlike the situation that prevailed immediately after the general election, when the Liberal Democrats, those on the left and the nationalists were not able to form a sufficient number to guarantee staying in Parliament and enjoy a confidence and supply measure of support. In the situation that I have described, the Liberal Democrats would have no such constraint-they would be able to form a minority Government and stay in office for the remaining period of the fixed-term Parliament. I hope that that nightmare scenario, from a Conservative perspective, is just a nightmare and is not realistic, but I have yet to be persuaded of that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to persuade me.

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Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)

I am afraid that my hon. Friend is unlikely to be so persuaded, because that situation is par for the course in proportional representation systems, which create shifting coalition Governments. I shall give a classic example. On a visit to Slovenia after the fall of communism, I was told that one day two small centre parties in a centre-right coalition fell out with their partners about something to do with passport legislation and decided to cross the floor. The people of Slovenia went to bed one night with a centre-right coalition and woke up the following morning with a centre-left coalition, without a single vote having been cast by any elector. It is no good my hon. Friend's grumbling about that or anticipating it with fear-the reality is that it is the logical consequence of hung Parliaments, coalitions and proportional representation. That is why all those things are undesirable, although sometimes we have to live with the consequences of undesirable outcomes.

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that powerful intervention. At the moment, we have not yet signed up to the fixed-term Parliament or the 55% lock. We are not there yet. If my hon. Friend fears the consequences of those changes, he and others have it in their power to prevent them from happening. I am sure that when we get to the referendum on the alternative vote, he will be campaigning actively against that system for the reasons that he has spelt out so powerfully.

Notwithstanding what my hon. Friend has said, I hope that I will be able to be persuaded that there is some guarantee to prevent the minority partner in the current coalition Government from jumping ship and getting on board with the other parties.

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Angela Eagle (Shadow Minister (Treasury); Wallasey, Labour)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. What does he think about the propriety of attempting to change a long held, easy-to-understand mathematical concept of 50% plus one, simply to deal with anticipated issues in a coalition? Would it not be better for there to be open statements from the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister about their intentions, instead of this extremely convoluted-and, I think, quite improper-way of proceeding?

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

I would not say at this stage that it is an improper way of proceeding, because these are very early days. This is the first Adjournment debate of this Parliament, and the first on this very subject. Many hon. Members, particularly Labour ones, have already raised the issue in their contributions to the Queen's Speech debate, and I have not seen what amendments there will be to the Queen's Speech.

I go back to the questions that I posed at the beginning. These are fundamentally important constitutional issues, and they should be referred soberly to a Joint Committee of this House and to any other Select Committee that wants to look into them. Evidence should be taken from constitutional experts and from the experts in our own House who are ready and available to assist us. We have already heard from Peter Hennessey, who thinks that this is of dubious constitutional propriety. I am no expert on the constitution, but I can see when a problem is in danger of arising, and we are in danger of getting ourselves into a mess in this regard. The last thing I want is for my party and the Government whom my party support to be put in a position where they can be subject to accusations by Ms Eagle and other Opposition Members that we have dealt with matters unfairly. I can imagine what it would have been like if I had been on her side of the House and she had been on my side and, immediately after a general election in which the matter had not been raised in debate, the Government said, "We think that we're now going to change the arrangements for the Dissolution of Parliament." I would have needed quite a lot of persuading; certainly, I would have wanted to have a lot of debate about it.

I fear that I have indulged myself by going on at greater length than I had intended, but I ask this question: am I wrong to be concerned that in the euphoria following the general election, this House may be seduced by the Executive into giving up its collective and powerful deterrent weapon for defeating and bringing down the Government? The Government seem to be seeking, essentially, a guaranteed five-year term of office-a five-year Government dressed up as a five-year Parliament. I hope that I am absolutely wrong in my concerns about that. However, I think that there is a flaw running through the argument that has been put so far in support of this proposal-that is, an inability to understand the difference between a strong Parliament and a strong Government. I look forward to hearing the response-a full response, I hope-from the Deputy Leader of the House.

9:42 pm
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Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk, Labour)

I am grateful to Mr Chope for making this the subject of the first debate of the Adjournment process.

I do not believe that this situation was caused by euphoria but, perhaps, by panic when the two parties found that they could not trust themselves by having the normal system of a simple majority. Before I came to this House, I taught government and political systems. I told my students that the House of Commons was based on the support of a majority of MPs, and that that was fundamental to our process, which was not like the systems that existed in other countries that were designed for coalitions. That has been the way in which our Governments could be held to account, and so they have been up until this time-until the introduction of the 55% concept, which my hon. Friend Jim Sheridan has called the Mugabe clause.

Much has been made of the existence of other systems-Slovenia was mentioned earlier-and particularly the system in the Scottish Parliament, where 66% is required for its dissolution. The difference is that that happened after almost 20 years of debate, with a constitutional convention, a great deal of study by Scottish constitutional experts, and advice on how to design a system whereby the Parliament could not have a majority held by one party. It is therefore not a good comparator; nevertheless, it has been made much of by my Liberal Democrat colleagues in the coalition in Scotland.

That system was passed through an Act of Parliament here-the Scotland Act 1998-after great debate and scrutiny through a proper system of constitutional Committees in this House. It was designed to prevent any party from having a majority. It therefore had to bolster the Parliament as constituted so that it could run for its fixed term of four years. There is no similar proposal, I understand, for the Commons to bring in a proportional system. AV has been talked about in relation to a referendum, but there has been no proposal to bring in proportionality on the same basis as in Scotland.

Let me explain the system simply. If a party's constituency Members win all the seats in a region, all the regional list Members are elected from the other parties. The party that elects all the first-past-the-post Members, and which therefore clearly has the popular vote of the people of the region, gets no further Members of the Scottish Parliament. The result is either a coalition, as existed between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party for two Parliaments in Scotland, or a minority Government, as we have at the moment. I believe that the Scottish National party Government are doing great damage to Scotland, mainly because they are supported on a supply basis-I do not know about a confidence basis-by the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament. A minority Government run for four years unless two thirds of the Parliament votes to get rid of them. The system is completely different and not really comparable with the system that we are discussing.

The parties in the UK Parliament went to the people of this country and asked for a majority, and they failed to get one. I agree with the hon. Member for Christchurch that that strengthened this Parliament. It was not the decision of the people of the UK to have a strong Government bolstered by a manipulation of the constitution such as the proposed 55% rule. I put it to the House that breaching the control of the UK Parliament through anything other than a simple majority is to betray the democratic credibility of the House and the electoral process in which the people have just voted. It is a shameful act, so I have a question for the Deputy Leader of the House: are there no depths to which the Liberal Democrats will not stoop to hang on to their tainted share of power?

9:46 pm
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Peter Bone (Wellingborough, Conservative)

It is a great pleasure to follow Michael Connarty. He obviously has much greater knowledge than I of the Scottish Parliament, but from what he says, it seems to me that the whole idea of a fixed Parliament was designed for a proportional representation system, which thankfully we do not have in this part of the United Kingdom.

I welcome the idea of a fixed-term Parliament when I was on the Opposition Benches because it would have the advantage of removing from the Prime Minister the power to call an election on a whim. I believed that it meant not allowing the Prime Minister to decide when to go to the country, so that he could not go early just to enhance his chances. We had a clear example of that in the last Parliament-I believe it was in 2007-when the Prime Minister was thinking of going to the country and there was a lot of hoo-hah. Nobody knew what was going on, and some people said that he bottled it. I do not believe that the Executive should have that power, and I am for giving it to Parliament. What I am not for is an artificial means of keeping the Executive in power. I wholly support the coalition's aim to have a fixed-term Parliament, but I am very much unpersuaded of the need for a 55% provision. I do not believe that it would work, for all the very good reasons that my hon. Friend Mr Chope gave. It could be overturned by a simple majority of the House, or there could be collusion and coalition Members could vote with the Opposition-it does not seem that it would have any effect here.

The one thing that the proposal would do, which seems to me wholly wrong, would be to remove the power of the monarch. At the moment, if a Government lose a vote of confidence, it is the monarch who decides whether the House should be dissolved or whether to try to arrange another Government. In the past, the latter has happened-Prime Ministers have gone to the monarch and said, "I would like a dissolution", and it has not been granted and another Government have been formed. I see no reason for changing that.

This Adjournment debate is one of those wonderful occasions, already in this Parliament, when we get to debate an important issue in some depth late at night. It is wonderful to see so many Members on both sides of the House listening to and participating in the debate. I would have thought that such a change needed much more due process and consideration.

I support the view that we need a strong, stable Government at this time in our history, but that is exactly what we have got. We have a strong and powerful Government made up of two parties, which are working together. I do not believe that the election produced a strong, stable Government by artificial means. Under our electoral system, we get the Government whom the people want. The people clearly did not want the Labour party to govern with a majority, and they clearly did not want the Liberal party to govern with a majority. They also did not want the Conservative party to govern with a majority. We argued the case: "Vote for us. We need a majority and we will have a strong Government." The people wanted parties to work together and Parliament to be strong and to scrutinise. That is the great advantage of the coalition.

I will want to support some policies wholeheartedly-for example, that of a fixed-term Parliament to remove power from the Executive, but without the 55% provision Indeed, many aspects of the Liberal Democrat manifesto could have been included in the coalition. I was very much in favour of its proposed referendum on in/out of the European Union. I voted for that in the previous Parliament. Such a merge seemed easy, given that the Conservative party was in favour of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

One of the great things about the coalition is that it has brought together talented people from the Liberal and Conservative parties. To reply to the debate, we have a leading parliamentarian, who, in the previous Parliament, fought fiercely for the rights of Parliament and Back Benchers and I do not believe that that will change just because he is sitting on the Front Bench with a red folder on his lap. I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the House will allay our fears about the artificial 55%. There may be a good reason for it, but, given all the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch listed, we need to know a lot more about it.

I am in favour of a fixed-term Parliament but concerned about the 55% provision.

9:52 pm
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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

I begin by not only acknowledging the number of hon. Members who are present for the Adjournment, which signifies that it is a matter of interest, but congratulating Mr Chope on securing the debate. The irony is not lost on me that the first Adjournment debate of the Parliament is about how we might remove the Parliament. However, it is well timed.

I have two further reasons for thanking the hon. Gentleman. The first is personal. Without wishing to sound too much like Mr. Pooter, I want to record the fact that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to be the first Liberal Minister to speak from the Dispatch Box since Sir Archibald Sinclair on 16 May 1945. Secondly, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his approach to the debate. He has asked many serious questions about the policy and it is right that we have the opportunity to discuss them and that Parliament should have its say.

I want to make it clear on behalf of the Government that the principles of the policy are firmly settled-that is our view-but that some of the detail is still to be fully worked through. Although I will try to answer the hon. Gentleman's questions faithfully, I cannot answer some simply because they have not yet been decided. However, I want to make it absolutely clear that, although this proposition comes from the Government, it is for Parliament to decide. That is the right way to do things: we must not force things through Parliament, but debate them and hear what people have to say.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman is right that it is for Parliament to decide, but Mr Chope made it clear that, when a constitutional matter of this importance is proposed, there is usually a process of pre-legislative scrutiny and extended reflection. Is the hon. Gentleman going to provide the House with a description of how that process will be conducted for this major constitutional change?

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

First of all, the experience of those of us who have been in the House for the last 13 years is that that is not how constitutional matters have been dealt with. However, I assure the hon. Lady that there will be a full process. The House has a very early opportunity this evening to debate the proposition, but we will have at least two further opportunities to look at it in detail. The first will come when we debate the motion that will be put forward. That is a serious matter, but the second opportunity will arise when we consider the constitutional legislation, and I give the assurance that that constitutional Bill will be dealt with on the Floor of the House. Unlike what happened under the previous Administration, it will not be guillotined. People will be able to have their say on the legislation, and we will have the opportunity to hear them and to respond.

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Angela Eagle (Shadow Minister (Treasury); Wallasey, Labour)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and we note that the Bill will not be guillotined when it comes to the House. He has just said that he thinks Parliament should decide on this issue of great importance. Does that mean that there will be a free vote on his side of the House?

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

All Members of Parliament are entitled to take whatever view they feel appropriate. It is not for me to say what position the Whips will take, but let us be clear: this is a Government proposition and I would expect members of the Government parties to support it.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

No. I am being very generous, but this is not the hon. Lady's Adjournment debate and I want to hear more from others.

I repeat what the Prime Minister has said already, which has been quoted. He has said that the country wants strong and stable government, and we are determined to deliver that stability with a lasting coalition. A fixed-term Parliament is part of that process, and I shall quote what my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said in his speech of 19 May:

"This is a new right for Parliament, additional to the existing powers of no confidence. We are not taking away Parliament's right to throw out government. We are taking away government's right to throw out Parliament."

It seems to me that that is a worthy objective.

There are real problems with- [ Interruption. ] Michael Connarty can chunter from a sedentary position, but I am going to continue to set out the problems with the current system. The most obvious is that it gives an unfair advantage to the Prime Minister of the day and the party in power. We have seen it time after time, with Prime Ministers choosing the moment for the Dissolution of Parliament not for the good of the country but for the good of their own party interests. That cannot be the right way to do it-

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

No, as I have given way to the hon. Lady already.

Secondly, not only does the party in power have an unfair advantage, but there is an inevitable period of uncertainty, especially towards the end of the fourth Session of a Parliament, about when Dissolution will happen. Dealing with those issues through having a fixed-term Parliament seems to me to be something that this Parliament ought to support.

In addition to those undoubted benefits, our proposition would also reduce the complexity of electoral administration. We have a new regime of spending limits, and they are unnecessarily complex in the context of the moveable feast that is the present timing of an election. It would also allow the legislative programme to be planned more effectively-something dear to my heart and that of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House-especially in the fourth and fifth Sessions. But none of those advantages-

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.- (Mr Goodwill.)

10:00 pm
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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

None of this will work if the Prime Minister of the day maintains the power to pick the election date, and that is what is being addressed by the proposal for fixed-term Parliaments.

Much of the debate in the Chamber and outside has been predicated on a misunderstanding-I do not say that it is deliberate-and a confusion between a vote of confidence and a dissolution vote. I know that the hon. Member for Christchurch does not share that confusion-he is very clear-but much of the comment in the press and some of the interventions this evening and earlier today suggest such confusion. The hon. Gentleman postulates the distinction between a strong Parliament and a strong Government. A strong Parliament is able to remove the Government of the day. A strong Government should not be able to remove the Parliament. That is the distinction that we are trying to address.

The Government will still have to resign if they lose the confidence of the House, and that will still be on a simple majority. There is no ambiguity about that. If the Government lose a vote of confidence, they are no longer the Government of the day.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough, Labour)

Will the hon. Gentleman give the House a commitment that this Government will not use their 55% to call an election earlier than five years?

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

It is a clear commitment on the part of this Government that we wish to maintain this Parliament and the Government over a five-year period. That is our determination, and I have no difficulty in saying that.

I return to what will happen in the event of a vote of no confidence, because it is crucial. There would then be two possible outcomes. If the Government lost a vote of confidence, they would no longer be the Government-under our conventions in this House and in common with other political systems around the country. Then another party or coalition of parties might be able to form a Government from within the existing House of Commons. That is not the most unusual thing in the world, because it happens in many other systems that have a fixed-term Parliament. It also happens within our present system if the Government lose a vote of no confidence and it is apparent to the monarch that there is an alternative Government or coalition in the House.

If no one can form a Government that has the confidence of the House, Parliament will be dissolved. Irrespective of other circumstances, if the Government lose a vote of confidence and there is no prospect of stable government, another election is inevitable.

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Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk, Labour)

My problem is that, in the situation that the hon. Gentleman is describing, he is relying on conventions and an unwritten constitution. He is about to introduce a part of a written constitution for the first time stating that a 55% majority is required to dissolve Parliament. The parallel with Scotland is quite clear. A minority Government in Scotland can lose confidence votes and remain, because they cannot be dissolved if they do not wish to go, unless 66% of Members vote for it. That was discussed over decades and is legislation in the Scotland Act 1998. Unless he is proposing to introduce more written constitutional elements stating what he has just said about convention, his word is worth nothing.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

I do not understand the hon. Gentleman's point. This will be legislation, and he will have the opportunity to make the points that he wishes to make when he sees the text of the legislation. He does not have that in front of him.

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

Will the hon. Gentleman explain how this Dissolution will take place? He says that there would have to be a Dissolution of Parliament, but what would be the mechanics of that? The Prime Minister referred to Parliament dissolving itself.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

The legislation will be framed in such a way that, if no Government are formed within a particular time, Parliament stands dissolved. Now that is not a particularly difficult concept even for those who do not wish to understand-but, of course, I do not include the hon. Member for Christchurch among them. That is what will happen, and it provides an answer to those who suggest that it would be possible for a zombie Government who have lost the confidence of the House to be maintained in office. That cannot happen under the proposals that we will bring forward.

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Peter Bone (Wellingborough, Conservative)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is helping the House understand this system and is making good progress. However, the real change under this 55% rule is that it will remove the monarch's role. Is the removal of the monarch's discretion the real purpose of the proposal?

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, it instead removes a difficult dilemma for the monarch, who is bound under the current conventions to take the advice of the Prime Minister seeking the Dissolution. That puts the monarch in an invidious position if that advice is not consistent with the political situation that, it might be suspected, is present in the House. By removing the prerogative exercised by the Prime Minister, the monarch is in the stronger position of not being put in the embarrassing position of having to divine by means that are not clear the intentions of the House.

An automatic Dissolution following a no confidence vote would not work in this context because it would prevent another party or parties in the House from having the opportunity to form a Government. Another general election might well not be in the national interest, particularly if it is very soon after the previous election. For example, in January 1924, Mr Baldwin lost the confidence of the House and Mr MacDonald became the Prime Minister. So we have a historical precedent.

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Charles Walker (Broxbourne, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman has been to many Adjournment debates. There are normally three people in such a debate, but tonight there are 60 Members in the Chamber. This issue is causing enormous concern. Can we have a period of quiet reflection? Can we establish a constitutional committee to look at the matter closely and carefully, to give all Members and our constituents the reassurance that they desire?

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

We will have a period of reflection: first, we will publish the motion, which the House will consider, and then, at a later stage, we will publish the legislation, which will be considered in advance and then by both Houses of Parliament, which will give them the opportunity to have their say. I do not think that this is a precipitate process; it is carefully considered. Hon. Members such as the hon. Gentleman might well have views that they want to express on behalf of their constituents, and they will be listened to, because that is how we intend to run debates in the House.

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Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so generously. I was reassured by what he said earlier about the lack of a guillotine on the legislation. Would he like to take this opportunity to say whether that will be the Government's new general policy on guillotines or whether it is specific only to this legislation? I remember, time after time, quite rightly being sent into the No Lobby to vote against guillotine motion after guillotine motion. I trust that we will be carrying into government the opposition to guillotines that we indicated when in opposition.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that I was in the same Lobby voting against those guillotine motions. That is why it is our clear intention not to apply automatic guillotines or automatic programme motions, because we do not believe that to be in the interests of proper consideration in this House. This is the new politics-the new way that we are going to run this House of Commons.

Returning to where a vote of no confidence has taken place, it is extraordinary to suggest that there would be circumstances in which this House would refuse to vote for a Dissolution when it was clear that a Dissolution and a new general election were the only way forward. However, even given that, we are putting forward the automatic Dissolution proposal, as a safeguard that we will make part of the legislation, if no new Prime Minister can be appointed within a certain number of days. It seems to me that that is appropriate.

I know that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk has said that we cannot make any read-across to the Scottish legislation, but I am afraid that I do not entirely agree with him. One thing in the Scottish legislation is that although a two-thirds majority is required for an early Dissolution, there is a fall-back position, with which he will be familiar, which provides for automatic Dissolution if the First Minister resigns and the successor is not appointed within 28 days. That seems an entirely proper constitutional safeguard, and I am very happy to propose something of that kind for our legislation.

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Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman is correct on the point about resignation, which I did know about, but when a Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence-for example, the First Minister in Scotland-he need not resign. That is the point that I am making. Unless the hon. Gentleman puts it in his Bill that after a vote of confidence is lost the Prime Minister must resign, it is worth nothing.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

Let me respectfully suggest that that is the situation at the moment. I am quite prepared to argue on the details of the new legislation, but what I am not prepared to do is argue about the present constitutional position, which is that it is unprecedented for a Prime Minister who has lost a vote of no confidence to fail to resign. We must be absolutely clear that creating constitutional difficulties, which are inherent in our present unwritten constitution, is not a sensible way of debating the new position.

Let us deal with the 55% threshold, because I am not so foolish as not to understand that this is the difficulty that many right hon. and hon. Members have. The Prime Minister has set out the Government's position clearly-it is there in black and white in the coalition document. We believe that 55% is the right threshold, but it is perfectly open to hon. Members to argue that a different threshold is appropriate.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

So be it-that is the point of parliamentary debate. However, there is no point whatever in having legislation on fixed-term Parliaments if there is no constitutional lock. Otherwise it will become a meaningless piece of legislation. I know of no legislation in any country that provides for fixed-term Parliaments that does not provide some form of constitutional lock-some form of entrenchment-in order to ensure that the legislation is not cast aside at the whim of the Executive.

That would seem to return to the position in which the Executive had the power and Parliament was deprived of it.

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Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds, Conservative)

As this is a contentious matter, will the Deputy Leader of the House tell us whether he is generally in favour of pre-legislative scrutiny? If he is, will this whole matter be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, and can he give the House some idea of the timing and of when the Bill is likely to be brought before the House?

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

I cannot give details of timing-[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] I cannot give details of timing on the first day of the Queen's Speech debates in a new Parliament. I can only say that it is our firm intention that the motion will be brought forward before the summer recess, so hon. Members will not have to be patient for too long before they see its terms. As for the legislation, it is clearly set out in the Queen's Speech as part of this Session's legislation, so the hon. Gentleman can be assured that it will be brought forward.

In this instance, I believe that there is merit in listening to what people have to say about the legislation after it is published, rather than being too precipitate in moving from the motion, which will be debated by the House, to the legislation in due course. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some reassurance.

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

Will the Minister tell us when the binding motion is going to be published? If it is going to be debated before the summer recess, and if it has already been prepared, there is no reason why it should not be put on the Order Paper very soon so that we can have the maximum amount of notice.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

It will be put on the Order Paper at the earliest opportunity. I cannot be more precise than that, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that. There is much merit in people seeing clearly what is proposed as soon as possible, so that we can debate the matter.

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Andrew Tyrie (Chichester, Conservative)

Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain why he seems so reluctant to allow pre-legislative scrutiny? A measure of this type should be allowed such scrutiny, and we do not believe the coalition's collapse to be imminent. Presumably, therefore, there is plenty of time for us to give the Bill the consideration that it deserves.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

May I remove any view that the hon. Gentleman might have formed that I am reluctant to entertain the possibility of pre-legislative scrutiny? We have simply not determined the treatment of the Bill yet, so I cannot answer his question, but I hear what he says. There is a strong case for pre-legislative scrutiny, but I do not want to extend the consideration of this legislation into the following Session, because that would not be appropriate.

Let me return to the 55% threshold, because that will allow me to deal with one of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Christchurch. He asked for the details of how the 55% was to be calculated. Again, I cannot answer his question at this moment. That will be a matter for further discussion. I will say to him, however, that the system for calculating the threshold needs to be absolutely clear, and that there must be no doubt about the number of votes required to pass the threshold in any specific set of circumstances. It is important to make that clear in the legislation.

The important thing is that the final result delivers our twin objectives of stability in Parliament and Government while making it possible to have an election if no party or combination of parties can command the confidence of this House. I look forward to the debates that we will have on the motion and on the legislation.

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman appears to be reaching his peroration. I wonder whether he could explain how the proposal for 55% has been put forward without the Government knowing what that 55% has to comprise. Surely the first thing to do would be to work out what was meant by the 55%-we need to know what particular group it would be 55% of, for example-rather than asserting that a threshold of 55% was necessary, then trying to work out the details later.

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David Heath (The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)

The coalition agreement was, I think, published three days ago, so it is not unreasonable to do further work on the details of what is being proposed. We will do so in the context of the expressions of interest of right hon. and hon. Members who have a legitimate interest in this matter.

Let me finish by dealing as far as I can with the series of questions put by the hon. Member for Christchurch. I think that I have already answered some of them, but I do not want him to feel that I have ignored them. He asked what is meant by a "binding motion" in paragraph 24 of the final coalition agreement. Surely, he says, any motion that is passed can later be amended or revoked by MPs. Yes, of course it can. A binding motion is an expression of intent, which can be reversed by Parliament at a later a stage because that is the way we do things in this House. There is no question about that.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the binding motion will be brought before the House before the summer recess. Yes, I have already said that it will. He should read nothing into the words omitted from the final version of the coalition agreement about the first days following it.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the legislation promised in the coalition document to make provision for fixed-term Parliaments of five years applies only to future Parliaments or whether it will apply retrospectively to the Parliament elected on 6 May 2010. It is our intention that it should apply to the present Parliament. That is clearly the proposition from the Government. He asked for details about the 55% threshold, but I think that I have just answered that by saying that it is a detail that needs to be addressed further.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether Members other than Government Members would be able to table a motion for Dissolution and what safeguards would apply in respect of the Speaker being required to give precedence to such a motion over ordinary business. The hon. Gentleman and I have not argued so vociferously in this Chamber for such matters not to be in the hands of the Leader of the House for us to say now that it should be in his and only in his hands. It is clear that the intended legislation will not be placed into the hands of only a Government Minister; it will be open to the House to table that motion.

The hon. Gentleman raised the example of recent experience in Germany and the artificial construction put in place there in order to provoke a motion of no confidence. He is right that that was a shoddy way-that is what it seems to me, although I do not want to open up any diplomatic breach with our German friends-of managing the Germans' fixed-term parliamentary arrangements, but it has to be said that that would be possible here under the current arrangements. There is nothing to stop a Government of the day deliberately losing a vote of no confidence, thus creating the circumstances for a Dissolution. There is no change there, which is what I am trying to emphasise. Very often, the circumstances will be the same, both before and after the relevant legislation.

The hon. Gentleman asks in what circumstances a Dissolution will follow if the Government are defeated on a motion of confidence by a bare majority. Well, I have already covered that at some length. Will there be any circumstances in which a Government defeated on a confidence motion can remain in office? No, but that is subject to the conventions that are already in place. As to hon. Members feeling that we need a written constitution, I would personally favour that, but it is not our current policy.

If the Government did not remain in office, could an alternative minority Government be formed, even if it did not enjoy the support of a majority of MPs on confidence and supply measures? It is quite obvious that if an alternative Government were formed that did not have the House's confidence, they would fall on the very first time they attempted to put forward a legislative programme or a Budget, so it would not be much of a Government. I think that we would quickly reach a point where Dissolution would be inevitable.

The hon. Gentleman asked what would prevent Parliament from repealing, by a vote of 50% plus one, legislation requiring a 55% threshold for dissolution. The answer is nothing. If this House and the other place agree to repeal legislation, that is the legislative process. Nothing would change: there is nothing that would entrench that in constitutional law.

The hon. Gentleman's other questions are worthy ones. Along with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, I will consider them, because they concern the details of how we will manage the process of the legislation to give every Member of the House a proper say.

This has been an extremely useful exercise, which has, I hope, reassured some Members about our intentions. I hope that it has also explained those intentions, and has given Members an opportunity to express any concerns that they may have. In due course they will be able to express those concerns at length, both on the motion that we will table and on the legislation.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman again on securing the debate, and I am grateful to him.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.